HC Deb 25 February 1924 vol 170 cc140-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, 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, 1924, for the salaries and expenses of the Post Office, including telegraphs and telephones.


The object of this Supplementary Estimate is to obtain Parliamentary authority for a liability in excess of the sum provided under the Post Office Railway Act, 1913. The sum provided by that Act was £1,100,000. It is now anticipated that the complete cost of completing and equipping the railway will total £1,650,000. The difference is due to the increase in the cost of labour since 1913. The Post Office will not require more money for the purpose during this financial year because there are savings on the Post Office Vote as a whole sufficient to cover the amount which is likely to be paid out before 31st March next. Accordingly a Supplementary Estimate is taken for a nominal sum of £10. The present position of the work is as follows: In October, 1920, tenders were invited for electrical equipment but the cost, even of the lowest tender, was so high in relation to pre-War estimates that it was decided to await more favourable conditions. In the autumn of 1923 it was considered that the time had arrived when operations could be resumed, and the Government of the day authorised my predecessor to take steps to proceed with the work as one of the schemes for the relief of unemployment. A contract for the completion of the permanent way and for minor tunnelling work has recently been placed with the approval of the Treasury, and the contractor is already at work. Tenders for the electrical equipment have also been called for. This tube railway runs from Paddington Station to the eastern district office in Whitechapel, and connects up with several sorting offices, and with Liverpool Street Station. Its total length is about 6½ miles. I think that is as much information as I can supply in relation to the work.


I am disappointed with the right hon. Gentleman's account of this. I should like to have heard far more about this railway, which is probably about the most ridiculous enterprise that even the Post Office has ever entered into. It was a tube railway for the benefit of the Post Office, and the Post Office only, running between the Genera] Post Office in Newgate Street and Paddington Station. The cost of that was simply enormous. At that time they had the Great Western Railway goods depot within a few hundred yards of the Post Office, at Smithfield, and, if necessary, a small addition from there would have enabled the Post Office stuff to be put on trucks and carried down to the train for Paddington. As I understand it, what is done at present is that you put your mails into your own private train at the Post Office, take them to Paddington, carry them out one by one and put them into whatever train they have to go by. This is an extraordinarily expensive measure. I had not heard before of this extension of which the right hon. Gentleman has told us. Perhaps he will tell me how far the line is open at present. Is it open to Liverpool Street now?


I understand the tunnelling is completed, but it has not been properly equipped with electrical appliances and it is likely to take a year or two before it is completed.


At present, though it was begun in 1913, all we have to this day is a railway running from Paddington to the Post Office which carries a few mails, and a few postal officials when required. Originally they had the idea of connecting Euston and the other northern termini. That, apparently, has been abandoned altogether. But we still have the tube railway for the benefit of taking the Great Western mails, while you have the Great Western Railway within a few hundred yards. Now, I understand, there is to be an extension to Liverpool Street Station and to Whitechapel. Why the tube wants to go to Whitechapel I cannot imagine, unless it is in case of a dock strike, when they could get a little further down. I should like to know when the extension to Whitechapel was sanctioned. I have not followed the course of the railway for some years, and when the Postmaster-General began talking about it it revived an old memory of a thing which had been lying dormant in my mind. I should like to have some further justification of the necessity for this extension to Whitechapel. I do not think we can look too carefully at expenditure of this kind. This is the kind of expenditure which hon. Members in every quarter of the House pledged themselves over and over again to stand out against. That is departmental waste. It is quite genuine on their part. The Post Office people think it will be convenient to have a private line, and they can do it much better than if they have to use ordinary railway or send vans to Paddington under Post Office contractors. But it is grossly extravagant, and when you come to deal with a sum like £1,000,000 for running a tube from Paddington to the Post Office, and this vast extra Vote of £100,000 more for extending it, it is certainly not a business proposition. The mails go quite late in the evening from Liverpool Street. The streets are clear, and there is no delay in sending down the mails by road. The expense, compared with this huge sum of running a tube railway, is very small. I do press the Postmaster-General to give us some further account of this reckless and unnecessary expenditure.


It is not often that I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Rawlinson) on a question of policy, but it does seem to me that this expenditure, small though it seems to be on the Vote, requires a great deal more justification than the right hon. Gentleman has advanced. May we know exactly how much has been spent on this enterprise up to the present, because it seems to me there is a possibility of making a very substantial saving. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could tell us how many unemployed are likely to benefit by the carrying out of this scheme, and whether the same sum of money judiciously used would not provide an equal amount of employment of a more productive kind for the relief of the unemployed than could be reabsorbed by a scheme of this kind. It seems to me to be a railway going from nowhere to nowhere, and to make the proposition even more ridiculous the work, unless I misunderstood the Postmaster-General, on this remarkable piece of enterprise seems to have been abandoned since 1921. Surely the Postmaster-General will give us some further particulars and some better reason for supporting this Vote than that which he has put forward.

Major-General SEELY

I hope the Postmaster-General will proceed with this scheme in order to relieve the traffic of London. I say this because for many years I have urged successive Postmasters -General to speed up the traffic of the mails, either by this underground railway or by means of motor transport instead of carrying them, as they do now, by the old fashioned methods of horse transport. I hope that not only will he carry out this scheme but that he will bring about a great reform in the carrying of mails, which is urgently needed in this capital city of the Empire,, and that he will have nothing but underground railways or mechanical transport, and get rid of horse transport altogether.


The account which the Postmaster-General has given of the scheme which he is putting before the Committee is the most inadequate I have ever heard for a proposition of such magnitude.


It is an ancient one.


That may be, but there are many Members in this House who know nothing about it. It is some time now since I was at the Post Office, and I do not recollect the details and should be glad to have more information from the Postmaster-General, to bring me up to date. Some things may have happened since I was at the Post Office. The right hon. Gentleman has a much better case than he has apparently been able to make out to the Committee. As far as I recollect, this is a labour-saving scheme. It is a scheme to substitute an automatic railway for the carrying of mails which are now carried above ground either by horse-drawn vehicles or in motor vehicles. As far as I remember, this railway is to be worked entirely by electricity and, if I recollect rightly, is not to have a driver upon the electric locomotive. There is to be an arrangement by which the mails will be dropped down a shute into the proper car and then, by pressing a button, they will be transferred to their destination, where again they will be automatically brought up to the surface. The right hon. Gentleman might have given us some sort of idea of what it is expected to save annually by the operation of the railway when it is completed. Is the saving that is expected from the operation of this railway going to be an adequate return upon the increased capital expenditure which will have to be incurred, as compared with the original Estimate? As I gather from the figures before us, rather over £1,000,000 have been expended upon this project. As we have already put so much money into this enterprise, really the most economical course for us to take, I presume, would be to complete it and make the money that we have already put into it remunerative, whereas it is now standing idle and no return is being made.


The railway was open from Paddington Post Office years ago. This is an extension, I understand, to Whitechapel.


I do not think that is exactly the case, but perhaps the Postmaster-General will give us some further explanation and tell us where this railway starts and where it finishes. At any rate, a very large sum of money has been expended upon it, and we are getting no return. If it is possible at once to provide some employment by this extra expenditure and to make the capital already expended remunerative, there may be an excuse for going on with it.


If this is such an important piece of work in the interests of the unemployed, will the right hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. N. Chamberlain) say why he did not carry it out when he was at the Post Office?


Perhaps the hon. and gallant Member will remember that I was not very long at the Post Office and even I could not carry out everything when I was there. This is one of the schemes that came before me; it was considered, but at the time we felt that the drop in the cost of the scheme was not sufficient to justify us in proceeding with it. We thought that the cost might fall still further and that opportunity might arise later on for carrying out the scheme. Apparently, that has occurred. While I was at the Post Office we did put in hand the acceleration of a considerable number of works in which the Post Office was engaged, for the purpose of giving employment, and that work has been carried on by my successors and, no doubt, will be carried on by the present Postmaster-General. Will the Postmaster-General tell us whether I am correct in saying that this scheme is to be justified as a labour-saving scheme and, if so, what are the savings he expects to make when it is in full operation? I want to know whether the sum of £17,000 is entirely to be spent upon further tunnnelling work and preparation of the permanent way, or whether it includes any part of the electrical equipment which will have to be provided in order that the scheme may be put into working order. If it does not include any electrical equipment, can he say when he expects that he will be able to get that work done and when the railway will be in working order? With respect to the anticipated savings under other heads, amounting to £16,990, I do not think that the Postmaster-General told us what these savings represented. Perhaps he will be good enough to give us some information so that we may see where the savings are to be made and whether they are savings which ought to be made.


We do not know what is the present position in regard to this tunnel. If the £1,000,000 has been expended on the railway which is now working from Paddington, I suppose the further £600,000 is for an extension. If so, it will require very careful consideration before we commit ourselves to a further £600,000 expenditure in these hard times. If we have spent £1,000,000 and we are getting no remuneration from that, it would probably be a good bargain to complete the scheme and spend the further £600,000 upon it in order to get the benefit of the completed scheme, instead of its lying idle. At the present time the Committee is in a state of doubt as to whether the actual work has been completed and some tunnel is at work. It would shorten discussion if the Postmaster-General would tell us the actual facts.


I am interested in this discussion, coming as it does from certain right hon. Gentlemen who have had something to do with it in the past. This Estimate is an Estimate prepared by my predecessor. So far as I am able to answer the questions put to me, I will do so. The right hon. Member for Cambridge University spoke of this additional expenditure as if it were for the purpose of extending the railway from Liverpool Street to Whitechapel. That is not the case. The railway as it is at present was in the original proposal. The additional cost is due to increase in the cost of labour and materials, resulting from the War. With regard to the question asked by the hon. and gallant Member the Member for Central Nottingham (Captain Berkeley) as to the amount of money already spent, he will find at the foot of the Estimate that of the £1,100,000 originally embodied in the Act, £1,091,039 have been spent, in addition to which there have been spent £46,480 voted under Supplementary Estimates in 1922–23 and 1921–22, making a total of £1,137,519 already expended. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ladywood (Mr. N. Chamberlain) desires to know what it is expected to save. My information is that it is not, and never has been, anticipated that the conveyance of the mails by this railway will cost less than the present method of conveying them in vans by road, but I am told that it will expedite the handling and remove a certain amount of van traffic from the congested part of London. That, I understand, was the main purpose of constructing this railway. It was decided upon in 1913. Operations were interfered with during the War. It was decided to go on with it, and in accordance with contracts which had been let a further £17,000 is required to complete payments due to the end of March.

7.0 P.M.


Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the other two questions I put about the £17,000 and what are the other savings?


Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question put by the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Wight (Major-General Seely), whether any part of this tube has worked, is working, or will work?


In reply to the right hon. Member for Ladywood, I understand that the actual main tunnel is complete, and there are some subsidiary tunnels which have to be completed yet. It is for certain equipment that the contracts are now being let, and it is for payment of those contracts that money is required. I understand that the big electrical equipment for the tunnel has now been asked for, and I think tenders have not yet been settled.


Is it working!


It is not working if it is not electrically equipped.


Somewhere about the 'fifties and the 'seventies a similar tube railway for the Post Office was made. It was to be worked by compressed air. The tunnel still exists, and I want to know will the right hon. Gentleman ask the men who are making this new railway to keep a good lookout for that old tunnel?


So far as I can judge from the right hon. Gentleman's speech, he is really in favour of these tunnels. It strikes me that he is anxious to continue building more tunnels, because he has never answered any question by the right hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Rawlinson) whether he proposes to proceed with other tunnels. If this tunnel be so useful for the purpose for which it is used—we have not found out what that is yet—why cannot he extend it all over London so that every main railway station is connected up with this wonderful system of underground railways? This is a legacy which has been left to him. He has seen it as an excellent idea of State control of railways, and he is very anxious to run this one to show how well the State can run railways. He says that the railway is not yet equipped with its electrical appliances, and that it is not working. Why is it so long in being equipped? Can it not be speeded up now, seeing the vast amount of unemployment there is in the country, and the amount of slackness of trade in the engineering, the iron, and electrical trades? That is surely up to him. I should like some assurance from him that he is going to complete this railway at the earliest possible moment, so as to find work for these men. Will he let the Committee know whether it is the intention to continue these railways, or is he just going to finish this one, and then give up the idea of running these underground electrical railways?

Major-General SEELY

He has not made any answer to my question as to the extraordinarily contradictory policy the Post Office is pursuing. They ask us to spend this large sum on speeding up the mails while at the same time they take the slowest form of transport, horse transport, for carrying the mails. To the plain man it seems madness spending vast sums of money to make some of the mails go very fast while we send all the rest of the mails by vehicles that go extremely slow. If the Postmaster-General will look at the horses which draw the mails, he will not only see that he is carrying the mails by slow traffic, but is choosing the slowest animals he can find.


I hope that there will be an Estimate. Money will be provided for carrying on this work in the Estimates for next year, and I assume that the whole discussion of everything connected with the continuance and completion of this railway will come up on that Vote. The works for which this payment is required were authorised by my predecessor. I should imagine that all questions which have been raised are questions not to be dealt with on this Supplementary Estimate, but on the general Estimate of the Post Office. As far as this Estimate is concerned, it is clearly provision for paying and discharging liabilities incurred by my predecessor, and I hope, having regard to the discussion we have had, that the Estimate will go through.


This is a token Estimate for £10, but in point of fact it is an Estimate which, if passed by the Committee now, will be relied on by the Postmaster-General and his Department for the authorisation of an expenditure which amounts to £512,481. It is all very well for him to say the Committee will have opportunities of discussing this matter in detail on the Post Office Vote. I am an older Member of the House than the Postmaster-General, and I assure him and other Members that if they hope on the Post Office Vote, on which one thousand and one subjects, many of them of high policy, are raised, that there is any time to be found to discuss this question, that hope is likely to be disappointed. This is the proper opportunity for a discussion of this matter.

I think the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford (Mr. Rea) is a very important one in considering this question. Is the railway working at this moment, or is it not? Is the £1,000,000 producing no results, or is it producing results? The Postmaster-General replies to that question by saying that all the expenditure for which we are asking was in the original Act. That is quite true. I remember taking some interest in the original Act. It was introduced by the Government of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith). That Act consisted of authority for at least eight or nine lengths of railway, some of them two chains long, some ten, and others of varying short lengths. In that sense he is quite right when he says the original statutory authority for this line is contained in the original Act, but I am informed that a large number of those numerous railways are in fact, and have been, open for some time, and are working, and therefore this new money is for the extension and completion of further lengths of railway which it is quite true were authorised in the Act, but are not yet working and open.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood (Mr. N. Chamberlain) asked a question as to the form of this Vote. It is a token Vote for £10. Anticipated savings of £16,690 are relied on by the Postmaster-General to reduce the total amount of £17,000 to £10.. I put it to the Postmaster-General, that I should have thought that events during the last few days would have largely reduced the total of anticipated savings on the Post Office Vote. He is going to send 2,000 bags of Indian mails overland to Marseilles. I am therefore a little astonished that he has not more to say about that. I should like to know why in these arrangements he is departing from the principle of the original Act which was that this expenditure was to be financed by the Treasury by issues from the Consolidated Fund against which the Treasury were to charge annuities over a period of 30 years. That is to say, this expenditure was to be charged to capital. Now I observe with great astonishment that the right hon. Gentleman to-day proposes that while one million of the expenditure should be charged to capital, the remaining £512,000 should be charged to revenue. I should have thought the one thing you wanted to do at the present moment was to try to avoid further burdens on the taxpayer. I should also have thought, following the Trade Facilities Act, that works which were undertaken, as these appear to be undertaken, very largely for the relief of unemployment, might very properly have been charged to capital and not revenue, and I hope before we pass from this Vote we shall have some explanation on that point. I do not want to make things more difficult for the right hon. Gentleman than I can help, but I felt bound to put these considerations before the Committee, and I hope that we shall have some reply from the right hon. Gentleman.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. J. H. Thomas)

I am sure that the Committee will appreciate that my hon. Friend never intended to embarrass the Postmaster-General, but I may at least try to clear up some of the difficulties which have been raised. The original scheme was introduced by the Government of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith). That scheme had two objects. The first claim made was that the motor traffic had not developed then as it has to-day, and that there was considerable delay in dealing with the mails under the old system of horse traffic, and the idea of a tube railway was suggested not only to expedite the traffic but to relieve congestion, so far as London was concerned. It is true, as my right hon. Friend said, that there was not one particular scheme but that there was a number of schemes. That was the original intention of the Government. That scheme was proceeded with and in 1921 the tunnelling was completed. In October, 1920, tenders were invited for electrical equipment, but as the cost under the lowest tender was found to be so high, in relation to the pre-War estimates, it was decided to wait for a more favourable opportunity. In other words, though nearly a million pounds had already been spent, the full scheme could not be made operative, because it was felt that the original estimate would be exceeded so much owing to the situation caused by the War.

In October 1921, the matter was again considered in the light of the fall in cost which had already taken place. Again the Cabinet decided that the estimates were too high, and that the matter should stand over. That was the second time the Cabinet considered the scheme after the tunnelling had been completed. In the autumn of 1923—that is only five months ago—the Cabinet again considered the question, and authorised the Postmaster-General to proceed immediately with the work. The estimate of my right hon. Friend, therefore, is not an estimate for which we are responsible at all, but it is to give effect to a considered Cabinet decision of five months ago to render useful the expenditure of £1,000,000 which will be useless until we spend another £500,000. In other words my right hon. Friend is merely defending the expenditure of £500,000, previously sanctioned by the late Cabinet, which is necessary to make remunerative the £1,000,000 already expended. That is the short history of the case, and I would put it to the Committee that my right hon. Friend is hardly called upon to make any excuse for the existing situation.

Another question put was as to the intention of His Majesty's Government with regard to the further schemes which were contemplated, because even when this is expended and this scheme is finished there is a number of other, tubes apparently foreshadowed. On that point the Government have come to no decision. With regard to the further point which has been raised, if this expenditure could be met out of revenue it ought not to be for the House of Commons to complain. I cannot conceive why there should be criticism of a proposal to meet expenditure out of revenue if it can be so met. It is far better to cut your cloth according to your measure. My right hon. Friend should not be criticised for a proposal which is rather a virtue than a fault. I have desired to make the position clear, because I think it unfair that my right hon. Friend should be asked to defend something for which he is not responsible and should be criticised by those who are responsible for it.


I have listened carefully to this discussion, and I think that the hon. Member opposite asked a pointed question when he inquired if this railway is working. I want to know if there is any railway at all? I would suggest that between this Estimate and the main Estimate, at some future date, an opportunity might be given to Members of this House to find out if there is any railway, as I am not quite sure on the point.


May I ask the Postmaster-General if he will go through this tunnel and tell us the exact state of affairs which exists, and meanwhile postpone the Vote until he comes back and gives us his personal experience?


I do not attach the slightest blame or responsibility to the right hon. Gentleman for introducing the Estimate for this tube railway, but he does not impress me in the least by saying that something has been approved of by my right hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Major-General Seely) or by someone on my own Front Bench. I am not here simply to ratify everything which is done by the Front Bench on either side. What I complain of is that we have not got proper information from the right hon. Gentleman in reference to this Vote for which he is responsible. Whether the scheme is right or not I cannot say. The Committee has not been properly instructed. This is a very large sum. Where is it being spent? Has it been spent, or is it going to be spent? It is explained there was a tube railway authorised from Paddington to the Post Office, and the right hon. Gentleman said that no use has been made of that tube. If that is true I shall be very much surprised. I believe that it was in regular use, and, according to what I have heard, a more ridiculous railway never existed. My right hon. Friend the late Postmaster-General gave us the most graphic account of this railway. There were no engine drivers, the bags were shot down an inclined plane, just like the pigs in Chicago when they are being turned into sausages, and on this wonderful tube railway a button was pressed and the bags were distributed at Paddington in the different trains for Plymouth, Cardiff and the other big centres.

That is a very tempting labour-saving appliance, but I doubt whether this scheme has any of these brilliant attachments. I believe that it is to be an ordinary tube railway, the mails being brought by hand from the tube railway to the different Post Office vans at Paddington. It is ridiculous that there is no one here to tell us the facts. I am told that there is a tunnel completed from the Post Office, with a station at Liverpool Street, to Whitechapel. I would like to know when that was done. Has there been any use made of the Liverpool Street station? Have any mails been disembarked there? My own view is that the tube from Paddington to the Post Office is open, and that the rest of the tube to Liverpool Street and Whitechapel is not open. The wisest thing is for the Committee to say, "We ought to have more information before we vote this money. We ought to know whether or not this tube has ever been used and, if so, what part?" As regards the money, I believe that it is intended for equipping in some form or another the extension from the Post Office to Liverpool Street station and on to Whitechapel. If that is so, we should know how to deal with the matter, but we are left entirely in doubt at the present moment. It is not right to vote the Money in absolute ignorance on this point. I hope, therefore, that the Government will adjourn this Motion.


It is very interesting to see the desire which exists for information as to this railway. I confess frankly that I am asked for a great deal of information which is not in my possession, and, if it is the desire of the Committee that the consideration of the Estimate should be deferred until I am supplied with that information, I will undertake if the matter is adjourned, to obtain the information which the Committee desire.


I would like to express thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for the course that he has taken, which I think is a very proper one. I am clear that the Committee ought not to vote the money without having fuller information than the right hon. Gentleman is in a position to supply, and I welcome very much his offer to adjourn.


I wish to ask the Post-master-General will he see that the people who are employed upon this unemployed work get a proper rate of wages and not the mere 75 per cent.?


Can the right hon. Gentleman say the number of unemployed whom it is expected to relieve by this scheme?

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.