Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £6,000, 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, 1938, for Expenditure in respect of Public Works and Buildings in Ireland.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ Sir P. Sassoon
There are only two main items concerned with works and buildings in Ireland in which my Department is concerned. With regard to the third item, Sub-head F, Reserve services, Customs House and Inland Revenue Office at Londonderry, the work was begun before 31st March, 1937, and proceeded more slowly than was expected. The next item is much larger, the adaptation of a new building to house the nine tax districts in Belfast. They were very crowded in the Customs House before, and a scheme was being brought forward to move at least five of them out. This new building was discovered, which can house all the nine tax districts, and it was, therefore, considered far more convenient to move them all into this building. The landlord was pressing for a decision, and, as the rent seemed very reasonable, it was decided to close with this offer, which was obviously for the convenience of the taxpayers of Belfast. Therefore, I am asking the Committee for this sum, which will be spent on putting the building in order.
§ 9.36 p.m.
§ Sir S. Cripps
One very interesting item to which the right hon. Gentleman has not referred is Sub-head G, which relates to an anticipated saving of £120 on the maintenance and repairs of the Customs line between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. I should like to ask a few questions as to the basis on which that anticipation is made. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that certain conversations have been proceeding between different bodies which might lead to the abolition of Customs barriers between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. This sum of £120 does not seem quite a proportionate sum to be saved if it is anticipated that any success is likely to come out of these negotiations. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will pay great attention to this, because it is a matter of great importance. He has, no doubt, consulted the Dominions Secretary, who is responsible for the conversations which have been proceeding; and he has, no doubt, obtained from him, before he framed this Supplementary Estimate, his opinion as to what was likely to 1030 happen on the Customs line between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. I am not quite clear as to what the maintenance and repairs of a Customs line are. I always thought a Customs line was like a mathematical line, in that it passed between two points and had neither breadth nor any other physical attribute which would require maintenance or repair. I should have thought that the maintenance of a Customs line between two countries was more a matter for political action than for the physical action of a bricklayer or carpenter.
I should like to know how in the past this repairing of the Customs line has been carried out. One has heard, from time to time, that cattle have been driven over this line from the Irish Free State to Northern Ireland. Is it that the cattle have damaged the line in crossing, and is that the reason for the maintenance and repair that the right hon. Gentleman was responsible for? I hope that, with all the wealth of good advice that he is having, the right hon. Gentleman will not be muddled by his own supporters as to what it is that we are dealing with at present. If he would tell us what in the past has been the maintenance and repair to which reference is made here, and on what basis these anticipated savings are going to materialise to the extent of this large sum of £120 in the coming year, we might more successfully conduct the rest of the Debate, because, quite obviously, this raises the whole question of the Customs line, which is of great importance in view of the negotiations between the two countries. Perhaps, after all the consultations that he is having with his political friends and advisers, the right hon. Gentleman would elaborate on that.
§ 9.41 p.m.
§ Sir Ronald Ross
I should like to introduce into this Debate the non-controversial atmosphere which is typical of Irish politics. I am eager to assist the hon. and learned Gentleman in any way I can. As regards the Customs line, I think it bears an analogy to the Mason-Dixon line, with which, as it is in America, the hon. and learned Gentleman is probably more familiar. I expect that he knows more about America than he does about Ireland. The chief notable event on the Customs line last year was a gesture of good will by the Irish Republican Army, which, with great impartiality, burnt the 1031 huts of the Irish Free State and of Northern Ireland.
§ Sir R. Ross
As the huts on both sides of the line were burnt, it may well be that there is a saving in maintenance. That is no doubt a matter with which my right hon. Friend will deal in more considered terms. At all events, the huts were burnt; that we know to be a fact. The hon. and learned Gentleman alluded to success in the negotiations, which will no doubt include questions connected with the Customs between our Government and the Government of whatever the area is described as which includes 26 counties in Ireland. I do not know what the hon. and learned Gentleman means by success, because I should probably look at success from a different angle; but, as regards freedom of trade between the United Kingdom and that part of Ireland which is not part of the United Kingdom, certainly in our part of the country we would be eager to have trade as free as possible and with no restrictions.
I have been listening very carefully, and the hon. Member has not come to the subject of the Estimate.
§ Sir R. Ross
I was afraid, Sir Dennis, that I was rather putting my foot across the line. I am sure you will not prevent me talking on matters connected with Customs.
§ Sir R. Ross
If there is no trade there are no Customs, and if we can abolish the Customs it means—
I am quite sure the hon. Member tried very hard to enlighten me as to the meaning of the Customs line, but I am not sure how, on this subject, we can discuss the effect of Customs on trade.
§ Sir R. Ross
If, in my remarks about the Customs line, I was in error, I was 1032 led into error by the hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced this subject. He had alluded to the discussions on Customs, and certainly I do not propose to follow him and get into any further slough of despond on the question of Customs.
§ 9.45 p.m.
I would almost welcome this Debate if only for the opportunity of hearing the delightful Irish brogue of an Irish Member whom we so seldom hear in this House. The Minister stated that the original Estimate was one of £1,345, and the additional sum required is £5,500, and I understand that this is because of new works in order to bring together nine separate Customs departments. Can he give us some details with regard to the building? Irish people employed in this particular task ought to be made as comfortable as Scottish or English people. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the Committee some additional information with regard to the type of buildings, the heating and the sanitary arrangements, and say whether the provision of this additional sum will give to these Irish people the general requirements that we should expect in England, Scotland and Wales?
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Sir P. Sassoon
The hon. Gentleman opposite has asked questions about the housing of the officers of these nine districts in one building. They were originally housed in the Customs House, but they have increased in personnel and will go on increasing. Therefore, it would have been essential anyhow to move some of them into what would have been purely temporary accommodation.
The point I am making is that the Department must have had in mind the establishment of new works.
§ Sir P. Sassoon
It would not have been a satisfactory arrangement to move some of them out of the building. We found Moore's Building, and we are hoping that we shall be able to house the officers of all these districts under one roof. We secured it at a very reasonable rent, but the landlord was not prepared to carry out the necessary works to adapt the building for its new purpose, and, therefore, we are going to do so. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all the points which he has raised about the interior 1033 arrangements and accommodation are being properly looked into; heating and electric light, fire appliances, and all the necessary arrangements and equipments for the work. There is nothing more that I can explain under that particular heading, and I hope that the hon. Member will be satisfied.
With regard to the point which the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite raised, I am afraid that I did not get the help and assistance of which he was thinking from my many advisers, because I am not able to enlighten him very much upon this matter beyond what he knows himself. There have apparently always been these kinds of huts in connection with Customs in Ireland. In our original Estimate we provided a sum of about £1,600 for the upkeep of these houses or huts, and the saving of £120 that we are now making apparently comes about because the houses are not in need of so much attention and repair as was originally contemplated.
§ 9.50 p.m.
§ Sir S. Cripps
That is hardly a satisfactory explanation to give. This is an anticipated saving and not a realised saving. I would ask what the right hon. Gentleman has taken into account in making this Estimate? Upon what is his anticipation based? It must be based upon one of two things; either upon the maintenance of the Customs or the disappearance of the Customs, one or the other. I can see that very definite considerations might help the right hon. Gentleman in arriving at the anticipation as to whether he thought that, on the whole, the possibilities were that the Customs might disappear during the next month or so, or if he thought, on the other hand, after consultation with his right hon. Friend, that there was no opportunity of that happening. What I particularly ask is: What was the outcome of his conversations on this subject with his right hon. Friend before he sat down to make this Estimate? He is not going to tell the Committee that he did not consult anybody and that he went off all alone into a room and sat down and decided that the Customs item was 1034 £120. He must have had some basis for his Estimate.
I am asking him, in regard to these careful inquiries which he made and upon which he arrived at this Estimate, whether he can say what was the result, as far as his right hon. Friend, who is dealing with these negotiations, is concerned? Did he ask him? If he did ask him, what did he tell him? As the result of his conversation is he hopeful that there may be some saving on this Customs line because it may be no longer necessary to maintain it in the high state of repair as at present, as it is not to last very long. It may be a year or two, but if it were to go in six months, it would not be worth while spending much money in order to repair it at the present time. It may be five years before it is allowed to go. I do not know. I am asking that question because, if we ourselves have to arrive at an accurate judgment on these anticipated savings, we must know what the right hon. Gentleman's knowledge is of what is likely to happen in the future. It is on that that his anticipation is based, and we are asking him not to leave us blind as to what is likely to happen. We have not been at these conversations and we cannot form any judgment. We do not know. Cannot he give the Committee the benefit of his knowledge, so that on that basis we too may be able to judge as to whether his anticipations are such that we should pass this Vote to-night or not.
§ 9.54 p.m.
§ Sir P. Sassoon
I would be only too pleased to share my knowledge with the hon. and learned Gentleman if I were better informed than he is on this subject. Unfortunately, the conversation which I have had with ray right hon. Friend, which the hon. and learned Gentleman has so vividly described to the Committee, has not yet taken place. I really hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not impute any ulterior motives to me in regard to this very small item of £120.
§ Sir S. Cripps
As the right hon. Gentleman has so frankly confessed that he has not taken any trouble whatever to be able to advise the Committee upon this item, I can only say—of course we cannot pursue it, because it would be a waste of time to do so—that we must warn 1035 him that in future if matters of this sort come up we shall expect him to have made inquiries in the proper quarters beforehand, so that he can inform the Committee as to the position and the Committee can form their own opinion as to the advisability of confirming the Vote, or otherwise.
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £16,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 3rst day of March, 1938, for Expenditure in respect of Public Works and Buildings in Ireland.