HL Deb 31 July 1917 vol 26 cc83-93

LORD ANSLOW had the following Notice on the Paper—

To call attention to the serious waste of time, work, and money which, in view of the depleted staffs throughout the country and the paramount claims of the war, should as far as possible be avoided or prevented, and more especially to the waste of public time over trivial litigation between individuals, to the unnecessary work and expense incurred through the neglect of railway passengers to take the proper steps for obtaining their tickets, and to the excessive number of Returns and statistics of little present or future value under existing circumstances, but still required by Government Departments; and to ask that some relief should be given.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, may I be allowed to plead for a little indulgence, as this is the first time I have addressed your Lordships at any length, although a short time ago I made a few remarks in the course of a debate upon the work of the war agricultural committees. I feel that I am somewhat bold in taking upon myself so voluminous a Notice and dealing with such very important subjects, but my main object is that I may be helpful in my humble capacity and within my own strict limitations in the work, which is so much in all our hearts, of trying to get the maximum of good results from the man-power and the money-power so willingly put forward by the people of this country at the present time. I am fully aware how heavy are the responsibilities resting on the members of His Majesty's Government, and I should be one of the very last to wish to add to those labours in the slightest degree. My earnest hope is that we may lighten not only the labours of Ministers, but the labours of all others who are working for the good of the country.

Two reasons actuate me in calling attention to the serious waste of time, work, and money which, in view of the depleted staffs throughout the country and the paramount claims of the war, should as far as possible be avoided or prevented. First of all, I wish to obtain, if possible, some relief for those hard-worked men and those local authorities and public companies who have from the commencement of the war been working at high pressure and doing their utmost to push forward the work which is required for the prosecution of the war. My second object is to ease as far as possible the path of those who, by the invitation of the Government, are working at the present time to obtain economy in all directions. The campaign for economy is being conducted through the machinery which has been instituted by the war savings committees all over the country, and it has been carried on, as your Lordships know, in several different ways. It is carried on, first, by publicity through the Press. Some newspapers are read by a good many people, but in many cases the particular points dealing with the need for economy are passed over and not read. Public meetings have been tried, and the experience of those who have been arranging them in country districts is that they are largely attended by those who are already converted to food economy, and are avoided by those who might possibly be led to effect some economy in their household matters.

I believe that a good deal of work has also been done in this direction by means of kinematograph exhibitions and by advertisements, some of which are distinctly to the point; but the main work must always be done by individual effort, by going from house to house and trying, by careful and quiet argument, to convince the residents of the need for economy. And to ease the labours of these canvassers it is necessary to get rid of the impressions created by the examples which, unfortunately, have been given in the past of lavish expenditure and a certain amount of waste in public places and by those in authority. It is a very difficult thing indeed to get rid of these impressions. Personal examples of economy are insufficient if once these impressions get hold of the minds of the people to whom you have to address your arguments. The only way of really convincing them is by showing that the attention of Public Departments has been called to the matter of expenditure, and that reforms are being made day by day. I hope that what I am going to put before your Lordships to-day will be corroborated to a great extent, supplemented, and amplified by those of your Lordships who have had far more experience in local administration than I have had, and who, as leaders of industrial undertakings, are constantly hearing the opinions of those with whom they come in contact.

Last week, when I was going to our county council, I was mentioning one of the subjects which I have specially put down in this Notice to friends of mine who were travelling with me, and they called my attention to a cartoon which had appeared on that particular day in the Daily Graphic. It is a cartoon which is decidedly pointed. It depicts two houses side by side, one occupied by Officialdom and the other by the British Public. Officialdom is portrayed as putting a large poster on the door of the British Public containing the words "Eat less bread"; and, while he is doing that, British Public has quietly come up and is posting on the door of Officialdom, "Spend less money." I believe that this cartoon represents what is in the minds of a great number of people when we preach economy. I do not know whether it is possible that any great relief should be given through a discussion in this House, but I feel certain that wherever these matters are brought to the attention of the British public the common sense and the good feeling of those who are affected will lead them to work in co-operation with us, and that those who have, perhaps through carelessness or unwitting selfishness, contributed to unnecessary expenditure will themselves curtail those practices and do their utmost to prevent anything like waste.

The first subject to which I especially call attention is what I may call trivial litigation. I think that what most oppresses those who are working hard is that they are called upon to undertake work which seems to be trivial and frivolous in comparison with the work of national importance which we are all anxious to do. Lately your Lordships have probably had your attention called to several cases which have appeared in the records of our Courts of Justice. There was one case where a young lady was sued by her rejected suitor for the recovery of an engagement ring. Another ease arose where a lady had an action for breach of promise brought against her by a rejected suitor. And quite recently, before Mr. Justice Darling, a claim was made for the recovery of a prize in one of the football competitions in a newspaper. Perhaps I may be allowed to read what Mr. Justice Darling said with regard to that case. He said— It would amuse the whole world to find that twelve special jurymen had been summoned, in the middle of a great war, to do nothing more than to decide who won in a gamble. He had heard that paper was scarce; yet here they found people using paper for this kind of non-sense. He went on, in the course of his judgment, to say— It was a public scandal that an official like himself and the jury should be brought there to consider nothing but rubbish of that kind.

He held that there was no case to go to the jury, and entered judgment for the defendants, with costs. If I remember rightly, the case which was brought for breach of promise against the lady ended in a farthing damages being given to the man who brought it.

I submit to your Lordships that the trial of actions of this kind—and I have no doubt there are many others—is a shameful waste of time which is paid for to a very great extent out of public money. It is not fair to jurors who are called from their businesses at a time when possibly they are short-handed, that they should be required to hang about the Courts waiting for trials of this kind. It is hardly fair to the learned Judge that he should be asked to try cases of this kind. Witnesses, again, have to be called; there are the ushers of the Court; there may be applications to the Judge in Chambers during the course of the proceedings—all of this occupying the time of people who could be better employed, and also wasting money. It is especially hard, I dare say, upon solicitors. The solicitor, if he is asked by his client to undertake a case, can hardly refuse it unless he is contemplating that the client should go to some other solicitor. There are a great number of solicitors at the present time who have joined His Majesty's Forces and are on active service. I have had the numbers furnished to me. I find that 2,943 solicitors and 1,377 clerks have joined His Majesty's Forces; and 352 solicitors and 229 articled clerks have been killed in action or died of wounds. Further than that, 1,342 barristers have joined the Services. When there are so many members of those two professions serving our country in this great war, it is very important indeed that those remaining should not have their time taken up by carrying trivial actions of this kind through the Courts.

I may be asked what remedy could be provided. It is a difficult thing for any one who is not regularly connected with the legal profession to make a suggestion. But there is something analogous in the case of vacation work by Judges. The work which is allowed to be tried by Judges during vacation, I think I am Tight in saying, has to be work of an important nature, and this point is decided by a public authority. I suggest that when the originating summons in an action is put down, there should be some authority who might decide whether or not the proceedings are of national importance, or of such importance as to justify their being tried in a time of war; and if the decision is that they are not of sufficient importance to warrant the expenditure of valuable time and labour at the present time, the action should be stayed for the duration of the war, without prejudice to the rights of either party to bring the action when the war is over exactly as if a moritorium for that purpose had been passed.

Now I come to the question of the great waste of time and money upon our railways owing to the selfishness, unwitting selfishness I believe, of a great many travellers. The accountant of my small railway company—and my railway is not essentially a passenger line, but one which carries coal and goods more than passengers, and therefore the illustration of what takes place upon that railway could be multiplied very greatly when you take any of those lines which carry a large number of passengers—has supplied these figures for the year 1916. The number of passengers who travelled in that year without tickets was 263,456; the receipts for excess charges of all sorts in 1916 amounted to only £6,809. Your Lordships will remember that, owing to the decision of the Courts, passengers can claim the right to pay when they are called upon for their ticket. This practice is hurtful in many ways. It is an incentive to dishonesty not only on the part of some passengers, but on the part of the staffs of the railways companies who have to issue the excess tickets. It also has a very great effect upon the carrying on of the traffic on the railways; and the delays of trains at the present time is of very serious moment to the whole public, and especially to the railway companies, who have their staffs greatly depleted.

Excess tickets cause great labour in consequence of the number of forms and columns and accounts through which they have to pass after they have been issued by the official of the railway company who finds out the defaulting passenger. At least nine different operations have to take place through the company's books upon every one of these excess tickets. Each excess ticket has to be checked, not only with the fare to see whether the amount charged is correct, but it has to be checked with the monthly classifications and the daily check books, and this causes a considerable amount of additional work. What I suggest with regard to this—and I have already submitted the proposal to the President of the Board of Trade—is that if, after the attention of the public has been called to the serious trouble which this involves upon railway companies, no remedy is given by the public generally, some effort should be made to add a proportion of the extra expenditure which arises on to the cost of issuing excess tickets. At the present time excess fares are paid exactly as if the tickets were taken out at the booking office in the prescribed places. No additional charge is made for all the extra trouble occasioned. I venture to suggest that it might be possible, during the war at any rate, that some extra charge should be made, possibly 2d. upon each excess ticket, the amount to be increased in the case of first class travellers. Some charge of that kind should be imposed so as to put a check upon a practice which is undoubtedly increasing at the present time and giving a great deal of trouble to the railway companies.

The third point to which I wish to refer is the very heavy strain which is being placed on the administrative staffs of our local authorities by the forms which have constantly to be filled up in dealing with the Departments in London. It is not only the staffs of the local authorities who suffer through this extra work. There are considerable numbers of obsolete forms and forms the co-ordination and standardisation of which would save a large amount of clerical work in the offices in London as well as on the part of our local authorities. I have had personal experience with regard to this matter. Two or three times lately, as chairman of my county council, I have been appealed to by overworked staffs. I have found that the heads of departments have been working almost night and day. I know that this is constantly done by members of the Government and by others in the London offices; but throughout the whole of the country this is going on in the case of the local authorities, and there is a danger of the strain leading to a breakdown of our local machinery. It is therefore very important that something should be done to relieve those staffs from this excessive and sometimes unnecessary work.

I would like particularly to point to the work of our education staff. For the purpose of getting our elementary grants we have to send in eight different returns. The grants are given on eight different forms; they are given at different periods and are based upon different factors, every one of which requires calculation. And now there is a supplementary grant under the new scheme for educational reform which requires many more forms to be filled up, every one of which is at present most mystifying and very difficult even for the older members of our staff to understand. As your Lordships know, from all our staffs we have been sending away our youngest and best men to the Army, and although we have filled up their places very largely with able and intelligent women who are doing most excellent work, the older members of our staff have had to give up a great deal of time to instructing and training these new officials. Therefore there has been double work thrown upon the remaining members of the old staff. I am not saying for a single instant that we are not getting most admirable work done, but there is a danger at present of the staffs breaking down. I earnestly hope that when the question of educational reform is being considered by the Minister of Education the grants made for educational work will be grouped into as small a number of forms as possible and given upon a settled basis that will require little calculation.

The subject of what should be the real relations between Imperial and local taxation has been discussed in Parliament over and over again, and there are Reports of Commissions available with regard to that matter. The exact proportion might be hard to find, but it ought to be possible to arrange that there should be one standard grant made for the purposes of education—one proportion being the Imperial proportion, the other proportion being sufficient to enlist the careful attention of the local authority which is carrying out the work. It is necessary for the purpose of getting the local authority to do the work well that they should pay a certain proportion. It is probably desirable that when the Imperial grant is given there should be deductions made from it if the local authority is not carrying out the work to a proper standard after inspection has been made on behalf of the Imperial authority. But if the grant could be made in some such way as I have suggested, there would be great simplification of the work both in the Hoard of Education in London and also in the education offices of our local authorities.

I thank you, my Lords, for listening to what I have had to say. I hope that something may result in the way of relief to our overworked staffs in the provinces, and that the work of educational reform may be helped on by the removal of the great obstacle that undoubtedly exists in the fact that there is a strong feeling on the part of a great number of ratepayers that they are bearing far too large a proportion of the cost of education, and that as the real work of education is a national work to attain a national asset it ought to be paid for to a very great extent out of the national funds.


My Lords, the noble Lord began his speech by asking for your Lordships' indulgence, but of that I am sure the House will feel he stood in no need, for he has ranged over a variety of topics in the course of his speech with the utmost ease and facility. With regard to the general subject. I am sure that every member of the House will be in agreement with the noble Lord that every possible attempt should be made by Government Departments and all concerned to prevent waste of time, work, and money. Therefore the noble Lord will, I hope, forgive me if I do not devote more than a passing reference to that general part of his speech, because it is really an agreed matter. It will be within the recollection of most of your Lordships—I do not know whether it is within the recollection of the noble Lord himself—that nearly three years ago the question was brought forward by Lord Midleton, supported by many other noble Lords in this House, of endeavouring to prevent waste of time, work, and money by Government Departments. A strong Retrenchment Committee was set up. Debates took place on the subject in this House, and instructions were issued by the Treasury to the different Departments concerned; and I think your Lordships will feel that there is not much more to be said on that matter this afternoon.

The noble Lord passed to the grave inconvenience—if no more serious term should be applied to the practice—of persons indulging in trivial litigation at the present time. He quoted the case of an action for breach of promise of marriage, an action for the recovery of a ring, and actions of that sort. Surely it is not within the power of His Majesty's Government—of which I am a very humble member, if indeed I can claim such a title at all—to take steps to prevent litigation, trivial or otherwise, unless the noble Lord, or some one else, brings in a Bill ordering the Law Courts to be closed during the continuance of the war, when it would be for Parliament in its wisdom to consider and decide upon such a proposal. The noble Lord did make a suggestion to the effect that whenever it was proposed by litigants to bring a suit into Court some panel of censors should be set up, possibly composed of the noble and learned Lords who are such ornaments of this House. Whether or not the undertaking of such a task would be agreeable to them, it is impossible for me to say. At all events, it is a matter altogether outside the competence of the Government to deal with, as I am advised. Then the noble Lord proceeded to allude to the great inconvenience and loss caused to a railway company with which he is connected—I think he is the chairman of it—


It is not a loss to the railway company at the present time, because under the existing agreement between the railway companies and the Government the receipts and expenditure are based upon the 1913 figures; therefore the loss will be borne by the taxpayers of the country.


I am sorry if I misunderstood the noble Lord on that point. At all events, he was speaking of a practice that has obtained in connection with the railway of which he is chairman, by which considerable delay has taken place in the punctual starting of trains owing to passengers not having taken their tickets beforehand.


The point I made would be, of course, multiplied according to whether the railway company is a passenger-carrying company or a goods company. The figures that I gave would be very much larger when taken over the whole country, and the loss is one that falls on the country generally.


The noble Lord has been in correspondence with the Board of Trade on this point. I have the correspondence here, as a matter of fact. It has been considered by the Board of Trade whether it would be advisable that legislation should be brought forward to deal with the point, but the Board has come to the conclusion, in the first place, that at this moment of the session it would be undesirable to bring in any further legislation, and, in the second place, that it is doubtful whether, if any legislation were brought in on this subject, it would result in curing the evil of which the noble Lord complains. I know from my own experience that on a great many railways now nobody is allowed to go on to a platform unless he has taken a ticket; and the remedy in this matter is that the noble Lord should adopt a similar practice on his railway.

Lord Anslow commented on the great loss and inconvenience caused to various people, such as county councils and managers of schools, and, I think it has been suggested, to directors of railway companies, in being obliged to present numerous Returns to Government Departments. I may say, with regard to a particular Return that was asked for this month from railway companies to be furnished to the Board of Trade giving figures respecting employment, that this Return has not been asked for for twelve months previously, and it is one which it is absolutely necessary that the Government should have in order to enable them to see what effect the war is having on industries which control such large bodies of men as are controlled by railway companies. I think your Lordships will agree that to furnish a Return once in twelve months is not a very great hardship.

As to the general question of Returns asked for by Government Departments, I should like to quote this to the House— The Committee on Public Retrenchment, in their first Report, recommended that Government Departments should carefully review all the Reports, Returns, and publications hitherto presented to Parliament or published, with a view to the permanent discontinuance of any which are no longer of sufficient importance to justify the money spent on compilation and printing, to the temporary discontinuance for the period of the war of any which, though necessary in normal times, can be dispensed with temporarily without grave risk or inconvenience, and to the permanent curtailment of the length of all publications by excluding those portions which are not absolutely necessary or which are required for departmental use only and need not therefore be printed. The Treasury specially directed the attention of all Departments to this recommendation, and, in doing so, pointed out to them that the direction by Statute to lay a Return before Parliament is not per se equivalent to a direction to printing it, but is satisfied by laying on the Table in manuscript. Many Returns, however, are required by Statute. The Treasury have endeavoured, ever since the Report of Lord Midleton's Committee, to do what in them lay to cut down and minimise the number of Returns required. But if the noble Lord will bring to the attention of the Treasury or the Board of Trade any specific instances where he thinks unnecessary Returns are still being asked for, I can assure him that those Departments will do their best to meet his wishes. It is, perhaps, not for me to say so; but I think the House will recognise that speeches such as that which the noble Lord has made this afternoon will do good in keeping everybody, Government Departments included, up to the mark.