§ Lord EDMUND TALBOT (Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury)
I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."
§ Sir DONALD MACLEAN
The subject upon which I wish to raise some points is in connection with what is now popularly known as the "Slough Scandal." It is a matter which has been before the House since 5th June last year. A very large number of Members, irrespective of party, evinced a very deep interest in the matter, so much so that on at least twenty occasions between 5th June and 14th November questions were asked and answers given, and on one occasion a prolonged Debate took place at 8.15. The case which was made by the Government for this scheme was the urgent military necessities of the dark days through which this country was then passing. The Leader of the House on the evening on which this matter was first debated laid great and very proper stress upon that aspect of the question. Very great changes have taken place since that 650 acres of some of the best corn-producing land in the country was taken over by the Government. By way of visualising what the extent of that area is, may I give this comparison? It is, within perhaps 50 or 60 acres, twice the size of Hyde Park, and that 650 acres has now become very much more like a fortified area in the battlefields of France and Belgium than the smiling, peaceful countryside which was first taken over in June. I stood on one of the railway bridges connecting the two parts of this on Wednesday morning last, and as far as the eye could reach there were works, miles of trenches, railways, forests of poles, and the whole thing in full swing. In spite of all these efforts, it was admitted in another place yesterday that there is no reasonable probability of that vast undertaking being ready for the purposes for which it may be necessary, because that is not even settled yet, until December next. [Interruption.] Lord Milner said December, according to the report. ["September!"]
I will say September, if you like. Considerable uneasiness was manifested, not only in this country but also throughout some of the Departments of the Government, and particularly the Sub-committee of the Select Committee 643 on National Expenditure took the matter up. The chronological sequence of dates in this matter is vital. The right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) was one of the members of that Committee, which rendered very great public service which has not been at all adequately realised by the Government. They have not adopted their suggestions. In their eighth Report with regard to this scheme, in August last, after stating that in their opinion a case for the scheme, or some such scheme, had been made out, they said, in paragraph 22:There remains the question of the scale upon which the depot is to be built. As to that, we say that the War Office should proceed with great caution. If the end of the War appeared to be in sight, the situation would be completely altered. For although the depot, once in being, could be put to excellent use during the period of demobilisation, and possibly afterwards, we should not have endorsed the proposal on account of post-war considerations alone.It would, no doubt, be possible, they go on to say, to find some national establishment thrown out of use by the end of the War for dealing with the necessities which might arise in connection with motor vehicles, instead of that vast and costly scheme. Not only did that Committee say that, but it was mentioned in another place, and I feel, therefore, quite justified in mentioning it here to-day, that there was a very great deal of uneasiness in the Government Departments themselves over the matter. Applications were made from time to time to the Priority Committee of the Ministry of National Service. I will only summarise; I take it from the Debate in another place yesterday. It was decided that no priority should be granted pending a review of the scheme by the Works Construction Committee. That was in October—between the 9th and the end of the month. What was the next step? I am simply trying, as far as I can, to link up questions and answers in the House and the Reports which I have been quoting. The hon. and gallant Member for White-haven, on 7th November, asked whether, in view of the then military conditions, any diminution in expenditure was contemplated. The military situation, happily, had changed completely since June, July, and August, and, instead of disaster threatening us, sunshine was on our arms. What was the reply of the Under-Secretary? He said, "The authorities are in close touch with the Select Committee re- 644 garding the works in view of the military situation. Pending a decision, expenditure is being curtailed as much as possible." That was on 7th November. That Select Committee met on 13th November, and I have here their Report. They said:Their Sub-committee had inspected the progress of the works and have taken fresh evidence. They find that the estimate of the expenditure required had been increased from the figure of somewhat over £1,000,000, which had been furnished to them in the summer, to a figure of £1,750,000. Little additional accommodation was contemplated, the increase of 75 per cent. being attributed partly to the constant rise in the cost of construction, partly to the first rough estimates not having proved reliable when examined in further detail. Your Committee are surprised that the Department should have prepared an estimate which, in so short a period of three months, should have been found incorrect by so large a percentage.I am sure the House will share that surprise. In the next paragraph it says:In view of the prospect of the early termination of the War, our Sub-committee urge upon the War Office that they should at once get into communication with the Ministry of Munitions with the view of ascertaining whether that Ministry would have at its disposal premises that could be released either for the storage or for the repairing, or for both, for which the establishment at Slough had been intended. This had been done, but no reply has been received as yet from the Ministry.They go on to make three very vital recommendations in regard to that:
I invite the attention of the House to what I am going to say. No reply was given. Why was no reply given? I am at a loss to make out why, but something was being done. Shortly after that the curtain falls for General Election, and no opportunity is given for the public voice to be heard through this House until 25th February. On 25th February a question was addressed to my hon. and gallant Friend the Patronage Secretary as to what was being done. He said, "The original plans have been generally adhered to, subject to certain modifications in detail." Asked whether the whole scheme was going forward, he said, "I cannot say definitely 645 whether all the land will be required eventually, but the whole acreage [twice the size of Hyde Park] will certainly be utilised for some purpose." Then he was asked: Under what conditions has this contract been granted? He replied, that an arrangement had been made to invite tenders from a limited number of contractors on the basis of repayment of cost, with a fee to include profit and superintendence, and that Messrs. McAlpine made a proposal to carry out the work at cost, the fee to be settled afterwards by the Colwyn Committee. He said that the firm was considered to possess unusual qualifications for carrying out the work, and that the contract was granted to them. That is what happened between 7th November and 25th February, and, notwithstanding the urgent requests of this Committee that a reply should be given to the War Office and to their specific recommendations which I have detailed, the contract was given out to Messrs. McAlpine, and they started. When did they start? They started work, according to their own statement in a letter to the "Times," six weeks after the Armistice. That is a matter which demands not statement across the floor of the House, but a public inquiry.
- "(1) That the Estimate referred to should at once be subject to independent expert examination.
- (2) That the Ministry of Munitions should be required to give an immediate reply to the inquiry of the War Office as to the availability of alternative premises both for the storage and for the repair of motor vehicles, and
- (3) That the Government should review the question of proceeding with the works at Slough, in the light of information so obtained, and
- (4) That, if the works are to proceed, the proposals with respect to the housing of the personnel should be re-examined."
The next step in the matter brings me to an inquiry to which, I think, we are entitled to an answer. What was the policy—for, after all, policy controls expenditure—which the Government must be presumed to have had in mind when they allowed their Departments to embark on this expenditure? Let us see if we cannot find out what that policy was. On 25th February somebody asked my hon. and gallant Friend whether the works were to be national works? He said, "It is almost certain that they will be required for Government purposes. The Army are of opinion that they will require them, but nothing but time can settle that question." He was pressed as to how things were going to be done. The Secretary of State said on 4th March that the Estimate of £1,750,000 did not include the land.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I only know that 650 acres of the best corn-growing land in the country must be very expensive. What does the Secretary of State for War say 646 in reply to a question as to whether it is the intention to transfer the undertaking to the Ministry of Supply:It was my first intention to transfer it to the Ministry of Supply, but I received from the Ministry of Supply such strong arguments that I was led to believe that they wished me to retain the responsibility for dealing with the matter.That is the position with regard to policy up to 4th March. Then the right hon. Gentleman was asked, "Would it not be better to have a Report from a Committee of independent Members of this House?" and he replied, "I am afraid that on behalf of the Government I cannot agree to that at all. The enterprise was put forward as part of a war effort; the War has come to an end; the question is whether immediately to wind up, or to consider whether it can be placed on a peace organisation." Still no policy to justify the expenditure. This vast undertaking has been thrown from hand to hand, from the War Office to the Ministry of Supply, and back from the Ministry of Supply to the War Office; but expenditure goes on all the time. Then we come to the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House on 20th March. I say that that bald record of events justifies the request which I am putting forward to the Government that there should be an inquiry by Select Committee, whether jointly with the House of Lords, I do not know and I do not care. I think it would be a very good thing if it was a joint Select Committee, but it ought to be a public inquiry. It ought to consider questions as to the remuneration of the contractor, the wages paid to the workmen, and the bringing out of these workmen from London. If hon. Members care it would be worth their while to make a trip to Slough and see for themselves.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I dare say the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been to France and has seen the sort of trenches they dig, and the miles of railways. He would see the same thing there. He would also see a large canteen, big enough to accommodate 300 men. He would see a railway station there, and empty trains waiting to take workmen to and from London. I think these matters are not for discussion in the House, but ought to go to a Committee. I will say one thing only on the question. What is going on? We are face to face with a most urgent 647 housing question. There is scarcely a single material used there—concrete, wood, steel, iron—which would not do for housing, and they are being thrown away, as far as I can see, on a scheme of expenditure which has no policy behind it. The Secretary of State for War said that he hoped the War Office and the Post Office and the Board of Agriculture and other Departments would get their supplies from there, beginning some time in November or December. These matters go far beyond the money involved. I believe that in the investigation of this matter we have only got one single clear-cut concrete instance of what is a widespread danger amongst our Government Departments. Here is an opportunity for the House of Commons to probe this matter to the bottom, in public. Let all those who are responsible for this justify their action in public. If there is nothing to be ashamed of, all the better for them and all the better for the public life of the country. If there is anything wrong and rotten in it, let us have it out. It is time it was out and time that not only this, but that a crowd of other things should be brought to the light of day. What you want to do is to restore public confidence in this House. If this House lends itself to a secret inquiry you will have your Report, but on goes the work and the expenditure. No policy behind it; no co-ordinated idea of how the public money is being spent. Do we wonder that men distrust the whole machinery of government at the present day? I do not wonder at it. There is no grip at all; no central driving authority which will take the responsibility of pulling the entire nation back from the disaster to which we are hurrying. Long may it be before we get there! But we have an opportunity here and now. Let this House reassert its ancient privileges and its right to control over expenditure of Government Departments, and insist that it shall not only be a selected but a public inquiry.
Sir CHARLES SYKES
I do not wish to detain the House very long in this matter, but I would like to say that I have been very much struck since I have had the privilege of being a Member of this House with the waste of time we incur in raising matters which to my mind seem to be raised from political points of view. This afternoon I wish briefly to refer to the matter now before the House from a 648 business point of view and as a business man. My right hon. Friend (Sir D. Maclean) asked what is the policy of the Government. My answer to that query is that the policy of the Government, and their avowed policy, is one of economy. Unfortunately in bringing these matters forward we estimate that from 11th November, 1918, the War was over, but I submit that the War will not be over, or the immediate consequences of it, until peace is signed and ratified. The Prime Minister and a lot of his Ministers during the election laid stress on the fact that we as a nation required business men. During the War, I think the Members of this House will readily agree, the business men of this country rendered yeoman service to different public Departments, and I wish to claim the indulgence of the House whilst I refer in a personal way to the efforts of my Noble Friend Lord Inverforth. For almost two years he was the Surveyor-General of Supply, and I am absolutely well within limits when I say that as a result of his efforts, and of the efforts of his colleagues, he saved a sum certainly approaching £100,000,000. He did this by instituting systems of costings, and he never in any way impaired the supply of the various materials that were required by the War Office, the Admiralty, and other services. He is one of our preeminent business men, and certainly he has reflected great credit on the business men of the country by the magnificent way that he handled supplies during the trying period of the War. He is now the Minister of Munitions, and eventually will become Minister of Supply.
During the election it was stated in various places and by various people that we had hundreds of millions sterling of surplus stores that were no longer needed, and that had been prepared for war. It was also stated that if we had to dispose of these surplus stores we must do so in a businesslike way. At the present moment as Minister of Munitions, and eventually as Minister of Supply, it will be the duty of Lord Inverforth and his advisers to dispose of that huge amount of material. Lord Inverforth yesterday made a statement in the House of Lords in regard to which I would like to give a Yorkshire illustration. I almost hesitate to illustrate my point in this way, but I am going to tell a Yorkshire story which will serve better than a long speech to drive home my point. I am not versed in debate, 649 and I want to come straight to the point. When we have all these figures given, and people speak as if they know all about them, it makes me feel that I have great difficulty in putting my point unless I put it in my own straight way. This is a story of an inspector of schools who went to a school to test the intelligence of the children. He said to the children, "Give me three figures," and the figures one, two, and four were given. The inspector wrote on the blackboard four, two, one. There was silence. "Give me three more figures," said the inspector. The figures one, five, six were given, and the inspector wrote on the blackboard six, five, one. He thought, "These children are dense." "Will anybody give me three more figures," he said. A little boy put up his hand, and said, "Three, three, three; and muck that about if you can!" I say to all the critics of my Noble Friend, "You take the reply that was given in the House of Lords yesterday. Take the figures that were given. Do not have political bias, and let neither newspapers nor politicians interfere with this matter." It is purely a business proposition, and ought to be treated as a business proposition. I do not believe that this House of Commons, which is composed of a good many business men, will allow their ancient privileges to be delegated or relegated to any newspapers. I sincerely hope that we will not 0be led away because, as was said in the House of Lords, a certain man had written an article in a certain newspaper pointing out these things. Let us take these things on their merits, and, for goodness sake, do not let us prejudge anything, but let us judge the question as business men.
It has been suggested that we should cut our losses. It has been suggested that we should throw away £800,000 of the taxpayers' money; that we should forego profit on repairs and vehicles to the tune of £1,200,000. This is the figure, after allowing for all expenses and the writing down of capital by 75 per cent., and it is quite apart from £300,000 annual saving estimated on a scheme of a total initial cost of rather less than £2,000,000. I understand that Lord Salisbury is the chairman of the Disposals Advisory Board. What alternative scheme is he prepared to put forward? If the House will realise the magnitude of the disposals we have to deal with they will realise the wonderful task that lies before Lord Inverforth. If the lorries started from Charing Cross to-day, and were put 35 feet apart, they would 650 stretch from Charing Cross to Berwick-on-Tweed. That gives some idea of the vast number of motor lorries we have to deal with. We have to realise these vehicles to the very best advantage; we have to see that they are in proper shape when they are sold, and we want to sell them when we think fit, and not be forced into any corner, as has been the case in the past. There has never—and I say this quite deliberately—been a sale by the Government in the past that has not been subject to some ring or some corner, and in that way the ratepayers have had to pay through the nose. I am not going to come to this House without raising my voice, with the permission of Mr. Speaker, when I realise that these things are going on. I know for a positive fact that men have gone round to the various ports. A friend of mine went to one sale, and he was thought to be in the ring, and at the finish they said to him, "Your sale is £600." The second time he went they knew he was not in the ring, and he got nothing.
The Noble Lord who started this discussion in the other House yesterday said what a terrible thing it was that there were so many acres of land put out of cultivation by the establishment of this depot at Slough. He said that from 3,000 to 4,000 quarters of wheat were lost. At one time it was certainly a serious thing to lose 3,000 or 4,000 quarters of wheat, but, compared with the national undertaking, that is a mere fleabite, and does not count. I realise that the Noble Lord and other distinguished gentlemen may be worried through the works being put up in their midst. I come from the town of Huddersfield where we had put in our midst—I am not raising any objection—the British Dyes, and some of my friends have complained most bitterly of their fruit trees and other trees being destroyed by the fumes from British Dyes, and we have not grumbled as a town. We knew that it was a necessity—only I would like to give this warning, that if it is not altered very soon somebody will have something to say. There is another question to which the Noble Lord did refer and which amused me very much. He said that they could not keep workpeople, men such as gardeners, because they went to the works—and a jolly good job for the workpeople too. If they are working as gardeners for 30s. a week and they go and get £4 a week, good luck to them! That is what we want; we want to raise wages, and we cannot keep our kid gloves on in this 651 business. They have a perfect right to go to that employment, and I do not consider that the employers had any grievance. But I want to make this appeal to my fellow countrymen. I am as keen as any Member of this House that we should have economy, but I do not want us simply to get afraid. I want us to consider everything we do. Personally I am fully convinced that if you have an inquiry the Noble Lord will satisfy you in every way, but I do not think that it is necessary, and I hope that the House will reject the Motion.
§ Colonel DU PRE
I feel bound to disclaim, both on behalf of myself and on behalf of others who have drawn attention to this matter, any bias, and still more so any intention to make an attack on Lord Inverforth. We wish no more than to have this matter treated on a purely business footing, and it is on the ground that what has been done is not good business that I support the Motion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Peebles for a public inquiry into the whole case. Hon. Members may be aware that I have some special interest in the matter. The Cippenham Works are in my district, and I have no desire to conceal the fact that I am an owner of part of the land which has been taken, and also that so far no question of expense has been asked or offered. This scheme was originated this time last year in consequence of the German offensive. I think that the case for a separate depot of this nature was made out. It is clearly proved by the Report of the Committee on National Expenditure, but they by no means were satisfied that so complete a ease had been made out for the particular site that was selected. Paragraph 21 of the Report reads,It is not within our province to consider how far objection was properly raised to the site selected on the ground of the injury done to food production. The evidence received by our Sub-committee indicates that the site is not unsuitable for a depot such as is proposed.But I still venture to believe that a better site, or certainly a site of equal value, could have been found, and that it was not necessary to destroy a large number of acres of fine corn land at the particular moment when the whole of the farming community of the country was being urged to increase the corn production by every means in their power. The 652 method by which the site was selected is still very obscure. We know that General Smuts was appointed as arbitrator. I would like to know in what way the case was presented to him? What option was he given of choosing? Were the Food Controller and the Agricultural Department consulted? What opportunity was given them of expressing an opinion, and how much weight did General Smuts attach to their opinion? We all know that an invitation can be put in such a way as to indicate the answer. I have no doubt that, if the case was put before General Smuts in such a way as to indicate the answer, he would have no option but to say that that site was the only proper one to be selected.
The work itself was commenced in June, and the Armistice was signed in November. Urgency was the reason given for the work, and if it was the case that the work was so urgent as to justify the tearing up of crops in May, how is it that we have Lord Milner yesterday admitting in another place that from June to November, while this depot was in charge of the War Office, progress was slow, slower than it should have been, and that regrettable mistakes were made. In fact, so much does it appear that the case for urgency was not indorsed by other Departments that the National Service Department refused labour for this depot on the ground that there wore other and more important national enterprises that should be undertaken, and in such a case what value can we attach to the War Office plea that the work was so urgent that it was necessary to take this ground? The history after November is clearer and even more interesting. After the Armistice had been concluded, it was felt that some decision must be come to as to what should be done, and I understand that in November the Mechanical Transport Corps decided that, so far as the repair shops were concerned, the work should be proceeded with in its entirety and should be pushed on with all speed, which wais in direct contradiction to the recommendation of the Committee on National Expenditure that, should any modification take place in the war position, they felt bound to urge that the scheme should be reconsidered and that they would not give it an indorsement on post-war considerations alone. It was, however, to be pushed on in its entirety and with all speed.
653 Certainly some modifications have been made since then. A famous store of which we have heard has been dropped and one or two other features, but what remains? By courtesy of the Secretary of State I looked over the works on Tuesday last. I had a special interest in them naturally. The general impression left on my mind, after a somewhat bewildering morning among thousands of workmen and all the paraphernalia of a great contracting enterprise, was the immense magnitude of the work which is being done and is being pushed on with all speed. I was shown an enormous lorry shelter which is nearly in completion. It will hold a thousand lorries. I was shown the repair shop in process of construction which covers actually nine acres of ground and when completed will be able to provide for the repairs to 800 lorries at once. There were half a dozen other buildings of this kind. A foundry, tyre stores and stores of various kinds. The complete acreage covered by these buildings must run into scores. Then there are railway sidings, and the site for the canal, which was in the original scheme and was supposed to be dropped, though I believe there is now some talk of reviving it. There is also a canteen which will, I understand, seat 2,000 civilian workers. From that it is to be supposed that the depot besides its military personnel will employ at least 2,000 civilians. The magnitude of the work gives one the idea that it cannot be meant for what I may call the temporary purposes of repairing Army motor lorries in order that they may be disposed of. It is a work which must have some permanent use. What that permanent use is, so far as I can understand, has not been disclosed.
The decision to push on with the scheme was apparently only arrived at after hostilities had closed. Until then the work had been under the Works Department of the War Office. Then the contract was given to Robert MacAlpine and Sons. I must say that the circumstances under which the contract was given need the closest investigation. The contractors are to be paid a lump sum. Can the Government give us any idea what that sum is likely to be? On what basis has it been estimated? Also what control is being exercised over the work? There are abroad numerous stories as to lavish expenditure of all sorts. There are stories 654 afloat as to the rate of wages paid. I have here a statement compiled by an employé whom I have every reason to believe states the facts, and I would like to read some extracts from it. Here is one specimen of the weekly wage paid county of London building mechanics. The rate is 1s. 5½d. per hour for fifty and a quarter hours, £3 12s. 11d., 12½ per cent. bonus 8s. 7d.; twelve hours walking pay, 17s. 6d.; subsistence allowance, 9s.; total weekly wage, £5 8s. Here is another wage sheet for a London county labourer: fifty and a quarter hours at 1s. 1½d. per hour, £2 16s. 3d.; 12½ per cent. bonus, 7s.; walking pay, 13s. 6d.; subsistence allowance, 9s. 5 total, £4 5s. 9d. per week. There are over 40,000 men on the pay roll, and it may readily be understood that the cost of this enterprise is mounting up to a very considerable sum. There is one other point I should like to mention, and that is the case of the supply of electric light. Within one mile of the depot are situated the works of the Slough Electric Light Company, which supplies Slough, Datchet, and Windsor with electric light. The company when the work was first commenced asked to be allowed to tender, and said they were prepared to meet all the requirements. So far as I can judge—of course I am not a technical expert—they were able to show that they could do the work quite as economically as it could be done at a separate generating station.
§ Colonel DU PRE
I understand they were prepared to supply both. I do not know why they were not allowed to tender, taut what has been done in this matter appears to me to be in entire contradiction of the policy of the Government in centralising the electric power system of the country. Then there is the case of the machinery and plant required. I do not understand whether the estimate, as given by the right hon. Gentleman, includes the cost of buying and installing all machinery. If it does not do so, then it is clear that many scores of thousands of pounds of expenditure will have to be incurred in that direction. In putting forward the case for an inquiry, I do not wish to deal with minor points, although no doubt there are many that could be brought forward. But I do feel that the public interest which has been aroused in this matter goes far beyond the actual instance which has been selected in this 655 case. There is a widespread feeling that as it is at Cippenham so it may be with many other Government undertakings, and Cippenham is merely a danger signal which the Government would do well not to disregard. I trust that they will not oppose the request for a full and independent inquiry into the whole matter, and I also hope that the House in its dual capacity, first, as guardian of the public purse, and secondly, as the ultimate controller of the executive, will insist, in this case at all events, that full public inquiry shall be made.
§ Lieutenant-Colonel WEIGALL
I believe I am the only Member present of those who sat on the Sub-committee of the National Expenditure Committee which inquired into the question of the Slough Depot last year. We were a body of five only, presided over by Mr. Herbert Samuel, who is no longer a Member of the House, but I mention that fact because those who worked with Mr. Samuel will know the real relentlessness of his public efficiency and the meticulous care with which a subject of this sort, coming under his review would be examined. I am free to confess that when we first applied ourselves to this question, we came fresh from Loch Doun, and that that was not a very good introduction from the War Office point of view. In the case of Loch Doun it was perfectly clear that none of the ordinary preliminary business precautions had been taken, but in this case in a very short time the War Office and other technical witnesses were able to satisfy us, as is detailed in an earlier paragraph than the one read by the right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) that a case had been made out for the depot. We were completely satisfied on that point. My right hon. Friend will remember we had a discussion on it, and our recommendations were come to after examining the depot, hearing about and seeing the conditions in France, and considering what alternative could be suggested. The paragraph reads:It appears, therefore, that the case for the depot has been fully made out: Indeed the criticism that may properly be made is that much waste would have been avoided had the repair workshop been established long ago.One of the witnesses two years before had the foresight to see the position we should be in in France, where they were piled up with unrepaired motor lorries and cars of every description, and with no means of repairing them, the result being that we 656 had here to go on building, although we were short of material and labour, at a far greater cost than if we had had a special depot of this sort. Thus the case for a central depot was clearly proved. There had been some small points raised. I have seen correspondence, letters in the "Times," and so on, and I have in mind, too, the point raised by the last speaker with regard to the Slough Electric Light Company. The Leader of the House the other day said that even Cabinet Ministers had commonsense, and I would ask the House to apply that to the private Members who served on this Committee. Does the House imagine that we did not go into the whole question? We had every sort of evidence before us, and we came to the conclusion on that evidence that this electric light company were incapable of supplying the power to carry on these great works, and that a new installation would in any case have to be installed. Then, too, we had the question which had arisen with the motor manufacturers of the country. These had an opportunity of sending whatever witnesses they chose. The whole question was thrashed out, and eventually they agreed there was such a large proportion of American cars, and there were such difficulties of labour, plant, and transport, that a case was made out for a central depot, although I admit they were of opinion that after the War individual traders should be given an opportunity. But I am only dealing with the case for this depot while the War was on. That is what we were concerned with, and that was the case which we found was made out.
In October it was reasonable to suppose that conditions might alter. We published a report, and then took further evidence to see whether the depot could not be curtailed. Major-General Twining, on the 22nd October, was examined in this House, and we spent the whole afternoon with him. The burden of the whole examination was contained in this one paragraph. I asked him whether the depot was being built in self-contained compartments, and, if so, what would be the cost of the first instalment. The idea in my mind in asking that question was that if an armistice came and hostilities ceased, one self-contained smaller depot might suffice. The witness's answer was, I submit, perfectly reasonable. He said:That certain work was essential, whether the depots were done in sections or not, and certain expenditure would have to be spread over 657 all, i.e., for the work and expenditure on roads, railways, etc. But he pointed out that they had only begun to construct three buildings and they were not laying complete foundations in other cases at the present time.In these circumstances, what was the Government's position? They had in any case to incur a considerable expenditure in regard to the overhead charges. I will not say that there is a certain amount of blame to be cast, but, as Lord Milner said in another place, mistakes were made. I think that the greatest mistake was in putting all this work into the hands of the Director of Fortifications and Works. Do not let it be thought by that that I do not realise what an energetic and capable officer the then Director of Fortifications and Works was or the splendid services he rendered to the country during the War. But it was too big a job for his branch as it then existed. It was the sort of job where you required elasticity. It is obvious that if you have a Government service, still more a disciplined Government service, it is quite impossible to expect that elasticity can be secured and the discipline observed. At any rate, you cannot get the elasticity you would have with a civilian conductor. It would have been well if a civilian contract had been given for the carrying out of the works at the start. There were delays, I have no doubt, and extra expenditure incurred owing to the fact that from the very nature of things there was not the resilience and elasticity which you would have under a civilian contractor.
My last point is the question of the selection of the site. An hon. Gentleman opposite said that he was not satisfied about the site. The Director of Lands was sent to us to give evidence. He is satisfied. What the Government did was to take a sensible precaution. They laid down certain conditions. They decided on the policy of a central depot, and in order to establish that depot they laid down four or five main conditions as to locality, water supply, transport, and so forth. Sir Howard Frank and his staff spent three weeks scouring the country trying to satisfy those conditions. He had no interest. As he made it perfectly clear to us, his one object was to find a site that conformed to the Government's conditions. That is a complete answer as to the selection of site. I can only offer my hon. and gallant Friend opposite my sincere sympathy that they happened 658 to pitch upon his Garden of Eden. As to the future, it appears to me that the Government now have only two alternatives—either to cut an enormous loss or to make this a self-contained industrial enterprise which will have both a selling value and an income-producing value. They cannot make up their minds until peace is signed, and while things are in their present fluid condition, whether it will be surplus to their particular national requirements or not. Therefore they are driven to the conclusion that they must at all speed make it an income-producing concern with a selling value. They should do that at all costs at the earliest moment in the national interest. After peace is signed they will be able to decide the requirements of mechanical transport both from a military and a national point of view. If they decide then that it is surplus to their requirements, they have an adequate machine by which they can convert it into money—the Ministry of Supplies. The only concern I have is that I happen to be the Chairman of the advisory body that deals with land, factories and buildings. If the Government should decide that this depot is surplus, they can send it to my advisory body. There I have at my disposal the best experts the country can produce in matters of that sort. There is the other alternative, that with your Ministry of Ways and Communications and your Defence Services you may be able to make real use of the depot in the national interest. Whichever way it goes, it seems to me that now the only policy the Government can follow with any real usefulness is to make it complete as an income-producing industrial machine. When the conditions have settled and solidified, then, and then only, can they decide as to the ultimate use to which this industrial machine is going to be put.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
I thought it was the duty of the Opposition to give as much help as they could to the Government of the country. I therefore seriously demur to the Leader of the Opposition demanding, with so much emphasis, a public inquiry, as if there were something here that savoured of some actual wrong doing. The whole of this matter started in a newspaper article, written not by an engineer or a practical man but by a very clever journalist. He started this hare. The speech to which we have just listened has done a great deal to dissipate the view that there is any- 659 thing wrong about it. I do not think it is right to demand a public inquiry with such emphasis, because, of course, it suggests to the public that there is something very far wrong. So far as I can see, there is no more justification for an inquiry into this contract than into the building of any battleship. The facts connected with the concern are very short. We have heard them stated here. The main thing is that most of this material was purchased and in hand before the Armistice, and it was left, like other immense stocks, on the hands of the Government. Fortunately, in this matter the Government were not in the hands of permanent officials, but in the hands of business men, some of them very eminent business men, like Lord Inverforth and others, all of them, I am glad to say, from a leading business city. These gentlemen ran a great part of the provision for the War very successfully. They are backing this enterprise, and why should we, before the thing is finished, demand an inquiry? One hon. Gentleman said that he went down and saw the thing. Well, he could not judge it in its uncompleted state. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) is far too previous. Why has he forgotten the teaching of his late leader? Why cannot he wait and see before he judges this thing? I am glad to see that the War has had the effect upon him that he is now going to take an interest in agriculture and the growing of grain. I wonder if he voted for the Com Production Bill?
This is a small matter compared with a great national enterprise. We had to get this place because the storage accommodation of the War Office was completely occupied. The Government could not get storage for anything. There was nothing for them except to commandeer all the churches and store the lorries in them. As we have all this stock on our hands, are we going to put it up to pubilc auction and sell it at break-up value, as the permanent Government officials would have done? They would not have had the enterprise to take up a scheme of this kind. Of course, it is hard lines on the people who live in the aristocratic section at Taplow and other places, to have these workmen coming into their midst. [An HON. MEMBER: "They do not live there; they come by railway!"] I thought it was somewhere on the Maidenhead line. Of course, these men travel down there by 660 special trains. Did the hon. Gentleman expect them to walk or to fly? They had to get there somehow, and there were no houses for them. The houses will ultimately come there, but to take them by train was the most economical way in the beginning. Undoubtedly the time will come when, owing to the spread of population, all the land round London, because of the crowded conditions of this City, will be dedicated to building houses for the people. It is no use complaining about it or saying it is any hardship, because it is bound to come. Even if it is agricultural land we cannot help that: it is in the vicinity of the city. It is said that some workmen who are working for fifty-one hours a week are getting £5 a week. If it is skilled labour, that is not an extravagant figure in these times. The arguments against the scheme and the demand for an inquiry are mares'-nests. The proper thing to do is to wait till the job is finished. When it is finished and put to proper uses, with the development of transport which is ahead of us, and seeing that all these lorries will be required for opening up agricultural and our rural districts, I have not the slightest doubt that in the skilled hands of the Minister of Supplies, who comes from the Kingdom of Fife, where people are very prone to get good value for their money, this thing will turn out to be a good enterprise. If we were to hang things up by inquiries started by alarmist articles in newspapers, this country would never get on with its business.
§ Mr. D. H. MACDONALD
This is a matter which I have followed with very great interest since first it appeared in the columns of the public Press. There is one aspect of this question to which I would like to direct the attention of the House. Up to the present time the points discussed have been, first, whether or not the Government were justified in proceeding with this scheme, and, second, whether or not the work at Slough has been carried out with due economy on the part of the contractors. It is with regard to the latter subject I desire to speak. In the London "Times," of the 13th and 14th instant, articles appeared making serious allegations against the contractors of waste of public money. The week after the first of those articles appeared the Secretary of State for War made a statement in this House, but he said not one word regarding those charges against the con- 661 tractors. All his arguments were devoted to a justification of the Government action in prosecuting this work. I can assure the House that I hold no brief whatever for these particular contractors who were engaged in carrying out the work, but as one who has done a very considerable amount of work for the Government during this War I have got a fellow feeling, and my sympathies do go out to this firm of contractors on the invidious position in which they must find themselves placed at present, and I am sure that every business man in the House must have a somewhat similar feeling. In my humble opinion it was the bounden duty of the Secretary of State for War, in view of these great charges made against the contractors, to have at once and without the slightest delay instituted inquiries as to their accuracy, and at the earliest possible moment to inform the House as to the results of such inquiries. I am sure if the right hon. Gentleman had given even a passing thought to this side of the question he would have realised the unfairness to this firm of being compelled to rest so long under such very grave charges. He must know that many commercial reputations have been damaged in less time and through less cause than this, and I may add that many political reputations have been damaged in less time as well. It may be stated that the contractors did publish a letter denying these charges, but my point is that surely the onus of making the facts known should not rest on the contractors but on the Department for whom the contractors were doing the work. The conduct of the work, the character of the work, and the expenditure necessary for carrying out the work, is under the supervision and direction and control of the Department, and if that supervision and that control is not efficient, then the Department concerned is not performing its duty to the State. Surely the War Department did not give this contractor carte blanche to carry out the work as he chose, not only regarding the expenditure but also regarding the character of the work. I think the House has got a right to know from the right lion. Gentleman whether this is so or not. I would also like the Secretary of State to inform us how many men were employed on this work before he called in a firm of contractors to assist them, and I would like to know if the number of men was increased by the contractors. We know that the production of the work 662 after the contractors took it in hand was increased enormously. Was this increase effected without adding to the number of men previously employed by the Government? I may say that this firm of Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons are compatriots of mine, and in part that may account for my rather strong feelings on this subject. It is a Scottish firm, as its name implies, and it is a firm of which I can assure the House we Scottish people are very proud, and justly proud. I consider that this firm was one of the great assets of the War. As the House knows, at the beginning of the War general contracting firms such as this firm could have been counted on the fingers of one hand, and had it not been for the ability, organisation and resources of such British firms the machinery of war could not have been set going as it was. I do think, and I speak as an employer of labour, that it is rather a poor return and poor recompense for such great firms to be treated by this particular Department in such a cavalier way. They should, I think, be treated more loyally by the Government than they generally are. The House should bear in mind that in this particular undertaking at Slough the Government had been endeavouring for a very long time to carry out the work by their own labour and their own supervision, and, as happened elsewhere, they were in fact making a holy hash of the job, and they called in this firm of Robert McAlpine and Sons to carry on the work. The Secretary of State for War wag very careful not to make this known in the statement he made in the House last Thursday, and this firm did take the War Office out of their difficulties. They expedited the work enormously after they had secured possession. Immediately after taking over the work the result of the change from administrative management to the trained management of a contractor became apparent. Seemingly, as far as I can make out, the objection now is that they were getting on rather too fast with the work. The general point I wish to make is that the heads of the Department and the Government should really be more loyal to their contractors when they are unwarrantly assailed like these contractors. Contractors are simply the servants of the Government, and are engaged in carrying out the behests of the Government. In my opinion the right hon. Gentleman in the statement he made to the House a week ago did 663 justify this work being proceeded with at Slough, but whether he did or did not does not affect my arguments. Even assuming that this work at Slough was a wild-cat scheme, surely it should not be left to the contractor carrying out the work to answer charges made as to the need and as to the performance of the scheme. During the period of the War, as the House knows, contractors in all branches of industry have stood loyally by the Government, and some of them I know without getting very much consideration and some without getting very much remuneration—I speak for myself—in return for their services; but I think when an occasion arises like this the Government should stick loyally to their contractors, just as the contractors have stuck loyally to them. In conclusion, I hope the Secretary for War will enlighten the House on the point I have raised regarding the charges made in the public Press against the contractors, and I hope he will do so with his usual courage and frankness, and that he will not hesitate to shoulder the responsibilities which are, I think, quite unfairly resting on the contractors.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The hon. Member who has just sat down has dealt entirely with the contractors. I do not think any particular charge has been made against them, because the point is much more serious than any charge against the contractors. The charge is that the Government, in entering into a time-and-line contract with the contractors, did a foolish thing. The hon. Gentleman made an extra ordinary admission, because lie started by saying that the Government had made a holy ash of the matter until they called the contractors in. Now, apparently, the whole thing has been changed, but the charge against these proceedings is that they were taken without due justification, and that the erection of an enormous depot like this, whether erected by a good or a bad contractor, was unnecessary. My hon. and gallant Friend opposite, who was a member of the Sub-committee—I was a member of the main Committee, and it was the main Committee which drew up this Report—
§ Lieutenant-Colonel WEIGALL
I do not want to misrepresent the right hon. Gentleman, but the original Sub-committee's Report was drawn by our small Sub-committee and was hardly altered by the main Committee at all.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
We made what amendments we thought were necessary in it. My hon. and gallant Friend forgot to draw attention in the Report of 7th August to paragraph 22, which says:There remains the question of the scale on which the depot is to be built. As to this, we think it advisable that the War Office should proceed with caution. It will be some months before any important section can be brought into use. If the end of the War appeared fro be in sight the situation would be completely altered.That was the Report which was made in August. Let the House cast its mind back to the situation in August last year, at the time when my hon. and gallant Friend, as a member of the Sub-committee, was making a special investigation himself into the matter, and that I, as a member of the main Committee, had to consider the draft Report which was presented by the hon. and gallant Member. It must be remembered that this Report was made some weeks before August. We had been told in June by the Leader of the House and by the present Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant that, owing to the offensive of the Germans in March, it was necessary to establish a repairing-place for the various motors which could not be repaired in France, owing to the Germans having taken possession of the repair places there, and therefore we on the main Committee were face to face with this problem: We were informed that, as far as the Sub-committee could ascertain, there was no particular objection to the site, and we knew, or we were told by the Leader of the House, that it was necessary some depot should be established, and therefore it would have been impossible under those circumstances and at that time for the main Committee to have done anything beyond what they did. I would draw the attention of the House to this, however, that they put in a caution, even at that time, when the Germans were advancing, and when it was very necessary, probably, to have some depot of this sort—they put in a caution that, if the circumstances changed, the matter ought not to be proceeded with. That is a very important point, and it affects the whole case, because when we come to November the Committee make a further Report, which was read by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, and that completely altered their Report in June. They recommended as follows:
In paragraph 19 they say:
- "(1) That the estimate referred to in paragraph 18 should at once be subjected to independent expert examination.
- (2) That the Ministry of Munitions should be required to give an immediate reply to the inquiry of the War Office as to the availability of alternative premises, both for the storage and for the repair of motor vehicles.
- (3) That the Government should review the question of proceeding with the works at Slough in the light of the information so obtained.
- (4) That, if the works are to proceed, the proposals with respect to the housing of the personnel should, in particular, be re-examined."The plans provide for the construction, at a considerable cost, of barracks on a large scale for the housing of military labour, both men and women. Our Sub-committee have been informed that these plans are such as to allow portions of these barracks to be converted into quarters for civilian families. We are of opinion that, if the scheme is to proceed—We were all extremely doubtful at that time whether the scheme ought to be proceeded with at all—the necessity for providing any housing accommodation should be reviewed, and, if such accommodation is found to be necessary, the question should be considered how far the present plans meet the requirements of the new situation.The hon. Member for Huddersfield began by saying that, as a new Member, he had been much struck by the time which was wasted on political matters, but I do not know what foundation he has for saying that. The Select Committee on National Expenditure was, it is true, composed of various political parties, but I venture to say, and I think every old Member of the House will agree with me, that there are three Committees of this House which are absolutely non-political. The first of these is the Public Accounts Committee, the second was the Estimates Committee during the four or five years during which it was constituted, and the third was this present Select Committee on National Expenditure.
Sir C. SYKES
I was not referring to any Committees. I was referring to the action of the right hon. Gentleman in bringing this forward, and I thought he was actuated by political motives.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I will leave the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition to defend himself, but, after all, the right hon. Gentleman was only drawing attention to the Report of the Select Committee, which, as I have pointed out, in its last Report distinctly said that the whole thing ought to be reviewed. The hon. Member for Huddersfield told me, what I did not know before, that the avowed policy of the Government was economy. Could he show me any particular instance 666 in which that is not the case? I do not think if I had a microscope I could find it. I am not concerned with the Noble Lord in the other place. I have not the pleasure of his acquaintance. He may be the most excellent administrator in the world, but all the same he may make mistakes. I do not believe, even in Scotland, that men never make mistakes. I observe that the Scottish Members have all defended these proceedings. We know that blood is thicker than water in Scotland, and that they are all very keen to defend their compatriots. Whether or not Lord Inverforth is a Scotsman I cannot say, but he may make mistakes. I was in the House of Lords yesterday, and I took some interest in the proceedings there, but as Mr. Speaker says, "for the sake of greater accuracy" I read in the "Times" what took place. I may say here that, after all, I do not think the "Times" ought to be attacked for drawing attention to a great expenditure of public money. I will not say a great waste of public money, because that remains to be proved. The "Times" opinion may not agree with that of the hon. Member opposite, but I am glad to see the "Times" taking an independent line. I should have said the fault of the "Times" has been that it was rather too much inclined to back up the Front Bench whatever they did, and I am only too glad to see it taking an independent line. What did Lord Inverforth say in his speech yesterday t He said that when he went to wherever it was he did go, in May, 1917, he found there was a great lack of proper accommodation for these vehicles. He has been a very long time doing anything. He did not begin till March, 1918, to take any steps, and that is very nearly a year. Then let me point out that according to Lord Inverforth's own admission in his speech yesterday, these works will not be finished till next September. What has happened between May, 1917, and September, 1919? Where have all these things been kept? And if we could keep them for these two and a half years, during the greater part of which we were at war, in other places, why could we not keep them there now, when we are practically at peace? I hope peace will be signed before next September. It may be, of course, that possibly we may get a rather better price. The hon. Gentleman talked about rings, but does he think that the erection of an enormous depot at Slough will prevent rings? People 667 who run rings—I have never been fortunate to be in a ring myself—know quite as well as the hon. Gentleman or myself that the interest is running up all the time, and the consequence in all probability is that instead of doing anything to avoid a ring, the fact that they have built this great place, and that they will have to show some reason for it, that they have repaired and sold such and such vehicles, will tend the other way. If they say, "We have spent this enormous sum on this place, and we have not done anything with them," what will happen then! That will be a far greater case against Lord Inverforth than if he can come and say, "I have sold them." The real fact of the matter is this: A scheme was entered into more or less in a panic. It was thought, in April or May of last year, when the Germans made such vast advances, that it was necessary to take precautions to keep these motors in repair, and therefore this scheme was entered into. The first estimate was £1,000,000 and the second estimate £1,750,000. You go into a thing, and think it is going to cost £1,000,000, and, before it has hardly been begun, you find it is going to cost nearly £2,000,000.
§ Lieutenant-Colonel WEIGALL
I ought to remind the right hon. Baronet that the scheme was adumbrated two years ago, but it had to go through the War Office and the Cabinet.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
If we got on for two years without it before it was decided upon, and we shall have had to get on without it for three and a half years, of which six months are during peace, surely we could do with the ordinary repairing shops! The real fact is that, owing to a panic, this scheme was entered into. A mistake has been made, so let us cut our loss. The War Office are obstinately determined that they have not made a mistake, and it is merely to show it was not a mistake that this scheme has been proceeded with. It is a great waste of public money, and even now it is far better to cut your loss. I suppose we should get something back for material. I do not know what this is going to cost, but I do not suppose, when the estimate was made for £1,000,000, and was afterwards altered to £1,750,000, that it was thought unskilled labourers were to be paid £5 a week and the contractors paid a lump sum upon the cost. Can anything 668 be more wasteful and extravagant, from, the point of view of the taxpayer—and, after all, we are here to represent the taxpayer—than a system by which a contractor cannot make a loss and is bound to make a profit? Under these circumstances, I do hope this House will remember that it is the guardian of the taxpayer. The taxpayer is the person who is going to suffer. The taxes are enormous. The expenditure is enormous, and at least we might try to see if we cannot save a. little money on this particular scheme.
§ Major TOWNLEY
I would not venture to intervene, as I know the House is anxious to hear the reply of the Secretary of State for War, were it not that I have been intimately associated with this land for some years. An hon. Member has said that the beginning of this agitation was in a newspaper. I beg to deny that statement. I believe it began almost with your humble servant in the objection I put forward, on behalf of the tenant of the land, to the great loss of agricultural produce that was going to result at a time when we wanted every bushel of corn we could possibly get. The same speaker said, the end of it was to wait and see. We have waited and seen in another case, and seen a vast expenditure of money, and we may wait in this instance until there has been an undue expenditure of money on this scheme. I do hope the Government will grant this inquiry. I hope that they will allow the matter to be inquired into thoroughly. I know that the agricultural aspect is looked upon as a detail. I venture to say that, though it is a detail, it is an important one. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) alluded to the fact that when they went over the question of the site there appeared to be no opposition to the site. I think he must have been mistaken. I think I am right in saying that the Noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture opposed this scheme very strongly on behalf of food production, and that his opposition was overruled when the inquiry, over which General Smuts presided, was held. If this inquiry is held, I hope it will find out the way in which the tenant of that land was treated.
These may be details, but they are matters that echo right through the whole of the agricultural counties of England. I was myself at that time in the Eastern Counties, and I can assure the House that when it first came out it sent a regular 669 thrill through those counties, because agriculturists felt they were not so secure as they hoped they might be. I inquired on behalf of the tenant whether this land was going to be taken. I was assured that no such action was going to take place. Then, somewhere about this time of the year, we were suddenly told that the land was going to be taken, or rather a little later on, when the crops were all sown. Then that man was warned off his own crops, and told he was not to go on that land any more. He was an excellent man and did his best, and so did we, and, with the assistance of the President of the Board of Agriculture, we were able to save a large amount of those crops. I want to point out one little incident to show how hardly that man was treated. It has been mentioned in Debate that this is some of the finest corn-growing land in England. And so it is, as well as market-garden land. On a certain 16 acres of that farm there was a particularly fine crop of wheat. That piece of land was wanted by the Government to make an encampment for German prisoners of war. I understood from the tenant that he was told to clear off that land, and was not to go across it to get the crops. He asked for three days to cart away his wheat. He was refused the three days. He had to go round something like 5 miles to bring back the 16 acres of very heavy crop of wheat to his farm, because it was marked for a German prisoner's camp. That camp was not built or occupied for five weeks.
Nothing has been mentioned in this House as to the value of that which is under this land in question? I quite admit that if the necessities of the nation were such that it was absolutely essential to take this high-class land for the purpose of making a repair station, or for any other purpose of national use, I should have been the last person to oppose it being so taken. But I do say every effort should have been made to see that the crops were allowed to be gathered first of all. But under that land there is also a very large and a very valuable deposit of brick earth, and I venture to think some means might have been found by which that brick earth might have been made of more use to the country in its present need of bricks than to be covered over by these concrete floors. I believe it is not even yet decided what quantity of land is to be taken, or how large these works are to be. I sincerely hope that it will not be decided to scrap these works. I sincerely hope that 670 all the nation's money which has been laid out upon that land will not be wasted by scrapping and selling the material for what it will make. I believe myself you. have there now a really good business proposition, that you have it overlooked by an exceedingly able man, and that you may trust him to cut down those works to such limit as is necessary for the country. I have every hope that the tenant may find that some of his land which has not yet been destroyed will be handed back to him. There is no use in any hon. Gentleman thinking that you may take these buildings off that land and hand it back for agricultural purposes. You might as well expect me to produce a six-quarter crop of wheat on the floor of this House in the coming harvest. There is no use in thinking you can restore that land to agriculture.
But there is also scheduled at the present time a large area of land beyond that which is built over, and I hope this scheme will be so curtailed that no more land will be taken, but that the very best use will be made of the land now built over, and that we shall reap the benefit as a nation of the expenditure that has been made. As I have said, I believe it can be made payable. I believe one of the reasons for going there is to save a rent now being paid of £50,000 a year for housing these lorries and other things. They are saving £50,000 a year in rent, and they have not yet paid the owner of that land one single penny as rent for the land they have taken. Nor—and this is a much more important thing—have they paid that tenant one single shilling of compensation for all the damage they have done him.
§ 6.0 P.M.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I have listened to this Debate during the whole of this afternoon with a feeling of expectation, but I must say that as it has progressed that feeling has given place to one of bewilderment. I have been asking myself where is the attack upon the Government? Where is the case for employing the elaborate machinery of a Select Committee of Inquiry? We have had a speech from the right hon. Gentleman who leads the Liberal Opposition. As is naturally to be expected, the right hon. Gentleman criticises anything that the Government do; on every topic, on every occasion, in all weathers, and in all fortunes! The right hon. Gentleman presents himself to repeat the current criticisms of the newspapers in regard to the policy of the Government, 671 no matter what Department is concerned. We have had a speech from the right hon. Gentleman who represents the City of London. Although he is removed by poles from the right hon Gentleman opposite, he, too, in his Parliamentary action and attitude has a critical bias very strongly pronounced. These two statements to which the House has listened were reinforced by a speech from the hon. and gallant Gentleman who is the owner of the land, and by another hon. Member who has been closely connected with the tenant of the land. Both of these seem to complain, not at all of the lavish manner in which the Government were dealing with the public money in this case, but with the severity and lack of consideration with which they were treating the private owner.
§ Lieutenant-Colonel DU PRE
No; I think the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I made no such statement.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Certainly, I understood that the hon. and gallant Gentleman's complaint was that this valuable land had been taken away from him, and that so far he was quite ignorant of the terms on which he was to be compensated.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Oh, I see! In principle from agriculture, and incidentally from himself. I only want to get it quite clear. Then the hon. Gentleman who spoke last criticised us from the point of view of how the tenant had been treated. I dare say a great many tenants dispossessed under the Defence of the Realm Act have been roughly treated in the time of war from which we are emerging. But when the right hon. Gentleman came to discuss the actual merits of the question before us he evinced himself a strong supporter and considered the Government were absolutely right to go on with the work, believing that a very substantial profit would accrue therefrom. So I say, reviewing the Debate so far as it has proceeded, that I am entitled to ask, Where is the attack? Where is the case for a Select Committee?
Last Thursday, in this House, I stated what would be the policy of the Government. That policy was that we should continue with the utmost practicable and 672 economical speed to complete this work at Slough. If, however, the House, after debate, desired that there should be an inquiry by a Select Committee, the Government would put no obstacle in the way. That is our position; therefore we are indifferent to any course which may be adopted by the House in regard to an inquiry. We hope to elicit from the House in the Debate and by their vote a free expression of opinion. We do not propose to put on the Parliamentary Whips. We propose to be guided entirely by what the House desires. Unfortunately, this matter has been prejudiced by the discussion which has taken place in another place yesterday afternoon and evening. An inquiry was demanded and was promised by the Government in the House of Lords last night. If there is to be an inquiry by a Select Committee, I think there can be no doubt that the House of Commons should participate in that inquiry. If there is to be an inquiry, let us at any rate make it as authoritative and as efficient as possible. Therefore the Government will raise no obstacle to the participation by the House in the inquiry which it is proposed to set up by the House of Lords. I assume the ordinary negotiations will take place to arrange for that inquiry to be transferred into a joint inquiry.
All the same, I think the House of Commons has some reason to complain that it has been forestalled in this matter by the House of Lords; that it has been deprived of the opportunity of arriving at its own conclusion. It has been committed to a course of action which, in its better judgment, it might have condemned. It would have been perfectly easy for the Upper House, after they had expressed their opinion in debate, to have waited until the discussion took place in the House of Commons, and then to allow the matter to be arranged between the two Houses in the ordinary way. The question, however, has been prejudged, and I see no alternative open to the House but to participate in the Committee and do their best to make it an authoritative, searching, fair, and exhaustive examination of the topic. The Government is not, however, prepared to allow this matter to pass into the domain of a Committee without stating very clearly their considered opinion on the merits of the Slough project, and of the controversy which has been excited in regard to it.
The Slough project results from three perfectly distinct decisions taken at 673 different times, under different circumstances, taken, I readily admit, on somewhat different grounds, and with a slightly different scope. The first decision was a war scheme taken to meet the needs of the War. The objects of that decision were the creation of a vehicle reception department, the creation of a spare parts store, and the creation of a repair shop. The necessity for these was realised as early as August, 1917. Such, however, was the difficulty of getting anything done with our ever-diminishing store of labour and material, and such was the opposition to the acquisition of the site, that the actual approval for the scheme was not finally obtained until, I think, March or April of last year. All this time the expert military officers and technical officers in the Mechanical Transport Department were pressing to the utmost of their ability the necessity that this matter should be dealt with at a central depot, and gradually, under the pressure of circumstances and of argument their policy was accepted, and made its way successfully over all the obstacles, real and artificial, which were interposed in its behalf. That was the first decision. The second decision may be called the Armistice scheme. It was taken on 19th November of last year by the Mechanical Transport Board, and was finally approved by Lord Milner, the then Secretary of State for War, about the middle of December last. The reasons for the Armistice scheme were as follows: A reception depot was still required. The storage accommodation might be reduced. The repair shops must be proceeded with as quickly as possible. That was the decision which was taken by the Mechanical Transport Board, and commended to Lord Milner by Lord Inverforth after the operations on the Western Front had been stopped, and after there was every prospect that they would not be resumed. The third decision is the present scheme which I announced to the House this day week. The objects of the present scheme are to complete the vehicle reception depot, to afford the necessary facilities for the maintenance and repair, not only of military but of Government mechanical vehicles, and to provide storage accommodation for spare parts and accessories. These three decisions vary, as the House will see, in a certain degree. They do not cover exactly the same ground. In the first we are concerned with purely war needs. In the 674 second, the Armistice having been signed, the War Office is seen to be largely preoccupied with the proper repair and marketing of their enormous supply of mechanical transport of which they have become possessed during the progress of the War. In the third decision the repairing facilities are limited to the maintenance of Government vehicles and the repairing of our existing stock of motor lorries.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Machinery will be put in under the third scheme. It is contemplated that under this scheme repairing facilities should be available for the maintenance of Government vehicles of all Departments, but the matter of repairing at Slough our enormous existing stock of War Office motor lorries is not now definitely decided. It is not definitely decided whether or not we are to repair this enormous stock or any portion of it at the Slough depot. It has not yet been decided by the Ministry of Supply, to whom the sale and disposal of all surplus stores is now to be handed over, and who therefore are in charge of this very important matter, whether any portion of the 80,000 vehicles of which we are possessed should be repaired before sale in the Government depot so far as its resources will go, after dealing with the current maintenance of Government mechanical transport; whether on the one hand these vehicles should all be sold in the condition in which they are now, or handed over for repair to the trade. [An HON. MEMBER: "Or given away to some hon. Members!"] That decision still has to be taken. It appears to me to be a difficult question of policy to decide. When we consider the enormous quantity of our motor vehicles, the immense amount of this stock, and that 35,000 of them are of American make, for which the Government alone hold the stock of spare parts and accessories, when we remember the limited capacity of the motor trade, which was stated by Lord Midleton in the course of the Debate last night as not exceeding 20,000 vehicles per year; when we consider the immense difference between the price likely to be gained by the public for marketing and selling these vehicles after they have been repaired and rendered serviceable, as against what will be got for them if they are thrown down in any condition; when, 675 I say, we consider all those facts, it does seem to me that it would be a very serious decision for the State to deny itself altogether the great opportunity of profit for the public which obviously would be open to us under this scheme. The matter is one, as I have said, the responsibility for which rests with the Minister of Supply, but so far as I may express an opinion I trust they will not allow themselves to be deterred from coming to a right decision in the public interest by the hostility, the prejudice, and the clamour which has surrounded this project.
There are two very remarkable things about this project. One is the persistence with which the Mechanical Transport Department of the War Office, and the able officers and business experts associated with it, and the consistency with which they have pressed this matter forward over so many obstacles and are daily pressing it. The other is the virulent, ceaseless and intense hostility of which it has been throughout at every stage the object. This hostility has a curious character about it. Without, of course, making any suggestion in regard to the part any hon. Member or Noble Lord may have taken, I am bound to say that it has caused a doubt in my mind whether all this attack on Slough—Slough in particular, while scores of other great works which have been put up all over the country, and under conditions of war, are I dare say open to criticism—whether all this concentration on Slough which brought up the Leader of the Opposition once again, which has led to all these articles in the newspapers and has excited the Second Chamber to the highest pitch, whether all of this really is quite spontaneous, whether it may not be fed by what is called "a stream of facts" or a sedulously nourished propaganda, or whether it may not be sustained by what is known in America as "a strong lobby," which is animated by some powerful interest which would like itself to reap the profit of repairing these vehicles. Let me give a few instances of the kind of extraordinary misstatement of which this project has been the object.
We have heard in some quarters of the appalling sacrifice of growing crops at the moment when food was so precious to our country, but I am advised that only two acres of growing crops were sacrificed. We have been told that there was a mistake in the design of Farnham Bridge 676 which proved the great incompetence of the builder. I am advised that no mistake was made in the design of the bridge, nor were the rails lowered in consequence of any revision of the plan. The rails were laid high in the first instance to suit the temporary diversion of the Farnham road, and the rails were afterwards lowered to their permanent level as originally designed. We have been told that the building collapsed. What has happened is that at an early stage, in the case of girders not permanently fixed in position, the edges of the uprights have pulled a small portion of the masonry down with it. We are told there is a waste of a one-inch watermain. I had these points carefully watched and examined as they have been stated. Every day a new set of arguments are found against this scheme. Perhaps it may be retorted that a new set of arguments are found in favour of it, but I am drawing attention to the direct inaccuracies with which this case has been sustained. There is the alleged waste of a one-inch watermain. A one-inch temporary watermain was put in to supply 300 men. At a later date the Inland Waterworks and Docks came and erected a watermain to serve a camp of 1,000 men, and also to supply water for the buildings. They laid a three-inch temporary main, and the one-inch main was taken up and re-used elsewhere. All these matters, to which there is a perfectly good answer, are collected in a bouquet and presented as a specimen of the ineptitude of the Works Department of the War Office or other persons employed by the Government.
I have heard a question raised about the electric power supply. We are told that it was a great mistake to put in a separate instalment for power and light. This was a matter most carefully examined. First it was considered by the technical branches of the War Office, and their scheme was submitted to the Electrical Services Committee. The director of the Electrical Services Committee was Mr. Gridley, who dealt with electrical questions for the Ministry of Munitions. It was impossible to have a more able and competent expert than Mr. Gridley, nor could there be a greater fanatical advocate of the concentration of electric power and its generation. So far from being prejudiced, all his prejudices were the other way. But on examining this matter on the merits, this Committee under Mr. Gridley preferred the installation of a separate War Office 677 plant for the supply to making use of the Slough Electric Power Company's supply, subject to the question of the scheme for heating being investigated. It was referred to a committee of experts outside the War Office, and they reported that the heating scheme as proposed was perfectly satisfactory. Then we are told that I have made a gross mistake in telling the House that the value of the spare parts was £15,000,000 sterling, because it was pointed out that in the Report of the Committee on Public Expenditure it is stated that the value of the spare parts was £6,750,000, and I was confronted with this apparent gross inaccuracy. Let me expose this matter frankly arid fully to the House The £6,750,000 alluded to in the Report of the Committee on National Expenditure referred to the stock of spare parts at home in this country, to which must now be added those of the great depots in France which are coming back on top of us as the winding-up proceeds, and these make up the total to £15,000,000. Lastly, the House will have read in the Debate in another place about the old man of ninety-two who is receiving £4 a week. I have been searching for this aged man of ninety-two all the day. [An HON. MEMBER: "Any relation to the shepherd?"] But the contractor declares there is no such person on their books. The best they can do is a man of sixty-five, who apparently they were very doubtful about engaging, and he was taken on because it was in accordance with the wishes of the trade union, with whom, I understand their relations are quite satisfactory. So much for all that long series of inaccurate misstatements, which I will not pursue any further in detail. I have dealt with them specifically in order to show the House the kind of methods by which public opinion, or what is called public opinion, is worked up in regard to some case which it has been decided to "feature" in this matter.
Then there is the price of the land. The land was taken under the Defence of the Realm Act, and the price must be settled by tribunal in the ordinary way. I wish I could tell the House what our idea is as to what addition to the total cost the price of the land will make. I believe it would greatly relieve the House, with the exception, perhaps, of my hon. Friend behind me. It would never do to make any statement as to the price of the land or the compensation to be paid to the tenant 678 while negotiations are pending and are the subject of judicial investigation. It would prejudice the matter.
There is then the fee of the contractor. I was glad to hear an hon. Gentleman say a word about this firm of contractors, against whose reputation I have never heard the slightest aspersion, who have thrown themselves into this work with great energy, and are pushing it forward rapidly and with satisfaction. Everyone knows the difficulties of the time and line basis. We were forced in the early part of the War to have trials on the time and line basis, but it has long since been found to be a wasteful process. That, however, has nothing to do with the method employed in this case. Most stringent Regulations are made, and there is inspection as to the actual cost of production by the War Office, and this would be carried on by the Ministry of Munitions and Supply. Then, when the work has been discharged under strict supervision at an exact cost price, the Colwyn Committee of the Treasury is to fix the fee that the contractor is to receive. I cannot conceive that you can have a more reasonable and a more proper method of dealing with a matter of this kind, and I believe it is in accordance with all that we have learned during the War, where our experiences have not always been uniformly happy in this matter. That really represents what is the view of the Treasury as to the best method in a case like this of dealing with the remuneration of the contractor.
I have shown these three decisions and I have also shown the line of criticism which has been directed against the policy of the Department. Although these three decisions differ one from the other in their scope and application, the central purpose and policy which has been pursued by the Government are the same, and the great bulk of the needs to meet which that policy is designed are the same, namely, that there should be in peace, as in war, for the future, whether under the War Office or under the Ministry of Munitions and Supply, a large central Government depot for the storage, repair, and maintenance of Government mechanical vehicles.
I want to know if that main feature of our policy is challenged seriously in the House. The case is overwhelming for a central depot to deal with Government mechanical vehicles. That it should be disputed elsewhere only shows how diffi- 679 cult it has been for some people to follow the mechanical developments and the changes which have come over transportation during the passage of the great War. Let me take one figure: Before the War the War Office owned 80 mechanical vehicles, after the War they owned 80,000.
No one ever contemplates a reversion for military purposes to purely horse-drawn transport. Before the War we had not got even a full supply of mechanical transport for our Regular Army, let alone for our Territorial Divisions. Henceforward, whatever Army we have will have to be thoroughly equipped with the necessary proportion of mechanical vehicles. It is not possible now to say how big the After-War Army will be, and I am not going to attempt to do so, but let me remind the House that before the War we had eight Regular Divisions, of which six were at home and two abroad, and we had fourteen Territorial Divisions. Those Territorial Divisions were, of course, very ill-equipped. Every pound's worth of stuff for them was guarded. Now we are about to recreate our Territorial Army on a voluntary basis out of the magnificent, veteran, trained material which the great War has given us. Are we not to secure to these divisions of our Territorial Army that equipment of munitions and transport that they require? What is the use of having divisions, however many or few, if you do not have them equipped with the necessary appurtenances and appliances to enable them to take the field? We have got all the material, we have got the artillery, we have got all the appliances, and we have got an enormous surplus of them—far more than we shall need to equip the divisions that we shall be keeping after the War. It would be folly not to use all this large surplus of equipment and not to use it properly and take good care of it, and for this purpose a Government depot for the storage, maintenance, and repair of mechanical vehicles for military purposes is just as necessary for the Army as the Royal Dockyards are for the upkeep of the Fleet.
The War Office is only one of the Departments which will employ motor vehicles. The House will be surprised to know the great number of Departments and services for which the War Office has been used in regard to mechanical vehicles. The Air Ministry, the Post Office, the Board of Agriculture, the Stationery Office, and a number of other 680 minor Departments have all during the period of the War moved forward on the basis of motor transport, and all will either have to make a variety of local and separate contracts with various firms all over the country or they will have to be supplied to a very large extent from a great central Government depot. Surely in the face of that, it ought not to be difficult to realise that our complete entry into the motor age and our absolute dependence upon mechanical transport in every form of Government service render this large central Government depot to deal with motor vehicles absolutely indispensable. At any rate, I leave that to the House.
I notice with pleasure that the central part of the Government policy has not received challenge in any quarter. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir D. Maclean) said that there was no policy behind the various schemes of the Government. I have tried to show that though the actual expression of their policy has varied, and varied necessarily with the changing circumstances of these three different schemes, yet the central policy has beers quite unchanged and the main necessity has never varied or diminished. Let us now take these three decisions separately and see which, of them is specially open to, challenge.
The first decision is the War scheme to meet war needs. No one, I suppose, will dispute the necessity for that. If they do, they have only to read the eighth Report of the Committee on National Expenditure and they need only have been present when the hon. Gentleman opposite (Lieutenant-Colonel Weigall), who was a member of that Committee, explained to the House in an admirable speech how he and his colleagues on that Committee, coming to the discussion of the subject deeply prejudiced by what they had read and learned about the waste at Loch Doon, were driven by the ability and by the reasoning of the experts of the Mechanical Transport Department and business advisers step by step and inch by inch to the conclusion that not only was this necessary, but that it was overdue and ought to have been put in hand long before. I do not think that there can be any dispute about that. My right hon. Friend told us that he had been down to see this depot, and that he was shocked by its immense size. I shall be delighted to arrange for the right 681 hon. Gentleman to go over to France to the American lines of communications where he will see a depot with precisely the same object and which I am credibly informed is four times as big in every respect as the one which we are constructing here. How can the matter be argued so far as the necessity of meeting the War needs was concerned? It is not argued.
Next there is the Armistice scheme, the second decision, and this, I suppose, is the one which will be most readily attacked. The first, of course, is covered by the War needs, and with regard to the last decision, the third, for which I am partly responsible, it may be said that matters were too far advanced to turn back. But this second decision, this Armistice scheme, was a decision not merely to continue under the Works Department at the War Office the completion of the scheme by ordinary methods, but to accelerate it and to make a contract with an entirely new outside firm and to push the work on by every means after the fighting had ceased. That is the point to which I have no doubt Parliamentary criticism and outside criticism naturally directs itself. It seems to me that the case presented to Lord Milner and Lord Inverforth, supported by all the experts of the Mechanical Transport Department, who are personally, quite disinterested in the matter, not to stop, but to go on with added speed in spite of the fact that the War was over must have been an unanswerable and overwhelming case. If it had not been so, I cannot conceive that they would have gone on with the scheme. What imaginable motive had Lord Milner and Lord Inverforth for going on with the scheme? The Slough project, as I have said, has been persistently attacked from the outset. At every stage obstacles have had to be overcome. There were difficulties about materials, there were difficulties about the site, the work was progressing very slowly, and there was a shortage of labour and of efficient labour which made itself so painfully apparent in every direction during the closing phases of the great War, which invested the undertaking necessarily with many depressing features, and I have no doubt that it is here that complaints may be preferred against the construction of this work, as against all other great works of construction during this final phase of the 682 War, because of these difficulties of obtaining the necessary labour and material.
Powerful interests were vigilantly watching their chance to attack, and here was a splendid opportunity for Lord Milner and Lord Inverforth to get clear of the whole business without the slightest difficulty or reproach if they had wished to do so. They could have abandoned the project and cut the loss, and the whole subject would have passed away out of the range of public criticism and would have been lost in the general confusion which in so many ways was inseparable from the final convulsions of the great War. But they did not take the easy course; they took exactly the opposite course. They altogether cut themselves off from this means of escape, and after a deliberate and measured review of the whole subject, supported by all the business and technical advice available, with their eyes fully open to the kind of opposition with which this scheme was being beset, they decided unhesitatingly that it was their duty to persevere with the scheme, and indeed, to accelerate it in this modified form to the utmost of their power. Lord Inverforth is a very successful business man, and his ability had won him a reputation in the public Departments during the great War which led to his appointment to a high office in the Government. Lord Milner had not only had experience of government, but he was a Civil servant years ago, and he had actually been Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, the second great official of the Treasury in the country. Nothing would be more surprising than that these two experienced men should have taken these very important decisions, bound to involve them in so much labour and criticism which they could easily have avoided, unless there was an overwhelming case on the merits of which they acted. I may say that nothing has given me more confidence in my study of this subject, and my confidence has grown with my exploration of the subject, grown steadily as I have learned more and more about it, than the circumstances in which this decision to go with the scheme after the War was over and after the Armistice had been signed was taken. I am not a business man. I am only a politician. I can only apply my common sense, sharpened by political experience, to this topic, but I say that nothing has convinced me more that the Government case was a sound one than 683 the fact that this decision was taken by these responsible Ministers on the advice of all their experts in such circumstances and at such a time.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
The right hon. Gentleman means that it is the action of the Government subsequent to paragraph 13, and after the Report of the Select Committee which has given him the great confidence to which he refers?
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
That is what I was endeavouring to convey in language as clear as I could make it, and I hope not more emphatic than the circumstances required. The matter was thoroughly examined and investigated, and it seems to me that this decision to go on, when one could easily have wound up the whole thing, shows that the Minister and Lord Inverforth were acting in response to practical reasons pressed upon them by men in whom they had the greatest confidence, and were in fact responding to an imperious need for action. Let us see what some of those reasons were. By the time that the Armistice had been signed we were already committed to the expenditure of nearly £600,000 in the collection of materials and other steps which had been taken, so that in the first instance more than a third of the total cost of the scheme we were already committed to.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
No. We were committed to the land, but the £600,000 does not include the land. I was speaking merely of the material collected and the work done. Here is another reason—the great evacuation which was to be expected from France. All these enormous depots on the other side of the Channel had to be vacated, and have now to be vacated as quickly as possible, and their stores and supplies brought away. I have spoken already of the 80,000 motor vehicles and the possibility of marketing them far more successfully if they are repaired and handled instead of being put on the market in a damaged condition. They are a permanent need of the Army and of the other Departments of State. Let us look at the position of affairs in the home depots. I will only examine one subsidiary branch of the scheme in a little more detail. I have spoken of the £15,000,000 worth of spare parts and acces- 684 sories, of which, roughly speaking, about a half were stored in the home depots. Most of those depots have been acquired under the Defence of the Realm Act. There is the King's Hall suite at the Holborn Restaurant. I believe it is a white-and-gold apartment used for dining purposes, which the proprietors are very anxious to have back, and which they wish to have cleared of these mechanical parts at as early a date as possible. There is a place called Short's Gardens. There is an establishment at Camden Town which is railway property rented by Messrs. Allsopps, who are anxious to have it back. There is a depot at Carlow Street. The Carlow Street depot is so congested that large quantities of stores are actually stacked in the public highway, according to my information. There is a property owned by the Royal Free Hospital in Gray's Inn Road; there is one in Cressy Road, owned by the London County Council Tramways; and there are offices in High Holborn which are connected with Canada House and India House, which we have been ordered by the War Cabinet to vacate at the earliest moment. At Avonmouth there is a depot which the Admiralty wish to clear for an oil installation. At Liverpool there is one which is needed in connection with barracks for the return of troops from abroad. The total floor area of all these premises amounts to 500,000 square feet, and they are all filled to overflowing, and the great mass of stuff which is expected back from France has not yet begun to arrive. In addition to this there are approximately 400,000 square feet of space occupied by these stores in the works of the makers of the spare parts, who naturally wish to have their places cleared in order that they may get on with their work. These premises are of a most unsatisfactory character, entirely separated, not at all brought together on any system, and by their dispersal and inconvenience make it almost impossible to sort and bin the stores and decide which are required and which are disposable. For these premises—inadequate, inconvenient, and wasteful as they are—we are paying in rents alone nearly £45,000 per annum. I cannot help feeling that all these reasons constituted an overwhelming case on the merits, and it was owing to this overwhelming case on merits that Lord Milner and Lord Inverforth, instead of freeing themselves from all this criticism and difficulty, as they could so easily, decided that it was their duty in a manful 685 way to go forward with a scheme which they believed was absolutely necessary for the public interest.
Now I come to the third decision, the last decision, for which I am partly responsible. I have done my best to study this case, and I came to its study prepossessed against it to some extent. When I was at the Ministry of Munitions I did not approve of the Quartermaster-General's Department of the War Office dealing in matters of supply. I argued that if we made guns and repaired the guns, and we made motor vehicles, we ought to repair the motor vehicles too, and I made several attempts to get this whole business transferred to the Ministry of Munitions during the last year of the War. I thought the Ministry of Munitions or the Ministry of Supply could quite easily have discharged these functions and put up any central depot which was required in the same way that they put up all these great national factories all over the country. Since I have gone to the War Office I have succeeded in transferring from the War Office to the Ministry of Munitions all these supply services, including clothing, mechanical transport, engineers' stores, and so forth, to the Department where they properly belonged, namely, the Ministry of Munitions or Supply, so as to leave the fighting Departments free for their proper work of managing the fighting services. So I say I started to examine this question not merely impartially but actually prepossessed against it. I should have been very glad if the advice tendered to me and the facts laid before me had been such as to enable me to clear myself of all difficulty and embarrassment on the matter by putting an end to the whole scheme. I could have done that quite easily. I suppose, had I taken that course, everyone would have been delighted who have now been complaining. The motor trade would have regarded me as a statesman. The "Times" newspaper would have written an article and said that at last a man of action had appeared. The "Daily Mail" and the "Daily News" would have united, from different points of view, in praising a step which they would have said was at last an indication of a true spirit of economy. All the financial authorities would have been agreeably relieved, including my right hon. Friend (Sir Edward Carson), and even the august assembly at the other end of the corridor, where I have hitherto found very little 686 acceptance, would possibly have spoken of me with expressions of goodwill. But I resisted the temptation. The House may think it odd, my right hon. Friend who chaffed me on this subject yesterday may think it specially odd that my better nature triumphed. I was borne down by the facts and arguments with which I was confronted. I was borne down by the opinion of two perfectly independent experts, Sir James Stevenson and Sir Benjamin Johnson, both of whom examined the matter from a perfectly fresh point of view and both of whom said it would be absolute folly to stop now and cut the loss and that the scheme should be carried through. I am certain that each of these three decisions can be justified. No decision is more capable of justification than the decision, when as much as £850,000 was already compromised, to go forward and spend another £1,000,000, and obtain this indispensable central mechanical transport.
The Debate has occupied the greater part of this afternoon. I am no enemy of economy. I greatly sympathise with the feeling of hon. Members in all parts of the House, and in the other House, that we have got to make a most earnest effort to prevent the appalling expenditure of public money which is undermining the very foundations of our national prosperity. I repudiate the suggestion that I am not as earnest in that cause as any other Member. All my political life I have been an advocate of that, except during the period before the War when I was endeavouring to get the necessary money for the Navy, and was exposed to the criticism of some of those who to-day are still ready to make charges that we are not actuated by a genuine desire for economy. But why did not the House this afternoon, instead of debating this particular subject, which is out of all proportion and is not well selected even for the purpose of disciplinary action by the House—why is the House not engaged in asking for a strict general financial account of the enormous mass of the Army and Air Estimates? I should be delighted to make a very full statement to the House. It would have swept away a great many misconceptions on points of substance as to the current and the after-war winding-up expenditure. That is a subject on which we might have thrown a most valuable light in guiding public opinion. It is just like the other night, when we were voting £60,000,000 or £70,000,000 for 687 the Air Estimates and the House was almost empty until Miss Douglas Pennant's case was debated, when it filled up with overflowing crowds, and there was animation and excitement. It is very important that the House of Commons should form its opinion independently and spontaneously and should not really be led by the Press and by the Peers, but should make a definite contribution of its own. The weapon of a Select Committee is one which ought not to be blunted by being used without overwhelming cause and without a cause which gives a clear and solid expectation that facts will be revealed which will form a basis for public censure and for public Parliamentary disciplinary action. We have had no choice in the matter of the Select Committee. The Government was perfectly ready to give one if the House had wished it. I regret very much that the House has not had an opportunity of expressing its opinion. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir D. Maclean) would no doubt say the House was strongly in favour of it. He speaks one day in the name of the House, another day in the name of the masses of the people, another day in the name of the Army, and another day in the name of the Liberal party. I should greatly like to see the result in the Division Lobby this evening of his claim that the House as a whole is resolute and determined to have a Committee of Inquiry upon this subject. As far as the Government is concerned we shall make no opposition whatever to the Select Committee, and we recommend, if the House of Lords sets it up, that the House of Commons should participate in it. But in view of the charges which have been made so freely here and out of doors and of all the misconceptions which prevail, we think the House ought not to refrain from expressing its opinion on the merits of the case, and indicating what its opinion is in the Divison Lobby on a vote for the Adjournment, although in any case it is our intention that a Select Committee should be set up.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Lord HUGH CECIL
I would not have intervened in this discussion at all except for the closing words of the right hon. Gentleman which I heard, I confess, with very great surprise. The Government have, no doubt, with great propriety and wisdom, acquiesced in the appointment of a Select Committee. I am not competent to 688 review the very able speech of my right hon. Friend, but I do not think he convinced me that there was no case for inquiry, though he did convince me that there was a very strong prima facie justification for what the Government has done. But if there is to be an inquiry, could there be a more absurd thing than to invite the House to come to a decision before the inquiry takes place? No doubt the Joint Committee of the two Houses will inquire into the matter and will make a Report, very possibly stating that the whole scheme is a justifiable and very proper one. Then, if the House desires it, there can be a discussion on that Report, perhaps with one of the supporters of the Government moving a Resolution; but to ask the House to vote on the Motion for the Adjournment is a most meaningless thing. I, personally, have not the least idea how I should vote in order to express my opinion that there should be an inquiry by a Select Committee, which the whole of the House wants. It would be very absurd to take a Vote on the Motion for the Adjournment, which would convey nothing whatever. The proper way to proceed would be to appoint a Committee, and after they had reported, if anyone wished to do so, we could discuss it.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)
I quite agree with my Noble Friend that the position is an extraordinarily difficult one, but what my right hon. Friend beside me said amounted to this: It was not the Government who desired a Division—not at all. But we have said that in any case, since there is to be an inquiry, we propose that the House of Commons should take part in it. That is right. I believe that nobody could have listened to the speeches made to-day without having the feeling that the House was trying to judge on the merits whether or not a primâ facie case had been made out for an inquiry. The course which we adopted was that the Adjournment of the House should be moved before the decision was taken in another place, and we thought we might take it that those who voted for the Adjournment would be those who thought there ought to be a Select Committee, whilst those who voted against it would be those who thought there was no case for such a Committee.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
Oh, no, not at all. I do not in the least think there ought to be a Select Committee, but since it is evident that there is going to be a Select Committee, I think it proper that the House of Commons should take part in it. But much more than that is involved. I should be the last man to find fault with the action taken by my Noble Friends in another place. They have their rights; but so has the House of Commons its rights, and I think it would not be an entirely good precedent that we should take the attitude that when we had decided to settle this thing in a particular way that our decision should be simply thrown aside because of action in another place. All that my right hon. Friend said—and he said it with my full approval—was this. We do not think there is a primâ facie case for this inquiry. That is our view. [An HON. MEMBER: "Then why set up a Committee?"] It must be set up; we cannot help it; we do not think there is a primâ facie case, and the Government thought it necessary, holding that view, to state the case as it has been stated by my right hon. Friend. I do not in the least contend that a Division in a certain sense, would not be futile, but what my right hon. Friend meant, and. what I mean is that if there are any hon. Members in the House who wish to carry out, by a Vote, the attitude which they have shown in their speeches, it is open to them to take that action in the Division Lobby.
§ Lord H. CECIL
It is quite clear that a Vote in favour of the Adjournment of the House would be a wholly silly and meaningless Vote. The Government are not entitled to say to those who criticise them, "You must either be misrepresented or you must behave like a fool," because they thought there ought to be a Select Committee. They are not children, to be treated in such a way as that. We cannot be told that we have to vote on a wholly artificial question propounded by the Government because they have an absurd arrangement of that kind.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
We may have different opinions about that, but I do think that on a question of this kind the House of Commons is entitled to express its own opinion.
§ Mr. DEVLIN
Do I understand that there is to be a Committee appointed, no matter how the House of Commons votes? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes!"]
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I have already said that the vote will, in any case, be futile, and to that extent it will be absolutely ineffective so far as the action is concerned. My right hon. Friend did not ask that there should be a Division, nor did I; but if there are any Members of this House who wish to show, by their votes, that a prima facie case is made out, they can do it by having a vote.
§ Mr. DEVLIN
As I understand it, there is no justification for the somewhat extraordinary attitude taken up by the Leader of the House. We who are not very deeply interested in this question, and who have not followed it up very closely, are being told that we must walk into the Lobby over something which we do not understand. I am not saying that that is a thing which does not frequently happen, but it never was so earnestly placarded as has been the case this afternoon. So far as I can gather, and I am only now dealing with the question from the point of view of procedure and precedent, because there is a domestic quarrel amongst members of the Tory party, between the Unionists in the House of Commons and their friends in the House of Lords—[HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"]—the Members of this House are compelled to take part in what the Noble Lord has rightly described as a most silly and futile performance. You may throw dust in the eyes of Englishmen, but you cannot throw dust in the eyes of Irishmen, and although I have no doubt that physical exercise is good for us all, I object altogether to be compelled to engage myself in a physical operation for not the slightest justifiable reason. The right hon. Gentleman ought to have said to the House, "There is no justification for the appointment of a Select Committee." The Minister for War has spoken for an hour and twenty-five minutes—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]—well, he spoke for nearly an hour, because I went out for a considerable interval, and when I re turned he was still as eloquent as ever, and it may or may not be, according to the intelligence of the person who was listening to him, that there should or should not 691 be a Select Committee appointed. But that is for the Government to say. If there ought not to be a Select Committee appointed they should say so; but they say that because the House of Lords has declared that there must be a Select Committee, there must be one. [An HON. MEMBER: "They have appointed a Select Committee!"] Well, that is their business and not ours. If it is done, why are we pressed to vote?
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I am sorry to say I am afraid all this is due to my having expressed myself very badly. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] I have not said that the Government wish a Division—not at all—and it may be that my suggestion may seem a futile one. What I mean is, that if there are any Members who take a different view from us, and who wish on this occasion to express the opinion that there is a case, as represented by my right hon. Friend (Sir D. Maclean), and who think that there is what has been described as a glaring scandal—I should not like it to go out from this House that I was assenting to that statement—if there is anyone in the House who thinks so he should have an opportunity of expressing his view by voting.
§ Mr. DEVLIN
The House of Lords, I understand, say there is a glaring scandal, and they have decided to have a Select Committee. I gathered from the Minister for War that he does not believe there is any scandal, and that there should be no Select Committee.
§ Mr. DEVLIN
Therefore, if the House of Lords want a Select Committee let them appoint one of their own. I have no respect for any decision which the House of Lords would come to. But I object, on a matter of this sort, to the intelligence of the House of Commons being mixed up with the non-intelligence of the House of Lords. If we have to associate ourselves with a transaction of this character we must do it alone; but a more extraordinary course of procedure than that suggested by the right hon. Gentleman I have never listened to in this House.
§ Sir E. CARSON
So far as I understand the somewhat complex and involved situation it merely amounts to this, that the Government have announced that they 692 propose that this House should join in the Select Committee which the House of Lords last night undertook to set up. So far, I think, that is a proper course, and so far I see no difficulty. Then, the Government having made that announcement, they have not got the control of whether or not there will be a Division at all. There is no way in which the Government can prevent a Division. Therefore, I do not see that anybody is really embarrassed. Whoever wants a Division can call it himself. Having made an announcement of definite policy—I wish it was always so definite—the decision does not lie with the Government, because, under the Rules of the House, any Member can call a Division. There is no difficulty as regards any hon. Member now that an announcement of policy has been made.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I can only intervene for a moment by the permission of the House The Question, Mr. Speaker, which, you will put from the Chair is this: "That this House do now adjourn." That was moved from the Government Benches. Those Members who wish to support the Government view, that there is no need for a special inquiry, will, of course, go into the "Aye" Lobby. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]
§ Mr. SPEAKER
We have had many occasions on which, for the convenience of the House, a Motion for the Adjournment has been moved in order to give hon. Members an opportunity and a free hand in discussing a matter. It was for that purpose that the Motion was moved to-day.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
May I say again that I think this has been complicated and that I am responsible for it? [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I believe the simplest method would be that my Noble Friend should now ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.