§ Captain CARR-GOMM
In consequence of what occurred at Question Time, I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."
I make this Motion for the purpose of calling attention to a matter in connection with the taking over by the War Office, or a Department of the War Office, of certain agricultural land in the county of Buckinghamshire. I asked a question of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with a view to obtaining from him permission to have a discussion in the House before this very serious undertaking was put in band and with a view to obtaining an explanation by the Government Department themselves of the whole facts of the. case before the expenditure was incurred and before the work was put in hand. The right hon. Gentleman referred me to a question which was raised in this House and answered on a former occasion, on the 5th of June, and he said he could add nothing to what was said on that occasion. I think, perhaps, as this is an important matter, and a new matter to-day, I shall be in order, and shall assist the House by reading the question which was put on that occasion and the answer given by the Government. The question was asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Buckinghamshire (Colonel Du Pre), and was as follows:To ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food whether his attention had been called to the fact" that about 600 acres, comprising some of the best corn-producing land in the country, is about to be taken for military purposes at Cippenham, near Slough; whether this action will diminish the food supply of the country at a critical juncture and discourage the efforts bring made to increase that supply; and whether he will make representations with the object of preserving this land for the continued production of food?My right hon. Friend (Mr. Macpherson), who spoke for the War Office, said that his right hon. Friend had asked him to answer this question, and he proceeded:The land in question has only been taken up after full and exhaustive consideration by the War Cabinet. Due cars will be exercised to harvest as much of the produce as possible and to ensure this the Directorate of Lands is working in close touch with the tenants of the area affected.My object to-night is to obtain from my right hon. Friend a statement as to the 2304 full and exhaustive consideration which was given by the War Cabinet to this matter, in view of the very curious nature of the whole business, and also to ask him to explain to us the methods the Directorate of Lands proposes to adopt in order to ensure that the prospective harvest of this year is obtained from this area. I wish to take up the attitude of the general public in that part of the world. I have known it for some twenty years, but I do not speak for it here to-night. The position of the farmer in this business will be brought forward in the House by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Bucks, who is fully informed and will deal on first hand information with the points of which he is in possession from the point of view of the farmers and the local inhabitants. I wish to speak more from the point of view of the general public. I have in my hand a map of the area which is in question, and I would say at once that it is obvious to everybody that is connected with this part of the world that the Great Western Railway runs pretty well through the whole area, and a portion of the Great Bath Road runs through a considerable section of it. It is a very well known part of the world. The action of the Government in this matter is arousing, now that the whole subject is being made known, great interest, and if this policy is persisted in I venture to say that it will be a standing advertisement, in these days when advertisements are very widely used, of Government ineptitude. This.portion of the Great Western Railway passes right through it, and the public who use that line in great numbers have before them this extraordinary case which I am going to bring before the House. I know this part of the world, and no doubt many other hon. Members know it too, and I speak here and now having in my hand evidence given to me by residents that this area is, as the question of my hon. and gallant Friend truly says, a most valuable food-producing area. This district which is proposed to be taken for military purposes is a valuable food-producing area. I will not trouble the House by reading any extracts, because I think my hon. and gallant Friend has certain important documents to bring before the House. I will only read this one extract I have received from a resident of over twenty years in the district, speaking from first-hand information. He informs me that 2305This land has been brought for years past, into the highest condition of agriculture by some of our most successful and most scientific fanners.He gives the names which are well known to people who know that part of the district.It is now growing for the most part a splendid crop of wheat which is now 3 ft. high.There is also a portion of this land under oats.This is altogether about l½ square miles. At least (500 acres of it is now growing crop. The rest is market garden, and glasshouses.And he says:Even putting the harvest at a low figure of 5 qrs. to the acrethat will mean that you will get now from this area about 3,000 quarters of crops, or 24,000 bushels. Looking at it purely from the point of view of the general public, I say in the spirit of the question originally put by my hon. and gallant Friend that this is really a matter not altogether of the War Office point of view, but of the Food Ministry point of view. It is a question of food. We are sacrificing here an area capable of producing this great amount of food. You are throwing on the scrap heap a piece of land on which, to my knowledge, over twenty years of labour and scientific farming have been expended, and you are producing in the farming agricultural interest great unrest and in the public mind bewilderment. I said at Question Time, and I say now, that what adds to the bewilderment of the public in this matter is the fact that in this neighbourhood there are large open spaces at the present time which do not produce food or which only produce food to a very small extent.
I will bring before the House four classes of open spaces in the neighbourhood which every member of the public interested in that part and who passes through on his way to London and else where knows about. I put them forward because no doubt my right hon. Friend will say this is a good area for military work, and will ask what is our alternative. The man in the street who looks round in that county and neighbourhood sees a great number of private parks. No doubt my right hon. Friend will say, "Of course, private parks contain a good deal of wood, and we shall have to cut down those woods." I have on former occasions asked Government Departments about so-called temporary buildings. I have seen brick and stone erections being put up in the London parks, and I have asked why 2306 they are made of these particular materials, and I have been told that they are temporary buildings, but that they cannot be built of wood because the Controller of Timber is unable to get the timber. If these private parks which are in existence in this district contain wood lands, surely it would be in the public interest to cut down some of this wood. Then, curiously, there happen to be in this neighbourhood a consideration number of golf courses. I will not mention names, because I understand in Debates of the nature it is not advisable to do so. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Are there any bunkers on them?"] There are plenty, and perhaps my hon. Friend has had experience of some of them. I believe within 5 and 10 miles of this area there is certainly one very large racecourse, and I do not know that there are not two race courses in the immediate neighbourhood, and there are also a considerable number of commons, some of which are of good grazing land and some of which are grown over with gorse. On the subject of common land, I have been told that the War Office have already taken over a good deal of common land, and when you art1 talking about war requirements I do not believe the public desire in any way to stand in the way of the War Office when it says that certain things are absolutely necessary.
The attitude of the general public is certainly straightforward. It is absolutely loyal and determined to win the War, and that is one reason why I take the strong view that I do of the action of the Government. The public are not taking up this attitude because they wish to hinder the War. It is the fashion nowadays for Government supporters to taunt those who criticise the Government by crying, "Get on with the War." I am not afraid of anybody getting up now and telling me to get on with the War. I believe the public are fully determined to get on with the War, but they wish to be well led. In mentioning these four avail able alternatives, I do not specify the places, but no doubt my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Bucks could do so more in detail. I am afraid the public are going to see this food producing area taken over for military purposes, and they have in their minds two things. First of all, there is the very regrettable and recent case of the loss of well over half a million pounds of public money in a similar undertaking for war 2307 requirements. They also have in their minds the fact that they are being daily urged to do all they can, as individuals, as landowners, as tenant farmers, and as smallholders, to increase the produce of the land. Landowners are urged to cut down trees and to turn grazing into arable land and in other ways to do what they can towards producing crops for the harvest. At the very same time they see a thing like this, which will be a standing advertisement of Government incompetence and which will remain by the railway 30 that everybody who passes through on the line can see it.
I take the view that Members of Parliament to-day have two important duties to perform. Every day, and it has been in creasing in the last few days, there is strong pressure upon us from outside to control public expenditure. We are setting up Committees, and reports are furnished, but that does not satisfy the public. They have been sated and gorged with Committees, and they say, "For Heaven's sake stop the expenditure," and I believe there is no more important duty— and I say this to the loudest and most industrious of my colleagues who shout "Get on with the War"— than to try and control public expenditure at the present time. It is for that reason that we take up this attitude and demand a Government explanation on this matter, because we feel that you are embarking upon a series of great Government Grants of money. The Leader of the House has always been very courteous to me, but I rather regret the tone of his replies to me on this question. I think he did not realise the strength of our case here and of the demand that we should control expenditure before it has effective force. Here is an opportunity, it seems to me. I am not raising this question from the point of view of the farmer who grumbles or in the interests of any local section of the community. I believe the case that my hon. and gallant Friend will bring forward will show that the people of South Bucks are the most loyal and the most energetic citizens in this country, but they look upon it from a larger standpoint, and they feel that this expenditure is not being wisely embarked upon and that you are destroying a very valuable source of food supply.
The second point I wish to bring for ward is this. I do feel that another duty of a Member of the House of Commons 2308 is to act in some small degree— and I think my right hon. Friend will agree with me here— as a connecting link or as a liaison officer or soldier between the Government and the country. Let me implore my right hon. Friend to listen to this point. The Government are all powerful. They can crush our Motion. They do not mind our moving the Adjournment of the House. They have a majority in this House, and with the power they have up to a point, they do not mind. But the duty of the House of Commons is to act as a connecting link between the Government and the public, and on an occasion like this, when the public, loyal and devoted as it is, is bewildered, it is our duty to obtain from the Government some redress; otherwise the Government is running the risk of getting into the position of a Government which we all hold up as a standing warning to other nations. By the contradictory Orders, by the contradictory policy of the Board of Agriculture and the War Office, and the way in which the public is bewildered, you are sapping loyalty which is freely given to you.
Therefore, I claim we are perfectly right in demanding two things from the Government— first of all, that this consideration which they say the War Cabinet has given to the matter shall be more clearly explained. I mean that they should state not merely -whether they take the report of an official who travelled round in a motor car and saw it, but that they should look at the whole neighbouring countries and all the facts of the case before embarking on an enterprise such as this, and they should be considerate. Let my right hon. Friend explain more clearly what steps he has taken with regard to this harvest. The Minister of Agriculture, in one of his speeches I think, implored the country to realise the fact that the War was going to be won on the cornfields of this country, and he urged everyone in agricultural life to do his utmost. Let my right hon. Friend realise that he must satisfy the public in this matter. If he does that, I am sure the people of that locality and elsewhere, who road with amazement what is going on in this connection, will support the Government, but if he goes on with his majority behind his back, and feels convinced that his Department and its officials are quite strong enough to ride rough-shod over local opinion and public opinion generally, then I think it is quite possible his Government and all 2309 the officials of the great Government Departments, and his powerful majority in the House of Commons— it is quite possible that that big edifice which is built up will fall to the ground.
§ Colonel DU PRE
In rising to second the Motion of my hon. and gallant Friend, I desire to state frankly to the House that I am in some degree an interested party to the extent of being the owner of a portion of the land that is in question. Under these circumstances, I hope the House will understand that it is only the great urgency of the question, and the strong duty I feel to my Constituents and the agricultural community, that I have risen to take part in the Debate at all. I second the Motion on the ground of the value of this land for food-producing purposes for the nation. The land in question is situated at Cippenham, near Slough, and members who travelled on the Bath road previously by motor car, or, in these days, by the Great Western Railway, will see it on both sides of the railway soon after passing Slough. From time immemorial this land, which has passed down in the same ownership from father to son, has been known throughout the Home counties as the best corn-producing land. Perhaps that is a large claim, but undoubtedly Cippenham Farm arid the bind around it is well-known as the show farm of the Home counties, and since this scheme was mooted some months ago, not only locally, but far beyond the locality itself, protests began to come in. The President of the Board of Agriculture, I believe, has personally approached the Government, and the Bucks Agricultural War Committee has, I know, done the same thing, but apparently to no purpose whatever. It has been most difficult to obtain any information at all from the Department concerned about this matter, and therefore I wish I could inform the House for what purpose the land is required or what the urgency of the question is. I have been utterly unable to get any information at all from the Department, and I should like to tell the right hon. Gentleman that on the 3rd June last I wrote from this House to the War Office, putting this case, and asking as a Member for the constituency, and as part owner of the land, that I should be afforded an interview with the Quartermaster-General, in order that my point of view might be put, and in order that reasons might be given to me and 2310 those interested in the matter so that we might be satisfied on the point. The right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that from that day to this I have "not had even an acknowledgment that the letter has been received.
§ The UNDER-SECRETAITY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Macpherson)
Did the hon. and gallant Gentleman write to me?
§ Colonel DU PRE
I wrote to the Secretary to the War Office in the usual manner nine days ago. Again, when this question came up, it was clear that, whether the measure should be reconsidered or not, there was the question of the growing crops on the land, and I put down a question to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, which my hon. and gallant Friend the Mover of the Motion read to the House. I would call attention to this part of the answer:The land in question has only been taken up after full and exhaustive consideration by the War Cabinet. Due care will be exercised to harvest as much of the produce! as possible, and, to ensure this, the Directorate of Lands is working in close touch with the tenants of the area effected."— [OFFICAL REPORT, 5th June, col. 1567.]The House will scarcely believe that this morning I received a letter from a resident of Cippenham, whose name I have here, and can give to the hon. Gentleman, if necessary, in which he says:Since writing the enclosed letter my neighbour— —whose name also can be given—asked me to examine his field on which the military commenced operations yesterday (Monday). There were twenty-seven men turning up by the roots the growing crop of wheat, and clods of earth. … It is a most deplorable sight, especially so close to the harvest as we are now, and this action is absolutely contrary to the answer given by Mr. Macpherson to a question in the House.I think the House will now see the justification for moving this Motion, and I hope, whatever else may happen, the right hon. Gentleman will instantly telegraph to stop these proceedings. I wish to raise one other point. Not only are there corn crops growing on this land, but there are also buildings. One building is the Isolation Hospital for the Eton Rural District. This hospital was built at a cost of some thousands of pounds after a great deal of trouble had been taken in getting the site. It serves not only the local district of some nineteen parishes, but also serves Eton and Windsor. So far as I under stand, under this scheme it is proposed to demolish this hospital, not, as any reason- 2311 able person would suppose, because the hospital is in the way, or because it is needed, or because its removal is necessitated— as I understand it, the reason given for destroying this hospital is that the gravel underneath the hospital is required for other military construction that is going on. I have further been told that within a stone's throw of the hospital there is double the amount of gravel that can ever be needed by the military to be got at half the value of the hospital as it stands. I really do ask the House, Can folly go further? Whatever other action is taken upon this matter, I do ask that this piece of folly should be put a stop to.
If I knew the purposes for which this land was required, I feel I could be more helpful to the right hon. Gentleman by perhaps suggesting that he should get another site; but I am utterly in the dark as to what purpose this land is required for or what are the urgent considerations involved. I am afraid I cannot guess. Therefore, I cannot deal with it. I do, however, say this— I do lay stress on it!— the agriculture aspect on the growing value of this land. All over the country farmers have been ordered to plough up pasture land, and have done it sometimes in many cases at great sacrifice to their own interests. They have done it willingly, and no county in England has done more in that way than has the county of Bucks. What, then, are the feelings of the farmers when they see what is going on? What answer docs the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary suppose they will give when next they are appealed to, when they see with their own eyes, on this most valuable land in the county, these growing crops, wantonly— so far as I can nee - with no good reason just before the harvest, destroyed before their eyes? The point is of more than of local interest. It is widely known. It has been adversely commented upon in agricultural circles over a wide area. In view of the great discouragement that this action must give! to those who by another Government Department are being urged, indeed ordered, to grow more food, to undertake the important task of more food production, I do beg that the Government may see their way to reconsider the decision come to in this case so that this splendid land may be retained for its proper purpose, that of producing food for the nation.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I have no reason to complain of the two speeches which have just been delivered. My hon. and gallant Friends have presented their case, it is true, with vigour, but with fairness from their point of view. I feel sure, therefore, that if the War Office can give a satisfactory explanation of the reason for taking over even this valuable agricultural land at the present time my two hon. and gallant Friends, and the House, will be satisfied with the explanation which it is my duty to put before the House. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rotherhithe has talked of the bewilderment of the country in regard to this particular case. It is true that we have not publicly, so far, offered, any explanation as to why we want this particular land, or as to the urgency of our requirements. I would disagree from my hon. Friend- and I hope he will agree I am right— in the description of our action as being a "typical advertisement of Government ineptitude." I hope that at the end of my remarks he will be able to agree with me that it is neither undue interference nor ineptitude. For the last two years we have found it increasingly necessary to provide, in the interests of economy— a point that will interest my right hon. Friend the Member for Cleve land— a large central workshop and store for spare parts. If during those two years we have found it increasingly necessary, it has become doubly necessary during the last two months. I am not going to enter into details as to what has happened in France. I do not expect the House will expect me to do so. I hope the House will be assured when I say that events in France have made it doubly necessary for us now to have this great centralised station for the purpose I have indicated, as near to London, as near to the manufacturers, and as near to the centre of things as possible. We had two alternatives before us. First of all we might have acquired buildings which are not now in use, or which, if used, are not used for great national purposes. That would have deprived us of the necessity of securing a site or a building upon that land. Every Department concerned made the most thorough search all round the particular locality where they would wish this centralised depot to exist, but all in vain. It was perfectly impossible for us to find any existing place suitable for this purpose. There was a second alternative, and that was to find 2313 a new site, and that alternative is the one which we had perforce to adopt.
This site must of necessity satisfy certain conditions, and if I may I will try as shortly and succinctly as I can to explain what are these definite conditions. In the first place, in the interests of economy and efficiency, it must be within twenty-five miles of London. I say that for these reasons: First of all, the transport in this country is in the centre, and it is obviously necessary, if we have a great centralised depot for the supply of spare parts for the repair of innumerably damaged wagons, that we should have that centralised depot as near the centre as possible. Again, it is most necessary that the depot must be near the War Office, the Ministry of Munitions, and the Air Ministry, and not only near those Departments, but also near the most prominent manufacturers who deal with these various Government Departments in material for these particular mobile machines. It is also necessary, from the efficiency point of view that a Department of this gigantic nature should be in close touch with the headquarters of those Government Departments. It is also necessary that the highly-trained civilian staff should not be asked to leave the place in which they live at the present time to go to any districts further off— as a matter of fact it would be extremely difficult, to persuade that highly-trained civilian staff to leave their present abode and go to another. That is only a subsidiary point.
It is absolutely necessary that this centralised depot should be near a railway, and near a main road and canal, as it happens to be in this case. My two hon. and gallant Friends have made a point for mo without knowing it. They say that this centralised depot can be seen from the railway station and the Bath Road. I agree that is one of the most important factors in the case. It was essential for us to choose a site near the great lines of communication, such as the Bath Road, the Great Western Railway, and the canal. Why is it necessary that we should have it near the Great Western Railway? I think this will be obvious to my hon. Friends who are interested in the question of economy. I was astonished-, in fact T was agreeably surprised, to find that an hon. and gallant Friend of mine who is well known to my right hon. Friend spoke to me just before this Debate. He was deeply interested, and he has been the first to bring the ques- 2314 tion of economy before the House, but he told me that he supported this proposal because of the fact that it would be economical. I was dealing with the fact that this particular centralised depot must be near the great lines of communication. It is absolutely necessary that it must be near the great thoroughfares, the roads, and the canals, and the Great Western Railway. It is necessary to have it near the Great Western Railway because this particular line serves all the chief manufacturing centres, and almost all the goods which come into the depot must come from the great towns on this line. [AN HON. MEMBER: "And the London and North-Western !"] This line affords easy facilities without going through London for shipment to all our ports to the theatres of war all over the world.
Again, it is necessary for the purposes of this centralised depot that the soil should be gravel soil. At the present moment we cannot procure sufficient steel for our purposes, and consequently it will be necessary for us to use a very large amount of ferro-concrete. Not only is it necessary that the soil should be adaptable for this purpose, but it is necessary for the particular purpose 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 in course of time both during the War and on demobilisation. The next point is that it is absolutely necessary that the ground must be level. I can assure the House, speaking for the Government and more particularly for the War Office, that we have no desire to take a single rood from agriculture in this county, and we would most willingly have taken the private pack referred to, the golf courses, or the race courses if they had satisfied the conditions which I have just adumbrated. But they do not do so in any single case. I know the golf course to which reference has been made, and I know that there are a great many bunkers, but that ground is not suitable for our purpose, and it does not satisfy a single one of the conditions which I have laid before the House. Again, the race-course does not satisfy those conditions, nor do the private parks. The only place near London which does satisfy those conditions is the ground which we have reluctantly taken over for this particular purpose. The House would perhaps like to know why I say" reluc- 2315 tantly." I have given one reason, and it is because none of us wish to take over from agricultural uses any soil of the kind which my hon. Friend has described to the House. This particular case came before me. I saw that it was a question of taking over 600 agricultural acres, and the moment I saw that I at once said, "This is a question for the Food Production Committee." I said that before I would sign the taking over of this land I must be assured that the Food Production Committee had had an opportunity of stating their case before the Priority Committee, before the Treasury, or before the War Cabinet. It is an open secret that the Priority Committee and the Treasury have agreed to the purchase of this land. It is also an open secret, for it was stated in reply to a question in this House, that the War Cabinet have also agreed. Let me explain what happened. The War Cabinet were approached, as they usually are approached where two Departments, I will not say, are at loggerheads, but have a legitimate difference and legitimate points of view to place before them. General Smuts was appointed by the War Cabinet to consider this case. Be postponed a definite decision upon it until he was absolutely assured that every other place suitable, or likely to be suitable, had been investigated by the Director-General of Land and by the Food Production Committee. He heard the representatives of the Departments. He heard the representative of the War Office, and he heard the representative of the Food Production Committee. With those two representatives he went through each individual case which was brought before him. He applied the tests which I have laid before the House, and by the process of elimination he came unhesitatingly to the conclusion— with which conclusion the representative of the Food Production reluctantly agreed— that this was the only place available which would satisfy those conditions.
I am satisfied in my own mind, and I am sure that the House will agree with me, that everything that was possible was done to find an alternative site. If we had jumped upon this site without any previous investigation of any sort or kind, then the House and the country would have had a legitimate grievance, but I ask the House to believe that we do not take over these pieces of agricultural soil, good, bad, or indifferent, unless we are 2316 absolutely satisfied that we have tried every possible alternative. It is true that we have had cases— and I may mention it quite frankly— where the Royal Flying Corps, as it was in the old days, had taken, -without very much previous investigation, land which they ought not to have taken, and— I can speak quite frankly— my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary (Mr. Forster) and myself summoned a conference of every body connected with the taking of land and everybody connected with Departments which might be likely to take land, and we have laid it down that no piece of land shall be taken in this country for munitions, or for the Army, or for the Air Service, until it has been declared as a suitable, and as the inevitable, plot of land by all the Departments concerned. That test has been applied in this case. It has been submitted to every single person concerned.— [An Hon. Member: "And approved?"] — And approved in the sense that I have just mentioned. The Food Production Committee brought it very properly before the War Cabinet, and the case was heard by the representative appointed by the War Cabinet. The Food Production representative came to the conclusion, by the process per exclusionem unius that this was the only suitable land within the vicinity of London which satisfied the conditions which I have named.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
He consented. You can put it how you like. He was satisfied, after hearing the discussion on the case brought forward. General Smuts came to the conclusion unhesitatingly that this was the only site suitable for this purpose. I hope that I have satisfied the House that we have taken all reasonable precautions.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I do not know whether that was considered or not, but I have satisfied myself that a great many places and sites all round London were considered and were tested in accordance with the conditions which I have explained to the House. It is necessary in the interests of economy to have this central depot. I have explained how enormously it will increase the economy of Army expenditure. There is another point, and I think it is also very impor- 2317 tant. At no time in the history of the War has there been a greater necessity for what I may call shortly the mobility of the British Army. I am not going to explain what is happening in France, or what at any time may happen, but there is an enormous need for having at our disposal near at hand, when we cannot have them in France, a great accumulation and a great surplus of spare parts, some of which have been prepared and some of which are in the making. That is a most important point, and one which has a direct and most important bearing upon this particular site. I do not think that my hon. and gallant Friend raised any other particular point, except that he wanted to know what we are going to do with the harvest at the present time. Nobody regrets more than I do that any harvest, however small in quantity, should be destroyed at the present time, but I can assure the House that so far as my investigations go, there will not be 600 acres destroyed as suggested. There will certainly not be more than 100 acres. What does that amount to I One does not wish to belittle even the smallest quantity of food in the country at the present time, but, taking it in the ordinary way, that one acre would produce 5 quarters of corn or wheat, all that will be lost at the present time will be about 500 quarters. That is. nearly about the quantity that we spend in France in a sixth of a day. If my contention is right, you have this proposition: Whether we should sacrifice those 500 quarters, which might easily be produced from some other soil, or whether, in the great emergency which I have attempted to describe you should allow inefficiency and great difficulty in our mechanical transport system. The War Office has come to the conclusion that it is necessary in the interests, not only of economy, but in the interests of that great mechanical transport, system, that we should have this place near the lines of communication and near the great centres. If the Food Production Committee representative, while, of course, he could never be satisfied if any land, however poor it might be, were taken away from his.direct purposes at the present time, felt, after the discussion he heard before General Smuts, that it was in the highest national interest that we should have this particular land at this particular time, I hope the House will agree with the decision of the War Cabinet.
§ Mr. R. McNEILL
I am quite certain that my right hon. Friend has made the strongest possible case that could be made in answer to the Motion before the House. But I do not think it will do. It appears to me to be an entirely unsatisfactory answer, and I cannot share his confidence that it will prove satisfactory to the House. I should like to point out where it appears to mo that my right hon. Friend's arguments entirely break down. He does not deny for a moment that there is a strong case to meet. That was pretty obvious, because the case is this, that the War Office at this time, within a few weeks of harvest, are taking a large quantity of valuable land; that they arc; destroying more or less the coming harvest; that they are sacrificing that land for agricultural purposes, not merely for the present harvest but for the future; and that they are also destroying a valuable hospital. That as the ease they have to meet. My right hon. Friend comes here and says that this is the only land procurable within a certain distance of London which meets certain conditions. He tells us that various authorities who have been consulted agreed, after inspecting other sites and examining this land, that this is the only procurable land which answers to those conditions. The whole argument of my right hon. Friend depends on whether or not the conditions which he lays down are themselves reasonable. If those conditions are not reasonable, then the endorsement by General Smuts and the other authorities entirely falls to the ground. They have been asked whether other land satisfying those conditions could be found, and they say "No." As I listened to my right hen. Friend I formed a very strong opinion that those conditions are not reasonable, and that the War Office had no right to lay it down as an axiom that land satisfying those particular conditions must be got. I quite agree that, if land satisfying those conditions could be got without doing any other mischief or damage, probably it would be more convenient and more advantageous for the purposes they had in view, but that is quite a different thing from saying that they were so obligatory that no sacrifice of land or hospital or anything else must be allowed to stand in the way of satisfying all of them. Let me take one or two of them, because I do not pretend to remember all that my right hon. Friend enumerated. Let us take it that it must be within twenty-five miles of London. 2319 My right hon. Friend says it must be within that distance of London for the convenience of the employés, in order to be near the various Departments, and so forth. That is very desirable, but does my right hon. Friend mean to say that if suit able land could be obtained thirty miles from London it was worth while destroying this valuable agricultural land and this hospital in order to be within twenty-five miles instead of thirty miles of London] Again, the right hon. Gentleman says that the land must be level. Why? He never explained why.
§ Mr. McNEILL
But there are degrees of levelness. When I interjected a remark as to there being bunkers upon this golf course I was assuming that the land was intended for an aerodrome. If it had been intended for an aerodrome, in which case it would not come under my right hon. Friend, I might have understood that it was very essential to get land perfectly level. I dare say that, for the purposes they have in view, in the ordinary rough sense level ground is very desirable and probably ought to be obtained, but it cannot be necessary for the purposes for which this particular factory is used that the whole of the land should be as level as a billiard table. Such part of it as it is necessary to have level could be levelled, because it is not beyond the resources of engineering to make ground level which is not level to start with. My right hon. Friend says it must be a gravel soil. Why? Because, he says, they are going to use a lot of reinforced concrete. Another reason he gave why it must be gravel soil was because there would be so many vehicles to drive over it, and the vehicles required a gravel foundation. I do not see the necessity for that at all. It might lie desirable, if we could get it, but it is quite possible to make a macadam surface and, indeed, quite possible to make a concrete surface. Therefore the idea is absurd that they must take this particular piece of around because it happens to be on gravel soil and for that purpose, as my hon. and gallant Friend pointed out, actually to destroy a hospital in order to get at the gravel which is underneath the hospital. To come down to the House of Commons and suggest that this transaction, which prima facie is an outrage, and to defend it upon the ground that these conditions had to be 2320 fulfilled shows that the right hon. Gentle man is absolutely out of court, because the moment you begin to examine the conditions you find one after the other is not satisfactory. Any Member of this House, if he were not tied down by these particular stipulations, could find land within much less than twenty-five miles of London reasonably suitable for all the purposes that are required which would not involve this particular demolition of a hospital and the destruction from agricultural purposes of what we have been told is the most valuable agricultural land in the Home Counties. I myself quite recently pointed out between London and Pinner, close to the North-Western Rail way— my right hon. Friend speaks about communications— and close to a main road, plenty of land quite level enough for this purpose, not perhaps gravel, but clay, which, although no doubt valuable as agricultural land, is devoted entirely to the growing of hay, where it would have been quite unnecessary to employ men to root out wheat within a few weeks of its coming to harvest and which would have been amply sufficient for the purposes of this factory. My right hon. Friend has entirely failed to convince me, as I think he will fail to convince the House of the necessity for this deplorable operation, which must have caused the greatest heartburning among the agricultural community, and indeed among all who want to see our operations carried on not only with economy but with common sense. It is most deplorable that no stronger case could be made out for the transaction.
§ Mr. SHERWELL
I hope my right hon. Friend will not think me disrespectful if I suggest that in using one form of argument for the defence of this extraordinary action by the War Office he has unwittingly laid himself and the War Cabinet open to an indictment of a much graver kind He told us that for the past two years the urgency of some such accommodation as this had been growing, and that the effect of the present German offensive had made that urgency so imperative as to necessitate a decision, almost any decision, at the hands of the War Office and the War Cabinet. Does he contemplate the effect of that admission on the minds of those who are trying to give a just-appreciation to his argument? What confidence can we possibly repose in the decision of the War Cabinet, or of the War Office, or of any of the authorities 2321 quoted by him as having been consulted, if we start with the frank admission by the Government that they have for two years known that this accommodation was imperatively needed, and that the urgency of the need grew day by day, week by week and month by month, and yet it is only when the German offensive, which was calculable, which was contemplated by the Government, which they say they expected and which gave them no surprise, commences that they proceed to make accommodation for this urgent need? That constitutes in my judgment one of the gravest indictments of the competency of this Government to con duct this War in an efficient and successful way. The Government, I will not say was appointed— it appointed itself on the sole ground that it was to be an efficient Government for the conduct of the War, and yet we have to wait for this momentous, this most grave, it may be most tragic offensive, before the Government is alive to the necessity of action in this direction. My right hon. Friend, in outlining the considerations which govern the Government's decision, laid consider able emphasis on the fact that one of the advantages of this site was that it lay within 25 miles of London. So far as we lire able to gather the outlines of the Government plan, the accommodation to be provided is not a mere warehouse. It is not to be accommodation of a mere distributing character. It is accommodation which is to be for manufacturing purposes. Will he seriously suggest that a site within close vicinity of London, within, say, a range of 25 miles, a site which is necessarily, by its proximity to London, far removed from the- sources of supply of iron, steel, and coal, is necessarily an ideal site for manufacturing purposes. He has emphasised the advantages from a distributive point of view, but he has wholly ignored the great disadvantages from the manufacturers' point of view, and, after all, this is a manufacturing enterprise.
I suggest to the Leader of the House that the country is far more greatly concerned and disquieted than probably he imagines by these almost daily recurring instances of precipitate and apparently unwise action on the part of some Government Department. You cannot possibly expect the country, and in particular the agricultural community, to take seriously your urgent and grave exhortations to produce up to the utmost possible limit if 2322 you from time to time— for this is not a solitary instance j we have had discussions previously on similar acts on the part of the Executive to this— give them object lessons of this kind before their very eyes. I am quite unconvinced by the arguments which my right hon. Friend has used. I admit that from the ordinary Depart mental view he made an extremely good appearance at that box. I believe he put up as good a defence as it was possible for any Departmental Minister to put up, but he really has not grappled with the very essence of the matter. The moral effect is far more important than some of the material considerations which he possesses, and I cannot help thinking he was semi-conscious of the weakness of his case in advance when he actually presumed to suggest that one of the considerations which had determined the Government's decision was the disinclination of the workers concerned to leave their present homes. Whenever has the Government shown the same tenderness of spirit towards any other class of workers in the country? That is not a ground of the decision. It is not even, as he called it, a subsidiary consideration in a decision of this kind. I believe the Government has done itself infinite harm by the action which has been exposed in Debate in the House of Commons to-day.
§ Brigadier - General McCALMONT
Having lately resided in this part of the country this incident came to my notice and a question appears on the Paper for to-morrow in my name. I did not support my hon. and gallant Friend this afternoon when he asked permission to move the Adjournment of the House because I felt that it was not perhaps a suitable opportunity to embarrass the Government as regards its allocation of time. Having heard the Debate I wish I had supported him. There is one point I am quite certain my right hon. Friend must have forgotten to refer to in his reply. My hon. and gallant Friend (Major Du Pre) told the House that he wrote to the War Office some nine days ago, as representing that part of the country and as himself an officer, and presumably if there was any question of secrecy his loyalty was above suspicion, and asked to be told the object of all this. He did not even got." refusal. He got no answer at all. If the ordinary private Member is going to be treated by the Government in this way the Government cannot blame us if it gets Motions for the Adjournment. It seems to 2323 me my hon. and gallant Friend took the only course which was possible. He was most anxious not to make this a public matter. He gave the Government every opportunity of putting before him the. urgent necessities of the case. They declined to take any action in the matter and so they have their time, if they like to call it so, wasted this evening. It seems to me what the Government did in this case was that they first pitched upon their site, they then told the other Departments they had got to have it and asked them whether they were going to object to that one site which was possible or were not. They first of all selected the Great Western Railway, they selected their distance of twenty-five miles and selected the various things which the hon. Gentleman has referred to, and then they said to General Smuts, here is the piece of land we must have for this purpose. Will you go and meet the other Departments concerned and explain to them that this is the only one place which will suit us, and see that they raise no further objection?
The question of the hospital has not been very much referred to. It may seem a small matter but I do not think it is quite such a small matter as it would appear when you began, and to get a site for a fever hospital is also not an easy matter. I am informed that in this district it was a matter of extreme difficulty to get a site for this hospital, and if it is removed the difficulty of getting a new site will not only be very great, but when they find the new site which they think they have found, the amount of compensation which will have to be paid to the owner will be a very large sum for the ratepayers. This hospital serves no fewer than nineteen parishes, as well as a very large town, and was set up at no small cost. It is to be removed from a district which, so far as I know, is not by any means bare of gravel pits, in order to get the gravel which is under one of the buildings. I consider that some further explanation might have been given by my right hon. Friend on that subject. I think my right hon. Friend made a great deal too much of the 500 quarters in his speech. He talked as if the whole matter was a question of 500 quarters. As a matter of fact, he must realise that some of the best growing country in the Home Counties is going to be taken, not for this year's crop alone, but for good, and will not be avail- 2324 able for any future crop. Six hundred acres are going to be taken for good, and will be lost for food production in this country. Coming down to the House to night, expecting to hear that there was a satisfactory explanation; and that there were some real reasons which caused the Government to take this rather arbitrary action, I must say that I, for one, am profoundly disappointed by the explanation.
§ Sir C. HOBHOUSE
will not delay the House long, as the right hon. Gentle man (Mr. Bonar Law) intends to speak. Two reasons made me support the Motion for the Adjournment, and compelled me to speak this evening, although I have deliberately refrained from doing so up till now. One reason why I supported the Motion for the Adjournment is that for thirty years I have been travelling up and down on the Great Western Railway looking at this particular area which is now in dispute. Right through that period when corn growing was abandoned in great portions of the West of England and in the counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, this particular area was always cultivated with wheat. It was always one of the best-producing wheat areas, and now, at a time when wheat is more valuable than it ever was in the history of this country, this land is going to be put out of cultivation for ever. That is the first consideration. The second consideration is this: It may be true that for various reasons it is necessary to have this motor transport camp on an existing line of rail way, but that ought not of itself to be an absolute necessity. When this ground which is being broken up is traversed daily by a large number of agriculturists in the West of England it becomes a matter of notoriety and of conversation amongst them as to what is going on in this particular area. Coming Up to London last week I heard in the carriage in which I was sitting a discussion going on as to what was being done in this particular area, in which it was obvious that the crop was being deliberately destroyed. I think every speaker who has addressed the House has pointed out that two Departments of the State are urging agriculturists everywhere to grub up land, to plough up land, to bring land into cultivation which is out of cultivation for the purpose of growing food, and more particularly for the purpose of growing corn, and at a time like this you give them an object lesson in the destruction of corn. They have not the advantage of hearing 2325 the powerful explanation, and the first explanation, which has been given by the Under-Secretary. I echo the sentiments of hon. Gentlemen behind me that no one could have given a better explanation. The right hon. Gentleman has been a most plausible speaker. I use the word "Plausible" with all due respect. He gave a most plausible account of a very difficult explanation, but I am a little inclined to think that he over-explained his case.
I need not go into all the details which have been alluded to by other speakers, but let me remind the Under-Secretary that there is fresh in the memory of this House the Loch Doon case. As to the argument which was used about the impossibility of finding another site, the suit ability of the site, and the necessity of the different requirements, it was found at Loch Doon that the requirements could be got elsewhere at a great saving of public money and public convenience. Therefore he must not be surprised if the House approaches his explanation with a certain amount of suspicion. He made a wonderfully good case for himself; but we have not been told whether this site was not thrown at General Smuts' head and whether he was asked, "Do you approve of this district and this site?" Was he allowed to look elsewhere for another site? Could you go to some place near the great manufacturing centres in the Midlands of England where you would not have to bring coal, where you would not have to bring iron, where you would have a railroad, where you would find a level surface, and where you would find a whole network of canals, and not a solitary isolated canal, and where you would not have to move your skilled staff? It was news to the House that that skilled staff was in existence. I wonder where they were brought from. I do not know where they have been collected or where they are being housed now. The whole subject of this skilled staff which hesitates to move, and which the Department are frightened to move, is remarkable. All this is news to us. For these reasons I confess that I do not regret the action I took this afternoon in having helped to bring this subject forward for discussion.
I suppose I may be accused of being prejudiced in this matter, but I do assure the right hon. Gentleman that the action of the War Office has created to my personal knowledge great prejudice in the minds of agriculturists in my own part of the world who move backwards and 2326 forward to London. It is said that the War Cabinet gave a full and exhaustive examination of this subject. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who answered the question, gave us to understand that it was not the War Cabinet, but that it was a single member, and a most competent member, of the War Cabinet who took it into his personal and single consideration. General Smuts is overwhelmed with work. He has got a great number of subjects to consider from many points of view, and of vastly more importance than this. A mistake has been made, and I submit that reconsideration of the subject would not reflect upon the judgment and good sense of General Smuts, but would take away the sense of, I will not say ineptitude, but the sense of mistake which has been made by the War Cabinet and the War Office in taking this site. Every Member who has addressed the House has spoken against the explanation that has been so well offered by the Under-Secretary. Would it not be wise, under the circumstances, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer would reconsider this subject, stop this destruction of a growing crop, and put an end to what is believed to be, rightly or wrongly, a great scandal in the way of destruction?
§ The CHANCELLOR Of the EX CHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)
I did not mean to take any part in this discussion, but I think perhaps, as representing the War Cabinet, which had the final responsibility, the House would expect me to say something in connection with this Debate. The first thing I would like to say is that we must have a sense of pro portion, in all these things— that there must be some regard, not to one aspect of the case only, but to other aspects, and each must be weighed, and a decision reached with the balance of advantage and disadvantage taken into account. I am not going to deal— because I am not competent to deal— with the merits of this particular site. I listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Macpherson), and I agree with those who praised it as a speech, but I do not agree with those who think he was making the best of a bad case. I think he made a good case. That is not the point of view I am going to put before the House. What I think about it is that a question of this kind should be properly considered, that if the House be satisfied, as I think it will be, that every considera- 2327 tion was given to this particular matter, then I believe that that is as much as can be expected by the Government.
Let me deal for a moment with the question of the site. The assumption seems to be that every sensible man in the House and out of it, except presumably somebody in the War Office and somebody in the Cabinet, who is responsible, thinks it monstrous that at a time like this, when such efforts are being made to increase the food supply of the country, a portion of the wheat crop should be destroyed for a purpose such as this. I can assure the House that that very consideration prejudiced against the proposal everybody who had had anything to do with it. That was pointed out by my right hon. Friend him self. It is not as if the War Office had jumped at a particular site, and tried to rush it through. That has been done, and admittedly done, in the stress of emergency in other cases. That is not the case here. It was the War Office itself which realised how unsuitable this was on the ground of agricultural considerations, and that, therefore, before a single step was taken it should be regarded from that point of view. I wish the House to take this into account. It is not as if the War Office had laid down certain conditions and said, "Now, you have got to go round and find a piece of land to fulfil all these conditions, and nothing else will suit." That was not done at all. It said that these conditions were an advantage, and that this land gave these conditions.
What actually happened was this. The matter was put into the hands of Mr. Weir, who, as the House knows, has dealt largely with these things for the War Office, and who, as those who are members of the Select Committee on Finance will readily recognise, does not look at these questions from the point of view of the hard and fast military man, who must get what he wants without regard to expenditure, but looks at them from the point of view of the business man who tries to get what he wants at the best price, in order to carry out the work that is required. Mr. Weir told us before this site was selected that he had engineers who are assisting him on this work, going all over the country looking for suitable places, and it was as the result of these examinations that this site was fixed upon. Then it is said we are going away 2328 from manufacturing districts, and also that the housing accommodation of the people who work has to be taken into account. I am not competent to meet all these points, but anyone with any know ledge at all of manufacturing business knows that the supply of labour, especially at a time like this, is one of the most important factors in starting new works of any kind. These engineers came to the conclusion that from that point of view it was a great advantage, and as the result of all these examinations, the experts advised that this was by far the most suitable site.
Then I turn to another point put by my hon. Friend. He says quite truly that perfectly level ground is not an absolute necessity of the case. It is not. Probably perfectly level ground cannot be got, but he went on to say that you can level it, or if the ground be not hard enough to bear the traffic of these motor lorries, you can macadamise the roads. That is where a sense of proportion has to come in. All that will cost money; and you have got to put that against the obvious loss to the country in taking away agricultural land at this time. I can make that point quite clear to the House by pointing out that new factories, within the experience of everyone having anything to do with business, spring up, and sometimes it pays a man to offer far beyond the real value of the land in order to secure a site which is ideal for his purposes, because he knows that the initial outlay will be repaid to him over and over again by the advantages in the site of the working of the business subsequently. That has to be taken into account, and has to be set against the obvious disadvantage of taking agricultural land at a time like this. That is sufficient as regards the site; but I wish to put this other point to which I attach more importance— that is whether or not this was properly considered. Mistakes may be made. I do not believe that a mistake has been made here, so far as I can judge, but the real point is that the Government should not act precipitately, that proper consideration should be given, and that all the advantages and disadvantages should be taken into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield complained of the fact that if there were need for this work it proved that it ought to have been done long ago. I do not think that quite follows.
I simply took up the remark of my right hon. Friend that there had been a growing need of this to the knowledge of the War Office for the past two years.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I do not think that that quite follows. A need of this kind becomes plain, but the pressing nature of it grows. In the case of this work, nobody questions that it was necessary. I am not defending that. I am assuming that it is necessary, but the need of it grows. What made it more pressing for the moment— I do not know whether my right hon. Friend mentioned this— and, therefore, more necessary, was that some of those repairing shops which we had in France have been lost owing to the German advance, and it was necessary then to act more suddenly than otherwise would have been the case. Now, it is accepted, first of all, that the War Office themselves invited consideration of this proposal, since it affected food production. The site was examined by the Lands Department, which is under the War Office, and by this Committee, and the Agricultural Department took the view which everyone takes at first sight, at all events, not merely— and I think that this is what interests us chiefly— that you are going to lose this food, but bearing in mind the moral effect on agricultural people of doing this at a time when you are urging increased food production, and naturally objected very strongly to it, and I do not think they have been convinced yet.
But now I come to the final consideration. I think that my right hon. Friend implied that the War Cabinet had a great deal to do, and could not go into this themselves. That is true; and I would remind the House that with an ordinary system of Government, and in ordinary times, a question of this kind does not come before the Cabinet at all. The Department decides on its own responsibility. Owing, perhaps, in the part to the trouble which had arisen in previous cases, the subject was brought before the War Cabinet. The view we took was that this was not the kind of question which could be settled by a statement on one side or the other, and that it required examination by experts. We did what is done nearly always in similar cases. We said that the Cabinet as a whole cannot take the time to discuss this matter, and I think it is equally true that if the Cabinet were not able off-hand to decide on the merits of this question, the House of 2330 Commons is equally unable to come to a decision. What happened? We appointed one of our members to go into the matter. Somebody suggests that he was got hold of by the War Office, and that it was said, "You have got to convince other parties that this is the only possible site." He started, as I started, and as the House started, with a prejudice against taking this land at all. I have seen him myself this afternoon, and we discussed the matter. He made an exhaustive inquiry into the question with representatives of the Departments interested, and withheld his decision until the examination of every other possible site had been made. That having been done, General Smuts came to the conclusion that this site, in all the circumstances, was the right one for the purposes the Government have in view.
§ Mr. R. McNEILL
Before General Smuts was invited to make his inspection, were the conditions referred to by my right hon. Friend put before him as essential?
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I heard my right hon. Friend, and I do not think that is a fair conclusion at all. He pointed out what were the needs of a site for our purposes, and what the experts were asked to do was to find a suitable site for carrying out a business of this kind. What was done was to try and find a site best suited to the purposes in view, and this site has been chosen as fulfilling that condition. I am extremely sorry that the Motion for the Adjournment should have been moved. I think it should be remembered that this is war work, and that it is needed. I think that it will have a bad effect upon the country outside if it appears that the House of Commons is nagging over a small matter of this kind. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] I am only saying what might be thought. If you are satisfied, as I am myself, that the Government did take every reasonable precaution to prevent a mistake being made, then I think it would be a pity to give the impression that the House of Commons is not satisfied with the action that has been taken
Mr. H. SAMUEL
I do not think it can be said that the House is nagging over this matter; I do not think it approaches 2331 the subject by any means from that point of view. The House of Commons was, in fact, much shocked by the description of what was happening. Those who heard the speeches of the Mover and Seconder of this Motion, and certainly a very much larger proportion present now than there was then, were deeply impressed by what they said. There is unquestionably a good deal of uneasiness with regard to the action of different Government Departments. Case after case of expenditure is being constantly undertaken, and unsuitable land is chosen by arbitrary action, and taken by the Government Department, but which, after examination, is shown not to be suitable, and I am sure that the country feel that the House of Commons would be doing less than its duty in not paying attention to matters of this kind. It may be said that this particular instance is a small one, but, of course, these small things eventually become immense as a whole
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I do not wish to be misunderstood. I think the House of Commons is absolutely right in discussing these matters, but I thought it was a pity the Motion for the Adjournment had been moved.
In the circumstances it is necessary, because the work of destruction is now proceeding. Let me give the simple facts, which have not been heard by many hon. Members who were not here when the Debate opened The War Office were anxious to obtain an area of about one square mile; it was most urgently needed for sheds for motor traction vehicles, assembling workshops, and repair shops, and, as I understand, they set out to find a piece of land. They found this piece of land, which was universally held in the district to be one of the very best pieces of agricultural land in the country. The particular farms are well known in the whole neighbourhood, because of the very valuable and highly cultivated land. At this moment a considerable number of soldiers have been set to work to root up the growing crop and roots from this land. On the same site there is a hospital, which has been erected after great trouble, and which serves a considerable area That is about to be pulled down, in order that the gravel under the hospital may be used for making ferro-concrete in order to provide the buildings required. The Member for the constituency approached the War 2332 Office by letter, nine days ago, and hp asked what was the necessity for this situ being taken, and to this day has received no acknowledgment of the letter. All these things impress the House as being wrong. Then my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to the War Office, with his usual ability, arose to make the War Office reply. He did so with very great plausibility, at any rate, until the reply is examined carefully in detail. He said that this site was chosen because certain conditions had to be fulfilled. What was the case he laid before the House? It was necessary to have a site on the Great Western Railway, because it communicated with districts from which these things came. It was necessary to have a site within twenty-five miles of London. It was desirable to have a site on a canal. It was also necessary to have a site with gravel for making ferro-concrete. Search was made for a place with these qualifications, and the only site that could be found in the whole country fulfilling these conditions was the particular piece of land now being taken ! When my right hon. Friend was speaking, I thought I had heard that speech, or a very similar one, before, not from him, not with respect to this case at all, but during the inquiry which it was my duty to conduct as chairman of a War Office Sub-committee of the Select Committee on. National Expenditure into the case of Loch Doon. I spent two mornings examining a very considerable number of witnesses as to the reason why Loch Doon was suggested, and one after another said it was regarded as essential to fulfil certain conditions. There must be a sheet of calm water, there must be a hill side, a level place for an aerodrome, and a large tract of sparsely inhabited country. Search was made for a locality which fulfilled those conditions, and there was only one in the whole of Great Britain, and that was Loch Doon!
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the WAR OFFICE (Mr. Forster)
Has an alternative site been found fulfilling those conditions?
It has since been found that it was not necessary to have a piece of water and it was the price of water which limited the position and area to be selected. With regard to these particular conditions, everything depends on the question whether or not they are 2333 really essential. Why should the place be within twenty-five miles of London? Because, said my right hon. Friend, it is necessary that it should be in close touch with the Ministry of Munitions, with the War Office, and with other Government Departments situated in London. What was wanted was a square mile of land on which motor tractors could be collected. There was to be a repair work shop and an assembling workshop, and it must be within twenty-five miles of London in order to be in close touch with the Ministry of Munitions and the War Office. Thirty miles, I suppose, would make it impossible, while forty miles would be inconceivable. It must be within a certain radius of Whitehall. My right hon. Friend also said it must be within reach of the highly skilled staff which would be engaged on the work. Where is that staff now? Is it in Slough or is it in London? Is it suggested that the staff should travel up and down from London every day? Is it for that reason it must be within twenty-five miles of London? All these contentions, when examined, are found to have an exceedingly flimsy basis, if indeed they have any basis at all. One is led to the conclusion that the War Office has tied itself quite unnecessarily to a very small area for possible sites, instead of going wider.field and trying to avoid occurrences such as are taking place on this land to-day. There must be an immense number of areas to be found in the southern part of this country, where there is plenty of gravel to be obtained without having to pull down a hospital in order to get at the gravel bed which lies underneath it. All these points by no means bring conviction to the minds of those who heard my right hon. Friend's speech. What I want to know is this: Whether General Smuts felt himself at liberty to review the whole matter de novo? My experience from examining Government Department and other experts, is that the Department fixes the conditions. They say: "We must have this or that; we must have a hillside, or a piece of water, or an uninhabited area, or we must have a level space," and then the other Departments are brought in and have to accept these as absolutely necessary conditions. They say: "We are not experts in instruction in aerial gunnery; we do not know whether the conditions are correct." The Land Department, the War Office, the Engineering Department, the 2334 Scottish Department, and the other Departments consulted as to Loch Doon were not able to go behind the Royal Flying Corps and to examine whether the conditions laid down were necessary or not.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman we are not now dealing with Loch Doon. The right hon. Gentleman's speech seems to be more occupied with that than with the Question immediately before the House.
It was the similarity of the two cases, I am afraid, which misled me. The point I am endeavouring to impress upon the House is this, that in this case possibly as in that case, it has been for the War Office, the Department concerned, to say these are the conditions which we must have; it is for us to lay down the conditions, and the other Departments come in and have to accept those conditions— the Finance Department, the Food Production Department, the War Cabinet and General Smuts, have to decide on land only that fulfils those conditions. That is how I read the case. We want an explanation how it is this particular piece of land was chosen. Many of those who heard the Debate think that a more suitable piece of land might have been chosen on the Great Western Railway, nearer the great centres of manufacture, where skilled labour is easily available, where there would be no necessity to destroy a great area of growing crops only two months before the harvest will be reached, and where there will be no necessity to pull down an existing building at very considerable cost to the State and to the great scandal of the neighbourhood.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has complained, in relation to this Motion for Adjournment, that those who have taken part in this Debate have acted in a nagging way towards the Government. I think hon. Members who have listened to the greater proportion of the speakers, as I have done, will agree that this spirit has been peculiarly absent from the whole discussion, and, if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to draw a correct conclusion from what has occurred, he will be driven to. this conclusion, that it is always wise in a case of this kind, when the Department is questioned, not to give the minimum of information, but to give the House the maximum of information which 2335 is consistent with the national interest. But that -was not the policy pursued in the present case. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Bucks, as we have been told to-night, acting as Member for the constituency, days ago applied to the War Office for information and has not 3ret received even an acknowledgment. Several questions have been put in this House on this particular question, and the information, offered by the Department concerned has been, I think every body will agree, of the most in adequate description. Had there been the least attempt to satisfy the curiosity of hon. Members concerned, and to give the information which was required by the House and by the country. I do not believe for a moment that this Motion, for the Adjournment would have been made or would have received the support of hon. Members who rose to back it. The discussion has proved conclusively that the Motion for the Adjournment was justified, and, further, that if the Government desire to avoid such Motions and such discussions in the future, the best policy for them to pursue is to be more frank and more candid with the House. I do not desire to enter into the merits of this case. I think they have been adequately dealt with by other speakers. The case that has been presented by my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary with such plausibility and eloquence, and by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has not carried conviction to the House. The case which has been put forward by the War Office is by no means conclusive. We have been told that the need for this particular site for this specific purpose has arisen owing to certain events in France. We do not desire to enter into those causes, but what has the Government done? They have insisted on a site within twenty-five miles of London. Is it not conceivable that other events may happen in France which may make a site within twenty-five; miles of London by no means the most appropriate site for these purposes^ I do not wish to enter into those possible events, but I may remind the Leader of the House that this hypo thesis which I am mentioning was stated to the public by General Smuts in his speech in Glasgow on receiving the freedom of the city. If that hypothesis was so near and probable as to justify General Smuts in mentioning it to a public audience in Glasgow, surely it was equally - 2336 advisable for the Government) to have it in its mind in deciding upon this particular site. Apparently that matter has been altogether overlooked. I believe that taking the requirements put forward by the War Office a far more suitable site for this particular purpose could have been found on another part of the country, a site also far more accessible from the point of view of the skilled labour required, far more appropriate from the point of view of communications than that of Slough, and on the whole as accessible for official purposes as a site within twenty-five miles of London. I should like to know how far from London the experts of the War Office went in their search for a site. We have never been told. We have not been told whether this twenty-five mile radius was regarded as an absolute sine qua non. If it was, I should regard it as a very un-fortunate test to apply.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
If it was not, then I should like to know what sites were inquired into in other parts of the country? After all, there are many parts of England where there are level sites in the vicinity of great industries, where there are large skilled populations, and where I have no doubt gravel can also be found. In these circumstances I think everybody who has listened to the Debate will agree that it is a singularly unfortunate occurrence that has taken place, that it is one which is likely to cause great uneasiness in the minds o! those familiar with it as to the general manner in which these matters are treated by the Government, that in all the circumstances I think my hon. and gallant Friend has been thoroughly justified in the course which he has taken, and that if the Government in future deny information to the House as they have denied it in this case they may equally expect a similar course to be adopted.
§ Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and negatived.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.