Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £235,010, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1920, for Expenditure in respect of Ministry of Labour, Employment Exchange and Insurance Buildings, Great Britain.
§ The CHAIRMAN
In putting this Vote, I would call attention to the fact that there are two Supplementary Estimates here which account for the total.
The MINISTER of LABOUR (Sir Robert Home)
I very clearly recognise that, in presenting this Supplementary Estimate to the House, I require to justify the expenditure which is proposed. In any ordinary times that would be true, but the remark is one which has very much greater force to-day than on any normal occasion on which one should have to propose such a Vote. In the first place, the expense is considerable, and, in the second place, the prospect of course of any large building programme is one to which the Committee would not readily assent in such times as we now find ourselves. In particular, I am certain that nobody who is connected with the Ministry of Labour, and knows the difficulty of finding adequate personnel for the accomplishment of the great building programme which the Government has in hand at the present time, would ever, except under great pressure, suggest a programme of building which was going to divert any of that valuable staff from the necessary duty of building houses, for dealing with Government buildings. I appear, however, before the Committee in no apologetic spirit with regard to the present Vote. I hope to be able to justify the proposals which I have made to the satisfaction of the Committee. The amount which is being dealt with on the present occasion is not large in the actual figure, but it comes after a Vote of considerable dimensions which was given last Session. There was a sum of £664,260 originally granted by the Committee, but I would like to remind the Committee 508 that of that sum £500,000 was in respect of buildings and equipment for the training of discharged sailors and soldiers. For the most part that £500,000 has been expended upon Government factories, and, accordingly, there has been actually no disbursement by the Treasury in so far as these factories were concerned.
The Vote with which we are immediately concerned to-day, on the other hand, concerns an original sum of £102,115, and I wish to make a very brief explanation with regard to that particular sum. It is a sum which was unnecessary for the purpose of the National Health, Insurance Building Scheme, and, accordingly, was transferred from their Vote to the Ministry of Labour. I understand that it was unnecessary that this matter should be explained to the Committee, but we thought it better that everybody should understand precisely what we were doing, and, therefore, we have set it out on the Paper. There are two sums which are not Token Votes. These are £70,000 in respect of the purchase of premises at Leeds, and £32,000 in respect of the purchase of a site at Manchester. I will explain very briefly what those are. At Leeds the Divisional Office of the Ministry of Labour was housed in a sot of buildings called the Quebec Chambers These chambers were about to be sold over our heads, and there were no other premises available. Accordingly we thought it judicious and expedient, and indeed it is absolutely essential, to purchase at the sum set out, £70,000, With regard to the item of £32,000 for the purchase of a site at Manchester, the premises at present occupied in Manchester are to be taken back by their owners, and it would be incumbent upon us in a short period to vacate them. We cannot get any other premises so far in which we can carry on the business of the Manchester Employment Exchange, and accordingly we have to purchase this site. We propose to put up on the site temporary buildings for the accommodation of the staff, for we find that is the only way in which we shall be able to house the staff in order that the necessary work may be carried on.
§ Sir R. HORNE
I cannot say whether the price has been in any way forced up. 509 I am not in a position to say that, but it was subject to negotiation, and I have not the slightest doubt but that the First Commissioner of Works made the best bargain possible. The Committee realise that it is a matter of considerable difficulty to secure sites in our large towns at the present time. No doubt we have often got to take the best offers available, and perhaps the price may be a little stiffer than in ordinary times we should have to contend against. In regard to this particular price, I am not in a position to give the immediate information which is asked for by the hon. and gallant Gentleman.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
Why is £32,000 asked for now? In the last discussion there was only a token vote for £5. The total estimate here is £132,000, and you are only asking for £32,000.
§ Sir R. HORNE
I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman is mixing up the last Vote with this one. This Vote appertains to the Ministry of Labour. In the last vote we were dealing with premises required by the Inland Revenue officers. The two are totally different subjects.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
Quite so. But I was only drawing the analogy from the last Vote. Only a Token Vote of £5 was asked for then to enable the Government to purchase the site. Here the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward a similar case, and he is asking for the £32,000?
§ Sir R. HORNE
The explanation is a very simple one. In the last case the authority still has to acquire the site. In the present instance we have got the site, and the price is £32,000. I turn now to what is represented by the various token votes. If hon. Members will look through the various items of the schedule they will see that there is disclosed a considerable building programme. Let me tell the Committee at once that that programme has been gone into with the greatest possible care, not once, but many times, between the various Departments—the Ministry of Labour, the Treasury, and the Office of Works. It represents the absolute minimum of what we believe ultimately is required for the purpose of carrying on the business of the Ministry of Labour. I should like to say also that it is with no idea of carrying this pro- 510 gramme out within the year that we have put it forward. The idea in our heads upon this matter has always been that we should carry it out as and when a favourable opportunity offered. At the time we first drew up the programme, I had hoped that the building position would be much easier. I have always had confidence that in the end the force of public opinion would have the effect of bringing large reinforcements to the building labour of the country, and that we should be put in a position to carry out, not only the housing scheme of the Government, but also the full plan required for efficiently carrying on Government administration. I perfectly realise that the Housing Scheme must come first.
In looking back over my correspondence I find that in December I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying to him that, of course, the housing scheme must have first place in connection with all building, but I thought at that time we might be able to go forward with the duty of purchasing the necessary sites, of making the necessary adaptations to buildings purchased, leaving over the question of any new erections for consultation with the Ministry of Labour; and that we should only in any particular instance go forward with new erections if the Ministry of Health was in a position to say that it was entirely consonant with its own plans in that particular district. I realise, however, to the full that the building position has not been bettered much, and I am quite conscious that it is impossible to put this programme before any Committee of the House for immediate inplement. Accordingly I am prepared, as the Leader of the House informed the Committee this afternoon, to ask the Committee only to give me sanction by these Token Votes to acquire sites, to enable me to obtain existing premises where that is necessary, and carry out the necessary adaptations for converting them into suitable offices for Government administration. Accordingly, I have already arranged that particular change of plan on behalf of the Ministry of Labour according to the plan which the Committee suggested this afternoon in connection with the Inland Revenue.
That involves four things. First, I ask the Committee to allow me to acquire sites. It is very difficult, and becoming more so, to acquire suitable sites, for the person who is first in the market is the 511 man who gets them. Unless we have the power in advance to take up available sites when they become vacant, you find you are forestalled by the man who gets there first. Secondly, I desire the power to buy premises already in existence. You have an example in the fact that in Leeds, when we proposed to acquire sites, they were sold over our heads. In several other places at the present time we are in the position that we are being turned out of premises occupied by us, and cannot find any other suitable premises. It is, therefore, necessary that we should be in the position of being able to erect temporary hutments where these are essential for the carrying on of the work in the district. I would, therefore, ask the Committee to allow me power to do that. In the next place, I desire power to adapt premises wherever that is necessary. At the present time many of our premises are wholly unsuitable for our work. Consequently, there is need for a considerable amount of adaptation. Let me tell the Committee why all this work has become necessary. I should say that we have abandoned the idea of erecting premises until we get the leave of the Committee on the main vote for the next financial year. Abandoning that project relieves the vote of two-thirds of its contemplated expenditure. The reason why change such as I am speaking of is required is to be found in the enormous development that has taken place in the work of the Employment Exchanges. I would remind the Committee that we have been compelled to carry on our work, for the most part, in the original premises which were obtained before the advent of the Labour Department, and at a time the Exchange system was first set up.
These premises were even at the beginning inadequate for their original purpose. Gradually they have had thrown upon them very much more work. For example, in 1912 there was added to the duties of the unemployment exchanges the conduct of the unemployment insurance of one million and a half people. No extra premises were granted. The Department was compelled to carry on, in premises already inadequate, this great new responsibility which had been put upon their shoulders. That was not all. In the course of the War another million 512 and a half insured people were added to the total. While the War was on there was practically no unemployment, and it was perhaps no great tax upon the employment exchanges. At the present time, however, you have got all the unemployment insurance benefit conducted in these premises, which are still hopelessly inadequate for the purpose.
We have been forced, as I daresay the Committee understands, to take over many temporary promises for the purpose of carrying on the unemployment insurance business, and also the out of-work donation. All the accommodation we have had has been strained to the utmost. Our staffs have been carrying on their duties often under conditions of which I am perfectly certain every Member of this Committee would be ashamed. Accordingly, I venture to make a very Special appeal to the Committee this afternoon in connection with our employment exchanges. We are going by a new Bill, the Second Heading of which has been given by this House, to add other 8,000,000 to the insured people of this country. That will cast a still further burden upon the staffs in those premises of the Ministry of Labour. There are other uses to which the Exchanges are now put. Much conciliation between employers and employed is carried out in the rooms of the Employment Exchanges. All the meetings of the local Unemployment Committees are held there; also many meetings of trade unions. I can assure the Committee that we require very greatly extended accommodation if we are to perform our duties adequately. There is one Exchange I know. It is in my own constituency. The district is a busy one. All the men of Partick have got in the way of an Employment Exchange is one single room with a counter in it. If you compare our Employment Exchanges with those which are being set up in other countries, such as in Germany or America, I think everyone of us would be ashamed of the contrast which is exhibited. We started the idea in this country with the belief that to manage these affairs of the workpeople a, mean dwelling in a mean street was enough. That was a hopelessly erroneous idea. You put the staffs who were conducting this great function under the greatest possible difficulty. You did nothing to attract either employers or workmen to these Exchanges, and the 513 success which they have achieved is greatly to the credit of those who have worked them. But the time has gone past when you can look at the matter in the way it was looked at in previous years. You must do a great deal in the future to make our Employment Exchanges better. Of that I am convinced.
You must have a great deal more accommodation, where both men and women may go in comfort with the intention of obtaining employment, At present you have some Exchanges in which men and women go in together under the most uncomfortable circumstances. All of that, I am perfectly certain, must be got rid of in the future. Turning to another aspect of the case, we are carrying these places on under extravagant, and not economical, circumstances. In many towns we have a large number of Exchanges which, if they were under one roof, could be worked with far Jess expense than we are compelled to meet to-day. If you can get your staff into one building, you require less staff and less lighting and heating than if you have various buildings separated all over a town. I am sure the Committee in the future will have to face that problem. The Committee which dealt with unemployment donations recommended a far greater concentration of our exchanges in the country, and that will have to come about if we are to carry them on as economically as we might do. With these explanations I ask the Committee to grant the token Vote on the understanding which I have already explained, and I hope I have stated the matter sufficiently for the Committee to understand precisely what we want.
There is a Supplementary Estimate for £245,000 with regard to which I think I ought to give a word of explanation, and it will be found on a separate paper. This item was laid after the original papers were presented, and it refers to a purchase which has only very recently been carried through. It involves a sum of £235,000, which represents the purchase money of a large block of buildings at Queen Anne's Gate. The reason for the purchase of this building is that we discovered it was going to be sold, and that we had no other place anywhere near where we had any prospect of being able to house our staff. These buildings are occupied largely at the present moment 514 by the Ministry of Labour and one of the sections of the Admiralty. A certain portion of the building is occupied by private tenants.
At the present time a considerable space of it is leased by the Government upon a quarterly tenancy, and if the building had been sold we should have been compelled to vacate a considerable portion of the building, and the rest we could only hold on the terms of our lease. I put it to the Committee, not only that this was an essential purchase, but also that it was a wise one. The full rental of the building, which is represented by this capital value of £235,000, is £20,700 per annum, and the rent which His Majesty's Government alone is paying is over £13,000 per annum; consequently we have purchased the building for rather less than 13 years' rental, and I am certain hon. Members will regard that as, on the whole, a very wise transaction, especially looking to the central position which these buildings occupy and the clear prospect of them rising rather than decreasing in value in the future. I think I have explained all the items with which I have to deal, and I ask the Committee for the Vote containing these Supplementary Estimates.
§ Major LLOYD-GREAME
The discussions this afternoon have given a good deal of satisfaction to the Committee, and we have succeeded in putting the fear of the Committee into one Department of the State. The better-advised Minister of Labour, who is always better advised than some of his colleagues, has done in advance what the Committee thought should have been done in a previous case. I place down a Motion for the reduction of this Vote in order to stop the erection of any new buildings without the direct authority of the Committee, but there are some other points upon which I should like an assurance. As far as I can understand this Vote, it seeks authority to pay for something which has been done already without authority and, partly, it seeks, by a mere token Vote, to obtain authority to spend a further sum. I hope the Committee will always scrutinise carefully any un-authorised expenditure.
With regard to the authority the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to acquire certain sites, I think the Government and the Committee ought to be guided by two 515 principles; and one is that we should never build at all unless we are satisfied absolutely that we cannot do without building; and secondly, even if building is necessary, it should be put off until we have a slacker period in the building trade. I think all State building and municipal building should be confined to slack trade periods, and that is all the more necessary to-day. If it be necessary to purchase sites in advance, I want the Ministry to give me some assurance on these points. I know it is important to be able to take advantage of the market, but I do not want it to be thought that because we have consented to buying the sites we have committed ourselves without consultation to the carrying on of large building operations, and I hope we shall get a clear understanding on that point.
A thing which impressed me was that throughout these Debates in Committee in regard to these buildings there has been a singular lack of interest displayed by some departments. I should have thought that the Minister of Health, and other persons more or less concerned with building, would have been present to give us their opinion in regard to these proposals. I do not think it is unreasonable for the Committee to ask for this. I should think that during this time of building shortage no building estimates on behalf of a Government Department should be presented here without the fiat of the Ministry of Health. That would be something more than a mere interchange of Minutes between the Departments, because the Minister of Health would not give his fiat in regard to building in any locality without full consultation with the Local Authority concerned., We passed an Act at the end of last Session which gave power to Local Authorities to hold up unnecessary building wherever they thought it was interfering with housing, and those authorities are not going to exercise that power if they find that the Government themselves are engaging in large building operations in their area about which they have not been consulted. I should like an undertaking that when those estimates come forward again they should be accompanied by the fiat of the Ministry of Health, coupled with an assurance that the Local Authorities in the area concerned have been consulted.
516 I know that accommodation in many of these Employment Exchanges is inadequate, but there are many areas in which housing is not only inadequate, but is non-existent, and it is the balance of convenience which has to be considered. I want to get another assurance. If it is impossible for the right hon. Gentleman to realise the full programme which may be ultimately desirable, I want to know if he is perfectly satisfied that there is no overlapping in Government offices? I ask this question advisedly. It has been represented to me that in the City of Manchester there are offices in which some kind of work is being done by the Ministry of Labour and the Board of Education and one other Government office. In many places I believe there are too many Government offices overlapping in some of our large centres, and their business might be done in the same building. If the authorities in some area see that the Government is making small economies in regard to accommodation I am sure that will go far, not only to increase confidence in the Government's desire for economy, but they will be setting an example which will be followed by local authorities and private in dividuals.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
I wish to ask a question with regard to item 10 in the second part of Vote A, which is as follows:Kingston-on-Thames:—Purchase of site and erection of building for Employment Exchange. Total estimate, £23,000.To me Kingston-on-Thames calls up visions of house-boats, punts, and girls in muslin dresses, and I never heard of it as a great industrial centre. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Hendon (Major Lloyd-Greame) would have fastened on to this item.
§ Major LLOYD-GREAME
I did not fasten on to it because I know it is a very considerable industrial area.
§ 6.0 P.M.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I have been to Kingston once or twice—[AN HON. MEMBER: "On the river!"]—and it struck me as a place with a large residential population, and not a teeming industrial centre. Obviously the building of offices for £23,000 does not involve very large offices, and surely some small existing building could have been found suitable for the purpose. I hope the right 517 hon. Gentleman, with his usual courtesy, will tell us what is proposed in this matter. I suppose that, having passed legislation entitling the Ministry to set up offices, we must foot the bill.
§ Sir R. HORNE
I am afraid the hon. and gallant Gentleman pays attention only to things which attract him, for he was not quite right in his description of Kingston-on-Thames. As a matter of fact, there are 11,000 industrial workers immediately around that Exchange, and there is need, therefore, for proper accommodation for the work which has to be carried out. There are no existing premises available, and we have had to do the best we could in finding a site with a view to putting up a building.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
What are you doing now for those 11,000 workers? I imagine they are not being neglected.
§ Sir R. HORNE
We have accommodation there at present, but have to give up the premises. It was therefore, necessary to acquire some other place, as otherwise the staff might find itself in the street amongst the hon. and gallant Member's friends. Certain assurances have been asked for by my hon. and gallant Friend (Major Lloyd-Greame). In the first place, he suggested that the granting of powers to obtain sites must not be taken out as an authority for erecting buildings upon them, but that the estimates for such buildings must come up here in due course. I entirely agree with that. Of course, no buildings will be put up until they have been provided for in the Estimate and sanctioned. Secondly, it was suggested that, where buildings have to be erected, the Ministry of Health should be consulted; so to make certain that he is not going to be interfered with in the work he has to carry on. I am glad to be able to give that assurance. Thirdly, my hon. and gallant Friend asked that, wherever competition was going on between housing and the erection of Labour Exchanges, housing should have the preference. I entirely agree with that. I do not know whether there is any other point on which an assurance vas asked for?
§ Major LLOYD-GREAME
Yes, I wanted to make sure that if any Government Department were in occupation of premises in the locality where this Ministry requires accommodation, and 518 is likely to be evacuated in a short time, the Ministry will give every consideration to the fact that those offices may be available before their proposed new building can be completed.
§ Sir R. HORNE
I agree that that is an absolutely necessary precaution, and, so far as I am concerned, I will always see that these things are given full consideration to before any new building is embarked upon.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I am glad the Minister of Labour has given the undertaking that the acquisition of these sites will not be made an argument for going on with the buildings, but at the same time I think we ought not to forgot that, the mere fact of acquiring the site is bound to give a certain encouragement to the Ministry to go on building, because the Committee or the House when it comes to consider the question of building will have also to consider what is to be done with the site, supposing the building is not sanctioned. The site will have been acquired, money will have been paid for it, and the question will arise whether the building originally intended to be put upon it should be erected, or whether the site should be disposed of. The experience of most Members of the Committee—and I do not blame the Government for it—is that it is a very difficult thing to get rid of sites. During the time I was a Member of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, when we were investigating the affairs of the Ministry of Labour, we found that very often when it was decided to get rid of a site it was re-sold at a loss, or remained derelict for some years. I think the Committee have been a little bit too inclined to take the assurance of the Leader of the House with regard to the acquiring of sites, for they gave him what he wanted. But I should like to know something of the nature of the sites that are going to be acquired. I ask that information for this reason. When the Select Committee on National Expenditure were investigating the Ministry of Labour we were informed that in many cases officials refused to accept sites except in very prominent positions in the most expensive part of a town. Is that idea still prevalent among them, and is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to point out to his officials that they must be content with sites in less expensive districts?
519 I find, with regard to the question of overlapping, that in the Report of the Select Committee for 1917 that question is discussed, and it is pointed out that men have been sometimes sent very long distances to do work which only occupies a few days. I want to know if that sort of thing is still going on. The Report in question goes on to point out that it is proposed to institute a Central Exchange in London for the building trade, with rooms which can be used for meetings and by persons concerned in the trade without any charge, except a small sum to cover the cost of light and heating. The Committee were of opinion that such a proposal was unnecessary, and I want to know if any of these sites, the acquisition of which we are now considering, are to be used for such purposes as that? If so, then I think this Committee should not sanction this particular Vote. I am sorry the hon. Member for West Houghton (Mr. Tyson-Wilson) is not in his place. He was a Member of that Committee, and he naturally had considerable knowledge on the subject. His criticisms, therefore, of the methods in which officials of this Department selected sites and erected buildings were very valuable. He told us, too, that the practice to which I referred to just now was quite unnecessary and conflicted at times with the employment part of the Exchange's work. It was a case really of setting up buildings for the benefit of a trade union, and often caused a duplication of work. If these sites are to be used for any such purpose, then I do think that at the present moment, when the financial position of the country is so serious, the Committee should hesitate before giving permission for the undertakings. We ought to refuse to pass this Vote unless my right hon. Friend is prepared to undertake that every care shall be exercised in the selection of sites, and that they will be obtained in the cheapest rather than in the most expensive localities, and will not be used for setting up reading-rooms for the building trade, or for allowing trade unions the use of rooms at a nominal cost for purposes which have practically nothing to do with the objects of the Department. We must not forget that the mere purchase of sites and the building of more commodious offices necessitates the employment of more people to fill those offices, that it then become neces- 520 sary to find work for the additional staff, and work is very often invented for that purpose. We all know perfectly well that the tendency of heads of Departments is to magnify their office. The larger the staff, the more important people they become, and the more opportunity they have of going to their chiefs and demanding an increase of salary on account of the work which is being done. Further than that, an increase of salary in one Department leads to a demand for increases in other Departments. Under these circumstances, I hope my right hon. Friend will give me the assurances I have asked for.
§ Mr. KIDD
The House will recognise the enormous work which is being more and more placed on the Labour Ministry, which is bound to result in a very large staff scattered throughout the country and a correspondingly large amount of accommodation for that staff. On the last Vote, the hon. Member (Mr. Graham) indicated that one consideration why delay should take place in the matter of building was that this change in our law in the matter of the collection of revenue would affect the situation in regard to building. Might I entertain the hope that before the Minister of Labour embarks upon any vast building policy a very much larger change in our law will take place? It is hopeless to seek to lay down whether offices should be built in preference to houses, or houses in preference to offices. Behind the whole question lies this: what has occasioned the famine in houses? One would hope that, despite the breakdown of the Select Committee appointed for the purpose, we have in the appointment of that Committee a clear indication as to the suspicion which the Government very legitimately entertains as to the real cause of that famine. If that cause be removed, the men, the money, and the material which we cannot get to-day, we shall get, and the Minister of Labour will be able at that point to proceed with a building policy which will not occasion the Government such an extravagant outlay as the policy pursued at present.
§ Mr. N. CHAMBERLAIN
I received with very great satisfaction the assurance that my right hon. Friend does not propose to proceed with his building programme without first coming back to the Committee. I only rise for the purpose of asking him a question, which perhaps 521 incidentally may help to answer two questions asked by the right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury), namely, what sort of sites are these which the Minister proposes to purchase, and what is he going to do with them if he does not build upon them? My right hon. Friend has explained the difference between Token Votes and non-Token Votes by saying that in the case of Leeds and Manchester, where a large sum was put down, the purchases have already been made. In the other cases, where only a token is put down, the purchases have not been made, and it would be impossible to put down the sum because he does not know how much he would have to pay. My information is that on the first item the purchases have been made and the First Commissioner of Works has already purchased the land.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
No purchase has been made, but has not the right hon. Gentleman obtained an option?
§ Sir A. MOND
No, I do not think so. Negotiations are pending and have been pending, but no purchase has been made, and I believe no option has been acquired.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
Perhaps the difference is not very important. At any rate, the right hon. Gentleman is aware that a site has been settled on, though whether the price has been settled or not I do not know. But what sort of site is this? It is a site immediately adjoining the municipal buildings. If the Minister of Labour erects an Employment Exchange on that site, he will block the natural development and extension of the municipal buildings. That answers the right hon. Baronet's first question. The next question he asked may be answered by saying there is a very suitable customer ready to take the site off my right hon. Friend's hands if he does not propose to build on it himself.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I gather that only applies to one of the sites in Birmingham. It does not follow that it applies to the other sites.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
I quite agree. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, if this purchase is completed for this particular site, he will consider 522 favourably the needs of the local authority, which is tied down to this site by the fact that its own building adjoins it, whereas he is not so tied and might very easily find another site which would be equally good for his purpose in some other part of the city.
§ Mr. W. GRAHAM
I desire to mention the token Vote of £5 and the provisional estimate of £10,000 for the new employment exchange in Edinburgh. I have not the least objection to an extra £10,000 for the Scottish capital. As a matter of fact, we in Scotland will collect every copper we can possibly obtain. But I am in a very great difficulty over the moaning of this Estimate for two reasons. First of all, it is only a short number of years ago since we erected a brand new employment exchange in Edinburgh, and I can only assume that this additional Estimate is for a women's exchange by means of which the work will be separated from the central exchange in which it is now conducted. The work has enormously increased in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and if that is the intention this may be the only opportunity, on the token vote, which gives the right hon. Gentleman power to negotiate regarding the site, to raise the question of sites in Edinburgh, and to make a very strong appeal that no definite step should be taken until the corporation is consulted. As a matter of fact, where the existing employment exchange stands in Edinburgh we have one of the narrowest and most congested thoroughfares in the city, and it has been a civic ideal for years that we should widen that street, no doubt at enormous expense, to provide a thoroughfare between the south side of the city and the business centre lying more towards the north. The Government has in this proposal an unrivalled opportunity of combining with the municipality of Edinburgh to effect a very much needed reform. At present the Ministry of Labour buildings in the Scottish capital are scattered up and down practically every district of the city. I understand the policy of the Department is to centralise those buildings, and certainly to centralise, if they possibly can, the men's and the women's exchanges, in order to reduce the expense of carrying on their work. There is a semi-derelict property in the immediate vicinity of the existing employment 523 exchange, which I believe it might be possible to obtain. In the second place, there is a distinct possibility of widening this street and effecting a great improvement.
§ Mr. MARRIOTT
I am sure the Committee will recognise that the Minister of Labour has made a very important concession with a grace which always disarms the Committee. But although important, I cannot help feeling that it is to a very large extent illusory. I have here the last Report presented by the Committee on National Expenditure, and they drew attention to the operations of the Ministry of Labour in these terms:Your Committee recommend that in the interests of national economy the operations of the several Departments of the Ministry of Labour should be carefully and continuously watched, and that some of them should be closed down at the earliest possible moment, and that the expenditure of the Ministry should be carefully scrutinised from time to time by a Select Committee or other similar body reporting periodically to the House of Commons.I take it that is precisely what we are doing at present. We are carrying out the recommendation of one of our own Committees. The question was raised by my right hon. Friend (Sir F. Banbury) as to the employment of sites which are required by the several Government Departments. It happens that this very point was inquired into a couple of sessions ago by the then Committee on National Expenditure in relation to the Ministry of Labour itself, and almost by chance my eye was caught by these two paragraphs, which exactly bear out what was said by my right hon. Friend:A site was bought in Manchester in 1912 for an Employment Exchange to deal with the Ship Canal workers at a cost of £3,750. The Board of Trade, which was then concerned, subsequently changed its plans and up to the present time—that is the time when the Committee reported—the Office of Works has been unable to dispose of the site.Once more:A site was also bought in Manchester as far back as the year 1910 for £4,000, and adjacent land was subsequently acquired at a cost of £2,365. The Board of Trade, after completion of the purchase, abandoned the scheme and in its place proposed to take some warehouse premises which they considered more suitable. No purchaser has yet been found for the site or for the adjoining land.I think the Committee on National Expenditure is to be very much congratu- 524 lated on having exactly previsaged what would be likely to occur. We have had a graceful concession, but is the concession really of very great value? In the first place, these sites are only too likely to be built upon and employed, but where they are not built upon, judging by the report of the Committee, they are likely to remain a drug in the market. The Committee ought to insist that the greatest possible care is taken in the selection and purchase of these sites.
§ Sir A. MOND
I only rise because I interrupted the hon. Member (Mr. Chamberlain), and I want to correct a statement I made. I was misled for a moment as to what had been happening at Birmingham. The site that he referred to had been in possession of the Government before the war. My Department had been in negotiation with the Corporation, which approached us to see whether we could not meet them and whether an alternative site could not be found which would suit equally well for the purposes of my Department, and would assist the Birmingham Corporation in their not unnatural desire to have a convenient site for the extension of their municipal buildings. Those negotiations are still pending. It would be impossible to give any undertaking to give up a site in the Government's possession unless an equivalent equally useful can be found.
Mr. TYSON WILSON
I was a member of the Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on National Expenditure which dealt with the question of labour exchanges and the question of sites. It seems to me that the Department responsible for the working of the labour exchanges buy land, do not use it, and then do not care whether they dispose of it or not. It would be a far better proposition to get rid of the sites they have than to acquire fresh sites. I remember perfectly well that we were told by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor that the sites that had been bought were not suitable now, and when asked why they were not suitable, he said they wanted the labour exchanges in the main streets of our big towns. I do not think it is a wise plan to have the labour exchanges in the main streets. It might be advisable to have the exchanges in a street immediately off the main street, but they ought to be in a quiet street, where there is not a great deal of traffic, and where 525 people, if they wait outside, could wait without interfering with the pedestrian traffic on the side walk. I was rather struck by what the right hon. Gentleman said as to the expansion of the work of the labour exchanges. The Labour party hope, but we may be wrong, that in the immediate future we shall have a better organisation of industry, and that there will be nothing like the number of people requiring unemployment benefit or signing on at the labour exchanges as is the case to-day. We may be wrong, and I am afraid we shall be wrong. We want to reduce unemployment to a minimum, and if it is reduced to a minimum we shall not want a largo number of labour exchanges. We have to recognise that under the new Bill which has been introduced, some of the bigger societies, in fact, any society, can contract out of the unemployment benefit If a big society like the miners contract out of the Bill, they will not make use of the labour exchanges for the purpose of unemployment benefit. It is quite possible that other large societies will also contract out. If that is so, instead of an increase of staff at the labour exchanges, the staff might be reduced.
Let me point out why there has been an expansion of the labour exchanges. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor induced some of the large societies to make it a condition that their men who were out of employment should sign on at the labour exchanges. In the Manchester district an arrangement was entered into whereby a largo number of employers in that district agreed to engage only those people who signed on at the labour exchanges. Although a man might be seeking employment and an employer was willing to give him employment, he must go to the labour exchange and report there before the employer could give him what he wanted. That meant a loss of labour and a loss of income to the person unemployed. Labour exchanges undoubtedly do bring the employers and the workmen into closer touch, and in quicker time than in the old days; but the labour exchanges have done their utmost to magnify their importance. I will not go further than that. A large number of workmen in the steel trade even now, after the exchanges have been in operation eight or nine years, object to going to the labour exchanges to sign on. I know members of my own society who 526 have forfeited not only their State insurance benefit, but the unemployment benefit of their own society before they would go and sign on the labour exchange. It may be foolish on their part, but there it is.
When investigating the expenditure of the Labour Department of the Board of Trade, the Sub-Committee on National Expenditure, of which I was a member, was very much struck by the heavy expenditure in connection with that Department. We were certain that there was extravagance. When we investigated the accounts and procedure of the labour exchanges, we found that on the staff there was one person engaged to find another person a job. That is what it worked out at. I know there is a very largo number of staff of women and men employed at the offices at Kew who are not engaged in finding employment for people, but are dealing with the insurance books, etc., but, taking the whole staff, we found that there was an average of one official employed by the labour exchanges to each person for whom employment was found during the year. If the labour exchanges were run on more economical and more businesslike lines, a considerable amount of expenditure would be avoided. There are a large number of labour exchanges throughout the country who find very little employment for very few people throughout the year. I have given the hon. Gentleman several instances. On the question of buildings and the selection of sites the Labour Ministry would be well advised to go slow. If they would bend their minds to doing something to organise industry on better lines and thereby avoid unemployment they would be doing good in two directions—they would be reducing the national expenditure and at the same time giving people a proper opportunity of earning their living.
The Minister of Labour, whose efforts in this House and outside we all appreciate, has sailed into calm after a storm. I would like to examine for a moment the reason he gave for furling his sails. He told us that it had not been done on account of the event which had preceded this Vote. I know that he has too much courage to let his opinion be affected in that way. He lives in the midst of turbulence and gets through it by the exercise of the 527 great qualities and tact for which he is pre-eminent. He told us that he had modified his Estimates because the expectation that he had formed when he framed the Estimates had not been realised. That explanation rather puzzled me. He says that when he framed the original Estimates he thought the force of public opinion was going to bring large reinforcements to the building labour of this country; but that he had been disappointed in that expectation. I find a little difficulty in understanding exactly what he means by that. For twenty-five years I have been engaged in building and in close touch with building labour, and I cannot understand how public opinion was going to produce more bricklayers, carpenters, joiners, plumbers, or any of the other artisans engaged in building. These men are only produced by training. They are men who have to go through an apprenticeship and who require considerable skill for the purpose of carrying out their craft. What public opinion has to do with that I do not quite see. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us what he had in his mind when he framed the Votes. During the last six months or so there have been many suggestions made that the trade unions are standing in the way of building being done and that in some way or other they impede building operations. That may have been the point to which the right hon. Gentleman was referring, and he may have been expecting that public opinion would bring about a change in the situation. If that was the sense in which the words were used, what were the grounds for hoping that public opinion would have that effect, and if there were good grounds, what is it that has prevented their realisation? He said that part of his business is to acquire a great, number of sites and afterwards to proceed with the erection of buildings. With regard to sites, he told us that he had found very considerable difficulty in obtaining them. If my recollection serves me, we were engaged last year in passing an Acquisition of Land Bill, the object of which was to overcome this difficulty. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman if, in his difficulties, he has had any resource to the provisions of that Act.
I am surprised to learn that. I thought it was an Act that covered all the purposes of Government Departments.
§ Sir R. HORNE
It only deals with the question of compensation; it does not give me any power to acquire a site. It deals only with the question of compensation.
I should have thought that compensation naturally arises on the acquisition of a site. However, I gather that the Act is of no use to the right hon. Gentleman.
That is unfortunate, because a great many hopes were aroused in the country that the Act would really be effective. We are now informed that it only deals with compensation when you have taken land, but that it gives you no power to take it. Therefore, it is no use to the right hon. Gentleman's Department, and we may presume it is no use to the Government or to any of their Departments. Although the right hon. Gentleman is the head of a Government Department, he is not immune from some of the experiences which befall private individuals. He finds himself the tenant of a building. He gets comfortably settled, and then he discovers the building has to be sold. That happens to private individuals. Many of us are getting complaints from people in our constituencies who find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances. In consequence the Minister has to buy. On that point I would like to call his attention to the purchase of Queen Anne's Chambers, Westminster. I thought he had made a remarkably good bargain when he said that he had bought that building on thirteen years' purchase on their rental. I thought that if the right hon. Gentleman was going to leave his present position and lake up a position as a great estate agent, and he could act for his clients in the way he has acted on behalf of the Government in connection with this purchase, he ought to reap a very rich emolument from it. But when I look at the particulars contained in this document, I find that what has been purchased is simply the leasehold interest.
I am very glad that you have elicited that information, and 529 I beg to continue my congratulations. In the absence of that information it was not possible to tell whether the right hon. Gentleman had made a good or a bad bargain. There is in existence in the Inland Revenue a Valuation Department. Is that in the same position as the Acquisition of Land Bill, and of no use to the right hon. Gentleman? To-day a question was asked as to whether in certain circumstances a local authority might have the assistance of the Valuation Department, and it was said that they could not. In making these extensive purchases of land, has the Department of the right hon. Gentleman the advantage, if it is an advantage, of the services of the Valuation Department?
§ Sir A. MOND
My Department has valuers attached to it, and in the Inland Revenue Department there are skilled valuers, and we do take advantage of their opilnions, and a very great advantage it is.
About an hour ago, the right hon. Gentleman was expatiating on the advantage of centralising and coordinating Departments. It is a curious position for everyone of these Government Departments to be running its own separate staff of valuers when the Inland Revenue has got a great Valuation Department which covers the whole country. Every building, every piece of land, is situated somewhere, and that somewhere is in the area of one of the official valuers of the Valuation Department. I do not understand why it should be necessary for the right hon. Gentleman's Department, or any other Department of the Government, to have its own separate staff of valuers who cannot have the local knowledge possessed by the men on the spot. It is not the best arrangement either from the point of view of economy or efficiency. Take, for example. Item 16, of which I can speak with some knowledge—Newcastle-on-Tyne—one of the divisions which I have the honour to represent, in which the right hon. Gentleman has purchased a site of which 530 the price is not given, on which we propose to erect new buildings.
§ Sir R. HORNE
We have not yet purchased the site in Newcastle. We have not been able to get one. We wish to purchase a site and have put down a Vote.
In Newcastle you have stationed in the district a valuer of the Inland Revenue Valuation Department, a post which I occupied myself before I came into this House. There is a man who knows what is the value, who is an official of the Government, and whose opinion it would be wise to consult. I gather that instead of that being done the procedure is for some other valuer—I have no doubt a very skilled efficient person—who is attached to the office of the Commissioner of Works, who is up in London and cannot have the local knowledge of the land and its value possessed by the local valuer, is employed. That seems to be one of the grossest examples of what I may call centralisation. One hears that the country is going to have the misfortune to lose the Minister for Labour from the position which he occupies at present, but if he continues that position, or in whatever other great office he may find himself, I would ask him to give consideration to this point of view. We have learned from the Minister of Health that in acquiring land for housing schemes a considerable saving, amounting to 33 per cent. on the purchase price, has taken place through the employment of the valuation department, and in offering this suggestion I think that I am doing something in the direction of securing economy and efficiency.
Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman replies he may give us some idea as to the class of buildings that is being erected up and down the country. I gather from him that it varies according to the size of the town. In every place the general plan probably would be alike, but I gather that the position of the building, and probably the general expense of the structure, apart from actual requirements, will vary according to the importance of the town. I am one with him in thinking that these labour exchanges should not be mean buildings in a mean style. I agree that they perform very important functions, and should be worthy of the work which they will carry out, but I am not quite sure that the policy which he advocated rather strongly, the 531 policy of centralising the whole of the Labour Exchanges—I gather that was his policy in a great city like mine or other big places; to concentrate all the Labour Exchange agencies in one building in the centre of the town—is the right policy. It certainly enables, in a large and important city, a large and important building to be put up. But, taking into account the purposes for which the Exchanges are to be used, probably a great deal might be said for having the places where application has got to be made in the district in which the men themselves are employed. It would lead to economy, as land in the neighbourhood would be cheaper and the class of buildings would not be expensive. No one wishes more success than I do to the operations which are about to be taken in connection with procuring employment.
§ Sir A. MOND
In view of the request of the hon. Member to answer his question about valuation, perhaps I may explain that we have in our office land officers who purchase land who are skilled valuers. They consult on all important occasions the Inland Revenue officers. Naturally enough, so far as provincial accommodation is concerned, they usually ask the advice of our district surveyors and architects. They naturally consult with the Inland Revenue officers of the district. We are making use of every machinery which the hon. Member would like us to make use of. With regard to decentralisation, I think that mine is the most decentralised office under the Government. All the points to which he has referred are covered already in our present practice, and very great value and economy result from the services of the Inland Revenue officers and their great knowledge of the value of land in various localities throughout the country.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
Some of us were surprised—I certainly was—to learn that the operation which my right hon. Friend proposes to undertake in spending so large a sum of money on the sites for building purposes is not backed up by statutory powers under the Acquisition of Land Act, 1919. That is perfectly correct, because the first Section sayswhere under any Statute, whether passed before or after the passing of this Act, land is authorised to be acquired compulsorily.So unless he has specific statutory powers he is not able to exercise 532 the provisions of the Act passed last Session. This is a matter of great public importance. The Postmaster-General, whenever he undertakes the acquisition of sites for a specific purpose, nearly always gets an Act passed to enable him to exercise the powers in that way. There is no reason why this Department should not ask the House to give it statutory power to carry out these very large undertakings which are proposed. I am sure that he will meet with very little opposition, and by such a Statute he would be clothed with all the powers of the Act of 1919.
I would ask my right hon. Friend to institute inquiries as to the number of premises which are still in occupation of his Department, and which are urgently required, and often asked for by prospective tenants or former tenants, who cannot get them back again. I have an instance, which I will pass to my right hon. Friend, of a case within Westminster itself, in which people have tried over and over again to get possession, but week after week, month after month passes without effect. The premises are quite idle. The former tenant wishes to occupy them again, and is unable to get them.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Sir R. HORNE
I appreciate the changed atmosphere in this Debate compared with that of a Debate last week. On that occasion I was contending with all the power at my command with right hon. and hon. Members opposite that there should be continued to the Ministry of Labour powers to acquire buildings and lands compulsorily for the purpose of training disabled soldiers, and upon that occasion I met with very considerable opposition. Indeed, the hon. and gallant Member for Leith (Captain W. Benn) was almost strident in his criticism of us for daring to think of carrying on in peace time the emergency powers of the War period, and he expressed his horror at the way in which the Government used such powers. This afternoon the tone is entirely different. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir D. Maclean) not only said that I ought to have these compulsory powers, but he urges me to bring in legislation on any occasion when land is required. Many valuable hours of Parliamentary time would have been saved if hon. Members-opposite had been ready to take that point of view last week.
§ Sir R. HORNE
Nothing could be more urgent than the carrying on of the powers which we have for the moment in regard to the acquiring of buildings and land for training disabled soldiers. I cannot understand why it was, if that was the point of view of hon. Members, they did not say "We are perfectly delighted with your acquiring these powers if only you will make them permanent." I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the sudden conversion which has taken place. The right hon. Gentleman stated that the Post Office has an Act giving compulsory powers passed on each occasion when it is going to acquire premises. It may be 80, but I have never heard of it. I have inquired of those around me and I cannot find that it is the practice. In any case, the situation is that we have to go into the competition of the open market if we are going to acquire sites for employment exchanges. I am sure my right hon. Friend is well aware that the acquisition of sites is a very difficult matter and one for prolonged negotiations. At present, when trade is moving forward in the great centres of industry, the competition for sites is very keen. It is for that reason that I put before the Committee the necessity for our being clothed with power to deal with the site question, always keeping it clear that that does not necessarily commit the Committee to the policy of building upon them all the structures which are adumbrated in the present Schedule. I turn to the complaint made by the right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury). I confess it always surprises me that he bears up so wonderfully against the world, considering the extremely severe view he always takes of human nature.
§ Sir R. HORNE
To-night once more he exhibited the suspicion which inhabits his breast. The possibility of any human institution being trusted—
§ Sir R. HORNE
I admit there is a difference. I will say any Government institution being trusted to function either with zeal or with efficiency—
§ Sir R. HORNE
The hon. Baronet's attitude was that the Employment Exchanges were filled with people who were more anxious to magnify their office than to do any really serious work. I have not had a very long experience of the Employment Exchanges—about seven months. I am perfectly certain that there has been no harder worked body in the country than the staff of the Employment Exchanges during that period. I noticed that in all the diatribes made against the Employment Exchanges the accusation was concerned with matters of the past and reports of previous years—with something that was done in 1912.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
1917 and 1918, the reports were. The land was bought in 1912 and had not been sold in 1918. it was in Manchester, too.
§ Sir R. HORNE
I understand that. What I am dealing with is the fact that all of these accusations were in regard to things done in the past, when the Labour Department had not been long in existence. You need have no such fears on the present occasion. It is proposed that all these matters shall be dealt with again when the main Estimates come on in the next financial year, that is to say, in the next few months. There is no possibility of that happening which the right hon. Baronet fears—that you may have land held up derelict for many years. We shall discover in the course of the summer months whether the Committee is prepared to grant us the power to erect these structures. The whole matter will then be determined.
§ Sir R. HORNE
We propose to acquire the sites that seem most necessary. Should the Committee think these sites are unnecessary, I do not think there will be any difficulty in disposing of them if they are found to be either not very suitably placed or of a character which the Committee does not wish for. I have said how completely people's minds are dwelling in the past in these matters. Even so well-informed a Labour representative as the hon. Member for West Houghton (Mr. T. Wilson) stated that inquiry had shown that only one man got employment for every man employed in the Employ- 535 ment Exchange service. Either that remark should not have been made at all, or else regard should have been had to present-day conditions. The people who are concerned at the Exchanges with finding employment number altogether, in the localities and districts, something like ten thousand, but the number of places found for people during the last twelve months was well over one million. I think it is regrettable that that kind of attack should be made without some observation of the real facts.
§ Mr. SPENCER
Was not the remark one which applied to certain districts? It was not a general case; it referred to a specific district.
§ Sir R. HORNE
Even if I am wrong I think it was a very ungenerous and a very unfair reflection on the work of the employment exchanges. The right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) wanted some assurance that the sites chosen were the cheapest. I agree that we should acquire sites as cheaply as possible, but you may purchase cheap sites very dearly. I am confident that the exchanges have suffered in the past because the original premises were bought far too cheaply, and it is equally certain that the usefulness of exchanges has been very seriously impeded by that fact. The right hon. Baronet's next point was with regard to the use to be made of these premises. He was evidently perturbed by the fact that meetings of various organisations were held at the exchanges and that only a nominal price was charged. I am of opinion that when the premises are there, if they can be made to serve a useful purpose, even at a nominal price, in the evenings when organisations wish to have them and they are not wanted by the staff, the State ought to give an opportunity for their beneficial use in that way. I think it would be a retrograde step to say that you will no longer allow a trade union to hold its meetings in the premises. The premises are open equally for all other organisations connected with industry, to organisations of employers as well as to trade unions. Many useful meetings for conciliation purposes are being held. I should like to express to the hon. Member for Newcastle (Major Barnes) my gratitude for the very kindly observations he has made with regard to myself. So far as Newcastle-on-Tyne is concerned, the position is—
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Before the right hon. Gentleman passes to that subject I would like to say, in reference to the use of the exchanges for meetings, that what I quoted from was this:The sub-committee were informed that between 2,000 and 3,000 branches of unions had the use of rooms in exchanges for the purpose of holding meetings, for which only a nominal charge was made, and that the Government was being continually pressed to extend the accommodation.What I wanted to know was whether any of these premises are going to be provided merely for the giving of accommodation for these trade unions.
§ Sir R. HORNE
No expense is being incurred merely for the purpose of providing meeting rooms. As I understood him, the right hon. Baronet went a good deal further in his speech.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Provided that the use of these rooms is only given in the evening, when they are not required for other purposes.
§ Commander BELLAIRS
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what revenue the State derives from the trade unions for the use of these rooms?
§ Sir R. HORNE
As the hon. Baronet has stated, the charges are very nominal. I am speaking merely from recollection, but I think the use of a room can be had any evening for a meeting of a trade union executive for 2s. 6d. I am afraid I cannot give any figure, but they are equally open to all. I regret that any suggestion has been made that trade unions are favoured in this matter. They happen to be bodies which meet more frequently, and whose organisation is more localised than that of any other bodies. Beyond that, it is unjust to say that those rooms arc; not equally open to all.
§ Mr. JESSON
Is it not a fact that the argument put forward to induce the trade unions to go to the Employment Exchanges to hold their meetings was that it would attract them from the public-houses?
§ Sir R. HORNE
Well, I would not put it like that; but it is perfectly true that often no other rooms are available for 537 such organisations. It seems to me perfectly obvious that if you wish to make your Employment Exchanges as popular meeting places as you can, that as long as you are doing that you are doing great service to the country. With regard to Newcastle-on-Tyne, the position there is that the headquarters for the district are divided up into three separate sections, because they cannot all get the accommodation in one set of premises. We wish, ultimately, to remedy that, and it is with that view that we hope afterwards to obtain the opportunity of acquiring a site and putting up buildings where they may all be housed together. At the present time, they are working on very uneconomical lines, and I am perfectly certain the State will save in the long run if we get the opportunity of building such premises. I do not think I need say any more about the acquisition of land, because my right hon. Friend opposite explained exactly how the provisions of that Act stand.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Can we be informed if those two sites, bought in 1910 and 1912, and which were unsold in 1917, have been sold, or whether they are still unoccupied?
§ Sir R. HORNE
I am informed by the First Commissioner of Works that no sites have been sold that were in the possession of the Government.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Will that be brought to the knowledge of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who proposes to spend £103,000 in buying a site in Manchester?
§ Sir R. HORNE
My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary has, no doubt, hoard the hon. Baronet's question, and is now fully apprised of the fact. I think these are all the points with which I have been asked to deal, and I hope it will be possible for this discussion to end very soon.
§ Captain W. BENN
I would not have ventured to take up the time of the Committee, but the right hon. Gentleman has made a pointed reference to some remarks of mine with regard to the powers that have been given to his Department. I understand that what he meant when he spoke about specific acts was this, that he would have no objection, if the Department desired to acquire sites, to the 538 proposal coming before Parliament and to its being decided by Parliament. That is very different from endowing the Department with general powers to requisition anything that they think they may need. He has made great play with the fact that we objected to him having some specific powers under the Defence of the Realm Act. I would point out that it was the extension of those powers that we objected to, and I would remind him of his own defence, which was that he must have these powers in order to acquire sites and buildings for the purpose of carrying on his work with the labour exchanges.
§ Captain BENN
I will read it:It shall be lawful for the Commissioners of Works to take possession of any land, including buildings thereon, which the Minister of Labour may certify to be required for the purpose of accommodating the staff of the Ministry of Labour.
§ Sir R. HORNE
But my hon. Friend seems to be forgetting that these were not the powers that were continued. These were the powers that belonged to the Ministry of Pensions, and which the Ministry of Labour might exercise. I was not dealing with the Labour Exchanges, but only with the powers obtained from the Ministry of Pensions.
§ Captain BENN
I understand the limits of Order, which are that we may discuss whether or not it is necessary to take the money now on this Estimate. I was endeavouring to direct the attention of the Minister to these powers. I know I cannot refer to the continuation, but that does not matter. But he has these powers, and until the War is declared to be over by Order in Council he has the powers under 2 A.B. Then the right hon. Gentleman says that unless we give a Token Vote on these matters of £5 each he will not be able to get the sites which he requires for carrying on his work. I will say why I think that is bad. The Leader of the House made a speech earlier in the Debate in which he said that they proposed on this Vote to give an undertaking to the House not to erect any buildings or to start any new works until the total Estimate had been passed by the House. That I understand to be the 539 undertaking, and the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong. It is that the Government have undertaken in respect of these buildings marked A on pages 11 and 12 not to start any new work on them until the total Estimates have been passed by this House.
§ Sir R. HORNE
What I have undertaken is not to go on with the erection of any new buildings until the Committee have dealt with them upon the main Estimates for the next financial year, but I had to have a Token Vote because I want powers to acquire sites and premises already in existence where they are necessary; to acquire huts for the purpose of erecting them upon sites where we have been turned out, as we have in many instances, or are going to be, from our present premises and can find no others, or powers to adapt premises for the purposes of the Labour Exchange.
§ Captain BENN
I quite understand what has been undertaken. It is that the usual practice of the House shall be adhered to next Session—it was not last Session—and that no new work shall be started until the main Estimate, that is the total Estimate, has been passed by this Committee, or until the 31st August, when it was passed automatically by the Committee. But that does not really meet our objection to this. Our objection is that we are passing sums of £5 each for these buildings and that we have not the least information—on the buildings of course we shall have the Estimate with regard to the site. Many old buildings have been referred to and alterations are being made, and we are doing this without being told in the least what sums of money are being spent. It is true we authorise it by a Token Vote, but we do it completely blindfolded and in complete ignorance of what sum we may be committed to spend. Even as regards the buildings on which we had a definite understanding we know that once we have given the Government the right to acquire a site we shall be in an extremely weak position when they come to us and say, "You authorised us to buy the site, which was adapted to a certain plan of building, and now you cannot possibly withhold permission from us to put up the building." The fact of the matter is that under the innocent guise of passing votes of £5 each we are 540 authorising an expenditure which may amount—according to these calculations I think it is to be about £l,000,000—when the whole thing is complete it may amount to very many millions. This is the Committee of Supply of the House of Commons, which is supposed to and does desire to exercise meticulous care over the expenditure of the country.
§ Mr. BILLING
If one may say so with all respect, it was a little unfortunate that the Minister for Labour took such an early opportunity of replying. I have generally found that if a Minister replies to his critics within 15 minutes of making his original speech the Debate takes longer than if he gave other speakers an opportunity to put all the questions which they wish to ask before he rises to reply. I say that in no offensive manner, because there is no one who appreciates the courtesy which this particular Minister extends to the House more than I do. But we must not be led away by his charm of manner to do anything which our constituents might consider unjustified. We are told that it is quite all right and that we should trust the Government, but presumably we must exorcise a little reason as well as trust, and we ourselves have a certain trust reposed in us in other places, and we cannot take this blindly. I am entirely opposed to this Vote. I oppose it mainly because I do not think it is the business of the Government to set up further bureaucratic undertakings, especially when it comes to acquiring land and buildings. We are so urgently in need of houses for the working classes at the present time, and we want so urgently every brick and every labourer who will put one brick on another, that I think it is wrong in principle that we should start now or commit ourselves to a big building programme to provide for the very unemployment which, providing that the other work is carried on, would to a large extent be diminished. Does the right hon. Gentleman give us to understand that unemployment is likely to be worse in the future? We have managed so far with the present accommodation and, assuming that we have to put up with it, is it going to be so bad in the future that we must set up those palaces all over the country to deal with it? Why does not the right hon. Gentleman make an appeal to the trade unions in this matter? What bettor organisation have 541 we in this country than the trade unions? Surely they have proved on many occasions, when they have fought and beaten the Government, that they are a more efficient organisation than the Government itself. Why not take advantage of that efficient organistion? Why not say to the trade unions, "For all these years you have been employed on more or less destructive work, that is, forcing the hand of the Government by the threat of withdrawing your labour."—and it has done an enormous amount of good, because the Government need very drastic action before they can be wakened up to take any very useful step. Why does not the Government say to them, "Use your trade unions as a vehicle with which to provide employment." It might be thought that by doing so they would be strengthened, but in that event the Government would be strengthening a very good cause for a very good purpose. We are asked to Vote more money, not for houses fit for heroes to live in, but a couple of millions to erect barracks for bureaucrats. There is constantly fresh evidence of more and more officials, and then other officials to look after them, so that it looks as if in a little while it will be difficult to find a common or garden civilian in this country. I think the House ought to do everything in its power to sweep away officialdom not only from the point of view of economy, but also from that of personal liberty. The Prime Minister made an appeal to the country over 12 months ago on a great democratic wave and yet we have had this vast army of officials, and the people of the country are beginning to appreciate that those officials have got to be paid out of taxation which comes out of the pockets of the people. I can assure the Committee they are not taking at all kindly to that. I am not at all carried away by the more or less sensational articles in the Press, but one feels this matter in his pocket which, next to the heart, is the most sensitive part of one's anatomy
The whole question is whether we shall or shall not vote this sum of money which means hundreds of thousands of pounds. The items may not seem large but in the total they are a very great deal. Will the right hon. Gentleman not regard the setting up of these exchanges as temporary? This grave unemployment evil will pass away from us and our social system may 542 so change that we shall not require to have a vast army of men in order to provide work for other men who, under our present extraordinary system, are not able to find work. If these men have to be employed, what about the Army huts which we were told were good enough to be converted into houses for returned soldiers. Officers and men have lived in them for years and surely they would make admirable meeting places for trade union officials and for housing Government officials. The right hon. Gentleman said that we must make these places attractive in public thoroughfares. I doubt if he would advance that proposition to an audience o£ British taxpayers at the present time. I might ask, if you want to make them attractive, why not have a cinema. We see crowds of people in queues at early hours of the morning outside cinemas when presumably they might be usefully employed, and some of them may have come from the Labour Exchanges. The Committee, so far as I can judge, does not favour the idea of giving a blank cheque which commits us to the purchase of sites in expensive positions all over the country. If they got the power to find the sites the buildings are going up, unless the Government falls in the meantime. That being so, we had better decide the question now, and not simply regard the promise not to erect the buildings as a debating point or a slight Parliamentary advantage. That may look well from the point of view of the strength of the Committee to be read in the newspapers, but I suggest that the Minister should now tell us that if he gets permission to buy these sites it is his intention to carry the matter right through and not come back to the House for further permission, and that is the question we should decide.
§ Major HAYWARD
There is one point which I should like to sec cleared up. The right hon Gentleman is asking for power to acquire various new promises and to extend existing premises. During the course of this Debate mention was made as to power under the Land Acquisition Act to acquire land compulsorily. Has tht right hon. Gentleman to go into the open market and acquire the premises and sites at the present inflated value, and is the Government without any compulsory power for the acquisition of these premises? If that be so, all I can suggest 543 is that the Government were entirely lacking in foresight when they brought in the Land Acquisition Bill last year in not providing for such a very necessary matter as this, as they must have had in contemplation the purchase of these premises. I would ask the Government in that case to accept the suggestion to bring in a Bill to obtain statutory powers to give them compulsory power to acquire this land, and use the machinery of the Land Acquisition Act for that purpose.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
I do not join in the criticism of the hon. Member who has just spoken, and I do not suggest that the Government should take further bureaucratic powers to seize compulsorily sites, whether suitable or unsuitable, at the whim of some particular person. We have heard before most of the criticism of the labour exchanges as regards extravagance and the results of the work of those exchanges. Economy is vastly important at the present time, and yet we are asked to vote £102,000 straight away and to add another £800,000 for the purpose of buying sites in expensive places. We are then told we are not obliged to build on them yet, and that is the answer of the Government seriously put forward as an excuse for an Act of great extravagance at the present moment. The Government say, "If you vote this we shall not build upon the sites till next July or August, when the matter will come before the Committee." That really is not a defence worthy of the Government. We know that the matter may never be discussed at all in the House again. There is, for instance, a sum of £22,000 for a little place like Kingston with about 11,000 inhabitants.
§ Mr. RAWLINSON
I may be inaccurate in the figures. I feel strongly that every one of us ought to make some sort of protest if we genuinely desire economy.
§ Mr. KILEY
I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he has satisfied himself that the proposed works are absolutely essential in all cases. I notice that no less that three new buildings are required in my own constituency, and the reason why I put the question is because of an experience in my own constituency a few weeks back. During the 544 last 12 months the labour exchange has been unduly overcrowded, due largely to the large number of men who have been drawing the unemployment dole, and the exchange people found it necessary to apply to the local authority for the use of a portion of the free library adjoining. The library committee, being anxious after a time to get rid of them, asked them to quit the premises, and the manager applied to the Office of Works for a new habitation. He went along under D.O.R.A. to a building with six or eight times the accommodation he was called upon to surrender, and demanded those premises. As a trustee, I failed to see any reason why he should have that extension, only I was threatened with D.O.R.A., but fortunately another Government Department, which really did need the premises, had priority, and by those means I was able to checkmate the Office of Works in obtaining premises for the Ministry of Labour which were six or eight times larger than was necessary. If that is an example of what is going on elsewhere, I shall certainly have to vote against this Estimate.
§ Mr. STEVENS
I wish to call attention to item 15—Manchester—purchase of site and erection of new building for divisional office and Employment Exchange. Total estimate, £132,000 (provisional).The sum required is £32,000, and I take it that that £32,000 is for the site. It is obvious that in the centre of a city like Manchester there must be an employment exchange, but why put the divisional office in the centre of the city, where the expenses are so great? I can offer my right hon. Friend a suggestion which will not only meet this necessity immediately, but also the necessity of the Inland Revenue Department. Immediately outside the city there are buildings, more than one, but I speak of one that I know exceedingly well, that have just been vacated in the last six months as hospitals—beautiful buildings. The one I am thinking of had 125 beds in it and it will accommodate all the requirements of the Labour Divisional Office, and also of the Revenue people, excepting those particular officials who must be in the centre of the City to see their clients. It is a building with huge entertaining rooms and no loss than 40 bedrooms. Those two authorities, if they were joined together and took such a 545 building outside the City for divisional work, would do well, and in the City the existing Inland Revenue place is quite sufficient for an Employment Exchange and also for the Inland Revenue.
I think the Minister for Labour has been quite too modest, perhaps due to the fact that he has been praised too much, but I see in the White Paper there is an anticipated saving on Sub-head P of £102,105. I think the House would like to know how my right hon. Friend has effected this saving. I do not know whether it is like a farmer's loss, for they say that farmers make up their minds that they will make a profit of £5,000 in a year, and if they only make £2,000 they say they have lost £3,000 on that year. I do not want to look a gift-horse in the mouth, but I think it would be an advantage to the Committee if the right hon. Gentleman would explain how this saving has been effected.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I also would like some explanation of this wonderful feat, this one oasis in the desert of extravagance, and I think we might examine the date trees in it.
§ Question put, and agreed to.