HC Deb 24 June 1926 vol 197 cc687-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


On the Motion for the Adjournment, I have a strange story to relate to the House. What I am about to speak of is the question of the long-delayed Report of the Meston Committee. This Committee was appointed by Treasury Minute to discuss the question of block grants. It was appointed in 1922, and it took a lot of evidence. I was a member of the London County Council, which gave evidence before the Committee, and evidence was given by the Association of County Councils, the Association of Municipal Boroughs, the Association of Rural District Councils, the Association of Urban District Councils, Poor Law Authorities, the Association of County Accountants, the Association of Borough Treasurers, and all the spending Departments and the Treasury. Of all that evidence, one solitary scrap has arrived to the public, and that is the evidence of the Board of Education, and it is no wonder that the municipalities are complaining, because the question of the allocation of the funds between national and local authorities is a matter which acutely concerns every ratepayer and municipality.

The Committee did this vast amount of work, and accumulated this vast amount of evidence, very industriously until the 6th of March, 1923, when it separated for the chairman to consider his draft Report, and months and years went on, and nothing whatever happened until February of this year, when Lord Meston, presented a draft Report. Nothing whatever happened, except that the chairman's draft Report, which has never been submitted to a member of the Committee, and was, therefore, in the nature of a private and confidential document, somehow found its way to the "Times" in March, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer contented himself with saying he had seen it. Why has Lord Meston conducted a three years' lock-out of the members of his Committee? I am very much afraid it is a political lock-out, because there are only two explanations, both of which it is extremely distasteful to me to mention to the House. One is that the Chairman is a man of exceeding eccentricity of character, and the other is that some influence has been brought to bear on the Chairman on the part of the Government to prevent the Committee considering the Report. Up to now, from what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, I understood that the first was the correct explanation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was pressed with questions as to why the Chairman had maintained this long and obstinate silence. I pressed the Chancellor of the Exchequer specifically a few days ago as to whether the Government had or had not any communication to make on this, and the right hon. Gentleman replied, looking round the House and adopting a gesture that seemed to suggest that it was a good joke, that the Government was not prejudiced at all, that they were not waiting for the Report of the Committee on block grants. I do say, however, Mr. Speaker, that this is not the way in which public business ought to be done. Everybody knows that the House of Commons has sufficient public spirit not to believe that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has no remedy whatever against the negligence of a Chairman of a Committee! I do not believe that in the whole history of the proceedings of a Committee, or of the Royal Commission, that there has been a case like this. Evidence was taken on an important question, and later the Minister in charge disavowed all responsibility. We are dealing with questions of great importance to the taxpayers and of great importance to the municipalities. The Government are going forward with the block grant, and the public have no knowledge whatever and no information in regard to this Committee except what I have indicated. I want also to ask the Government why that state of affairs is allowed to go on? Is it the case that when I ask the Chancellor that representation should be made the Chancellor hinted that the Government, at any rate, would not be displeased if this Committee did not issue any report at all?


I am not sorry that the hon. Lady has brought forward this question, and I do not think she has exaggerated the facts of the case, but I entirely dissent from one thing, and one thing only, which she said. It is not the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has at any time disavowed responsibility—subject to what I am about to say—for this Committee, but I quite admit that the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and not he only, but some of his predecessors—has exercised an extreme forbearance in this matter. I have come to the conclusion that the time has arrived when Parliament is entitled to know the real facts of this case, which is a very remarkable one, very rare indeed in the conduct of public business in this country, if not unprecedented altogether—though perhaps it might be found in some Oriental countries where procrastination has been brought to the highest state of perfection.

It was in May, 1922, more than four years ago, that in a consequence of criticism which had been made by the Geddes Committee on the system of percentage grants in local administration, the Government of that day appointed a Committee to inquire into and report on that system. They invited Lord Meston, who had made a reputation in India as a financial administrator, to accept the responsible position of Chairman of this Committee. He accepted that office, and one must presume that when he did so he felt not only that he was competent for the task, but that he had at his disposal sufficient leisure to carry it out. The Committee held, as the hon. Lady has said, a number of sittings, and at first it appeared to be industriously engaged on its task and a considerable amount of evidence was heard. But in November of that year a General Election took place which to some extent interrupted the business of the Committee and it was not until the following March, in 1923, that a meeting of the Committee was held, presumably to draft a Report, an outline of which I believe had at that time been made by the Secretaries. That was in March, 1923, and from that date to this, more than three years, the Chairman has never summoned this Committee together and has never submitted to them a draft Report for consideration. A year passed and then, in the summer of 1924, the Select Committee of this House on the Estimates, which was interested in this matter, summoned before them an official of the Treasury to give an explanation, if he could, as to why nothing had been done. I believe I am right in saying that at that time the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Come Valley (Mr. Snowden) who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, saw Lord Meston on the subject and that the latter promised to complete his Report before Parliament rose for the Recess in August of that year. All I can say is that if that be so—and that is my information—that was only the first of several similar assurances which Lord Meston has given and neglected to observe.

In the autumn—I am still dealing with 1924—a number of letters were written to Lord Meston on the subject from the Treasury, to which his Lordship did not think it was necessary to send any reply; but at last in answer to a rather urgent expostulation that reached him over the telephone, he promised that he would write that same day explaining the position. No letter was received, and the next we knew of the Chairman of the Committee was that he was at Khartum, and from there he wrote a letter to the Treasury saying that he was about to come home, and that as soon as he arrived he would apply himself to the work and would bring it to a speedy con- clusion. Several more months passed, and nothing was done. It was not surprising in these circumstances that hon. Members began to show a certain amount of curiosity as to what was happening about this Committee, and they addressed some questions to the Government.

On 24th March, 1925, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated in the House that he had lately seen Lord Weston, who had informed him that he hoped to be able to report during the present Session. On 30th June, 1925, the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote to Lord Meston referring to a discussion which had taken place in the House, and asked what was the present position of the Report and how soon Lord Meston would be able to let him have it. He used the expression in the letter: This matter cannot linger indefinitely. On 22nd July of the same year the Chancellor of the Exchequer telegraphed to Lord Meston, and on the following day, the 23rd July, Lord Meston telegraphed back: My Report is now almost complete in draft, and I hope to submit it in September. The same day the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Sir J. Marriott) said, having the telegram in his possession, that he had heard from Lord Meston, that his Report was almost complete, and that he hoped to submit it in September.

On 24th November—September having passed without bearing any fruit—Lord:Weston wrote to the Treasury: I have now completed my draft of the Report. The draft as it stands represents only my own views, though I expect most of it will be accepted by a majority of my colleagues, but I cannot at present collect them to discuss it, as I have to be out of England for some weeks"— I believe that being out of England was an expedition that his Lordship made to India, Early in the New Year, however, they will sit down to it, and there is not likely to be more delay in getting through the last stage. Now my unfortunate self appears on the scene. I did not have any responsibility for, or know anything about, it till 26th November, when I had gone to the Treasury. A question was put to me, and on the information in my possession I stated in the House that I understood the chairman had now completed his draft Report, but that it had not yet been considered by the Committee. I think that in answer to a Supplementary Question that was put to me that I said I had every reason to believe that it would be completed and ready early in the new year—that is, the present year. Since that date the whole of another half-year has gone by, and I am bound to say that I have no reason to believe that we are any nearer than we were at the beginning to having a Report from that Committee, although, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in reply to the hon. Lady, the draft Report, which he has seen, is, as a matter Of fact, a comprehensive and able document. As my right hon. Friend on the same occasion said—and I do not know whether the hon. Lady complains of that—discouraging as, no doubt, the situation appears, one is reluctant absolutely to abandon hope. We hope that the Committee may be called together, and that a Report may be issued. I frankly say to the House, I can offer no explanation, and, really, I had better not make any comment on this extraordinary record.

I think the hon. Lady was quite entitled to bring the matter before the House, and Parliament is entitled to know exactly how the matter stands. As I gave, in perfectly good faith, the answer last November, I have taken the responsibility of disclosing the whole of these facts, because I am not prepared to put off hon. Members with assurances to which I no longer attach the slightest reliance. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has seen this Report, and has described it in this House as an able and a. comprehensive document. What mere does the hon. Lady or the House think the Chancellor of the Exchequer can do? He has no power to compel the Chairman to call the Committee together. He has used persuasion and entreaties time after time as I have already described, and I can offer no explanation of why those entreaties have borne no fruit. As my hon. Friend said, the Government are now proceeding upon different lines. We have not abandoned hope, but the Government are making independent inquiries into this subject which Lord Meston, four years ago, undertook to investigate and report upon. I hope his Report will soon be forthcoming but whether it is or not the Government having deemed it necessary to found a policy on the question of percentage grants, must be content with information from other sources. That is the reply given by my right hon. Friend to the hon. Lady. It was perfectly bona fide, and I do not think the hon. Lady was justified in complaining that my right hon. Friend had treated the matter with levity. It is quite true we may be blamed for over-forbearance, and it is not pleasant to be driven to disclose such a long series of procrastinations. I think the patience of the Government, of Parliament, and of the country—because it is a public matter—has been stretched to a point at which I should not myself be justified in any longer concealing the true facts from Parliament.


Would it be possible for the Government to publish the evidence? One part of that evidence, given by the officials of the Board of Education, has already been published. Would it be possible for the Government to make available to the public the other part of the evidence?


That is a matter upon which, at the present moment at all events, I could not give any pledge. I have not seen the evidence, and do not know to what extent it has been examined, or what its value would be. At all events, it is quite a separate question from the Committee's Report. It is a matter of policy, on which I cannot make a statement.


After the extraordinary statement that has just been made by the Financial Secretary, is it not possible for him to make a further statement? Could he not indicate to the House that, in order to get rid of the extraordinary position in which we find ourselves, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would undertake to summon the other members of the Committee to discuss the evidence that is the property of the Committee, and, if they like, also the draft Report which has been submitted by the Chairman, and see that a report of some kind is brought forward? Otherwise, if this Report is to hang, like Mahomet's coffin, between earth and heaven for another four years, it will reduce the proceedings of Parliament to a farce, and the matter will become something of the nature of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera and not a matter of serious business at all. Could not the right hon. Gentleman say whether the Government will consider summoning the other members of the Committee together to deal with the evidence?


I think the hon. Member must see that, on a Motion for the Adjournment, dealing with a much more limited question, it would be unreasonable to expect me, at half-past eleven, to make a definite pronouncement on the policy of the Government, which, really, I am not in a position to make.

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