§ Sir JAMES REMNANT
I will ask the permission of the House to bring to its notice another subject, namely, the Disposal Board and the contracts entered into by that body. We have heard quite recently in this House of the publicity officers, and I hope if they have a publicity officer, as indeed they must have, attached to the Disposal Board, he will be got rid of as soon as possible, and that at the same time the Disposal Board itself will go. I notice whenever a question affecting the Disposal Board is brought up in this House, or whenever there is a discussion likely to take place with reference to its doings, we have in the papers on the same day as the question is put, or the discussion takes place, most extraordinary statements as to the huge profits that this Disposal Board has made for the country. But the publicity officer very conveniently forgets to add for the information of the public the cost of the goods to the country and to the taxpayers or the benefits which the Disposal Board is supposed to confer. I should not to-night have brought up this subject of the Disposal Board, and the contracts entered into by it, had it not been that on the last occasion when the Consolidated Fund Bill was before the House I had the misfortune to be put off until quite late in the sitting, when those who agreed with me had no chance of replying to the extraordinary statements made by the then Financial Secretary and by the Chairman of the Disposal Board itself, the hon. Member for Banff (Sir C. Barrie). Because I raised then the question of the contracts I was accused of attacking the honour of members of the Disposal Board. I did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I went out of my way to say that the most I could allege 1348 against any of the members of the Board was that they had not been too careful in seeing that their instructions were carried out. I repeat that allegation to-day. I say that if the Area Clearance scheme which was accepted by the Disposal Board had been carried out, the whole of the Disposal Board business would have been closed down 18 months or two years ago. We are unfortunately reminded by the Votes that a very large sum of money has still to be provided for carrying on the Board, and so far from its being likely to end in the near future, there seems to be a very long run ahead of it, to the advantage of those who happen to form the staff and personnel of the Disposal Board.
One of the contracts I referred to on a previous occasion was that with the British Metal Corporation. The Chairman, the hon. Member for Banff, described the contractor, who claimed that he should have had the goods sold under this contract, as a disgruntled contractor, because he had not got as much as he thought he ought to have got under the contract. Now, I have nothing whatever to do with the Disposal Board nor with the purchasing of profitable business from it. I am dealing simply with the contracts under the Disposal Board, and I claim, representing as I do the taxpayers of my constituency, who have had to bear their share of the burden incurred by the Disposal Board in dealing with the various contracts, that a Select Committee ought to be granted to look into this, and into one or two other contracts made by the Board. The hon. Member for Banff suggested as his chief complaint that I had only alluded to one or two contracts out of 300,000. I replied that had I had time I could have alluded to many more. At any rate, I asked for a Select Committee to inquire into the British Metal Corporation contract, and I did so for good reason. We were told in this House that, in this very large contract involving 150,000 tons of scrap brass, there was included, under the special direction of the officer in charge of that Department, a lot of new material which was realising in the market £60 per ton. This was included in the scrap brass, and was sold at £24 per ton. This same brass could have been handed over to Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale under their contract at £35 per ton and upwards, and they were 1349 perfectly willing and able to take it. The Government would then have benefited in two ways, by a better price for the brass and a large saving in the penalty price of £46,000 which they had to pay because they did not carry out their contract with this firm. Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale have been called disgruntled contractors, but if they had only been out for personal gain they could have obtained far more than the £46,000 paid by the Government if they had made the Government pay what was due when the Government failed to carry out that contract in the first year, but they put it to the Disposal Board that they only wanted to carry out their contract, that they were not out for personal gain, and that they considered it to be in the interest of the nation that every firm should place itself at the disposal of the Government in order to get rid of this material.
The Government claim that this contract was open to competition, but that was not the case. The Chairman of the Disposal Board was a little more accurate. He said, "We did not bother about inviting tenders; we selected firms we thought likely to carry out the contract." The House will agree with me that if tenders were not invited it was up to the Disposal Board to select firms with great care and to see that they were firms who no one could suggest were undesirable to undertake the work. They selected the British Metal Corporation, a company formed since the Armistice. It had eight directors, six of whom had been officials in Government Departments dealing with these particular matters. One of them was appointed managing director of the corporation. The two others were very closely connected with H. R. Merton and Co. which was suppressed, because of its German activities, at the express wish of the Australian Government. Yet this British Metal Corporation was the firm to which this huge contract was given without competition. Every metal merchant in the country was up in arms against it. Telegrams were sent protesting against the action of the Board and meetings were held in various parts of the country, but the Board paid no attention to these protests. They gave the contract to a firm which had on its directorate six members who had held high office in the Disposal 1350 Board and Munitions Board. These men had inside information. Under DORA they could select any firm they liked and examine their books, and did so. No wonder, therefore, complaints came from all over the country at the way in which the Disposal Board was carrying out its work. I asked the House to allow an inquiry to be made into that contract. The Financial Secretary on the last occasion quoted from an agreement with the firm—Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale—to suggest that they could not have been made to take this huge amount of brass scrap at a higher price. But I held in my hand the original contract under which they could have been made to take it at a higher price, and I may add that they were perfectly willing to do so. The fact is that the Disposal Board did not accept the highest price. We know perfectly well there was no competition. They knocked the price down. They could have got a bigger price and of that there is no question whatever.
Another thing I protested against very strongly was the statement that I was attacking the members of this Board. It was stated that they were gentlemen who had given their services free of reward. Not of all reward, for Sir Howard Frank must feel his back breaking under the shower of honours he has received. How many patriotic men, during the War, gladly worked for nothing if they felt that by so doing they were helping on the interests of their country? I am sur9 that the hon. Member for Banff is one of those who would gladly place their services at any time at the disposal of the Government to help at such a time of stress as that through which we have passed, and I hope that he and other members of the Board will at all events acquit me of any lack of appreciation of the work they did during the War and afterwards. What is the reason of the delay in closing down this Disposal Board? Not so long ago we were told that it had been closed down, but the next thing we hear is that it has all been handed over to the Disposal and Liquidation Commission, to which, apparently, have been transferred the whole staff and personnel of the Disposal Board, and it is still going gaily on with the same personnel as before. I am only wondering what will happen at the end of the contract which has just been entered into.
1351 That contract has been entered into, nominally, to dispose of the whole of the remaining surplus stock of the Government. It has been estimated that there is something like £10,000,000 worth of surplus stock to be disposed of, but how is it going to be disposed of? Are the contractors again to be selected, not by competition, but specially selected by the Disposal Board to deal with this huge mass of goods? I think that if hon. Members will look through that agreement, they will be surprised at the generous terms that have been given. They range from 2½ per cent. to 5 per cent.—2½ per cent. for auctions, 4 per cent. for stock sold in this country, and 5 per cent. on sales made abroad. That is a very comfortable little profit for those who have-had the good fortune to get the contract. There will not be many auctions under those terms, but it is left to the contractors to decide as to the amount to be so sold. All expenses are to be paid by the Government, so that all they have to do practically is to draw their commission without any expense to themselves, the Government conducting the negotiations in some cases. I think the right hon. Gentleman told me, when I asked him, that no alternative offers had been received in reference to this contract. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would be the last man in the world to state what he did not believe to be the facts, but is he aware of the offer made in a letter from what may be called the rival group—the Vickers group—on the 30th May, and that, when it was rumoured that this huge contract had been entered into, the people who had made alternative offers wrote to Sir Howard Frank? This is what one of the letters said:I have heard with surprise that a contract has been or is about to be concluded with a group other than that which I represent, for the disposal of the remaining surplus stores belonging to the Government. I can hardly think that such a contract would be concluded without any reference to myself or any other member of our group, in view of the terms of our offer which was made to the Government through you on our behalf bya certain gentleman named in the letter. It goes on:The offer which we were authorised to place before you in our letters of the 30th May and the 1st June, 1923, is, I think you must admit, in many ways most favourable 1352 to the Government, especially as we suggest that they shall nominate two members 10 join to see things carried out. If you or anyone else had any counter-suggestions to make on behalf of the Government, we were very willing to consider them, as our interest was to try and support what seemed to us an important matter from the national standpoint, and one in which, with our existing sales organisation, we could materially assist the Government. We cannot help feeling that there must be some mistake in the information that we have received, and that the Government, and you in particular, can hardly have decided to accept another offer without even discussing the matter further with us.That was one offer. Then there was another offer made from time to time by Messrs, Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale, the firm who were called disgruntled contractors by the hon. Member for Banff, because they had not sufficient profit. The hon. Member even went so far as to say—which was absolutely wrong, though I do not for a moment suppose he knew it to be so—that they received 16 per cent. commission on any sales that they made. That is grotesquely wrong. All that they were to receive as net commission to themselves was 2 per cent., and even that was to be reduced in the event of a certain amount being sold. The balance was the amount agreed upon by experts, and it was the least that they could allow, for reconditioning, handling and various other items, which all cost large sums of money, and all of which is now being paid by the Government under the contract they have accepted from Messrs. Cohen and Levy and Armstrongs and others in that group. The terms arranged with Messrs. Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale were described by a right hon. Gentleman in this House, a Member of a Committee appointed to enquire into three large Disposal Board's contracts, as the only business agreement he had seen made in recent years in reference to large deals of this description. It was a business deal, and the more the contractors sold the more the Government got and the less the contractors got. This firm was-asked for financial guarantees, and without a moment's hesitation they got bankers' guarantees for £5,000,000; while the present contractors, dealing with a far larger sum of money, are only asked to find financial guarantees for £250,000. I say that this contract was not right, and unless something can be told us as to why this firm—a new firm—should have 1353 been specially selected, I shall not be satisfied until I have got from the Government a promise that a Select Committee shall look into this and other contracts which I will refer to before I sit down. Such an inquiry would allay a great deal of the irritation that has been caused by the dealings of the Disposal Board throughout the country.
Another accusation has been made by Sir Howard Frank against the firm of Messrs. Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale, and I have made inquiry into it. I do not know anything about the firm; they are no more, as far as I am concerned, than any other firm; but, having seen the charges, I have made inquiries, and am satisfied that they are a good firm, quite as good as that of Messrs. Cohen and Levy, who have now got this contract. Sir Howard Frank said, when applied to by this firm for the goods in order that they might complete their contract, "We have handed you over all we have got." and yet these very goods are now being handed over to this other firm of scrap metal merchants, among other things, drugs and other medicinal articles. I cannot go further into the details of this contract to-day, beyond saying that the end of this Disposal Board seems to be no nearer now, under this contract, than it was before. Under this contract, the Commission are only to hand over from time to time lists of such goods as the contractors are to sell, so that it still remains with these men, who have shown in the past a calculated obstruction to closing these depots, to hand over, as and when they choose, goods to the contractors to sell.
There are various other matters that I should like to go into, to show the sort of arrangements that have been made. For instance, the Government are to appoint four representatives on the Committee to deal with the goods when they are handed over, and the contractors are to appoint four representatives, of whom one is to be Chairman, but without a casting vote. Therefore, you have four representatives of the Government and four representatives of the contractors, without a casting vote for the Chairman, so that, when they come to loggerheads, the whole thing is to be tied up until they have referred it to Sir Howard Frank, the Chairman of the Com- 1354 mittee. There is delay from beginning to end. The contractors are given until the 31st December, 1924, to complete their contracts, but we know perfectly well that when the contractors are able, as they undoubtedly will be, to say that the goods were not handed over to them, and that, therefore, they could not sell them, it will go on considerably longer than the 31st December, 1924, and the country will still be saddled with the cost of this very expensive Department.
I am not going to weary the House with details of any more contracts, but, in order to avoid the accusation that I have only picked one out of 300,000 contracts, I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will give us an open inquiry into say, six out of the enormous number of contracts entered into by the Disposal Board. I want an inquiry in which there shall be nothing private and confidential on the part of the Government, no obstruction to producing documents, deeds, and records, which were the conditions under which they promised an inquiry before my right hon. Friend went to the Treasury. A more absurd inquiry could hardly be imagined. We want an open inquiry which will be of some use to the country, so that if, unfortunately, it ever finds itself involved in another war, great or small, it will be able to refer to the experiences which it unfortunately has had during the last Great War. The six contracts into which I would like the right hon. Gentleman to give us an inquiry are: First of all, the rolling mills at Southampton, which were sold to a man of straw for £1,000,000, with the inevitable result. I want inquiry No. 2 into the Richborough business. I want inquiry No. 3 into the Audruicq depot transaction, a pretty scandalous transaction entered into with two men, Mr. Aldridge and Mr. Hughes. Mr. Aldridge is, I believe, in a very unhappy position to-day. Both these men failed to carry out their contracts, and yet the Government made concessions to them and continued them, Mr. Hughes, who could not carry out his contract, bought several of the capital ships we sold last year, on which I asked for information in this House, and was, as usual, told it would not be in the public interest to give it. Why, Heaven only knows. We are supposed to represent the taxpayers of this country.
1355 We ask for information, and are refused it because it is not, so it is said, in the public interest to give it. I do not see why. The same thing was told us when I asked why the £50,000 was given out of the taxpayers' pockets to Sir Eric Geddes under an agreement. I asked then that the agreement might be laid on the Table of House, so that we should see why and how he was entitled to this sum. The same answer was given, or rather no answer was given—the Government refused to give it. We had to pay it. He was a Minister, and there was all the more reason why his hands should be clean and everything should be clear. I still say that this everlasting reply that it is not in the public interest to give details of sales that have taken place of property and commodities purchased with the taxpayers' money is quite wrong, and that the sooner the House can get possession, as it ought to have, of its own financial arrangements, the better it will be for the country and everybody else concerned.
The next contract I want inquired into is that of the British Metal Corporation and the sale of the huge quantity of metal to that corporation. I want, particularly, inquiry to be made as to whether there was provision in that contract that the scrap brass—it was called scrap brass, but included a lot of new stuff—should be utilised in this country and for the advantage of this country. Instead of that, the great bulk of that cartridge brass was shipped within a day or two of the signing of the contract to Germany at a net profit to this British Metal Corporation of over £1,000,000. The hon. Member for Banff (Sir C. Barrie), when he was criticising me last time, said it was nothing to do with him what profit the contractors made, and hoped they all made a profit. I hope they will not make a loss. He said that at the Disposal Board all they cared about was to get rid of the goods. I am sure as a business man he will see that that is a little dangerous. "Get rid of the goods, never mind what the price is, or what profit the contractor makes, or whether it is to the advantage of this country. All we have to do as a Disposal Board is to get rid of the goods." This last agreement insists on the goods being got rid of for immediate cash. Immediate cash! 1356 I should have thought the best way to get rid of the goods was to give credit.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
I am sure the hon. Baronet (Sir J. Remnant) does not wish to misrepresent the position. Clause 5 of the Agreement, which deals with cash, says:All sales to be made by the contractors in pursuance of this agreement shall be for immediate cash payment so far as possible and in any event no credit for any sums payable for any of such goods shall be given for any period beyond ninety days from the date of any sale without the previous consent in writing of the Commission.
§ Sir J. REMNANT
There is nothing to show that you will get the value of the goods. You have said you do not mind what profit the contractor makes, or whether he is an Englishman. You do not care what you get for it provided you get rid of it. You cannot summon him to pay for 90 days, but what is the good of treating him in that way? I want the British Metal Corporation contract looked into. Then I want looked into the contract of E. J. Smith and Company, the speculative builders of Birmingham, against whom the Birmingham merchants are up in arms that he should have been given a contract at a fixed price which was not carried out by the firm. Directly the metal dropped they were let off on terms, and he was put on selling for the Government at a 5 per cent. commission basis. I wonder whether he got 5 per cent. on this wonderful sale to the British Metal Corporation. The last of the six, if my right hon. Friend will give us this independent, free, open Select Committee, is this contract of which I talked just now of 12 June, 1923, with Cohen and Armstrongs. I need hardly say that, having looked into many of these contracts, there are many more I should like to bring before the House, but I shall be satisfied with his giving us an inquiry into these six contracts, and if he is satisfied with them I shall be very surprised. He has promised when he has time that he will let us know how many contractors have failed to carry out contracts made by them with the Disposal Board. He says it would be a gigantic task, and that he has not the time to do it. I then raised 1357 it to all contracts over £5,000, and he said he thought he could do that. I know how busy he is, however, so do not let us stop at £5,000, but make it £10,000, or £50,000, or £100,000 contracts, and I will be satisfied. I am perfectly sure that it can be proved that this country has lost tremendous sums by contractors breaking their contracts and not carrying out the original terms, and that my right hon. Friend will be surprised when he gets the figures put before him. It has been said that the Disposal Board is not perfect. I agree. No one is perfect. I do not make any attacks on the members of the Disposal Board, but I do say they have not been over-careful in seeing that their instructions have been carried out; otherwise, the whole Disposal Board would have been cleared out 18 months ago when they accepted the area clearance scheme which undertook to clear them out within that period. The least that can be said against them is that they have not exercised as much strong supervision over their personnel as they might have done. I only hope my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us that this Board is coming to an end. We have had enough of these excrescences that have grown up during the War. Food control is still on, Heaven knows why. I think there is one contract still left. The senior men are still drawing their pay. Smaller fry go, but the bigger men remain, and their experts are keeping the game going. I hope, now that my right hon. Friend has got into a position of authority at the Treasury, he will exercise his well-known business acumen in bringing this thing to an end, and so save the country an enormous amount of money.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
I realise to the full the great interest of my hon. Friend (Sir J. Remnant) in these matters. He has put several questions to me during the last few months in reference to various contracts, and I did make a promise some little time ago which I thought had satisfied him. I have not refreshed my memory by reading the OFFICIAL REPORT, but I remember quite well that he said that if I would only pledge myself to a personal inquiry, he would be satisfied.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
The £5000 contracts are a little too much, even for an overworked Financial Secretary to the Treasury to inquire into. I have only recently been responsible for the work of the Disposal Board, but, with regard to the last contract on which my hon. Friend has made a very strong attack, I agree that I am responsible for it as being at that time responsible for the work of the Disposal Board; that is to say, the contract relating to the sale by which we hope to get rid of practically the whole of the remaining stock of the Disposal Board between Cohen and Company and Armstrong Whitworth and Company. Will he forgive me for saying that although Messrs. Cohen and Company have a gentleman named Cohen and another named Levy, why it was necessary for him to emphasise the Cohen and the Levy business, I do not know, unless it was to throw odium—
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
It is not only made with Messrs. Cohen and Company, who are, I am informed, a highly responsible firm, but it is also made with Armstrong Whitworth and Company, one of the first firms in the country.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
And it is also signed by Armstrong, Whitworth and Co., who, as I say, are jointly responsible for carrying out the contract, and who are a firm above reproach. It is only a small matter, perhaps, but my hon. Friend might have told the House that Messrs. Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. are just as responsible for carrying out the contract as Messrs. Cohen. I am going further. On 17th May, before the contract was entered into, Sir Howard Frank wrote to the present Prime Minister, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, giving him details of the contract he proposed to enter into, and asking whether in the view of the Treasury that would be satisfactory. That was about the time I came to office as Financial Secretary of the Treasury. The object of the Government for some time past has been to wind up the Disposal Board as soon as possible. It is a relic of the War. The Government has had all the difficult articles to get rid of. In this very contract there are £2,500,000 worth of locomotives. You 1359 cannot sell locomotives like you can penny buns. You have to find the people who want to buy £2,500,000 worth of locomotives, and you want to find the people who want to buy the particular kind of locomotive that you have. Messrs. Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. are perhaps the best firm in the country you could deal with in selling a large block of locomotive engines. Proposals were put before the Prime Minister and myself. I take full responsibility. We approved, on behalf of the Treasury, of the proposal of the Disposal Board to make a gigantic contract, if you like, with Messrs. Cohen and Messrs. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. in order to clear up all the remaining goods they had to get rid of, and in order that we might, as soon as we possibly could, reduce the personnel of the staff of the Disposal Board.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
I am coming to that. My hon. Friend is a little eager. This contract has been placed before the House. It was printed and published as a Parliamentary Paper. I should like hon. Members to go through it. It was very carefully considered by the legal advisers of the Treasury before it was approved. It was approved, and it was signed. Let me take the one point on which my hon. Friend fastened. He said that there is a Clause in the contract that everything should be sold for cash. On the whole, I do not think it is a bad idea to get cash where you can, to get rid of all these things, and not have them hanging over the country perhaps for six months or a year. There may very likely be cases where you cannot sell for cash and where it is more advantageous to sell for credit. My hon. Friend did not read the remainder of the Clause. The Clause says, "sell for cash where possible," and where they cannot sell for cash the contractors are permitted to sell at 90 days' credit on their own responsibility. If they want to give more than 90 days' credit, all they have to do is to come back to the Disposal and Liquidation Commission and ask for permission to give extended credit. What more could you put into a contract? What more sensible Clause could you have? "Sell for cash where 1360 you can. If you cannot sell for cash, you may give 90 days' credit. If you want to give more than 90 days' credit, submit the name of the purchaser and his bank reference to us, and we will let you know whether you can give more than 90 days." Go through the whole contract, if you like. My hon. Friend has given a fail-description of it. It has been before the House a great many days, and in my view there is nothing whatever in it that is unsatisfactory. Moreover, believe the result of the contract will be that we shall get rid of the goods very much more quickly than if we had retained the Disposal Board to do the selling. My hon. Friend complained that the terms were too high. We always think the terms are too high. Many of us think we could have got things done cheaper than they have been done. I am informed by my Department—and I have no reason to doubt the correctness of the fact—that whatever these terms may be, the net cost of all the work done by Messrs. Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale for the Disposal Board is 17.3 per cent.
§ Sir J. REMNANT
I am sure my right hon. Friend wants to be fair. There is a responsibility here for expenses on the Government and not on the contractors. Of the 16 per cent. alluded to by my right hon. Friend the major part, all with the exception of 2 per cent., was allotted to reconditioning, handling, transport, and various other things, so that it left Messrs. Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale with 2 per cent. as the maximum of their commission, which was considerably lower than this.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
Let us see what the contract provides. My hon. Friend told us what the terms of commission were. When he said the terms were 5 per cent. and 4 per cent., I should have been prepared to say they were 10 per cent. and 9 per cent. They are 4 per cent. and 5 per cent. commission, but in addition to that this firm is to have expenses, which covers the same thing he has just mentioned with regard to Messrs. Rownson, Drew and Clydesdale. Clause 27 of the contract says that in addition to commission the contractors shall receive a sum equal to 5 per cent. to provide for selling expenses in respect of goods not sold, which expenses shall include all expenses in respect of rent, 1361 and provision of offices, remuneration of all employés of the contractors employed at the head office, such sums for overhead charges as the joint auditors may consider proper, all expenses of agency and administration properly incurred by the contractors, all expenses properly incurred in the opinion of the joint auditors for insurance against employers' liability, national and unemployment insurance, and any other expenses not otherwise provided for in the agreement which shall be certified by the joint auditors as being reasonably and properly incurred for the purpose of effecting sales. The arrangement which has been made, an admirable one, is to provide a net commission to the contractors of 4 per cent. and 5 per cent., respectively, on certain classes of sales and the whole of the other expenses—clerks, offices, remuneration, and so forth—shall be such as are agreed by the joint auditors, but not to exceed a further sum of 5 per cent.
§ Sir J. REMNANT
Read Clause 23, and at the bottom of page 8 all the additional things to be deducted from the gross sales.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
I am prepared to read the whole thing, but it has been printed and is in the hands of hon. Members. I have read what I think are the material Clauses. My hon. Friend has the contract and can ask any further questions. I certainly advise the House that this contract was entered into with very great care, after very great consideration, and, I believe, will lead to the sale of the goods as reasonably as could possibly be expected. My hon. Friend asked why we did not get someone else, and he told us another syndicate was prepared to take the matter in hand. He did not mention the name, but there is no harm in mentioning it. The only person who has been in communication with the Disposal Board was a Mr. Rees. I have the minutes of a meeting on 30th May at Sir Howard Frank's office between Colonel Cobb, Major Wells, Mr. Rees and Sir Howard Frank. This is at the time of the so-called alternative offer by this Mr. Rees. First he excused himself and said he had not come to see Sir Howard before because he was never in a position to make a suggestion and to give the name of anyone for whom he was acting. This was 15 days after Sir 1362 Howard Frank had submitted the proposal of Messrs. Cohen and Messrs. Armstrong to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for approval. This gentleman says he has not been in a position to give the name of anyone for whom he was acting. He said he was now endeavouring to form a syndicate, including several firms whom he could not name, except that of Sir Trevor Dawson, who is a director of Messrs. Vickers. He outlined his ideas, which were to endeavour to form a syndicate to work with the Disposal Board and practically take over the control. His proposals, however, were of a very indefinite character and it was impossible to know what he really meant. Sir Howard Frank and his colleagues replied that the deal was practically completed with Messrs. Cohen and Messrs. Armstrong, Whitworth, and Company. Sir Howard said that if there was any hitch, and the Commission were open to consider offers from other quarters, he would let Mr. Rees know. Sir Howard added that the Commission were prepared to consider offers to purchase anything outright. Mr. Rees said he quite understood, and if the negotiations fell through, he would endeavour to put definite proposals before Sir Howard. That was a fortnight after the arrangements were practically concluded with the rival firms. I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether he is authorised by Messrs. Vickers to say that they have any grievance in the matter at all. I do not think they have. I think if he makes inquiry he will find that Messrs. Vickers at that time were not prepared with the details of the syndicate that Mr. Rees mentioned. We know what runners are. They think they can get up a syndicate, and if they can get satisfactory terms they might then get Messrs. Vickers or someone else to go in with them and form a syndicate and get the thing through.
My hon. Friend made some remarks with regard to the honours showered on Sir Howard Frank. Sir Howard Frank is a man of very great ability in his profession. He has given an enormous amount of his time voluntarily to the service of the country. He has not had a sixpence. It is quite true that His Majesty and the Government have seen fit to honour him, and no war honours were more deserved than those given to 1363 Sir Howard Frank. I think it was a little ungracious of my hon. Friend to have made those remarks. I have had many interviews with Sir Howard Frank. He is always at my disposal to deal with any of these questions when I ask him to do so, and I am sure he will give me any information I want in the future. At all events, although the Disposal Board has been attacked pretty frequently, it has got rid of something like £600,000,000 worth of property. It has cleared up the aftermath of the War. It has cleared away the mess. We may think that in certain matters they might have done better. My hon. Friend is entitled to think that in regard to some of the contracts they were not as well advised as they might be. I made him a promise in answer to a question some few weeks ago, and he said he would be satisfied if I would make inquiries. I am not going to make inquiries into 5,000 cases. I am a fairly over-worked man as it is.
§ Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS
My hon. Friend has given me the names of six cases into which he wants inquiry made. I will repeat the promise I made him. I will personally take the papers relating to these contracts away for such holiday as I can get. The Disposal Board and the Treasury, to whom they were responsible, have been challenged by an hon. Friend of my own and he says there ought to be a public inquiry into these cases. He says if I will go into it personally he will be satisfied. I will go into the cases fully and I will say to him here and now that if in my opinion there is anything not entirely above board, if there is anything disreputable or underhand, if in any way any bad conduct has taken place in regard to any one of these things, I will consent at once to a public inquiry. I do not think I can make a fairer offer. It will take me some little time during my holiday, but I will do it, because I want to assure my hon. Friend, who is a very old friend of mine, that, at all events, the Treasury will do its utmost to see that no wrong has been done, or if any wrong has been done to put it right.
§ Sir J. REMNANT
I accept what my right hon. Friend has said, but will he do me a further favour, and that is that he will not spoil his holiday by looking into this matter, but that he will have a real holiday, and when his holiday is over, if he can find time, he will look into the matter. If he does that, I shall be quite satisfied. I suggest that he should not take just one side, but hear both sides.