§ LORD DESBOROUGH rose, to call attention to certain Government works being carried out at Cippenham, near Slough; and to move—
§ That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the conditions under which these works are being carried out, the cost that is involved, and the responsibility for the advice on which the scheme was undertaken.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have no desire to make any attack on the Government. I know the difficulties under which they are now struggling and the burden of responsibility which at the present time rests upon their shoulders, both here and abroad. But the time, I think, has come to put some check, if possible, on departmental waste, and, where waste has been proved, to bring the responsibility home to those who are concerned in it, and if the works which are being carried out are proved to be useless and extravagant, to see that, if possible, the losses may be cut and as much money as possible saved from the wreck. I propose to start by saying a few words about the site. I have more than once in your Lordships' House alluded to the matter, but I am sure you will forgive me for doing so again. Afterwards I should like to say a few words about the general policy of the scheme, and I hope that before I sit down I shall have advanced satisfactory reasons for appointing a Committee.
§ The site selected for this gigantic work was 600 acres of the very best wheat land in South Buckinghamshire. That cannot be disputed, and I do not think anybody denies it. I know something about South Buckinghamshire. I have represented it in Parliament, and have lived there all my life, and I say without the smallest fear of contradiction that these 600 acres 998 selected for the site of these gigantic and, to a large extent useless, buildings are the best farming land of South Buckinghamshire. When you get above into the Chiltern Hills, which come down into that neighbourhood, you get on to the chalk, and you cannot expect to grow on the chalk, however much time and money you spend, the same crops that you could grow on these 600 acres of wheat land in the south.
This land, besides being wheat land, was absolutely unsuitable for the purposes for which it was intended. It is very heavy loam, and below the loam there is rich brick clay. It is supposed to be able to support lorries. I have run over and ridden over this land, and I do not know whether it will support a Government lorry, but it certainly did not support me with any satisfaction to myself. This matter was very often, brought to the attention of Parliament during the whole of last year. If you look at the debates in the House of Commons and the Questions asked you will see constant references to what is going on at Cippenham—Questions, I think, very unsatisfactorily answered—but the whole time the scheme went on. On June 12 last there was a debate in the House of Commons about the whole matter and more especially with regard to the site, and I see that Mr. Macpherson, who was then answering on behalf of the Government, gave two reasons among others why this wheat land at Slough was selected for these motor works. He stated, in the first place, that there was a canal in the neighbourhood. This canal used to be used in happier days for carrying bricks to London. He also went on to say—
It is necessary for the purposes of the centralised depot that there should be a gravel soil, because on a gravel soil it is very much easier to stand the very large number of vehicles which we are bound to send there.
Well, I went down to Cippenham last Saturday with my noble friend Lord Midleton to examine this gravel soil. It so happens that Cippenham Court Farm is occupied by a very successful farmer. He had good horses, and grew big crops Those have been destroyed. He sold his horses, and the whole of the fanning operations on this rich land have been interrupted. I said to him, "I am told this is a good, fine gravel soil." He gave the analysis of this "fine gravel soil," and the result was as follows. Cippenham Court Farm consists of 350 acres; of those 300 are rich loam with brick earth (not gravel), under-
neath, and there are 50 acres of gravel. Both are unsuitable for building purposes. The two pits which used to be used for gravel have long ago been given up by the local builders, because they did not make suitable concrete.
§ This is the land that was taken. The brick earth under the rich loam is very deep; I am told it is from ten to twelve feet deep. The brick fields of Slough are well known in the neighbourhood, and well known here, so not only is this land lost to cultivation, but the Government, or the Department rather, are concreting brick earth under these enormous sheds, and this at the time when one of the things the country most desires is bricks. If you go down there you will sec these shafts all over the 600 acres of land, showing very rich soil, which I am credibly informed is brick earth. You have a double waste going on. In ordinary circumstances if you carry out big contracts which require brick earth you make your bricks on the spot, but now you are doing just the opposite; you are bringing bricks from all over the country and at the same time you are preventing this brick earth being developed. Secondly, as to the canal. I am told that this was one of the great reasons for the place being put there; yet one of the first things given up was the canal. Not only am I told that the canal was given up, but that the works are so laid out that if the canal had not been given up proper use could not have been made of them.
§ Now with regard to the time chosen for entering upon this farmland. I suppose the time was the most inopportune in the interests of the country that could have been chosen. It was just at the time when everybody was being told to grow wheat, wheat, wheat, and yet more wheat, because the country was likely to be starved. Very often very ill-adapted grass land was being compulsorily ploughed up at the same moment that the Department, against the advice of the people most qualified to give it, were entering upon this land. It is unnecessary for me to remind your Lordships of the many demands that were being made upon the people to grow food at that time. Now, there were several other people interested in this land. I do not see him in his place at the moment, but the noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture gave me his opinion on this enterprise when I talked to him about it. Then there is Lord Lee of 1000 Fareham who was at that time interested in food production, and I know what his opinion was. Then there was the land adviser of the Government. The land inspector, whom I know, went down to-this place on more than one occasion and said the land was absolutely unsuitable for the purpose for which it was to be acquired. Then the Great Western Railway have a branch line there, and I understood from the Chairman, who is a member of this House, that he certainly was not enthusiastic about putting up great works of this kind in the neighbourhood of Windsor and Eton, and close to a loop-line, which latter fact was most inconvenient for the working of the railway.
§ I know I shall be told that this was all agreed to, and that the Department were so impartial that a very distinguished South. African General was sent down to view the land. I must say that, in a matter of this kind, the opinions of any number of South African Generals, however distinguished, would leave me cold as against the opinions of those who had worked on the land and known it for the last forty years, and whose advice the Department did not take. What happened? In the first week of June the Government for some reason or other entered upon this land and commenced their operations. They pulled, up, quite unnecessarily, the wheat in a certain field. The tenant farmer, as a matter of fact, had two fields, one of oats and the other of wheat; he implored them to take the oats (which were not very good), but they would have the wheat. The wheat was pulled up, stacked in heaps, and burnt. It is rather distressing to a farmer when he has spent time and trouble in growing crops to see them pulled out of the ground and burnt. The Department then began the leisurely and costly career which has gone for a long time by the name of "The Slough Scandal." Other people have given it other names, but that seems to be the one usually accepted. I do not think I need say anything more about the site.
§ I should now like to say one or two words on the scheme generally and on the policy. We were told by the Secretary of State for War the other day that this was an exceptional war measure. I believe it was at the start. On March 21 last year began, as we all know, the terrible German attack; our Armies were driven back, there was some danger of losing the Channel ports, 1001 and we had, perhaps, to go into some scheme for the repair of motor lorries—which vehicles have done such splendid service with oar Armies. The determination was arrived at to ship the lorries over here, rather than to repair them in France, and to make in this country some great central repairing depot. That I understand to be the motive; at any rate it has been given as the reason for this war emergency measure. But it does not seem very wise in connection with an emergency measure to begin buildings for the repair of motor lorries when such buildings cannot; possibly be ready for a year. There was no possibility of completing buildings on the scale of these buildings for a year. The war might possibly have gone on for a year, but these buildings are designed more for a thirty-years or a sixty-years or even for a 160-years war. They were certainly not designed for such a war as was then going on, especially as there were evident signs that our enemies on the various fronts were gradually being beaten. The withdrawal last year began on March 21, it is now March 26 in the next year, and I do not think that one of those buildings is finished. I was there last Saturday and did not see a completed building. What is the use of a repair shop for an emergency which is only half completed a year afterwards? As we all know, Germany was going back at the beginning of August of last year; large numbers of Americas troops arrived; and soon after, in succession, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria went out of the war; therefore there was no fear of the Germans then reaching I he Channel ports But as the Germans went back the Department went forward. Nothing seemed to be able to stop them whatever the circumstances of the case might be. At one moment this scheme was said to be for one purpose, at another moment we were told it was for another purpose; but whatever happened the Scheme went on, and goes on, and nobody can stop it, and no argument can make any difference.
The next difficulty after the wheat difficulty was that of labour. I think I shall be able to show your Lordships that it was not all smooth sailing for the Department, that there were struggles between them and the War Priority Committee. On September 9 the War Priority Committee issued Paper 153 that the works were to be postponed—a very wise decision. Then Mr. Fitzpatrick came down to Cippenham to report for the Ministry of
National Service, and it so happens that I have his Report. That document is very interesting from many points of view, and it puts a great many of the arguments I am trying to place before the House. The dates of his visit were September 18, 23, and 24, and he begins with some general remarks. He says—
The establishment in question is intended to form a depot for the repair of motor vehicles of all kinds for the War Office. I was unable to obtain any definite information as to exactly what work had been sanctioned, or the grounds upon which sanction had been obtained. Neither could I ascertain how many vehicles per annum the depot was intended to deal with, nor what stock of spares it was proposed to carry. Similarly I was unable to find out to what extent the manufacture of spare parts was proposed, nor could I discover the reason for the inclusion of an iron foundry as part of the scheme. Apart, however, from these very important points, I came to the conclusion that the way in which the whole scheme is being carried out is open to such serious and obvious criticism from the technical point of view that I feel that it should be fully re-examined by the proper authorities before any more work is done on the site. The points which should form the subject of the inquiry are as follows:—
Then he gives the sizes of certain of these buildings, and one of them for tyre stores was about five and a half acres. A tyre store is the sort of thing you do not want to keep for ever, unless you are setting up a war museum, which must be the object of many of these things; but I venture to say it is being carried out too late in every way. Then be goes on to say—
It seems incredible that buildings of these sizes can be needed for the purposes indicated, and as already stated no information could be obtained either as to the amount of work to be done annually in them, nor as to the stock it was proposed to carry. The idea of a tyre store with about five and a half acres of floor area appears more magnificent than necessary… In this report I have dealt only with obvious and costly blunders which are being made in connection with this depot, but I think I have given sufficient justification for my recommendation that a full and thorough Inquiry should be carried out by a Board of competent men. I wish to cast no reflection upon any person actually engaged on the site of the works, as the staff there appear to be doing their best. The fault lies in the undertaking. Recommendation: That no further labour be supplied to the depot pending a re-examination of the scheme from the points of view indicated above.
This recommendation was at first adopted, as there came out an Order on October 9 that the scheme had to be reviewed. On
October 16 General Hemming applied for priority, and this was refused, and on October 23 the Minister of National Service gave a limited priority to the War Office, though many officials objected to it. The Select Committee on National Expenditure in a Report dated August, 1918, say it must take twelve months. That is the history of last year. The war terminated in November, and I am informed that at the time of the Armistice there was only about one-tenth of this gigantic undertaking completed, of which we have not had very satisfactory accounts from those sent out, to look at it. The Armistice was signed in November, and I submit that the whole scheme ought then to have been reviewed before all this capital was sunk and this damage done; but the scheme went on as a War Office scheme and the General Depot scheme appears to be rather a secondary idea from the original War Emergency scheme. That was the end of 1918.
Now we come to 1919, and an entirely new state of affairs. As I was going up in the train I passed these works, and I saw a huge board up with the name of Sir Robert MacAlpine and Sons. I have not a word to say against Sir Robert MacAlpine and Sons, but my view is that they are going on too fast if the scheme is a bad one. They are going on, it seems to me, absolutely regardless of expense. They are roping in everybody from miles around. One of the accusations, and of course one cannot live in the neighbourhood without hearing a great deal, is that the buildings are not well constructed. A letter was written in the paper by Mr. Lovat Fraser, and I should like to take off my hat to Mr. Lovat Fraser and The Times if they can stop Departmental extravagance. He wrote a letter to the papers, and there was a reply from Sir Robert MacAlpine and Sons, which says this—
Mr. Lovat Fraser states that a building 400 feet long collapsed owing to faulty design or execution, and that four smaller buildings also gave way. There is an infinitesimal germ of truth in his statement, as, in fact, an iron girder principal feel when in course of erection, carrying a few tons of brickwork with it. This small accident occurred before we were on the site, but now, to deal with fact, we would contradict Mr. Lovat Eraser's statement by informing him that at no time has any building, great or small, collapsed at the M.T. Factory, Slough.
Unfortunately, in my hand I have an account of the inquest. I very much regret- to state that not only did the
building fall but unfortunately a gentleman, whose name I need not give, was killed and six others were severely injured. The account begins as follows—
A huge building in course of construction at the Government Motor Transport Depot at Salt Hill collapsed on the afternoon of Friday, December 6—
and so and so was killed. Then the paper goes on to give an account of the inquest, as follows:—
Lieut.-Col. Norman Mackenzie Hemming, R.E., said the building was in course of erection by the War Office with direct labour. It was to be 600 feet by 570 feet, and about 16 feet high for the greater part, with 22 feet in the portion where the accident happened to be.
Then he was asked about specifications, and said there were no written specifications, and so on, and that the whole thing collapsed. He was asked "To what extent did it collapse?" and he said, "All turned over on their-bases." This is the account which I get from the local paper, and then it describes this rather sad ruin. This was an unfortunate accident, but I do submit that it is a little more than a girder tumbling down. It may not be an important thing, but I think it shows there is something in the accusation that these buildings were badly planned and badly constructed. I make no accusation against the firm, but it is notorious in South Bucks. I think it is a bona fide mistake, but I should like to draw the attention of the House to it,' because it is difficult to get at the truth of this matter, and I think it does to an extent boar out the accusation that the shed was not very well constructed. I do not wish to weary your Lordships, but I hope that the Committee for which I am asking will be set up.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
It is necessary that there should be some sort of control over Government Departments. One Department now is going to absorb everybody and everything, and I think perhaps the House will judge that I have a limited enthusiasm for the management of public Departments. I do hope that if a prima facie case is made out there will be a Committee of Inquiry into all these matters; especially into the matter of extravagance. A little time ago I ventured to say in this House that if this war was to be won by wasting money we should have greater victories than those of Philip of Macedon 1005 or Alexander the Great. I go on to say that peace has its victories as well as war, and if the victories of peace are to be gained by wasting money then the Battle of Slough will go down as one of the decisive battles of the world. If this Inquiry is set up it will be found that there is a very great deal of waste. There is nothing to stop this Department.
There were three years of crisis. There was the cry of the country for wheat. It was a very serious cry. It was met by the Government burning the wheat, I suppose to encourage the farmers of South Buckinghamshire. After that we had the labour shortage. In my neighbourhood by these works labour has been taken away from everything, including agriculture. You know how short we were in agricultural labour. In addition to those which were taken over and concreted there were other farms which have been so stripped of labour that they have been given up also. Anybody who could walk was at one time taken on at Cippenham and given good wages—£10s. or £5 per week. I cannot say that at that time they did very much. I have heard that they were even told they need not do very much. Some of our special constables—I have made inquiries in this matter and know it is true—saw a lot of men whom they thought were rather suspicious characters, and the men said "We are working over-time at Cippenham; it is all right." They were quite happy. I will give one more instance to show how labour was taken, denuding not only farms but also industries all round. There is a hale, old gentleman of ninety-two. He is employed now as a ganger at over £4 per week. Twenty years ago, when he was a hale, young man of seventy, he was pensioned by the Great Western Railway, but now at Cippenham and Slough they take him on at £4 a week, in addition to his pension. I do not think there has been any very great regard for economy in this particular transaction.
One of the causes of industrial unrest is bid housing. During the war we could not build houses—we were not allowed to do so—and before the war there were other causes which prevented it. Now, at a time when we want most bricks, you have the Government going down and concreting one of the best brick fields in the neighbourhood of London. You should not build a great barracks there. You should distribute your buildings all over 1006 the country in those localities where cottages are wanted. You should not bring a lot of people where they are not wanted, especially when by doing so you destroy a lot of bricks and prevent other people building horses elsewhere. It is almost impossible to get bricks now. I have had many letters from employers of labour who say they cannot get bricks and they complain of their men being taken away—all gone to join the gentleman of ninety-two at Slough. I hope I have not wearied your Lordships. I hope I have made a prima facie case for some sort of Inquiry and supported it by the Report I have just read to the House.
Among other things I think the following might be inquired into—(1) responsibility for the scheme; (2) the original object of the scheme; (3) the justification for the size, of the works; (4) the expenditure involved, including housing accommodation of which we have had no estimate at all; (5) the lay out and design of the buildings; (6) the programme of construction; (7) the choice of the of the site; (8) the refusal to have the plan reconsidered in altered circumstances; (9) the cost of running the works when completed. I hope the Inquiry will not be entirely negative. What we want to do, even in Cippenham, is to save as much money as we can. I hope the Committee will also consider (1) the possibility of stopping the works altogether; (2) cutting them down to reasonable dimensions; (3) saving as much as they can of the brick earth. If the Government, instead of putting up a building, had turned themselves into a brick company and produced bricks, they would really be doing some good to the country, whereas in setting up these huge museums I cannot conceive that they are serving any useful purpose at all.
There is rather a small matter which is important. I hope the Committee will consider the possibility of using the existing electric power station which is near, instead of building a most costly one which I understand they are proposing to put up. There is an electric cable which runs quite close, belonging to some works, and the owners are willing to supply electricity. The chairman wrote to me and asked if the matter could not be submitted to the President of the Electrical Engineers Society so that he might judge which of the two schemes was really the more useful and the more economical to the country.
1007 We live, as I say, in times of Departmental extravagance, and it is more than time that some check should be put upon it, and if a case for Inquiry had been made out in this matter I hope your Lordships will set up the Committee for which I ask. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the conditions under which the Government works at Cippenham, near Slough, are being carried out, the cost that is involved, and the responsibility for the advice on which the scheme was undertaken—(Lord Desborough.)
§ THE MINISTER OF MUNITIONS AND SUPPLY (LORD INVERFORTH)
My Lords, it is with considerable diffidence that I rise to address you. I know that your Lordships' House is always considerate, and I claim your indulgence as the statement I have to make is somewhat long.
The subject of the noble Lord's Motion is one which strictly pertains rather to the War Office than to the Department which I represent in this House; but as I have been in touch with the scheme from its inception, and as moreover the Ministry of Supply, when that Ministry is formed, may be considerably interested in the use to which the works are ultimately put, it is perhaps convenient that I should make some remarks on the subject. My noble friend Lord Peel will doubtless deal, with fuller knowledge and in greater detail than I could do, with those aspects of the matter which more particularly concern War Office administration.
I will, for the sake of clearness, divide my remarks under the following heads. First, I shall endeavour to establish the case for the creation of a Mechanical Transport Depot at the time when the scheme was instituted; secondly, I shall refer briefly to the criticisms that have been made on the site selected and on the design and execution of the work; and, thirdly, I shall consider the change in the situation resulting from the signing of the Armistice, and the extent to which the continuance of the work, in its present or in a modified form, is justifiable as a permanent measure.
First, as to the original case for the scheme. Soon after I went to the War Office, as Surveyor-General of Supply, in May, 1917, with instructions from the Government to supervise the commercial 1008 activities of the Department, the unsatisfactory character of the situation as regards the storage and repair of mechanical transport was brought to my notice. That situation was briefly as follows. In June, 1917, the War Office, which at the, outbreak of war owned about eighty lorries and cars and had a call on emergency upon about 700 more, had in its possession more than 40,000 lorries, 20,000 cars, ambulances and vans, 23,000 motor cycles, and l,300 petrol and steam tractors—a total of upwards of 85,000 vehicles. The annual expenditure on motor transport material was estimated at £40,000,000, and the turnover of stores, spare parts, etc., at the home depots was about £7,000.000 per annum.
The storage accommodation and repairing facilities in this country were totally inadequate and unsuitable for dealing with material of this enormous aggregate value. As regards storage, there were five store depots scattered over the London area, besides one at Liverpool and one at Avonmouth; in every case the buildings were old and unsuitable; there were no railway or water transport facilities (except at two depôts), no mechanical appliances for handling packages or lifting heavy weights; and the aggregate storage capacity was quite insufficient, even though (as was often the case) the adjoining streets were used as overflow stores. The inconvenience and extravagance of such arrangements were obvious; economical and efficient supervision was impossible; clerical and other staffs were unnecessarily duplicated; an immense amount of time was lost and labour wasted by unnecessary transit and handling of goods; the economic and other advantages resulting from ordering and warehousing stores in large quantities, and from centralisation of packing arrangements, could not be obtained; while valuable stocks were held in many floored buildings not of fireproof construction, with grave risk of destruction or damage by fire.
As regards repairing facilities, the position was not more satisfactory. In addition to the repair workshops at Grove Park, Osterley Park, Kempton Park, Bulford, and Avonmouth, and to the small shops attached to each of the twenty-one local auxiliary mechanical transport companies distributed over the kingdom, there were five main repair shops situated in various localities in London. As in the 1009 case of the storage depots, there were no convenient rail and water transport arrangements, and no unloading facilities or mechanical appliances for handling heavy weights; the scattered location of the shops prevented proper central control and uniformity of administration, and entailed needless expense in supervision and duplication of clerical work; the accommodation under cover for vehicles awaiting repair was quite inadequate, and hundreds of vehicles and thousands of motor cycles had to be parked in the open, exposed to the elements and suffering serious depreciation; while vehicles that were to be repaired—e.g., at Camberwell or Catford—had often to be sent provisionally to Kempton Park, entailing duplication of handling and transit expenses. Worst of all, the repairing facilities were totally insufficient, resulting in intolerable delays, the scrapping of large quantities of repairable spare parts and the immobiling for long periods of many valuable vehicles.
The situation was not one that tended to cure itself by lapse of time; on the. contrary, it was becoming worse from week to week. The number of vehicles awaiting repair at home increased from 574 on July 1, 1916, to 850 on July 1, 1917, i.e., by nearly 50 per cent. In addition, there were on the latter date nearly 1,300 lorries and cars in France which required repair but were in excess of the repairing capacity of that country and therefore were awaiting transport to England. Moreover, the repairing facilities at manufacturers' works, of which full use had been made during the previous twelve months, had now fallen almost to vanishing point owing to the increased demands on their manufacturing capacity for aircraft and other munitions. And it was to be expected that as the average age of vehicles in commission increased, the proportion requiring repair would also become greater. No early termination of the war could be counted on, and any continuous forward movement, which was a necessary condition of such termination, must inevitably entail an intensified use of mechanical transport and thus greatly increase the strain on our inadequate repairing resources. In short, we could not disregard the possibility, if the situation were neglected, of a breakdown in our transport arrangements, which might have disastrous results on the whole course of military operations.
1010 Such was the state of affairs, as reported to me by the Director of Supplies and Transport; but before definite action was taken, I deemed it advisable to appoint an independent Committee to investigate the facts and make recommendations as to the measures to be adopted. That Committee entirely confirmed the views of the technical officers of the War Office as to the dangers of the existing situation, and recommended, in addition to certain minor though important reforms, "the immediate provision of a central depot, where the work now being done at the existing storage depots and repair shops would be centralised." This central depot, the Committee held, should be built on property conveniently situated alongside a railway, with ample transit facilities in the way of sidings, loading, and unloading bays, and up-to-date mechanical handling machinery; it should include a fully-equipped repair shop large enough to deal not only with all motor vehicles and cycles from home units, but also with those from France in excess of repairing capacity there; a spares store house large enough to maintain a reserve sufficient to cope with requirements of both overseas and home units, &c.; sheds sufficient to place under cover the vehicles awaiting repair; and the necessary accommodation for the clerical and technical staffs.
The Committee were, of course, fully aware that their recommendation entailed considerable capital expenditure, but they nevertheless supported it no less on grounds of economy than on those of safety and efficiency. Not only would a large saving be effected in wages and handling charges as compared with the existing storage depots and repairing shops, but still more important economies would result from the retrieving of spare parts which under present arrangements had to be scrapped, and from the elimination of the heavy loss due to the deterioration of valuable material through being stored in the open. Moreover, the, central depot, if established, would furnish the extensive housing and repairing facilities which would be indispensable in this country at the close of the war for vehicles returned from overseas during demobilisation, and would also provide for the permanent mechanical transport requirements of the fighting forces after the war.
The initial expenditure involved amounted, on the basis of a rough pre- 1011 liminary estimate, to £1,025,000, including the cost of the site. But against this was to be set a definite annual saving of £43,000 on the rent and rates of the existing scattered and inadequate store-houses and repair shops, of £10,000 on cost of road transport, and of at least £30,000 on storage and handling staff, apart from the indirect saving on national man-power through reduced haulage and handling in goods yards by railway staff, carriers, etc. In addition, it was estimated that facilities for proper periodical repair of the vehicles in use at home would enable at least 20 per cent. more efficiency to be obtained from them, representing an annual saving on petrol of about £45,000, to say nothing of the still more important economy in the life of the vehicles themselves. The value of the spare parts which could be retrieved instead of being scrapped was estimated at not less than £200,000 per annum, while the capital value of the vehicles put out of commission by the absence of repair facilities and therefore requiring to be replaced by new vehicles which would otherwise have been unnecessary, represented something like £1,600,000. Incidentally, the reduced demand for such new vehicles would have enabled the manufacturers greatly to increase their output of such supplies as aero-engines, which were most urgently required. It should be added that, on the basis of the first rough estimate, the expenditure proposed for the storage depot represented only about 4 per cent. on the value of the material for which it would provide accommodation, and that for the repair shop only about 7 per cent. on the new value of the vehicles to be repaired annually. It therefore appeared that quite apart from the necessity of the proposal as a military measure, it was fully defensible even as a business proposition, and I had no difficulty in coming to the conclusion that I ought to support it.
The Committee's recommendation, coinciding as it did with the views which had already been expressed by the Director of Supplies and Transport, were approved generally by the Quartermaster-General, and by the middle of October preliminary plans and estimates had been prepared, and had been examined and approved by a Sub-Committee of the Mechanical Transport Board—a body of military officers and civilians appointed by the Army Council, on the suggestion of Sir John Cowans and 1012 myself, to watch the administration of mechanical transport services and advise on important questions of policy.
It then became necessary to secure the definite approval of the Army Council to the scheme, and before this could be done it had to be submitted to the financial criticism of the Finance Department, and to the technical criticism of the Department of the Director of Fortifications and Works, who, as he would be responsible for the actual execution of the work, had necessarily to satisfy himself that the estimates and plans were suitable and satisfactory. Detailed designs, drawings, and estimates had also to be prepared, and extensive enquiries and investigations conducted as to the selection of a suitable site. Further, no definite steps could be taken until the approval of the Treasury and the War Cabinet had been obtained; and the latter body, before according their sanction, deputed one of their number, General Smuts, to go into the question and examine the possibility of obtaining an alternative site free from the objections which had been raised by the Food Production Department to that proposed by the War Office. It was not until the beginning of June, 1918, that it was possible actually to commence operations on the site finally selected at Cippenham.
It will be within your Lordships' recollection that shortly after the commencement of the work the whole question was thoroughly gone into by the House of Commons Select Committee on National Expenditure, under the chairmanship of Mr. Herbert Samuel, and that that Committee reported that they were convinced that there was no satisfactory alternative to the establishment of a central depot, and that the case for such a depot had been fully made out.
I hope the foregoing explanation may suffice to convince your Lordships that this costly scheme was not, as in some quarters it has been represented to be, a mere illustration of the irresistible tendency of Public Departments to waste public money, but that, on the contrary, it embodied conclusions only arrived at with great reluctance, after mature deliberation, after careful weighing of all possible alternatives, after the adoption of half-measures and makeshifts up to avid even beyond the extreme limit of safety; and that it was endorsed by the unanimous and considered judgment of all those responsible for the administration of the mechanical transport 1013 service, as a measure absolutely essential in the interest not merely of efficiency and economy but even of military security.
I pass on to the criticisms of the planning and execution of the work. Even assuming, we are told, that the establishment of a central depôt was necessary, gross incompetence and ineptitude were displayed, both in the selection of the site, the design and lay-out of the scheme, and the conduct of the actual building operations. The site selected was attacked on a ground in itself perfectly sound—viz., the withdrawal from cultivation of good agricultural land; but the critics entirely failed to exhibit any sense of proportion as to the relation between the loss of production involved and the value, from a military and financial point of view, of the advantages resulting from the scheme.
It is not necessary for me to enter into this question at any length, since the subject, as your Lordships will recollect, was fully discussed last June in another place, and the Government's decision was convincingly justified by the present Chief Secretary for Ireland and the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was then shown that the fulfilment of certain conditions as regards site (proximity to a railway and a main road, reasonable accessibility to London and the southern ports, and also to the manufacturing centres, facilities for water transport, fairly level ground, a gravel soil, and so on) was essential if the administrative advantages of the scheme and the economies to be effected from it were to be realised to their fullest extent; that exhaustive investigations had been carried out over the whole available area in order to discover suitable sites; that before the Slough site was finally selected the possibilities of more than a dozen other localities which appeared prima facie to be possible alternatives had been thoroughly examined and deliberately rejected; and that the War Cabinet, anxious at that critical time to avoid the slightest unnecessary disturbance of agricultural production, withheld their sanction from the scheme until General Smuts, after the special enquiry to which I have already referred, had reported that it had been proved, to the satisfaction of himself and of the Food Production Department, that there was no practicable alternative.
Next as to design and lay-out. I cannot, of course, in this place deal in detail with 1014 the numerous attacks with which the scheme has been assailed from this point of view. From the general character of these attacks the critics would appear to be under the impression that a Department whose experience in works of construction had been mainly confined to the design and erection of barracks and defences, had attempted to prepare designs for workshops and storehouses on an unprecedentedly large scale, in the light of its own unaided knowledge and without seeking expert guidance. Such a suggestion is, I need hardly say, quite inaccurate. The design of these works, which has been the subject of so much amateur criticism, has in fact been evolved by engineers who have had wide experience in the lay-out, construction, and management of motor and other engineering works, and some of whom have during this war constructed, organised, and controlled factories for the repair of mechanical transport larger than any hitherto constructed for the civilian industry.
Much criticism has been directed against the scale on which some of the buildings have been designed; but the dimensions were in every case based on actual experience gained during the war, and were so calculated as to provide merely for existing; requirements together with a margin to cover such expansion as would have been necessitated by the continuance of the war. In particular, ridicule is poured on the size of the tyre store, which provided a floor space of some five and a half acres; as a matter of fact, the floor space already in use for the storage of tyres in War Department premises alone amounted to two acres; while a similar quantity of tyres was stored (to a considerable extent in the open) in manufacturers' works. The balance of one and a-half acres provided only a reasonable margin of safety. I may add that when the question was reviewed immediately after the Armistice, it was at once decided that in the changed circumstances work on this building (among others) should be discontinued.
Again, we are told that the factory buildings, instead of being located north of the railway, should have been placed between the railway and the Bath-road, and it is evidently supposed that this is an entirely novel suggestion, the possibility of which, had not previously presented itself to the Department. The fact, of course, is that this obvious alternative was thoroughly 1015 considered at the outset, but was advisedly rejected because, in the first place, the area south of the railway would have barely sufficed to meet requirements and would have allowed no space for expansion, the possible necessity of which it would have been most unwise to ignore; secondly, it would still have been necessary to construct roads leading to the parking-grounds, which in any case must have been located north of the line; thirdly, the railway siding arrangements would have necessitated a complete reconstruction of the Great Western Goods Station at Slough to the south of the line; and, fourthly, the difficulty and expense of extending the canal into the depot to secure water transport facilities would have been immensely enhanced.
The third point of attack on the Department is the manner in which the building operations have been carried out. They have, it is alleged, been marked by slow progress, wasteful administration, and extravagant payments to labour. It would be out of place for me to embark upon a defence of the War Office against these charges, since neither the Department of which I was in charge at that Office, nor indeed the Quartermaster-General's Department, had any responsibility for the actual execution of the work. This aspect of the Case I shall therefore leave to the noble Viscount who represents the War Office in this House.
But I may, perhaps, be permitted to point out, first, that during the five months between its commencement and the Armistice the work was carried on under circumstances of very great difficulty, owing to the extreme shortage of labour, the in efficiency of the small quantity that was available, and the competing claims of the aerodrome programme and other Government works which were considered of even greater national importance than the Slough scheme; secondly, that the rates of wages paid were, and are, the rates which are standard in the trade, and which must be paid on any Government work unless the Government is to infringe the Fair Wages Resolution of the other House and the Wages (Temporary Regulation) Act of last session; and thirdly, that towards the end of last year an attempt was made at my suggestion, with results which appear likely to prove entirely satisfactory, to secure more rapid progress by taking advantage of the experience and 1016 organisation of a very eminent firm of contractors, to whom, with the full concurrence of the Director of Fortifications and Works, the conduct of the work was transferred in December last.
I observe that this last step has been criticised as though it had involved definitely committing the Department to heavy additional liabilities in connection with the scheme, at a time when the desirability of proceeding with it at all was at least open to doubt; but any such criticism is misconceived. The terms on which the contractor has undertaken the work give absolute liberty to the Department to determine the contract at any time without reason assigned and without payment of compensation, except for expenditure and commitments actually and properly incurred; and the contractor, with commendable public spirit, has left the amount of his remuneration (which will take the form of a lump-sum fee and not of a percentage commission on the cost of the work) to the decision of the Standing Inter-departmental Contracts Committee, presided over by my noble friend Lord Colwyn.
I now come to the third branch of the I subject—viz., the question whether in view of the situation created by the signing of the Armistice it is still desirable to go on with the scheme, and, if so, for what purposes the site and buildings should in the altered circumstances be utilised. It was recognised at once that the suspension of hostilities rendered it necessary to review the whole question, and on November 19 the matter was considered by the Mechanical Transport Board. It appeared that there were in existence over 80,000 four-wheeled motor-vehicles which would require repair, of which about 45,000 were of British and about 35,000 of American and Continental manufacture. If the repair of the former were entrusted to the British manufacturers, it was calculated that on a reasonable estimate of their repairing capacity the work would last them some two and three-quarter years. It was therefore considered that, even apart from the question of the availability of spare parts, the repair of the non-British cars would have to be undertaken by the Government, and that, on the assumption that the repair shop portion of the Slough scheme was completed in its entirety, this work would engage its full capacity for three years 1017 And it was calculated, on the basis of an estimate prepared by technical experts, that the difference in disposal value between the unrepaired vehicles and the same vehicles when placed in thorough repair was sufficient to show a profit of over £1,200,000 on the three years' working, after allowing for all expenses and writing down the capital expenditure by 75 per cent. The Board accordingly decided that the scheme, so far as it related to repair workshops, should be proceeded with in its entirety and pushed on with all speed.
As regards the storage part of the scheme, it was not clear to the Board that the full accommodation originally contemplated would now be required, and they thought it desirable to proceed with only one block at a time out of the five, and when that block was nearing completion to consider the necessity of a second, and so on. But it was evident that in so far as the buildings were required at all for the housing and repair of demobilised vehicles, their completion had become not less but more urgent by reason of the Armistice, and it was in view of this that an attempt was made shortly afterwards, as I have already mentioned, to speed up the progress of the work by placing it in the hands of a single contractor.
The question, however, of the advisability of the Government itself undertaking the repair of motor vehicles, whether British or American, for the mere purpose of sale, is one that has to be considered from many different points of view. The duty of disposing of all surplus property, to whatever Department it belongs, has now been entrusted to the Ministry of Munitions in anticipation of the establishment of a Ministry of Supply, and is discharged on my behalf by the Disposal Board; and it is by no means certain that that Board will favour the policy of repair before sale. Clearly, the decision on this point will have an important bearing on the question of the extent to which the repair side of the Slough scheme should be proceeded with; but whatever decision is ultimately arrived at—and the matter is still under consideration—it is certain that sufficient repairing facilities must be available to provide for the requirements of whatever vehicles may be retained on the normal establishment of the post-bellum Army (including the Air Force); and it is also probable that it will be wise to provide, 1018 in addition, for the maintenance and repair of the vehicles which will be required during an uncertain period for the temporary Armies of Occupation both at home and abroad, especially as the latter accommodation when no longer necessary for this purpose will constitute a valuable reserve-capacity of expansion in the event of future emergency.
As regards the storage side of the scheme, the position from the military point of view is that storage will in any event be permanently necessary for all vehicles equipment, spare parts, and other stores maintained for the purposes of the post-bellum Army (again including the Air Force); and also for the additional vehicles and stores requires on mobilisation and therefore maintained in reserve; and that, in addition, accommodation will have to be provided somewhere for the immense quantities of vehicles and spare parts, &c., which will be returning in the course of the next few months to this country from the various theatres of war. The complete disposal of these must be a gradual process extending over some years, and they must be housed somewhere pending disposal. No suitable accommodation exists elsewhere for this purpose; indeed, the demand for storage facilities in this country is already, and has long, been, far in excess of the supply. Immense quantities of spare parts, tyres, &c., are at present stored, for want of better accommodation, at the manufacturers' works, and the latter are insistently pressing to be relieved of the burden. Moreover, it must be remembered that transport vehicles and their accessories are not the only surplus stores for which room must be found over here when France and the other war-areas are evacuated.
I do not think the public has any conception of the vast surplus of every conceivable kind of supply which will have to be handled and dealt with. Meantime, the Minister of Reconstruction is pressing, in the interests of the resumption of the normal course of industry, for the early release of dock and railway warehouses and business premises, large numbers of which have been requisitioned for storage purposes during the war, and the Departments in possession are unable to comply with his instructions for lack of alternative accommodation. Already, some of the largest filling factories have been converted 1019 into stores, and the demand for space does not diminish, and must soon largely increase with the return of the war surpluses from abroad. Another permanent military necessity will be the mechanical transport training establishment, which, in order to provide instructional facilities, should be located in close proximity to the repairing and storage depôt.
This, then, is the position as regards strictly military requirements (in which I include for this purpose the storage, pending disposal, of surplus military property). First, permanent provision will be needed (1) for the storage of the transport material for the post-bellum Army and Air Force, including its reserve mobilisation equipment, (2) for repairing facilities for the vehicles of those forces, with some capacity for rapid expansion of such facilities on emergency, and (3) for the training establishment. Secondly, for an indeterminate period, which will certainly extend to some years, accommodation will be necessary for the immense quantities of vehicles, spare parts, and accessories brought home from abroad, and possibly also for the repair of a large proportion of these vehicles before disposal. And the question which, if there were no possibility of any other than a military use for the scheme, we should have to decide, would be whether it is better to abandon the whole project, or to proceed with it with such modifications as may be advisable, with a view to retaining one portion as a permanent military establishment, and disposing as circumstances permit of the balance as soon as the temporary need for it lapses.
Now, the simple fact is that, apart altogether from the repair question, we must have accommodation for these surplus vehicles and stores; and that, taking account of our other storage requirements, available accommodation does not at present exist. If we did not provide it at Slough, we should have to provide it elsewhere. The choice before us, therefore, if we looked only to military requirements, would be simply between those two alternatives—either to cut our loss on the expenditure and commitments already incurred, and, at the cost of great delay and expense, begin anew the difficult search for a suitable site, prepare fresh plans and estimates, and recommence building operations elsewhere, on, it is true, a smaller, but still 1020 necessarily on an extensive scale; or to take advantage of the progress already made, reap the benefit of the expenditure to which we are committed, and complete the scheme in a modified form, effecting such reductions and economies as circumstances may permit.
The money spent and the commitments incurred at Slough up to date amount to over £1,100,000, of which it is not likely that more than £250,000 would be saved by the immediate closing down of the work; and it is estimated that if the work is allowed to proceed most of the buildings will be available by June next, and the whole will be completed by September. How could we justify writing off so large a sum as £850,000 as a total loss, incurring fresh expenditure elsewhere to an unknown amount, and deferring to an indeterminate date the provision of the accommodation which is so urgently required, when by the outlay of some six or seven hundred thousand pounds, in addition to what we are already committed to, we can in a short period meet our immediate storage and repairing requirements, avoid the deterioration of valuable vehicles and stores, and (as regards any portion of the property which may not be permanently required) provide ourselves with an asset which, so far from being unrealizable, should by reason of its situation and of the road, rail, and water transport facilities we have provided, have an important commercial value?
But as a matter of fact, the choice does not present itself in this form. The alternatives before us are not limited to the total abandonment of the project or to its utilization for purely military purposes, for there are numerous other possibilities of turning it to account to meet needs, present or future, arising in connection with important national services. Let me mention one or two of these, though I must do so with the qualification that at present these are merely possibilities; they have not been before the Cabinet, nor have they formed the subject of the interchange of views between the Public Departments and other authorities interested which would be necessary before any one of them could be definitely adopted by the Government as part of its considered policy. But they may, perhaps, suffice as examples to show that there is no danger that any portion of the Slough 1021 establishment which may not be permanently required for military purposes will languish for want of use.
First, there is the centralisation of the arrangements for the provision and maintenance of all mechanical transport required for national services of whatever description. As your Lordships are aware, it is in contemplation to establish a Ministry of Supply, which would be responsible for providing the stores and supplies required by all Government Departments; one of the duties of this Ministry would be the supply of motor vehicles, including those required by the War Office, the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the General Post Office, the Office of Works, the Stationery Office and other Departments; and it would be a natural extension of its functions to assign to it also the responsibility for the maintenance and repair of such vehicles (with the possible exception of those belonging to the fighting services which, while utilising the Ministry's shops and repairing facilities, might themselves prefer to provide to some extent the actual personnel for carrying out the repairs). Such a centralisation should effect important economies, and there would be available at Slough an admirably equipped and conveniently situated depot, which would afford all necessary facilities for repairs, and for the storage of reserve vehicles and of accessories and spare parts.
Secondly, the possible utility of the Slough establishment in connection with any scheme for the provision of an improved road transport service must not be lost sight of. Greater facilities for road transport, whether of passengers or goods, are obviously a matter of the highest importance, with a view both to the better opening up of rural districts generally, and especially to the encouragement of agriculture by affording the means for placing rural produce on the market more easily and at less expense. This question, however, will be one for consideration of the Minister of Ways and Communication, and without consultation with him I can do no more than make a passing reference to the subject.
Thirdly, great possibilities present themselves for the utilisation of any surplus accommodation at the new depot in connection with a reorganisation of the general arrangements for the housing of Government supplies and stores. This again is a question in which the new Ministry of 1022 Supply will be intimately concerned, since that Ministry will doubtless hold the central stocks of the stores which it provides for other Departments. I have already alluded to the existing pressure on the available storage accommodation in the country, and to the urgent necessity of relieving this pressure in the interest of business and industry generally. To instance only one Department of Government, the facilities which might be afforded by such an establishment as that at Slough would be of enormous advantage to various branches of the War Office, such as the Army Ordnance Department which is responsible for the custody of clothing and equipment, &c., and the Army Service Corps, which maintains the various supply depôts. Such a central store would afford valuable opportunities for securing substantial economics in labour and transport charges, as well as important administrative improvements. There is more than a possibility that it might be found desirable to provide further buildings in addition to any that have at present been contemplated. In particular, I may mention that the accommodation for stocks of clothing alone requires at this moment, and is likely to require for some years to come, a superficial area of some two and a half million square feet, which taking the low rate of 2s. per square foot, represents an annual rental cost of £250,000 per annum.
It has been suggested that the idea of utilising the proposed central depôt for general storage purposes is a mere afterthought, which even at so recent a date as the fourth of this month had not yet occurred to the Government; and in proof of this is adduced the answer given on that date by Mr. Churchill to Sir Charles Henry in another place, in which he stated that his first idea had been to transfer the scheme to the Ministry of Supply, but that he had received from that Ministry strong arguments which led him to believe that they wished him to retain the responsibility for dealing with the matter. This suggestion, however, is unfounded. As I have already mentioned, the independent Committee appointed by me in 1917 which recommended the establishment of a central depôt contemplated that in addition to the immediate military purposes which such a depot would serve, it would also furnish the extensive housing and repairing facilities which would be indis- 1023 pensable at the close of the war for vehicles and stores returned from overseas; and it war; always in my own mind that when those temporary functions in connection with surplus transport material had been discharged, the depôt might be turned to valuable account in relief of the general pressure on storage accommodation.
Mr. Churchill's statement referred, I think, to the responsibility for the actual execution of the works at Slough. As regards this point, I was at first strongly of opinion that it would be the most convenient course for the War Office, which had been responsible from the beginning for carrying out the scheme on its constructional side, to retain this responsibility until the end, and to hand over the site and buildings to the new Ministry in a completed state; and it is only in deference to representations from the Secretary of State to the effect that it was desirable for the Department which would ultimately administer the establishment to assume responsibility at the earliest possible date, that I have consented to take over from the War Office the task of completing the actual work of construction.
The resolution which the noble Lord has moved asks the House to resolve "that a Select Committee be appointed to enquire into the conditions under which the works at Slough are being carried out, the cost involved, and the responsibility for the advice on which the scheme was undertaken." I trust that I have said enough to convince your Lordships that no prima facie case has been made out for the appointment of such a Committee. As regards the last point, viz., the responsibility for the advice on which the scheme was undertaken, there is no matter for inquiry; it was admittedly on the advice of myself and the Quartermaster-General that the scheme received the sanction of the Army Council and the Cabinet, and it has already been established by a Select Committee of the other House that that advice was properly given and that the case for the scheme was fully made out. As regards the second point, the cost of the scheme, the latest figure given by the War Office is £1,665,000, but this allows for the omission of certain buildings which have been provisionally discontinued but may ultimately be found to be necessary. I have little doubt that, if it is the general desire of the House, the Secretary of State for War will be ready to cause an amended 1024 estimate to be prepared, revised to date in the light of any variations in cost of labour and material and any approved modifications in design.
As to the "conditions under which the works are being carried out," the position, shortly, is, first, that they are being carried out by a contracting firm of eminence, on terms which give the firm no inducement for increasing the cost of the work, and which permit the Department to discontinue the whole or any part of the work at any moment without notice, and (except as regards expenses and commitments already incurred) without compensation; secondly, that the whole scheme has been carefully reviewed in the light of the changed situation created by the Armistice, and that work on certain portions which it may be found possible to dispense with has been provisionally suspended; and, thirdly, that the future use to be made of the site and buildings is at present occupying the careful attention of Mr. Churchill and myself, and that pending a decision on this question no further expenditure will be authorised other than such as can be completely justified on the ground of practical necessity. I therefore submit that no useful purpose would be served by the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into these matters.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, those of us who listened to the powerful indictment of my noble friend Lord Desborough will, I think, not have derived very full satisfaction from the speech of the noble Lord who has just sat down. The whole tenour of his speech seemed to me to confirm the two main items which are the cause of our attack upon the Government. It is a widespread attack, not in the least of a Party or political order, but simply, if I may so term it, the revolt of all sensible men against the course which has been pursued.
I have not the advantage, possessed by my noble friend Lord Desborough, of local knowledge of the tract of country which, has been devastated by these operations, but on much more general and public grounds I would ask your Lordships, after the explanation of the noble Lord who has just spoken, to allow me to take the dates and facts and to see how consistently, in the face of all the facts which ought to have guided them in the opposite direction, the noble Lord, of his own initiative as he 1025 has confessed, and with the assistance of the Quartermaster-General and other authorities, has continued to provide for an Army of 5.000,000 for years to come, instead of regarding it as something that had got to be done away with in order to avoid putting the nation to further expense.
The noble Lord was quite unable, as I gathered, to meet the impeachment which Lord Desborough brought against him. Early in 1918 there was a danger lest the repair depôts in France should be occupied by the enemy and there was then a great difficulty as regards the carrying out of repairs, apart from there being a central station, and the noble Lord showed that the figures had considerably increased. I think he told us that earlier in the war the number of vehicles which required repair had risen in 1917 from 574 to 850. Then he came to a much more serious figure and told us that at this moment there were some 80,000 requiring repair. I was not frightened by that figure because I happen to know, what is known to the noble Lord also, that the motor trade came forward at the moment of greatest difficulty last June and, as I am informed, undertook even then to deal with repairs at the rate of 350 a week, which is about 18,000 a year. That was at a time when labor, material, and room were all at a premium, which they are not now, and I have not the slightest doubt that if the noble Lord, instead of persisting in his scheme, had approached the motor trade, as I think he ought to have done, and had left them to fill up the gaps which they have to fill in their works and find employment which they could give readily, he would have had the repairs of as many vehicles as it could possibly be right to maintain executed in a very short space of time.
But what occurred? A Committee of the House of Commons considered this matter in July of last year. What was their verdict? They said that, if the end of the war were in sight, the situation would be completely altered, and the motor depot should not be continued on its present scale for post-war conditions. What was the reply of the Government to that? In face of that verdict of the Committee of the House of Commons who had all the facts and all the experts before them, the Government—the noble Lord—increased the cost of the depot in two months from £1,000,000 to £1,750,000. 1026 When he gives us these figures, which some of your Lordships were probably not able to follow, it should be observed that all that the motor trade asked for was an advance of £250,000 to be repaid by them, in order to undertake the very work which they could have undertaken at once, and which the noble Lord, with all his skill and all the weight of the Government behind him, will not be able to begin probably until November or December next—eighteen months after they were able to undertake it. It does not seem to me a business-like proposition on the face of it. If we go a little further we come to January, 1919. At that point there was no question of the war continuing and I understand then that a consultation was held at which my noble friend, Lord Milner, unless I am mistaken, was called in. It was then, two months after the Armistice, that the Government decided to proceed with the work posthaste.
They called in contractors who had not been called in before. There was no contract even to be broken; there was no penalty to be paid. They called in contractors—on what terms? On terms which I venture to suggest had never been proposed before. As I understand, the contractors waived all questions of remuneration to be settled in some honourable fashion after the war, and no doubt the country is greatly indebted for that. But no agreements were made as regards pay. Nothing was laid down which would be in any way a protection to the Government. It was practically said "Go ahead as hard as you possibly can with this, which is a war service"—two months after the Armistice had been proclaimed. I confess that when I heard the noble Lord finding so many reasons for spending these large sums, I wished that the Government, besides calling in men of business aptitude to spend money, would now call in men of business aptitude to save money.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
I think I could have met the noble Lord on most of his figures, but I meet him with one caveat. Admit that we have got the motor transport for 5,000,000 of men. There is not a member of this House who believes that our future standing Army will be more than, say, one-tenth of that figure or something like it—it may be 1027 one-fifth or one-tenth. Is it, can it be, good business to keep on hand and in stock at great cost the motors which are to do for five million men? We heard a great deal from the noble Lord about concentration. What I should have liked to hear him speak of was dispersion. What is being done? The spare parts are being hived, according to the evidence. I think the Secretary for War said that the spare parts, which were of the value of £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 last July, were now of the value of £15,000,000. Why in Heaven's name is an opportunity of buying them not to be given to the motor firms who at this moment cannot carry out their orders for want of spare parts? That is the first indictment I have. Unless I failed to follow the noble Lord I gathered that this is one of the cases with which Parliament should be called upon to deal, where individual Ministers insist on an operation that seems good to their own Department without the consent of the other Departments concerned. I should like to ask the noble Lord, had he the consent of the Board of Agriculture for taking this land? Were the Food Department consulted and did they agree?
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
They did. How long had they to decide? I understand about twenty-four hours. I understand they never had an opportunity of going into it. That is the sort of agreement which we are told is the agreement of the Food Department. How could they find fresh land in twenty-four hours? I put another question. Did the Ministry of National Service investigate this matter, and what was the report which their representative made? Did he agree? I understand he asked to see the plans. I understand that when 750 more labourers were asked for, at a time when the Ministry of National Service required every man they could get to send abroad, difficulties were raised by an official who was refused the plans, and, as he did not agree, he resigned his office. He made what protest he could.
But there is a third Department which might have been consulted, and so far as they had the power I understand that every objection they could make to this absorption of labour was made, and was overruled by the noble Lord. I suggest to him one thing. Does he think that what 1028 is going on at Slough has had no effect on labour unrest in other parts of the country? Take the question of wages. We were told in the papers that the railway men were getting 28s. per week before the war, that they had 33s. as a war bonus, making 61s.; and that more was still demanded. I wonder what the expert railway men, the drivers and engineers at Paddington Station, thought when they saw three special trains going down every day, as I am told, conveying men who, so far from being skilled, had been picked up as they could be for labour which they did not understand, and paid at rates which are in excess of those of the expert men who were bringing them down.
I submit, and I suggest to the Government, that what is going on at Slough, what is going on at Chepstow, what has gone on in munition factories, and what has been done in the administration of the unemployment allowance has been an indication to the country that the Government—I will not say are callous—but have absolutely shown no concern whatever to exercise that economy which they impress upon others. I believe these scandals, for scandals they are, as to the rates of pay have a great deal to do with strikes and labour unrest and the want of employment, because it is quite impossible for private employers to pay the rates which the Government have laid down. Lord Desborough spoke of what is happening in his neighbourhood, and I could tell your Lordships, but I spare you because of time, what has taken place in other neighbourhoods. There is not a man who has been turned out of his job, not a man who is unfit, or too old, who has not been taken on at £1 or 30s. increase in wages upon anything he ever had before. I felt that in this case we had a right to expect something like a balance sheet from the noble Lord. He told us that this or that would only come to 4 per cent. I should like to ask him whether he can tell us how many motor cars would be dealt with in the depôt, and how the cost of repairs work out as compared with the repairs made by a contractor.
I will give the noble Lord a piece of information which he probably has not got. At one of these depôts at which the War Office deals with motor cars I am informed that so many men were taken on in advance of the work, and so much had been spent, that in an idle, moment some of the men set to work to make out what 1029 the first motor car repaired would cost, and they made it out, after a good deal of discussion and argument, at between £20,000 and £25,000 for that one car. It is perfectly well known that in Government establishments there were actually men and women engaged in one factory unloading shells which it was known would never be required, while in another factory shells were being loaded which would ultimately have to be passed over to be unloaded. I do not say that these things are general, but I entirely demur to the suggestion that if it can be proved that there are so many Government articles in existence that they are bettor dealt with at a central depot, and that there will be a large number of spare parts which must be housed, we should be asked to accept concentration as covering the whole question of the commercial value of the undertaking.
If I may say so without offence to the noble Lord, I think that to-night your Lordships have had rather a lesson as to what a man who is brought into a concern because of his great business ability is likely to do in the way of ignoring other Departments who may possibly, and in the old days would have been able to, put some reason into his endeavours. On the other hand he proceeded with a business, at a far greater cost than was originally anticipated, on which he has set his heart, because he believes he has the whole public purse at his back.
There is one thing which seems to me to stand out quite clear in this question, and that is, that the sooner we get back to the system of Cabinet government the better. The individual Minister, who spends money quite honestly but, as we think, with undue belief in the necessity of the actual work he is pushing, is becoming the greatest danger to the country. We were told yesterday that we were on the edge of a precipice, and that if things are allowed to go on we shall go over that precipice. I feel very strongly when I hear the Secretary of State for War get up and say, "I have added £25,000,000 to the pay of the Army." He may be right. Then the Minister for Pensions says, "I have added 4s. a day to all classes of pensions." And the Prime Minister says, "I gave £15,000,000 yesterday to the railway men, and £25,000,000 the day before to the coal men." All these things are put as if they were private benefactions 1030 by Ministers, and they have never been properly thrashed out by the Cabinet. What we have to do to-night is at all hazards to insist upon an investigation—not an investigation like some of those on which I have been invited to serve since the war, in which the Minister is placed in the chair and in which one is ruled out on many of the points one wants to advance on the ground that the Government are not prepared to deal with them. In the case of more than one investigation we were not allowed to bring the facts before the public.
This ought to be a public investigation—an investigation by your Lordships' House with the assistance of the House of Commons, if they are willing to assist. I feel that this mischief goes far beyond the question of the Slough depot. It deals with the whole question of the reconstruction of the trade of this country; it deals with the extension of Government trading, for which no noble Lord is able to say that it gives results which commercial trading firms are able to give. Whether you take the telephone service, or the Post Office, or the telegraphs, or, I regret to say, even the Government establishments at Woolwich, you will find that you are trading at a disadvantage, and that the larger control you put into the hands of the, Government the greater the amount that goes in staff and such things. In this case you are taking the bread out of the mouths of the motor contractors, and doing so in one of the finest tracts of the country and in one the most populated districts; using millions of bricks at a time when they are wanted for the building of cottages, using also labour which ought to be applied elsewhere, and using, as I am informed, fifty tons of coal. This you are doing for the purpose of creating buildings which are not needed, and which, I have not the slightest doubt, you will find after the war is over will have to be scrapped. Yet a number of other buildings, situated within a few miles, might have been adapted for this purpose.
I feel that I must not trespass longer upon your Lordships' time, but I think that the case is overwhelming for a thorough investigation, and that the mere fact that the noble Lord has frankly shouldered the responsibility must not be allowed to absolve your Lordships from seeing whether the public purse cannot be saved this £800,000. If that sum has already been 1031 spent the action that I recommend your Lordships to take might nevertheless go some way to save tens of millions of pounds which may be spent in the future if no check is put upon these individual enterprises on the part of Ministers.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Desborough, concluded his most interesting and informing speech I am sure that there were many of your Lordships who felt as I did, that he had established a strong case for an inquiry into this matter. I must admit, speaking for myself, that my feeling that such an inquiry was needed was only stronger after I had listened to the speech of the noble Lord who replied to him, and my reason for that is this. I do not believe that it was possible for a single one of your Lordships, however closely and attentively you followed the long list of figures and details that were read to you, to have formed any idea as to the true position of this matter.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
Yet, my Lords, the outstanding and simple facts are sufficiently striking. Lord Desborough points out that the site of this factory or store was selected upon the ground that the soil is of a certain character, and he uses his own personal knowledge to tell you that it is not of that character at all. He shows that the store was to be undertaken as part of the necessary equipment of this country at war, and he asks, "What is the justification for having it now that hostilities have ceased and peace is near?" He shows that the building has been changed in its purpose, and, for all we know, changed in plan, and he shows that the vast expenditure of public money that is proposed upon this building is a matter which demands public attention, and one that can only be properly sifted and examined by an independent Committee. What is the answer to it? Why is not a Committee to be set up? I could not find a single explanation on the part of the noble Lord to justify the refusal to allow this matter to be examined.
I quite agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Midleton, said just now. This matter really is more far-reaching than just a simple inquiry into this particular incident. It has to my mind a purpose more permanent and far more grave. It 1032 is for the purpose of seeing whether the vast spending establishments at the present moment are really exercising their powers with a strict and close regard to national economy, or whether they are simply using them for a purpose which they may be able to justify, saying, "Oh, you cannot, say this is not a desirable purpose, and therefore the money may well be spent." That is not the way in which these matters must be looked at. I think that we ought to know whether the Departments not merely considered what the use and value of this building would be when completed, but the extent to which they would interfere with private trade both by using the labour for its equipment and by diverting from private enterprise the work that was going to be done in the building when it was set up. They ought to have considered whether building materials could be better utilised in connection with that building than in connection with other possible schemes that were on foot at that moment. Was it a better thing to build this vast place, or to build the houses which the Government said four months ago were one of the first and most urgent needs of the country? What the Committee would see is whether these rival schemes had been properly balanced, and not merely whether you can justify this building.
It is a pretty easy thing for a Government Department to justify any expenditure, and one of the things which I think is most deplorable and most unsatisfactory about all Government administration is this. There is no person who is responsible for loss. Any person may get the credit for success; nobody bears the blame of failure. There is no man who has to think, "If this does not succeed it is ruin to my business; I must measure this enterprise in the terms of my own personal loss." No such consideration can ever enter into the mind of a Government Department, and the consequence is that if once an error is begun—I am satisfied that I shall in this be speaking the experience of each of your Lordships who have had association with Government Departments—it is the most difficult thing in the world to make the Department admit it.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
The consequence is that if the enterprise is un- 1033 successful at the start the burden of the expense grows and grows and grows; because, in truth, there is no personal loss involved, and the expenditure comes out of the pockets which have only indirectly contributed to it. I should have been far more reassured if the noble Lord who has given us this full explanation this afternoon had said quite frankly, "I think that at one stage of this matter there was a mistake; we tried to remedy it; we believe it has been remedied." I should have been more reassured if I had heard that. But when I find that a case of this kind, attacked by the formidable charges made by the noble Lord, Lord Desborough, is answered as though it really were the best and wisest and most economical use of public money that could be devised by the best group of financial experts you could possibly obtain, it leaves me entirely unconvinced.
I quite agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Midleton, said. This matter is associated with something far bigger than the mere failure or success of that particular Department. The Government told us last night—it was the first time that I had heard it from any member of the Government—that the need for national economy, not personal economy, is a vital necessity for this country. I agree. I want to know what striking example of national economy the Government can show to the nation. What is it that they can point to and say, "We know that economy is. urgently needed; see what we have done." I can find no instance whatever. If there be such an instance it ought to be published, because the public ought to know by something more than mere exhortation that the Government really have this thing in their hearts, and that they are determined to cut down every single farthing of public expanse that they properly and reasonably can do.
It was, I think, said of Mr. Gladstone in the old days that his idea of national economy was this. If any servant in Government employ went abroad on Government business he was furnished with one luggage label, and he had to write the address of his destination on one side, and keep the label, and to write his own address on the other. That was his notion of public economy. If it be permitted to the shades of departed men to re-visit the 1034 scene of their earthly labours what a perturbed spirit his must be to day.
Is there any indication of any such control? Take, for example, the matter which my noble friend, Lord Midleton, referred to, the expenditure on unemployment benefit. If the country only knew that this was really the subject of consideration by a body of men, an equivalent of the Cabinet, that they really had thought out what was to be done, and that in the middle of the Election, when the matter was raised, it was not the mere caprice of a particular man, but the deliberate and carefully considered judgment of all the responsible Government, they would be more easy in their mind; but they have no such assurance. And with regard even to this expenditure I must say I am far from being satisfied when the noble Lord concludes by telling us—again nothing whatever to do, as far as I can understand, with the Treasury—that he and Mr. Churchill are going to exercise the control of this expenditure, Every one knows and has a high regard for the business capacity of the noble Lord, and believes that he would do his best to exercise control. But I say without hesitation—and I have no desire to conceal my feelings—I have no confidence in any financial control which is exercised by a body of which Mr. Churchill forms an equal half.
This matter really, as the, noble Viscount said, is a graver thing. It touches bigger and graver issues. It is associated with expense of this kind that we have the general growth of our public expenditure. We turn to military service and we have the depot at Slough; we look to the sea, and we have the docks at Chepstow; we look to the air, and we have the aerodrome at Loch Doon; and wherever we turn we find samples of this kind of thing, and we see that they are all associated with the growing expense. And the growing expense brings inevitably in its train the rising prices, and the rising prices necessarily lead to the demand for rising wages; and, soaring and towering above it all, you have the dark and menacing shadow of industrial unrest. I believe that value will be obtained by the appointment of an independent committee of your Lordships' House to examine this matter. If the Government are free from blame that Committee will acquit them; if they are not there is no reason whatever why their liability should be concealed.
§ LORD RATHCREEDAN
My Lords, in spite of the fact that my noble friend dealt with this question comprehensively and that the main features of his statement have not been criticised, I will venture, at the risk of wearying your Lordships, to recapitulate or emphasise some of the points which he brought forward. I will go back to the question of the noble Lord opposite, which divided itself into three—namely, the conditions under which this scheme was initiated, the cost of the scheme, and the responsibility for the advice upon which the scheme was carried out.
But before doing so I should like to ask your Lordships to consider this fact, that when my noble friend was asked to come to the rescue in this matter as Director General of Munitions and Supply this was the position which he found. The Army before the war had had some 800 mechanical transport vehicles to deal with; when he was called in they had 85,000 vehicles to deal with My noble friend Lord Inverforth, in his statement has shown that his responsibility rested in the first instance with the initiation of the scheme. He also takes responsibility for everything that took place after the armistice. But he takes no responsibility whatever for what has taken place under the War Office. It is no duty of mine to defend the War Office—my noble friend Lord Peel will do that; but I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to this fact, that whereas the War Office was instituted to deal with an army of 200,000 men, that army was rapidly enlarged to 2,000,000, and later on to 4,000,000. And then fault is found with the War Office authorities because, forsooth, they have made certain mistakes in constructional work after they had attempted to deal with the administration of 2,000,000 men, and finally 4,000,000 men.
Unfortunately the people of this country and the Press before the war took very little interest in Army affairs. My noble friend, Lord Lambourne, well remembers how for some twenty-three years in the House of Commons he and those of us who were connected with the Service Committee over and over again attempted to better matters in this direction. What was the result? When Army Estimates were on you heard, "Will you pair?" and the Press remarked, "The colonels had a field day"; and thus military affairs 1036 were dismissed. Therefore, I say, it is ungenerous on the part of the Press and the country to find fault with the War Office if they are unable to carry out a gigantic business concern without a certain number of mistakes.
Now I come to the conditions under which these works were carried out. Much has been said about the site. As a matter of fact 600 acres of corn-growing area were taken up. But are 3,000 quarters of corn to be placed in one scale and the risk of the breakdown of the whole of the mechanical transport of the Army to be placed in the other—at a time, moreover, when a considerable advance was expected? It was at that moment that my noble friend was called in to do what he could to prevent a breakdown in the Army Transport. He had to deal with 85,000 vehicles and with an expenditure of £40,000,000 per annum. He had to deal with the storage in the first instance, and with the repairs in the next. He has given you details of the position in which he found the feasibilities for both storage and repairing, and the very first thing he did was to appoint a Committee to advise him on these matters, and this is what this independent Committee reported: they said the immediate provision of a central depot where the work then being done at the storage depots and repair shops would be concentrated was necessary.
Some noble Lords have spoken of the trade doing this work. At this very moment the whole of the trade was overwhelmed by work for aircraft and for munitions and for new transport vehicles for abroad, and they were not in a position to undertake the repairs. After that Committee had been appointed the matter was submitted to a sub-committee of the Mechanical Transport Board and the Quartermaster-General. It was further submitted to the Finance Department of the War Office, to the Director of Fortifications and Supplies, to the Treasury, and to the War Cabinet; and finally, the War Cabinet before coming to a decision appointed one of their own members, General Smuts, probably the most competent man to deal with a matter of this kind, and he decided, in co-operation with the Food Production Department and with the sanction of that Department, to carry out the scheme. Because he naturally took a broad view of this matter; he realised that the mechanical transport of 1037 the whole of the Army was a much more important matter than the production of 3,000 quarters of food.
I pass to the next point. A Committee of the House of Commons—the chairman of which was Mr. Herbert Samuel, perhaps one. of the best men to deal with a question of this kind, especially where finance was concerned—was appointed, and they reported that they were convinced that there was no satisfactory alternative to the establishment of a central depot, and this after fourteen other localities all over the country had been carefully considered by all those authorities to whom I have referred. Now as regards the cost. The cost of the site was £34,000, not a very large figure—scarcely £60 per acre; the storage depôt, £527.000: the repair-shop, £464,000; or a total of £1,025,000. But against that you have to put the definite annual saving of rates and taxes of storage and repair shops which we already had, £43,000; reduced road transport, £10,000;reduction of storage and handling, £30,000. Then, again, you had the saving on the repair of the vehicles by being rapidly and efficiently repaired, more than 20 per cent., which saved 600,000 gallons of petrol and came to no less than £45,000. In addition to that there is the established value of spate parts retrieved instead of being scrapped, £200,000. Therefore you have a saving of over £300,000 a year against a total outlay of about £1,000,000. There are several other savings, which are not susceptible of estimate, to which I will not refer; but I might point out that the storage which was being put up at Slough was only 4 per cent, of the value of the material generally which would be stored there, and the expenditure on the repair shop was 7 per cent, of the vehicles which would be repaired. Therefore I contend that, leaving the military aspect of the question altogether aside, it was a sound business proposal—that is to say, the establishment of the scheme in the first instance; and for that my noble friend holds himself responsible.
The third point in the noble. Lord's Question is, What was the responsibility upon which the advice was taken to establish this depot? On the responsibility of the Director of Transport, who reported to my noble friend, Lord Inver forth; the Quartermaster-General, Sir John Cowans; the technical officers of the War Office; the independent committee appointed by 1038 Lord Inver forth; the sub-committee of the Mechanical Transport Board; the Finance Department of the War Office; the Director of Fortifications and Works; the Treasury; the War Cabinet; General Smuts; the House; of Commons Select Committee on National Expenditure—and in the face of all those authorities and exports we are asked to take the opinion of some self-elected amateurs on mechanical transport. I do not think that there is need for any committee to inquire, if the depot. were established on the authority of all those responsible whom I have quoted. Now, when the armistice came the firs-t thing my noble friend did was to investigate the state of the works at Slough, and he came to the conclusion—a very natural one—that to deal with a vast business arrangement such as this thee best person was not the Director of Fortifications and Works at the War Office. He therefore approved of placing the works in the hands of a great contractor who was accustomed to deal with things of this kind, and he did this in a very economical manner because the contractor, instead of being encouraged to incur great at expenditure by taking a percentage upon the value of the work done, agreed, from a patriotic point of view as much at; from anything else, to take after the work Lad been completed to the satisfaction of the Government a lump sum in return for his services.
Then my noble friend had also to consider the post-war position. The, post war position was this, that he found himself with 80,000 four-wheeled motor vehicles,45.000 of which were of British manufacture and 35,000 of American and other foreign manufacture. As he stated, it was computed that it would take two and three-quarter years to repair the British, and three years to repair the foreign; and that the difference in the disposal value of these vehicles, unrepaired as compared with repaired, would show a profit of £1,200,000. Then he viewed the question of storage also with reference to the future. Now, the Disposals Board are dealing with all surplus property belonging to the Government, and it is not yet decided by the Disposals Board whether they will sell these vehicles unrepaired or repaired. But in any case those vehicles have to be housed, and the amount of material returning from abroad and elsewhere is so enormous that it will require immense space to deal with it. It will be asked as regards the vehicles in the country, Where are they now?
1039 They are in dock warehouses, in railway warehouses, in large business premises, and the Minister of Reconstruction is now calling loudly for the vacation of all that space in order that he may carry out his plans with reference to the future national needs.
It is argued by some that we should cut our losses, If we try to cut our losses, the money is spent and the payments amount to £1,100,000; the saving by closing down would be about £250,000; therefore we should be at a dead loss of £850,000. Whereas by the expenditure of another £1,000,000 we should have a magnificent depot which would be able to deal with the whole of the mechanical transport of the country. My noble friend foreshadowed what in all probability would take place with reference to this matter in the future—namely, that there would be a centralisation of all the mechanical transport of the country, and that there would be no better plan than Slough. Furthermore, the Minister of Ways and Communications has in view a great transport service for the purpose of developing the agriculture of the country, and of improving the amenities of rural life generally. Here would be at Slough an admirable place for the concentration, the storing and repair, of all that transport.
Lastly, there is the Ministry of Supply, which when formed it is intended should become the buyer and the repairer of all transport material, and hold the central stores of the entire country. It will be asked, Why? Because all great business men are well aware that in matters of this kind an immense economy is effected, not only upon the transport but upon the labour, and upon a variety of costs, which are now borne by the various depots throughout the country. I think my noble friend also referred to the fact that in connection with the Army not only had we £50,000,000 worth of property of various kinds connected with mechanical transport, but immense quantities of clothing and other stocks in the possession of the War Office, and they must be stored somewhere. At present they are stored on an area of 2,500,000 square feet, which at 2s. per square foot works out at a cost of £250,000. There, will be an immense saving in that respect alone.
A Committee is asked for. I should like to know what would be the reference to that Committee, and whether it is to deal 1040 with this depot at Slough only, although I notice that two or three speakers opposite dealt with the national question generally. I am confining myself to this question of Slough, and if the Committee is going to inquire into Slough they will find that all the best authorities who dealt with this question came to the conclusion that there was no alternative but Slough. If they are going to inquire into the cost of the matter, I think the figures which I have given prove, up to the hilt that it would be false economy to scrap Slough. As regards the future, it is manifest that some large depot of this kind must be found; otherwise manufacturers and business men throughout the country in consequence of the congestion of dock and railway warehouses, and business places generally, will be placed in a most difficult position. Therefore I contend that no good case has been made out for a Select Committee. On the other hand, so far as my noble, friend is concerned, he welcomes a Committee of Inquiry, because so far as he is concerned—so far as concerns the inception of the scheme and what has taken place since the Aimistice—he is perfectly satisfied that he is on sound ground, and that a thorough investigation will do nothing but enhance his great business reputation.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES (VISCOUNT MILNER)
My Lords, the noble Lord opposite concluded his very powerful speech—a speech which dealt with a great deal more than the subject before the House to-night—with the argument that if we felt confident of the strength of our case we should welcome an inquiry. I do feel confident of the strength of our case. In the course of his speech he also made an appeal to me to give him any instance of economy that the Government had practised. I cannot give him an instance at this moment, but I will give him a promise, and that promise is that when all the operations of my noble friend behind me. since he has become Director-General of Supply come to be known, as they will be known, the country will be aware of the enormous sums that he has saved it. The noble Lord must take it from me that that information will be forthcoming in due course of time.
As regards economy, this scheme is, I believe, one which is destined to save the country a great deal of money, and I am fully prepared that the whole history of it, the reasons for it, the justification for it, 1041 and the reasons for continuing it when the war was over, should be fully examined. But I do not know that it is fair for your Lordships to come to-night to a decision which absolutely ignores one of the most fully and carefully prepared arguments which I have ever listened to, and which was put before your Lordships by Lord Inverforth. I fully admit, what was obvious to everybody who was in the House, that an argument which could only be understood if it was followed with most close attention was not heard by one-tenth of your Lordships. I do not believe that it was perfectly heard by a single member of the House, because I notice that two subsequent speakers made very strong points against the Government on subjects which had been definitely and precisely answered in the speech of the noble Lord. My proposal then is this: I think it is only fair that you should have time to consider the arguments of the noble Lord, and that we should adjourn the debate for a day or two for that purpose.
I think it is fair to him that that should be done. I think it is fair to a man of exceptional knowledge of this subject, of exceptional qualifications as a business man, that his case should be considered by your Lordships before you sweep the thing into the waste-paper basket because you have not heard it. What harm would there be in an adjournment? There is going to be a discussion of this subject to-morrow night in the House of Commons. The House of Commons may decide to appoint a Committee, and in that case I should think it very much better that there should be a Joint Committee of both Houses. If the House of Commons do not choose to appoint a Committee it is always open to this House, upon resuming the discussion, to appoint a Committee of its own; but I am not at all sure whether, on a fuller consideration of the case which has been put forward, though it has not been heard, this House would wish to go on and have a Committee of Inquiry into this particular matter.
This particular master is to be inquired into as a test of the Government's conduct of its business. Personally, if the Government is to be tried for its business capacity, for its pursuit of economy or its neglect of economy, if it is to be tried on that general 1042 count which my noble friend opposite brought against it, I should be very glad if this Slough depot were to be the crucial, the deciding case. I want more reflection given to this matter, and the case of the Government to be studied. If, at the end of that study, your Lordships are not satisfied and still want further inquiry by a Committee, I shall not, speaking for the Government, resist it. I would put it to the noble Lord opposite rather as he put it to me. If he is so convinced that further inquiry is necessary, he can have it if he likes. If he is so sure of the strength of his case I do not think he could wish to deprive noble Lords of the opportunity of thinking over the matter for forty-tight hours. My proposal is that we should put off this discussion until we see what the House of Commons have got to say—
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
—and until noble Lords have also had time to consider the case that is being put forward. I should the more welcome that because I do not think the further discussion of the matter at this hour will be very profitable. It is highly technical, and the House is rather weary; but, if this in to be the last word spoken about it in the House, I think it will be necessary for something more to be said on the part of the Government, which will consist largely in repeating arguments which have been already used here this afternoon, for they, unfortunately, did not reach many of your Lordships. I am very anxious that noble Lords should not think that I wish in any way to burke the full examination of this matter. I do not indeed, because I think we can make out a strong case about it I think we have made out a strong case, and I want you to consider that case before you decide whether inquiry is necessary or not.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that I do not intend to delay you for more than two minutes. There is no man in your Lordships' House whose wishes we would rather study, if our public duty permitted it, than the wishes of my noble friend the noble Viscount who has just sat down. He is a great personal and political friend of most of us, and we should have been only too delighted, if it were possible, to do so, to fall in with any advice he offered to your Lordships. But I am afraid that 1043 that is not possible. My noble friend says that we have not heard the case for the Government. Some of us did our best to hear it, and though, of course, I do not desire to press that point, I am quite aware that the art of public speaking, especially in your Lordships' House, which is not acoustically very favourable, does require rather a powerful voice. Perhaps the attitude of a noble Lord whose head is bent forward while he is speaking makes it a little more difficult for us to hear. We are not surprised that that should have happened. But, after all, in a Parliamentary assembly the Government must stand by the case which they make out, and, if it had been possible, there were any number of your Lordships, practised speakers, sitting or. that bench who could have risen and enforced the more important points of the noble Lord's statement. No, my Lords, this is not a case of desiring to condemn the Government. We do not want to condemn anybody. What we want to do is to ascertain the truth.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My noble friend says most candidly that he is not afraid of the truth. Very well, let the truth come out then. If this case of Cippenham stood alone we might listen to the charming of the noble Viscount, but we know it is only one of many cases. We know that, unless some effort is made to stop this vast expenditure and to check the extravagance of the Departments, we are in danger of that awful catastrophe which was pointed out with such force yesterday. Therefore, your Lordships' House can only do its duty. Your Lordships can have an investigation, and I think your Lordships are determined to have an investigation. "We would much rather, of course, be joined with the House of Commons in holding it.
The noble Viscount says, "Why not wait to find out what the House of Commons is going to do?" There will be nothing to prevent the House of Commons joining us in the investigation when we have appointed our Committee to-night. If the House of Commons do us the honour—it will be a great honour—to join with us in the investigation, then your Lordships will be only too delighted to vary the terms of their Order, or to add to it in such a way as to make the Committee a Joint Committee of the two Houses instead of a Com- 1044 mittee of one House. That can be done at any time. For the moment we have one single duty before us. We have had laid before us a case of what is apparently gross extravagance. We are the trustees of the country. We are bound to see that a proper investigation takes place, and we ask your Lordships to support us in that endeavour.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
Very well, then. Am I at liberty to speak? I certainly want to speak in that case, if the House will listen to me. I am told that there has been a case of gross extravagance put before us, and the noble Marquess seems to conclude that the case has been already established. I take an entirely opposite view.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I said the case which was laid before us was one of gross extravagance. So it is.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
Very well; we must go on discussing it. I regret the necessity of having to go over a great deal of ground again—
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
—but I have no option. I cannot allow the thing to go by default. To the noble Lord who introduced this debate to-night I must apologise for the defects of my own statement, because, being aware of the case which was going to be put before your Lordships, I did not come down here prepared to make the case of the Government myself. I am sufficiently acquainted with the matter to follow most of the points which have been raised, and in the circumstances I am bound to do so.
The noble Lord who introduced the Motion made a great deal of play with the loss to agriculture which arose from taking these six hundred acres at Cippenham. There is no one in this House, or out of it, to whom that consideration would appeal more strongly than it does to myself. I have constantly here been, perhaps, one of the most extreme advocates of what -may be called the policy of agricultural production. I remember myself, at the time when this matter was first raised, taking the point in the Cabinet whether some other site could not be found to save these particularly valuable acres. And the point was present to the mind of the Cabinet. The matter was 1045 thoroughly considered from that point of view. One of the most extraordinary arguments I have heard to-night is that of the noble Viscount opposite, who said he was making a fight for the re-establishment of Cabinet Government. At every stage of these proceedings the whole Government has been involved, lie seemed to think that the noble Lord behind me had run away with the Government, and had simply carried out this scheme dragging a reluctant Government after him. Over and over again in the history of this matter the thing has been thrashed out by Committees of various sorts with the knowledge of the Cabinet, and in this case there was actually an inquiry as to the site at the instance of the Government by a Committee specially appointed, with a member of the Cabinet in the chair. It was only after that Committee had reported that it could not find a better site that the objection to this particular site was waived by the Government as a whole, and the noble Lord, who is supposed to have run away with the Government in this matter, was perfectly innocent of that decision. I do not think he even appeared before the Committee.
Objection is taken to the fact that the member of the Cabinet to whom the Cabinet as a whole entrusted this inquiry was General Smuts. He did not himself decide in favour of the Cippenham site. He only presided at the Committee which collected the evidence for the Cippenham site, and I cannot conceive on what his discharge of that duty could be objected to. He was perfectly competent, and an absolutely impartial man in the case, and he simply took the chair at the Committee as other members of the Cabinet constantly took the chair at other Committees of investigation. It seems to me that he was, in some ways, a particularly good man to put into that position He was absolutely impartial in the matter, and wholly uninterested except to arrive at the best conclusion on a point of public interest. So much for the question of site.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
On that point may I ask the noble Viscount a question? Here is a direct conflict of evidence. The noble Viscount said that General Smuts's Committee had control. I challenged the noble Lord as to whether or not the Food Committee were against him or supported him. The noble Viscount nodded his head, 1046 indicating that he had consulted them and that they were with him. I am told that before General Smuts the Food department absolutely succeeded in overthrowing, the noble Viscount, and that General Smuts's Committee supported them.
—reported in; favour of this site. They had evidence and among the people who appeared before them were representatives of the Agricultural Department. They heard evidence and they decided in that way.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
I am extremely sorry to keep your Lordships at this late hour, but I have a good deal to say. I apologise that I am speaking without adequate preparation, but I am speaking about a case which I know, and you will have to listen to me. A great deal has been said about economy, and the Government has been violently attacked on the ground that it makes no effort at economising. The whole basis of this undertaking was the conviction, which we still hold, that it was going to save a large; amount of public money. That is the root and the starting point of the whole thing. One would think that all these attacks upon the Slough depot had been new discoveries. From the very first moment that this scheme was mooted it has been the object of the most fierce attacks both in Parliament and in the Press. A continual fire of criticism has been directed against it. After it had been subjected to this fire of criticism for a long time the Select Committee on National Expenditure, under Mr. Herbert Samuel—a very criticial Committee which condemned, and I dare say-rightly, a great deal of public expenditure—having gone into this matter, reported that the case for the depôt had been fully made out. The attack which has been made upon this scheme to-night is flogging-a dead horse, discussing a res judicata This critical Committee was satisfied that the waste resulting from the dispersion, of these motor vehicles and spare parts-was such that it was absolutely necessary-there should be this central depot, and up 1047 to that point the action of the Government, I maintain, was perfectly justified. I was Secictary of State for War at that time, and if, with that Report before me, I had not gone on with the work I should have been guilty of an absolute breach in the discharge of my public duty.
There is one other point to which I want to call your Lordships' attention, because it greatly impressed me at the time. The Committee reported—It appears to us that the case for the depot has been fully made out. The criticism that may properly be made is, that much waste would have been avoided had the repair workshop been established long agoWith that decision of the Committee before me, the decision that the case had been fully made out, and with the warning of the loss which the country had sustained by the delay in creating it and the loss which was actually being sustained every day, I naturally was anxious to press on with it as hard as I could. It is perfectly true that the Committee also say that the work was on a scale—I do not remember the exact words, but this is their substance—which they would not have recommended undertaking except for war purposes.
Now we come to the really critical point—the only point where I think there is room for reasonable doubt as to whether the action of the Government was right or wrong. Here I must take the responsibility, because I considered the matter very carefully at that time. I do not think that up to the point which I am now discussing I had any option. Here had this thing been fiercely attacked in the Press and in the House of Commons. It was most carefully considered by the most critical Committee that has ever sat, and they reported that the case had been made out. There was nothing for it then but to go on. Now I come to the point where a reasonable doubt may exist and does exist. I will tell your Lordships my reasons for the decision to which I came. The doubt arises at the date when the war, having come to an end—or apparently having come to an end, the armistice laving been declared—"the question arose whether we should still go on with the Undertaking. The Committee to which I have referred had reported in favour of a scheme on a greater scale than would be justified except for war purposes. Were we to go on with it or not? One of the 1048 things which the Committee had originally recommended was that we should review the size and scale of this undertaking. We did review it, and the work which was gone on with after the armistice was materially different and in many respects reduced from the original enterprise. The repair shops were cut down to some extent, and, much more than that, the storage houses, of which five were originally contemplated, were curtailed for the time being to only one. I believe we shall find that that is too little, but at any rate we did review and therefore did exactly what the Committee told us to do. We reviewed the whole enterprise in view of the altered circumstances. You may say, "Yes, you cut it down; you took account of the altered circumstances; but ought you not to have scrapped it altogether?"
It is easy to say that repair shops and storage houses which are necessary for the motor vehicles for the transport of an Army of 5,000,000 must be enormously too big when you come down to an Army at most of 500,000. That is apparently a very good argument, but it really is not a sound argument under the circumstances. What were we to do with our 80,000 vehicles that wanted repairing? The noble Viscount says, "The trade would have been willing to do the repairs of them" The trade were perfectly incapable of doing it. They were incapable of repairing more than half, and it would have taken them two and three-quarter years to do that, and what were we going to do with the other half—40,000 transport vehicles representing an enormous amount of public money and for which we are going to get, if we have proper care of them, good prices? They could not have been repaired at all, but if they had been they would have had to be repaired on the wasteful, scattered system which had been the reason for adopting in the first instance the plan of the central depot which had been entirely approved by the Committee. Every argument which existed at the time when this Committee on National Expenditure went into the matter and said the case had been made out applied equally as long as you had this enormous mass of motor vehicles of great value which you had not any proper means of repairing except the establishment which we are in process of creating.
A very careful investigation was made. I really am totally unable to admit, what has been constantly said in this debate, 1049 that we have proceeded in this matter in a careless way, throwing away public money. There is no single subject that has been examined and re-examined and examined over and over again like this. It has been debated over and over again by the Army Council with all the expert evidence that it could get. Outside experts, not members of the War Office staff, were called in, to inquire into this question of the saving which would probably be effected by having the means of repairing these vehicles which, the trade was not able to repair. I am not now talking of the whole 80,000. I am referring to the half which the British manufacturers were unable to repair even in the two and three-quarter years that we were prepared to allow. This calculation was made, and what was the result? It is stated in one of the Reports of the Committee, and this is the latest Report and not the Report from which I formerly quoted—It is clear that accommodation it necessary for the storage of vehicles and spare parts belonging to the Government which have a value of many millions, and which, if not properly stored, will rapidly deteriorate."Why don't you sell the spare parts to the trade?" says the noble Lord. What would have become of our vehicles if we had sold all our spare parts?
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
They say they can. I am sorry to interrupt the noble Viscount, but the evidence that I have before me shows that they are able to deal with 20,000 a year at the very least.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
There are 80,000 to deal with. The question of the numbers, indeed, is here in the Report of your own Committee—It is clear that accommodation is necessary for the storage of vehicles and the spare parts belonging to the Government, which have a value of many millions, and which, if not properly stored, will rapidly deteriorate. There is a very large number of motor vehicles at home and in foreign theatres of war which need attention—52,130 lorries, 28,590 cars and 33,000 motor cycles.The trade, according to the noble Viscount's own statement, could deal with 20,000 a 1050 year; we had nearly 100,000 to deal with. Well, everybody is fallible, and we may have made a great mistake. I do not deny that, but it is not such a simple matter of carelessness and throwing away public money as it has been represented to be here to-night. I am bound to say I am still as convinced as ever I was that we were right to go on then.
The noble Lord who made such a powerful speech against us said he should have-felt easier in his mind if the noble Lord behind me had not represented the whole-thing as so perfect, had not made out so-good a case. Well. I will gratify him. I am going to make a full and free confession of. mistakes which have occurred in this matter, and for that purpose I am afraid I must go back a little in my history. You must forgive me if the order of my discourse is not perfect, because I am speaking absolutely without preparation and simply from my knowledge of the case. When this momentous decision to go on-with the work after the conclusion of the war, for which I must hold myself responsible, was taken, the construction had been carried on for some time directly by the War Office, and during those months, that is to say, between June and November, when the. War Office was directly responsible for the work, I think I am bound to confess that it did not progress as fast as it ought to have done, and that we had the disaster to which my noble friend Lord Desborough referred—the deplorable disaster in which a large shed fell down and there was a certain amount of injury and loss of life. That is perfectly true. It does not condemn our scheme, it docs not condemn our policy that in the execution of it some regrettable mistakes were made. They were made, and that was the reason why, when the decision to go on with the work was taken in No member I also decided to transfer it from the War Office to a contractor. I think the noble Lord who initiated the debate called in question the-statement of the contractor that no accident had occurred there. It is fair to the contractors to point out that they might have been, for all I know, perfectly ignorant of the accident which happened a considerable time before they took over the work. They took it over in November.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
I am not accusing them of bad faith, but they said that at no time had there been any such, accident.
§ VISCOUNT MILNER
That was a clear mistake. It is a fact that there was this accident. It is also a fact, as I have freely admitted, that the work was carried on rather slowly during the months from June to November by the War Office. I think considerable allowance must be made for the War Office. I am bound, in fairness to the officers of the Department who were in charge of the work to say that I think considerable allowance must be made for them, because, of course, it was the very worst time as far as labour was concerned. It was that period of the war when there was the greatest strain on the labour market, when almost every able-bodied man in the country was being pulled out. It was therefore a very unfavourable time, when there was great pressure on the labour market for every Government work, especially for aerodromes, and the competition was very unfavorable to the work at Slough, and we suffered very much in consequence. I think these allowances must be made. And at the same time during this period, as your Lordships will perfectly well remember, there was a great rise of prices and a consequent huge increase of wages all round, and therefore the work was not only delayed, and in some respect less efficient than it ought to have been, but it was also more costly.
At the time when the decision was taken to go on with the work under altered conditions in November I had to take account of the fact that, owing to all these circumstances, the expenditure already incurred had been larger than that which was originally contemplated. Altogether, from first to last, it is fair to say that this enterprise is going to cost appreciably more than the original estimate—I dare say 50 or 60 per cent. more. That is regrettable, but it does not alter my view of the policy, nor does it alter my conviction that even with this greatly increased expenditure the "Slough scandal" is going to result in the saving of millions of public money.
After this digression let me come back to the consideration which weighed with me in taking the decision of November to go on with the work, even after the conclusion of the armistice. I have got before me the passage from the Report of the Committee which I have already read, and "which stated that there was Government property to the value of many millions which, if not properly stored, would rapidly deteriorate. The Committee also sad that 1052 an estimate had been furnished by the War Office which showed that when all costs for labour, materials, establishment charges, and interest were included and the capital expenditure of £1,000,000 written down to £250,000 at the end of three years, there would be a net profit on the undertaking of £1,233,000. The Committee took no responsibility for that estimate. They recommended that the estimate referred to in this paragraph should be at once subjected to independent expert examination. When they made that recommendation they thought it was a War Office estimate. As a matter of fact, it had been made by professional and business men entirely outside the War Office; and it was with that estimate of the saving to be effected by continuing the work after the war was over which largely contributed towards inducing us to go on with it.
The fact that we called in a contractor has been subjected to criticism, as have also the terms of the contract. I cannot imagine that we could have got more favorable terms than those—that the work was to be conducted under supervision, that the whole expenditure and the books should be subjected to inspection, with a right to us to stop the work at any moment at any stage without compensation, and that the remuneration of the contractor should not be so much on the expenditure but a lump sum to be fixed by an outside authority of unquestionable impartiality, Lord Clown. I really cannot imagine any fair criticism which can be directed against those conditions. May I say that at this stage the thing passed from my personal cognizance, but from all I can learn the work is being carried on now with great efficiency and certainly with increased speed. Getting on quickly is a matter of enormous importance, because one of the main reasons for the whole thing is to stop the deterioration in most valuable material which is due to repairs being unduly delayed. The buildings, I understand, are to some extent available even now, and they will be completely ready by September.
When this work is finished we shall be in a position to deal under the most favourable conditions with the enormous mass of mechanical transport which was left on our hands at the end of the war. We shall not, to the best of my belief, find ourselves with 1053 anything in the way of surplus in the repair shops. It may be that we shall find ourselves short on the present plan in respect of storage. For it is possible—this is a very important consideration which has to be borne in mind—that the mechanical transport which is surplus to the requirements of a reduced Army will not to a great extent be surplus to the requirements of the Government; because in the general transportation scheme of the Government the use of a large number of these Government lorries for transportation, especially of agricultural produce, is in contemplation. But whether that be so or not, whether the amount of mechanical transport ultimately retained by the Government be greater or less, the saving on the repairs of the vast quantity of this transport—whether it remains in our hands or is brought to market—will, I am convinced, fully justify the expenditure which has been incurred on Slough, even taking into account the fact that we have had everything against us in the way of high cost of labor and high prices, and even making allowance for any shortcomings there may have been during the time when the work was (for the reasons I have stated) being less efficiently carried out than it is at the present time.
The noble Viscount (Lord Peel) reminds me that as far as the question of wages is concerned, the wages have been those which by law had to be paid under the fair wages clause; and under the Statute, I think it is, which at present regulates these wages we could not do otherwise, than pay them. I am sorry to have trespassed upon your Lordships, time for so long, but, Committee of Inquiry or no Committee of Inquiry, I could not allow this debate to close without some statement in reply to the very grave charges of mismanagement and waste which have been brought against the Government, and which, as far as this case is concerned, I believe are entirely unjustified, as an investigation (if your Lordships decide on undertaking the investigation, to which I do not object) will show.
§ On Question, Motion—That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the conditions under which the Government works at Cippenham, near Slough, are being carried out, the cost that is involved, and the responsibility for the advice on which the scheme was undertaken—agreed to.