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.
§ Mr. J. JOHNSTONE
I observe that the sum desired is £18,000 to make up the deficiency on the total of £190,000.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
On a point of Order. This is a Vote for law charges in Scotland, but I do not observe any Law Officer, or, indeed, any representative of Scotland on the Treasury Bench at all. I would ask whether it is in accordance with the practice of the Committee', on a Vote which relates particularly to one part of His Majesty's Dominions, where there are normally officers responsible for it, or in this case the Secretary for Scotland himself is responsible for the whole of the Scottish Departments, that he is not here present. If notice cannot be given to me that he will be here shortly, I should ask you to accept a Motion to report Progress.
§ The CHAIRMAN
That is not a point of Order. I have no doubt the Secretary to the Treasury will explain.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Mr. Hilton Young)
I think it will be within the memory of the right hon. Gentleman and other Members of the Committee that this is a Vote which, as long as the memory of any Member of the House runs, has always been answered for by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The actual business discharged by means of the money to be voted has peculiarly Scottish elements which require a knowledge of Scottish law, but as regards the financial aspects of it, with which we are now concerned, it is one of the Treasury sub-Departments, and I believe the right hon. Gentleman, on reflection, and perhaps on examining his memory, will remember that that has always been the case. Of course, if any questions should occur in the course of the discussion which I am unable to answer because they more particularly concern questions of Scottish law, one of the Scottish Law Officers will do so, and as I understand there is such a question which the right hon. Gentleman wishes to raise, I am sure he will find, before he does so, that one of the Scottish officers will be in the House.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
If I am to under stand that within a brief space of time the Secretary for Scotland will be here, or that some Member of the Government who is a Scottish Member, of course I will await his appearance.
§ Mr. JOHNSTONE
This item of £18,000 is peculiarly a Scottish expenditure. It includes additional expenses incurred in connection with the Renfrew Aerodrome case. The Committee ought to know whether the £18,000 covers the whole expenses of that case. I rather think not, but a portion of the expenses of that ill-fated and badly misguided case is included in the £190,000. I say a misguided case, because it should never have been raised. If the Law Officers of the Crown had reflected on their action in the previous history of this case, I think they might have proceeded in a less expensive way to investigate the facts. The contract for this aerodrome was given to a Glasgow contractor on a time and line basis. During the progress of the contract dissatisfaction was expressed with the contractor's proceedings. I believe some of that dissatisfaction was formulated by means of anonymous com- 303 plaints, and some inquiry was made by an official, with the result that the con tractor was invited to abandon his contract, I believe under duress, as a threat of imprisonment was held over his head. Ultimately the contractor and his manager were arrested on a warrant issued at the instigation, I believe, of the Ministry of Munitions, or that section of the Ministry which had to do with the building of aerodromes, and were put in prison. The Law Officers of the Crown at that time very properly interfered, the men were released, and questions were raised in this House, but in the absence of the then Lord Advocate not much was made of it on the first day. The Lord Advocate appeared here a day or two later and completely, to the satisfaction of the House, explained the action he had taken and said that under no circumstances would the action of the contractor or his manager justify a criminal action There was no case for a criminal action being brought against these persons and they were released. But thereafter proceedings were taken against the contractor for repayment of some £50,000 or £60,000, which it was alleged was never repaid, and during the course of the case allegations were made amounting almost to fraud. It was suggested that there was a bogus wages bill, that materials were being taken away from the aerodrome at Renfrew, being misappropriated by the contractor and being used for his own private contracts.
The whole case for the Government broke down in the proceedings. The only suspicious element in the case was the alleged bogus wages bill, and I am satisfied that following the course which they took in having the men discharged from prison, if the Law Officers had conducted a private inquiry, they would very soon have got the facts of the case, and this most expensive litigation would have been avoided, and the money would have been saved. It is on these grounds that the Committee are justified in asking the. Secretary for Scotland why this litigation was undertaken. If it was for the purpose of clearing the air, it was a very costly way of doing so. I can conceive a certain atmosphere of mistrust being created in certain circumstances where it is desirable, in the interests of the man being attacked, and also of the Crown, that the issue should be cleared up, and 304 in some cases that can only be done by an action at law. I am convinced that the proper course in this case would have been to have conducted, either publicly or privately, an inquiry into the whole facts of the case, and we should have saved the country this comparatively large sum of money.
With regard to the allegation made against the man as to the bogus wages bill, I admit that that was the most suspicious feature of the case, but in the course of carrying out this contract at Renfrew, certain alterations involving very disagreeable work to the workmen were undertaken, and the men were paid what is called "dirty money." The difficulty of the contractor was that if he added the bonus for "dirty money" to the wages list, every man in the aerodrome would have been claiming increased wages as a right. Therefore, he kept the bonus for "dirty money" apart and introduced an extraordinary system of keeping his books. He put on the envelopes containing the bonus for "dirty money" fictitious names—John Smith, William Brown, and so on. No such men existed. The explanation he offered—which was borne out by all the evidence—was that he adopted this means because he had to show an account for the whole of the wages he paid, and if he had added the "dirty money" to the wages of the men, and had put it in the wages book, trouble would have occurred. I do not say that this explanation is quite satisfactory, but it was evident on all the facts of the case that he acted perfectly honestly. While it was a most extraordinary device that he adopted, an inquiry by one or two responsible persons, who could have had the contractor, the cashier and the manager before them, would very soon have elucidated all the facts, and this extraordinary course which was adopted, and which gave the suspicion of somewhat crooked ways, would have been explained and cleared up.
With regard to the charge of the appropriation of material, it was borne out at the trial that this contractor had another contract from the Government at another place. He was short of material and he was instructed to take some of the material away from the Renfrew Aerodrome and use it at the other place. He did so, and that led to the allegation that he was misappropriating materials belonging to 305 the Government. This charge was made against him, costly proceedings took place, and the man was completely exonerated. The Judge gave him a high testimonial for the attention he had given to the contract, and he left the Court without the slightest stain upon his character. The whole thing exploded into thin air, and instead of recovering £50,000 or £60,000 which it was alleged had been overpaid to the man, he was allowed to keep the money, except £2,000 which had been paid in excess. The contract was in course of execution, and it was not extraordinary that there should have been an over-payment. The whole of the costs were given against the Crown. Therefore, we are called upon to approve of the payment of a sum of at least £18,000, and perhaps much more, for the carrying through of this very costly litigation. In view of the earlier history of the case, and the fact that the Law Officers interfered and obtained the release of the men who were cast into prison by virtue of a warrant of the Ministry of Munitions, they should have probed the facts to the bottom before they made an allegation which involved this costly litigation. It is the extreme carelessness of Government Departments in engaging so light-heartedly upon cases of this kind that has involved the country in somewhat costly expenditure.
§ Mr. RAFFAN
I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £100.
This is a matter that must be explored further in the interests of the taxpayers before the Committee can be asked to sanction the Vote. There is further information which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury might be justifiably asked to give before we are called upon to vote this money. No Member of the House can make a statement with greater clarity than the Financial Secretary to the Treasury when he desires to do so, and the fact that so much is left in shadow in the explanation which he gave last night, leaves the impression that he is not particularly anxious to give a clear profit and loss account. My hon. Friend who has just spoken has pointed out that the Financial Secretary stated in answer to a question that this sum of £18,000 is entirely due to legal expenditure in the Renfrew case, but he gave no answer to the question whether the £18,000 was the entire expenditure, and whether in addi- 306 tion to the sum for which he now asks by this Supplementary Estimate, there is a sum in the original Estimate for this purpose. If there is no such sum an explanation is required, because after the Estimate for the year was prepared, the Government and their advisers were perfectly well aware that this case would be heard during the year, and on the most sanguine view of the decision which might be given, it was certain that some expenditure would be involved. I am entitled to ask whether, in addition to the £18,000 in the Supplementary Estimate, the law costs include a sum which was voted in the original Estimate. The Financial Secretary stated that the expenses were incurred in the main because "on the whole and on balance the decision was given against the Government." The sum involved was £50,000 or £60,000, and we are entitled to ask when he says that "on the whole and on balance the decision was given against the Government," what sum has been recovered as the result of this case. What is there to offset against the £18,000? What is there that can be added to the £18,000 as being in the original Estimate? Is there to be set on the other side of the ledger a sum as large as that? Is it really a fair description of the case to say that merely "on the whole and on balance the decision was against the Government?" Is it not a fact that in all the main questions the decision is given against the Government, and that on this total transaction we are paying out a sum in excess of £18,000 and we are reaping a very much smaller sum? If that be so one passes from the stage. at which questions should be rightly addressed to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I do not know how far the responsibility of the Secretary for Scotland extends, but he ought to be able to give the Committee some information.
§ The SECRETARY for SCOTLAND (Mr. Munro)
I wish to make my position clear. I think that it has been stated by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that I have no responsibility of any kind in connection with this Vote. This Vote is for the officers of the King's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer in Scotland, and the representatives in Scotland of the Treasury, over whom I have no control.
§ Mr. RAFFAN
Then is there to be no answer given to the statement that, according to the information at present before the Committee, it does appear that £18,000 or more has been expended in this way, apparently quite improvidently? If the Law Officers of the Crown, who apparently gave advice in this matter, had been consulted by a business man, and had given the advice which they appear to have given here, everybody would have said that the result would be not merely disastrous but ruinous. In those circumstances, surely the advice which a good lawyer would have given a business man would have been to endeavour to effect a settlement. Was any effort made to arrive at a settlement I Was there any attempt to avoid all these costly proceedings by ascertaining from the other party to the action whether he was prepared to come to some sort of a settlements When the Government or their representatives, none of whom will be able to speak here to-day, made against this gentleman and those associated with him a charge which could not be substantiated, it did not make it easier to negotiate with him, but even in those circumstances I should imagine that some effort should have been made to arrive at a settlement before this huge expenditure was incurred. Whoever is responsible for this advice, and certainly it cannot be the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, he may be able chivalrously to hold a shield over some of his colleagues, but he cannot be in possession of the full information or give any full defence. In view of the fact that apparently we are to be told that only a technical defence can be given in this Committee and that no defence will be made by those who are responsible, I move this reduction.
§ Mr. YOUNG
I wish to deal with the specific questions which have been raked by way of criticism of this Motion. The first is as to the total amount which these proceedings cost and whether the £18,000 is the only item against the Government. As the Committee will guess, these are the costs of the actual litigation which arose in this matter. There were some costs of a preliminary investigation not connected with the actual litigation. Whether or not that will be considered as something which should be added to the £18,000 I could not say, but the preliminary costs, which would be between 308 £1,000 and £2,000, were provided in the previous Estimate. The other questions are in reference to the nature of the Judgment. There is a concise summary of the Judgment before me, to which I may refer as a popular summary, but as in no way presenting the exact legal aspect. The Lord Ordinary cleared the member of the firm concerned against any aspersions, but granted a decree against him for £1,000, and it was assessed as having been appropriated by the dishonesty of interested agents, but as it was established that the member of the firm himself was not aware of that system, and condemned it when it came to his knowledge, his Lordship held that though the amount of £1,000 had been recovered yet, as it was a small proportion of a very large amount in the exercise of his discretion, it was not such a proportion as to entitle us to costs.
As regards the further criticism advanced by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Johnstone) in reference to the conduct of these proceedings the general answer is that it is very easy to be wise after the event, and in the matter of legal proceedings of this sort there is only one good rule, and that is to follow the advice of your legal adviser. These proceedings were taken upon the advice of the legal advisers of the Crown and with their approbation. The Committee will have noticed from the general account which I have given of the proceedings that very grave issues were involved, issues which I venture to submit, in view of the large sum which was involved, it was impossible to leave without due investigation. On the, best advice which we received there was grave reason to suppose that there had been irregular practices and that the contractor had been overpaid by no less than £50,000. If there was any prima facie case for supposing that that was so then it was a case which certainly should have received at the hands of the State the most vigorous examination. Advice having been given by the Law Officers to take appropriate legal proceedings the executive would have been gravely lacking in their duty to the public if they had left this case unprosecuted. I quite recognise the truth in a great deal put forward by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Johnstone), but let me remind the Committee that we have now had the advantage of studying all the evidence and the cross-examination, and 309 I believe that under the circumstances the Committee will come to the conclusion that this was the fortune of war in a big law suit—after all, nobody can guarantee success before a tribunal—and that the expenditure is justifiable, and I hope I may ask the Committee to pass this Supplementary Estimate.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
This is an example, which the Committee might well take to heart, of how not to do it. Here was a purely Scottish case where the advice and guidance of Scottish Law Officers, and of the Secretary of Scotland in particular, would have been of the greatest advantage to the Treasury.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I accept that fully, but it does strike me as odd that at an early stage of these proceedings the Secretary of State for Scotland rose in his place and disclaimed any responsibility of any kind in this matter.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
It is futile to observe that it is a pity that he has not, and that I hope the time is not far distant when matters of this kind will be discussed and settled in Scotland by Scotsmen. That is a matter which can only be changed by legislation and is entirely outside the scope of this discussion. The real point urged here is that they did not proceed more cautiously before launching this very expensive litigation. I was about to remark, when the Secretary to the Treasury intervened, that if there was one distinction in litigation between Scotsmen and Englishmen it is the extraordinary capacity of Scotsmen for achieving a settlement which is very often satisfactory, on the whole, to both parties and which avoids legal expenses which their brethren on the other side of the Tweed often find themselves 310 plunged into. If this matter had been managed more in accordance with the way in which Scotsmen, as a rule, conduct their litigation, the considerable amount of money now asked for would have been saved.
§ Mr. R. McLAREN
While it is very clear that considerable expense was incurred in fighting this case, I do not think, on the whole, the money has been badly spent. Prior to the proceedings coming into Court there was a feeling in Glasgow and throughout the West of Scotland that a great many things were being done in connection with the aerodrome which were very wrong, and I do not think the people would have been satisfied with an inquiry into the matter. If for nothing else than to allay the feeling amongst business people it is a good thing the case came on. What has been said by the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Johnstone) has a good deal of truth in it, but there is another side. It was clearly proved that very many things were being done which were entirely wrong, and that the Government were to some extent being robbed. It could not be proved, however, that the contractor himself was a party to it, and because of that he got off; but on the whole, I think, the money has not been badly spent. A simple inquiry would not have got the same publicity as the case in a Court of Session, and the public would not have been satisfied; they would have felt that the thing had been burked. It has allayed the strong feeling of the public in the West of Scotland and shown that while things were wrong they were not so black as it was pictured. I think the right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) should curtail his indignation, because the question whether the case should have come to the Courts was decided first of all by the Treasury. In the usual way, which I think is a wrong way, word is sent down to the Lord Advocate—I speak now from knowledge—for his acquiescence, but as a matter of fact, before all these things come to the Lord Advocate the members of the English Bar acting for the Government have made up their mind that the case is to go on, and poor old Scotland has very little to say in the matter. I hope things will be altered in the time to come. If they were left to members of the Bar in Scotland things would be better managed. I think, how- 311 ever, the £18,000 has not been badly spent when it has exposed the very bad system of conducting things at this aerodrome.
§ Major M. WOOD
I do not know that I follow my hon. Friend in his argument; it seems to me to be rather inconclusive. At first sight it looks as though a great deal of money has been spent unnecessarily, but I do not know the details of the case, and it is a subsidiary point to which I wish to draw attention. I want to find out who is really responsible for the advice upon which action was taken. That is what we want to know, and we have not been told it. I do not know if it was the advice of the Law Officers of Scotland, or the persons in the Departments responsible for getting up the facts upon which they were to base their decisions. I have always thought that England does matters of this kind very much better than Scotland, because it has a Department specially for the purpose. There is no officer in Scotland analagous to the Treasury Solicitor in England; if there were, cases of this kind would not occur. The Treasury Solicitor is responsible for investigating all cases of this kind, but in Scotland nobody is set apart for that duty. Different law agents are appointed for different cases as they come along, and if we had in Scotland a Department which would take over the duties at present carried out by the Crown Agent, who gets something over £1,000 a year, and does not devote his whole time to the subject—
§ Major WOOD
I hope I am not irrelevant, Mr. Hope. I am trying to show that if we had a system in Scotland such as we have in England—
§ The CHAIRMAN
I do not think that can be shown. The hon. Member is perfectly in order in asking who was responsible, who gave the advice or failed to give the advice; but he cannot suggest a change in the law on this Estimate.
§ Major WOOD
I am not suggesting a change in the law. Am I not entitled to point to a change in the practice which might save money? I should have thought that was in order.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The range of discussion on a Supplementary Estimate is very 312 narrow. The hon. Member is perfectly in order in probing this matter, to find out who was responsible, but I do not think he would be in order in advocating a change of system.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Major WOOD
I will confine myself to asking that question. Who was responsible for the mistake? Was it the law officers or did the mistake arise because the case was not sufficiently investigated before it was put before the law officers. It would strike me, from a cursory view of the case, that it was not properly investigated beforehand, and I hope what has happened in this case will be kept in view by the Secretary for Scotland and those associated with him when they come, as I hope they will come soon, to alter the practice in regard to these matters.
§ Mr. YOUNG
May I intervene to answer the direct specific question which the hon. and gallant Member has put as to who was responsible for the advice given in this case. There is not the smallest foundation for what he put forward—it is purely an effort of the imagination—suggesting that there was not sufficient investigation. On the contrary, this case has been gone into several times It has actually been discussed in this House, as will be remembered, in the course of the Debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill of 1919.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
May I ask the Financial Secretary if it is not the fact that when the question was first raised in this House there was a demand made for proceedings of a different character, and that the then Lord Advocate had to make a very strong speech in defending the course of taking a civil action?
§ Mr. YOUNG
The hon. Member for Springburn is perfectly correct. I have not mentioned the circumstances because pressure on that occasion was directed towards our bringing a criminal prosecution against these parties, and in view of the circumstances, judgment having gone in their favour in the civil Courts, I should be the last now to refer to any of the arguments used on that occasion in favour of a criminal prosecution. In June, 1919, and this is the specific answer to the question, the Lord Advocate of the time concurred in a civil action being set on foot against the contractor.
Lieut.-Colonel Sir J. HOPE
It is not quite clear yet where the Ministry of Munitions came in. As I understand, the contractor in this case was arrested on a warrant, and I should like to know who ordered that arrest, and whether the advice of either the English or Scottish Law Officers was taken before the arrest was made. It appears to me that this was a clear breach, having regard to the subsequent action, and that it caused a good deal of extra expense. I think, as a matter of establishing a precedent and a safeguard for the future, we should have some certainty that Government Departments do not start proceedings in England without the advice of the English Law Officers and in Scotland without the advice of the Scottish Law Officers. Is it not the case that a high official of the Ministry of Munitions ordered the arrest of the contractor without the advice of the Scottish Law Officers, and that then, on the good advice of the Lord Advocate, the contractor was released? That rather complicated the issue on which the Lord Advocate had to advise subsequently, and we ought to have an assurance that no further legal proceedings will be taken on behalf of the Government without the advice of the Law Officers of the Crown.
§ Mr. TAYLOR
I desire to elaborate the remarks of the hon. Members who have spoken about the feeling in Scotland concerning the Renfrew aerodrome and about the alleged malpractices that were carried on. The newspapers in the West of Scotland were full of letters about it, and I, among other Members, had questions put to me about what action was going to be taken to bring the contractors to proof.
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Sir E. Cornwall)
I only interrupt the hon. Member to say that I understand there is nothing in this Vote which has anything to do with the criminal proceedings. This only refers to the civil proceedings, and if that is so, it would not be in order to go into the question of the criminal proceedings.
§ Mr. TAYLOR
I do not intend to touch further on the question of the criminal proceedings, but the claim for refund of money that had been overpaid was also a subject of correspondence in the newspapers. I was a little astonished to find 314 the challenge to this Vote coming from the other side of the House—from the very parties who asked why was something not done to clear up this mystery. Now that the action has been taken and the blame has been put upon the proper shoulders in regard to some of the allegations and the contractor has been cleared of others, I do not see how the party who claimed that action should 'be taken can now turn round and say that the money has been badly spent. I remember Lord Advocate Clyde when he was challenged to take action made a memorable speech and said that if any evidence could be brought before him he would be quite prepared to take criminal action, but that no evidence had been brought before him to justify a criminal action. It is quite evident that before an action was raised in the Court of Session some evidence must have been forthcoming to warrant taking that action to recover the £50,000. The whole system of "time and line" that was carried on during the War was a bad system because it did not matter what wages were paid. It was all to the contractors' benefit. He got his ten per cent, and in this contract undoubtedly wages were paid 2d., 3d. and 4d. an hour more than was paid to similar trades in the West of Scotland. That was what raised the question in the West of Scotland and caused so much trouble and made the public demand an inquiry. The Law Officers could do nothing less on account of the agitation which took place than raise this action. If they were not successful that was because they had a bad case on some points, or else because of the interpretation which the judges put upon the evidence. But the fact that at least they got £l,000 that had been paid and that should not have been paid, and proved practices that were not creditable to any self-respecting firm justified the action.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
Of all the foolish things one can possibly do, one of the worst is to indulge in recriminations after you have lost in litigation. All disappointed litigants can be wise after the event, and wish they had never taken the action. No matter how careful, how-exhaustive or how keen the examination of a solicitor may be—and my hon. Friend on the other side ought to know that from personal experience—it may turn out there are elements on the other side, and witnesses on the other side, which were 315 totally unforeseen. In this case tremendous pressure was brought to bear. A public scandal had been created by some means or other, and this action at least dissipated that scandal, and cleared the public mind from the miasma of stories that were going about, and as the hon. Member for Renfrewshire (Mr. Johnstone) said, it vindicated the contractor who had been the victim of these stories. I think in the public eye he was completely vindicated, and nobody can say that that money was ill spent. It is a pity it was necessary, but I do not think either the Law Officers of the Crown or the Crown solicitors, who are a particularly reputable firm, have anything to regret, either in regard to the way in which the case was conducted or the fact that the case was embarked upon.
§ Mr. DUNCAN GRAHAM
There seems to be more need of inquiry into this case now than there was before the explanation was given. The hon. Member who spoke last suggested that the Law Officers of the Crown gave advice in this case, or were responsible for the action that was taken, but the representative of the Government who spoke just now did not say that the Scottish Law Officers gave advice at all; he merely said they concurred in the advice that was given. What we are entitled to know is who it is that did give this advice. Was it an English or a Scottish Law Officer?
§ Mr. GRAHAM
That is so far satisfactory, and I do not know that I am going to object personally to paying the expenses now, after the work has been done, but Scottish Members of all parties have suggested that in those matters it should be Scotland and the Scottish Department that should be entirely responsible, and I do not think it is at all to the credit of the Government, or even to the credit of this Committee, that the representative from Scotland, the Secretary for Scotland, should have to rise in his place and say that he had absolutely no responsibility whatever for a case of this character that took place in Scot- 316 land. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Raffan) that, having had this hour's time in discussing the question and getting the explanations that we have got, in the hope that we may have amendment in the future, he might now withdraw his Amendment.
Lieut.-Colonel Sir J. HOPE
On whose advice was the warrant issued for the arrest of the contractor, which was afterwards cancelled by the Law Officers for Scotland? I submit that we are entitled to know who made the first mistake which the Scottish Law Officers afterwards had to correct.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Original Question put, and agreed to.