HC Deb 03 April 1951 vol 486 cc7-11
4. Mr. Dodds

asked the Minister of Works if an early decision will be made for the continuation of the Festival Gardens, Battersea, in 1952, to ensure that there will be a profit to the taxpayers.

Mr. Stokes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest in the profit-making possibilities of the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park, but a decision to keep them open in 1952 can hardly be made in advance of public opinion showing itself in favour of such a course, and of ascertaining the views of local authorities concerned, and of the people normally using the park.

Mr. Dodds

May I ask whether the Minister is in sympathy with the suggestion as being in the best interests of the taxpayers?

Mr. Stokes

The more I look into the matter, the more I am in sympathy with keeping the Gardens open.

Captain Crookshank

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that they will, in fact, be open in 1951?

Mr. Stokes

If the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will wait, I am going to make a statement about it.

Mr. Henry Strauss

Does the Minister recall that the Festival of Britain (Supplementary Provisions) Act was passed by this House on the express assurance given by the Minister of Transport and the then Leader of the House that this area of the park would be taken for six months only, after which there would be reinstatement, and that this period was laid down in the Act? Can he give an assurance to the House that His Majesty's Government have no intention whatever of breaking faith with the local authorities and abandoning that assurance?

Mr. Stokes

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs made a statement about this the other day. The position is as the hon. and learned Gentleman has stated; and unless public opinion and the House say otherwise, the course to be followed will be as laid down in the Act.

16. Brigadier Medlicott

asked the Minister of Works if he is now in a position to make a statement as to the progress of the investigation into the financial and administrative arrangements of Festival Gardens, Limited; in particular, as to who is conducting the investigation; and what measures of an urgent character are being taken to prevent still further increases of expenditure beyond the original estimates while the investigation is proceeding.

Mr. Stokes

With the permission of Mr. Speaker and that of the House, I propose to answer this at the end of Questions.


Mr. Stokes

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and with the leave of the House, I should like to take the earliest opportunity of telling the House of the action which has already been taken regarding the Festival Pleasure Gardens, and in doing so to cover the points raised in Question No. 16.

The Board of Festival Gardens, Limited, has at my request invited a leading firm of chartered accountants nominated by me, to investigate and to submit a report upon the circumstances which had caused the financial commitments of the company to be greatly in excess of the amount which was estimated would be sufficient in December last. Meanwhile many of the facts are not clear and until I receive this report, which I am expecting next week, hon. Members will appreciate that it will be inadvisable for me to say anything which might prejudice its findings. I have, however, several times personally visited the site as well as the offices of Festival Gardens, Limited. I have seen all those principally concerned, and have taken such steps as seem to me advisable.

The House will, I am sure, agree with me that when something appears to be wrong with the control of expenditure of public money it is right that changes in the top direction should be made. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That was a bit of bad timing! Sir Henry French, the present Chairman of Festival Gardens, Limited, who shares this view on the matter of principle, has tendered his resignation from the Board, which I have accepted. I wish to recognise the unpaid service which Sir Henry has rendered in working out the scheme for the Gardens and in putting it into execution so quickly in spite of so many difficulties.

The Board have also, at my request, strengthened their managerial arrangements by inviting Major H. D. Joseph to become Managing Director, with full executive powers. This invitation has been accepted and the appointment will be confirmed at the Board meeting on Thursday. Major Joseph is a man of the highest standing and experience in the successful provision of outdoor entertainment, and the company are fortunate in having secured his whole-time services unpaid for the 1951 season.

I have felt that the successful management of the Gardens and the control of finance with, I hope, the consequent recoupment of as much as possible of the expenditure is now the paramount objective. I am consulting with the board with a view to finding a new Chairman of the appropriate qualifications and will make a further statement on this as soon as possible.

This is all I am in a position to say at the moment.

Brigadier Medlicott

Is the Minister aware that what has happened in this case is an illustration of the effect which follows from the example of extravagance and profligacy set by the Government, and that the House is entitled to know why these measures which are now being announced were not taken very much earlier? May I also ask whether we shall be given the opportunity of seeing the report of the accountants?

Mr. Stokes

It would be quite improper for me to express an opinion on how this has all happened. When I see the report, consideration will be given to the question whether it should or should not be published.

Mr. Eden

I think we would all be ready to await this report. There is one point, however, which must be in the minds of many hon. Members. This, of course, was a Government-sponsored organisation, and it seems strange that accountants have to be called in now. Have not accountants been in constant touch, watching over these matters, while they were going on under an earlier administration?

Mr. Stokes

I thought it desirable to have an independent accountant's report. Accounts, of course, have been kept. [Laughter.] I am treating this with all seriousness. I think if hon. Members opposite will study my statement, they will agree that the steps I have taken are all that could have been taken in the time. As soon as I have this report, I will consider what next to do. The report will be prepared by an entirely independent accountant.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that until the inquiry has been concluded no advances will be made to this company from the Civil Contingencies Fund?

Mr. Stokes

No, I cannot do that. The job has got to go on. As was indicated at Question Time today, we are anxious that the job should be completed in time for the proper opening date, and I could not possibly give that assurance.

Mr. Duncan Sandys

As the Board was to a large extent nominated by the Government, and includes serving civil servants, can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Government accept their full share of responsibility for what has happened?

Mr. Stokes

I think we had better wait for the report before commenting on these things. When this report does come out, it will be quite clear what has happened, and I should think it would be fairer not to anticipate it.

Mr. Eden

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is right, but he will remember, and the House will remember, that we were assured that legislation would be required for the expenditure of this money. We should like to be assured that the publication of the report will not hold up the legislation.

Mr. Stokes

Certainly not. I hope the Bill will be introduced very shortly.

Mr. Hamilton

Do the Government accept the principle of the publication of accounts of all public bodies, and if so, will my right hon. Friend ask the Opposition to follow the example and publish their accounts?

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Who authorised the use of the Civil Contingencies Fund to make payments which are not in accordance with the policy laid down by Parliament? Surely, it is an accepted principle that the Civil Contingencies Fund is used only to implement commitments that have been undertaken in consequence of policies which have been approved by Parliament when those commitments have proved to be bigger than was anticipated. But as in this case it was not in consequence of policy laid down by Parliament, who authorised the use of the Fund for that purpose?

Mr. Stokes

That is a little bit before my day. The Chancellor of the Exchequer authorised the payment, but not before the announcement to this House that the Bill would be laid.

Mr. Nigel Fisher

Why is it that this praiseworthy and selfless example of Sir Henry French in resigning in the case of failure has not been followed in the past by Ministers of the Crown?

Sir Waldron Smithers

Will the Minister give the name of the firm of accountants?

Hon. Members