HC Deb 15 February 1922 vol 150 cc1169-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Leslie Wilson.]


I desire to draw attention to a matter of unemployment which touches a very large public body in the constituency which I have the honour to represent. In the Debate on unemployment about four days ago, the Minister of Labour (Dr. Macnamara) explained that the Government were very anxious to do everything in their power to find public works of the substantial nature which would justify them in making grants from the special funds for the purpose of giving employment to some of the large number of men who are out of work at the present time. It is of such a work that I wish to speak.

I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neal) that, although for some time I have been in correspondence with him and other Departments in reference to this work, namely, an extension of the Leith docks, I have met with no satisfactory answer. I have been with every Department, but, unfortunately, whatever their wishes, they were unable to help in this matter. A little later I received a very courteous letter from the hon. Gentleman, asking me if I could bring to the notice of the Dock Commissioners the need for finding work in order to give employment to unemployed men, and asking me to remind them that they should apply to the Government Committee set up for this purpose. Of course, I responded immediately to the letter which he was good enough to send me. I communicated with the Clerk of the Commissioners, and they, in their turn, laid before the Government a plan of the extension of the docks which was of so substantial and satisfactory a character, and so full of promise of success that it has already received Parliamentary sanction. It was a plan for extending the prosperous docks of Leith a little further to the west, taking in a large space of water which at present is part of the Firth of Forth.

My first point is that this is the class of work from which the most satisfactory result can be effected. It is not in any sense a relief work, invented for the purpose of giving work. We know from experience of unemployment committees in the past in providing relief works that work has been invented which work did not represent the amount expended upon it in capital and labour. This is not a work of that kind. At the moment it could not possibly pay for itself, but in the future it will redound financially to the benefit of those who use this trade entrance to Scotland. Then a nice question arose. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to receive a reputation consisting of the Lord Provost, I think, and the Chairman and Clerk of the Dock Commissioners. A nice point arises as into what category this work would fall. The Government were making promises under two classes, one on a liberal scale to non-revenue-producing bodies, and the other on a less liberal scale to revenue-producing bodies. I admit it is a nice question as to whether a statutory dock authority comes under the category of revenue-producing or non-revenue producing bodies. If it is only to get the assistance which comes to the revenue-producing authorities it is impossible for this extension to proceed.

The financial advice on which this authority acts is of the best. It is so substantial and so wisely managed that as financial credit stands high, and this advice says it is impossible to put this extension in hand at the present time if it were only to receive assistance on a revenue-producing basis. If, on the other hand, the hon. Gentleman says tonight that the Government is able to assist them on the non-revenue-producing basis, then this extension can be put in hand, and some employment found for men in that district. On this point as to whether it is revenue-producing or non-revenue-producing I will make three brief observations. This body cannot make a profit. The most it can do is to pay a dividend on money borrowed. If they make anything in ex- cess of that, it must be spent on public work, on the extension of their own docks; or else it must be used for the reduction of rates. The people who benefit by the reduction of dock rates are not the persons who trade in the docks. They are the general consumers in the country, and I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that there is a fair comparison to be drawn between a publicly-owned and managed dock of this kind, and a public highway which, of course, has revenue in the sense that it has rates, or a lighthouse which has revenue in the sense that it has dues and tolls. The hon. Gentleman would not maintain that a highway or a lighthouse is a revenue-producing class of public works. Moreover, part of this particular work, the construction of a breakwater, which is a preliminary, and would give a great deal of employment to non-skilled labour, would produce no revenue at all. It is impossible for it to produce, either now or in the future, any revenue.

I urge the hon. Gentleman either to concede the whole request, or at least to concede the request of the Commissioners as regards the breakwater. That should be regarded as non-revenue-producing. I observe the Mersey Dock authority, when they applied, were not told they could not have the money because they were revenue-producing, but were told they could not have the money because there was no money. That was not the case made by the Minister of Labour. He said: "Show us the work, and we will find the money." While thanking the House for permitting me to raise the matter, I urge on the. hon. Gentleman that it is highly desirable he should concede this point about which I admit there may be some possibility of argument, and place the Leith Dock Commissioners and other dock commissioners in the category of non-revenue-producing authorities for the purposes of the grant which the Government is making to relieve unemployment.


My hon. and gallant Friend has stated his case with his usual force and lucidity, but if I may say so with respect he has just a little confused the terms "revenue earning" and "profit earning." They are not convertible terms. But the facts of the case as they were represented to me by the deputation which my hon. and gallant Friend refers to were these: The dock authority at Leith, which is a statutory authority but which has no power to make a private profit, has an undertaking which cost in the region of £2,750,000, and its indebtedness at the moment is in the region of £800,000. Their credit is extremely good—so good, in fact, that in the open money market they are able to raise loans for their purposes at a rate not higher than that at which the Government is able to obtain money. The proposed work was a minor work, calculated to cost about £200,000. Therefore, it is quite plain that that work is well within the financial resources of the authority itself, and I must express my personal regret that the authority and the adjoining corporation, which was represented at the interview referred to, has not seen its way to undertake the work. It was, in fact, the making of an outer sea defence, which would enable land to be reclaimed, and warehouses and other buildings to be built in the future.

This work, the making of an outer sea defence, never could, by itself, earn money, but as a part of the larger project for the extension of the dock undertaking, the reclamation of land, and the erection of buildings, it is a part of a revenue-earning undertaking which is by no means in an impecunious condition, and which is quite able within its own resources to undertake this small work. I ventured to urge upon the notice of the deputation that the condition of em- ployment in the district was such that the matter was one to which I hoped they would be able to give favourable consideration.

The matter, however, does not rest with the Ministry of Transport. The funds which are available are being administered under the guidance of the Committee presided over by Lord St. Davids, and that Committee makes grants of two kinds, namely, 50 per cent. of the interest for a term of 5 years on works which are revenue-producing, and 65 per cent. of interest and sinking fund in respect of works which are not revenue-producing for half the loan period, suck half not exceeding 15 years. I understand from Lord St. Davids Committee that an application was launched before then by the Commissioners for assistance in the matter, and that Committee, acting under a general decision of the Government, could come to no other conclusion than that this work came within the category of revenue-earning work Therefore the only offer which they would be able to make to the Leith Harbour Commissioners would be to pay for a period of 5 years half their interest charges. I am extremely sorry that they have not seen their way to put this little public work in hand, and find some relief for some of the unemployed in the district.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.