§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
§ Mr. Tinker (Leigh)
There is a point on which I would like to ask a question. On the first page of the Bill, in Clause 3, there appear the words:The Treasury may borrow … any sum or sums not exceeding … one thousand, six hundred minion pounds,and overleaf it goes on to say:Any money borrowed otherwise than on Treasury Bills shall be repaid, with interest not exceeding five pounds per cent. per annum.I understood that this House had decided not to pay interest to that extent, and I want to know from the Chancellor why five per cent. is specified. Taking this figure of £1,600,000,000 at one per cent., it will equal £16,000,000, and at 2½ per cent. it will be £40,000,000, which I claim is all that ought to be paid on borrowed money. When this comes before the House, we are entitled to know what is meant. Does it mean that the Treasury will have power to pay interest up to five per cent. and that this House, after passing this Measure, will have no voice at all on the restriction of interest? In a crisis like this the time has now come when, money having to be borrowed, people who have the money ought not to expect interest to that extent. In fact, if I had my way, I would take all the wealth without paying any interest, just as the Government conscript human life. When five per cent. is put into a Bill, we are entitled to know what it means, and before the Bill is passed I want the Chancellor to assure us that not more than 2½ per cent. will be paid on borrowed money.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent)
It would be in order to raise in this Debate any question dealing with this expenditure, but I understand that it is the desire of the Government to facilitate the passage of the War Damage Bill. Therefore, I do not want to say anything that may prevent the Government from getting that Bill through the House as soon as possible.
1380 It is a well understood procedure of this House that before any Supply is voted the grievances of the people should be ventilated in the House. Therefore, having this week-end attended several meetings where representative and responsible people have been present, and having listened to their grievances about rationing and about the transport of work-people in industrial centres in particular, I hope that when another Consolidated Fund Bill is put before us there will be an opportunity for those legitimate grievances to be ventilated in a Debate in this House. While not desiring to labour this aspect of the situation at the present time, I trust that in the future the Chancellor and the Government will take notice of what has been said in regard to it.
§ Sir Waldron Smithers (Chislehurst)
Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, I would like to raise one point. After the large amount of money which has been voted by this House, and after the wonderful response which has been made to the appeals of the Chancellor and of Sir Robert Kindersley for money to be given or lent to the Government, are the Government really taking the necessary steps to see that this money is wisely and economically spent? I know that very important committees have been set up, but they have no power to punish malefactors who waste public money and who are dishonest in the carrying out of Government contracts. Cannot the Chancellor devise some more rapid means of dealing with waste and extravagance, and will he not allow serious charges to be made the subject of a judicial inquiry, presided over by a Judge, where witnesses can be heard and cross-examined and all parties be represented by counsel? One of the greatest assets the Government have to-day is the confidence and support of the whole country, but I feel that unless some drastic action is taken to ensure that public money is wisely spent, that confidence may be impaired. Will not the Chancellor consider that matter?
§ Sir Frank Sanderson (Ealing)
I cannot agree entirely with one expression used by my hon. Friend opposite, though possibly he used it inadvertently. I have nothing to say in regard to his assertion that extravagance is taking place, but he went on to say that industries which were dishonest could not be punished. That is a reflection upon industry which. I am 1381 sure the whole House will agree, industry does not deserve. I would like to ask my hon. Friend whether he could see his way to withdraw that remark?
§ Sir W. Smithers
I am sorry if I have given that impression. It was not my intention. But all Members of the House must have received many allegations of waste and extravagance in regard to Government contracts. I make no general assertion of that nature, and all I would ask is that the Government should take up these cases and deal swiftly with them.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
I hope that those Members of the House who have discovered cases of alleged waste and extravagance will immediately approach the Select Committee or its Chairman on the subject. I can say, on behalf of the Committee and with knowledge of its work, that either they or the sub-committees will investigate such allegations.
§ The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood)
I am indebted to my hon. Friends for what has been said. The House will remember that when I introduced the Votes of Credit I made a special reference to the importance of dealing with this matter, and I then pointed out the work that the Select Committees of the House were in fact doing. I also stated that if any instance were brought forward, either by the Select Committee or by anyone else, I would be only too willing, in conjunction with the Departments concerned, to make any necessary investigations and decide what had to be done. I know my hon. Friend has one case in mind which is now being considered by the Select Committee, and when he hears what they say about that case we shall be in a position to decide whether it is necessary to do anything further.
As far as the figure of 5 per cent. referred to by my hon. Friend opposite is concerned, that is the ordinary stock form which I understand is always used. I think he will agree that one of the features of finance during the war has been the comparatively low cost at which we have been able to make our arrangements, and I can assure him that we have every intention of continuing to do so. I hope no-one will think that there is any intention on the part of the Government to deviate in any way from what has been 1382 done already. I have no doubt that many hon. Members will observe that we have gone on those lines in our recent proposals, and have given no encouragement to anyone to think that by withholding money from the State they will receive a higher rate of interest. That is not our policy; we are determined to continue the present policy, which I think has been generally accepted by the House and which, of course, has been in considerable contrast to the finances of the last war. I am glad, therefore, to be able to reassure my hon. Friend as far as that is concerned.
§ Sir K. Wood
It is put in probably as a measure of caution. I have not had notice of that point, but I understand that the figure forms part of the form of words which has always been used.
§ Sir K. Wood
I cannot say exactly when, but that, I understand, is the explanation. So far as my other hon. Friend is concerned, I am sure he will recognise that we shall give full opportunity to anyone desirous of bringing grievances before the House.
§ Mr. Benjamin Smith (Rotherhithe)
Perhaps when the Chancellor is going into the question of dishonesty it might be useful if sometimes the Treasury turned their eyes inwards and not outwards. Many of the things which are attributed to dishonesty or to sharp practice in industry are really based upon the lack of supply, which means a burden on the Exchequer. It would be a very good thing if the Chancellor could look into the question from that aspect. I cannot adduce any figure, for I have no general knowledge of the subject, but the Chancellor might, for instance, look at the amount of money being spent in various factories on what is known as idle time. Nobody wants idle time; the employer does not want it, certainly thou workpeople do not want it—they want to get on with the job and earn their money—and idle time cannot always be traced to mismanagement, dishonest conduct or to lack of potential service on the part of the workpeople. It can, however, be 1383 traced to lack of co-ordination of the supply of material, which means the spending of money to keep the workpeople at their benches, and I hope the Chancellor will look at it from that point of view.
§ Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)
I apologise for not speaking on the previous occasion when this Bill was before the House, but I was somewhere else at the time. I am now going to put to the Chancellor certain observations on the whole finance of the war, and I wish to give him notice that I will seek to develop the matter when we come to the Budget. It is alleged that the Government have some measure of control over property which matches the control exercised over labour. I am certain that, for financial reasons, the Government have no control whatever over property except the power to buy property at its full price or lease it at its full rent. That means that when the Ministry of Mines, for example, would like to get control of some of my timber, in order to make pit-props, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must step in and say, "Oh no; you cannot do that, because if you take this timber, within six months' time I shall have to put into his hands so much purchasing power, which he will be able to exercise over the whole range of the nation's unrationed purchasable commodities." For that reason, the Chancellor of the Exchequer over and over again has to forbid other Government Departments exercising that control over property which they would like to exercise.
I give one other example. I understand that the transport of coal was held up because a great many trucks were filled with steam coal which could not be exported. If that was coal which was not being bought and which would not be bought, the logical thing would have been to have chucked it over some high bank on to a piece of derelict land so that we might get the use of the trucks. But if that had been proposed, the owner of each truck would have said, "My truckload is one of the loads that is about to be sold to a British factory, which needs steam coal. Therefore, put into my hands, now, the full cash value of that truck-load of coal." He could then exer- 1384 cise a demand to that extent on the country's consumable goods. Therefore, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to forbid the Minister of Transport to sling out that useless coal, in order to get the use of the trucks.
This is the point which I make to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Before he can grapple with the problem of controlling property at all, he will be compelled to adopt the principle of deferred compensation. That is to say, if the Government take over two or three houses belonging to a widow, houses which represent all her life savings, and from which she is deriving, say, £3 a week, the Government will pay her £3 a week; but if they take over the timber which belongs to Sir Richard Acland, they will ask him: "What other sources of income have you?" If he says, "I have so-and-so, or such-and-such," they will then hand him a ticket, indicating so many acres of larch or of spruce, and they will say to him, "Present that ticket at the end of the war, along with all the other people who have lost their lives or their limbs or their husbands or their wives, and we will do something for you but we cannot promise what it will be." Once you have done that, then you have control over property but, until then, you have no control over property except, as I say, to buy it at the full price or lease it at the full rent.
§ Mr. Gordon Macdonald (Ince)
I wish to bring the Debate back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker). I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not feel offended if I say that I did not like the slick manner in which he dealt with my hon. Friend's point. Indeed I have often felt that, on other questions also, the right hon. Gentleman tries to "get away with it," merely by saying that he is considering or will consider this, that or the other. One must, frankly, face the fact that he has put the figure of five per cent. into the Bill for some reason. He tells us that it has been put in only because it is customary. Then he tells us that we must not draw the conclusion that five per cent. will ever be paid; that the Government do not intend to pay it, and that those who may be holding up money in the hope of getting a higher rate of interest later, need not do so, because they will not get any higher rate than is being 1385 paid to investors at present. That is no reason for retaining this figure in the Bill. The very fact that it is in the Bill will rouse hopes somewhere that it will be paid at some time, and if the Chancellor has no intention of paying more than three per cent., he ought to say so. I feel sure that in the Committee stage of the Bill my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh will move an Amendment and, if necessary, divide upon this issue. I would ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give us more substantial reasons than he has given up to the present for retaining the figure of five per cent. in the Bill.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."—[Mr. J. P. L. Thomas.]
§ Bill accordingly considered in Committee.
§ [Sir DENNIS HERBERT in the Chair.]
§ Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ CLAUSE 3.—(Power for the Treasury to borrow.)
§ Mr. Tinker
I beg to move, in page 2, line 7, to leave out "five pounds," and to insert "two pounds ten shillings."
After the discussion which we have just had, I think we ought to test the feeling of the Committee on this matter and ascertain whether it is desired to retain the figure of five per cent. in the Bill. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said it was never intended to pay five per cent. but added that this figure was carried on from one Bill of this kind to another, according to a recognised custom and that it had not been thought wise to make a change on this occasion. In times like these, however, when the country is watching very closely what we do, if the figure of five per cent. is put into the Bill, it will convey the idea to many minds that the financiers are making a good thing out of the war. If it is not considered necessary to have this figure in the Bill, then why should we not be as honest about it in our thoughts as we are in our speech and substitute some other figure? I have suggested 2½ per cent. for this purpose because that is the amount 1386 of interest which is paid to poorer people, generally, on their savings in the Post Office. If it is regarded as a fair figure for the invested savings of the poor—money which is probably more honestly earned than the money of the great financial interests—then, at least, we ought to provide that no one else should get any higher rate of interest. I do not think that anyone, even among hon. Members opposite, believes that anyone ought to receive more than 2½ per cent. on money lent to the Government at the present time. In fact, I question whether people ought to get even that figure, but I recognise that orthodox finance is very difficult to break down and that we have to go stage by stage. This Amendment proposes a step in the direction of letting the public understand that invested money is not to receive the high rates of interest which it has received in the past. I intend, if I get any support, to test the feelings of the Committee on this matter and therefore if my Amendment is not accepted, I shall press it to a Division.
§ Sir K. Wood
I shall he quite prepared to amend the figure to £3, in order to meet the situation. As has been said, this figure of £5 has been inserted in the Bill in accordance with the practice that has been followed for many years; but if the hon. Member is prepared to accept the figure of £3, I am quite in agreement.
§ Mr. Tinker
In that case, I will certainly withdraw the Amendment, and move another Amendment, to make the figure £3.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
It seems to me that the way in which we are conducting our business in the House of Commons at present is most slipshod. On the Bill that we are shortly to discuss again, we have had nothing more than nods and winks from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Now, on this Bill, when the Chancellor is challenged he first makes the lame excuse that he has been following the traditional way, and then, on being pressed, he comes down to bargaining with my hon. Friend. Those slipshod methods will not suit this House or 1387 this country. If the Chancellor means £3 to be the figure, let him put it into the Bill and come to this House with it properly. We are losing confidence in the Government because of their way of conducting business.
§ Sir Irving Albery (Gravesend)
I should like to recall that several years ago I moved an Amendment similar to that which has just been moved by the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker). The Labour party were in office at the time, and I got no concession. Their answer was that this had been the stereotyped figure for years and years, that it was a mere formality, and that nothing could be done about it. In the present case, the figure of £2 10s. would have been inadequate, as there must he some margin. On the other hand, I agree with the figure of 3 per cent. That gives a small margin.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Bill reported, with an Amendment; as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed.