HC Deb 03 December 1920 vol 135 cc1684-94

Again considered in Committee.

[Mr. WHITLEY in the Chair.]

Question again proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £285,000, be granted for the said Service."


I was endeavouring, when the proceedings were interrupted, to explain why I think the attack which has been made, in particular on this amount of £210,000 for the organisation of the Ministry, was misconceived, and I was pointing out that last year, when the War-time organisation was still in existence, the work in districts in the country was still being done by various local committees composed of members of local authorities, and known as local food control committees. That system was of necessity, owing to the War, a system which was more or less expensive. It worked very well, however, and the country and the Ministry are greatly indebted to those who devoted so much trouble and time to the work of the local food committee. At the time the Estimates were presented last May both my right hon. Friend and I announced that it was intended to do away with the existing system and to substitute for it a cheaper form of organisation. I would like to repeat, in view of the criticisms which have been uttered, the words that were actually used. My right hon. Friend said he was going to reorganise the local food committees, and he added: I hope by this means to reduce the cost of the regional organisation by 60 per cent. As an earnest of our intention, we only took provision in the main Estimates for district organisation—for local food committees, up to the 30th June—and we said we hoped to be able to substitute for it a cheaper form of organisation which would cost 60 per cent. less. To-day we come down to the Committee and say we have carried out substantially all the promises which we gave to the Committee on the main Estimate, and we have reduced the cost of local organisations by 60 per cent. We repeated the promise given on the main Estimates on the Financial Resolution for the Ministry of Food (Continuance) Bill, and that promise is carried out in the letter in the Estimate before the Committee to-day. It is objected, in the first place, that this Estimate is not clear in form, but I say quite frankly that, from the House of Commons point of view, I do not agree with that. It seems to me that, if it is read carefully, as these Estimates ought to be, it carries its meaning on its face, and is in precisely the form in which these Estimates ought to be presented to the House of Commons. We had an organisation in existence, and we might have asked simply for an Item for the new regional organisation in substitution for it. We thought, however, that the House of Commons and this Committee had a right to see exactly what was the detailed cost of the substituted organisation, and accordingly we have set out in detail the actual cost and the rate per annum. From that it will be seen that, whereas the cost of the old food control was at the rate of £1,000,000 a year, the cost of the substituted organisation will be at the rate of £412,000 a year, which is in almost exact conformity with the promise of a reduction of 60 per cent. Further—and I think that this is where the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Locker-Lampson) fell into error—you have to read, a little further on, the deduction of £103,000 for the quarter prior to the 1st July, that is to say, one-fourth of £412,000. The reason for that is that up to the 1st July the old food control system was still continuing. Then a further deduction is made for anticipated reductions during the financial year of £99,000, that being, again, substantially, the cost for another quarter. It is, therefore, apparent that the statement made by my right hon. Friend as to the reduction that would take place is exactly borne out on the face of the Estimate; that is to say, we have asked the House of Commons for sufficient money to provide for six months' operation of this particular organisation.


If for the quarter prior to the 1st July, when the old expensive organisation was in existence, which was charged on the original Estimate at the rate of £500,000 a year, may I ask how it is that only £103,000 is now charged for that quarter, or at the rate of £412,000 a year, instead of £500,000?


Really, my right hon. Friend almost makes me despair of making the matter clear to the Commitee. I dare say it is my fault, but really it is a matter in which my financial conscience is perfectly clear. The reason why £103,000 appears in this Estimate is that, if you multiply £103,000 by four, you arrive at the sum of £412,000, which is the cost of this substituted organisation for a whole year. During a quarter of the year, ex hypothesi, it was not in operation at all; something else was in operation up to the 30th June. Therefore, you have to deduct, in any case, from the £412,000, one-quarter of it, that is to say, £103,000. It is quite true that you would not expect, perhaps, a corresponding reduction for the last quarter, because it is necessary to provide a small margin for contingencies. There will be a certain amount of overlapping. It will not be possible to get rid of absolutely everyone of these people precisely on the 1st January, and there may be other small payments that may arise. Therefore, we thought it best not to put in the whole amount of £103,000, but to put in the sum of £99,000 to be saved. I hope that I have made it clear that this particular item does represent the real economy which has been achieved by the Minister of Food. It is not denied that it has been achieved. It is said, "You have told the story of the achievement in very bad form." I do not agree. I believe it is in correct Parliamentary form.

It is not denied that we have succeeded in reducing something that was costing us in June £1,000,000 a year to £412,000 a year. The story does not stop there. We have explained on the face of the Vote that from a cost of £1,000,000 in June we have now got down to £412,000, and within three or four weeks it will be reduced to nothing. If that is not economy, I do not know what my hon. Friends want. It is said, "You have no business to spend even £210,000 without coming for a supplementary Vote. [HON. MEMBERS:" Hear, hear!"] That is a somewhat hasty view. The Ministry had received authority to spend on the main estimate £1,243,350. I admit that the criticism against the spending of the £210,000 would have been valid if we had by now exhausted the full amount which we might have spent under the main Estimate, because then this Estimate would not have been in truth, as it is, a supplementary Estimate, but an excess grant, which is a very different thing. The House of Commons has always been, and I think rightly, most strict and most scrupulous in regard to excess grants. It only consents to excess grants under very exceptional circumstances. The practice in regard to supplementary Estimates is entirely different, and I say without fear of dispute that it is entirely within the correct practice for a Department to present a supplementary Estimate so long as it has not exceeded the amount already voted in the main Estimate. This is the explanation of what otherwise might have seemed a somewhat serious point against the Department.

Something has been said with respect to the Peace Conference expenses. This is a matter in which, as my hon. Friend said, the Ministry of Food was not the prime mover. The Government decided, and decided rightly, that the Hotel Majestic should be occupied by representatives of the British Delegation, who were attending the Peace Conference, and they put the Ministry of Food in charge of the actual catering. When the premises became vacant, as would naturally be expected, there was a Bill for dilapidations, and the question was to what Vote should that be charged. It was decided that the proper Vote was the Vote of the Ministry of Food, as the Ministry had been in actual operation in the Catering Department of the Hotel Majestic. The account was checked in the ordinary way, and if I know anything of Government Departments I imagine it was disputed by the Office of Works. It was decided that the sum claimed was a fair and proper charge to be made. Of that sum—I am speaking from recollection—just under £1,000 was for the hire of lorries—about £980. The lorries were engaged in conveying food and washing to and from the Hotel Majestic. There was a further sum of about £800 as compensation for a workman who had been employed by the Government, and who had been injured through falling down a lift. The balance represents what in the ordinary way is known to the house agency business as dilapidations. I do not know what the experience of hon. Gentleman has been, but, judging from one's own comparatively humble private experience as to dilapidations at present, the amount for the Hotel Majestic, if you consider the size of the building and the number of rooms, and the number of people there, does not appear to be excessive.


What was the rent of the Hotel Majestic?


I cannot say. That does not come within the province of the Ministry of Food.


It was thousands.


The bigger the rent the smaller the percentage for dilapidations. All I have got to do is to show how this comes under the Ministry of Food and what it represents, and I hope I have made that clear to the Committee. I appreciate to the full the desire of my hon. Friends to give convincing evidence of their desire for economy, but if they were trying to pick out an Estimate on which to make a score for economy they could not have picked out a worse Estimate than this, because here is an Estimate as to which there was a promise by the Parliamentary Secretary for the Department that they would effect an economy of 60 per cent., and they have effected that saving; so that, however great the desire of hon. Gentlemen to manifest their zeal for economy, they could not have selected a worse Estimate for attack from that point of view.

Colonel BURN

I am not disposed to agree entirely with my hon. Friend, because whatever economies may have been effected by this Department I am attacked whenever I put my nose into my constituency as being responsible for the extravagances of the Government.


So you are.

Colonel BURN

Perhaps people do not realise the very great difficulty that a private Member has in making a protest against these things, nor do they understand the very small degree to which one can be made responsible for the money that is being spent by the Government at present. I agree with many of those who have spoken this afternoon, that during the War the Food Ministry did admirable work and saved a great deal of trouble in this country, because they arranged matters so that everybody knew, whether he was high or low, rich or poor, that we were all sharing alike in what was to be distributed. But I think that the time for the operations of the Ministry of Food is long past, and I think that the sooner the Ministry is scrapped the better for the country. There will be great public disappointment to-day because this Supplementary Estimate is being asked for. Whatever money was to be expended by the Ministry of Food ought to have been budgeted for in the first instance. There is a very large item for railway fares. I object to ail this travelling up and down the country by officials. Much of this work could have been done by correspondence, or even by telegrams. Moreover, why should not officials travel third class, as many of us have to do to-day? Everybody feels the great burden of taxation and we all have to do things which, perhaps, we did not do before. A great deal has been said said about the Hotel Majestic. Why should the country be called upon to pay for dilapidations at the hotel? As a soldier I have been quartered at many places in the United Kingdom. Wherever I was I had to leave my barrack-room in the state in which I found it on entering it. It is the duty of the Government to see that those who occupied rooms at the Hotel Majestic pay for the damage done. It may be said that the sums asked for in these Estimates are not very large, but in my country we know that "many a mickle makes a muckle," and that if we save the bawbees now the pounds will take care of themselves. It is difficult to lay down any rule by which economy will be effected by the Government Departments, but the Estimates Committee, in the first instance, should go into the matter of expenditure, and should lay down for each Government Department the sum in which those Departments should be managed, and not one penny more should these Departments get. If that is done, we shall know exactly where we stand, and there would be some possibility of the country not being asked to bear the present crushing burden of taxation. That is my advice. I expect the Government not to laugh at it, but to take it seriously to heart and abide by it. Some such system is the only way in which we can economise. To-day I make my protest in the only way in which a private Member can do so, by going into the Lobby against this Estimate.


One or two Members have asked fairly definite questions to which I desire to reply. With regard to what is the present policy of the Government with regard to the continuation of the Ministry of Food I should certainly have said a word on that subject in my opening remarks if I thought it would be in order, but as it has been referred to, I may mention I have been in close consultation with the Government on this matter and Members may rest assured that, providing the favourable change in the economic position which we have seen remains stable, as I hope and have every reason to believe it will, we shall regard ourselves henceforth as engaged in the task of bringing to a conclusion, as soon as we can do so without injury to the interests of either the taxpayer or the trader, all forms of restriction and control maintained by the Ministry of Food. The work of decontrol will bring its own problems, and it would be quite a mistake to suppose that traders themselves are anxious that we should act precipitately in this matter, as we are sometimes advised. The illustration which I was able to give earlier with regard to meat shows the danger of that course. We have been in the first instance in consultation with traders for the sole purpose of ascertaining when, how, and under what conditions, with justice to the consumer and the trader and taxpayer, we can safely remove the remainder of control. With regard to the period it is quite impossible for anybody to make any prediction.

All I can say is, I hope with confidence, and I trust I will prove to be correct, that it will certainly not be any question of years, as some hon. Members seemed to think, but certainly a matter of months.


I wish to call attention in this important Debate to a matter which I confess I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman or the Parliamentary Secretary would have explained. I find in items A, B and C provision is required for additional expenditure consequent on the continuance of the Ministry under the Act of 10 and 11 George V. known as the Ministry of Food (Continuance) Act. That Act was introduced last July. The provision is required under items A, B and C not for liquidating but for the continuance of the Ministry under the powers created by that Act. When that Bill was introduced a financial memorandum was issued, at the very time when the regional organisation was being replaced by district officers, involving the necessity for a Supplementary Estimate of £210,000. At the very moment that that decision was being arrived at, a memorandum on the financial Resolution was issued by the Ministry of Food with reference to this new Bill, and this is it: It is anticipated that the balance which will fall to the credit of the insurance reserve fund provided on the Ministry's trading account, added to the balance of profits on trading, will be sufficient to provide for all unforeseen losses on realisation of stocks, costs of liquidation, and the administrative and establishment charges likely to be incurred down to the 1st September, 1922, the period contemplated under the Bill for the termination of the Ministry of Food. The hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary says it is all right. It may be susceptible of some explanation, but I rather suspect that what the hon. Member will suggest is that this is intended to provide for the expenses of carrying on. the last ten months, from November, 1921, to the 31st August, 1922. That explanation, however, is hardly open to him, because the items A, B and C are provision for additional expenditure consequent on the continuance of the Ministry under this very Bill, and the financial resolution which was going to wash down the Bill for the House last July states in the most explicit terms that they are such good traders that there will be a profit on trading which, added to the re- serve for insurance fund, will provide not only for the losses on realisation of stocks, but will meet all administrative and establishment charges for the next 20 months. The hon. Member the Parliamentary Secretary nods his head, but that does not offer me any explanation. I cannot help wishing that, instead of dilating upon the moderation of the claims in respect of dilapidations for the Hotel Majestic, he had remembered the memorandum on the financial resolution, and had explained the apparent—let me put it in that way—inconsistency between the memorandum and the Supplementary Estimate to-day. The discrepancy is the more glaring when one remembers that he rather twitted the right hon. Member for Peebles with inability to elect as to which horse he would win on. The right hon. Gentleman was supposed to be anxious at one moment for liquidation, and then afraid to bear the cost of liquidation, but that will not do, because the memorandum says that these reserve funds are going to provide not only for administrative and establishment charges, but for costs of liquidation. It does not say costs of liquidation provided they come in November, 1922, but costs of liquidation whether they come in December, 1920, November, 1921, or 1922. The right hon. Gentleman nods, and I am not sure whether he means that the memorandum is quite right, but to the plain man, such as myself and, I imagine, the majority of the Members of the Committee, it is in such a fog that we cannot possibly find our way. Above the fog there lifts one light to which we can only flock under the circumstances, and that is the light which the Prime Minister professes to love, the desire for national economy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Mr. E. Wood) said, we have to stick the Government where we can find it, and as the Government desires some incentive on the subject of economy, and their proposals are so fogged to me, I can only vote against the Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be visiting my constituency in ten days' time. He is constantly exhorting the House to assist him in securing this economy which we are all anxious to find some day or other. I think it will assist him when he visits Bristol on the 14th December to find that the House has given him that assistance which he has always exhorted us to give.

Question put, "That a sum, not exceeding £285,000, be granted for the said Service."

It being after Five of the Clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Resolution to be reported upon Monday next.

Committee to sit again upon Monday next.

The Committee divided: Ayes, 60; Noes, 88.

Division No. 382.] AYES. [4.50 pm.
Allen, Lieut.-Colonel William James Hacking, Captain Douglas H. Pownall, Lieut.-Colonel Assheton
Barnes, Major H. (Newcastle, E.) Hambro, Captain Angus Valdemar Raffan, Peter Wilson
Barrand, A. R. Harmsworth, Sir R. L. (Caithness) Rawlinson, John Frederick Peel
Betterton, Henry B. Hills, Major John Waller Rees, Capt. J. Tudor- (Barnstaple)
Borwick, Major G. O. Hogge, James Myles Remer, J. R.
Bowerman, Rt. Hon. Charles W. Holmes, J. Stanley Remnant, Sir James
Briant, Frank Hopkins, John W. W. Rose, Frank H.
Burn, Col. C. R. (Devon, Torquay) Kurd, Percy A. Sugden, W. H.
Cautley, Henry S. Inskip, Thomas Walker H. Surtees, Brigadier-General H. C.
Cecil, Rt. Hon. Evelyn (Birm., Aston) Lynn, R. J. Thomas-Stanford, Charles
Clay, Lieut.-Colonel H. H. Spender Maclean, Rt. Hn. Sir D. (Midlothian) Townshend, Sir Charles Vere Ferrers
Colfox, Major Wm. Phillips Mills, John Edmund Ward, Col. L. (Kingston-upon-Hull)
Colvin, Brig.-General Richard Beale Moore, Major-General Sir Newton White, Lieut.-Col. G. D. (Southport)
Curzon, Commander Viscount Murray, Lieut.-Colonel A. (Aberdeen) Willoughby, Lieut.-Col. Hon. Claud
Davies, M. Vaughan- (Cardigan) Murray, Dr. D, (Inverness & Ross) Wilson, Capt. A. S. (Holderness)
Doyle, N. Grattan Newbould, Alfred Ernest Wilson-Fox, Henry
Foxcroft, Captain Charles Talbot Newman, Colonel J. R. P. (Finchley) Wood, Hon. Edward F. L. (Ripon)
Galbraith, Samuel Nield, Sir Herbert Wood, Major M. M. (Aberdeen, C.)
Glanville, Harold James Norris, Colonel Sir Henry G.
Grant, James A. Ormsby-Gore, Captain Hon. W. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.
Guinness, Lieut.-Col. Hon. W. E. Parry, Lieut.-Colonel Thomas Henry Mr. G. Thorne and Mr. G. Locker-
Adair, Rear-Admiral Thomas B. S. Gilmour, Lieut.-Colonel John Parker, James
Agg-Gardner, Sir James Tynte Goff, Sir R. Park Philipps, Sir Owen C. (Chester, City)
Amery, Lieut.-Col. Leopold C. M. S. Green, Joseph F. (Leicester, W.) Pulley, Charles Thornton
Archer-Shee, Lieut.-Colonel Martin Greig, Colonel James William Purchase, H. G.
Baird, Sir John Lawrence Harmsworth, C. B. (Bedford, Luton) Raeburn, Sir William H.
Baldwin, Rt. Hon. Stanley Harris, Sir Henry Percy Roberts, Rt. Hon. G. H. (Norwich)
Barlow, Sir Montague Hayday, Arthur Samuel, Rt. Hon. Sir H. (Norwood)
Barnston, Major Harry Henry, Denis S. (Londonderry, S.) Sanders, Colonel Sir Robert A.
Bellairs, Commander Carlyon W. Hope, James F. (Sheffield, Central) Scott, A. M. (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
Boscawen, Rt. Hon. Sir A. Griffith- Horne, Sir R. S. (Glasgow, Hillhead) Seddon, J. A.
Breese, Major Charles E. Hunter, General Sir A. (Lancaster) Shortt, Rt. Hon. E. (N'castle-on-T.)
Bridgeman, William Clive Hurst, Lieut.-Colonel Gerald B. Simm, M. T.
Broad, Thomas Tucker Jones, Sir Edgar R. (Merthyr Tydvil) Stanley, Major Hon. G. (Preston)
Burn, T. H. (Belfast, St. Anne's) Jones, J. T. (Carmarthen, Llanelly) Sutherland, Sir William
Cape, Thomas Kinloch-Cooke, Sir Clement Thomson, F. c (Aberdeen, South)
Churchill, Rt. Hon. Winston S. Lewis, Rt. Hon. J. H (Univ., Wales) Thomson, Sir W. Mitchell- (Maryhill)
Coats, Sir Stuart Lewis, T. A. (Glam., Pontypridd) Tryon, Major George Clement
Collins, Col. Sir G. P. (Greenock) Lindsay, William Arthur Turton, E. R.
Davies, A. (Lancaster, Clitheroe) Lloyd-Greame, Major Sir P. Ward, William Dudley (Southampton)
Davies, Evan (Ebbw Vale) Lonsdale, James Rolston Wason, John Cathcart
Edge, Captain William M'Curdy, Rt. Hon. C. A. Watson, Captain John Bertrand
Edwards, G. (Norfolk, South) M'Guffin, Samuel Whitla, Sir William
Edwards, Major J. (Aberavon) Macpherson, Rt. Hon. James I. Wignall, James
Eyres Monsell, Commander B. M. Mildmay, Colonel Rt. Hon. F. B. Williams, Colonel Sir R. (Dorset, W.)
Ford, Patrick Johnston Moles, Thomas Williamson, Rt. Hon. Sir Archibald
Foreman, Henry Montagu, Rt. Hon. E. S. Wilson, Daniel M. (Down, West)
Forestier-Walker, L. Murray, C. D. (Edinburgh) Wilson, Colonel Leslie O. (Reading)
Fremantle, Lieut.-Colonel Francis E. Neal, Arthur Wood, Major S. Hill- (High Peak)
Gardiner, James Nicholson, Reginald (Doncaster)
Gibbs, Colonel George Abraham Palmer, Major Godfrey Mark TELLERS FOR THE NOES.
Lord E. Talbot and Captain Guest.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

The remaining Government Orders were read, and postponed.

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

Adjourned at Three minutes after Five o'clock till Monday next (6th December).