HC Deb 11 February 1947 vol 433 cc294-314

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £8,600,000, 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, 1947, for the cost of Shipping and Inland Transport Services arising out of the War.

9.0 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. G. R. Strauss)

I will give the Committee, very briefly, the reasons for these Estimates, and, if any further information is required, I will do my best to supply it.

The first item—B—is the very substantial one of £33,400,000. That arises from the fact that, when the Estimates were prepared, the release of ships by the Ministry had not commenced, and, since the commencement of release, the speed of release has been very much faster than we anticipated, and has had this effect. The Ministry is liable for the repair and reconditioning of all ships when it returns them to the owners, and the great speed with which these ships have been returned has meant an additional liability coming on to the Ministry unexpectedly and of very considerable extent, particularly in view of the fact that the Ministry have made lump sum payments to the owners in respect of the claim which they have against the Ministry for repair and reconditioning. That was, obviously, to the advantage of everyone concerned, and the sum of £33,400,000 has therefore fallen to be paid by the Ministry to owners in respect of repair and reconditioning of their vessels.

Against that, there has been a saving of £9 million in that the Ministry have not had to hire the vessels as they have done before. Also included in this total of £33,400,000, is an item of £7,000,000 for expenses of reconditioning of small craft and settlement of claims for expenses of management and superintendence of our ships, and also an item of £12,000,000, which represents advances to managers for operating our ships. Our system of operating ships in our service is to pay the amount required to the managers of the ships for all their costs, and for them in turn to pay back to the Ministry the freights they collect. Item D, amounting to £1,200,000, is for vessel replacement schemes. The explanation is this. When a ship has been lost, the owner is paid by the Ministry 80 per cent. of its value, which is called the basic value, and the owner is paid the additional 20 per cent. when he replaces the ship. Replacement during this year has been at a much higher rate than we anticipated, and we have had to pay out the 20 per cent. in a large number of cases, making a total of £1,200,000.

Item G is in respect of freights and passages, and the amount involved is £265,000. That is comprised of two items, partly in respect of belated claims which have arisen in respect of reciprocal aid arrangements in regard to ships, and, secondly, for payments for sea transport freight agents, who have replaced the sea transport officers which we used to maintain in various ports abroad, and these two items together amount to £265,000. Item I is for inland transport canals and canal carrying. Under the agreements we have with 38 canal companies and carriers, we have to pay amounts to these companies equivalent, in fact, to their prewar profits. In view of the fall in traffic and the increase in operating costs, there was a higher burden on the Ministry than we anticipated when we made up out Estimates amounting to £330,000.

Under Item P, "Ministry of Transport Dock Labour Schemes," there is a Supplementary Estimate for £400,000. As hon. Members know, this is a scheme in respect of permanent employment for the Merseyside, and Clydeside dock areas, and the scheme envisaged the payment by the employers of certain sums into what was called the "Management Pool," out of which administrative costs were paid and the employees received certain guaranteed amounts. Due to the fall in traffic in these ports, the fund became empty some little time ago and, in order to keep it going, so that the scheme should not collapse, and so that the situation should remain fluid pending some more permanent scheme which the Minister of Labour hopes to establish, the Ministry of Transport paid into this fund a sum of £400,000. I am only able to comment that, owing to improved traffic lately, the deficiency in this fund has not been growing, and we have not had to pay anything extra into it, although I cannot foretell what will happen in the future.

The last item refers to Faslane Port, which the War Office handed over to our Ministry in April last year. We became liable for certain works of maintenance over a period of some months until, in August last year, we let the port to a private industrial company who have now taken on the full responsibility for its maintenance. The sum for which we became liable in respect of maintenance during the few months that we were in possession amounted to £10,500. Those items together amount to £35,605,500, for which we are asking for Supplementary Estimates, less a certain amount about which I am, of course, not allowed to speak.

Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Liverpool, West Derby)

While we are obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary for the information he has given us, there are certain aspects of the amount under Item P about which we should be obliged if he would help us further. He has told us that that refers to the amount required to cover any deficiencies in the operation of the "Dock Labour Schemes" at Merseyside and Clydeside. We should like him to give us some further details so that we may see how this money falls. As far as we can discover, we believe that only a very small part of the £400,000 relates to Merseyside and that, although there was some fall in the trade of the Merseyside ports, the effects of that have been overcome. Further, we believe that, as far as the scheme there was concerned, there was no deficit, and, if anything, that the position was slightly the other way, and that, generally, the labour position is adequate.

That leads us on this side of the House to consider more closely and to ask for further information with regard to Clyde-side We should like to know how much of the £400,000—if we are right—that really relates to Clydeside, was due to additional working costs. We understand that something like 25 per cent., or £100,000, could fairly be allocated to that. We should also like to know how far the Clydeside scheme was in arrears.

If I am right in my information, it was about £280,000 in arrear in December, so that we should not be doing anything extraordinary in assuming that it is some £300,000 in arrear now. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it is financed by the employers paying a levy which, I understand, is 15 per cent. on the men's wages, and on the other side of that account the guaranteed week's payment is £4 2s. 6d. I understand there has been some feeling that the levy was too high, and that the number of men employed should be reduced. I appreciate that the Parliamentary Secretary may have some difficulty there, and I would like to know what the labour position is because, as we understand it, there has been some falling off of trade, and the labour has not been contracted accordingly. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary could confirm our information and our doubts on this point, because, as I understand the position, the independent committee, consisting of a representative of the Parliamentary Secretary's Ministry, a representative of the Ministry of Labour and representatives of the unions and the employers, examined the position last year and recommended unanimously a reduction in the number of men coming under this scheme, from 3,400 by 800 men. I would like to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary whether that is the position, and whether he thinks they are able to put into effect that recommendation, which I understand to have been unanimous, or whether he is still faced with difficulties in that matter.

As the Parliamentary Secretary is, no doubt, aware, this system will continue to operate for some further six months. We would like to hear from him something about this scheme which, as he told the Committee, is going to provide an alternative. If he is asking the Committee for a Supplementary Estimate of £400,000, of which £300,000, we estimate, is due to the operation of this scheme at the moment with too great a number of employees, before we vote this extra money we would like to know what proposal is being made to put the situation on sound lines. While we all sympathise with the object of the scheme, no one—neither the Parliamentary Secretary nor anyone else—thinks it ought to continue at the cost of a sub- vention from Government funds, which has no basis or true foundation of working, or a true estimate of the labour force needed. Therefore, on that point we would like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us if that is the position, that there has been this recommendation of reduction of the labour force, and also what his proposals are to avoid a repetition of the need to come to Parliament for a Supplementary Estimate of this kind.

9.15 p.m.

Sir Ralph Glyn (Abingdon)

I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary, whose explanation, though brief, was very adequate, one or two questions with regard to Item B, concerning the hire and operation of ships. The explanation he gave, of course, is governed by the capacity of the yards to recondition ships. If there are ships laid up and unable to receive attention, it is neither good for the country nor good, presumably, for his Department. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can give the Committee any information on the question of whether or not the release of shipping for reconditioning is balanced with the capacity of the yards to recondition. No doubt he is able to give us some account of the number of vessels that have been retained for trooping purposes. I believe there are a certain number of ships engaged in trooping, which was not anticipated at the time of the original Estimate. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can give the Committee the approximate figures, and the types of vessels that are still held by his Department, including those of the Victory type, United States ships. Those were very useful during the war, but they form a very small proportion of United States built vessels laid up in estuaries in America, which are of great importance to us at the present time in importing material to this country. I imagine those American vessels are included in Subhead B, and that particular type, of course, will not be subject to the reconditioning he mentioned.

Could the hon. Gentleman also give us a little more explanation on the position of these vessels in regard to handing them back to their owners in a condition suitable for the new type of traffic? I understand that when the ships were taken over, in many cases the fittings were taken out in a very great hurry. In some cases they were stored, but in other cases the furniture was dissipated during the war, for use in canteens and other places. It is impossible now to obtain furniture, and perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can say whether the reconditioning he has mentioned does include making these ships suitable for the traffic for which they are designed, and of a type which will bring credit to the British flag, which is very important if we are to pick up our trade again.

I want to ask a question with regard to Subhead Q—Faslane Port. Many hon. Members know about that port and its importance, but I think very few hon. Gentlemen realise the enormous amount of money that port cost during the war. It was a very heavy capital expense, which was thoroughly justified in the war, because if we had not had that port and enemy action had been as we expected very serious consequences would have arisen. I think the Committee realise that the construction of that port was one of the finest jobs ever undertaken, by the dockyard companies and the Royal Engineers. It was done entirely with Army labour, but I think the cost amounted to between £10 million and £15 million. That port was designed and used for bringing material from overseas. The hon. Gentleman has said it has now been let, I take it at a suitable sum, to a private company. Some of us know who that company is. But are those responsible in the Ministry of Transport satisfied that the use to which that port has now been put, under the company now responsible, will mean it will be maintained in a proper state, should another emergency arise? It is of the utmost importance.

Incidentally, to reach that port necessitates passing through some very narrow waters by the Gairloch, and unless dredging there is kept going it will silt up, and the port will he of very little value. I am not quite clear whether that will remain the responsibility of the company now operating this port, or whether it will fail on the taxpayer through the Ministry of Transport. I do not know for how long this company, have a lease of that port. I assume they will have to evacuate it should it be required again for public purposes in the national interest. I should be very grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary could give us some information on that.

Finally, in regard to the control of the canals and canal carriers. I quite realise that traffic has fallen off, but I do hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can assure the Committee that the amount of subsidy that is going to be given to operate these 38 canal undertakings will certainly be strictly limited; because if we are really going to maintain the traffics on some of the canals which were used in the emergency of war it is going to mean a very great increase in cost until modern appliances can be put on the canals, and locks, and the rest of it, altered. It is useless to put more money into an organisation which, frankly, is not up to modern conditions. To put these 38 canals into proper order, would mean a vast expenditure of capital. I suggest that those employed in trying to operate an out of date form of transport, as some of these are, might very well be employed in other parts of transport where their services very much required.

Major Cecil Poole (Lichfield)

I would reinforce what the hon. Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) has said about the port of Faslane. When I heard the Parliamentary Secretary's explanation, that the port of Faslane had now been let to a private company, I confess I was filled with some apprehension. I have some little knowledge of the very great part this port played in the shipment of war supplies to our Forces overseas. It is of the utmost importance that this port should be maintained, able to carry exactly the same traffic and to take exactly the same ships as it did during the war. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary, if he would, to tell us a little more detail regarding the length of the period for which this port has been handed over to the private company.

It is of some interest to the Committee to know just. exactly what the terms of rental pay to the initial capital expenditure. We cannot expect an economic return, because this port was constructed at an abnormal time, and its cost was abnormally high. On the other hand, it was constructed by military labour, by the labour of the Royal Engineers, and I imagine there was very little in labour costs going into the initial capital cost of this port. But it was constructed, not only in those conditions, but, also, in an area which had to be selected primarily for its strategic value, as well as for other considerations; and, therefore, while we do not expect the terms of the letting—

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Butcher)

I am sorry, but the terms of the letting do not arise out of this Supplementary Estimate.

Major Poole

I thought it would have a bearing, at any rate, on the Vote for the maintenance for the port of Faslane, but if that is not so, I leave the subject there. I merely press that this port shall be maintained, and that the Committee should be informed how long it is to be in the hands of the private company. There is one other point about which I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary, although I have given him no notice of it. I should like to know, under Subhead B. to what extent the Ministry is at present engaging in the full chartering of ships. I do not know whether he is able to give us that information, but I think; it would be of great interest to the Committee to know to what extent the Ministry is carrying on this practice, which was so extensively the practice during the war. I would also ask, in connection with Subhead G, whether the Ministry still maintain in this country the practice of employing shipping agents. Why does it not now operate its own machinery for this purpose, instead of disbursing very heavy sums every year to agents to perform what is really only a routine service? I should like to see the Ministry of Transport, in the home ports, own a small special organisation, which could be accomplished very much cheaper, I am sure, than is the case at present. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can help us on these points, but if not, perhaps he would have a word with me afterwards and give me the answers.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

The inquiries which have been directed to the Government on these Estimates from this side of the Committee have come from what are usually called "well-informed" sources. I am afraid that my inquiries may be somewhat more amateur, but they are directed to the Government in order to try to ascertain, in the interests of the taxpayer, where this money is really going. There are two points to which I wish to refer in particular. Perhaps I may be allowed to follow the hon and gallant Member for Lichfield (Major Poole). Although he rather went out of Order, I think that what we really want to know, in reference to Faslane, is how it came about that the Government suffered a loss in regard to operating costs. If this amount was the maintenance cost, between the time when the port was handed over by the Army to the Ministry, and the time that the Ministry entered into their letting of it to a private company, I can understand it, but, according to the Estimates, it is the amount required to meet operating costs. I shall be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary will give further information on how it came about that the Ministry, when presumably operating the port, required additional sums to meet the additional costs under these circumstances. We know that the Ministry have had in contemplation the operation of a good many docks, harbours, ports and appurtenances of inland traffic, and this small item in the Estimates indicates a failure to make at least a balance between operating profits and expenses, and cannot but be significant in regard to the larger operations in contemplation.

The other matter to which I should like to refer is in regard to the control of canals and canal carriers under Subhead I. The Parliamentary Secretary, in his succinct explanation, indicated that the Ministry's Estimates under this heading had been falsified by reason of the fact that they were calculated on the prewar basis of profits of the companies concerned, and that during the current year the companies had found their profits had been reduced because of a reduction in traffic and a rise in costs. I think that I have quoted the Parliamentary Secretary reasonably accurately, although not word for word. This again is rather a disturbing item. We all appreciate that costs of everything have increased, but when the Government are responsible, either for operating or meeting the operational costs, then these costs fall on the taxpayer, and this is one of the many items which contribute to the inflationary period through which we are passing at the present time. The other aspect of the matter is equally disturbing, which is that under present circumstances and at the present time the traffic on the canals is below the amount of traffic being carried before the war.

9.30 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) referred to the fact that in many instances these canals were obsolescent. Nevertheless that applies equally to all forms of transport at the present time. The railways have sustained an even much heavier, greater and more arduous degree of wear and tear in the last seven years than the canals; during the past year the pressure on transport, according to the reports which have been given to the House and the public, has been of the most acute type. The reconditioning of the country after its wartime damage, and the renewal of production and output are dependent upon transport, and it therefore seems quite incredible that a Supplementary Estimate is required to meet the costs of the canal operating companies because of reduction in traffic. I feel that had the matter been handled in a different way, or had more attention been paid to the opportunities of transport by the canal system, this additional small but nevertheless significant burden upon the taxpayer need not have arisen. I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary could give us more information, because it is a matter which certainly cannot increase the confidence of the public in the operating capacity of His Majesty's Government, in regard to the transport services.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary a few questions in addition to those by the right hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe). I would like to have more details about the amounts required for the dock labour schemes. The right hon. and learned Member for West Derby spoke of a difference between Clydeside and Merseyside. He suggested a figure for arrears of £280,000, which approached 70 per cent. of the total in the Estimates. I am a little concerned as to what he said about the question of the discussions which have taken place recently in connection with future schemes. I believe this Estimate only deals with the schemes which have been in operation since 1941 and not the schemes which may come into operation at the end of July. It seems to me that an explanation is required because the schemes which were initiated called for a 25 per cent. levy from the em- ployers. That was in excess of what was required and in the first 12 months it was reduced to 10 per cent. It has varied from time to time according to the call being made upon it. I am rather worried why there should be any need for a call of this kind seeing that the industry was called upon to pay a percentage to meet the costs of the two schemes. If the schemes are getting into debt at the present time, obviously the employers are not paying an amount comparable to that they were required to pay when the schemes were initiated. The criticism of the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby gave me the impression that he was looking at the matter from the other point of view. He inferred that there was something wrong with this particular scheme, or the schemes that he was asking questions about.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I want to make quite clear that, first of all, I suggested that no part of the deficit had come from Merseyside. With regard to Glasgow, the point that I made was this: that an independent Committee representing the two Ministries—the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Labour—the employers, and the trade unions had unanimously suggested that the labour force should be reduced by 800 because it was too many at the time, and I wanted to know if my information was correct on that point. That was the only suggestion that I made, which was based on an independent report. I was not taking any sides in the matter. I was asking whether the recommendations of the independent committee had been put into effect or were to be put into effect.

Mr. Keenan

The fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the figure of £294,000 out of £400,000 for Clydeside indicated that there was some liability on the Merseyside scheme.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

What I suggested was that of the £400,000, the sum of £100,000 was due to increased working expenses—I based that on the fact that, according to the information I had, the scheme had been £280,000 in debt in December—and, therefore, I thought the balance, namely, £300,000, was appropriate on Clydeside.

Mr. Keenan

What the right hon. Gentleman said a few minutes ago certainly does not fit in with the know- ledge which I have of it, although I am not so closely in touch with the position as I was some time ago. It seems to me that so far as Clydeside is concerned, there has not been much attention paid to it in recent months because I understood that periodically on Merseyside they are apt to bring labour there, which has rather disturbed the local people because local men have been dispensed with. Now that the matter has been brought up in this way, I think it would be of advantage if we got to know the actual position, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman did throw some doubt on the Liverpool position. I am very much interested in that because I do not want to see a scheme which had been arranged through the Ministry of Labour prejudiced by anything that may be said here.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

I rise to make a particular point and to ask for information. It will be noticed that an additional sum is "Hire and operation of ships, £33,400,000" and anticipated savings on bunkering and ancillary services amount to £285,500. I would like to ask the Minister two specific points on that additional sum of £33,400,000: How much of that will require foreign exchange facilities, and how much of it, in fact, will be spent in dollars, and in particular in United States dollars on bunkers?

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I did not hear the Minister of Works' statement, but I wish to make a point in connection with the Faslane port, which is in my constituency. The Estimate of the additional sum required is £10,500. This is accounted for by costs to which the Ministry were committed between the taking over of the port from the military authorities, and handing it over to a ship-breaking firm. If that is the best use that can be made of it, then frankly I am sorry for the Ministry of Transport. Was any of this £10,500 absorbed in purchasing properties not requisitioned by the military during the occupancy of that area and during the construction of the fort? I am entitled to know that, because I know that many of the property-owners in that district were—I will not use the word robbed—at least unable to get the value of the premises that were requisitioned

I understand that some of those premises have been transferred to the Ministry of Transport. That sum of £10,500 must have been spent somewhere, and I think I am entitled to know if any of that money was used in paying compensation for the properties taken over by the military, and retained in the possession of the Ministry of Transport for use by their employees at the port. It is a ship-breakers' yard, and so there is not any work for them to discharge. There are only miles and miles of rails, and that apparently is the best use to which the Ministry can put it, namely for breaking up ships. If I have an assurance that no part of that £10,500 was used in purchasing the property, then I should like to get more details as to how, in Heaven's name, it cost £10,500 to maintain a port that was not used almost from the date on which it was transferred. Certainly there was not the staff to absorb £10,500.

Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)

A number of very detailed questions have been put to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I want to draw his attention to one or two general observations on this account which I think are of some importance. If we look at Sub-head B we find that the original Estimate of the Department was wrong by about 25 per cent., and if we look at the Sub-head G under "Freights and Passages" we see that they were something like 50 per cent. in error. Worst still, under Sub-heading I, the error in the Department is something in the region of 100 per cent. It seems rather surprising that the Department is unable to estimate more accurately the money that will be required. I fully appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has to deal with abnormal accumulations, but one does expect from a Government Department, which is spending public money, some reasonable idea of what it wants. The procedure here is that the Parliamentary Secretary or his Minister comes to the House once a year, and makes an Estimate of what is required. I think we are entitled to expect that these Estimates shall have some reasonable degree of accuracy.

Apart from that, there is lower down a high percentage of error in other matters. The Department has underspent some £7 million; and there is an Appropriation-in-Aid which has been exceeded by £19 million odd, despite which there is still a deficiency of £8½ millions to be made up. How is it that the Department are unable to estimate, in one case within 25 per cent., in another within 50 per cent., and in still another within 100 per cent., what they will want? These matters are rather important at the moment, because the hon. Gentleman's Department purport to be able to run transport more efficiently than private enterprise has been able to do. I shudder to think what would happen to private enterprise if it tried to run transport on this sort of basis. The Department ought to be able to estimate with some degree of accuracy the amount of expenditure that will be incurred in a given period. It is not very satisfactory to the public to know that transport is to be in the hands of people who are unable to estimate their expenses with any degree of accuracy. I ask the hon. Gentleman to explain how it is that these vast mistakes have been made.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Awbery (Bristol, Central)

I want to say a few words about the dock labour scheme. It will be recalled by most hon. Members that when we were discussing the Measure for dock labour decasualisation last year, it was promised that the dockers would be paid until the new scheme came into operation. It was anticipated then that the new scheme would come into operation on 1st January, but it is not yet in operation. We are now waiting for the Ministry of Labour to prepare a scheme, and until that scheme is prepared, we shall need to finance the men. There may be a deficit in the fund. As the hon. Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan) stated, there has been a reduction of 50 per cent. in the contributions made by the employers to the fund, and if that 50 per cent. cut had not been made, there would have been no need, probably, to bring forward this Supplementary Estimate. As far as the number of men is concerned, this is a problem that has been discussed by the committees in nearly all the ports. In many cases a port has decided to reduce the number of men, but shortly afterwards there has been a demand for labour, and the port has found itself short and has had to call for men from other ports. At the present time, many ports are considering going through the list of men whom they sent away some months ago for the purpose of bringing them back to the docks. It is not an easy job to determine the number of men who will be required on a dock, because the need for dock labour fluctuates so much. I would point out that in the new scheme the question of determining the number of men, in view of the fluctuating amount of labour needed, will be a very difficult one.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I would like to refer to the subhead concerning Faslane Port, over which I think the Parliamentary Secretary skated rather thinly. The sum required would appear to be in excess of any reasonable charge that could be incurred in the period on true dock maintenance. It would seem that the expenses of dredging the approach channel must, as the hon. Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) said, be included in that figure, and all of us who know that port and that part of the country know that the port itself is not the beginning and end of it. There is also involved an enormous amount of complicated and highly expensive sorts of equipment and services. I do not know whether or not they are included in the agreement with the private company. One imagines that there must be some charge for these services, although they are not in use and were not in use in the period in question. There must be some sort of charge for maintenance in the Estimate. Could we be told whether this is the last payment in respect of this matter? Can we be told whether, in fact, we are still proposing to maintain, as I imagine we are maintaining now, the special railway sidings and all the rest of it?

It is a little misleading for the hon. Gentleman to throw a figure at us, and give the impression that that is the end of it, that it has all been handed over to some private company and we need pay no more attention to it. After all, this Committee will be much concerned if the enormous expenditure in which we were involved in preparing this port, which rendered such valuable services during the war, is allowed to be frittered away. Equally, we are very much concerned if maintenance is being provided for a service which should come under quite a different heading. Now that the Minister proposes to run all the railways, all the bus services and everything else, is he going to pass all these things over to the railway companies to maintain?

We come back to the same problem, How are we to account for these things properly, and unravel them in this Committee and in the House? There are all sorts of ways by means of which one Department can subsidise the activities of another, so that it will be very difficult for us to say whether in fact the nationalised services will be efficiently performed or not. That is why I believe we have to be meticulously careful, and insist in this particular case in getting as many facts as possible so that our minds may be clear of suspicion before the Minister goes into action with his nationalised rail, road; canal and other forms of transport. There is an almost historic air about this Supplementary Estimate. The first Supplementary Estimate considered this afternoon was the first concerned with nationalised industry to be submitted to us. It was not very encouraging; in fact it was slightly alarming—

The Temporary Chairman

We have left that. The hon. Member must confine himself to the Estimate under discussion.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I am sorry. Now we come to the last Supplementary Estimate which this Government are likely to put before the House before they load themselves with all sorts of other responsibilities, for which we do not know whether they are qualified or not. [HON. MEMBERS: "They are not"] We have our suspicions, but we do not actually know, and I am being very kind. I suggest that our suspicions are undoubtedly reinforced even by the comparatively small items we see here. It is certainly unnerving to see that the estimates made were so inexact. Of course, all sorts of unforeseen elements entered into them. I suppose that when the nationalised railways come before us—

The Temporary Chairman

I must ask the hon. Member to confine himself to what appears in the Supplementary Estimate.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I am afraid I allowed my suspicions to run away with me. One is concerned with the lack of exactitude in estimating and preparing the figures now before us. This lack of exactitude appears to be common to all the Departments at the moment, but is exemplified in this particular Supplementary Estimate. I suppose a snow storm would send up this Supplementary Estimate. As we have it before us today, this Estimate is not efficient or businesslike planning, good layout, vision, drive, enterprise or anything else. It is a bad advertisement for the approach by this Department to great problems. The Department is loading itself with greater responsibilities than it has ever attempted in the past, but by producing a Supplementary Estimate like this, the Minister gives us little hope for the future.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

A number of questions have been asked about these Estimates. Many of them have been about our plans for the future, and if I tried to deal with them, I should plainly be out of Order. I will, however, try to cover the field as fully as I can. I shall certainly answer all the factual questions which have been asked about the Supplementary Estimates.

Many questions have been put to me about the Ministry of Transport dock labour scheme at Merseyside and Clyde-side. The right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell-Fyfe) wanted figures dividing the liability between the Mersey and the Clyde. The latest figure is for 1st February of this year. The debt for the Clyde area was £287,000 and for Merseyside £19,000. At Merseyside at present they are running actually at a surplus, which is helping to reduce the deficiency on the Clyde. The strength of the labour force has been reduced at Liverpool, but not yet on the Clyde. The facts which the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned are perfectly correct about the negotiations which took place. Discussions are now being held concerning a possible reduction on Clydeside. We, or the Ministry of Labour, will be able, I hope, to make a positive announcement about this matter in the near future.

I think those were all the questions the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about our Dock Scheme. A number of questions were asked about its future but I cannot deal with those because they are the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour at present under negotiation, and it is essentially a matter of policy which would be out of Order for me to discuss on this occasion. The hon. Baronet the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) asked me about the release of ships. He asked whether we were releasing ships in such a way as to keep in time with the facilities available for the repair and reconditioning of ships. Actually, it is impossible to do that, because the reconditioning facilities are nothing like sufficient. We are keeping a number of ships in service and we are releasing other ships before it is possible to recondition them. We are acting in cooperation, I think full cooperation, with the shipping industry in this respect. So far as the Supplementary Estimate is concerned, the hon. Baronet will remember I explained that we were paying a lump sum in respect of reconditioning when we released a ship, even though that reconditioning might not be carried out until a year or two later.

10.0 p.m.

The hon. Member also asked about the number of ships we were retaining for trooping. I cannot tell him exactly. At the end of November we had 85 British liners on requisition. I cannot give any later figure. He also asked whether the standard which was being established in ships that were being put off for reconditioning was up to the high standard we would desire. I can only repeat that it is not possible to recondition very many ships at the moment, and the actual standard of reconditioning is the responsibility of the company to whom the ship is released. We pay what we consider to be a fair lump sum, usually arrived at by agreement. The hon. Gentleman asked me also what the future of the canals was likely to be, and many questions have come from other hon. Members about the contributions which the Government may have to make towards the canals in future. The answer is that the future responsibility for canals will be that of the British Transport Commission, and I should obviously be wholly out of order if I discussed that fascinating problem.

Then the hon. Baronet asked me about Faslane, as did many of my hon. Friend, on this side of the House. When I introduced the Estimate I explained that this port came into the possession of the Ministry of Transport for a period last year between April and August. It was handed over by the War Office in April and we came to an agreement with a commercial company to take full responsibility in August. During that period the cost of maintenance alone, without counting other expenses, came to £10,500. It is in respect of that amount that we are seeking a Supplementary Estimate. No further sum will have to be paid as the company to whom we have let the port now take full financial responsibility.

Mr. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

Will the hon. Gentleman say how long this period was?

Mr. Strauss

I have said that it was from April to August of last year. The company that has taken over the port is now responsible for maintaining it. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lichfield (Major Poole) asked me about the chartering of ships, and whether we were continuing our chartering policy. I would remind him that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport made a very full and important statement on this matter in the House yesterday, but he may be interested in these figures. In November last year we had fewer than 1,000 ships under charter against about 3,000 a year before. My hon. and gallant Friend also asked me in connection with Item G why we were continuing to pay agents in respect of various services required in ports instead of having our own organisation. It would be exceedingly expensive if we set up a special organisation for this purpose—which is a temporary one—and it is far more economical to employ as we do agents, usually shipping organisations, to do this work for us. Other questions were asked by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) who wished to know why we paid this money to the canals last year. We paid it because we had to under an agreement made with the canal companies at the beginning of the war. The Government of the day came to a certain bargain with them to carry on essential war services and we undertook to see that they were not out of pocket as the result.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

That was not quite the point. I asked why there should be this deficit in view of the increased need for transport, and the reason given was that the amount of traffic had fallen. Why did it fall?

Mr. Strauss

The traffic fell because it went in other directions. There are a number of other reasons, but I do not think the hon. Member would wish me to go into them all now. We were not responsible for the fall. The operation costs went up—we know the figures exactly—and we are liable for the payment of the difference because the agreement reached with the canal companies at the beginning of the war is still in force, although it will not be in force permanently. I was asked by the hon. Mem- ber for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) whether any of this sum we have to pay out for reconditioning had to be paid in dollars. I am informed, "No."

Mr. Douglas Marshall

I said bunkers.

Mr. Strauss

There is no Supplementary Estimate in respect of bunkers.

Mr. Marshall

The Estimate sets out the hire and operation of ships, for which a further £33,400,000 is required, and the anticipated saving on bunkering and other ancillary facilities, which are to account for another £285,500. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that bunkering is not included under the heading of "Hire and Operation of Ships?"

Mr. Strauss

We cannot discuss saving. I said that the actual saving on hire expenses was £9 million, but there is no additional expenditure involved in the Supplementary Estimates which requires dollars. I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) whether the sum in respect of Faslane was in any way used for purchase of land or anything else from the War Office. The answer is "No." It is for maintenance only. The hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) said that it was outrageous that we should present to the House Estimates which were so much over the amount of the actual money which was in fact expended. When the Estimates are being prepared, which means towards the end of 1945 for the 1946–7 year, and in a period of transition from war to peace, it is quite impossible to make them wholly accurate. We do not know what the traffic on canals will be in 15 months, how quickly we can release ships and give them back to shipowners, and what our liabilities will be in that respect. Any commercial company would have been proud of the accuracy of our forecasting. It is only in respect of a limited number of items that we have had to come forward and ask for an additional Supplementary Estimate. Instead of criticism we ought to get from all sides of the Committee congratulations for having transformed our wartime organisation and arrangements so quickly to the conditions of peace. The main part of the Supplementary Estimates arises from the speed with which we have changed from war to peace conditions, the way we have de-requisitioned ships and handed them back to their owners to enable them to carry on their peacetime trade. Instead of censuring us, the Committee should congratulate us on having been so accurate in our Estimates.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I do not think the Committee will expect the last remarks of the Parliamentary Secretary to go unchallenged. He admits to having missed the original Estimate by £42 million, and says that we ought to congratulate the Government for their accuracy. What can he expect the public to think of that? To ask the Committee to consider that reasonable is asking a great deal too much: I would like to pursue the point about Faslane. It is an error on the part of the hon. Gentleman's Department, which I recognise, and I am sure he is not to blame. The Estimate says that this sum of £10,500 is for operating costs. Now the hon. Gentleman has explained that it is not, but that it is for maintenance costs. I accept that. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) said that that was an absolutely ridiculous figure for maintenance costs from May to August. It anybody should know, surely it is the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire. Particularly having regard to the fact that the hon. Gentleman has inadvertently misled the Committee as to the nature of this charge, I think that we are entitled to have some further explanation as to how this figure is made up.

Resolved: That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding,£8,600,000, 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, 1947, for the cost of Shipping and Inland Transport Services arising out of the War.

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