§ LORD DESBOROUGH rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they propose to erect dwellings for the workmen at the new Motor Transport Depôt at Slough; and whether there is any prospect of finding the missing War Office files relating to this depôt; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, as in all probability the whole question of the Report of the Joint Select Committee on the Government Works at Cippenham will be raised at some future time, I do not think that it will be necessary to trouble your Lordships at any length on this particular occasion. I understand that a reply has already been given to my second question in another place, and this reply somewhat animadverts upon the Report of the Select Committee. As I see the Chairman present—and I saw certain other members of the Select Committee present a little while ago—it is quite unnecessary for me to say very much about it. Bat I must quote to the House the authority on which I framed that question. It occurs in Section 26 of the Report of the Select Committee which says—
The Committee hate not been supplied with War Office files carrying the history beyond the summer of 1917. It is stated that these files cannot be found.
That is the reason I put the question down on the Paper. The Report goes on—
It has therefore been impossible to follow up the responsibility for delay in that Department.
The Committee attach a good deal of importance to those responsible for delay, and they say some pretty straight things. For instance, they say—
It is clear that the delay in commencement was responsible for two very serious consequences. It was the cause of the failure of the scheme as a war measure, the urgency of which has been fully revealed in the evidence taken by this Committee. The delay was also the cause of the waste of large sums of public money. Thousands of vehicles were left to rot at Kempton Park and other places waiting for the repair shop which never came into being.
I need not read any more, except this sentence—
The Committee are satisfied that the delays which occurred are mainly responsible for the lamentable waste of public money and for the failure to have the works available during the war.
There are two mysteries connected with this, what I venture to call, unnecessary and ill-placed depot, and they are these. There is the mystery in the delay which caused the scheme to be a failure as a war measure, and was also the cause of the loss to the country of large sums of public money. There is another mystery which, to my mind, is a very much greater one still, and that is the reason for the feverish activity which was displayed after the Armistice was signed. Had a little of this activity been displayed before the war instead of after the war this lamentable waste of public money might have been saved, and presumably thousands of vehicles would not have been left to rot at Kempton Park, and the scheme would never as the Committee say it did, have failed as a war measure. But that is no excuse for this feverish activity afterwards.
§ Soon after the Armistice was signed the activity began. The whole works were put into the hands of a contractor, bound by none of the usual restrictions and subject to no risk but apparently given carte blanche orders to get on with the work with all possible speed and despatch. The work went on by night and day. Special trains were run down from London, and they are being run from London at the present time. The work was got on with at all possible speed. We must remember that every brick sunk into the brick earth made it less likely that any Committee would take upon itself the responsibility of stopping these works. These special trains had to be run from London because the site selected was not near labour. It was in a rural area growing valuable corn and where a farmer was fattening 2,000 sheep. It was not suited to an enterprise of this character, because in addition to not being near labour it was not near coal or water transport. The whole adventure, including the houses, will probably cost the country over £3,000,000, and even up to the present moment its object has never been defined.
I should like to quote the Report on this (Section 42) which states—
The requirements of other Government Departments had always been in the mind of
Lord Inverforth. But even up to the present time no concrete proposals have ever been considered.
Later on, in paragraph 65, it is stated—
For the distant future Lord Inverforth, though it is not within his province, is satisfied that if Parliament should set up a Minister of Supply to succeed the Minister of Munitions, that Minister will endorse the policy of a central depot for all Government-owned vehicles. But the Departments concerned have not yet been consulted.
None of the Departments—the Pest Office or even the War Office, or any other Department—was consulted. The War Office was not asked whether, with a diminished army, this scheme should be gone into—a scheme with all the inconveniences which I have enumerated to your Lordships. Papers throwing light on this post-Armistice activity certainly would help to clear up the matter, and to elucidate the second mystery.
§ I now come to the question which remains—that of housing. I should very much like to know, as would all the dwellers in that area at the present time, what the policy of the Government is likely to be. The Report says, about housing, that the question has become a most important one. The minimum estimate of the number of men to be employed at the depot is 3,000. These would be 3,000 skilled workpeople presumably, and not the same elderly gentlemen who used to be employed there previously. The minimum estimate of houses is 400. These are expected to supply homes for 600 workmen. The intention is, it is stated, "to get the Slough Urban District Council to do it or to do it ourselves." Lord Inverforth appears to be doubtful whether this cost is to be charged against the scheme, and no provision has been made for it in the estimate presented to the committee. The committee consider that it is sanguine to expect that anything like 400 houses will suffice. These 400 houses are not likely to suffice. A small sum in arithmetic will show the probable number of houses that will be required. If 400 houses are required to supply 600 workmen, then, as there are 3,000 workmen, you will have to multiply the number of houses by five, and instead of 400 houses you get 2,000 houses. Two thousand houses will cost at least £1,000,000. I do not think you can build a decent house for £500. I had some estimates this morning on another Board, and for a house that cost us before the war £550 the lowest estimate was £1,400. It 1113 was put out to public tender. We will take it as £500; that means £1,000,000.
§ It seems quite doubtful whether the Government mean to put down that £1,000,000 to the cost of these works, to which it obviously belongs, or whether they are going to get the local authority (which is not the Slough Urban District Council but the Eton Rural District Council) to do it. It is only a small rural authority, and the chairman happens to be a tobacconist, and probably knows as much about building as I know about tobacco. This council, as a matter of fact, has a building scheme of its own, which has nothing to do with these works. The houses in that district happened to be short, especially in the neighbourhood of Burnham. They have a scheme to build 800 cottages at a cost of £400,000. That is quite enough for a small council like this, and if they are saddled with an extra £1,000,000 for houses, which they never asked for, and which really has nothing whatever to do with t hem, then I think it is wrong.
§ I should like to ask the Government what they propose to do in the matter of providing workmen's dwellings for these workmen who are to be engaged in future on the Cippenham works. The Government, I understand, contemplate sending people round to persuade large employers of labour to go in for building schemes for their own works. I venture to say that the Government ought to be the first to set an example of providing houses for their own workmen, instead of leaving those workmen absolutely unprovided for. Nobody knows how long the depôt is going on. It may be sold. There was a suggestion that it should be got rid of, and sold at a profit—personally I think that is the best thing to do with it. But after they have finished repairing these vehicles, which is to be done in three years, what position will the Eton Rural District Council be in, if they are saddled with a debt of £1,000,000, or it is put down to their account for providing houses for a depot, which has ceased to be a Government depot, end for the workmen of which the Eton Rural District Council have really no responsibility at all? I sincerely hope that the Government will be able to say what their building scheme is, and that they will assume the responsibility of building houses for workmen whom they propose to bring down there for their own purposes. I beg to move for Papers.1114
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES (VISCOUNT MILNER)
My Lords, I think the course which my noble friend has adopted is a somewhat inconvenient one. He tells us that the whole question of this Slough Depot is going to form the subject of a subsequent debate in this House. I can only say that, as far as I am concerned, I welcome any amount of debate on the general subject. But I think it is unfortunate that on this occasion he did not confine himself to asking the two specific Questions which ale on the Paper.
It is a rather difficult hour at which to begin the discussion of a whole subject. When the noble Lord got up and said that lie meant to confine himself to this particular question I intended to leave the matter alone for to-night; and my noble friend on my right, Lord Peel, is prepared to give him the specific answer on those two comparatively minor points, which I am not in a position to give—except that I may say that I do know something about the question of tae housing. I cannot make out whether my noble friend's point is that the Government is very guilty for not providing houses for all the workmen that have anything to do with Slough, or whether his complaint is that we contemplate building any houses.
As a matter of fact the importance of the housing question is considerably exaggerated, owing to tie fact that, though no doubt something like 3,000 men are employed there, the majority of them do come and go from houses in the neighbourhood or from houses in town, without any inconvenience to themselves or anybody. It is desirable, and I believe it will be necessary, to provide something like 400 or 500 houses for what you might call pivotal men concerned with the works, but I understand that it is not regarded as necessary, or likely to be necessary, that a larger number should be built. Supposing there are 500 houses built, and that they cost £700 apiece. That is, I think, an outside estimate, both of the number of houses that will be required, and very likely of their cost. That is a cost of £350,000. I do not quite know on what principle that is to be regarded as an addition to the cost of the Slough works as a whole. These houses may either be provided by the Government, or they may be provided by the Rural District Council. In either case the people who occupy them will pay rent for them.
1115 As I say, I should have preferred to leave this subject alone to-night altogether, and simply to allow my noble friend to reply to these Questions. I cannot do so because my noble friend opposite has seized the occasion once more to create all possible prejudice to the future discussion of this question by reproducing the charges which he has so often made in this House, and which I really cannot allow to pass unchallenged. I should have been only too delighted to leave the general question of Slough to be discussed on some future occasion. But as he cannot even ask a question on this subject without repeating over and over again the charges which have been made against the Government—all of which I consider are unjust, and Some of which have been absolutely knocked on the head by the Report of the Committee which he was so anxious to have set up—
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
Yes, with a great deal of comment, innuendo, invective, and suggestion of argument, and it is to that I am replying. I am also going to quote from the Report. It will be within the recollection of the House that this scheme has been attacked, certainly in the Press and even to some extent in this House, in very unmitigated fashion, on the ground that the enterprise was in its original form unnecessary; that even if it were necessary it was adopted on very much too large a scale; that the site was most unwisely chosen, and that the lay-out was bad. On every one of these points the finding of the Committee is dead against the accusers. I will read one or two passages of the findings. The Report says—In the judgment of the Committee, the policy of establishing as a war measure a central depot for repairs and for storage of spare parts was a good one. The decision which was taken appears to have been entirely sound, and the conditions which prevailed at the time justified the decision to establish s central depôt for immediate war purposes.Then, again—The Committee are of opinion that the estimate of vehicles to be overhauled annually for war purposes justified the size of the depôt. They are satisfied that the trade were unable to undertake repairs on the necessary scale—This is one of the points which was pressed over and over again with the greatest vehemence. It was asked, Why do you not go to the trade? We repeated over 1116 and over again that we knew that the trade could not do the work. The Committee upheld that essential point in the Government case—and that the policy of giving out repairs to the trade could not have been satisfactorily adopted as an alternative to the construction of a large War Department repair shop.Then about the site. There was nothing in the world on which we were more overwhelmed with reprobation. It meant the ruin of agriculture, and so on; it was a very bad site in itself, and we were destroying the agricultural prospects of the county. The Committee say, "The site chosen was a good one."
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
My noble friend thinks it was not a good site. He may be right, and the Committee may be wrong. I am only pointing out the fact. These original charges have all gone by the board. In the circumstances I can understand my noble friend's annoyance. Then there was a great deal of criticism of the lay-out. The Committee say—The lay-out and design have not been seriously challenged in the evidence, though severely commented upon in Mr. Fitzpatrick's Report on National Service.That Report was one on which a great deal of criticism was based, but the Committee says that "the Report was made without sufficient knowledge of all the circumstances." And the Committee, which presumably had "sufficient knowledge of the circumstances," found that the lay-out and design, though severely commented upon, could not be seriously challenged in the evidence.
Now, as far as the original scheme in this much-abused depot was concerned—the necessity for it, the necessity for its being of the size which was planned, the site, the lay-out—on all those points the policy of the Government has been completely justified by the Report of the Committee. But I should like to say a few words on the points on which the Committee's Report is not so favourable, and to which reference has been made by my noble friend. I do not want to go at great length into the matter—especially as we are going to have another debate about it—but there are two main points on which the Report of the Committee is either un- 1117 favourable to the Government or to some of its members—perhaps I will not say "unfavourable," because I should be expressing myself rather too strongly, but on which the Report is critical. It is very critical of the delay which occurred in the first stages of the construction of the depôt—that is to say, between August, 1917, and February, 1918. I personally am not so much concerned in that as I am in some other matters, because it was just after February, 1918, that I took over the office of Secretary of State for War. I was not Secretary of State for War during the period in which the delay occurred and to which this criticism applies. But it has been fully recognised throughout by, I think, all Government speakers, that this delay was regrettable. It can be accounted for by the many difficulties of the time—of labour, of materials, and of a hundred and one other things. It remains, however, a matter of great regret.
I ask your Lordships, however, to observe this point. The Committee comment very severely upon that delay; they point out, as my noble friend has said, that it involved very great loss to the country. But what is the necessary inference from that? It is that the depôt was calculated to bring about great saving to the country. The delay was unfortunate, because the repair of these vehicles which could not be otherwise repaired was of such vital importance in the interests of economy. But has the importance of repairing those vehicles ceased because there is peace? The Government is left with this enormous number of motor transport. vehicles—something like 80,000. It is a vast property. Many of them are comparatively worthless while they are unrepaired; but they are of great value if they can be repaired. It is very regrettable that we had not this depot six months sooner as we should have had that length of time extra during which saving could have been effected. But surely if it were of such importance to have those repairs made, and to have them made quickly, it did not cease to be of importance when peace came. This consideration is very material as bearing upon the decision of the Government, which is criticised in the Report, to go on with this big undertaking when the Armistice was concluded. That is the second substantial criticism in the Committee's Report.
They have approved the Slough Depot as a war measure, but they question the 1118 wisdom of going on with it after the conclusion of the Armistice. I do not think it can be fairly said that they condemn that action, but they soy that it was not, taken with sufficient. reflection; that we ought to have reconsidered a number of points—which they enumerate—before we decided to go on with it. Here, my Lords, I come in—my personal responsibility is here involved. The noble Lord (Lord Inver-forth) has repeatedly said that he holds himself personally responsible for the advice given to the Government to go on, and I have seen in various papers, commenting upon the history of this affair, that he is regarded as alone responsible. Although I was Secretary of State for War at the time that the decision was taken, I am let off lightly on the ground that, of course, I did not know much about it and was dependent upon my technical advisers. I beg to say that I do not want to be let off.
It is perfectly true that it was impossible for me at that time of extreme pressure to go fully into all the technical details and the long history of this thing to enable me to form an independent judgment. It is perfectly true that I was influenced very largely in the decision I arrived at to proceed with the work by my confidence in the sound business judgment of Lord Inver-forth, but that does not in the least absolve me from responsibility. It must be within the experience of every noble Lord in this House—and there are many who have held high office—that the head of a big Government Office constantly has to take decisions in which he must be guided, not by any intimate knowledge he himself has of a particular question, but by his reliance on the judgment of the people who are advising him. If his judgment of their judgment is wrong, he must take the consequences and the blame. I do not wish in the least, by the fact that I relied largely on the judgment of Lord Inverforth, to escape any blame which may attach to myself for having given effect to his advice. More than that, I should be sorry to be absolved from the responsibility in my own interest. I have been convinced for a long time, and I am more convinced than ever to-day, that the decision I took was a right one, and that when the question of the pounds, shillings, and pence of this matter comes to be a matter of history, as it will be before very long, and not of forecast, we shall be justified, and more than justified, in the course that we adopted. I am more convinced that when I last spoke in this House 1119 that the Slough "scandal" is going to result in a very great saving of public money, and that the scandal will be the unscrupulous way in which the depot has been attacked.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
When I say that, I am not bringing a charge against noble Lords in this House. A great deal of the criticism has been perfectly legitimate and fair, but a great deal of the criticism in the Press has gone beyond reasonable limits. Only the other day pictures were printed in a newspaper purporting to give a representation of the condition of things at Slough; they were photographs which were three or four months old. I have corresponding photographs of the actual condition of affairs, and the difference between the two is so great that the same site is almost unrecognisable. If photographs of the same places had been taken to-day they would have given not only a different impression but an absolutely opposite impression.
Had we hesitated when the Armistice was concluded and reconsidered and caused fresh delay instead of doing what my noble friend condemns me so much for doing—that is, bearing in mind all that had been lost by past delay and therefore pressing the work on as fast as possible—Slough would not have been working even now. As a matter of fact, we have now begun work at Slough. It has already repaired between 1,000 and 2,000 lorries. It is capable of repairing at the rate of several hundred a week now, and very shortly we shall be able to repair 100 a day. So far, the result of the repairs and of the sales has been so favourable that it promises to bear out the most optimistic estimate which has ever been made. I do not, however, wish to base too much upon the success which has so far attended the commencement of the work at Slough. We foresee enormous activities during the next year and a half, and if the result of further operation is at all corresponding to what we have already achieved, it will be a moderate estimate to say that within a couple of years we shall have paid for the whole cost of the depot and have the depot left for the Government to make any use of it pleases, or to sell at a profit—for every penny we get for it then would be profit—although for my own part I do not suppose for a moment that the Government will 1120 ever want to part with it. It may want to part with some of the repairing machinery, but of that I cannot speak positively.
I do not wish to go at greater length into the matter now. We are, I understand, to have a fuller debate upon it. I shall welcome any opportunity of discussing the matter still further either in this House or elsewhere. I am certainly prepared to take full responsibility for the decision to go on with the work after the Armistice was concluded, and I believe that in doing so I did what was in the best interests of the country.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
My Lords, I was going to answer the two specific Questions on the Paper put by my noble friend Lord Desborough, which no doubt are of limited interest or importance compared with the larger subject that has just been raised in debate. The Question lie asks is whether it is proposed that His Majesty's Government should erect dwellings for the workmen at the new motor transport depot at Slough. The answer I have to give, of course, confines itself entirely to that subject.
A Conference took place between representatives of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Munitions and the Eton Rural District Council (in whose area the Slough depôt is situated), at which the question of the provision of these houses by the District Council was discussed. It was explained that if the houses were built by the District Council they would form part of the Councils general housing scheme and that all deficits on the complete schemes in excess of the amount of a penny rate would be paid by the Government.
The representatives of the Council were of opinion that the Council would probably be willing to undertake the scheme provided they could do so without delaying the building of the new cottages required in the villages of the district, and they were assured that the houses in the villages could proceed concurrently with the erection of the Slough houses and that the scheme for the villages would not be prejudiced in any way by the scheme to be carried out in the neighbourhood of the depôt.
The District Council has since passed a resolution to the effect that they are prepared to include in their housing scheme 400 houses to be erected at the motor transport depôt at Cippenham provided 1121 they can do so without delaying the building of the new cottages required in the villages in the district, and that guarantees are forthcoming that precedence will be given to the Council scheme for the erection of cottages in the rest of their district. I may point out that under Clause I of the, Housing Bill it is made the duty of the local authority to prepare such housing schemes as are necessary for the people of their district and, in inviting the Eton Rural District Council to provide the houses at Cippenham, the Government are only asking them to carry out the obligation which is placed upon them by the Bill. The houses so provided will be available for the population of the district generally and will not be tied to the workers in the depôt, though it is, of course, unlikely that as a general rule these houses will be inhabited by people other than those working at the depôt. The management of the houses when built will be in the hands of the District Council and as the inhabitants of the houses will be ratepayers a voice in the management will be assured to them.
I think it is rather regrettable that my noble friend, in referring to the District Council, allowed himself to sneer at the Chairman of that body. The Chairman is, I understand, working energetically on the scheme, and it is rather hard that he should be alluded to with a certain lack of respect as shown by my noble friend.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
There was a distinct sneer in the way in which my noble friend referred to him; otherwise, I would not have said this.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
I beg the noble Viscount's pardon. I said that on that matter we were probably equal.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
As regards finance the other schemes of the District Council will exhaust the penny rate which the Council are required to contribute towards housing schemes, and any loss on the Cippenham housing will, therefore, fall upon the Government and will form part of the general expenditure incurred by the Government in connection with housing proposals.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
Does that mean the housing proposals in connection with the depôt, or housing generally?
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
The expense of course will fall, as in the case of all other housing schemes, upon the general taxpayer, but through the Ministry of Health. They will be in exactly the same position as any other housing scheme throughout the country. The other point that I was asked about was whether there is any prospect of finding the missing War Office files relating to this depôt. I understand that there were no War Office files lost at all. There were some files which were mislaid but were subsequently found, and the only papers which I understand were lost were some papers containing some minutes by Sir Alban Crofton Atkins. These papers were apparently not registered and were not in any sense Official Papers. It appears that these have not been recovered but the, papers referred to in the Report, I understand, have been discovered.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
I was going to say that there is a rather full statement on the subject which I am quite ready to give to your Lordships if you wish it, but I was going to have it circulated for your Lordships. I thought possibly that would be more convenient as the statement is a rather long and detailed one. But if you like I will give it to your Lordships at the present moment.
THE EARL OF KINTORE
My Lords, in view of the answer which has just been given to my noble friend Lord Desborough on the subject of these missing War Office files and, more especially perhaps, in view of the answer made on July 22 by Mr. Churchill to Mr. Briant in another place, it becomes my duty, as I had the honour of being Chairman of this Joint Committee on the motor repair depôt, to substantiate the statement made in paragraph 26 of the Joint Committee's Report. I have to say that that paragraph, as it stands, is entirely accurate. Some confusion has been introduced by the reference, on behalf of the Government, to other War Office files which could not be found but which are not those referred to in paragraph 26 of the Report.
1123 There are, in fact, two distinct sets of War Office files which were not forthcoming when required by the Committee. The first set consists of the files prior to May, 1917, which are referred to in the correspondence which, with your Lordships' indulgence, I propose to read. It is not long. The first letter is from the Secretary of the Joint Committee to the Private Secretary to the War Minister under date May 3, of this year—General Sir Alban Crofton Atkins was called as a witness yesterday before the Joint Committee appointed to inquire into the Government works at Cippenham. He stated in evidence that there are War Office files containing minutes from himself which point out the serious position as regards mechanical transport repairs prior to May, 1917. Sir Alban stated that he had no copies of these minutes. I ate desired by the Chairman of the Joint Committee to request that the Secretary of State will be good enough to assist the Inquiry by causing these files to be produced as evidence before the Committee.That letter was answered three days later, on May 6—Assistant Secretary, War Office, to Secretary of Committee.—We have for some time been making every endeavour to find the Office Papers to which General Atkins alluded, but they have been missing, as I think he told you, for many months. We are making further efforts to find the files.On May 15 the Secretary wrote to the Assistant Secretary of the War Office as follows—Referring to my letter of the 3rd instant asking for the production of certain War Office tiles … I am to say that the Committee will be obliged, in the event of the Office Papers still being missing, if the Secretary of State will cause evidence to be tendered to the Committee which will make clear the grounds upon which General Atkins's proposals were not adopted.That was replied to on the same day—Assistant Secretary, War Office, to Secretary of Committee.—We have now been able to trace one paper … but I am sorry to say that the earlier papers cannot yet be found.You will agree that this correspondence sufficiently establishes the disappearance of these documents, by the admission of the War Office itself.
The Committee did not think it necessary to refer to this disappearance in their Report, and allusion to it is only now made necessary by the recent statement in another place on behalf of the War Office. The files, however, to the absence of which the Committee did attach importance, are the second set of files referred to by Mr. Churchill in these words—The Committee then asked, for the first time, for files carrying the history beyond that date, 1124 i.e., May, 1917, and up till the adoption of the site at Slough, which had not been mentioned hitherto. Accordingly a file, the next in chronological order on the subject, carrying the history forward to November, and showing the acceptance of the Slough scheme by the War Office, was obtained from the War Office by the Ministry of Munitions, who had been asked by the Committee to examine and prepare such papers for them. The Ministry derived from it a part of the information contained in the paper, marked Appendix P. to the Report, which was put in by them, dated 30th May. The Secretary to the Committee was informed that this file was with the Ministry of Munitions, but he made no request for it, and was presumably satisfied on receiving the extracts contained in Appendix P.I very much regret the inconvenience caused to your Lordships by the delay in the issue of the printed evidence and Appendices. You may be sure that it is by no fault of mine that their issue is only promised for early next week. But the true history of these files is sufficiently revealed by extracts from the printed evidence. On May 16 these remarks are reported—
§ The SECRETARY: This file (i.e., the earlier one, the one which has just been read) has been obtained from the War Office. I have not any others.
I have listened to those letters, and they alter my view altogether. It appears that we have not heard the story yet, but only the preliminary chapters.
Mr. ELLINGER (representing Minister of Munitions)
There is no reason why you should not have all the files up to the adoption of Slough.
I am sure you will.
As a result of these proceedings I made constant inquiries for these files. Lord Inverforth had appointed a private secretary to attend to the business side of the Committee on behalf of the Ministry of Munitions and of the War Office. This gentleman was present in the Committee room throughout, and constantly in the office of the Secretary to the Committee. Under these circumstances formal correspondence, as in the previous case, did not appear necessary. But it will be within this gentleman's knowledge that he, was repeatedly asked when these files would be produced, and that he always stated—I think I quote his words—that "he could not get them from the War Office, who said that they could not be found."
1125 I pass on to May 23, on which day Sir Charles Harris, Financial Adviser to the War Office, was called as a witness. He referred to a file covering the period of Christmas, 1917, and which therefore must have been one of those which it had been promised should be produced to the Committee. I quote from his evidence—About Christmas, 1917, the Papers Came to my Department in order that Treasury approval might be obtained, and Treasury approval was applied for and obtained. I should like to say that, as the official files on which this action took place have been mislaid, I am speaking largely from memory.He went on to say—I hope they will be recovered in due course, but as far as I know they have not been recovered yet. I set a special body of searchers that is kept in the service to meet such contingencies to work on Saturday last with no result.Mr. Churchill further made the following statement in another place—Thus the Papers carrying the history of the discussion beyond the summer of 1917, to which alone the Committee allude in their Report, are not lost. Moreover, they were found within a short time of their being required.From these statements it is perfectly clear that, though the files are now available, they were lost during the sittings of the Committee; and it is my duty to add that the statement that the Ministry of Munitions were ever asked to examine and prepare the files for the use of the Committee is wholly incorrect and has no foundation in fact. The extracts from the evidence which I have read prove that the Committee asked for the files in order that their own secretary might examine them. Nor is it in any sense correct to say that the Secretary was informed that the file was with the Ministry of Munitions.
Neither I myself nor the secretary had any knowledge or suspicion that the files had been found until it was so stated on July 22 in another place, and I am afraid I must add that if the files were in the possession of the Ministry of Munitions at any time during the sittings of the Committee the Ministry of Munitions signally failed to communicate this fact to myself or to the Secretary of the Committee. Mr. Churchill also stated as to the files that "the substance of them was placed before the Committee in the paper submitted to them by the Ministry of Munitions on May 30." Your Lordships will find that in Appendix P. Appendix P referred to was handed in on the last day on which evidence 1126 was taken in response to a direct and specific request, made by the Committee in a letter, dated May 27, which asked for the following information—A chronological table showing the action taken by the War Office and the Ministry of Munitions, departmentally, and with other Government Departments between August 15, 1917, and June 1, 1918, to include dates of instructions to select a site, selection of Cippenham by Lands Branch, and subsequent action.This letter made the following reference to the lost files—The information under head II the Committee had hoped to obtain from the files which have not been put in.Between the important dates November 13, 1917, and February 12, 1918, with two unimportant exceptions, Appendix P. was found to contain no entries other than minutes of the Mechanical Transport Board. After a careful perusal of this document the Committee decided that it contained no information which enabled them to follow up the responsibility for delay or to atttibute the blame to any person or persons. The substitution of Appendix P. for the actual files by the Ministry of Munitions if these files, as is now stated, were in their possession, appears to be an action on which it is superfluous for me to offer any comment to your Lordships.
I apologise for detaining the House so long. I only desire to add this. As Chairman of the Joint Committee I adhere entirely to paragraph 26 of the Report and to the following statement which it contains—The Committee have not been supplied with the War Office files carrying the history beyond the summer of 1917. It is stated that these file, cannot be found. It has therefore been impossible to follow up the responsibility for delay in that Department.This statement, my Lords, is literally correct.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, after the very serious statement made by the noble Earl the Chairman of the Committee I am sure the Government will not be surprised if those of us who have not had en opportunity of hearing the facts before ask the Government to remember that it is absolutely necessary the House should have an opportunity of again entering into them. What is the position? We appointed a Committee with the object of considering whether these works should 1127 ever have been begun, whether, when they were begun, they should have been continued after the Armistice, and what the approximate commercial results were likely to be. What information have we? The noble Earl tells us that owing to most unfortunate circumstances regarding documents at the War Office the Committee have been unable to arrive' at the responsibility for the outlay in commencing works, which might have been justified at that period.
When we come to the question of the continuance of the works after the Armistice, that has been condemned by the Committee. On the other point, on which your Lordships attach the greatest importance—namely, what are likely to be the commercial profits of the undertaking—we are told that these were given confidentially and that we cannot see them. The only evidence we have is in the Report of the Committee, a portion of which was not read by Lord Milner, which says—The Committee are satisfied that the attractive estimates of large profits presented to Parliament by Lord Inverforth and supported in evidence to this Committee were too readily accepted by him, and without sufficient independent examination. The result is that the nation is in possession of an elaborate and costly factory, partially completed. It carries with it a commercial undertaking of which the financial aspects have, in the opinion of this Committee, been insufficiently considered. And this undertaking is based upon a calculation of profit which was presented to the Committee as its justification, but which, in fact, is unlikely to be realised.I do not suppose a more severe censure was ever passed upon any Minister by any Parliamentary Committee with regard to a commercial undertaking—certainly not for many years. Under those circumstances, on all the three points which were raised in your Lordships' House a few months ago, and which led to the appointment of the Committee, we are left without satisfaction and without information. The noble Viscount who spoke first seemed to think that my noble friend was not sufficently justified in charging upon the Government the whole cost of the housing of this large town which was about to be erected. I think it is quite clear that, whether these houses are to be put up by the War Office, or whether they are to be erected by the local authority under the guarantee of the War Office—
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
Not by the War Office, but by the Local Government Board, or the Ministry of Health, in the usual way.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
Whoever puts them up, does anybody suppose that those who are employed there will be able to pay 15s. or £1 a week for them, unless by means of exaggerated wages paid by the War Office. The whole housing of these persons will come as a gigantic addition to the cost of the undertaking, and I undertake to wager that no provision was made for this addition to the cost of the adventure. That being so, and as we are not really in a position to judge of the facts, I hope the Government will not take it amiss if, when the evidence is before us, and when the further evidence which the noble Earl alluded to becomes available, we ask to be further satisfied on the matter. I would ask the noble Viscount who represents the War Office whether he would communicate with the Secretary of State and ask whether it is not possible for us to have as a guidance that estimate of commercial profit which was laid before the Committee, and which seems to us vital to the determination of the whole matter.
§ LORD GAINFORD
I do not know whether I might ask Lord Inverforth one question, which seems to arise out of the correspondence that we have just had read to us by the Chairman of the Committee. I do not want to go into the merits of the case, but it seems to me rather extraordinary that a file which was in the possession of the Ministry of Munitions, and which the Committee sitting required to see, was not produced. I should like to ask Lord Inverforth whether he can explain the circumstances which prevented that file being placed in the possession of the Committee while it was sitting.
§ LORD RATHCREEDAN
The position was this, that the files were asked for and sent to the Ministry of Munitions in order that they might draw up a chronological order of the events. The official of the Ministry of Munitions when he had done that, thinking it was all that was required by the Committee, sent the papers back to the War Office. When we wished to have the papers hack again from the War Office they had been mislaid, and could not be found. That was the position.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
I only wish to deal with two points that have been mentioned. Viscount Midleton criticised these houses and said the people would not be able to pay adequate rents for them. Of course 1129 these houses will be built in exactly the same way, and on the same terms, as all the other houses to be built under the new Housing and Town Planning Bill. Therefore his criticism is a general one and does not apply merely to Slough.
The noble Earl who was Chairman of the Committee has criticised severely a certain Statement issued in reply to a. written question in another place. It was a rather full Statement, and I do not wish to read it, but if it is circulated I think your Lordships will be better able to judge the situation when you have read it. There were two points on which the noble Earl gave a direct denial to certain statements made in the paper. One was that the Secretary of the Committee was informed that the file in question was with the Ministry of Munitions. There is a direct issue upon that point. The Statement says that he was informed, and my noble friend says he was not informed.
There is also a direct issue on the question of Sir Charles Harris's evidence. The missing paper was found a day or two after evidence was given by Sir Charles Harris, but no later request was made for the production of these papers, presumably because the dates given by Sir Charles Harris were approximately correct. I do not know whether anything turns upon these matters, but I think your Lordships will be able to study the question when you have the papers, and I can, of course, bring the statements before the Secretary of State and another reply can be issued.
§ LORD CLINTON
I should like to allude to two matters of which the noble Viscount has spoken. In the first place, he has told us that the reason why the documents were not produced was that no later request was made for them My recollection of the evidence, and I think it is correct, is that when the Financial Adviser to the War Office was asked about the documents he said they were missing, but that lie would supply them to the Committee when he could find them. We were waiting from day to day to get those reports. We were relying upon the promise of the Financial Adviser to the War Office that they would be produced when he could find them, and yet they were never brought before us.
There is one further matter upon which desire to say one word. I should like to press the Government and Lord Inverforth 1130 to let us know what the position is to be with regard to housing. We pressed the matter upon a great number of witnesses, and we never got a definite undertaking as to what was to happen. We know that 3,000 workmen must eventually be required. I am aware that under the scheme as stated it was intended to carry on with military labour, and the question of providing civilian houses did not arise, but shortly after the idea of building military barracks was done away with and it became clear that 3,000 civilian workers would be wanted. Yet no information was forthcoming after the date when the Committee began to sit as to the provision of housing. It is clear that. it was not even in the minds of those responsible for the creation of these great works that houses would be required.
The noble Viscount, the Secretary of State, addressing us first this evening, told us that these houses would be found largely in the district. The noble Viscount, Lord Peel, later told us that these will be supplied by the Eton Rural District Council, who already have a large scheme on foot and are prepared to build for Slough after their own houses are completed. Therefore for the time being these men will have to be provided for somehow in the surrounding districts. Your Lordships are aware of the grave housing difficulty that exists at the present moment. We in country districts are always complaining that the houses which are intended for agricultural labourers are being taken up by the workmen of local authorities and industries, and it is because they are being taken up by those workmen that we have this great shortage of houses for agricultural labourers. It seems to me that is an exceedingly bad example on the part of the Government, who are pressing on this great housing scheme, that in one of their largest works, they should be adopting the attitude of the worst employer, and relying upon other people to provide houses for the Government's own workpeople. I hope that we shall hear from the noble Lord that they really are going to provide houses, although I am quite aware if they do so that it will upset the whole finance of the undertaking.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I do not desire to continue the discussion tonight. As the noble Viscount the Under-Secretary of State for War has said, we shall be much better able to judge of the very important correspondence which the 1131 Chairman of the Committee has read out to us when we have it under our eyes with the statement that the Secretary of State has made in another place, and which the noble Viscount says will be circulated, I suppose immediately.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
That is a very fair suggestion. We shall then be able to judge as to the merits. Regarding the housing, it is impossible for us to see what justification there was for the Government to erect these enormous works and then not to provide houses for the people who were to work in them. The whole of the housing policy of the Government is, of course, that there should be sufficient houses provided for all the workmen in a district, but as I understand the noble Viscount he believes that a great number of these workmen will be housed in the existing accommodation in the villages round. That appears to be a most unsatisfactory arrangement, for it would produce over-crowding everywhere.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
They must be housed somewhere. First of all the Government have not provided any houses, which they ought to have done; and, second, they are going to provide an inadequate number of houses. The remaining workmen, as I understand, are to be lodged somewhere, either in London and come down by special train every day, or in the surrounding villages. I understood that the noble Viscount looked to both these sources to supply the required accommodation.
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
I did not say anything about either source of supply. I was confining my answer purely to the question as to the number of houses to be built by the Eton Rural District Council; but my noble friend Lord Milner stated that these were for pivotal men, and that the other men who required accommodation would for the present come down from London by train.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
That appears to be a most astonishing method of procedure. Why cannot the Government house their own people properly, as all good employers ought to do? Why should 1132 we be preaching to employers everywhere, "House your workmen," when the Government themselves do not house their workmen? Why should the wretched Squires of England be held up to obloquy because they have not sufficient cottages for their workmen, when the Government do not have sufficient houses for their workmen? Why should the owners of mines be held up in the Coal Commission Report because they do not provide adequate housing when the Government do not provide adequate housing? It is the Government's business not only to do as others do, but to set a good example—to be the best employers—and to be those who house their workmen best. I should have thought that would have been the method the Government would have adopted. As regards the cost, the whole cost as an obligation should be upon the Government. If it should happen in a few years hence that the Slough Depôt comes to an end, then all these extra houses will be thrown upon the hands of the local authority, and unless they can get people to live in them they will be a dead loss. I do not want to press my noble friend now, but I earnestly hope—
§ VISCOUNT PEEL
My noble friend is directing his thunder against me. It is my noble friend on my left.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I apologise. I had forgotten. My noble friend replied for the Government, and of course he did so, as he always does, with great skill, and I directed my observation to him. If it applies to the Ministry of Munitions, by all means let them deal with it. I do not desire to press them now, but let us be clear that in future it is the business of the Government—whether the War Office, or the Ministry of Munitions, or any other Department—to make adequate arrangements.
My Lords, I rise in consequence of the very ominous statement of my noble friend the noble Viscount that the local authority can be called on under the Housing Act to provide a building scheme.
They can be called on notwithstanding the character of the industry which requires the cottages. Here is an industry which may become a white elephant a year or two hence. There may be no necessity for all the factory buildings a few years from now, and, if I remember the Bill aright, after seven years the liability for the interest on the loan falls upon the ratepayers. Here is another instance of how the unfortunate ratepayer is liable to have burdens thrown upon him by the Government. In this particular instance I think it is grossly unfair to throw upon the local authority the cost of having to provide these houses.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
The Papers I move for should be something more than formal. I understand that the Government are going to issue a Paper which is practically a flat contradiction of what has been stated in the Report of the Committee which I read out, and it has been contradicted by the Chairman. If you circulate any Papers I move that you circulate the two together—the statement which was made in the other House (which I understand it is the intention of the Government to circulate), and also the reply from the Chairman of the Committee. People will then be able to compare the two.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
But this is a separate Paper, carefully thought out, in reply to a document which was recently given in another place. If you are to circulate that document, why not also circulate this one in a separate Paper and not leave people to pick it out of speeches?
THE, EARL OF CRAWFORD
I am anxious to meet the noble Lord. The speech of the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, will be printed in the ordinary way in our OFFICIAL REPORT published to-morrow morning. You do not require to move for Papers to get that document circulated. The other document is a statement made in the House of Commons a week or so ago by the Secretary of State. My noble friend has said that he is prepared to circulate that document. The normal course would have been for him to have read it to your Lordships, but as it occupies two columns in the House of Commons OFFICIAL REPORT he did not read it, and proposes to let it be circulated. Both these documents will be in your Lordships' hands at once, and there is no necessity to move for Papers in order to secure them.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
But the Paper I should like to move for is the reply of the chairman of the Committee, which should be given just as much prominence as the statement made in another place, and, if that is circulated as a White Paper, the reply of Lord Kintore ought also to be circulated as a White Paper.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
Mr. Churchill's statement appeared in the Commons OFFICIAL REPORT. Lord Kintore's statement will appear in our OFFICIAL REPORT to-morrow morning. The publicity, assuming the circulation to be the same, is identical.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
Mr. Churchill's statement is going to appear as a special White Paper. All I say is that the reply to Mr. Churchill should appear in the same White Paper.
Yes, in the same White Paper. It is obvious that you do not want to have one statement in a White Paper, and have to find the other in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
Both these replies are going to be in Hansard. One is already there—on July 22; the other will appear there on July 29. One was made in the other House by Mr. Churchill; the other in this House by Lord Kintore. Your Lordships will have the official documents at your disposal in that manner.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
If we are accused of lurking anything—though a. more absurd statement could not be made—I must detain your Lordships by reading to the House Mr. Churchill's statement, in order that it should appear in the same OFFICIAL REPORT as Lord Kintore's statement. Mr. Briant had asked the Secretary of State for War, in view of the statement made by the Cippenham Select Committee that the War Office files carrying the history beyond the summer of 1917 were missing, whether an investigation had been held into the loss of these official documents and those responsible for the loss; and, if so, what was the result of such investigation. Mr. Churchill replied that he had caused this matter to be investigated, and would circulate the result with the OFFICIAL REPORT. The following is his statement—
The Report of the Select Committee on the Government works at Cippenham stated:The Committee have not been supplied with War Office files carrying the history beyond the summer of 1917. It is stated that these files cannot be found.Turning to the evidence, references to missing War Office papers were made by two witnesses only—namely, Major-General Sir A. Crofton Atkins and Sir C. Harris. The former stated on 2nd May (Questions 228 and 229) that there were War Office files, which were either lost or unobtainable, on which he had written minutes, prior to May, 1917, on the seriousness of the position as regards mechanical transport repairs. On 3rd May, the secretary to the Committee wrote to the War Office asking that these files should be produced, and on 15th May, the only registered official file containing minutes of the kind and date referred to, was sent to the Committee. On 16th May this Paper was laid before the Committee, and, as would appear from the evidence, and especially from the Report as quoted above, it satisfied them as to the history of the case till August, 1917.
The Committee then asked, for the first time, for files carrying the history beyond that date and up till the adoption of the site at Slough, which had not 1136 been mentioned hitherto. Accordingly a file, the next in chronological order on the subject, carrying the history forward to November, and showing the acceptance of the Slough scheme by the War Office, was obtained from the War Office by the Ministry of Munitions, who had been asked by the Committee to examine and prepare such papers for them. The Ministry derived from it a part of the information contained in the paper, marked Appendix P to the Report, which was put in by them, dated 30th May. The Secretary to the Committee was informed that this file was with the Ministry of Munitions, but he made no request for it, and was presumably satisfied on receiving the extracts contained in Appendix P.
On 23rd May, Sir C. Harris was called before the Committee, and stated, in the course of his evidence, that he had to trust to memory for the date upon which the paper came to his Department, and that on which Treasury approval for the Slough Scheme was sought and obtained, as the file had been temporarily mislaid and was being searched for [Questions 3732 and 3753.] He had had very short notice that he was required to give evidence. This set of papers was, in fact, recovered on the same day from the Exchequer and Audit Department at Adastral House, and was sent to Sir C. Harris, too late, however, for his evidence. No later request was made for the production of these papers, because presumably, the dates given by Sir C. Harris were approximately correct.
Thus the papers carrying the history of the discussion beyond the summer of 1917, to which alone the Committee allude in their Report, are not lost. Moreover, they were found within a short time of their being required, and the substance of them was placed before the Committee in the paper submitted to them by the Ministry of Munitions on May 30. (See Appendix P.)
The only papers which are not forthcoming are those which Sir A. Crofton Atkins stated contain minutes, other than those in the file laid before the Committee, written by him prior to May, 1917. Sir A. Crofton Atkins is unable to furnish any more precise reference to such papers, and none answering the description can be traced amongst the registered files of the Department. The 1137 minutes were perhaps written on papers which were never sent for entry in the registers of the permanent records of the War Office.
The suggestion that important official papers essential to this case have been lost, therefore, takes its place among the many misleading legends which have been put in circulation about it.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
I understand that the noble Earl does not intend to publish that statement as a White Paper?
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
No. The statement and the reply will both be published to-morrow morning in our OFFICIAL REPORT. We cannot have them printed twice.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.