HC Deb 13 February 1953 vol 511 cc843-50

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

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Frank McLeavy (Bradford, East)

I am calling attention to an event which has caused grave concern in Bradford, because an impression has been created that the course of justice has been diverted to the benefit of a powerful institution— Barclays Bank, Limited. According to the Ministry of Works, a licence to carry out work on their Bradford branch to the value of £50,000 was issued to the bank on 19th April, 1949. On 2nd May, 1951, a further licence for £5,000 was issued. In fact this latter licence was exceeded by £5.867.

As at that time it appeared to be the opinion of the Ministry that an offence had been committed, on 21st June, 1952, the file was forwarded by the Ministry to the Bradford Corporation, as the body authorised to prosecute, for the purpose of considering and instituting proceedings. This file was placed before the appropriate sub-committee of the council on 25th July, 1952, and decision was deferred until the next meeting of the sub-committee, which was due on 5th September, 1952. Meanwhile, however, further things were happening in London, and a meeting apparently took place in London between the premises manager of Barclays Bank and the Ministry officials. At that interview, according to the Ministry, the premises manager put forward an entirely satisfactory explanation.

I have written to the Minister a letter, dated 3rd February, 1953, to ask what was this explanation, but I have received no reply yet. I hope to have a reply this afternoon from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. But I would ask the Minister, through the Parliamentary Secretary, this additional question; what business had he, or his Ministry, to consult the accused after the matter had been referred to the prosecuting authority for prosecution?

At any rate, as a result of this interview, a letter dated 20th August, 1952, from the Assistant Regional Director, an official of the Ministry, to the Town Clerk of Bradford stated that the Ministry were to withdraw from the prosecuting authority their submission of the papers for action. Some few days previous to this an official of the Ministry bad borrowed the file from the Bradford Corporation for a few days. He did not return it and so the relevant material was no longer in the possession of the Corporation.

In December, I put a Question to the Minister on this matter and the next day the following appeared in the Yorkshire Press: A Ministry of Works spokesman told a ' Telegraph and Argus ' London representative that the work was licensed for £50,000 before the war and begun, but stopped during the war. On the resumption, to meet the increased cost of labour and materials, a supplementary allocation of £5.000 was granted. but Barclays exceeded this total by some £5,000. On examination of the facts, however, the Ministry of Works were satisfied that Barclays have not exceeded their original building plans and the Ministry have accepted their explanation of why they have exceeded the financial total. No further action is contemplated. I asked the Minister why he had given the answer to a Parliamentary Question to the Press before giving it to this House. His reply was, first, that the statement as he saw it in the Press was quite right and secondly, that it had been given prior to my Question. Subsequently, in a letter addressed to me dated 31st January, 1953, he stated that what appeared in the Press was an obvious instance of misreporting, a charge which the Press entirely refute

While accepting all the versions of the Minister's statements, I want to ask who is the Ministerial spokesman? Why was this statement issued and since when has it been the custom of Ministers to issue a statement to the effect that Joe Buggins is innocent? In his reply to me the Minister said; any form of prosecution would, I am quite certain, fail."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1953 Vol. 510, c. 831.] Since this opinion differs sharply from that of those concerned in Bradford, I ask the Minister to answer the following questions of which I have given him fair notice: First, was the original work licensed upon the basis of prices, quantities and a tender upon an R.I.B.A. form of contract which includes a provision for increasing the contract price in the event of increases in the cost of labour or materials? Second, was it a condition of the licence that the price of £50,000 should not be exceeded? Third, was the price of £50,000 exceeded prior to the application for the supplementary licence of 2nd May? Fourth, was the excess caused by extras to and variations of the licensed work or by the increase of the cost of labour or material during the course of the work, or by both? If so, what were the variations in labour and materials which occurred, on what date did they occur, and what was the effect of these variations upon the cost of the quantities as originally provided?

Fifth, if the increase was due to price increases, was there anything which prevented the bank, its architect and its builders from knowing that the licensed price would be and was being exceeded? Sixth, what was the value of the work carried out subsequently to 2nd May? Seventh, had any changes in the cost of work or materials occurred subsequent to 2nd May? If so, what were these changes, their dates, and what was their effect on the contract? Eighth, is there any real doubt that Barclays Bank, their architect and their builder knew perfectly well, both before and after 2nd May, that they were doing work in excess of the licensed figure and in breach of the conditions of the licence?

As far as possible, I have confined myself to a statement of facts. I have addressed certain questions to the Minister and, in order to give him ample time to give as full a reply as possible, I shall not make any further comment.

4.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Hugh Molson)

In reply to the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) I propose, first, to state the facts as they occurred: secondly, to deal with the procedure regarding prosecution; thirdly, to deal with the hon. Member's complaint that at the time when his Parliamentary Question was on the Order Paper a statement was made to the Press and, fourthly, to give him a detailed answer to each of the questions which he was good enough to send to me in advance.

On 19th April, 1949, Barclays Bank applied for a licence for £50,000 to complete a building which had been begun before the war but the work upon which had been suspended for the duration of the war. Just two years later, on 4th April, 1951, Barclays Bank applied to the Ministry of Works for a supplementary licence for £8,000. The Ministry were not convinced that the work would in fact cost as much as that and granted the bank, on 2nd May, 1951, a supplementary licence for £5,000. In the end the licence and the supplementary licence were exceeded by a sum of £5,867, making a total expenditure of £60,867.

This is in no way to be wondered at, since the rise in building costs between April, 1949, and April, 1951, according to the official estimates of the Ministry of Works, was 10 per cent. and there was a further increase of 14 per cent. in building costs between April, 1951, and February, 1952, when the work was completed. This is therefore one of those cases, very familiar to the Ministry of Works, where a licence is applied for and granted for a certain sum of money and, owing to the increase in building costs which has been continuous ever since the war, it is found before the work is completed that the original estimated costs have been considerably exceeded.

In the whole of this matter Barclays Bank carried out only the work which had been specified in the original licence which had been applied for and had been estimated to cost £50,000.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

Was no bill for extras or variations rendered to Barclays Bank?

Mr. Molson

To the best of our knowledge there was no variation or addition to the work which was done. The work which has finally been completed at a cost of £60,867 is the same as the work which was specified in the licence for £50,000 granted on 19th April. 1949.

I now proceed to deal with the question of prosecution. As soon as the bank realised that the cost of completing the work was likely to exceed the amount licensed, the architect got in touch with the Ministry of Works regional licensing officer. The matter was discussed in the licensing office and on 20th June, eight days later, the papers were sent to the town clerk of Bradford, a local authority which had delegated powers of prosecuting. I have no hesitation in saying that the sending of those papers to the town clerk appears now not to have been justified.

In the course of the month of June, the premises manager of Barclays Bank got in touch with the headquarters of the Ministry of Works and explained what he understood was happening in Bradford. As a result, there was a telephone conversation between the responsible official in London and the Assistant Regional Director in Leeds who then saw the deputy town clerk on 20th August, 1952, and, as a result of that conversation, wrote, in confirmation of their discussions: In my opinion the case does not warrant further action and I therefore wish to withdraw the submission to you for action. This was acknowledged by the town clerk on 21st August. On 4th September, the regional licensing officer informed the bank's architect that no further action would be taken. That decision of the Assistant Regional Director was, in our opinion, entirely justified

I come now to the point which was raised in one of his Questions by the hon. Member for Bradford. East in which he complained that a Ministry of Works spokesman had communicated with the Press at a time when his Question was on the Order Paper of the House. After the events which I have recounted, we heard nothing more of this matter until 26th November, 1952, when the Westminster Press, which I understand is connected with the "Yorkshire Observer," inquired about the matter from the Ministry of Works Press officer. He was then given a full statement of the case.

On 4th December, the "Yorkshire Observer" telephoned and asked for permission to publish the information which had been given to the Westminster Press on 26th November. We do not know why the "Yorkshire Observer" asked for permission to publish information which they were already entitled to publish and which had been given to the Westminster Press for the purpose of publication. It seems reasonably obvious, however, that journalists connected with the "Yorkshire Observer" had seen the Question on the Order Paper which had been put down by the hon. Member for Bradford, East and, realising that this was becoming hot news, asked for permission to publish the information which had already been given to them some eight or nine days before. Therefore, it was entirely a matter of chance, from the fact that the hon. Member's Question was known to the Press, that the information given to the Press on 26th November was published just before his Question was asked.

I now proceed, although it is not Question time, to answer the questions which the hon. Gentleman has put to me. Was the original work licensed upon the basis of prices, quantities, tenders, and so on? I will not repeat all the questions he has already read out. The bank's architect submitted an application for a licence on the correct form, CL 1136A. We did not see the contract form, and we have no information upon that subject, which is a matter between the contractor and the building owner. The answer to the second question is "yes"—the licence was limited to £50,000. With regard to the third question, final costs were not available until May, 1952. and it is. therefore, the case that the bank applied for a supplementary licence before they knew whether and to what extent they had exceeded the original licence of £50.000.

The answer to the fourth question is that the excess was due entirely to an increase in building costs, which I have already mentioned rose by 10 per cent. between April, 1949, and April, 1951. The answer to the fifth question is that precise costs are frequently not available during the course of building work, but the premises manager of Barclays Bank spoke to the headquarters of this Department in 1951 and said that he was afraid that, owing to the increase of costs of building, the original licence would be exceeded, and it was for that reason that the bank made application for a supplementary licence, as I have said, of £8,000.

The answer to the sixth question is that the cost of work carried out after 30th April, 1951, was £5,508 against a supplementary licence for £5,000 issued on that Jay. The answer to the seventh question is that, according to the Ministry of Works official statistics, the increase in building costs during that period of time was 14 per cent. The answer to the eighth question is that it was because the bank were afraid that they were going to exceed the original licence that they applied for the supplementary licence.

Therefore, the conclusion of the whole matter is this, that the only respect in which the Ministry of Works has to admit any measure of blame is that. somewhat thoughtlessly, these papers were sent to the town clerk of Bradford. It is now quite plain that there was no such infringement of the law as would have justified a prosecution. We consider that the action of the Assistant Regional Director in withdrawing those papers was abundantly justified. It would have been quite possible for the town clerk of Bradford to have protested against this decision had he or his council disagreed with the view taken by the Ministry, but we have had no such complaint. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for this opportunity to make quite plain the attitude of the Ministry in this matter.

4.35 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

That certainly seems to me to be a highly unsatisfactory answer. In the first place, rightly or wrongly, these documents were given to a prosecuting authority. What business had the Ministry to be in negotiation with the accused behind the back of the authority at the time the documents were submitted to them? There is no explanation of that whatever.

Secondly, we are told that the Ministry do not know whether there was a bill for extras and variations. If there was no such bill, it is the only building contract I have ever heard of in which there was not. They simply do not know this. They come forward and make the plain statement, apparently without any proper investigation, that this was based simply upon prices. I venture to say that if they took the trouble to look they would find it based upon both.

Thirdly, the final question put by my hon. Friend is not answered at all. It is said that the only answer given to that was that they feared the price would be exceeded. It is perfectly plain that, having based their quantities and contracts, as they obviously had, on one level of prices, when those prices went up the obvious and inevitable consequence was that they were doing work for which they had no licence, and they went on to do it. They had done it to the extent of over £5,000 before they ever applied for a supplementary licence. An offence has plainly been committed, and in those circumstances I venture to suggest that this is not the last that the Ministry will hear of this event.

Mr. Molson

With the leave of the House, I should like to say that the discussions between the premises manager of Barclays Bank and the official of the Ministry of Works took place before the papers were submitted to the town clerk of Bradford.

Mr. McLeavy

That is not the information which appears to be available in Bradford. It is quite clear that it was only when the papers were in the hands of the Bradford Corporation that negotiations were started in London for the purpose of trying to settle a matter which had already been submitted by the Ministry for prosecution because they had found there was an offence. They had passed it on in accordance with procedure to the Bradford Corporation to prosecute in the normal way. This is a shameful misuse of the position of the Ministry, and I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that we cannot allow this matter to rest where it is. There should at least be a public inquiry into this scandalous position, and the face of no official or Minister can be saved in this matter.

Mr. Molson

The discussion with the bank took place on 12th June and the papers were forwarded to the town clerk of Bradford on 20th June.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty—one Minutes to Five o'Clock.