HC Deb 02 March 1939 vol 344 cc1625-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

While not proposing to detain the Committee, I want to ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury a question on which I have failed hitherto to elicit from the Chancellor of the Exchequer or any other Member of the Government, an explanation of the grounds on which the sum of £400,000,000 was chosen, which we are increasing by this Bill. I do not believe there was a reason why that figure was selected; the only explanation I can get is on the principle of thinking of a number and doubling it. The Government thought of £400,000,000, and are now proposing to double it. If there is any other explanation I should be very glad to have it from the Minister who is to reply on this Clause.

11.25 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Euan Wallace)

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has not been able to extract any explanation of this figure from the much more distinguished representatives of the Government who have addressed the House on various stages of the Bill. It now falls to me to rush in where angels have previously feared to tread, and to tell the Committee that the figure of £400,000,000 is admittedly not the result of any precise calculation. I do not say that it is simply a case of taking a number and doubling it, but the real fact is that our future borrowing needs in connection with the defence programme depend on two things—first, the future rate of our expenditure on defence, and secondly, the yield of the revenue in the years to come. It is impossible to forecast either of those figures at all closely, and I think the Committee will realise that to forecast the result of both together could only be done within a very wide margin of error. For that reason it seemed best to my right hon. Friend to take what is admittedly a somewhat arbitrary figure and simply double what was provided for in the Act of 1937, with the very object of not appearing to give a precise basis to the new figure which would not actually exist in fact. It is for that reason alone that we have simply doubled the 1937 figure. If it should be true, as has been suggested, that we may have to come back for more money next year, my right hon. Friend will at any rate give Members in all parts of the House further opportunity of submitting once more to a critical, but I hope friendly, examination our very large defence expenditure and the admittedly novel methods by which we are meeting it.

As the Chancellor has reminded hon. Members, the defence programme is in essence flexible; it can be accelerated or it can be curtailed. I believe the whole Committee will join with me in the fervent hope that, before we have to come back to borrow more money under this procedure there will have been a beneficial change in the international situation which will enable curtailment of the programme to take place.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment; to be read the Third time upon Monday next.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

It being after half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes before Twelve o'Clock