HC Deb 26 November 1945 vol 416 cc1004-10

Considered in Committee under Standing Order No. 69.

[Mr. HUBERT BEAUMONT in the Chair]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to make financial provision for the purpose of facilitating the production, equipment, repair, alteration and acquisition of houses and other buildings, and to make provision for limiting the price for which certain houses may be sold and the rent at which certain houses may be let, it is expedient—

(1) to authorise the Treasury to advance money out of the Consolidated Fund for the purpose of defraying expenses of the Minister of Works in performing functions in connection with—

  1. (a) the purchase, production and distribution of building materials and equipment for buildings;
  2. (b) the carrying out of work undertaken for the purpose of providing housing accommodation;
including expenses incidental to the performance of those functions and charges—

  1. (i) in respect of premises, supplies or services used in connection with the performance thereof; and
  2. 1005
  3. (ii) in respect of expenses which fall or may ultimately fall to be borne in providing superannuation benefits in respect of persons who have been employed in connection with the performance thereof; so, however, that the total amount outstanding in respect of the principal of such advances shall not at any time exceed one hundred million pounds;

(2)to authorise the Treasury, for the purpose of providing money to be so advanced as aforesaid, to raise money in any manner in which they are authorised to raise money under the National Loans Act, 1939, and for that purpose to create and issue securities which shall for all purposes be deemed to have been created and issued under that Act;

(3)to authorise the payment, out of moneys provided by Parliament, of any sums payable by the Minister of Health or the Secretary of State, in pursuance of the provisions of the said Act, into a Fund to be established under those provisions;

(4)to authorise the payment into the Exchequer of all sums paid by the Minister of Works to the Treasury in respect of advances under the said Act and of any amount standing to the credit of the said Fund when it is closed;

(5)to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of sums paid into the Exchequer as mentioned in the last preceding paragraph and the application of sums so issued, in so far as they represent interest, in payment of interest which would otherwise be payable out of the permanent annual charge for the National Debt, and, in so far as they do not represent interest, in redemption or repayment of debt;

(6)to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any sums payable by the Minister of Works in respect of advances under the said Act after the said fund has been closed;

(7)to authorise the increase by fifty million pounds of the limit upon the sums which the Treasury may issue out of the Consolidated Fund for the purpose of defraying expenses incurred by the Minister of Works for the purposes of the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944; and

(8) to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any sums required to be so paid in consequence of increasing the limit upon the estimated value of houses or flats in respect of which guarantees may be given under section ninety-one of the Housing Act, 1936, or under section seventy-five of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1925, as amended by section sixty-seven of the Housing (Scotland) Act, I935-"—(King's recommendation signified.)—[Mr. Bevan.]

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Willink (Croydon, North)

There are several points which, I think, are definitely related to this Resolution, and on which hon. Members on this side of the Committee would like to make a second attempt to obtain some answer from His Majesty's Government. The right hon. Gentlemen the Minister of Works and the Minister of Health will be aware that, constantly, in the course of the Second Reading Debate which has just concluded, questions were raised as to the extent to which the true economics of this proceeding were to be disclosed in the accounts published, and the way in which the accounts were to be made up under the Bill. In particular, although no challenge was made of the proposal to expend whatever moneys were necessary on experimental work, which I myself said was bound to be extravagant, it was suggested in the first place that there ought to (be some system under which Parliament would be notified regularly of the cost incurred in this novel form of housing development. It is no use going on indefinitely with these experiments after a time when it has become clear that no saving whatever is being achieved by them.

The second point on which I feel most strongly is that more information will be needed, and it will not be possible to obtain it by Parliamentary Question and answer. The point which was so clearly made by the hon. and gallant Member for Wallasey (Captain Marples) was that faulty distribution may give rise to hidden expenditure, far larger in amount than any saving made by bulk purchase. Cost may be inflated by such delays, and the claims will have to be met, not by the Ministry of Works but by the local authorities. I know of no effective way in which information can be obtained, whether by local authorities or, indeed, by those building factories on their own account, through faults and delays arising from Government distribution. All these points should be made clear in the progress of this scheme, to the main principles of which, as has been made clear today, there is no objection. Are the Government going to give no further reply?—.because no reply of any kind was attempted to what had been a conspicuous feature in the Debate.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

The answer is that the Government do not believe that it is possible to present to Parliament any effective financial explanation once every quarter. Indeed, the re- quest is extraordinarily unusual, and the Government do not propose to concede it. There are, as I said in the course of my speech, very many opportunities available to hon. Members opposite to elicit information. They can put down the Minister's Vote, they can raise the matter on Estimates—they can raise this issue in a variety of ways—but what we cannot possibly do is to assemble from the factories which may be engaged on this work and from all the agencies which may contribute towards this cost, anything like an effective balance sheet once every quarter. The whole thing is quite impracticable.

With regard to the other matter, the local authorities will not be called upon to pay. The Ministry of Works will merely act as a contractor for the local authority at a firm price. The point raised by the right hon. Gentleman about failure of distribution is entirely irrelevant. Normally speaking, in these circumstances the local contractors will be obtaining their materials through the building merchants. No claim will lie against the Ministry of Works or against the local authority for failure to supply materials. The right hon. Gentleman was, in fact, in that case creating a mare's nest. No claim of any kind would lie. Where the Ministry of Works itself is the contractor, if that Ministry has failed in any particular, the cost of that will not fall upon the local authorities nor upon the rates but will be borne by the general expenses of the Fund now before the House. The hon. Gentleman has created a fantasy which is now pursuing him, not me.

Captain Marples (Wallasey)

May I take it from the Minister of Health that, in the case of late deliveries by the Ministry of Works, any claim by a contractor will be charged to the Fund?

Mr. Bevan

A charge on whom?

Captain Marples

If the local authority engage a contractor to erect 100 houses, and the Minister of Works contracts to supply materials but is late in so supplying, will the increased cost of the wages paid be debited to this Fund?

Mr. Bevan

The hon. Gentleman has made a very long speech, but he has not got a clear picture in his mind of what happens. [HON. MEMBERS:"Oh."] The Minister of Works is not supplying materials to a building contractor under any suggestion made here. The building contractor is, in fact, himself providing materials in the normal way. The Minister of Works may, as part of his distribution system, have an assembly point, a sort of builder's yard, from which the building contractor can get his materials, but if the building contractor fails to get his materials at any point, no action lies by him against anybody whatsoever.

Captain Marples

I am very much indebted to the Minister of Health for his explanation, but the Minister of Works said in his speech today that it is the intention of the Government to go into manufacture and distribution in a big way. If the Government control distribution to a contractor, and the Government are late in delivering the goods, there will be a cost in wages on the site. Where is that cost going to be shown?

Mr. Bevan

The Ministry of Works will be doing this distribution by wholesale. As a general rule, the building contractor will be getting his materials from a retail builders' merchant. The hon. Member is attempting to cloud the whole issue. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] There is no difficulty at all here, in dealing with this matter. If the hon. Gentleman imagines that we are going to spend time following his devious examination of all sorts of hypothetical circumstances in which failure might occur, he is mistaken.

Captain Marples

I must confess to the House, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that I am not the equal of the right hon. Gentleman in rhetoric, but I have at least built something. All I can say is that the time and progress schedule of a building contract is more vital than the doctrinaire attitude of the right hon. Gentleman. What I want to know is whether, if the right hon. Gentleman delivers late—and it may be that the Government will deliver late, who knows?—where is that cost going to be shown? [An HON. MEMBER: "Where is it shown now?"]

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

If the right hon. Gentleman cannot answer that question dealing with finance, perhaps we might have the opinion of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on the matter. I would like to ask the right hon.- Gentleman before he rises once again from his seat, to come back to the point under Clause 3. He has told us, as we know perfectly well, that under that Clause 3, money can be paid by the Ministry of Health into the Fund in respect of houses, where the cost has been subsidised to any extent by the Ministry of Health. What we have asked on this side of the House, and it is a point to which the right hon. Gentleman, amidst all his rhetoric, made no reply at all, is—and we should like an unevasive answer from the right hon. Gentleman or from some other Member of the Government—What return will be made to the House whereby hon. Members will be able to tell to what extent there is a subsidy for permanent prefabricated houses? We were told by the Minister of Works, in the Second Reading Debate, that annual Votes would not do. We have had no explanation of that statement, and before we part with this Money Resolution, I think we arc entitled to have some explanation why annual Votes will not do. We ought to be told whether or not the return under Clause 3 for which we ask, will be provided, and if it will not be, the reasons for the refusal.

Mr. Bevan

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) has used my right hon. Friend's words in an entirely different context. When my right hon. Friend referred to the annual Vote, he was referring to the£ 100,000,000, and he said that the Annual Votes would not be an effective medium for discussing the financial transaction of the£100,000,000; but with regard to the moneys which the Ministry of Health will pay into the Ministry of Works' funds in subsidising the cost of prefabricated construction, the information is contained in the annual Vote for the Ministry of Health. I do not propose tonight on behalf of the Government to change the whole system of financial reporting to the House in order to satisfy the curiosity of hon. Members opposite. Throughout the war this has been done. We have had today the Vote of£192,000,000, more than was originally provided, since the original Vote was£150,000,000. At no time within the currency of that global figure of£ 150,000,000 was any quarterly statement made to the House. The information was elicited from the Government in the normal way on the Vote for the Department. I do not know why we should be subjected to this artificial interrogation this evening, or why we should alter the whole financial relationship of the House, which has persisted for some centuries, in order to make a bankrupt Opposition's holiday.

9.30 p.m.

Captain Marples

What I cannot understand about the Money Resolution is this. The Government are going to undertake distribution on a big scale. The costs of distribution are the costs of transport from the factory to the central depot and the costs of transport to the site. They are also the costs of maldistribution. If a certain lavatory basin arrives at the site late, the contractor has to pay money because it is late. [Interruption.] I am sorry hon. Members think this is funny, It may be that this particular illustration amuses their minds; I am not at all surprised. If the goods arrive late, it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Works, and it should be shown in the profit and loss account which the Minister of Health will bring before the House. In other words, I want as the professional adviser to the Ministry of Works says—the true economics of distribution and not merely the paper economics.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported Tomorrow.