Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £25, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1920, for expenditure in respect of Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue, Post Office and Telegraph Buildings in Great Britain and certain Post Offices abroad.
§ Mr. BALDWIN
I do not propose to detain the Committee on this subject more than two or three minutes, because I do not intend to say anything about the merits of the various items covered by this Vote. But I think that at this stage it will be for the convenience of the Committee that a Provisional Estimate relating to these items should come on, and that this Vote should be put down in this form to give an opportunity for consideration. There is a considerable problem of public building which the House will be asked to discuss, and which will no doubt be debated in due course and defended by the Ministers concerned. It will be claimed that there is great necessity for getting on with the various buildings. I have put down this Vote as a means of maintaining Parliamentary control, so that I have only put down a token figure. If the Committee approves of that, money can then be spent on this Vote on account up to the end of the financial year, and they may possibly commence with the sites and the preliminary work in connection with the erection of the buildings in the months of April, May and June, which are the best part of the year for begining building operations. If an Estimate had not been presented in this way, we should have had to put down a Supplementary Estimate, which would not come before the House until May or June, and might not be passed until the end, of July. In order to take advantage of the building season, this has been done, and if we get this Vote we shall not lose that part of the building season. Application might have been made to start building in anticipation of Parliamentary consent; but the Votes for these buildings are of such magnitude this year that I could not have adopted that course without making 346 some application for authority and Parliamentary sanction. Therefore, I have adopted this form of placing the matter before the Committee for acceptance, if the Committee should think fit. I have only occupied five minutes in explanation in the hope that it may simplify the course of the Debate.
§ Mr. ACLAND
I think the hon. Gentleman has done perfectly right in deciding that these items should be included in these Votes, so as to give the Committee-an opportunity of criticising the proposals, because undoubtedly the proposals for-building, which will be put forward by the Ministry of Health and other Departments will be very important. We art told that the whole building question is a very important one, and, therefore, I think it should be regarded with great care. The hon. Member has stated that by this Supplementary Estimate, he covers the various proposals to be brought forward by the Departments which are-interested, and it will enable them to get on with the building in the early part of the year. But I should like to refer to some of these buildings, particularly those in Manchester. Under Sub-head (F) for new works, alterations, and additions, [...] site is to be purchased at Manchester and a building to be erected at a cost of £132,800; and if we turn to page 12, we will see that it is proposed again in Manchester to purchase a site and erect new buildings for the Divisional Officers of the Employment Exchange. For this there is put down £132,000, which is a provisional sum and may be increased by £32,000. Bringing those two sums together we find that the Government intend for certain buildings to spend a sum of £245,000, which, of course, is only £5,000 short of a quarter of a million. It so happens that there is a very special difficulty in the matter of housing in Manchester at the present time. There is the usual shortage of housing, and there is also a very great shortage of labour. I believe the Manchester City Council has had to give a contract for building houses to an outside contractor—Messrs. MacAlpine. This contractor will have to import labour for the purpose, and that, of course, raises another housing problem, for these 347 workmen will require to be housed. The matter is one which requires the attention of the House. Has it been talked over with the Minister of Health? The right hon. Gentleman comes to this House and complains, in his opinion quite justifiably, of the action of the trade unions in holding back the building of houses, and of the action of the building ring; and yet all the time it seems to be proposed by the Government that they should engage this year in considerable building works in one of the cities which needs houses more than others. One naturally wants to know why. It seems as if the Government itself would be partly guilty of obstructing those who are anxious to supply the urgent needs of the community in the matter of housing.
Nothing ought to be allowed to stand in the way of housing work. Take the case of my own little village in Devonshire. We want to put up a public hall and institute in celebration of victory, but we are discouraged simply because we feel that at present nothing ought to be done except actual housing work. What is the real justification of this large expenditure on building in Manchester? If it is necessary, the plan has certain obvious consequences: the Government are very definitely aggravating the present shortage both of materials and labour; they are inevitably driving up the price of building materials and increasing the financial difficulty of the local authorities. One would have thought that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have intervened in a case of this kind and would at any rate have had the matter referred to the Cabinet Committe on Retrenchment, if that body is still in existence. If the Government is really serious in its desire that nothing whatever should stand in the way of its housing programme I want to ask the following questions: What is this considerable expenditure for in Manchester? Is it really necessary now? Has the Minister of Health been consulted as to the effect on the housing programme? Finally, has the matter come before the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Retrenchment Committee, because the sum involved is large and the principle at stake is important?
§ Colonel GRETTON
I beg to move to reduce the Vote by the sum of £5.
348 The Financial Secretary to the Treasury deserves our congratulations and thanks for the course he has taken, so that the whole matter may be laid before the House. The sum involved in this Vote is £155,000, to which must be added a further £24,500, or thereabouts, making a total of £182,000; and in the next Vote there is a very large sum, namely £940,000, so that the sum involved is over £1,130,000. That is an enormous expenditure to agree to on token votes. I certainly think the Committee should be very careful indeed as to how they authorise the Government to embark on this very large programme, now that building is so expensive. The item for the purchase of buildings for the Revenue Department at Manchester requires a great deal of explanation.
§ Sir A. MOND
I can quite understand that my right hon. Friend requires some explanation of the sum of money for which I am asking for the purpose of these Revenue buildings at Manchester. It cannot be overlooked that as building operations stopped practically for five years, there was an enormous congestion to be overcome as far as Government buildings were concerned. That has to be borne in mind in reference to the urgency of making a start now. These particular buildings are asked for by the Inland Revenue. I am asked whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been consulted. I have very little doubt he has been consulted, because it is his office that is asking for the buildings, and my right hon. Friend must have been convinced of the necessity for them. It is intended to form six new tax districts in Manchester. There is also a very large increase in the staff in existing districts. It appeared that the most economical solution of the question was to build permanent offices or to buy suitable buildings. It is true that there are difficulties about housing in Manchester. In Manchester, as in other provincial centres in the North, the securing of office accommodation has been a matter of extreme difficulty. It is impossible to stop the machinery of Government and the collection of taxation essential for carrying on Customs and Excise, even if it does interfere with housing for a time. There is the reverse side of the medal to be looked at. If this scheme is carried through one result will be the release of a considerable 349 number of hired buildings and of a certain amount of office accommodation. The commercial world in Manchester has not enough office accommodation for its needs. If we do not build they will do so. It is not merely a question whether we shall construct houses or these buildings. Hon. Members will agree that, as far as possible, a concentration of staff should be carried out. It is very inconvenient for economical administration to have a staff scattered all over the city. This question has been very fully gone into. The Treasury looked into it very fully themselves, and it is only because of real necessity that they reluctantly put forward this proposal for building.
I think it will be agreed that the defence made by the right hon. Gentleman is not very convincing, because if it comes to a choice between Government buildings and the construction of working-class houses or any sort of dwelling-house in the present condition of housing, in my opinion, it is the Government building and not the dwelling-house that ought to go to the wall. The right hon. Gentleman says that if the Government do not build then the commercial interests in Manchester would put up office buildings, and he says that is a reason why the Government should start building their offices and their mansions for the housing of their staff. If the commercial houses in Manchester are in that position they will build anyhow and it will merely increase the difficulty if the Government build as well as the commercial houses.
§ Sir A. MOND
What I pointed out was that we should release a certain amount of accommodation which would be useful for commercial offices, and that they would use those offices instead of building.
I gathered that, but I maintain that it is not an argument that should induce the Committee to agree to estimates of this size, even in the form of token Votes, to say that the Government building will not interfere with the building of workmen's houses. The right hon. Gentleman will not accuse me of exaggerating his statement when I say that he alleged that the machinery of government would break down if these buildings were not constructed. I cannot see how that would come about, because, after all, 350 the machinery of government is carried on in offices, and the only reason why it should break down is because the people who carried it on were not able to do so any longer, but apparently they have carried it on fairly satisfactorily. I cannot see my way to sanction large Estimates of this kind in the dark until the housing position in the country is far more satisfactory than it is to-day. These buildings examined in relation to the cost of ordinary dwelling-houses seem to be extraordinarily large. Unless there is some further explanation I shall feel compelled to vote for the reduction.
§ Captain ELLIOT
I desire to support the remarks just made. It is the same old story. The Government come down here and make a fuss about offices, and tell us they are not comfortable, and that they must have better and more and still more offices. But people want to get into houses to live, and the money you will save in erecting these houses will be much more than lost if people are compelled to go on living in slums. We heard hon. Members on the Labour Benches accused some time ago of holding up housing schemes by shortage of labour, and then the Government itself comes down and proposes to subtract these enormous numbers of men and masses of material for their building programme. The Minister of Health complained that, were it not for the shortage of labour and owing to some extent to the shortage of materials, he could get 200,000 houses erected. His confrères come down and say, "We want to get into new and bigger and better offices." It is a tragic thing that the Government is run to such an extent by people who are ignorant of the very rudiments of biology. They do not seem to realise that what is essential is to have houses and married people and children. There are married people being held up who cannot get houses, and you cannot get the citizens who are to be governed from these offices because the Government comes down and wants to spend a hundred and thirteen thousand pounds on some great castle in Manchester. What the people want just now is ordinary four-or five-roomed houses. They want to have a place of their own where they can slam the front door and tell all the Government officials in Christendom to keep outside. The First Commissioner has made no valid defence at all. Marriages are being 351 prevented because people cannot get anywhere to live. It is hypocrisy to come down and say that the labour situation has anything to do with the building of houses when they propose to let the housing situation in Manchester, which is, I am sure, as bad as elsewhere, stand while they are erecting these great big offices. The only argument advanced was that this building would release offices for commercial purposes. The thing the nation needs is not more commercial premises, but more living room. The people are dying all over the country from overcrowding and congestion. In face of that, the Government calmly propose to subtract large numbers of men and vast masses of material to erect more offices.
§ Colonel GRETTON
I think this requires further explanation. Is there going to be any economy in administration and in staff in consequence of this proposal? I am greatly disappointed at the explanation which we have had and I think the Government would be better advised to drop this and allow the building trade to apply itself to the building of houses.
§ Sir A. MOND
I would like to point out that not merely is this building required for the existing staff, but also in connection with additional districts which are being formed. I am informed that a large amount of revenue is being daily lost through these buildings not being erected. It cannot be good economy to refuse accommodation for revenue officers, because if you do not collect revenue you cannot have any housing programme. Hon. Members say they want houses, but in order to have them you must have a supply of money, and to get that you must collect taxes. That is why this scheme has been adopted. We are dealing with a staff of between six and seven hundred people, and although the amount may seem large it is not large worked out per head of the staff as buildings go nowadays. This kind of building does not interfere much with the erection of cottages and dwelling-houses, and there is not the same class of labour employed as you have in the erection of working men's dwellings. I cannot give any undertaking, but what I propose to do is to work as far as possible in conjunction with the Ministry of Health in order to interfere as little as possible with 352 housing schemes. I gladly undertake to see that as far as possible no housing schemes should be interfered with in any kind of serious way if this scheme is proceeded with.
§ Sir A. MOND
I propose to put myself in communication with him. I do not suppose the Ministry of Health will make the slightest objection. They will, I am sure, be reasonable enough to see that it is necessary to collect Revenue if we are to have houses. It is not a question of theoretical consultation, but practical coordination that I intend to have. An hon. Member asked if there would be economy of administration. There certainly will be an economy of time in having these offices in one building instead of having them scattered in different places. Another hon. Member said that the people wanted houses and not commercial offices, but I would remind him that unless you develop your export trade and improve the exchange you will not reduce the cost of living. There is no use in saying commercial accommodation does not matter. It is as important to the welfare of the country as dwelling houses. Therefore my argument that by putting up this building you will release a considerable amount of office room which will revert to commercial purposes is, I think, perfectly-sound.
§ 8.0 P.M.
There are some statements of the right hon. Gentleman which require close consideration. He has told us he has had no consultation with the Ministry of Health on this very important question, and that it was a matter, not of theoretical consultation, but practical co-ordination. He assumes that the Ministry of Health will not object, and he states that they will not. What have the Government done with regard to the local authorities' housing schemes? They have asked every local authority in the country to consider the whole question of building in their area, and not to allow any building to proceed if it is going to interfere with housing. In other words, every local authority has been admonished by the Government to concentrate on the problem of building, and to treat is as a whole, and yet we have the First Commissioner of Works telling us 353 that the very course which the Government have laid upon the local authorities is one which they are not following themselves. The hon. and gallant Member for Lanark (Capt. Elliot) suggested that the Government did not know very much about biology. I think he might add to that that they are rather weak on psychology, too. I think the Government does not quite realise how much the country is looking to it for a lead in the direction of economy and also in the direction of building. During the War we were asked to set aside all other things and concentrate on the prosecution of the War, and I really think that in the country at the present time the feeling of the people is that the prosecution of the great housing scheme is almost as important as was the prosecution of the War, and when the country learns, as it will to-morrow, that the Government is not taking into consideration the housing problem when they are dealing with their own needs, I think it will be felt that they are setting a very bad example to the country indeed.
The right hon. Member who spoke earlier in the Debate (Mr. Acland) mentioned a case of what might be regarded as real village patriotism. He said that down in his part of the world there was a little village anxious to get a hall and institute built, and anyone who knows village life will know how important such a building is to the social life of the village, and yet these people, conscious of the larger problem, have been content to set aside their own wishes and postpone the erection of this centre of pleasure. That is the sort of example that the Government ought to set, and when it begins to set these examples, the country will pull itself together, and we shall get on. There are one or two other matters on this Vote on which I would like to have some explanation. The First Commissioner of Works has made a very serious statement with regard to these buildings which are to be erected in Manchester. He says they are wanted because six new tax districts are being formed, and that the additional staff is required because at the present time the Treasury is losing large amounts of revenue through non-collection. That seems to be a very extraordinary state of affairs, and one that we have never heard anything at all about before in this House. If that is really so it obviously 354 means that some taxpayers are escaping at the expense of others. This information comes to us from the First Commissioner of Works, and not from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I think we ought to have a little more information upon the matter.
In regard to the actual cost of the work in Manchester, a staff of 600 is going to be accommodated for £113,800. That staff is practically the same in numbers as was the staff of the Peace Conference, and certainly from the point of view of economy the amount that is to be expended in housing 600 officials in Manchester permanently, compares very favourably with the amount that it cost to house a staff of 600 in Paris for two months, namely, £220,000, or about twice as much. I think it would be a great help in considering these votes for public buildings if the Committee could have some information which would enable them to judge whether the amount to be expended was reasonable or not. All these public buildings are being put up in order to accommodate a certain number of staff. Therefore, the real relation to cost and economy would be best realised by the cost per head of the buildings, and if one could have at the same time as the estimates, a statement of the number of staff in each case and the cost per head of housing them at the present time, as compared with earlier votes, the House would be in a better position to judge as to whether economy was or was not being followed. I think the Government should seriously consider this whole building programme in relation to the housing question and give some assurance to the House that the housing problem has been taken into account and that no buildings are being proceeded with which can possibly be dispensed with until at least the first year is over and the first large instalment is made towards the solution of the housing problem.
§ Mr. ORMSBY-GORE
I really was surprised, pained, and even shocked at the argument of the First Commissioner of Works. If he thinks he is going to collect more revenue by concentrating Inland Revenue officials in a great block of buildings, I am certain that that is a complete and absolute fallacy, and that the only way to collect revenue is to have the officials scattered about the country 355 and as far as possible working in small offices.
He speaks of the convenience of the public, but surely he knows that the convenience of the public in dealing with the Income Tax collector is better served by having a small office in their own district, instead of a great block of buildings, where you are referred from one man to another, centralised in the heart of a great city, and probably involving a long journey. If under this Vote he is going to concentrate the Inland Revenue officials in Manchester, he is going to make for bureaucracy and not for economy, and by co-ordinating and concentrating things, instead of making for efficiency and the case and comfort of the ordinary man who has got to pay his taxes, he is doing exactly the opposite. I shall undoubtedly vote with my hon. Friend in favour of reducing the amount by £5, and I wish to goodness we could reduce it by more.
§ Mr. TOOTILL
It strikes me there are one or two things about which hon. Members who sit on these benches will want some information. How many skilled men connected with the building trade are going to be absorbed in the building such as is contemplated by this expenditure? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some information respecting that particular matter. I know great complaints are made in every town and urban district in the country about the delays that are taking place through the red-tape in connection with this housing. Allegations have been made in this House by the Front Ministerial Bench that the Labour party are responsible for the holding-up of the building of houses for the people. I want to give a definite and categorical denial to any such allegation. Until the Government have presented the facts and given us the data upon which those facts are built, then, as one representing a great industrial constituency, and with some knowledge of the housing problem as it affects that district, I say it is not fair or just, and the Government must take their full share of the responsibility for this great delay in the building of houses. What took place during the War? In Barrow, which was a district where munitions were made upon a large scale, three sets of men were occupying beds at given periods in three shifts, and surely the 356 Government must realise that that is conducive to ill-health and not efficiency. It is now proposed to spend this large sum on a central building, when greater efficiency might be secured in the collection of revenue by having the offices scattered. Until the Government have demonstrated clearly, definitely and unmistakably that the Labour party are responsible for the holding up of house building throughout the country, I think we are justified in absolutely denying the statement that we are responsible. I, therefore, feel that it is in the interests of the country that this question should be dealt with on its merits.
§ Motion made and Question, "That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again" put, and agreed to.—[Mr. Baldwin.]
§ Resolutions to be reported To-morrow -, Committee also report progress; to sit again To-morrow.