HC Deb 29 June 1933 vol 279 cc1796-801

"That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £540,000, 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, 1934, for sundry Dominion Services, including certain Grants in Aid, and for expenditure in connection with ex-service men in the Irish Free State, and for a Grant in Aid to the Irish Free State in respect of Compensation to Transferred Officers."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

11.2 p.m.


I wish to offer some observations on this Estimate in addition to remarks which I had to make on the Committee stage, when the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Dominions was, unfortunately, prevented from being with us. This Estimate differs in many respects from the ordinary Supplementary Estimates which come before this House and I regret that it should be necessary to take it at such an inconvenient hour. There is this important difference, that that original Estimate for Dominion services for the year totalled £75,000 and with the Supplementary Estimate to which we are now asked to agree, the total for the Department for the year comes to £615,000. I hope hon. Members on all sides of the House will agree that it is an unusual and extraordinary state of affairs if, after the main Estimate has been approved for the year, the amount demanded from us is, by means of Supplementary Estimates, brought up to a total which is more than eight times the amount of the original Estimate. I recall to hon. Members, in case they have forgotten it, that the main mandate of this Government was an economy mandate, and I ask them to consider what would be the financial position of the country if each Minister in turn, having received his Supply for the year, were to ask for Supplementary Estimates which increased his total to eight times the original Estimate. The right hon. Gentleman, in his belated speech, indicated that he asked for the Supplementary Estimate in fulfilment of a promise made on a previous occasion. He seemed to indicate that it was a great act of grace on his part. He said: I ought in fairness to say that I myself, in order to give effect to a pledge which I gave on the last occasion, was responsible for having the Vote to-day. The Committee will remember that, when dealing with the situation six months ago, I said that before any further commitment was made I would take the opportunity of consulting the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th June, 1933; col. 1533, Vol. 279.] I may not have a very firm grip of the principles that govern our business here, but I do not think the right hon. Gentleman came down to the House as an act of courtesy and in fulfilment of a pledge; he simply could not get the money unless he came here. He got from us, some three or four months ago, a Supplementary Estimate of £160,000. I think he told us on that occasion that that was not to be taken as a precedent in any way. Yesterday, he came back and asked for an additional £400,000, not in order to be nice and polite, but because he could not get it unless he came here.

The right hon. Gentleman promised—I will not say that, because that would be just a little bit of an over-statement—but he came as near as possible to giving a promise to the House on the last occasion that there would be no further demands for money in aid of Newfoundland's finances until the commission which he had sent out there had returned with a report on the general condition of Newfoundland, which would enable him, as the Minister responsible to the House, to come to some long-term financial policy with reference to the relationship of this country and Newfoundland.

Yesterday the right hon. Gentleman had to come and tell us that the Commission had not reported and that, so far as his knowledge went, we were as far away from getting some long-term policy for dealing with the difficulty of Newfoundland as we were four months ago. He paid tribute to the public spirit of the Noble Lord who took on the chairmanship of that Commission. I think he was entitled to do so, but I do not know that we are entitled to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for having asked the Noble Lord to shoulder the responsibilities of such a Commission. The Noble Lord, Lord Amulree, has had a very distinguished career in this country both in law and in politics. I can remember, when he assumed the position of Minister of Air in the late Labour Administration, that I turned up the appropriate volume to discover who he was. I have not met him as a Socialist agitator or in the Labour movement at any time previously, and I wanted just to get a little information about my new comrade. At that time, when I looked him up in the appropriate volume I found that he was over 70 years of age, and I should imagine he is now 75 years of age.

I think it was an act of gross cruelty on the part of the Secretary of State for the Dominions to ask the Noble Lord as a patriotic duty to shoulder the task of proceeding to the unkindly climate of Newfoundland in March of this year; and I am not surprised that the Noble Lord has not concluded his task—indeed, has not completed his journey. In fact, one of the statements of the Under-Secretary yesterday left us in some doubt whether the Dominions Office is quite aware where the Noble Lord is at the present moment. He may be lost in the wilds of Canada or on the hinterland of Newfoundland, for all we know. Certainly he has not been able to present his report in time to enable this House to form a judgment as to whether we are doing a wise or a foolish thing in extending the further credits which are now being asked for Newfoundland in this Supplementary Estimate.

In a House of Commons where there are hundreds of young Members, with energy and experience and, we are told, capacity, where there is a superabundance of them, where there is a whole lot of them "kicking their heels," surely it was unnecessary for the Secretary of State for the Dominions to call upon a, Noble Lord who, if he had been a member of the working classes, would have been drawing his old age pension for 10 years, to go and do a job that involved much physical inconvenience and serious, steady intellectual effort. I do not blame the Noble Lord; he is worthy of the highest praise for accepting this responsible duty; but I blame the Secretary of State for the Dominions who, when be had a wide range of choice for a task of this sort, passed over men of ability, energy and sound physique, and chose somebody who obviously could not accomplish the job he was asked to accomplish within the time which was necessary if it was to be of practical value to this House.

I want to make a further point. This amount is asked for because we do not want Newfoundland to be a defaulter on its debts in the eyes of the world. The Government believe that that would have awkward repercussions, and particularly at this time, when debts are generally in a state of—I do not know the word I want. [An HON. MEMBER:"A state of flux?"] I could give you the language, but it would not be in order; but obviously the House knows what I mean as well as I do, and I leave it at that. We have just finished talking about experts, and I am sure that all of us will agree that the right hon. Gentleman is at least as good an expert as I am. But there has been a good precedent set up. I do not know to whom Newfoundland is owing this money, but I gather from the reply to a question put yesterday that it is regarded as a trustee security in this country. That does not indicate who are the recipients of the interest that Newfoundland must pay, but I assume, from my knowledge of the general condition of the population of this country, that generally speaking the Newfoundland loan is not held by members of the working classes, and I think we are entitled to assume that a default of Newfoundland on that side would not impose, at any rate, workhouse privations on the holders of that loan.

Therefore the problem that confronts one is not that social and human problem, but the problem of the financial reputation of Newfoundland as a part of the British Empire. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in this House, announced amidst almost universal plaudits a new device by which it was quite proper for a Government that owed a substantial sum of money to pay a very small fraction of that sum—about one-tenth—and the creditor nation was prepared to say before the whole world that that would not be regarded as default. If the United States were pre- pared to take that large and generous view of the non-payment of interest by Great Britain herself to the United States, it was surely possible for the Dominions Secretary to have made some arrangement by which Newfoundland could have passed the dividend for this particular six months—as, I would point out to him, a great many commercial firms have had to do in recent years and have still preserved a certain measure of good repute in the eyes of the business world. Just as Great Britain herself passed a dividend to the United States a few weeks ago, so Newfoundland could either have passed it, saying: "We could not pay it just now, but Lord Amulree is bringing forward a report that is going to put our finances in a sound condition for the future and we shall be able to meet it on future occasions"; or they could have paid some part of that debt and, since a large proportion is held in Great Britain, a statement by the Dominions Secretary that that would not be regarded as default would be adequate to save the reputation of that small Dominion.

The right hon. Gentleman smiles. He should have thought about this matter a few days before the decision had to be taken. I know he had great preoccupations at the World Economic Conference and I know that he is the personality who holds the British Empire together there; he is the co-ordinating force, for he said so in the course of the Debate yesterday. But it was his duty when he was coming to this House to ask for power to increase his original Estimate eight times in amount, to have thought of alternative ways of facing the difficulty and to have provided himself with all the information which the Commission and its Chairman had to give. Obviously from his statement and the statement of his Under-Secretary he knows absolutely nothing of what progress the Commission has made. Not an idea, nothing to tell the House. He has not given two minutes' thought to it. He said, "Ah, I can rely on slapping £400,000 out of the House, and that is the easiest way." Personally I enter the very strongest objection to his handling of the matter from the beginning, his appointment of the Commission, and his coming to the House at the last minute for this huge sum. I want the House to be awake to what it is doing, although the subject comes on at 11 o'clock as second-rate business; to realise that it is doing something which is careless, slipshod and inefficient. The Dominions Secretary ought to have been told yesterday to take back his Supplementary Estimate until such time as he was able to put his proposals before the House in a business-like manner such as would command the approval of intelligent people.