HC Deb 27 February 1922 vol 151 cc202-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £18,000, 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, 1922, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Lord Advocate's Department, and other Law Charges, and the Salaries and Expenses of the Courts of Law and Justice and of Pensions Appeals Tribunals in Scotland, and Bonus on certain Statutory Salaries.


I thought that some representative of the Government would have informed the Committee as to the £18,000 which we are asked to vote. The subject raised under this Vote arose in the House some years ago, and these heavy expenses are in addition to the large sums spent by the Air Ministry in the erection of an aerodrome in Renfrewshire. I have risen to invite the Government to give the Committee some information with regard to this Estimate.


This Supplementary Estimate is a very little one. The charge is £18,000 for additional expense of law agents acting on behalf of the Air Ministry in the Renfrew aerodrome case. These law charges are always most difficult to estimate with any accuracy, as I explained in the course of the previous Supplementary Estimate. This particular case was one in which there was a dispute as to two contracts, for an acceptance park and a repair depot at Renfrew. There was a dispute as to the manner in which the work was being conducted, and finally the contractor left the site, and an arrangement was made that the work should be measured with a view to payment being made for what it was worth. On the basis of that valuation it was considered by the Government that the contractors had been overpaid to the extent of some £50,000, and action was accordingly taken to recover that amount, or, alternatively, for damages for breach of contract. That was the point which had been reached when last year's Estimate was prepared. Un- fortunately, our optimistic expectations as to the action were not fulfilled, and on the whole and on balance it went against the Government. On certain minor issues, as to the manner in which the work had been done, the Government succeeded, but on the major issues the Government failed, and the costs of the action were given against them and in favour of the defendant. That is really what has overtopped us and caused this Supplementary Estimate. It might be said, why has a single large charge resulted in a Supplementary Estimate? The answer is that we have spent up to the full on the original Estimate and consumed all other savings. We have established a new method of distributing the work amongst the law agents in Scotland, which results—and a very good result—in the accounts coming in more rapidly. There has been, therefore, a telescoping of charges into this year, an acceleration of payment, and that acceleration of payment has consumed the other savings and left us with the necessity of getting a Supplementary Estimate for the single large Vote.

Captain W. BENN

I am not surprised that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury did not rise to offer any explanation of a Vote which probably he would have desired to pass sub silentio. His plea that the Vote is only a little one may appear to be quite justified in view of the large expenditure of the Government in all directions, but the principle appears to be an amazing one. First of all, we learn that all law expenses which, of course, provided a margin for contingencies, have been exhausted. That is explained as being due to some new arrangement. The sooner the old arrangements, which provided for certain saving, is restored, the better it will be for the taxpayer of the country. Secondly, the Financial Secretary says that the Renfrewshire aerodrome trouble arose because there was some dispute with the contractor, and that the amount in dispute was £50,000. Is the £18,000 exclusively for the Renfrewshire aerodrome, or is the total £28,000?


The £18,000 is for the Renfrewshire case.

Captain BENN

We have heard that £18,000 is the total bill. That is the money we spent in the hope of recovering £50,000. Here is a law case in which the Government management was so bad that they were in the wrong; their judgment was so wrong that they pursued it, and they spent £18,000 in the false hope of recovering £50,000. I do not think it is possible to criticise them more severely than by a mere statement of the facts.


I do not know of any more blundering condition of affairs than the action of the Government in this matter. First of all, they arrested the contractor and put him in gaol with his managers. That policy was abandoned and the man was released. Then action was taken against him on the ground that he was over-paid. Charges were made against the contractor, but in the long inquiries held into the allegations the Government failed absolutely. I have no interest in the contractor and do not know him, but as the aerodrome is in my constituency I followed the case with the greatest attention. If the Government and their Law Officers had used ordinary precautions they would never have incurred this expenditure. Here we are saddled with this bill for legal charges—

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

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.