HC Deb 29 November 1945 vol 416 cc1725-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

1.23 a.m.

Wing-Commander Millington (Chelmsford)

I am sorry that this important question of E.N.S.A. should be discussed at this late hour. I have been a member of the Forces for the whole of the war, and, like other Forces' Members who are in this House this morning, have felt that there has been general dissatisfaction among the troops both with the general administration of E.N.S.A. and with the quality of the entertainment. Secondly, many of us have heard a disturbing rumour in the theatrical profession itself as to the nature of the consideration which E.N.S.A. receives, particularly from Mr. Basil Dean. We hear, for example, that many high-ranking stars would not give their services, willing as they might be to entertain the troops, because they could not stand his direction. Thirdly, in April, 1944, and in August this year, no fewer than 22 prominent members of the executive and administration of E.N.S.A. resigned, to the accompaniment of a certain amount of publicity. These included: Viscount Esher, Rev. Sir Herbert Dunnico, Evelyn Walkden, Mr. Collie Knox, Mr. Hurford Janes, Miss Elizabeth Avaun, Colonel Haygarth, Colonel Dunstan, Lieut.-Colonel Hobbs, Mr. Harold Young, Mr. Hector McCullic, Mr. Archie de Bear, Mr. Herbert Griffiths and his seven music adviser colleagues.

Consequently I became interested enough to investigate the reasons for these resignations, and to try to get at the background behind the dissatisfaction, particularly among the troops. First, I have discovered—and I have lodged details with the Minister who is to reply to this Debate—evidence that one cause of the inefficiency of this Corporation is that leading members have 'been engaging upon private and commercial ventures in the time of, and occupying personnel who are employed by, E.N.S.A. I have evidence that a show called "Escort" was produced by Mr. Basil Dean and that much of the actual stage scenery for that show, which was produced at the Lyric Theatre, London, was manufactured in E.N.S.A. workshops in Drury Lane by E.N.S.A. workmen. It may be that if Mr. Dean is asked he will tell the Government that the bill was paid for by himself as producer of this commercial show when it was subsequently produced, but my submission is that any work done by E.N.S.A. or its employees should have been directed to providing entertainment, particularly for the men and women in the Armed Forces, or for men and women engaged in essential work in the country.

There is strong evidence that personal friends and business associates, particularly of Mr. Dean, Director of E.N.S.A., have infiltrated into the organisation, and mysteriously been promoted, though with no previous experience, from very junior positions to very senior positions indeed in that organisation, with the consequence that the output and the quality of work have, of necessity, suffered; responsible executives have had no further qualifications for the job they were called upon to do, than previous friendship with Mr. Dean, the Director of E.N.S.A. In that connection, there is one charge that when a Mr. Hector McCullie was appointed to the control of the Cinema Division, he discovered that the cinema stock at Drury Lane was at that time no less than £1,800 deficient, quite a considerable deficiency which would not be tolerated in an audit by a commercial firm. He discovered that possibly one of the main reasons was that the stockkeeper, a Mr. Grindley, had as his outstanding qualification for this particular post the fact that he used to be dresser to Mr. Nervo and Mr. Knox. Further, I have discovered that there have been frequent complaints, especially in England, from the Services, and in particular from the Service from which I am in the process of being demobilised, that men on aerodromes would do considerable work in preparing a stage for a camp cinema. In operational units it does call for keenness and energy for men to take hammer and nails and turn an old shack into a camp cinema. On frequent occasions the E.N.S.A. organisation has either failed to turn up completely or else produced "junk" equipment incapable of giving one show. With such cases of corruption and mismanagement it is surprising that E.N.S.A. produced any entertainment whatever.

On the same lines there is one further charge which I think the Government must look upon with even greater seriousness than the muddling that I have referred to. It is a fact that no less than four fairly senior employees of E.N.S.A. had been employed by that corporation, two of them in particular within seven days of being called up into one of His Majesty's Forces, all four of them, as a condition of their release from the conditions of the National Service Act, being told that they must give full-time service to E.N.S.A. In all four of the cases these men have not only been under-employed but have, in fact, carried on part or the whole of their civilian occupations. That is a flagrant breach, with the protection of this big organisation, of the National Service Act. This, I submit, calls for some investigation by the Government, because I feel there is no organisation of which we can think that can get friends of the director off national service under such a thin pretext as that they were to give full-time to providing national entertainment.

The second half of the accusation against Mr. Dean and against the E.N.S.A. Corporation is that of the wastage of public funds. Not many people realise that £14,000,000 of public money has been spent by E.N.S.A. during the period of its existence. Much of this money, troops' money, public and semi-public, has been literally and absolutely wasted. First of all, I have noted the question of inadequate stock control in the stores at Drury Lane. I could tell stories about those stores which would harrow any business man—completely incompetent records, new men being appointed to take over when the old storekeeper was given another job, and so on, without any overlapping. Secondly, there are many cases of parties being engaged, rehearsed, kitted up, particularly those going to the Far East, at the cost of thousands of pounds, and then, at the whim of the director, the whole project being dropped with the loss of thousands of pounds of public and semi-public funds. I recall, for the benefit of anyone who wants to know, one company which was called the Anglo-Russian merry-go-round, a title which has no reference to a congress held in this country last weekend.

My reason for bringing these points up here is threefold. I cannot forget that hundreds of thousands of pounds of troops' money have been wastefully spent during the period of the war and the men have not got decent entertainment there from, and the reason has been the personality of the Director of E.N.S.A., which has stood between the men and the kind of entertainment which we think they properly deserved. Money has been wasted in corrupt ways. There was a certain piece of cinema equipment which was hawked around Wardour Street looking for a purchaser and a top price of between £400 and £500 was put upon it. That equipment could not be sold in the trade and was subsequently sold to E.N.S.A. for no less than £2,600. It was revealed subsequently that the E.N.S.A. official negotiating the sale received a rake-off of £300. Subsequently this was disclosed and the E.N.S.A. official was prosecuted and got. three months' imprisonment. But what is behind it is that that was one instance of corruption which was discovered and dealt with by the law. I have reason to believe that there are many other cases of similar corruption, and I think it is' the responsibilty of the Government to protect the troops and public generally from graft of that character.

The Government must investigate the charges laid in front of them of breaches of the National Service Acts. Men who had full-time employment not exempt from national service who were friends of Mr. Dean were appointed to responsible jobs in E.N.S.A. and, according to the evidence, did not carry out any part of the work for which they were released from service, but did in fact carry on with their normal peacetime jobs. Whatever the Government attitude is at the moment, the Government has got to do something to prevent a continuation of these abuses. I know that already there are projects to develop the German opera, for example, under E.N.S.A. auspices. I am anxious that German opera should be developed. I think German culture has something to give to the whole of the world, but German opera must not be developed at the expense of the entertainment which should be provided for the troops, particularly troops in the occupation of Germany and for the aggrandisement of Mr. Basil Dean. Then, there is to be a festival of British music in Egypt which is being sponsored by E.N.S.A., and the majority of the audience will not be British Service men and women but civilians who are resident in Egypt. Again I submit that it is contrary to the purpose of this organisation that British troops' funds should be spent in order to provide musical entertainment for Egyptian civilians.

Perhaps the greatest and most important reason why I am urging that the Government order an immediate public inquiry into the past and future activities of E.N.S.A. is that I believe it is the intention of the Labour Party when they can fit it in, in some not too far distant future, to adopt some scheme for a National Theatre. I feel it is a thing very near the heart of many hon. Members opposite. I believe, too, that the Director of E.N.S.A. also thinks that the Labour Government are going to introduce a National Theatre, and I think it would be highly dangerous while there is this suspicion, which amounts to proof in some people's minds, of corruption and incompetence, that something which should be undertaken and to which many of us have looked forward for many years should be allowed to go to a man who is under suspicion of having abused his powers during the war. 1 submit to the Government that if these accusations are unfounded the responsibility for disproving them should rest with the Government. There is such evidence, and the hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State has that evidence in front of him, to suggest that it is an urgent duty of the Government to order a public inquiry immediately, because of the ramifications of the graft, corruption, and the dictatorial and overbearing manner that have appeared throughout the history of this organisation.

1.40 a.m.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

I happen be one of the few Members of the House who is alsoa member of the theatrical profession, and I have asked many questions on the subject of E.N.S.A. of the Lord President of the Council. In fact, I have asked him whether he would accede to the request for an inquiry into E.N.S.A., because I have known of the attacks and the lobbying which have gone on in the House and outside in regard to this matter which has been raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Wing-Commander Millington). I must confess that I am a very old friend of Mr. Basil Dean. My acquaintance with him goes back to the days when we were both young men trying to work for the theatre. I wish to tell the House that I do not believe one word of the charges that have been made against him by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford, and I beg the Government, as I have begged them before, to accede to the request for a public inquiry into the matter, in view of the seriousness of the charges that have been made.

1.41 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Strachey)

Like many other hon. Members, I have only one first-hand experience of E.N.S.A., and that is as a humble consumer of the entertainment which E.N.S.A. provided at R.A.F. stations and camps in various parts of this country and in North Africa. I have attended one or two—I dare say a dozen,—E.N.S.A. shows in my Service career, and I must admit that some of the worst hours of that career have been spent in E.N.S.A. shows. I cannot pretend that I think that the level of entertainment provided by the ordinary E.N.S.A. concert party was a satisfactory one. I think that E.N.S.A. made the mistake, when it first started, of seriously underestimating the level of entertainment which would be appreciated by our troops. I want to be perfectly fair. As far as I remember the E.N.S.A. shows, although I found them excruciating, I do not remember that the audience always agreed with me. I think the audience sometimes enjoyed those shows. They had, perhaps, not very much choice, and they found them at any rate better than nothing. There is a real point there. The E.N.S.A. defence in this matter, which has some ground to it, is that they were asked to provide an enormous number of entertainments in extremely scattered places, from Burma to Iceland, and it was impossible to provide what were called the "small mobile concert parties" on anything but an extremely primitive level. There were, I am told, 1,250,000 E.N.S.A. shows performed. It is a most formidable thought.

Mr. E. P. Smith

That was West of Suez, and does not include shows given East of Suez.

Mr. Strachey

Then there were even more—a still more formidable thought. But it does mean—and there is real validity in this—that E.N.S.A. was probably faced with an impossible task in giving shows of that number of a really satisfactory quality. As I see it, that is the position with regard to the complaint as to the quality of E.N.S.A. shows. Of course, the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Wing Commander Milling-ton) has made very much more serious charges than that, and I cannot go through all those charges now. But there is one thing I would like to mention. The hon. and gallant Member said that the executives of E.N.S.A., including Mr. Basil Dean, have engaged in private com- mercial ventures while they have been running E.N.S.A. Now that is perfectly true, but we must face the fact that that was the way E.N.S.A. was organised. I am not saying it was in a satisfactory way, but from the very beginning it was organised on that basis, and those officials of E.N.S.A. were allowed, with full knowledge of the authorities, to engage in outside enterprise at the same time. Therefore, this was not some breach of contract in which they were engaged. It was, to my mind, an arrangement which was not a satisfactory one. I should not have thought that, in taking lessons for the future, it was an organisaton, using public money of one kind or another, which would commend itself to the House for the future. But it was an arrangement entered into with the men who were running E.N.S.A., and I do not think we can really complain of their doing that, because that was the arrangement which they had when the whole E.N.S.A. setup was made.

Mr. E. P. Smith

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that some of them gave their services voluntarily?

Mr. Strachey

Some gave their services voluntarily, but what I have said applies to the salaried ones and to those who gave their services voluntarily. I cannot go into all the details of the accusations which have "been made, but there is the complaint that performances were organised and then dropped. I think we ought to recognise that probably something of that sort was inevitable as the war situation changed in the different theatres of war, and transport became available or not available. I should have thought it would have been a miracle if you did not get some irregularity—and waste, if you will—in an organisation of this magnitude, which could not have the highest priority, obviously, on transport, when it came into conflict with operational requirements.

I now come to what has happened recently. We all know and have read in the Press how E.N.S.A., so to speak, blew up about last September. There was an almighty row in its directorate, and a large number of resignations occurred. I speak in the presence of an hon. Member who knows the theatrical profession much better than I do, and I speak with the greatest respect for that profession and for the theatrical world, but surely the fact is that a row of that sort was not altogether an unexpected event.

Mr. E. P. Smith

It sometimes happens in Governments.

Mr. Strachey

It happens in every sphere of life. In fact the wonder is not that there was a row in E.N.S.A. last September, but that the organisation got through five years of war without blowing up in an almighty row. I can speak with personal experience. There was an enormous amount of entertainment provided, and whatever criticisms we may make, and some very harsh criticisms have been made by the hon. and gallant Member who raised this matter, I think it would be a sad thing if this House did not put on record the other side of the picture. Whatever we may think of particular events in the direction of E.N.S.A. or of the way in which some parts of the organisation were run, a very great deal of very fine work was. done by artistes, actors and actresses, who gave their services. It would be a sad thing and a very bad return to them, if they did not feel that we in this House and in the country did not show gratitude to them for their services. I am sure the hon. and gallant Member will join me in that.

Now we come to the question of whether an inquiry is indicated. I would only like to say this. I could not satisfy myself that any really useful public purpose would be served by an inquiry, the purpose of which was to go over the past of E.N.S.A. E.N.S.A. was an enormous organisation, very quickly got together, very quickly improvised, and I am quite sure there was waste and irregularities. But whether, I repeat, those irregularities and that waste were not inevitable would, I think, be an almost impossible matter to determine. Therefore, I suggest to the House that the much more important and more reasonable thing is to direct our attention to the future rather than to the past. I think that what is needed is not an inquiry but that the Government itself, acting through appropriate organisations, which exist, should look afresh at the new situation regarding entertainments for the Forces which has arisen since the end of the war. This is a situation in which entertainment, though less of it will be needed, because the Forces will be so much smaller, will be even more intensely needed for those Forces who will be carrying out garrison duties in various parts of the world. I submit that the most constructive and useful thing we can do is for the Government to re-examine this question. We must not allow the E.N.S.A. organisation, which is still providing entertainment on a vast scale all over the world, to die. We must not let a gap be created. But there are other organisations in the field—C.E.M.A. or the Arts Council as we should now call it. I believe we should look round all these organisations, look at the whole question of entertainment in which public or N.A.A.F.I. money is used, and see with a fresh eye what can be done. I think the officials of E.N.S.A. themselves would welcome such an inquiry as that.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted, from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order made upon 16th August.

Adjourned at Eight Minutes to Two o'Clock.