HC Deb 13 April 1937 vol 322 cc899-905

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £1,159,180, 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, 1938, for Expenditure in respect of Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue, Post Office and Telegraph Buildings in Great Britain, certain Post Offices abroad, and for certain expenses in connection with Boats and Launches belonging to the Customs and Excise Department."—[Note: £580,000 has been voted on account.]

9.40 P.m.

Mr. Viant

In view of the large sum of money which is involved in this Vote, we on this side of the Committee would appreciate some explanation of these expenses. I would first draw the attention of the Minister in charge of the Vote to an item on page 77 of the Estimate under the heading of Post Office and Telegraph Buildings. Provision is made for ex- penditure in connection with a temporary trunk telephone exchange at Norwich, and the Vote which we are asked to give this evening is for a sum of £2,350, while the estimated expenditure on the work to be carried out is £2,450. This appears rather a large sum for what are described here as adaptations of a temporary telephone exchange and we should be glad to have a few details as to this work. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is the Postmaster-General?"] It is the Office of Works which is responsible for this expenditure.

The next item to which I wish to draw attention is in connection with the Post Office Engineering Department. I presume from what appears in the Estimate that the Post Office is about to take over the Palace of Engineering at Wembley or probably has already taken over that structure, and I note that there is to be an expenditure in that connection of £2,900 of which we are invited this evening to Vote £2,400. The accommodation apparently is required for a television laboratory—I presume for experimental purposes—and we would like some information on that item also. Next I wish to direct attention to page 73 of the Estimates and to the item in respect of Gravesend Custom House and the erection of a new pier in place of the existing one. There is to be an expenditure on this work, apparently of £12,350, of which we are asked this evening to vote £10,350. My hon. Friends and especially those who are associated with the East End of London would like some details of this expenditure. There is also an item in connection with the Royal Victoria Docks of £12,500, again a matter of interest to the East End of London, on which some further particulars might be given us.

Turning to page 75 I find an item which will probably be of considerable interest to my Scottish colleagues. In Edinburgh there is to be an expenditure of £103,500 on the purchase of a site and the erection of a building in connection with the Inland Revenue Department. We are asked this evening to vote £5,000 of that sum and I understand that there has already been a vote under this head. I wish to know the cost of the site and also some facts as to the type of building which is to be erected and the number of staff which it is intended to accommodate in this building. I presume that the Department is removing from one establishment to another. Any details in connection therewith will be welcomed by myself and my colleagues. In Glasgow there is also to be a considerable expenditure amounting to £98,250. Again I presume the site has to be purchased or has already been purchased, and we should like to know in connection therewith what number of staff is to be housed in this establishment, and the reasons that have necessitated this expenditure.

There is a very important point I desire to raise in connection with the policy of supervision in connection with this work. I understand it is the custom of the Office of Works to appoint an official known as the clerk of works to watch the procedure in the interests of the Department. Within the last few days information has been brought to my notice in connection with work that is already proceeding where the clerk of works occasionally visits the work that is being carried out, but does not remain there. My experience persuades me that where contractors are carrying out work on specification it is necessary to keep a close watch on that work. In connection with the complaint that has been raised, I am not going to mention the man, nor am I going to give the address where this work is being carried out, but the complaint is of scamping of work. Where skirting boards are being fitted and where the joints and corners should be grooved and tongued they are being fixed with a simple square butt joint. Where architreaves should be dovetailed to plinth blocks, nothing of the kind is being done. The clerk of the works should be aware of these facts.

I understand that a letter of complaint in connection with this has already been sent to the Department. The letter goes on to state that where they are laying a new floor, they watch for the coming and going of the clerk of works, and in his absence, they use joists taken from another part of the establishment whereas they should use new joists. The clerk of works, if he is not on the job all the time, ought at least to be visiting the works sufficiently often to be able to see that no scamping takes place. What is more important, as this letter indicates, is that where scamping has been effected it is carefully covered over until the clerk of the works has left the premises. Then the covering is removed and the work is continued. I raise these points because they are of considerable importance if the community is to get value for the money expended.

From the complaints that have been sent to me as long as I have been a Member of this House I have discovered that the Department is not quite as vigilant as it might be in seeing that the fair wages clause is adhered to, and, what is more important, that the work is carried out as efficiently as it may be and ought to be. It has invariably happened that when complaints have been sent to me I have had to raise them with the Department, whereas the cause of the trouble should have been discovered by the clerk of the works. The clerk of the works should at all times be sure in the interests of the Department that the fair wages clause and conditions are being observed, and it should not rest with the trade union to have to raise the point. Rather the reverse. The officials of the Department should be watching this as we expect the keeper of the peace, the policeman, to watch the interests of the citizen and see that the peace is not broken. I make no apology for having raised these points, and I hope the Minister in charge will be able to give the details asked for and be able to assure the Committee of the fact that steps are going to be taken at no distant date to see that the fair wages clause is strictly observed and that the community is getting value for the money expended.

9.53 P.m.

Mr. R. S. Hudson

The hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) was kind enough to give me notice beforehand that he was going to raise these individual points. I need hardly say I am most grateful to him for his courtesy. He asked about Norwich and queried whether £2,000 odd was not excessive for that work. The reason is that the telephone work at Norwich has expanded very rapidly indeed lately, and a new exchange is under construction or about to be constructed. It will not be ready until 1940, and as the existing trunk exchange is fully occupied now, it has been necessary to hire an additional building outside to accommodate the new lines.

He asked me about Wembley. That expenditure is due to work being carried out, as he conjectured, of an experimental nature on television. There is no room for the additional staff required by the Post Office at Dollis Hill, and therefore it has been necessary to acquire a small area in the Wembley building and adapt it for these experimental purposes. I understand that a certain amount of expense is involved, because the area has to be split up into a large number of small rooms. As regards Gravesend, there is an old pier dating from some time in the last century. It was found that the piles were rotted and it was necessary to construct a new one, larger than the old. When the plans were under consideration the Port of London Authority said they would like a rather larger pier and therefore, as additional expense will be incurred, the Port of London Authority are going to contribute to the cost. As regards Victoria Dock the Port of London Authority, I understand, have completely reconstructed the accommodation on the dock and therefore the rooms that are at present used by the harbour authorities will have to be changed; probably some five different small rooms will have to be erected. We do not know the cost and it has been thought advisable to make provision in this way.

Mr. Viant

You do not know when you are going to start?

Mr. Hudson

It depends on the Port of London Authority. As regards Edinburgh, the expenditure is due to a large increase in recent years in the amount of postal work. The Post Office is demanding that it shall have the sole occupancy of the whole of the present building, and in order to accommodate the other staffs it has been decided to build on the site of the Waverley Hotel. The number of staff to be accommodated in the new building will probably be somewhere between 350 and 400. In regard to Glasgow further accommodation is required. It is proposed to erect a new building which will house a number of Government staffs. A certain number of staff, it is anticipated, will be housed there—somewhere between 550 and 600.

The normal practice of the Office of Works in regard to building work is to appoint a clerk of works. The clerk of works should be the watchdog of the Department, as the hon. Member for Willesden (Mr. Viant) has rightly said. On him will depend the responsibility of seeing that the proper materials are used and the specifications properly carried out, but, as the hon. Member said, it is a question of the human factor. In cases where some jobs are not of sufficient importance each to justify a whole-time clerk of the works, in order to economise one clerk, where possible, sees to two or three of these jobs. I gather that the hon. Member had in mind some particular job. I can appreciate that he did not want here in the House to give the name or place of the firm involved, but if he will be kind enough to let me know it in confidence I will see the matter is investigated.

Mr. Viant

The architect undoubtedly is responsible for supervising but the clerk of the works is the man who understands the manner in which the work should be tackled, and if it is the policy of the Department to give him too many jobs to watch it is utterly impossible for him to supervise each as he should do, and I rather imagine that that is in the main responsible. I am asking that the matter should be looked into to see that opportunities for scamping should no longer prevail as they do at present.

Mr. Hudson

The hon. Member will realise that until I have had an opportunity of investigating the particular case I cannot say who is responsible, but I can assure him that I will look into it myself.