HC Deb 08 April 1930 vol 237 cc2120-31

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £428,370, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1931, for Expenditure in respect of Employment Exchange and Insurance Buildings, Great Britain (including Ministries of Labour and Health and the Department of Health for Scotland)."—[NOTE.—£214,000 has been voted on account.]

Captain BOURNE

I want to ask one or two questions, because I notice the right hon. Gentleman is proposing to build a new Employment Exchange in my own constituency. I do not know whether that is to be built in anticipation of an increase in the number of unemployed: after all, that is hardly a matter for the Office of Works. I want to know where it is proposed to build the new Exchange? At present, we have two Exchanges. I believe neither is satisfactory, and, from that point of view, I welcome the new building, Further, is it to be built on freehold land or upon land leased by the Crown? I ask for this reason: There is a very large part in my constituency, centrally situated, and quite suitable for an Employment Exchange, which belongs to the city council. I wish to know whether a site has been acquired which will permanently belong to the Crown, or whether the new building is to be erected upon land leased from the city council. I hope, when we are sanctioning the expenditure of money on public buildings, we shall, wherever possible, try to obtain a freehold site, because then the building remains for ever in the possession of the State.


I should like to ask a question with regard to the provision of premises for a new Employment Exchange in the city of Bristol A site was acquired, I believe, now over three years ago, at considerable expense, and we have been expecting that the new premises would have been provided. Considerable dissatisfaction has been expressed by the local employment committee with the site that was originally chosen, on account of its unsuitability, and that has been confirmed by the Minister of Labour herself. I would like to ask the First Commissioner of Works if he can give me any information as to the probability of new premises being provided. The matter has become exceedingly urgent owing to the alteration of the Unemployment Insurance Act, under which larger numbers of persons are frequenting this Exchange. The existing premises are altogether unsuitable. They are very badly lighted, the men have to stand out in the street wait- ing in long queues for a considerable time, and, owing to the pressure which the operation of the new Act has placed upon the Exchange, a disused Nonconformist chapel in the neighbourhood has been taken in order to cope with the increased work. The matter is one of very grave urgency from the standpoints of administering the Act and of the convenience of the persons who have to attend to get their cards stamped and to receive benefit.


I should like to ask one or two questions about the new Government buildings to be erected in Edinburgh to accommodate the Department of Health and the National Insurance Audit Department, and a similar question arises on the next Vote for other Government buildings in Edinburgh, and on a subsequent Vote for Revenue buildings. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman is asking for £3,200, which is the same as was asked for last year. It is part of a sum of £143,000 which is provisionally estimated, I understand, to cover the cost of erecting that part of the new Government offices that will house the Department of Health and the National Insurance Audit Department. Last year a sum of £640 was expended. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me what work it is proposed to carry out during the ensuing year for this sum of £3,200 for which he is asking, and what work was carried out last year for the expenditure of the £640?

The right hon. Gentleman knows, of Course, that the question of these new buildings is one that has attracted a great deal of attention in Scotland. We all agree that it is an excellent thing that all the Government offices in Edinburgh should be concentrated at one spot on Calton Hill, but we are most anxious about the nature of the buildings. We know that the right hon. Gentleman and the Office of Works have had plans prepared by their own architect, on whom I cast no shadow of criticism at all, but it is strongly felt in Scotland that this very important building should be submitted to open competition, because it is felt that it is an opportunity for a building such as is seldom offered, and that it ought to be open to all the architects in the country. I know the right hon. Gentleman has submitted the plans to the Scottish Fine Arts Commission. Can he tell us whether he has had any Report from that Commission, and whether they have passed any opinion on the plans? I understand that he is going to submit the plans thereafter to the town council of Edinburgh, but I am sure he must understand that there is a very general feeling in Scotland that this most important building, on an almost unique site, should be thrown open to the competition of all architects, and that it is not a matter that should be dealt with departmentally, as is suggested.

12 m

Rear-Admiral BEAMISH

On page 28, I notice that a sum of £35,950 is required in 1930 for the provision of improved accommodation for Employment Exchanges as required.The Committee will agree that all the Employment Exchanges should be adequately furnished for the unfortunate people who have to frequent them, and I should be interested to know in what way that money is being spent, and whether it is for heating purposes or for additional seating accommodation. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the Committee that every possible step in conformity with modern requirements is being taken to see that the fuel that is supplied is as smokeless as possible, and that every endeavour is being made in all the Employment Exchanges and buildings concerned in this Vote to see that as little smoke as possible is emitted from Government buildings?


I want to support what my hon. Friend the Member for South Aberdeen (Sir F. Thomson) has said on the subject of the Government buildings in Edinburgh. We are probably right in assuming that a report has not yet been received from the Fine Arts Commission, and therefore any observations must be tentative. I would, however, like to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to this point. The scheme, as be well knows, is a very large one, and proposes to erect on this most important site—most important from the general aesthetic point of view of the City of Edinburgh—a mass of public buildings, so great a mass, indeed, that it is to house the whole of the offices which are under the Secretary of State for Scotland. I would like to press on the right hon. Gentleman a point, which I do not think has been made in any of the previous discussions on this question. It is that, should the Fine Arts Commission come to the conclusion that the mass of buildings, which will be involved in the housing of all these Government Departments, will produce a general mass too big for the site—which is my own belief—he will not feel bound to continue the scheme of housing all the offices together, however beneficial it may be from certain points of view. The general aesthetic feeling is that the putting up of a huge mass of buildings on this site may throw out of proportion, and make an eyesore of, the beautiful line of the hill which is crowned by a light and beautiful building. There is a great danger of the whole of that end of Edinburgh being destroyed if a huge mass of buildings is put there.

I have never been able to agree very fully with the proposal, which originated when my party were in office, that the site was one where adequate provision for the whole of the Scottish Government offices could be made in consonance with the preservation of the aesthetic beauty of the site. I would ask toe right hon. Gentleman to keep open mind, because if he insisted on maintaining the original plan of housing all the offices together, he might do permanent damage of a most vital sort to what is, after all, one of the most beautiful cities in the United Kingdom. I should like to take the opportunity of urging that, even if some qualified approval were to be given by the Fine Arts Commission to the design which has been submitted to them by the right hon. Gentleman, the official design should be put in competition with the designs of architects drawn from the profession generally. It is a most unsuitable and improper procedure to confine to the official architects the designing of what is a vital building for th aesthetic beauty of Edinburgh. I have no criticism to make of them. The work that has been done by them in Whitehall, for instance, is most dignified, and in some of the examples, magnificent, but I regard with dread a row of buildings of immense size and of the ordinary official type, with pillars and pilasters, and heaven knows what, piled up in ever growing ostentation. I view with the greatest dislike that kind of thing being introduced into the architecture of Edinburgh.

It may be a matter of sentiment and of tradition, but when you have in the very heart of the Scottish capital a site which can be used to accentuate and develop the national traditions of that place of beauty, and when you are taking the risk of putting the work on that site in the hands of official architects, it is officialdom run mad. It will not do the Office of Works any harm, it will not do the larger kingdom of the south any harm, but it may do irreparable damage to the beauty of the northern capital. So even if qualified approval is given by the Fine Arts Commission, the matter should be opened to the general architects of Scotland, and, if necessary, to those of England, so that we should not be confined to the design of the official architects. The more difficult problem may well be to throw overboard the idea of housing all the Government Departments on that site. We on this side of the Committee have no fear of the right hon. Gentleman being bound by a red tape view of a situation like that, and I am sure that he would be the first to say that, if the plans turned out to involve a more immense building than was at first contemplated, they must be changed, and that even at the expense of annoyance to a few Government clerks, the aesthetic beauty of Edinburgh must not be destroyed.


On page 25 is a reference to the new Employment Exchange at Walsall. The site which has been selected is not central enough, but that has been decided now, and I only want to ask the right hon. Gentleman if there is an ultimate date by which the Exchange must be finished; also whether room will be provided for shelter from the rain, from which the unemployed have to suffer at the old Exchange? Will the right hon. Gentleman also tell me the cost of the site? The Vote says that the cost of the site and the erection of the building is £12,280.


I know that the First Commissioner of Works is desirous of having the right type of building erected in Edinburgh but is it not possible for him to supply plans to the House of Commons of what is proposed to be built there, so that we can have some idea of the sort of building contemplated? It seems to me that we could give him valuable assistance, for 1 am sure he is with us in wishing for the most efficient and the most desirous building on the site. I appeal to him to submit plans before taking a decision in the matter.


May I use an illustration in connection with the point made by the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. Skelton). A public building was planned for Leith this year, a library and Town Hall. There were 90 plans from all over the kingdom. Only one of the architects hit upon the idea of having the library in front and the Town Hall behind. If those responsible for the designing of the scheme had limited themselves to one or two architects, they might not have had this admirable idea for using this site. If that is true about a comparatively easy site in the heart of Leith, it is certainly of greater moment when you consider the wonderful site at Calton Hill. I hope that the Minister, while remaining loyal to his Department, will not close his mind to other ideas, which may be even better than those of his own officers, for that great site in that great city.

Lieut.-Colonel HENEAGE

There has been a certain amount of discussion about Sheffield, as to the price of the site, and the cost of the building. Could the right hon. Gentleman give us any information about Sheffield? I should also like to echo what the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. Skelton) has said about opening up competition to architects. He made a great point about Scotland, but will the right hon. Gentleman say what he is doing in regard to the designing of English Exchanges? Scotland cannot have a monopoly of beauty, and we want equal treatment for England in this regard. Will the right hon. Gentleman say why there is this delay in getting on with the building of Exchanges? There may be buildings which are to cost £30,000, and yet only £1,000 or £2,000 is being spent in the first year. Why this delay? My last point is this: I am afraid unemployment will increase in rural areas. Are these Exchanges in the towns capable of dealing with the unemployed in the rural areas? What provision is the right hon. Gentleman making to meet unemployment in rural areas?


I am not going to stand in the way of the right hon. Gentleman getting his Vote, and we have no intention of opposing it, but this discussion shows how inconvenient and how unwise it is for the Government, to put down a Vote at an hour when we cannot discuss these things more fully. There are several questions I want to ask, but I want it to be understood that I do not wish to ask them in any hostile spirit. Here are 16 pages of this Vote and there is scarcely a page on which there is not a re-Vote. We ought to have some explanation of these re-Votes. I do not know whether the country realises that there are 16 pages of new buildings being Voted for the purposes of the State. Some of them are very expensive. It is true that we must have proper buildings to which poor men out of work can go to inquire about employment but I do not think that it is right that those buildings should be put in the main streets. They are very expensive and they do not provide more work by reason of being in the main streets. The men know where they are and if they were put somewhere round the corner they would perform their functions equally well. I know from experience that if they are put in the main streets they injure the trade of a town. If you have a good, well lighted street, equipped with fine shops and put an Employment Exchange there, when the Exchange is shut after dark the effect is as if a tooth had been knocked out of a man's mouth. There is a blank in the line of lighted shops and the effect is to reduce the ability of shopkeepers to sell their goods.

I feel I ought to have gone through all the items and asked the right hon. Gentleman to tell us what he has been doing, but it would be wrong to do that at this time of night, but I do make this protest so that he may tell his officials to keep the Exchanges away from the shopping centres. They do more harm than good if they destroy the beauty of a shopping centre. Then I would like to know how it comes that we find on page 27 a sum of £2,160 for "Queen Anne's Chambers, central heating" and on page 55 the sum of £3,080 for the same purpose. Why are there two items for the same building? I will not draw attention to anything else but I do insist that there should not be revotes: it is bad finance and bad book-keeping and gets us into a muddle over the expenditure of money. I shall not oppose the Vote, but I hope we shall not have more of these revotes.


I hope the First Commissioner of Works will be able to give a satisfactory explanation in regard to the delay which has occurred in the provision of proper accommodation at the Employment Exchanges. What astonishes me is that in all quarters of the House there are not complaints not only about the sites but also that the Department has invariably ignored local opinion in choosing the site and has decided upon unsuitable sites. Exactly the same thing has happened at Bristol where against the judgment of those who have studied the question and found a suitable site for a new Employment Exchange the Department has insisted upon a site which the local people do not think is suitable. Why should the Department insist upon having their own way and choosing a particular site, because after all, this is a matter in which the judgment of the inhabitants of Bristol should prevail. In face of the deputations to the Minister of Labour and visits made to Bristol and the general feeling expressed in the Press on this matter, I hope that, in choosing sites for Employment Exchanges the right hon. Gentleman will not only pay attention to the lighting and the lavatory accommodation, but also take into account the views of the local authorities as to where the Exchanges ought to be erected.


The discussion upon Employment Exchanges has very seldom in the past been taken on this Vote. It has generally been considered on the Vote for the Ministry of Labour, or on an ordinary Supply day. As a rule, the particular Votes we are now discussing are never criticised, and that is the reason why they have been put down for this evening. As regards Oxford, we have chosen a new site in George Street, because the present premises are quite inadequate, and that is scheme which has the approval of the City Council. the hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. McShane) and other hon. Members have asked for the reasons for the delay in erecting new Exchanges on their constituencies. The delay is entirely due to the fact that it is a very difficult task for a Government Department or a municipal authority to find suitable sites which have the approval of all the parties concerned.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Farnham (Mr. A. M. Samuel) about re-votes, the hon. Gentleman knows quite well that there is nothing new about these re-votes. The reason there are so many re-votes in the Employment Exchange figures is solely due to the fact that there has been a holding up of building, because the Government had not come to a decision as to its policy in regard to Employment Exchanges. It is only within the last couple of years that the decision has been arrived at that the Employment Exchanges and services are to form a permanent part of the administration, and the Government have had a tremendous leeway to make up.


Does the Government Department consult the local residents to find out which is the most desirable place to erect a new Employment Exchange? The right hon. Gentleman has just stated that these particular Votes are never discussed. May I point out that in 1924 we discussed every one of these Votes. I want the First Commissioner of Works to bear in mind what the hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Culverwell) said with regard to the Bristol Employment Exchange, because that shows that the Department do not always consult local opinion as to the site.


I have no intention of being discourteous to the hon. Member, but I think it is too bad of him to interrupt me by making another speech, and, at this time of the night, putting further questions to me. It was at the time when a Labour Government was in office that these matters were last discussed. We have been so anxious to get these Votes that we have allowed every available opportunity for discussing them. Several hon. Members have asked if the Department send representatives down to a district and drop down a new Exchange without consulting the people in the various localities concerned. The local committee is always consulted, but, whenever there is a conflict of opinion as to the site, somebody has to decide, and it is for the House of Commons now to decide these matters. The new Employment Exchange for Bristol is still under discussion, and it is a very expensive business. I do not know when the site was acquired, but it was done with the best of motives and probably because there was no alternative. It may be that there is an alternative now, and we are discussing with the proper authorities whether it is possible to change the site of the new Exchange. The negotiations will take time and may cause delay, which and I am certain that nobody in Bristol wishes. We do not know where we are going to get another suitable site or whether we shall be mulcted in heavy costs by changing our plans.

Then there is the whole question of the legal arrangements. There is one district in Scotland where for years we have been trying to get a site which one man is holding us up and there is no other site available. You cannot blame the Office of Works for that. A question has been asked about an Exchange at Dagenham. There is no provision for an Exchange at Dagenham, simply because we have not found a site. If we are able to find a site, we can draw on part of this money for it. The money is not merely for furniture and that kind of thing. I am certainly an advocate of smokeless fuel, and, so far as we are able to secure it without too much cost to the Exchequer, we are carrying out that policy. The same applies to central heating. The Office of Works is doing its best to reduce the smoke nuisance. The cost of the site at Walsall was £1,290. I cannot yet tell the date on which the buildings will be completed. I think that is all I need say with regard to Employment Exchanges.

Queen Anne's Chambers are occupied by two different Departments, and therefore the amount is split up. I want to convince hon. Members from Scotland generally that I am as agreed as they are that the site at Edinburgh should be properly dealt with, and so is the Office of Works. We have sent a model forward to the Scottish Fine Arts Commission, which is now considering it. It will then go to the Edinburgh Corporation, as per agreement, and I can assure the Committee that before any final decision is come to the model and the drawings will be available to this House. I hope hon. Members will accept that as evidence of my good faith in the matter. The £600 that has been spent is in connection with the demolition of the gaol, and the other money provided this year is to start on the foundations. The Committee may rest assured that the Government have no intention of "jumping" any buildings on to the people of Edinburgh, without the House of Commons and everybody else having the fullest opportunity of discussing them.


I do not think the right hon. Gentleman's reply in connection with the Employment Exchanges at Bristol is quite adequate and fair.


I did not put it on the last Government or anybody.


The right hon. Gentleman assures us that the matter is under consideration. I would like to tell the Committee that this matter has been under consideration for nearly three years.


I was not there then.


The site has been recommended to the local authority, and yet they still persist in their red tape and unnecessary delay.


No, that is not so.


I am not saying that that is due to any Government, Socialist or otherwise. I do think that it is time that some decision was arrived at that will be satisfactory to the municipality.


I would like to ask the First Commissioner of Works whether it is really necessary to have these Employment Exchanges in main streets. Could they not be put in back streets? My experience is that they are generally in main streets on very expensive sites where it is absolutely unnecessary that they should be placed.