HL Deb 14 July 1915 vol 19 cc412-22

LORD ORANMORE AND BROWNE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they intend to recommend to local authorities that schemes of social improvements not of urgent necessity be postponed until the termination of the war; and also whether they will give a comparative statement showing the loans sanctioned from March 26 to June 30 in the years 1914–15 respectively in respect of the matters in which—

  1. 1. The Local Government Board,
  2. 2. The Board of Education,
  3. 3. The Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, and
  4. 4. The Home Office are concerned, and generally the way in which the loans for which the Local Government Board are primarily responsible are made up, e.g.,
    1. a. War requirements.
    2. b. Expenditure already incurred under contracts existing at the date of their Circular Letter of March 25.
    3. c. Urgent requirements of public health.
    4. d. Other purposes.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, last week my noble friend Lord Midleton initiated a debate on he question of the civil expenditure of the country, and in the course an interesting and exhaustive speech he gave instances where he thought extravagance had occurred and made suggestions as to how in his opinion economies could he effected in the future, and I was glad to note that he received a very sympathetic reply from the noble Lord Lansdowne. The subject which my noble friend raised was so great a one mid comprised so many different Departments that it was impossible for him to allude to a less important but. still a very important question—namely, the expenditure of local authorities in this time of war. He did, however, allude to one branch of that subject, that of education, but what he said had the effect of bringing the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Haldane, to his feet and of showing that their' was not that unanimity on that subject which one might have hoped for; and as I am most anxious not to refer in the course of my remarks to anything contentious I shall not say anything on the subject of education, except, to express my entire agreement with the opinions that were so ably given utterance to by my noble friend.

In ordinary circumstances this question would not be raised at all. Parliament would be very loth to interfere in any way with the discretion of local authorities, to whom certain powers have been entrusted; but when we find that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for the Colonies thought it desirable, perhaps even necessary, to attend a public meeting for the purpose of delivering a lecture to everybody in these islands on the subject of thrift, I do not think it will be considered unseemly that a little similar advice should be administered by some one on behalf of His Majesty's Government to local authorities. I do not mean for a moment to say that nothing has been done by the Government with reference to this. Of late I think a great deal has been done. I date say many of your Lordships have seen two Circulars which were issued by the late President of the Local Government Board, Mr. Samuel, on March 11 and 25, and I believe that a similar Circular to the one of March 11 was issued with regard to Scotland. These Circulars have appeared in the public Press, and I therefore do not intend to inflict them upon your Lordships; but I should like with the permission of the House to read Our or two extracts from them. In the Circular of March 25 it is stated— Treasury are anxious that the, attention of local authorities should be particularly drawn to the have that economies and restrictions borrowing are possible not only as regards new works but also as regards works in progress. I think I shall be able to show your Lordships that up to he date of this Circular the policy of the Local Government Board had rather been that expenditure should be made these directions than that it should lie curtailed, and no doubt this accounts for the fact that we see so many works still in progress which we think might well have been brought to a standstill. However much local authorities may wish to stop works which have been undertaken, if contracts have been entered into they must appeal to the patriotism and good will of the contractor before die contract can be held up, and it is quite easy to understand that the contractor himself may have made contracts and purchased material and may find it impossible to agree to the work being suspended. That may be the explanation of the continuance of work in connection with the erection of that stately palace at. the other side of the river which we can see from the windows of your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that both the London County Council and the contractors engaged in that work would be glad, if they could do so, to stop it during the war, but for the reasons I have stated it may be impossible to do so.

But even supposing that the local authorities are doing their best to suspend works and to discourage extravagance, I think there are still some matters in connection with which economies could be effected. Let tile state one or two of them. First I should like to mention the subject of lighting. Except in places where Zeppelin raids are expected I believe there has been no diminution of public lighting in any town in England. I know that on occasions when I have motored through the country and found myself at dusk in some provincial town I have been perfectly amazed, accustomed to the gloom of London, at the blaze of light which has met me. We all read the interesting speech of the Minister of Munitions the other day in which he told us of the absolute necessity of economising every ounce of coal we could, and it seems to me in these circumstances unwise that lighting in our provincial towns should be continued exactly the same as it was before the war.

Another instance of extravagance—and this may strike a more contentious ground—is the continuation of the building of sanatoria under the Insurance Act. I believe a Circular has quite recently been issued by the Local Government Board suggesting that this should cease, but denying the early months of the war the policy of the Board, as I understand it, was that this work should be continued. I yield to no one in my wish that we should do everything in our power for those of our fellow-countrymen who are suffering from the dreadful disease of consumption, but it seems to me that our first duty at the present time is to save the lives of those who are fighting for us at the Front, and that can only be done by concentrating all our efforts and spending all available money for that purpose.

I should like now to give two or three instances where I think local authorities are asking individuals to spend money in an unnecessary manner. I believe that when new Streets are erected in the neighbourhood of a town the ordinary course is for a builders' road to be first constructed, and then as houses are gradually built on each side and it becomes a street the frontages are called upon to make an ordinary road. That has been done, I am told, to a large extent during the past few months, and it seems to me that this is an unnecessary expense to put these people to at the present time. I will give a rural instance. Before the war began we heard a great deal of the cry "Back to the land," and we were met by the reply that unless the condition of rural housing was improved von could not get people to go hack to the land. Some owners tried to improve their houses, and some, from want of means or because they thought it would not he a profitable investment, did not do much in that direction. But a good mane local authorities have thought it advisable to put in force their powers and gradually to apply pressure so that these people should be brought into line with those who had improved their houses.

I know something about a district committee in Scotland which determined that all cottages should have lath and plaster between the cottage wall and the wall-paper, and in the case of old cottages where you go down a step into the kitchen they determined that it was necessary that the floors should be above the ground level. The latter requirement has necessitated new floors being laid, with the result that in certain cases this has made the ceilings too low td comply with the regulations and sonic of the cottages have had to be rebuilt. Then where there is a water supply in close proximity the owner has been required to provide a water supply to the cottage. This entails, in the first place, a great deal of labour which could otherwise be more usefully employed, not only ordinary unskilled labour lint also that of carpenters and plumbers. In the second place, it entails the employment of a great deal of material which might be more usefully employed—for instance, timber which might lie used for constructing huts for our soldiers, and lead which might be used for making bullets for our enemies. In the third place, it entails the expenditure of a large amount of money which might otherwise be available for the War Loan. The Circular of March 11 states— Moreover, it is essential to see that capital as well as labour is made available in the directions in which it can best further the national interests doling the war. There may be a flaw in my last argument, because it may be contended that the money is available whether it is hi the hands of one person or divided amongst many, as it would be if these improvements were made; but. I think it is more likely that one person with £500 would invest it in the War Loan than that the money would be similarly invested if divided amongst forty or fifty people. I hope no one will think that I am advocating that owners should be allowed owing to the war to suffer houses that are in an insanitary condition to become dilapidated. On the contrary, what I am urging is that a new standard of what is sanitary should not be introduced during the war.

The reply that will be given to me will probably be that the local authorities have no option in the matter, and that the sections of the Act under which they have these powers mire mandatory and provide that if there is a nuisance the local authority shall do so and so. But surely it remains for the local authority to decide, what is and what is not a nuisance. They very often consider a state of things a nuisance which a few years ago was considered perfectly sanitary. I know hat in some cases this discretion has been exercised by local authorities. A short time ago it was so exercised in Lanarkshire, where the district committee had called upon the sheriff, who had no option in the matter, to declare certain houses insanitary. The houses were to cease to be inhabited and to be demolished, by which time they hoped that their new housing scheme would be carried into effect. Bat when they tried to carry out their new housing scheme they found that, owing to the scarcity of labour and the impossibility of obtaining materials, they were unable to do so, and they were obliged to go back to the sheriff and get him to rescind the order so that these houses could be used again for habitation.

I think the whole secret of this is to be found in the fact that the policy of the Government with regard to these matters has changed. I will read one more extract from the Circular of March 11— At the outset of the war there was reason to fear that unemployment might be widespread. The Government committee on the Prevention and if suggested to local authorities that they should hare in readiness schemes for new works and buildings which could be put into operation in case serious unemployment should arise. Local authorities have in general responded to this suggestion, and in most cases suet schemes are ready or in OM advanced stage of preparation. That is to say, at the beginning of the war it was considered desirable to encourage expenditure in every way. We were told by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, "Business as usual." I think that cheery note of optimism was useful at that time, but I doubt very much whether the distinguished statesman who is now Minister of Munitions would repeat it at the present; time. I think it is more likely that he would say that only such business is essential as will enable the war most successfully to be carried on. I am asking a long series of Questions. The object of them is to obtain a comparison between expenditure in normal times and that now sanctioned under the policy of the Government as set forth in the Circulars to which I have referred.


My Lords, I think the House will consider that my noble friend Lord Oranmore has done no small public service in renewing attention to the fact that it is at this moment absolutely vital that the country should see that as little public money as possible is spent on what one may call civilian expenditure. Since the speech of the Prime Minister a short time ago, in which he implored the citizens of this country to exercise thrift and economy in every possible direction, there have been many letters addressed to the newspapers pointing out how difficult it, is for private individuals to initiate any general scheme of thrift unless they see the Government and the local authorities doing the same thing with regard to public expenditure. The speech of Lord Oranmore this afternoon, I dare say your Lordships will consider, forms a valuable corollary to the Motion that was brought Forward by Lord Midlaton the other day and to the discussion that was initiated by Lord St. Davids on the sauce subject. They all appear to be directed to the same object—nailaly, to endeavouring to impress upon all public authorities the absolute necessity, in every quarter where it is possible, of exercising greater thrift and economy.

Lord Oranmore ore was very fair in admitting, as I chink he was inclined to do, that local authorities were not perhaps so much to blame as people might think in apparently spending large smuts of money at the present moment On building schemes, for at the beginning of the war a. Circular was sent out he the Local Government Board urging every local authority throughout the kingdom to set on foot, or at all events to get ready and have prepared, schemes of public utility in order to obviate what at that time appeared to the Government to be threatening—namely, a large measure of distress arising from unemployment. Your Lordships will remember, in connection with that, that large relief funds were opened throughout the country with a view to alleviating the great distress that it was supposed at that time was likely to arise from unemployment, and the Local Government Board followed up the matter by sending out a Circular, to which my noble friend alluded, urging public authorities to prepare in all cases large schemes on which public money was to be employed so as to provide labour.

There is, as every noble Lord who is a member of a county council or connected with a local authority well knows, a considerable number of items on which it is absolutely impossible that public expenditure can cease. First, there is education. Again, as your Lordships are aware, all over the country great additional expenditure has been necessary on the roads owing to their having been so very much cut up by military traffic. County councils are also practically powerless to cut down the expenditure on the Police. This expenditure is regulated and determined by a public Statute, and it is impossible, with the best will in the world, to cut it down. But, as the noble Lord frankly admitted, His Majesty's Government have been alive for sonic time past to the great importance of doing everything in their power to urge on local authorities the necessity of cutting down expenditure where possible.

The noble Lord very properly referred to the Circulars that were sent by the Local Government Board on March 11 and 25 last to all local authorities throughout the country. In the first of those Circulars the Board referred to the fact that at the outset of the war there was reason to fear that unemployment might be widespread; that the Government Committee on the Prevention and Relief of Distress had suggested to local authorities that they should have in readiness schemes for new works and buildings which could be put into operation in case serious unemployment should arise; and that local authorities had in general responded to this suggestion and in most cases such schemes were ready or in an advanced stage of preparation. Unfortunately not only are such schemes in some cases ready or in an advanced stage of preparation, but some of them have already been begun, and in those cases, as my noble friend said, there/is great difficulty in bringing such work to a standstill unless with the free will of the contractors themselves. The Circular of March 11 went on to say— Happily, however, after the first few weeks, the trade of the country recovered from its dislocation, and the enlistment of large numbers of men and the execution of war contracts have in most districts converted the problem to be faced from one of unemployment to one of shortage of labour. In these circumstances an opposite policy is indicated, and it becomes necessary to avoid the inception of all new works, except such as are of pressing necessity either for reasons of public health or on account of war requirements. I hope that language will have done something, at all events, to satisfy the very natural desire of my noble friend that the Local Government Board should impress on local authorities the necessity of saving all the public money possible. The second Circular, dated March 25, my noble friend has in his hand, and I think he is to a certain extent satisfied with its terms, and therefore I need not dwell upon it.

I will now furnish my noble friend with the comparative statement which the Local Government Board have prepared showing so far as they can the effect of the Circulars of March 11 and 25, and this comparative statement I venture to think proves that to a large extent the language of the Circulars has had good effect in limiting and checking what I may call civilian expenditure by the local authorities. This statement shows the number and amount of loans sanctioned by the Local Government Board, exclusive of Poor Law Loans, during the period from March 26 to June 30 inclusive for the years 1914 and 1915 respectively. As regards the Local Government Board, whereas in the period in question in 1914 no less than 1.042 loans involving a sum of £2,491,534 were sanctioned, in the same period of the current year the loans sanctioned numbered only 293, involving a sum of £1,452,254; this does not include 104 loans amounting to £231,352 for paying off old loans. Of this total amount of loans sanctioned by the Local Government Board from March 26 to June 30 in time current year, amounting, as I have said, to £1,452,251, no less a sum than £1,129,246 was for war requirements—for instance, electric current for power, and houses for employees engaged on war work; £183,030 was for expenditure already incurred; £88,958 was for public health; and £51,020 was for various other purposes. This last amount is principally made up of (1) a sum of £6,576 for urgently required sea defences, (2) sums for works needed to safeguard the efficient carrying on of existing undertakings, and (3) a large number of small loans the sanctioning of which in various special circumstances—for instance, where an unusual opportunity for purchasing property at a low figure occurred—it was considered desirable not to postpone. As regards the Board of Education, whereas in the three months in question in 1914 loans numbering 383 and involving a sum of £607,514 were sanctioned, in the same period of the current year only 61 loans involving a sum of £54,345 were sanctioned. As regards the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, whereas in the 1914 period 163 loans involving a sum of £94,694 were sanctioned, in the same three months of this year the loans numbered only 88, involving a sum of £39,158. And as regards the Home Office, the loans in the period in question in 1914 numbered 39 and the amount £118,240, whereas in the same period of this year they numbered 17, involving a sum of £63,655. If my noble friend has had the patience to follow these figures he will see that whereas there was in all 1,627 loans in these three months last year involving a total of £3,311,982, this year during the snow period only 459 loans were sanctioned amounting to a total of £1,609,412. Therefore the Local Government Board may claim at all events credit for having sanctioned a vastly smaller expenditure for civilian purposes for the three months from March 26 to June 30 this year than they did during the same period last year. And though it is called civilian expenditure, your Lordships will see that a very large proportion of it was needed for what may fairly be called war requirements.

The necessity for the sanctioning of loans by the Local Government Board is, I am afraid, the only safeguard that can be devised in order to limit expenditure by local bodies during the time of the war, and I am authorised by the Department to assure the noble Lord that any application that is received from local authorities at the present time for a loan in connection with expenditure of this kind will be scrutinised with unusual care. My noble friend also asked a question, apart from public expenditure, as to what he called private works, such as frontagers being put to expense towards the making of roads, and matters of that kind. I am afraid that all can say to satisfy him on this point is that up to the present, wherever opportunity has arisen, the Local Government Board have advised local authorities to be more lenient than usual. But, as my noble friend admitted, many of the Acts of Parliament governing matters of this kind use the word "shall," and I believe I am right in saying that unless further legislation is carried providing to the contrary it is difficult, if not impossible, for the Local Government Board or any other public Department to interfere in a case of that kind. The noble Lord will be glad to hear that the President of the Local Government Board is, however, about to issue a further Circular calling the attention of local bodies to this branch of the subject. As regards the particular matters in Scotland to which the noble Lord referred, I am not in a position to-day to give him an answer in detail, because they come under the Scottish Local Government Board; but if he would care to put a supplementary Question on the Paper my noble friend Lord Stanmore, who answers for the Scottish Office, would do his best to satisfy him on that point.

I have no doubt that the House was entirely in sympathy with my noble friend when he alluded to what appeared to be a most deplorable waste of money in respect to public lighting in various provincial towns; and the Local Government Board authorise me to say that they deplore as much as any one, any waste such as of coal, and so on, which would necessarily be involved. But I am afraid that the local bodies in large provincial towns must be to some extent masters of their own house, and the Local Government Board have no power absolutely to stop anything of that sort. The Prime Minister, in a speech that he made on May 14 last on the Board of Education Vote in the House of Commons, whilst fully recognising, as every one must, the absolute necessity of cutting down expenditure, pointed out that there are a great many branches of public service in connection with which it is difficult, if not impossible, to stop expenditure. But I hope, even if the answer that has been furnished by the Local Government Board to the noble Lord is not altogether satisfactory to him, he will recognise that since the issue of the Circulars of March 11 and March 25 at all events they have been doing everything they can to induce local authorities to limit their expenditure in every possible way.