§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.
§ VISCOUNT SANDHURST
My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I have only one prefatory remark to make. I am well aware that it is 258 asking a good deal of noble Lords to take the Second Reading on the last day of the session of two important Bills which it will be my duty to ask you to read a second time to-day. I can assure you that I act with great reluctance in this matter, but I do not think the Government are to blame, because this course is forced upon us by the rapid and happy march of events in the last three weeks, which none of us could possibly have foreseen.
This Bill is a very short and a very simple one. It is a Bill of one clause. It is a temporary measure only; to end with other Regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act. It has two objects. The first is to enable premises to be taken for labour exchanges and staff for the purpose of demobilisation; the second is to enable premises to be taken for Other purposes, those other purposes being to provide offices and staff for what is known as the Appointments Department of the Ministry of Labour. The function of that Department; is to deal with re-settlement of officers in civil life and others in ranks of like standing and education, and other persons similarly situated, who have left work or business to their disadvantage for war work; and to give facilities for such re-settlement it is intended to provide advice and assistance and, where necessary, education and technical training to that end.
The reason why the extension of the Defence of the Realm Act in this direction is necessary is that the existing Defence of the Realm Act and the Regulations made under it include and are limited to steps and action to further the prosecution of the war. The Ministry of Labour is legally advised that, demobilisation being a peace measure, the existing Regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act do not apply. It is recognised that the Defence of the Realm Regulations should, of course, come to an end at the earliest possible moment. This proposal, however, is to extend one power only for a strictly limited period on a task which is intimately connected with the war, and is therefore of a very special and extremely urgent character.
The labour exchanges, with the development of which this Bill has to do, are recognised as the agencies for finding employment, and also will be in a greater degree used for that purpose for demobilisation. Already their work is very great; 259 there is a staff of 6,000 concerned in placing in employment and payment of benefit to people to the number of about 4½ millions, and this, I think, cannot be called an extravagant staff for the purpose. The exchanges have during the war placed some 5,000 persons a clay in employment. Their work will be further increased by payment by arrangement of the out-of-work pay. I mention this to show the present volume of the work of the labour exchanges, and in the circumstances of demobilisation it cannot he doubted that it must be much increased. There will be a great network of these agencies all over the country, central offices here and there, with numerous branches in almost every locality. Every effort will be made to acquire premises by agreement, and it is hoped that it will be only in the last resort that the powers will have to be put in force. The labour exchanges, as I have said, now have to deal with 4½ millions of people, and on the return of the soldiers they will be finding employment for them, as well as for the civilian population. It is estimated that the numbers with which they will have to cope will be about 14 millions of people, and I do not think I need labour the necessity for the increase.
I think I must say a word as to the nature of the premises which it may be necessary to take. I do so because my noble friend Lord Midleton has at various times called attention to the taking of hotels and similar institutions on a large scale, and has commented upon that action. Of those comments and criticisms I in no way complain. But I think I may be able to say something to allay the anxieties of my noble friend. He need be under no apprehension whatever that any of the great hotels are likely to be taken for this purpose. In the first place, they would be totally unsuited to the work of labour exchanges. There is no intention whatever of setting up a sumptuous or imposing head office in London; indeed, I am not sure that I shall be very much beyond the mark in saying that I doubt very much whether these powers will be much, if at all, put into operation in London. It may be so here and there, possibly in some congested districts; but they will be made use of mainly in the country and provincial localities. A labour exchange office is really a modest kind of institution; sometimes one small house, perhaps two houses put together and adjusted for the purpose. 260 What they mainly want is accommodation on a ground floor, with a long counter so that a number of people can be attended to at the same time.
I may add that where any suitable premises at present tenanted for other Government purposes may be found available, advantage will be taken of them. The existing offices of these labour exchanges are quite inadequate even for the work they now have to do, at any rate for heavy unemployment; and I am sure that none would wish to see a repetition of impatient queues—of which we have had experience—standing about in inclement weather; and certainly it would be pitiful to see ex-soldiers and other waiting about in the streets in that way. I should add that compensation will be awarded by the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission, and on a survey of the awards by that Commission it will be found, I think, that the Commission do not take an ungenerous view of bona fide applications.
I may remind your Lordships that this Bill passed through all its stages in the House of Commons without a Division, and I believe almost without adverse comment. The object of the Bill is to enable us to extend and to develop the State machinery or organisation for employment and unemployment in civil life of those to whom we owe so much; and I am confident that your Lordships will wish neither to cripple nor to postpone the development of this organisation. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Sandhurst.)
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, the tone in which the noble Viscount has put the whole question, and the limitation he has mentioned, will no doubt greatly influence the opinions of members of the House as regards the desirability of some measure of this kind being put forward. But I am not quite certain at the outset whether the noble Viscount was correct in stating that the measure is for a limited period. We have had no opportunity of studying these measures because they were before us only yesterday. I can, however, find no limitation of time in the Bill. As far I can see, the Minister of Labour can use the powers of the Bill for a long period.
§ VISCOUNT SANDHURST
I do not know whether my noble friend was in the House, but I expressly stated that it would come to an end as the other Regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
What limitation is there on this Bill? I am afraid that my noble friend will have to consult the draftsman, because this is one of those measures which is brought forward in a great hurry with a bona fide desire to meet an existing difficulty, is put upon the Statute Book, and then we are at the mercy of the Department for all time. I do not want to pursue the point if my noble friend can dispose of it.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
I hope it is so. But with regard to the provision of buildings for labour exchanges in various parts of the country, I am sure we all wish in the highest degree to facilitate the very difficult task of the Government in replacing in other avocations the enormous displacement of labour which there has been. I think that a measure of this kind ought to be accompanied by some statement on the part of the Government, as regards their intention of demobilising the enormous mass of Civil Servants they have appointed, as they are demobilising the Army.
I am in a very difficult position with regard to this matter. At the invitation of the Prime Minister I sat, as one of a Committee of three, for many months last year in order to consider how the existing inflated establishments might be reduced; in what circumstances in future the Government, could add to them if a fresh emergency arose—as in this case appears to have happened; what were the conditions under which we might endeavour to obtain really adequate service for the enormous expenditure which we had hastily incurred in equipping Departments—like that of the Food Controller, over which my noble friend near me presided, which had to be done with such rapidity that all ordinary laws were disregarded. I have pressed 262 over and over again that the Government would publish the Report of that Committee; and I think it is a little hard that I am forced here as a member of your Lordships' House to discuss these questions and practically to be told that the evidence which I heard was heard confidentially, and to feel that a good many statements, which might startle your Lordships if you were aware of them, cannot properly be made. But one thing I think I have a right to say, because it is not divulging anything with regard to the evidence—namely, that the Committee unanimously proposed the appointment of, and urged the Government for their own protection to appoint, a strong independent Committee to sit permanently; such Committee to include a representative of the Treasury, to have upon it when it sat a representative of the Department which desired expansion, and also to have one or two Parliamentary representatives, independent of the Government, who could give the time to it which we know busy members of the War Cabinet and other members of the Government could not give.
I feel that we have some ground for complaint that not one single point collected by the Committee has been taken up, not one thing has been done in furtherance of the advice, which we did not proffer to His Majesty's Government but which we gave at their earnest request, after a sacrifice of months of time. In this particular case can any one doubt, with the need of these larger numbers of labour exchanges all over the country, if that is to be vouched for by the Minister for Labour with the same haste and rapidity with which the noble Viscount, Lord Davenport, had to set up the machinery for food control, that you must again have an enormous waste and an enormously heavy expenditure? But that is not all. I firmly believe that there are a number of offices which ought to be reduced at once, and which, if you could only get some independent authority to override the natural desire of everybody to continue their own work to the last moment, might be dealt with in the course of the next few days. I will give you a few. I think the Ministry of Propaganda ought, on every ground, to come to an end. The vast staff which are employed on propaganda, at an expenditure amounting, I think, to over a million pounds a year, which has been denounced by the House 263 of Commons, ought to be brought to an end, and their premises set free for the needs of the Minister of Labour, if necessary. Again, with regard to the Censorship. We gathered from the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Cave, last night that a very great reduction in the work of the Censor must take place at the earliest moment. Then take the Air Force. The Air Force is encamped in buildings which, I believe, are larger than the War Office was before the war started, or something like that. Can anybody doubt that when the Air Force ceases to engage men and has merely to demobilise its existing establishment, a large proportion of the buildings of the Hotel Cecil might at once be restored to ordinary purposes?
My complaint of the Government is that each Minister finds that the whole question of economy, either of money or of labour in civil establishments, has gone. Each Minister asks for what he wants, no Minister is coerced into giving up what he does not really require, and I think if the scandal of all these hotels and public buildings in London being occupied in a manner which I say I could better describe to your Lordships if I were allowed to make use of the information with which I was supplied by the Departments at the time of this inquiry—I say that if this scandal is to be allowed to go on after the war is over, it really will react most seriously on the Government when the bill comes to be paid. Therefore I ask the noble Viscount whether, if your Lordships consent to pass this Bill, he will give us some assurance that a Committee will be at once established, and that the Government will not take the view which the Committee they themselves appointed asks us to take—namely, that it shall have some extraneous authority. After all, one cannot suppose that all public spirit and public work rests in the overworked members of the Government. But if they cannot take an extraneous authority, will not the Treasury set up an authority of its own to set to work to reduce at once and to override with a strong hand the desire of everybody who is employed in the Government service that the particular offices with which they are concerned shall complete their labours? Cannot we have some assurance of that character?
The present state of London is a very undesirable one. Most of the great hotels are being used for Government work. 264 People who come from the country, wives to meet husbands who have been sent back from the war, Canadian ladies who have planted themselves near some camp from which their husbands have now to be removed, even if they come for a single night, find it impossible to obtain shelter in very many cases. And that is not a desirable thing to continue in the months which are coming, when the numbers of these immigrants, if we may so call them, to London will be enormously increased. I do not want to weary your Lordships, but I hope that if we consent to proceed with this Bill the noble Viscount will give us an assurance that an immediate and proper overhaul by some real authority will be made in regard to a great number of the premises which are occupied by the Government.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
My Lords, I should like to join in some protest against this Bill. It has been again and again said in this House that there was a very strong feeling in the country against the great multiplication of public offices and buildings and staffs of all kinds, with the expenses attached; and I am sure that there must be very generally throughout the House a feeling of disappointment that at the very last moment of the life of this Parliament another Bill of this scope should be introduced, and should be not only, as we are so well accustomed to see, passed through this House without adequate consideration, but apparently, from what the noble Viscount said just now, it was passed through the other House without any consideration.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
I thought the noble Viscount said that it was passed through all its stages in one sitting.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
I beg the noble Viscount's pardon. It was passed through with very great expedition. The main point upon which I think there must be disappointment is not that there should be provision made for the exceedingly important and difficult matter of demobilisation and distribution of people, either in their old offices or otherwise, but that there is no indication of 265 measures having been taken, or being intended to be taken, to utilise the buildings and the men who can no longer be required, or ought not to be required, now that the war has, in its most acute sense, come to an end. The noble Viscount opposite has suggested that there should be some strong assurance given that measures of that kind will be taken so as faithfully to utilise what there is already; and if the noble Viscount is good enough to give that assurance, it will, of course, make a great difference to the House.
The reason I venture to intervene in the debate is not for the barren purpose of fault-finding. I did so for the purpose of making a suggestion which I have not heard in other quarters, but which, I think, deserves some consideration. The tribunals whose duty it has been for a long time to consider what is the best way of taking men out of various employments and allowing them to be taken up in service in the Army or in employment of national importance, now find themselves without occupation. In their various districts they have become most intimately acquainted with the nature and the different forms of businesses, and I venture to think that it would be quite worth consideration whether those tribunals might not be asked to give some assistance, either in an advisory character or, possibly, as a sort of court of reference to which difficult cases might, be referred. There are such cases as conflicting claims for reinstatement in different businesses. There is in that kind of case, which I know from my own experience, having sat on the tribunal for Westminster, a class of business for which there is available a tribunal which has shown itself, I think, to be very well capable of doing its work, and I think it would be quite worth while if those tribunals were kept alive and had questions of that kind referred to them for assistance to the Government.
§ LORD SOUTHWARK
Before the noble Viscount replies, I should like to ask whether it is provided in any Act that an appeal can be made against taking possession of any business premises. If not, as we are asked to pass this Bill at this late period to the session, just when Parliament is rising, could not a clause be included in Committee to make it clear that there is a Court of appeal somewhere, so that, before these buildings or land are taken over by some autocratic authority, there 266 should be a right of appeal. We know in London—and I think it is done all over the country—that demands have been made for premises which a great many people have thought were undesirable for the purposes to which they were to be applied, and that very autocratic means have been taken to get possession of them, though, of course, there is no appeal. As Parliament is rising I suppose there could not be such a great emergency for taking over the premises in the recess, and there should, be some appeal that could be made against any unnecessary or provocative taking possession of premises.
§ LORD SYDENHAM
My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Viscount whether he will accept some such proviso as this, "Provided that it can be shown to the satisfaction of the Treasury that accommodation cannot be obtained in buildings vacated by other Departments." If he would accept a little addition of that kind it might meet some of the considerable misgivings which arise.
§ VISCOUNT ST. DAVIDS
My Lords, I very much doubt the need of any haste in this matter. The Bill purports to provide land and buildings for demobilisation. If this is in country towns and country districts, I do not know what the position may be, or whether the Government have already buildings there or could get hold of buildings without compulsion. But we all know that in London the Government already have a great many more buildings than they need. The noble Viscount opposite has spoken of the Censorship and the Ministry of Propaganda, which are coming to an end, and it is obvious to anybody that at the moment the Ministry of Munitions cannot need in London one-tenth of the staff or the buildings which it has What it needs is a winding-up department. It wants an office in which to pay people off and to cancel contracts. To say that it requires one-tenth of the buildings which it has to-day is absurd.
I do not even approve of the object for which these powers are required. If the Bill was to help soldiers and sailors to get into civil life I should say "Yes." But I know what is going on. I have been paying particular attention to this matter, as I told the House the other day when speaking on another Bill. What is happening is that the Ministry of Labour is holding out to employers that they should give the 267 Ministry all the vacancies they can for ex-officers; but the ex-officers are not there. I know, because I have been running a small organisation to find work for ex-officers. At the present moment 80 per cent of the officers who are out of the Army are not fit to take any work. They come to you on a day when they feel rather better, and ask you to put them in touch with an employer. You do so, and three or four days later they write that they have never been able to take the opportunity because they are feeling worse. What is happening? You have not got the men out of the Army and Navy to place in positions. The Ministry of Labour is getting vacancies and it is filling them with civilians. I would rather that these vacancies were kept to the end of the war, if necessary. If employers must fill them, let them fill them, but I say it should not be done at the public expense; and it is being done at the public expense. Here is the Ministry of Labour with a great organisation which is getting men out of civil life—men who have been getting very high salaries and wages at munitions—and is placing them at the public expense in vacancies which, if they are not going to be filled by the employers on their own account, ought to be left unfilled until some of the soldiers come home.
We are being asked to give extra accommodation for that. I disaprove of the object of it. The Government should strike out the words about "otherwise engaged in work of national importance," which mean highly paid people, who have been highly paid for the last three or four years, and very often have received honorary military or naval rank as well, but have never done any military or naval work, and have never risked their lives. I say these men should not be looked after at the cost of the public, and we ought not to be asked to take more offices for them. What I suggest to the Government is this. Let them modify their Bill and make it apply to country places outside London. I only say that because I do not know what the position there is. We know that in London they cannot want all the places they have got. They have any number of offices and buildings which they ought to empty and we ought to force them to empty them. At any rate, I strongly dissent from the idea that we should give the Government power to take houses by compulsion in order to find work for well-paid civilians.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
My Lords, I wish to say one word only in this respect. To a large extent I agree with the noble Viscount who has just sat down. I have reasons of my own for knowing what the position is, through two servants. One of them was in my employ; he was thirty-seven years of age and was called up to join a regiment. He joined the Grenadier Guards. I have also another at the present moment who was badly wounded in the first great Somme battle. He is not yet recovered, but is still suffering, and had it not been for the place that he obtained with me I doubt very much if he would have got employment at all. I have, from a variety of different sources, the strongest possible reasons for believing that the one thing resented by the wounded soldiers who are now coming home and finding more difficulties in getting employment is exactly what the noble Viscount has pointed out—namely, that men who have been receiving enormous wages during the war in munitions and other work are the men who are now being put into employment instead of those who have given up everything, many of whom have suffered severely from wounds and still require employment. They feel this beyond everything and they resent it. I must say I think they are entitled to do so.
THE EARL OF DESART
My Lords, there is one word which I should like to say before the debate closes. I came here with a perfectly open mind, and after listening to what has been said by noble Lords I am bound to say—subject to what may be answered from the Government Bench—that they really convinced me that the necessities for this power are neither immediate nor urgent. I venture to submit that, unless they be immediate or they be exceptionally urgent, they should not be asked for by the Government, and that this Bill, if it ever becomes necessary, is really not necessary at the present time.
There is one consideration which I have not heard referred to but which I should like to submit to the Government. It is true that peace has not come. It is true that hostilities are, at any rate technically, only suspended, but at the same time I do not suppose any of your Lordships anticipate that they will—at any rate we hope they will not—be resumed. The Defence of the Realm Act is essentially and purely a war measure and I must say, as a general proposition, that, unless it is absolutely 269 necessary, any extension of the powers under the Defence of the Realm Act should not be embarked upon at this time.
I think it is the desire of every one, and I am sure it is the desire of the Government, to restore as soon as may be all the liberties we enjoyed and which we gave willingly and gladly away for the purpose of the prosecution of the war. That urgency has ceased to exist, and I think the tendency of the Government should be to reduce the action of the powers under the Defence of the Realm Act rather than to extend them, unless they can show that the necessity for so doing is not only desirable but is urgent and immediate. I venture to submit this consideration with great diffidence, being convinced, speaking as one may be without hearing the reply, that in this particular case it may never be necessary to put these powers into force; and it is hardly possible to imagine that it is urgently necessary to do so at the present moment.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
My Lords, I may, perhaps, be permitted to say a few words, having listened to the speeches that have been made. The debate has ranged over two grounds. The first is the comparatively narrow issues which arise out of this Bill; the second is the wider considerations of public convenience and economy upon which so much stress was properly laid, by the noble Viscount, Lord Midleton. As regards this Bill itself, I am not aware if all the noble Lords who have spoken had the advantage of hearing my noble friend Lord Sandhurst. He gave what in my judgment was a very clear and adequate explanation of the Bill, and I may perhaps be allowed, in one or two respects, to amplify what he said. Of course, my noble friend who has just spoken is entitled to say, from his point of view, that Parliament ought not to be asked with so much rapidity to pass a Bill of this sort, unless the case is strong, the need immediate, and the necessity urgent. I quite agree with him, and I shall endeavour to show that they are.
I think I heard my noble friend Lord Sandhurst say that during the demobilisation period, upon which we are now about to enter, the exchanges would have to deal with some fourteen million persons, and indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that practically the whole of the working classes of this country will be 270 brought within the unemployment benefits scheme. It is therefore necessary to make a very great increase in the staff of the employment exchanges, and the idea is that their number must be at least tripled for this object. The present accommodation is utterly inadequate for the purpose. It is all very well to talk about taking establishments and buildings which have been devoted to other uses, and which will no doubt as time passes, and I hope quickly, be evacuated and resigned, but you cannot do that in a day or even a week, and in this case I wonder if noble Lords realise that in about a week's time there will be a million of people in this country out of work, and that this is the case we have to deal with. The out-of-work donations scheme commences on Monday next, and it will break down if the Bill is not passed; and I am certain that if I were in your Lordships' position I should hesitate to assume responsibility for the outbreak of civil discontent and disorder which will ensue unless you make the provision which I have described.
A point was made, and I think not persisted in, by Lord Midleton at the beginning of the discussion, as to the duration of this measure, and my noble friend behind me replied, quite correctly, that it is a purely temporary measure. As a matter of fact, the point was referred to the Legal Committee on the Termination of War Legislation, and they were of opinion that the power to issue regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act only exists during the continuation of the present war; and therefore the effect of this Bill is only to give this temporary power, of which I speak, so long as the war lasts.
As regards the wider case, the noble Viscount referered to a Committee of which he was a member and which I believe rendered very valuable services. I am not myself conscious of the reasons of general policy which led to the non-publication of the Report of that Committee, but I fancy that it was a private Committee set up to advise the Government, and that it is contrary to the usual practice to lay before Parliament the Reports of such Committees. The noble Viscount expressed the opinion that no action was taken upon the Report of this Committee. That is not the case. The views which he has more than once expressed in your Lordships' House have been incessantly before our eyes, and the fact that there has been no 271 public pronouncement does not mean that the most close and persistent vigilance has not been employed in all these respects. If it were otherwise I am sure that the noble Viscount, with all the sources of information which he possesses, would many times have arraigned the Government in this House.
The noble Viscount seemed to think that this was an opportunity to make a general statement upon demobilisation, the closing down of public Offices, and the evacuation of premises. It is, I think, not more than ten days since the Armistice was concluded—at any rate, it is not much more—and the Government, although they have set in hand the whole of the machinery for this purpose, have not been in a position to make the full and systematic statement which he, not without reason, desires. He alluded to certain special Ministries—the Ministry of Propaganda—I forget whether he mentioned the Ministry of Information—and the Ministry of Air and the Censorship. The moment the Armistice was declared inquiries were at once set in operation by the Government with regard to these Ministries and others, and proposals are now before us for a great reduction, for the closing of premises, and in some cases for the complete cessation of the work of the Ministries concerned. I wish that Parliament was sitting a little longer, because in a week or ten days I, or some other Minister, might have been able to make a very full statement on the subject.
In the circumstances of the case I can do no more than give the noble Viscount the general assurance which I have just done. As to whether it is desirable or necessary to set up a Committee for the purpose I cannot, without consultation, express an opinion. We are constantly told that this Government invariably shelves its responsibility upon Committees, and I think I have heard my noble friend complain over and over again of the enormous number of Committees that have been set up. If the war has been largely conducted by Committees, it has also, in my judgment, been won by Committees, and the service rendered by these Committees, on which many noble Lords have served, has been immeasurable. Whether a fresh Committee is necessary or not I hesitate to say. If it be necessary, there will be no reluctance on the part of the Government to employ it.
272 There is one other point about this Bill. I have alluded to its main object, but there is a second object, and that is to enable the Minister to take premises for other purposes than those I have described, and those purposes are the provision of offices and accommodation for the staff of the Appointments Department of the Ministry. Here we come in contact with the greatest of the problems with which we are faced. We have now, as soon and as effectively as we can, to arrange for the re-settlement in civil life, firstly, of officers, and other ranks of similar standing and education, and, secondly, of persons who have left their work or business in order to undertake war work. For these classes it is intended to provide advice, assistance, and a course of training, both educational and technical, where necessary, with a view of resettling them in civil life. The country is to be divided into a number of separate local districts, in each of which will be a head office with a staff of persons adequate for the purpose. Branch offices will also be required in each district.
A question was raised as to the use of compulsory powers. Of course, premises will be taken by agreement wherever this can be done, and it is not contemplated that compulsory powers will ever be used except in congested districts where voluntary methods would not avail. It is with the utmost reluctance that I or any Minister ever urges Parliament to rush through legislation at the close of the session, but surely I am entitled to point out that the rapidity with which the House of Commons passed these measures is itself a demonstration that, in the view of the representatives of the people and the working classes, this is most urgently needed. I beg your Lordships to dismiss from your minds, firstly, the idea that the case is not one of the gravest importance and, secondly, the idea that the Government are taking advantage of their position or their powers to press upon Parliament any legislation which is not absolutely needed in the circumstances of the case.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Your Lordships have heard, as usual, a very courteous and able defence from the Leader of the House, but I should like to recall your Lordships' attention to the fact that we do not approach this subject of the provision of premises for the Government for the first time. On the contrary, it has 273 been very much before the public and before your Lordships' House, and I think, by universal consent, that there has been a degree of extravagance about the provision of premises which might be pardoned on account of the preoccupation of Ministers, but which is profoundly deplorable. It has become notorious that the Government have more premises than they ought to have had for the work which was performed, and now, in the last hours of the Parliament, we are asked to add to the number which is already so very much larger than it should have been. My noble friend the Leader of the House said, "Surely your Lordships are not going to take the responsibility of risking great public disorder by rejecting this Bill." I do not suggest that the house should reject this Bill. But why has the difficulty arisen? Why should we be put in this dilemma—the sort of dilemma in which the Government always leaves both Houses of Parliament—either you pass the Bill or you run the risk of great disasters; either you pass the Bill without any consideration, without any defence practically, and without any figures or facts being laid before you, or you run enormous risks. Revolution stares us in the face, we are told, unless we abrogate all our functions as a House of Legislature and pass this Bill without hesitation.
I do not deny the argument of my noble friend to some extent. I think that the Government have placed us in this position, but why have they done so? Because they will hurry on this Election. If the Election had been postponed to a reasonable period there is really no reason in the world why we should not have discussed all these matters properly. Why a General Election should have been made to synchronise exactly with the urgent matter of preparing to bring this country back to peaceful conditions nobody knows except His Majesty's Government. That being the case, we approach the Government with great humility, and ask them whether they can give us any comfort. Are we to be asked to give them an absolutely free hand? Is there to be no check upon the voracity of the first Commissioner of Works for premises? There have been two suggestions made to your Lordships, either of which I think my noble friend might be able to consider favourably. One is that there should be some sort of committee appointed whose consent should 274 be sought before the First Commissioner of Works is allowed to act. That would seem to be a very simple remedy, though I confess not a perfect remedy, because we have the assurance of my noble friend Lord Midleton that the recommendations of his Committee were never followed by the Government. My noble friend said that Committees have done great work in the war, and I think that he is right, but it is rather a pity that the particular work of Lord Midleton's Committee did not bear fruit. The reason of course was that Lord Midleton's Committee was appointed in order to restrict expenditure, and that is the last thing anybody wants to do nowadays. But if my noble friend could give us an assurance that there will be appointed some Committee which would act as a guarantee to Parliament that these ample powers which we are giving should not be misused, that would very much reassure us.
Moreover there is the proposal of my noble friend on the Cross Benches, Lord Sydenham, that the First Commissioner of Works should not be allowed to act, without the consent of the Treasury. That is almost the most moderate proposal that could have been made, and I cannot see why the Government should not consent in Committee to insert some provision, by which the consent of the Treasury should be obtained before the First Commissioner of Works acts. May I say to my noble friend just this one thing? He will be the first man to admit that to ask Parliament to legislate in this particular way, with this precipitancy, on these important matters, is a tremendous demand upon, them. If your Lordships' House and the House of Commons consent to pass legislation like this in this headlong way, and without consideration and proper information, they are entitled to some kind of consideration from the Government, and I suggest that my noble friend should engage to allow us to put in Committee some Amendment of the kind which I have described. If he will do that, I do not think that your Lordships will make it more difficult for the Government than the circumstances of the case permit.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
May we understand that there is a prospect that some authority will be set up not only to control the taking over of great buildings but the reduction of the present ones?
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I desire, of course, to treat the House with courtesy. I understood that the question was going to be raised in Committee, and I was going to place myself in consultation with the representatives of the Department with a view to giving an answer when the point came up in Committee. I understood that my noble friend did not propose to take a Division on the Second Reading; indeed, I was expecting the Motion to be put from the Woolsack.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House to-morrow.