HC Deb 06 March 1951 vol 485 cc397-406

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

11.38 p.m.

Wing Commander Bullus (Wembley, North)

After hours in the air we come down to earth for 30 minutes, but in a similar strain, in that it is genuine criticism of the Government. There is widespread concern in this country at the present time concerning many Government buildings which are in course of erection and the considerable extensions which are being made to buildings occupied by the boards of nationalised undertakings. Public opinion is disturbed that so much labour and materials are being used for such purposes when they might more usefully be diverted to the building of much-needed houses.

From time to time hon. Members call attention to specific cases where Government building could have been postponed. Some of them concern nationalised electricity undertakings. In December last, by Parliamentary question and answer, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Kaberry) directed attention to building extensions at the headquarters of the Yorkshire Electricity Board at Scarcroft, near Leeds. Investigations made by my hon. Friend have revealed that a considerable amount of this building has been done without the necessary building licence. The Minister of Fuel and Power has admitted that work done at the Scarcroft headquarters and at offices nearby at Bramhope have exceeded the amount authorised by almost £42,000. It is probably true that the figure is almost double that amount.

I raise the question tonight because I have been fortunate in the ballot for the Adjournment debate, but my remarks are brief in order that my hon. Friend may have the opportunity—successful, I hope —to catch your eye to give details of his research, which are of especial concern to his part of the country.

Two principles are involved. Should the Government build elaborate offices when so many houses are required; and the more important issue, whether with regard to building licences there should be one law for the Government and its agents, and one law for the people? Is it the Government's intention that the private person should be penalised for building without a licence while the Government can flout the law with impunity? An inquiry is called for, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will state that his right hon. Friend is prepared to call for an inquiry.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Kaberry (Leeds, North-West)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his brevity, because an opportunity is provided for me to put forward a few facts about the building activities of the Yorkshire Electricity Board at their headquarters at Scarcroft, near Leeds, and on other buildings near Leeds, at Bramhope. The facts are so serious that I would prefer to be charged with under-statement rather than with over-statement.

I think we know sufficient of the shortages which the war and the following years have brought about in the building industry, particularly shortages of timber and cement, and of the necessity for strict rationing and order of priority. We know, too, of the consequences which have fallen on many people who have ignored the requirement of a building licence before going on with any building work. Under Defence Regulation 56A, the Ministry of Fuel and Power are the licensing authority at present for all electrical undertaking works, and I think it is common ground that the Courts have clearly laid down that all licences must precede any building work. Written permission must be obtained for the work. Mere verbal intimation is not sufficient, and it necessarily follows that if these two conditions are not observed, then any work subsequently done must be illegal. For example, payment cannot be enforced for any work done.

When, therefore, I found that large-scale building operations had been in progress at the headquarters of the Yorkshire Electricity Board at Scarcroft Lodge, there was every reason to question the necessity for it, or the degree of priority, and there was every reason to feel that it may have been done either without a licence, or that the licence may have been exceeded. The Yorkshire Electricity Board may well have money available to warrant its providing lavish restaurant accommodation for 130 clerical staff, but the question may well be asked, Is this the time for such amenities to be provided?

The splendour, the comfort, and the luxury of its headquarters, including the most up-to-date and well-preserved conservatory and refreshment bar, and the manner in which these extensions have been carried out, have become a by-word in Leeds and district. A three-storey building—the east wing—has been constructed out of the previous country lodge. There is no doubt whatever that re-decoration work has been done throughout the whole of the building.

Many questions were being asked publically in this district and in the whole of the West Riding. For example, why should certain building work be finished off by flood-lighting. Was the work so urgent that it had to be completed before a power conference at Harrogate? Why should a four-faced clock be placed on a tower which is not visible from the road, and can only be seen by the staff during the short midday break? I believe there was still available a suitable hall, formerly used for a ballroom, where staff meals had been served. A licence for a new canteen had been refused because that accommodation was considered sufficient. In spite of that, a new canteen and a new kitchen that must have cost many thousands of pounds have been built. Since their completion the previous ballroom stood empty about nine months and has only recently been put into use, and is called a lecture hall. The furnishings and fittings of the rest room are sumptuous enough to put any hotel or club to shame. Examples are so many that I will mention no more at present.

I believe that about £130,000 has been spent by the Yorkshire Electricity Board on alterations and extensions since it first occupied the place. To us in Leeds, where there are some 26,000 people still waiting for houses, that represents approximately the capital cost of 60 new houses. Presumably the Minister considered all these matters, and on 4th December I put a Question in the House asking for the amount of the licences, the dates of them, and the total cost. I do not wish to be disrespectful, but I think I got an evasive answer. I got the dates of the licences as January and September, 1949, authorising £7,250 and £32,000 respectively. I did not get an answer about the amount spent in all up to that date.

Owing to certain difficulties encountered in tabling Questions, I had to pursue the matter by letter. After some delay—it may not have been entirely the fault of the Minister—I was informed that work had been done amounting to £78,178 which should have been licensed. That represents about £40,000 over and above the licences which had been granted. Let me say at once that I do not except that figure, excessive as it is. The Minister seeks to cover up the expenditure by suggesting that he must not inquire into the day-to-day maintenance figures. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give us those figures, which he must have obtained, of the day-to-day maintenance for the past two or three years. I would venture to advise him that it is another £40,000. For the moment, let me accept the admitted excess of £40,000. That is illegal work over the past two or three years.

What are the excuses put forward? I am told that if application had been made in proper form and in a competent way at the beginning, the Minister might have been able to issue licences to cover most of the cost. Excuses are found for most of the over-spending on grounds of incompetence by the Board's officials in improperly applying for amounts for licences under the amount actually spent. They put forward excuses of apparent innocence in thinking that oral permission or comments of visiting Ministry officials were enough, and we were finally told that the Minister thinks that the work was sensibly planned and carried out without extravagance. It is admitted, I understand, that there has been what is described as "technical breaches" of the law. What an admission on behalf of officials of a public board who can have recourse if necessary to a learned clerk who was previously a town clerk and in addition have on the permanent staff a solicitor and an assistant solicitor.

It is not enough to be told that a lesson has been learned and that such things will not occur again. Is this not exactly the sort of thing which must necessarily arise when the Ministry is in the position of representing the accused and being judge and jury as well? I have no doubt there is a desire to put up the best case possible to protect the Board, but what is the result of this endeavour to cloak the gross breaches of building regulations? Surely it must mean that every man today in the country who waits patiently for the opportunity of a building licence for some necessary alteration to his own house, or some of those people who have been punished for breaches of the building regulations, will feel that there is one law for him and one for public boards.

The Minister would be well advised, even at this late stage, to order an outside inquiry and, if necessary, to allow the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether there is a case for legal action. This is a case, not of innocent transgression in haste or error—it has been going on deliberately for two or three years. I look upon this case as a gross breach of duty on the part of the officers concerned, and I hope that the Ministry will not lack a sense of appreciation of the necessity of demonstrating beyond all doubt that there should be no difference in the administration of the law as between private persons and public servants.

If it is right that men of all walks of life, in high positions of public service, indeed of all kinds, should be dragged through the courts, their characters taken away from them by stern decisions of the courts, then to condone offences of even larger dimensions by public officials who ought to know and do in fact know better means that the law is being flouted. I therefore ask the Minister to appoint an independent inquiry into the illegal activities at Scarcroft and Bramhope, and to let the public know its findings.

I am, of course, speaking only of one board and one case tonight, but it is natural to ask, "If this happens in one case, in how many others is it happening?". Is it a habit of electricity and gas boards to ignore special building regulations and the priorities which those regulations envisage? Is an attempt to be made to cover up the activities of the Board? On 26th February the Minister was asked to state the amount by which the licences had been exceeded. The written answer did not state the exact amount but proceeded to make various excuses. The remedy is apparently that "a salutary lesson" is to be enough to teach the Board and its officials not to do it again; but it appears to have had little effect on the Board and its officials, because at the time that the "salutary lesson" was being administered the Board still kept on illegal building activities at another headquarters, at Bramhope near Leeds.

In this case no licence at all had been granted. I believe that work amounting to £15.000 has been done. The Minister has informed me that work amounting to just over £10,000 has been done, of which £3,250 should have been the subject of a licence. The excuse brought forward is that unfortunately the officers of the Board made the same kind of mistake as they had made at Scarcroft. The "salutary lesson" is little consolation to the hundreds of others who have been prosecuted for spending their own money while the officers of the Board have been illegally spending public money.

May I ask the Minister to say whether this is a case which the Government will wish to show as an example of their policy of "fair shares for all"? At any rate, are the Government anxious to use this case as an example of fair play for all? What is to happen to those who counselled, abetted or aided the illegal act? Are they still to be left loose to flout regulations in the future? Why should these little tsars of the Government's creation be allowed illegally to build their Kremlins behind the walls of which they can shrink from the wrath of public opinion and bask in doubly-protected safety and anonymity? How long are the Government to excuse, shield and condone the illegality of their creatures of the public boards and make them different from the ordinary taxpayer and his strictly imposed code of conduct? Is this "salutary lesson" to be one for the thousands in the country who today are waiting for the raw materials that they may have houses built for them?

Since I first raised the matter, I have received letters from all over the country. In the country generally, and more particularly in the West Riding the public conscience is shocked at the manner in which a nationalised board has flouted the present building regulations; and the manner in which the Government, so far, have dealt with the offence. The whole case calls for the closest investigation. I hope the Minister will accept my suggestion and appoint an independent committee of inquiry so that at least justice may appear to be done.

11.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that in the limited time at my disposal it is completely impossible for me to reply to all the points raised, but at least I hope to deal with the main questions.

I would not disagree with the contention that there should be no difference in treatment in law in relation to a nationalised industry or public utility company and any private enterprise. They should both be treated the same. So far as the Ministry of Fuel and Power is concerned, its authority is for the licence and the authorisation of the work. I am not able to go into the question of the furnishings in this particular place. If the Board have decided that certain furnishings are necessary, they have done that in their wisdom or otherwise, and the matter will no doubt be raised when the accounts of the Board are debated. My responsibility at the moment is to deal with that part of the work for which the Ministry must accept responsibility, and that is the authorisation of the licence.

There are two charges made; one of extravagance, and the other of doing work without a licence. The hon. Member made it perfectly clear what was the responsibility of the Ministry under Regulation 56A. I would say right away that the development at Scarcroft Lodge was development which was taken over from the old Yorkshire Electric Power Company. I have seen the artist's design for the old company—in fact I have it with me now. The development actually carried out by the Board is on a very much more modest scale than that proposed by the Yorkshire Electric Power Company.

Mr. W. J. Taylor (Bradford, North)

Would the Parliamentary Secretary say whether that development envisaged was pre-war or post-war?

Mr. Robens

I could not say whether it was pre-war or post-war.

Mr. Taylor

Then I will tell the hon. Gentleman. It was pre-war.

Mr. Robens

It does not matter whether it was pre-war or post-war——

Mr. Taylor

Oh, yes it does.

Mr. Robens

With respect, it does not matter for the sake of this argument whether it was pre-war or post-war. The fact was that the Yorkshire Electric Power Company had decided on the place as a headquarters and they had ideas as to how it should be developed. The Company had said that it should be their headquarters, and it was right that it should be. As I say, the development post-war was very much more modest than the pre-war conception, and that is right, too. I do not think there can be any argument about there being a necessity for a headquarters.

Mr. Kaberry

An application was made for a licence for a certain figure, which has been exceeded. That is the point.

Mr. Robens

I was developing this on two grounds. Two points were raised. One as to extravagance—that was the first charge—and the second of exceeding the licence. I am dealing with both charges. On the first charge, I am accepting that they should have a headquarters, but on the grounds of extravagance I would not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. It is perfectly true that when an authorisation was given, that authorisation was exceeded by about £39,000. That is admitted, and I do not want to say anything not true in that respect. The excess arose from a number of items which I should like to give in detail, running through them quickly, so that they may be put down on the record.

Contractors' charges higher than estimates, £8,534; building work done by the Board's own labour, £4,094; electrical installation by the Board's own contracting department, £7,316; thermal storage heating in the extension, £7,717; thermal storage heating in the old building, £6,218; improvements to the drainage required by the local authority, £2,969; and the moving and re-erection of two outbuildings to make room for the new extension, £2,080. All those were in excess of authorisation.

It is true that authorisation should have been obtained. The chief engineer, who was with the old Yorkshire Electric Power Company and came over to the Yorkshire Electricity Board, was the responsible official for doing this job. It must be remembered that it was done in the early days of the Board. The chief engineer was a hard-working, hard- pressed official. He has since retired from the Board's service, so that the answer to the hon. Gentleman who wanted to have some people dismissed——

Mr. Kaberry

Who are the other people who authorised the work to be done? It would take at least two years.

Mr. Robens

This job was in the charge of the chief engineer. One would assume that a chief engineer responsible for that kind of work would know all there was to know about licensing and it was his responsibility to do that. The authorisations were not sought, but if they had been sought, they would have been granted. It is the function of the Minister of Works to initiate prosecutions and on the basis that the nationalised industries and public utilities should not be treated differently from anybody else. But these were technical breaches of the law. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] It is all right for hon. Gentlemen to say "nonsense."[An HON. MEMBER: "What about Lord Peel?"] I do not want to discuss Lord Peel's case. I know nothing about it. It does not come within my jurisdiction at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. But I can tell the hon. Member about this case, because I accept responsibility in the Ministry of Fuel and Power in respect of the authorisations.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Northants, South)

The hon. Gentleman talks about technical breaches of the law. Has the opinion of the Director of Public Prosecutions been obtained in this matter?

Mr. Robens

I was going on to explain that the Minister of Works is responsible for prosecutions and it was his view that in cases like this no prosecution should take place, and we accepted his view. He is experienced in these matters. There are many cases of technical breaches where prosecutions have not taken place. If my memory serves me right, there was a case of this kind in court a few weeks ago and it was dismissed. Where there is a purely technical breach and not a wilful misuse of materials——

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I asked the hon. Gentleman whether in this case he had ever asked for the opinion of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr. Robens

I do not think it would have been obtained, because the Minister of Works, in considering the case, would take the same view of it as of any other case which was purely a technical breach as distinct from wilful misuse of materials. After all, if we take the second case, which was the one at Bramhope to which the hon. Gentleman referred, this was a case of temporary wooden huts being used, and the object of the renovations which took place was to make these places habitable. In point of fact, if the work had been merely repairs, no licence would have been required. What did happen was that the line was overstepped as regards alterations and additions.

When a good deal of this work was being done at Scarcroft, as the old buildings were being taken down and floors had to be made good and so on, other problems were thrown up and, as a consequence, they did exceed the estimates. There is no doubt about it—they did in fact execute a very large amount of work without a licence—and I can only say that the advice of the Minister of Works is that in this case—treating it as he would treat any other case—he did not feel it was a case for prosecution.

Clearly the administrative machinery of the Board was not efficient. I ought to say that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power has been assured by the Board that they are taking steps to see that their administrative arrangements are such that this technical breach cannot possibly occur again; and I hope that the House will recognise the facts and that this explanation will suffice.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Surely the Parliamentary Secretary is aware that the very embarrassing way in which——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Tuesday evening, and the Debate having continued for half an hour,Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put. pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Six Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.