§ 5. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £49,500, 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, 1931, for expenditure in respect of Public Buildings Overseas."
§ Commander SOUTHBY
I beg to move to leave out "£49,500," and to insert instead thereof £48,500."
I have no desire to keep the House more than a few moments, but I have moved the reduction in the Vote in
§ order that the House may be given a little further information with regard to it, and that the question of the Embassy at Washington may be raised. As long ago as March, 1930, a question was addressed to the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works by the hon. and gallant Member for North-West Hull (Sir A. Lambert Ward), who asked about a visit to Washington of permanent officials of the Department concerning the Embassy, and the reply then given was that the Permanent Secretary had gone to Washington on business connected with the new Embassy at a cost of £200. About the same time the right hon. Gentleman was asked why this visit was not carried out on the part of the technical officers of the Department, and the reply given was that the Permanent Secretary went to deal with important points relating to the standard of furnishing which must ho dealt with on the spot.
§ The FIRST COMMISSIONER of WORKS (Mr. Lansbury)
On a point of Order. The only provision in this Supplementary Estimate for Washington relates to an item dealing with the purchase of land. There is no other item, so that there is no expenditure in connection with the Washington Embassy.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
As far as I can understand the position from the Vote, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right. The only part of the Estimate dealing with Washington is an item of £30,000 in respect of land.
§ Mr. ARTHUR MICHAEL SAMUEL
There is an item for £9,500, and we do not know whether it may or may not refer to Washington. Further, there is an addition of £10,000 which has reference to A. to E. in the original Estimate, page 62. That is a re-vote back to a reduction of £20,000 spread over items A. to E., any of which may apply to Washington. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that you may perhaps see your way to give a little more latitude than the right hon. Gentleman wishes to have.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I am informed that in the next two items there is no expenditure connected with the Washington Embassy. I can only give that information.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
I should like to point out that on the Estimate itself there was nothing to show that the expenditure of £9,500 had nothing to do with Washington. In common with the rest of the House I imagined that that item did refer to the furniture for the Washington Embassy. If, as we understand for the first time from the first Commissioner of Works, it has nothing whatever to do with furniture of the Washington Embassy, the matter would be out of order. With respect to the item of £30,000 for the purchase of a plot of land, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman why this purchase has become necessary? It is common knowledge that the design for the Washington Embassy is unsatisfactory, and it may well be that this purchase of extra land has become necessary by the fact that the design has not been satisfactory. On the 12th May of last year my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Rear-Admiral Beamish) asked the First Commissioner of Works whether he had received any complaints or approval of the design, suitability and size of the reception, dining and entertaining rooms or of the garage accommodation at the Embassy. The First Commissioner then admitted that there might be minor alterations or additions which occupation might show to be desirable. He was further asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford (Sir G. Hamilton) what arrangements had been made respecting the furnishing and interior decorations of the Embassy. He did not give any real information.
Although we have pressed for information regarding the Embassy at Washing- 942 ton, we have never got any satisfactory answer from the right hon. Gentleman. That is why we want now to get full information why it has become necessary to purchase a further plot of land for the Embassy. In November of last year my hon. Friend the Member for North Portsmouth (Sir B. Falle) again raised the question of garage accommodation, etc., and he was given the reply that there was no ground for complaint. Why has it become necessary to purchase, at great expense, an extra plot of ground? Is it because the design is as bad as popular report would have us believe? Is it so bad that the heating pipes go through the larder, and that the garage accommodation is hopelessly insufficient for the use of the Embassy staff, and that therefore further expense is to be incurred by the British taxpayer in order to provide the extra accommodation which should have been thought about at the time the original design for the Embassy was passed? The cost of remedying these defects is, obviously, considerable, and as none of the replies of the First Commissioner has been satisfactory, we should like to hear from him at greater length some real and accurate information regarding the whole question of this Embassy, the suitability of the design and whether it is as satisfactory as he would have us believe.
§ Major SALMON
I beg to second the Amendment.
After having had expert advice on the question of fitting up the Embassy at Washington and having the experience of the Office of Works, our contingent expenditure ought to have been known when the original Estimate was brought before the House. There is one thing necessary in business, and that is that one tries, before entering into an expenditure, so to arrange one's plans that when the job is finished it comes within the limits of expenditure that one has anticipated. Here, we are taking an additional plot of land, but our expenditure does not end there; it only starts then. Therefore, when we are asked to spend money in acquiring land, it would be fair that we should know what contingent liability there is when the land has been acquired. It is obvious that the intention is to build, what for I do not know, but no doubt the First Commis- 943 sioner will be able to explain and also state what is to be the cost.
It is rather a loose way of dealing with public money to ask us to have so many bites at a cherry. We are asked, first of all, to spend £30,000 on a piece of land, and then to spend extra money of an unknown amount for erecting and decorating a house. I presume that when this business was started the Office of Works knew what an Embassy required. This is not the first Embassy that has been built. One would have thought that the Department would have profited by experience. [Interruption.] It is to be hoped that hon. Members opposite also will at least learn by experience. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Department could have known what the Embassy would cost when finished. Plans were submitted for approval, we appointed an architect, and an individual went from the London Office to see that the work was carried out properly. All the details should have been dealt with before the building was started. There must be something radically wrong to make it necessary at this juncture to acquire extra land and incur extra expense. Before the Department comes here and asks for an Estimate to be passed we ought to know the expenditure involved, so that within a fraction we may see that the figure is not exceeded.
§ Mr. GODFREY LOCKER-LAMPSON
I am certainly not anxious to prolong the Debate, but the First Commissioner will remember that on the Committee stage we had no discussion at all owing to the lateness of the hour, and that we said we would drop all discussion then if on the Report stage we could have a fair and full Debate. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friends who support the Amendment do not do so in criticism of the Government's desire to have in the United States an Embassy worthy of a great nation. It is much more important than many people even think that our representatives in foreign countries should be housed with dignity. I believe that it has a psychological effect which pays far more than the money spent on a particular building. Has the contract for this plot of land already been signed? It is a mistake for a Department to come here and to go through all the elaborate ceremony of 944 asking for our consent to certain expenditure if a contract has already been signed, and we have to pay the money in any case. In such a case there ought to be a footnote to the Supplementary Estimate, indicating that a contract has been signed and that the money has to be paid, and that the Government is coming to the House not so much for consent to the expenditure as for an indemnity in respect of an expenditure for which they did not obtain permission in the main Vote. There is an increase of £30,000 for this plot of land. The original site, I understand, was valued about 200,000 dollars or £40,000, and therefore the new plot of land is three-quarters of the whole original Estimate. In the case of the item for furniture we are asked for a sum which is nearly one-third of the whole original Estimate.
I know it is not reasonable to ask that Estimates should be kept to the exact figure of expenditure, but I think the Government ought to try to adhere more closely to the original Estimate. I wish to know if this additional plot is being bought from the owner of the original site. The original site of the old Embassy was valued at 500,000 dollars, and the site of the new Embassy at 200,000 dollars, and there was an arrangement that, directly the staff moved out of the old Embassy, the difference would be paid by the owner of the site of the old Embassy. That difference represents a sum of over £60,000. Apparently a sum of about £61,000 representing the difference, has not yet been paid although the staff has moved. We are being asked here to pay £30,000 for a new plot, when £61,000 is still owing to us on the old Embassy site, possibly by the same owner. I should also like to ask what is the land to be used for. I have not seen this building myself but I understand that although it is a very fine building a certain amount of dissatisfaction has been expressed in regard to certain features of it. If the new plot is to be used for any further building, this demand will not be the final demand. The right hon. Gentleman or whoever occupies his place will in a year's time ask for a further sum for reconditioning, or for building upon this new plot, and we ought to know what the final demand is going to be in respect of the Washington Embassy. In these hard times, it is well that we should have figures of that 945 kind before us in making up our minds upon such questions.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
In the first place, I should like to say that the questions raised by the Mover and Seconder of the Amendment are such as will be discussed when the main Estimates come before the House. If I may say so, it is not really in order that they should be discussed to-night. The extracts set out in connection with this Estimate show that the expenditure on Washington will not come into account until after 31st March. Therefore, hon. Members will have the opportunity, which they so much desire, of discussing this question. The hon. and gallant Member for Harrow (Major Salmon) seemed to think this business had been carried through by people without experience. I would point out that the whole of the purchase of the site and the carrying out of the work were done under my predecessors, who, I am quite sure everyone on this side will say, are men of experience. Therefore that question does not arise. The question at issue is the purchase of this land. I can clear up one point at once and that is that the person from whom be bought the land is not the person who sold us the original site. We paid for it exactly the same sum as was paid for it by the person from whom we are buying. About that there is no question. We had to buy it at once or else lose it, because it was on the point of being sold. I understand that the Treasury is allowed by the House in certain circumstances, if the Treasury think wise, to give such permission. We had Treasury permission to do this, the money is paid and the land is ours.
On the question of why we bought it, the answer is perfectly simple. Here, again, the manner of carrying through this matter and the laying out of the site has been performed by one of the most famous architects of our country, Sir Edwin Lutyens. When the original estate was bought, it was simply scrub, and I think there is no blame attaching to anyone for not quite seeing what would be the lay-out when the architect came to take the business in hand. The result is that the final site of the Embassy faces the main road and across this piece of land which we have just purchased. If it had been sold and built on in the ordinary way, this splendid 946 Embassy would have been simply blanketed and there would have been no view of it at all. It was felt that rather than allow that to happen, and that there should be no control over this piece of land, it would be better that we should buy it and so preserve whatever amenities there are for the rather splendid building that has been erected in Washington. That is the explanation.
§ Major SALMON
Do I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that this piece of land is not to be built on, but has been acquired only for the purpose of keeping decent amenities around the Embassy?
§ Mr. LANSBURY
If the hon. and gallant Member would wait, I was saying that by buying this land and not allowing it to go into other hands, we could control the user of that land, and we can, if necessary, build on it ourselves, or we can let it out for buildings, but they must be such buildings as will not blanket our building. I wish to point out that the price that we paid for it, we are told, is quite a reasonable price, seeing that we have a frontage on one of the best streets or avenues of the town; and we are advised, too, that, like any other real estate situated in similar cities, it will grow in value. [Interruption.] So far as the nation is concerned, I am willing that the nation should get all it can, and I am trying to show that, in accordance with my principles, we have made a very fair deal, because we shall secure whatever increment value will attach to this piece of land. That is the explanation of the Vote, so far as Washington is concerned, and I hope the House will now let us have the Vote.
§ Captain CROOKSHANK
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman's explanation is very satisfactory. First of all, he said the sums in regard to which my hon. and gallant Friend put his questions did not come into account until after 31st March, but, if that is so, why is he taking this Supplementary Estimate?
§ Captain CROOKSHANK
Then I misheard the right hon. Gentleman. Then he said that this had all been carried out by his predecessor, and there was no blame attaching to him.
§ Captain CROOKSHANK
Oh, yes, the right hon. Gentleman did; but if he did not, it shows that I was right when I said that his explanation was unsatisfactory. Further, he said that this is a plot of land which is part of the frontage of the new Embassy. In other words, when the original plot for the Embassy was bought, apparently a vast hinterland was purchased which was liable to be blanketed by buildings on this frontage. If that was known, it seems to me a most extraordinarily bad transaction. [HON. MEMBERS "By the Tories!"] It was bad, whoever did it. Hon. Members opposite are never prepared to accept any blame themselves, but, after all, their expert advisers go on from generation to generation, and—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. and gallant Gentleman was talking about the purchase of the original site. That is not in dispute to-night.
§ Captain CROOKSHANK
The original purchase is not, but the subsidiary purchase is, and it seems to me that the subsidiary purchase should have taken place at the time of the original purchase. Really, the right hon. Gentleman's views about the treatment of finance by this House are perfectly ridiculous. We are representing the taxpayers, and if there is blame attaching to one side or the other, it is up to us as Members of Parliament to show it up. There is nothing political about the question of whether an error of judgment was made in purchasing this land. If we are clear now about it, it is merely that this extra piece of land has been purchased so that there should be an adequate frontage to the new Embassy buildings. It may apparently be turned into buildings by the right hon. Gentleman or, following the 948 right hon. Gentleman's custom elsewhere, into a swimming bath, or a bowling green or other amenities.
I must protest again against the reimposition of the super-cut in such a form that we cannot differentiate exactly where the extra expenditure has been incurred, and the right hon. Gentleman has given us no guidance in the matter. We are left by a process of examination to ascertain for what this extra £10,000 is required. This year the Moscow Embassy has been rented, and the right hon. Gentleman may perhaps now be willing to amplify the information which he has given at Question time in a very fragmentary form. It may be part of this extra £10,000, because the actual decision to rent the property was taken during the year. It is also more than likely, but again we are in the dark because the right hon. Gentleman has not favoured us with any estimate, that part of the money required for furniture is required for furniture for the Embassy in Moscow. Perhaps he will kindly explain the exact position. He told us the actual amount of the rent some months ago, but he never explained the position of paying rent to a Communist Government which does not know what private property is, but that may be too complicated a matter for his political philosophy.
I should also like to know the position of the staff at Moscow. Last week in a reply to a question the right hon. Gentleman said that the Ambassador had himself moved into the new Embassy but he said nothing about anybody else, and it is a notorious fact that our Embassy staff has been treated abominably in regard to the housing conditions supplied by the right hon. Gentleman's Department. They have had to stay in inferior hotels at great discomfort and at great expense. I should like to know whether that condition of affairs has been remedied. Will he also tell us something about the enormous amount of supplementary estimate necessary for furniture. The main Estimate is £33,000 and you have an increase of nearly £10,000 upon that. It is a large proportion. In the previous year, the estimate for furniture was £24,000, so that it has been practically doubled during last year. That is a great deal of money for furni- 949 ture fur public buildings abroad, particularly if you take into account the various programmes started but not completed. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be a little more forthcoming not only in regard to Moscow but in regard to the rise in the expenditure on furniture, and also tell us something of the position of our staff in Russia.
§ Mr. CULVERWELL
The right hon. Gentleman's reply is most unsatisfactory partly because he has tried to shelter himself behind the delinquencies of his predecessors. What strikes me as extraordinary is that hon. Members opposite should blame us because we are a little more efficient in our criticism of the administration than they were when they were in opposition. It is our duty to criticise the administration, because we know that the right hon. Gentleman is advised by experienced officials who occasionally make mistakes. In this particular instance, it seems that the right hon. Gentleman has been given a faulty brief, because he said that the purchase of land for £30,000 was necessary—that is, three-quarters of the original Vote—in order to preserve the amenities of the Embassy and to prevent the view from the Embassy being interrupted. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that it is an excellent investment, because, owing to its position on the main road, it will become a valuable property, and the Government will get the unearned increment arising from the increase of value. Unearned increment only accrues when you sell the property or build on it. Therefore, it is no defence to say that we are making a valuable investment by purchasing land for the purpose of keeping it unbuilt. We must be prepared to face the fact that this valuable bit of land, which should have been bought when the original Vote for the construction of the Embassy was asked for, is costing almost as much as the original price.
The First Commissioner cannot defend the action of his predecessor and the officials who advised him in that particular case. I do not mind whether a Socialist Government or a Conservative Government was in Office when the site was bought; whoever bought it, should have bought the whole area at once. We have not been told what the area of this plot is, and the right hon. Gentleman 950 has not given us a hint of what he is going to do with it. Is it going to be planted with shrubberies and gardens? Obviously he cannot build on it, even though it be a valuable building plot, because he has told us that the whole object of purchasing the land is to preserve the amenities of the Embassy. The House is entitled to know what he proposes doing with it. We would also like to know something about the furniture, because the right hon. Gentleman said nothing about that. All he mentioned was the £30,000 for the land, and we have a right to know how the extra £9,500 for furniture is to be spent. I want him to understand that we are not merely casting a reflection upon him, but upon the whole administration of his office. This mistake, because I think he will admit it is a mistake, is one for which, unfortunately, he has to bear a portion of the blame, because he has to ask for the money, and because the mistake originated when the party opposite were in Opposition, and were not as careful as we have been to investigate the proceedings of the Government of the day.
§ Sir PATRICK FORD
I do not think the dilemma in which the hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Culverwell) has posed the right hon. Gentleman is quite as complete as he thinks. I feel there is some justification for the purchase of this spot, and that it can be used in a way which will give us the unearned increment and at the same time not spoil the amenities of the building. If I did not misunderstand the right hon. Gentleman, he said there was a difference in our favour as between the site of the new Embassy and the site of the old Embassy amounting to something like £60,000; and, if that be so, and admitting that we were justified in buying this site at £30,000, I wish to know why he has to come to the British taxpayer.
§ Sir P. FORD
It is very desirable that that should be made clear, and very desirable that we should have an under- 951 taking that this money will be paid back to the taxpayer.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I certainly made it clear that the person from whom we are buying this later portion of land is not the same person who is paying us the money on 31st March.
§ Sir P. FORD
But assuming that the vendors are different persons, we are entitled to get from the owner of the site which we have vacated £60,000, and we are paying another vendor £30,000.
§ Sir P. FORD
No; but we pay the vendor from whom we are buying land £30,000, and we have got £60,000 from the owner of the site we have vacated. Surely that leaves £30,000 to pay into the taxpayers' pockets?
§ Lord EUSTACE PERCY
I am afraid we cannot lay the flattering unction to our souls that we are not really being asked for £30,000 because we are going to get £60,000. That £60,000 has already been taken into account as an appropriation-in-aid in the main Estimate, and, therefore, we are being asked to pay £30,000. I make one comment on this question, because there is a moral to be drawn from it, and one which does not redound to the credit of any political party or of our system of government as a whole. Ever since the question of a new Embassy at Washington came up—for the last 20 or 25 years—the Treasury has been bombarded with proposals to buy an adequate site in time, and to buy it cheap; and the reply that has always been made by His Majesty's Treasury is "His Majesty's Government do not speculate in land." Only when they were ready to build would they buy the land, and then not more than they absolutely needed. The result was that under the late Goverment—I admit it is not a responsibility of the present Government—an inadequate site was bought for £40,000, and now, having developed the value of that site, we have got to pay £30,000 for the strip which is necessary to fill it up.
It was said, in defence of the extra expenditure, "This is a very awkward site. It stands skew-wise to a road, which itself is not a straight road, going 952 up a hill." No doubt it was rather difficult, at the time when the original site was bought, to foresee to what extent the stretch of land down the hill from the frontage of the embassy, would obstruct the view of the embassy. The fundamental fact, the moral to be drawn from the whole story is that when the Treasury and the Office of Works proceed to choose a site for an embassy they are very nearly always wrong. The whole question of any embassy abroad has to be dealt with by three Government Departments, each fighting the other. Those three Departments are the Treasury, the Office of Works, and the Foreign Office, but the Foreign Office is the only one which knows anything of the local conditions, and it is the one which has least say in these matters. The Office of Works is mainly absorbed in building Employment Exchanges in Upper Tooting, but they lay down the law on these questions on the advice of no one knows who and in consultation with the Treasury.
§ Lord E. PERCY
That is the whole history of this Washington business It is the history of every new Embassy site in the world, and I think the House would be well advised to draw the moral that the whole arrangement of the Government for doing any sort of business at all with a landlord abroad is hoplessly inefficient and urgently requires reform. Really, the First Commissioner of Works ought not to ask us to blind our eyes to these appalling inefficiencies just because all parties are implicated. This is a matter in which we ought to act as a Council of State. That having been said, I am certain this £30,000 is an excellent investment, in fact the best I have ever heard of the Government undertaking.
§ Mr. BRACKEN
The Noble Lord has given us a little lecture on political science. I understand he has written a book about it lately. If he really believes the last Government blocked the hopeful scheme of the Foreign Office, I feel that any value that his book may have will be largely vitiated by the observations that he has made to-night. We really have to congratulate the First 953 Commissioner of Works on making this choice. The building itself is one of the most beautiful of its kind in the world. We owe it to the genius of Sir Edwin Lutyens and to the discrimination of the Office of Works that this land has been made more valuable, and I do not think we ought to quibble too much about this sum of £30,000, because it is certain that as the years go by the land will become more and more valuable.
With regard to the furniture purchased by the Office of Works under this Estimate, I would make an appeal to the First Commissioner. He is spending large sums on furniture in various parts of the world, and I hope that in spending this money some opportunities will be given to the younger school of British furniture designers to produce furniture for our Embassies abroad. There is in the Cotswolds and elsewhere a very fine school of young furniture designers, but nevertheless there seems to be a tendency to purchase this furniture in the Tottenham Court Road. [Interruption.] I may be a little hard on the Office of Works, but I appeal to the First Commissioner to give these young designers a chance. They can produce much more cheaply than these great mass-production emporiums in the West End, and I think the right hon. Gentleman would be doing a great service if he would send out the works of these young artists, rather than the red plush abortions which are shoved in by these merchants in the Tottenham Court Road.
§ Mr. ALBERY
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that this site was bought from its last owner for the same figure that he paid for it, but it does not seem to me that there is very much in that point, unless one knew when the last owner purchased it. There has been a very big fall in values recently in America, and if the last owner purchased it at the height of the boom, there is not much comfort in knowing that we have now paid him the same price.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
Unlike the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy), I do not want to put any blame on anyone. He knows this site, and I think I know it from memory, though I have not been there as lately as he has. He knows that it was a site with 954 regard to which it would be impossible for any layman to say in what manner it would be laid out, and it so happens that it has been laid out in such a way that, unless this piece of land is under our control, the most beautiful side of the building would be blocked. I think that this is a real justification for what we are asking the House to approve of.
With regard to the furniture, I will do my best to see that we get up-to-date designs and give young artists a chance. We have given one young artist—I am not sure that it is not two—a very good chance by buying a beautiful screen which was made here at South Kensington, and which, when the hon. Member next visits the Embassy at Washington, he will be able to admire. The furniture for which this money is required has gone to a number of places, including the Kovno Legation and Moscow. I am quite sure, after the speech of the Noble Lord the right hon. Member for Hastings that the House will not require any more from me.
§ Major COLFOX
The right hon. Gentleman has answered a good many of the questions put to him, but not by any means all. He has not answered the question of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) as to the housing of the Embassy staff at Moscow—
§ Major COLFOX
Nor has the right hon. Gentleman answered the question of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bristol (Mr. Culverwell) as to how this land is to be used. He seems to have come here very badly primed with information. We does not seem to know anything about the Moscow Embassy, which is obviously an important point, involving, as it does, a large sum of money. He comes here quite frankly acknowledging that he knows nothing of his subject. It is most regrettable that that should be the case. On the subject of the Washington Embassy, I think he might answer the questions that 955 have been put to him, and particularly how it is intended to deal with the land.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.956
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.