HL Deb 10 July 1951 vol 172 cc738-51

4.0 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree that the circumstances which have necessitated introduction of this short Bill, which comes to us from another place, have already been well ventilated. A White Paper of docurnents has been issued setting forth in considerable detail what my right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal described as the "sad story" which lies behind it and which there has been no attempt to conceal. The utmost trouble has been taken to have all the facts independently investigated and made publicly available. It is frankly admitted that mistakes have been made, and the most energetic steps have been taken to put things right. For these reasons I will not weary your Lordships with a long speech but will try to put the matter in perspective as briefly and as fairly as I can.

During 1945–46, in response to public demands, preparations to celebrate the centenary of the Exhibition of 1851 were considered by the Government. Many Possible sites were examined but, as it was doubtful whether the necessary resources could be found, the project of another great International Exhibition had to he abandoned— perhaps it would he more accurate if I said replaced by the entirely novel and ingenious project of a Festival of Britain, which is now being carried out with a large measure of success.

This change of plans took time, but by May, 1948, a national all-Party body and a new Government office had already been constituted and given three years to prepare and execute the scheme. Unfortunately it took about another six months to select and obtain the site for the South Bank Exhibition and to prepare an outline plan for it. I shall be surprised if those of your Lordships who have been concerned with immense negotiations and preparations consider that rate of progress dilatory; yet it was only at that stage that the council were able to gauge what type and scale of pleasure gardens would be necessary to complement the South Bank Exhibition and to relieve the overcrowding which would otherwise have been felt in central London this summer. Had it been possible to find room on the South Bank site, and had transport and traffic considerations allowed, the Fun Fair and Pleasure Gardens would naturally have been combined with the main Exhibition; but it was not possible.

By the choice of Battersea Park, with its direct water-bus communications to the South Bank, the Festival authorities have, by general consent, achieved an imaginative and wholly successful solution of a problem that many believed impossible of solution: how to accommodate throughout the summer in central London vast crowds, sometimes exceeding 150,000 a day, without paralysing the ordinary life of the Metropolis. Events have shown that the choice of Battersea Park as the complement of the South Bank was right; but, as many of your Lordships know, diverting to other purposes a large part of a public park is no light matter, and quite naturally several more precious months went by in negotiation and discussion before the scheme could be got into a shape acceptable to the local authorities and the numerous other interests concerned.

Through no fault of their own, therefore, the directors of Festival Gardens Limited (who included two members of your Lordships' House) started with the extremely difficult task of getting the gardens open within a tight time-table. I should think that the fear uppermost in the minds of those concerned was that the gardens might prove a "flop" from the standpoint of attracting the British public. Nothing of this sort had been attempted in this country before, and it was far from certain, as it always is in the entertainment industry, that the public interest could be gauged and satisfied and that people would be willing to find their way to Battersea in the necessary numbers.

It is easy to be wise after the event, and we know now that the directors, managers and designers of the company have brilliantly solved that problem, which makes us wonder why, having acquitted themselves so well in the more difficult part of their task, they could not also have guarded against certain weaknesses and errors which have been brought out in the reports of the independent chartered accountants and which seem, by comparison, elementary. Undoubtedly, they were most unlucky in the extremely wet weather which persisted almost continuously from last July until this May and which reduced the low-lying site of the gardens to a condition in which work was chronically interrupted and was made enormously more difficult and expensive than would otherwise have been the case. It was not only the rain and the waterlogging, but the disruption of time and progress schedules and the resulting demoralisation. This demoralisation was powerfully assisted by skilful Communist agitation on the site among the less experienced and more gullible labourers, as distinct from many of the craftsmen and the more mature men who did a fine job of work in difficult circumstances.

The Government, having entrusted the Festival Pleasure Gardens to a company, naturally did not seek to interfere with the way the company did the job, and were, therefore, not apprised until a late stage of the seriousness of the financial situation into which the management of the company was running. Immediately this situation became clear, changes were made in the top management, which is now working, at a satisfactory level of efficiency and is, in fact, earning week by week a very substantial balance of revenue over outgoings. I would add only one other point. From time to time suggestions have been made of scandals in connection with the finances of the company. The independent chartered accountants, whose reports are published in the White Paper, have found absolutely nothing to suggest that the management of the company or of any of the professional or the contracting firms engaged have knowingly been parties to any irregularities which may have taken place at a lower level. Everything humanly possible has been done to seek out irregularities and to lay the facts before the police. None of those who have circulated such allegations have, however, yet been able to provide the police, any more than the company has, with any information on which any legal action can be taken. It is only fair to those who have borne the responsibility of preparing and executing this well-conceived and successful project that should make it clear that not a tittle of evidence which can be produced in a court of law has so far emerged from all the vigorous inquiries which have been prosecuted by my right honourable friend. the Lord Privy Seal, by the Board of the Company itself, by the two firms of independent chartered accountants and by the Metropolitan Police. Few businesses have been more searchingly probed than Festival Gardens Limited, and while I freely admit that there have been shortcomings in the preparation and construction work, I would ask your Lordships to look at the documents included in the White Paper and the story as a whole in the light of what I have said.

The Bill authorises the Government, with retrospective effect from March 20 last, to lend the Festival Gardens Limited £1,000,000, in addition to the loan of £570,000 previously made under the Festival of Britain (Supplementary Provisions) Act, 1949. This loan is necessary to enable the Government to reimburse the Civil Contingencies Fund, which had to be drawn upon in order to save the company from having to stop work on the gardens a few weeks before the opening day—with financial and other consequences which no responsible Government could have accepted. My right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal has undertaken that he will not give the company any more additional money than is strictly necessary, and, as I have said, the company is now well managed and is making a large margin of revenue over and above all its current expenses. I beg to move that the Bill he read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a.—(Lord Morrison.)

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morrison, has such a deserved reputation for candour and persuasiveness that I have no doubt he will shortly secure the Second Reading of this Bill by general consent. Certainly no one on this side would seek to oppose it. But I cannot but feel, from the short account he has given, that his brief must have been prepared by Festival Gardens Limited, for, so far as I have noticed, he has not called any specific attention to the White Paper Documents Relating to Festival Gardens Limited, which contains some extremely disturbing matter compiled by chartered accountants whose independence in the matter the noble Lord recognises and we should all accept. Though, of course, there is no question of resisting the Bill, in my opinion it is only right to call auention to two or three of the matters recorded in that. White Paper. This measure has beer. certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as a Money Bill and, consequently, there is nothiag this House car. do but pass it—and, indeed, I am sure there is no noble Lord who is not perfectly willing to pass it— and who recognises that it must be passed, because the Bill deals simply with the serious miscalculation of the cost to be incurred.

The Festival bids fair to be a success. as we all rejoice to know, and the Festival has to be paid for. I had the good fortune to go to the Festival Gardens last night and I enjoyed myself very much. I found a great deal there that is attractive and amusing, and I think that many people of all ages will greatly enjoy paying visits there. I did not see as many people there as I expected, but perhaps that was because it was not a very attractive night. But that is not the point. The point is that the cost has to be met, and it turns out to be vastly in excess of what was originally estimated. The legislative history of the Festival is a little curious. This is the sixth Bill which has been brought before us dealing with the Festival of Britain. I do not think that anybody who examines this White Paper can doubt that the circumstances which make the present Bill necessary are both surprising and regrettable. It is a story of miscalculation, followed by improvisation, which with all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Morrison, does not do any particular credit to this Government of planners. Here are the four or five facts which anyone who cares to read it can extract from this document.

The project of the Festival of Britain, to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was a success and, indeed, yielded a large profit, was announced to Parliament by Mr. Morrison as long ago as December, 1947. As he stated at a later date, and I think as the noble Lord implies now, right from the beginning it was intended to have an amusement park, a fun fair. That is the first fact. Yet it was not until November, 1949, practically two years later, that mention was made to Parliament of a scheme for the Pleasure Gardens. when the Festival of Britain (Supplementary Provisions) Bill was introduced, authorising the development of a part of Battersea Park as a Pleasure Garden. I appreciate that the matter needed great consideration, but I find it difficult to believe that when the authorities were preparing for a date which could not be altered—namely, 1951—it was right to spend two years in these mature reflections before the locality for this pleasure park was decided. A company was to be formed for the purpose of carrying out the scheme—a company of which, I may observe, all the directors were appointed by the Government. When appointed, the company was rightly left to manage itself, but the preliminary work, which the gentlemen who make the report in the White Paper do not regard as at all satisfactory, was the responsibility of the Government. The Act authorised the Treasury to grant £570,000 to the company (the Act called it a loan), while the London County Council might advance another £200,000. The total construction cost was stated by Mr. Morrison at that time to be estimated at £800,000.

Here I should like, in a most friendly way, to put a question to the noble Lord, Lord Morrison. I noticed in the White Paper that the chartered accountant, who has printed in an Appendix the terms of the loan agreement of November 24, 1950, makes a comment on one of its clauses. The loan agreement between the Lord President of the Council, the London County Council and Festival Gardens Limited. provides for these advances. Clause 10 says this: All moneys advanced to the Company by the Lord President and the Council under the terms of this Agreement shall be repaid by the Company within the period of five years from the date hereof"— that is to say, shall be repaid five years from November 24, 1950. When I turn to page 6 I notice in the middle of the page this comment by the chartered accountant: Clause 10 is, and probably always has been, impossible to carry out. It is unusual to form a loan agreement with a company, advancing them very large sums of money, to insert a clause requiring the money to be repaid in five years by the company, and to find that when an impartial and skilled person looks at the matter a little later he should have to report that a particular provision is, and probably always has been, impossible to carry out. The question I wish to put to the noble Lord is this: Now that we are going to advance another £1,000,000 to the company, are we to understand that it is the intention and prospect of the Government that that amount shall be repaid? Is that also a loan? Or is that, in the light of the experience exhibited in this White Paper, also something which it will be found "impossible to carry out"? It is not for us in this House to be primarily concerned about how public money is used, but I confess that I should like to know, as we are now to authorise this considerable further expenditure, whether it is a grant, a gift, or whether it is a loan which it is seriously expected will be repaid.

The next thing that happened in this history (I am confining myself to the bald facts) is that four months after Mr. Morrison had estimated and announced that the total construction would cost £800,000, the estimate of expenditure had risen to £1,168,000—that figure can be found on page 13 of the White Paper. That striking increase had taken place before any contract had been made, and before a single sod had been cut. If we were dealing with ordinary affairs of business, between people accustomed to carrying on business, I feel sure that they would find that variation in the estimate a little surprising. The next point is that in November last a revised estimate was sent to Mr. Morrison (that also is on page 13 of this document), and by that time the figure of expenditure was estimated at £1,600.000, twice what had been quoted as the estimated figure at the time when the Bill was passed.

I heard the noble Lord opposite just now explain that the Government, having just set up this company, could not be expected to be following closely its financial difficulties; and I think he said that the Government were not apprised of the increasing financial anxieties which were surrounding this enterprise. Is that quite so? I notice that the date when the estimate of £1,600,000 was furnished to Mr. Morrison was November, 1950. But Mr. Morrison never disclosed that fact to Parliament until March of this year. I cannot help thinking that, wherever the blame may lie, this most unpleasant fact was known to the Government, and to the particular member of the Government who was the Lord of the Festival, for a considerable time before Parliament was informed.

Then we come to March of this year, when Mr. Morrison revealed that the rate of expenditure which was being incurred in this project had gone up alarmingly. He said that on the revised figures available the total expenditure would be approximately £2,500,000, and that on that figure the loss of operation for six months only—if the venture ran for six months—might amount to as much as £1,500,000. He added, I think very naturally, that he was very cross about it —and I am sure that he would be. It so happened that that was just the moment when he handed over responsibility for the Festival to Mr. Stokes. Mr. Stokes, who has the qualification for being an extremely good businessman, at once instituted an investigation by two firms of chartered accountants, whose reports are contained in this White Paper, into the finances of the matter.

It is true, as the noble Lord said just now, that it is easy to be wise after the event. It is much easier to read these documents, and make comments on them, than to feel that one was qualified to see these difficulties in advance—I make no exaggerated claim at all—but these reports make very sorry reading. It appears that when the contractors began work in Battersea, only in April of last year, nothing existed but a general layout plan which had been prepared, and only a very limited part of the site was available. I know enough about this kind of thing, from the days when I was concerned with litigation,to know that the very first requirement of a contractor who has to do an elaborate piece of work on a site and to have it finished by a particular time, is to have the site handed over to him ready at the right time. That never happened at all. I should like to read a short passage from Mr. Butler's report. He is the first chartered accountant who reported, and he says this: … and I cannot but think that the period between July, 1949, and April, 1950, might have been used to better advantage. Had a definite plan been available and the main buildings architected by the spring of 1950, the site work could have been completed during the summer weather and subsequent difficulties largely avoided. Nobody who has had any experience, practical or professional, with this kind of work will doubt that it makes all the difference whether such work has to be done in the summer or in the winter months.

Battersea—a part of London in which I lived when I first came here: and I rather think that Battersea Park was originally an island in the Thames—is a low-lying, place. The great trouble connected with this business has been created by mud and swamp, aided, I agree, by an unusually heavy fall of rain. What was so unfortunate was that you could not say: "Very well, then, we will declare that we are 100 years from the Great Exhibition of 1851 when we reach 1953." Unfortunately, the date at which the Festival was to be ready was settled beforehand. One can well understand what a difficulty Festival Gardens Limited found themselves in, and how, in an effort to make up for lost time, they were driven to accept uneconomic and wasteful methods of work—which I will not delay the House by illustrating from the pages of these documents. Everybody knows that once you have to apply extra pressure, to make impromptu arrangements and to rush a thing faster than it can properly be done, the speed at which the expense mounts may be terrible.

There are two passages in Mr. Butler's Report which contain very disturbing comments. The first one refers directly to what must he regarded as the responsibility of the Government. He says this, again on the first page: …the conception and organisation of the Board itself was unsatisfactory. Festival Gardens Limited is and always was a company with a complex and difficult job to get done by a certain date. The organisation of such a company would normally include a director responsible for construction, a director responsible for operation, a director responsible for finance, a managing director to co-ordinate their work, and such part-time directors as may be desirable for particular purposes. In this case thirteen unpaid advisory directors were appointed, all of whom were busy men in other directions and none of whom was specifically asked to undertake particular responsibilities. It was not until a very late date that a managing director was appointed at all. All that seems to me to be very unfortunate. Let us, at any rate, bear it in mind if this kind of venture has to be undertaken again. The other matter, to which I am glad the noble Lord referred, has to do with irregularities of a different kind. At the top of page 3 Mr. Butler's report says that one of the reasons which caused financial commitments to be greatly in excess of the amount estimated was: The exceptionally low labour output"— the very low proportion between what is done and the number of people who are supposed to be employed and are, in fact, paid— which has resulted from adverse working conditions, the excessively rapid expansion of the labour force and the desire to avoid strikes. In this connection I have noted that there is a general concensus of opinion that certain influences have definitely sought to foment discontent at the site. Of course, that is not the fault of the Government, except in the sense that they must know that when a project must be carried through in a great hurry, if there are influences of that sort at work they have a very favourable field on which to play.

I am extremely glad that the noble Lord has already reported that Messrs. Peat, Marwick, Mitchell and Co., the accountants, say that they have seen no evidence at all to suggest that managements of any of the contracting firms or the professional firms engaged on any contract have knowingly been parties to any irregularities which may have taken place at a lower level. But is the noble Lord quite right when he suggested just now that it is for people outside to bring forward accusations of irregularities at the lower level? I understand that the suggestion is that a good many people have been drawing their day's pay without doing their day's work. They have clocked-in and got away with their money without doing the work for which they were being paid. That, surely, is not a matter upon which the outside public can be challenged to bring their accusations. I believe that the police have been doing their utmost to investigate this matter for some months. I know nothing about it, but I should have thought that the people who would be best able to help would be the people who keep the records and who have an opportunity of informing the authorities whether the work which was done was really the work which would have been done if everybody who was paid had done his day's work. At any rate, it is not a very pleasing feature, and, of course, the Government would be most anxious to clear it up if they could. I should like the noble Lord in his reply to be so kind as to inform me whether these inquiries are still going on, and whether, up to the present, there is any certainty, one way or the other, as to what has happened in that regard. I am not for a moment suggesting—indeed, nobody would—any accusation against the persons who are responsible at the top.

It is a bad story, and I do not think anyone can deny it. It has really provided only one bright spot—and with this I will conclude: indeed, the rules of order here, such as they are, would not allow me to refer to it save in a phrase. As a rule, Parliamentary debates do not make enthralling reading, but if anything could make Hansard a best seller it would be a speech which was made on June 25 in another place. Even the most thrilling Parliamentary oratory is rather like champagne—full of fizz when it is first opened, but very flat and insipid when it has been too long exposed, but the speech of Mr. Harold Macmillan on that day gave me—and I am rather interested in Parliamentary speaking—more pleasure than anything I have read for a very long time. I would commend to noble Lords, as a piece of bedside reading, the passages in which he put this particular muddle of the Government in its true relation to other and greater performances of the same kind: A little gem of mismanagement; a cameo of incompetence, this perfect little miniature of muddle, which will long hold a treasured place in the esteem of all true connoisseurs or collectors. We can all afford to laugh at that because it is so well said. But, for the rest, I am sure that we shall desire the Bill to be carried into law and for the additional money (which has necessarily to be found) to be paid—and, let us hope, in due course to be repaid by the company to which it is lent.


My Lords, may I reply briefly to the noble and learned Viscount—because I am sure he does not want us to continue this discussion indefinitely, as we might well do—with regard to his last point? I am afraid I am not able just now to say anything further about the irregularities to which I referred and upon which he commented, because police inquiries are continuing. The noble Viscount knows that in those circumstances I cannot make any further reference to the matter. When all is said and done, and this debate is read, I think it will be found that there is not much difference between the noble Viscount and myself. In fact, our expressions were almost identical. May I summarise what he has been telling the House? He said that it is a sorry story and very unfortunate. I said that it was a sad story, and, of course, I am not surprised at the criticisms he has made. But he started in a very charming way, and I found that he and I were at one on a number of points. First, he started by reminding your Lordships that he could not say anything about it, as this was certified as a Money Bill. Secondly, I was delighted to hear that he had been to the Festival himself and had thoroughly enjoyed himself at the Gardens. I had the same experience. I decided to go not as a member of the House of Lords. My wife and I went by bus to the Festival, and we did not in fact tell anybody that I was a member of the House of Lords. I may say we thoroughly enjoyed being at the Festival.

The noble Viscount will be interested to know that since it was opened some 3,000,000 persons have paid for admission. He will also, I think, be interested to know that, so far as my information goes, about 25 per cent. of that 3,000,000 have entered the Festival Gardens by way of the Pier—that is to say, they have made their way by water. I think that is a very interesting point.

Many of your Lordships, I believe, have not yet visited the Festival Gardens. I hope that you will be advised by the noble Viscount and myself, and go as soon as possible. It would do you good to spend a day there and see for yourselves what it is like. The noble Viscount will agree that if, like himself and myself, you are too old to venture on the thrill of the "Big Dipper" the Festival Gardens and the water effects are very lovely. I do not know whether the noble Viscount took a ride on the "Great Tottering Railway," operated by an engine of a weird and wonderful kind called "Nellie," which is more comical than any Heath Robinson contraption that I have ever seen. It would do your hearts good to spend a little time there; and if it did not cure any despondency you may be feeling I do not know what would.

If I may now say a word about the future, there is nothing in the present Bill which alters the effect of the 1949 Act as regards the date of the closing of the Gardens. Any continuation after November 3, 1951, will require special legislation. The Government believe, and I hope your Lordships will agree, that if it becomes abundantly clear that there is a public desire for the Pleasure Gardens to continue—and some noble Lords may remember that when I was moving the Second Reading in 1949 the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin spoke strongly in favour of something of the kind as a permanent feature of London life, on the lines of similar gardens in Copenhagen—arrangements should be made accordingly. In that event, there is every prospect that the admittedly unduly large amount of money which they have cost will be recovered. I said when I spoke before that the amount of revenue that is being made from the Pleasure Gardens at present is very considerable. I can only add that the opinion of the local authorities involved is being sought, and I hope that it may be possible for us, before your Lordships' House rises for the Summer Recess, to make an announcement as to whether the Gardens shall remain open.

The main question which the noble Viscount directed to me was whether the amount that was now being quoted was by way of being a further loan. He will notice that Clause 1, subsection (2) of the Bill says: The Minister may, with the approval of the Treasury, at any time release, in whole or in part, a claim against the festival gardens company in respect of a loan made by him thereto under this section. I thank the noble and learned Viscount for his contribution, made in such excellent taste, and I hope that your Lordships will now give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.