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.
I desire to say a few words on the subject about Inland Revenue buildings in Manchester. A Motion was made last night to reduce the Vote by the amount required for this building, and I desire to put a few reasons before the Committee why this Vote should be sanctioned. It is quite true, as was suggested in the course of the Debate, that considerable difficulty is experienced in Manchester and the district in having buildings of any kind erected. But it is equally true, and this appeals to me personally very much, that in Manchester and district there is a very large amount of money which we hope to gather for the Inland Revenue, and it is equally true at the present moment that, owing to the difficulty of finding sufficient housing for the Inland Revenue staff, we are unable to collect as much as we ought. One or two hon. Members spoke as though we could lay our fingers on the spot and say, that so much would be collected, if the staff were greater, or say who are the people who are escaping the payment of taxes. Of course, to anyone familiar with these matters it is clear that neither of these courses is possible.
Where you have a large business or a large corporation the utmost penny of the Income Tax is obtained A large corporation of that kind have to publish all their accounts and probably keep trained accountants working all the year round in their offices, not only on the ordinary accounts which have to be presented to the shareholders, but also in the preparation of the special accounts required by the Inland Revenue with reference to Income Tax. Where the difficulty comes in is in the matter of private traders who are making moderate profits. I do not say for a moment that, generally speaking, there is any great attempt at evasion, but no one who has had to get out, as I have tried to get out, the Income Tax accounts of businesses, can fail to be struck by the extreme difficulty in getting out those accounts. It is perfectly possible, in fact, it is very easy, to make a claim for deductions which cannot be substantiated either by Statut or fact, and why the Inland Revenue want the staff strengthened is to check all these claims for deductions and press home all the demands for the payment of Income Tax which are enforceable by Statute.
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Bonar Law), when ho was Chancellor of the Exchequer, pointed out to the House many times that the Revenue was suffering during the War owing to the number of the trained men in the Inland Revenue service who were taken away for military service. It was in the way that I have attempted to describe that the loss was suffered. An enormous number of accounts were unable to be subjected to the expert investigation which is necessary, and we know, and know for certain, that large amounts of money must have escaped through the mesh, which escape ought to have been prevented, and could have been prevented by a proper staff, but which, in the circumstances, could not be prevented. For some time past in Manchester circumstances have been against an adequate and complete collection of Revenue, and we wish to make this good and stop this gap in the mesh as soon as possible. There is one building in Manchester occupied by Inland Revenue officials which belongs to the Crown, but there are no fewer than six separate branches of officers who are at this moment in hired buildings. If we got this Vote and can secure a site, which is no easy matter, and put up our building, we can then house enough of the men who are at present in hired quarters to save nearly £2,000 a year in rent, and we can provide the extra staff required to enable us to do our work completely and efficiently. In these circumstances, it would be very false economy for this Committee to reject a proposal of this kind on this Vote and not give us an opportunity of getting what we are entitled to, that is, the last ounce that can be obtained from the men who at present are making such substantial profits. I believe that there is no part of the country in which the harvest is more ripe or likely to be more productive from our point of view, and my anxiety is to see that no taxpayer in this country shall escape the last penny which is legitimately due by him to any Department over which I have control.
Can the hon Gentleman say what is the number of the staffs he proposes to accommodate, and when they will be accommodated? Could a building be put up within the next six months to meet all requirements?
I cannot tell the hon. Member how long it will take to put up the building. We want to get on with it, and the first thing to do is to obtain the site, and once the site is obtained, we will put up the building. I do not propose to distinguish between the amount of money we require for one thing more than another, because there is no worse thing this Committee can do in an Estimate than to show how much money Parliament is about to give for a site, because then the price is put up. There are at present in Manchester 260 Inland Revenue officials. To do our work efficiently we should want about 100 more. The saving to be made in the payment of rents is roughly £2,000 a year. Even if this building is put up, it will still be necessary to have a certain number of the staff in hired buildings.
Hero we are asked to provide a sum for a permanent building. Am I to understand that it is to be commenced forthwith? Those who know anything about Manchester and the district know that during the next two years, at any rate, there will be far greater requirements for the necessities of the country and of the district, not only in the provision of houses, where thousands and thousands of houses are necessary, but also of works. Could not the Department accommodate themselves temporarily, as private traders and others have to do, and obtain the accommodation which they can readily obtain on a site with temporary buildings upon it— huts? If they do that, all their requirements can be met almost immediately and this work at this time need not be undertaken.
I do not know whether I might make a suggestion, but there are before us to-day several Votes, all of which raise the question of new buildings and the extension of existing buildings. I want to reserve what I have to say on a Motion which I have tabled to reduce a subsequent Vote, which I think the Committee will agree raises far and away the most serious question of building. It is there proposed to spend something like £1,000,000 on the extension of the Labour Exchanges. It would be very much to the convenience of the Committee if we could in some way take these Building Votes together and find out which really are essential. They all raise much the same question. I am not at all clear when this building is going to be erected, but I gather that the hon. Gentleman has not a site in view at the present moment, and, if that be so, it must be a long time before the Inland Revenue are going to get any advantage from the proposal. All these must be matters of relative urgency. A large number of departments are at present housed in buildings in those cities, and, as those departments become less necessary, and, as I hope, their staffs are reduced, other buildings will become available. It is undesirable that we should commit ourselves to any undertaking which may take three years to complete unless we know that all the Government departments have been together and have found out whether any buildings in which the permanent staff might be accommodated are going to be vacated.
Listening yesterday to the remarks in this House upon this particular Estimate, I was reminded of an evening last Session when the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, in very solemn and serious tones, warned the country of the danger of extravagance and of the fact that the Government did not possess a bottomless purse. He said that at this particular juncture in our history it was of the highest importance that reasonable economy should be exercised in every direction. Shortly following that speech, there was a proposal of the Government for the increase of Ministers' salaries. Some of us wondered whether the Government were in earnest and whether they really believed the doctrine that the President of the Board of Trade had preached. There was strong opposition, and that Bill went I know not where, but one has never heard of it since. I want as an ordinary Member to say that I am in an exceedingly difficult position with regard to this proposed expenditure. I hold in my hand a petition that I have received from the women of my constituency protesting against the continued rise in prices for which Government extravagance is responsible. They may be right, or they may be wrong, probably to an extent they are wrong, but, rightly or wrongly, many of these women are of this opinion, and the House and the Government should do all in their power to allay that suspicion, to remove it, and to show that there is no cause for it. That is the purpose for which I rose, and I earnestly hope that the Government will carry into effect the doctrine that it has preached—Example is better than precept—and that they will see that no expenditure is undertaken that can be reasonably avoided at this time, because, wherever there is large expenditure by the Government, it will be regarded by those people as justifying the opinion expressed in this Petition. I want, and I believe all the Members of the House want, to allay that feeling and to remove it and to bring about reasonable economy throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Mr. T. THOMSON:
I wish to join in the protest against the Government indulging in any building operations other than those connected with the Housing problem. They have met with a great deal of criticism from various Members of the House as to the delay which has taken place from one cause or another in the provision of houses, particularly for the working classes, and, although no doubt a good case has been made out in normal times for the better housing of the Government Departments, and in particular the Inland Revenue, where you get great efficiency, I submit that the continued want of decent and moral housing conditions for thousands of people in the country, due to the inefficiency of another Department, is of greater importance even than the needs of the staff of the various Government Departments. Anyone connected with an industrial constituency must have personal knowledge of most apalling overcrowding and consequent immorality and inefficiency throughout the length and breadth of the country, because houses are not available. Apart from the mere financial question whether we can afford these hundreds of thousands of pounds, we cannot afford the labour, and the bricks and mortar required by Government work other than houses for the working classes, and on that ground, and that ground alone, I hope that the House will pronounce with no uncertain voice as to the compelling necessity of delaying these works, no matter how desirable they may be in normal conditions, until the greater necessities of ordinary people throughout the length and breadth of the country are satisfied.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day, replying to the Debate on economy, said that whenever a question of expenditure was raised it was the House which urged more expenditure against one who, I am quite sure, was most sedulously endeavouring in many ways to guard the public purse. This is an occasion upon which we can really see how far the Government are in harmony with the House and the country in desiring to sec economy where expenditure is not absolutely necessary. I am afraid that the speech of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury did not at all convince me that this expenditure at the moment is necessary. The point which he made that it is very urgently necessary in order to got in all the revenue possible from the prosperous and fortunate neighbourhood of Manchester, of course, commands our sympathy, but it did not appear that there would be any immediate advantage coming to the Treasury from the passing of this Vote. From his own showing, a site has not been obtained, and the building cannot be put up for some time. What is to happen in the meantime? The staff, perhaps, are not working under ideal conditions, but they are working under conditions which are not very disadvantageous, and, after all, premises are not so necessary in the collection of revenue as energy, vigilance, and determination. These are not qualities that require large premises to have their full scope. The two urgent questions moving the people of the country to-day are, first, the necessity for the supply of houses, and, secondly, the need for rigid economy where expenditure is not urgently required. I therefore hope that the Government will bow to the feeling that there is in the House that unnecessary expenditure on buildings should not be incurred at the present moment.
The hon. Gentleman representing the Treasury, if he made out any case, made out one against the expenditure of this money. He put forward two diametrically opposite points of view. In the first place, he said that they were desirous of erecting these buildings to secure more efficiency in the collection of revenue from a body of small traders. So far as the great corporations of Manchester are concerned, there is no necessity for the erection of these buildings, because they are already collecting all that they can from them. No matter how careful they were to bring them all within the net of the Inland Revenue, some of the small traders escaped. That, however, was not the primary reason which the hon. Gentleman advanced. The primary reason was the demands which were made by these small traders for reductions. He said that these reductions could not be attended to, and that they wanted a larger and more efficient staff at Manchester with buildings in which to house them. There are hon. Members here representing the great city of Manchester, and I am quite certain, if there were any great complaints on the part of the small traders of Manchester, that they were not being treated justly by the Inland Revenue officials, that their grievances would have been voiced in this House. There has been no such outcry, and I take it that is evidence in itself that the small trader of Manchester is not suffering any injustice at the hands of the Inland Revenue authorities. One cannot say whether the Inland Revenue are getting all the money that they ought to get or not, but the hon. Gentleman himself has indicated that there is very little money to get in even if he gets all that it is possible to get under the Finance Act. I have not risen, however, so much to protest from that point of view as to join with the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway (Mr. T. Thomson), who has protested against the spending of this money and thus transferring labour from the building of working men's cottages which are very desirable in the district of Manchester and all the great industrial centres. It is not merely a question of labour, it is also a question of material. If the Government themselves are going to make the first demand upon the building trade for labour and material, it must naturally follow that those who want houses will have to continue to wait. In view of the very weak case which has been made out by the hon. Gentleman, I sincerely hope that the Committee will not vote this largo sum of money.
My hon. and gallant Friend beside me (Colonel Gretton) and myself were, I think, the first last night to raise objection to this Vote, and I rise to suggest that, in view of the strong opposition evinced in the House, the hon. Gentleman representing the Government should consent to withdraw the Estimate for the time being. I do not want to labour the points that have been made, for they are sufficiently obvious. I think that if the Government do not withdraw this Estimate there is no doubt that the Committee will insist upon a division, and in that division the Government will find against them those who really mean what they say, both on the subject of economy and on the subject of housing.
As a member of the Manchester Corporation I would like to say that I do not think it is right and proper that this money should be spent on public work in Manchester when the demand for houses is so great. In Manchester we have the greatest possible difficulty in getting sufficient labour to carry out the housing scheme already accepted. We are doing our best to get the houses built, because of the absolute necessity there is for them. This is not the time to divert labour to public buildings of this sort. I am certain that there could be carried on without such a building a Re- venue Department to collect all the money that ought to be collected, and thus avoid interfering with the pressing necessity for housing the labouring classes. I feel very strongly about this, and I join with the last speaker in the hope that the Government will see their way to drop this scheme.
Lieut.-Colonel A. MURRAY:
I join in the demand that the Government should withdraw this Estimate. The point is simply this: Is this building absolutely essential, or is it not? Can the representative of the Government stand at the Table and tell the House that the building is absolutely essential at the present time? From what has been said by the hon. Member who spoke last, I think we have proof that that is not the case. If the Government do not withdraw the Estimate, they should at least leave the matter to the free decision of the House.
Last night we asked the First Commissioner of Works whether he could give us an assurance that he had consulted the Ministry of Health on this subject. He said he could not do that at the time. We did not call for a Division last night. To-day we have had no assurance from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that such a consultation has taken place. As the Government have refused to meet us on this point, we may consider that their case is not a strong case. Permanent buildings are quite different from temporary buildings, in which, as we know, such work could be carried on. It has been carried on in temporary buildings in the great open spaces of London throughout the War. It is not necessary to have permanent buildings for office staffs, or not as necessary as to have permanent buildings for people to live in. I think we are justified in asking whether the Treasury has consulted the Ministry of Health. When the House makes such a request, and postpones a demand for an answer for 24 hours, it is entitled to have an answer.
In reply to the last question, I might say that a consultation on this subject was held with the Minister of Health this morning. He raised no objection to this scheme going through. In regard to further questions raised during the Debate, I think my right hon. Friend, when dealing with the question of economy, made out an absolutely overwhelming case. He pointed out that this scheme would save £2,000 a year in rent, and, in addition to that, it would bring in a large amount of revenue which is not now being collected.—[HON. MEMBERS: "In three years' time."]—Hon. Members say in three years' time. The building is supposed to be finished in about 15 months.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Never!"]—The Estimate is for building in 15 months' time, and hon. Members know well enough that it will not take three years. I assume that the site would be procured. On the one hand, hon. Members have asked me to postpone the building, and, on the other hand, it has been stated that the building will not be completed soon enough. It is obvious that the longer the building is postponed, the longer it will take to complete, and the greater the loss to the Revenue.—["HON. MEMBERS: "Why a loss?'"]—The Secretary to the Treasury has said that unless an additional staff is appointed to deal more exhaustively with the Income Tax accounts, a large amount of Income Tax that ought to be paid will not be paid, and I understand that the Treasury requires a staff of at least another 100. I have referred already to the extreme difficulty of obtaining office accommodation in Manchester I am sure that the hon. Member who spoke as a representative of the Manchester Corporation will agree that to obtain office accommodation in Manchester is to-day almost an impossibility. One of the complaints I have heard from business men in Manchester is that the Government are occupying business premises, and they ask when we are going to release them. This scheme would release a large amount of that office accommodation which has been clamoured for. At one moment the demand is made that we should release the offices we now have and in the next moment we are told that we ought to extend rather than release the offices we possess.
Of course some of it is temporary work and some of it is becoming permanent work, and this is permanent work. We have several sets of offices, and we should have to take more. The Government fully realise the great importance of not diverting any material or labour from the urgent task of building cottages. Nobody is in any doubt as to the urgency of the housing problem. I would like to point out to the House that this Vote is a token Vote in order to obtain the site and to erect the building. I will make a proposition which I think may meet the views which have been expressed. The token Vote would enable us to proceed with the negotiations for the purchase of the site. So far that would not interfere with housing at all. I will give an undertaking that we will not go on with the building at the present time unless after consultation with the Minister of Health. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I think I am making an endeavour to meet the Committee very fairly. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] After all, what is the issue between us? It is contended that this scheme will interfere with housing. My advice is that for the type of building which is proposed we shall use steel and concrete. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about labour?"] It is not the class of labour that is used in building cottages.
The hon. Member knows very well that there are different kinds of people in the building trade. The type of people who put up large buildings of steel girders are not the people who build cottages.
I do not see that that interferes with the type of building which we propose here. I have offered not to go on with this building unless the Minister of Health is satisfied that it will not interfere with housing. What is our difficulty? The Committee may as well face it. It is not a difficulty in this case only, but one which will meet Members at every turn. The Government services are continually expanding and the House is repeatedly voting new services. Those services require staffs, and the staffs require accommodation.
Sir A. MONO:
Hon. Members want economy. There is an economy here. Does not the Committee wish to save £2,500 a year? It is uneconomic. If I am asked, can I guarantee these figures showing that there will be this saving, I can only guarantee the figures so far as I am advised. Hon. Members have no idea of the present loss and expense. It is a most uneconomic way of doing the business, and we may have to pay a much larger amount. The loss may rise to £100,000 a year, and in the collection of revenue that is uneconomic. There can be no doubt about that. The real difficulty which has been raised is the question of housing. We feel that difficulty. The Government is as much interested in housing as anyone else is. If we can get this Vote, and if we then find that this scheme will interfere with housing in Manchester, we will postpone it until we are assured that it will not so interfere. I hope the Committee will give me the Vote, and allow me to negotiate in the first place for the acquisition of a site. Such sites do not often come into the market. We will not go on with it then until we communicate with the Minister of Health, and no doubt he will go into it with the Manchester Corporation to see if they have any objection.
I merely rise to remind the Committee that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has stated already that the Treasury officials are at present doing their work efficiently, and that being the case, there does appear to be no case for immediate expenditure on this scheme. The First Commissioner of Works has made an appeal on behalf of the Government, but even after that, if the Committee goes to a division, I shall vote against him.
Sir F. HALL:
I did not make up my mind upon this subject until I had heard both sides. But after the speech of the First Commissioner of Works I think I quite understand it. I know how keen the Minister of Health is on the question of building for the working classes, and that other building should be postponed until this accommodation has been provided, except in most urgent cases. There is no question of urgency in this case. It appears that an arrangement has been come to between the hon. Member who represents the Treasury and the Minister of Health. I do not want to do anything to delay this Vote, and after the speech of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury I cannot say that I have any other desire than to follow his advice so far as I can. All through the country, however, there is a cry for new houses for the working classes, and we have been advised on all sides that we should not erect other buildings unless they are absolutely necessary, and unless they will not interfere with the housing policy of the Government. In my constituency it was proposed by the Government that certain offices should be erected. I went to see some Members of the Government and also the Minister of Health, and I pointed out to them that instead of building those offices they should take account of the crying need there for the housing of the people. The result was that they withdrew that proposition because they were convinced that housing accommodation was much more urgent. I think this is a case for the decision of a Committee of this House. I do not think the Committee would be satisfied to leave it to the two Departments to settle and make an arrangement between themselves. The Minister has made the suggestion that we should give him this Vole in order that he might be in a position to take necessary steps in providing a site. I quite realise that he would require a reasonable time for that. Provided that he will undertake that the work of building will not go on, that no further stops will be taken to erect the building until ho has again come before this House, we might agree. Will he promise to do that? The First Commissioner of Works must know that the House is always generous, and I think he would got the Vote and would be able to get the site if he would promise that the other work should not go on without further discussion. I am sure the House of Commons will give the most careful consideration to the proposal if it comes up again. Therefore. I do suggest that he should give that pledge and we shall be able to give him the Vote now.
Yes, he said he had no objection, but what could that mean? I am surprised that he did not object. He has the main responsibility for the housing of the people of the country and therefore I am surprised. I am surprised, also, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not something to say about it. He mot a deputation a few weeks ago from the local authorities, and the Prime Minister said—I think I am quoting his exact words—that it was impossible to arrange a national loan for housing, and that housing depended upon local resources. He said that housing was hopeless and could not proceed without that local assistance. Now we have here an estimate for nearly £1,000,000. How many officials were being housed in wooden buildings during the War? Is there not a sufficient number of these wooden buildings at the disposal of the Government to be put down at Manchester so that the office work could be done? Having served the purpose during the War, could they not be used in that way?
I beg pardon, I was taking the whole of the heading. But that is not material to my argument that there are sufficient wooden buildings which housed large staffs during the war and that might be used for' many years to come. It has been suggested that pople should be housed in wooden buildings. Surely people who work eight or nine hours a day should not be asked to live in them. As a Labour representative, I believe that everyone should be housed to the best advantage. Civil servants should be allowed to do their work under the best conditions. There can be no two opinions about that. But we have to consider which is the most urgent kind of building. There can be no two opinions about that either. The most urgent matter is housing—to provide places for people to live in. I had a letter from an ex-soldier last week. He told me—I know the place—that himself and his wife and four children were living in one room upstairs. Everything was done in that one room, cooking, eating, sleeping and everything else. I have never known that happen there before, though I have lived there many years. It might have happened in some of the large cities, but I have never experienced it in the villages of the country. Therefore, I venture to suggest that these temporary wooden buildings could be sent to Manchester and erected for offices, and that they might be used for some years to come. If that were done, the housing question would be cased somewhat. The hon. Gentleman, I hope, will agree to bring the matter before the House again. He can proceed with the preliminary work, and I think ho might agree to make that promise. But the suggestion he has made already is, in my opinion, not acceptable.
The Motion which was made yesterday by the hon. and gallant Member was to reduce the amount by £5, but that Motion has lapsed with yesterday's sitting. It could be renewed now if desired, but the better form would be, as the discussion has been mainly on the Manchester case, to move that Item F, referring to that proposal should be omitted from the Vote.
I beg to move "That Item F [New Works, Alterations, Additions and Purchases, £5] be omitted from the proposed Vote."
A question has been raised about the acquisition of the site, but they cannot acquire the site for some time. A consultation between Ministers with regard to the whole scheme would not be acceptable to many Members of the Committee. Those of us who have had experience in these matter know that Ministerial consultations are, and we have no confidence that it would load to the protection of the Exchequer or the public purse. Many Members are interested in this question of expenditure, and they do not think that any large expenditure ought to be authorised now unless it is most urgently necessary. No case for urgency has been made, and we have to decide now whether to authorise or not to authorise it, whether the Government should or should not proceed with this very large expenditure on an official building scheme. I do suggest that so large a sum of money should be considered most carefully.
One further reason which I venture to put forward is that to start building now would be to do so on the top of the building market. That would be a very uneconomical thing, and it would also apply to the acquisition of the land, if we are to begin to be economical; if we do mean what we say on that subject, we cannot begin too soon. I should like to hear from the Treasury Bench some explanation in reply to the suggestion that this extra staff, of the necessity of which I have no doubt, should be accommodated in huts. I have no doubt that that master of economy, the First Commissioner of Works, intends to reduce bureaucracy in the Manchester area, and that would reduce the number of offices occupied by Government officials, and leave accommodation for others. I cannot see that any case whatever has been made out for this scheme.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he made a recent appeal to us, told us when we came into council in the House together we should not vote to authorise new expenditure. He said that we went lobbying outside and speaking outside against expenditure, but when we came into the Council Chamber we voted for it. For that reason I shall now vote against this proposal and against the departments incurring this absolutely unnecessary expenditure. It has been explained to us that this would mean economy. I do not consider, with the great scarcity of labour and the great need for housing, that we can afford it. It would certainly mean a large expenditure of capital before we could achieve any economy. I think we ought to defer it and wait until the country is in a state to withstand extra expenditure. On a Division I shall vote against the Motion. As to the suggestion of consulting with the Minister of Health, we are here considering a financial proposal, and we ought not to shelve our responsibility.
Liuet.-Colonel JOHN WARD:
As the current of the Debate seems to be all in one direction, I wish to state my opinion in the opposite direction. If the arguments in this case are listened to in each ease, then it is quite clear, because of the situation with regard to prices and wages and general conditions, all public works of utility are to come to a standstill. It appears to me to be about the last thing the House ought to do is to curtail works of public utility that will give employment and that are useful. It is quite easy, apparently, to get millions of money voted for purely destructive or unproductive work; when we come to a question of providing decent accommodation for officials of the Government to carry on their work and to voting expenditure to real works of utility and of advantage to the community, that is the sort of thing on which the House is asked to cheesepare in order to fulfil its pledges relating to economy. I shall certainly vote with the Government on this Motion. I represent a trade union, and I can see, if the arguments used in this case are held to be sound and to justify Members to go into the Lobby against the Vote, it will mean that the whole building trade will come to a standstill. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] If the argument is sound in one case it is sound in all cases. It is either a rotten argument or else it is a good argument.
In a case of this kind we have to provide a criterion of necessity and that is not to be sought for in Government Departments. Any Government Department would be glad to have an ox-tension of offices, but the criterion is not what the Government Department says it wants, but can it do without what it is asking for. In this ease does the Government say that it cannot possibly do without this or can it be put off for a year or two? If the answer is that they cannot possibly do without it I will vote for the Government, but if it is said that it is only a matter of great inconvenience if they do not have those additional offices, then that is not enough for me. We all suffer inconvenience. The country suffers inconvenience, and it is not enough to tell us that this is a question of Departmental inconvenience. My vote will be determined by the answer to the question whether they can possibly do without these buildings.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent (Lieut.-Colonel Ward) supports this Vote on the ground that it is a work of utility and will assist the building trade. I do not dispute the second proposition, but I would point out that the whole question is whether this is a work of utility or of luxury. In spite of what has been said I do not think it is a necessary expendi- ture at this time of great financial stress. The Treasury is the watchdog over the expenditure of all the Departments in the State and it passes the Estimates for the other Departments. Who is the watchdog over the Treasury? Nobody except this House. I am rather afraid that the dog in this case, instead of barking has started to eat until he has taken a rather heavy mouthful and I think it is about time that this Committee should intervene. Surely the Government will not lose but rather gain by accepting what I am sure is the unanimous opinion of this Committee.
I venture to mention what seems to be a large question of policy and one not altogether unfavourable to the Government in this connection. For rather more than a year an important Commission has been considering the question of Income Tax and its collection. The Report is not yet a public document, and it certainly cannot be discussed now in this House. Quito apart from that investigation and Report we are agreed on two things, viz., that a very large number of Inland Revenue officials discharge their duties at the moment under admittedly unsatisfactory conditions and that a considerable amount of revenue is lost to this country. There cannot be the slightest doubt that there would be a common desire to meet both considerations of the kind I have mentioned. There is another point, and one far more important. We cannot in any way anticipate the terms of that Report, but let us assume that it is possible that the number of people affected by Income Tax in this country may be reduced and that there may be far-reaching recommendations regarding administration and collection of the tax, and with those two assumptions we are entitled to say that a case has been made out for at least delay in proceeding with this large and important expenditure. It is quite possible that we may devise at no distant date a better scheme for Income Tax collection. If that is so we have got to consider where the buildings in this country are going to be placed and in what areas they are to be situated and so on. I suggest that these considerations should not be left outside in the discussion which is now taking' place. It is quite possible that the Report on Income Tax will make recommendations which would give the Government another view in this matter, and I respectfully appeal to them to delay the expenditure until at least that Report has been presented.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent (Lieut.-Colonel Ward) urged the House to proceed with the Vote on the ground that it was a matter of urgent public utility. I would ask the House to consider which is the greater utility at the present moment, the erection of this costly Government building or to proceed with the housing of the people. A number of us who are interested in housing will in an hour's time be going upstairs to hear a report from the Minister of Health as to the progress which is being made in various housing schemes, and the first thing we shall hear, as we have heard in our weekly conferences, is that building is being held up because of the shortage of material and because of an overwhelming shortage in artificers. We shall hear that thousands of bricklayers cannot be obtained and that over a million men could find employment for the next ten years in the building trades. The Minister of Health has told us we have not sufficient bricklayers and men to carry out the urgent and Prime needs of the country in the way of providing houses for the people. Surely Government offices should stand over until the people obtain houses. We have heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and we know that the balancing of the income and expenditure of the country this coming year is a matter of paramount importance. In normal times this Government building might be justifiable, but it certainly ought not to be put up now and this expenditure ought to be postponed. I would appeal to the Government to consider whether this proposal could not be postponed for another year.
I notice that the Leader of the House has just entered the Chamber, and I wish to appeal to him if he can see his way to extricate the Committee from a rather difficult position. In a sentence the position into which we have got is this. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of the Committee are not hitherto satisfied that an adequate case has been made out by the Treasury or by the First Commissioner for the sanction of considerable expenditure at this moment. Those hon. Members who have, in my judgment, made a very fair offer to the Government, which was in effect this, that if the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works would be content to receive to-day sanction by way of a Token Vote for his site [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"]—I think that was the view of what I may call middle opinion—that if he would be content to take sanction for his site and would undertake to come before the House again for further sanction before undertaking any building, on those lines we might perhaps be able to arrive at a settlement. I do not pretend that that meets the whole view, either of the Government or of a great many hon. Members, but I do suggest that it is not asking a great deal of the Government, and docs in practice meet that part of their case which is reasonable, which I think is the case of the site. For myself, I must quite frankly say that after hearing all this discussion and having, I hope, given due weight to the remarks which fell from the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke (Lieut.-Colonel Ward), as I always should, I should feel bound, if the Government are not able to meet us in this way, to vote against them. I do not do so from any desire to embarrass the Government, but purely from the feeling that, so far, I have not heard a case made out by the Government which, in my view, would justify me in voting for them on this point,
Although I have not heard the discussion, I am very familiar with this whole subject, for I would like the Committee to understand that they are in error if they have come to the conclusion that this is the first time that all the difficulties which occur to them had occurred to the Government. It is quite obvious, even to Members of the Government, that there are considerations not only financial, but psychological, that make this kind of building very undesirable if it can be avoided, and we would have less than our share of common intelligence if we did not realise that. As regards this particular building, I was, as it happens, myself consulted by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, because it had to do with the business of the Department with which for two years I was closely connected. It is the case, as was stated by the Financial Secretary this afternoon, that we recognise without any doubt whatever, that during the War we lost a great deal of revenue because we had to send to take their part in the War the trained men who were necessary to check those multitudinous accounts and make sure that the Government got from every taxpayer what he was entitled to pay, for that meant not only getting the greatest amount of revenue for the Government, but it meant, unless each man paid what he ought to pay, that others would pay more than their share through increased taxation. This was put to me, and I think rightly, by my hon. Friend and by the Inland Revenue Department, as a simple business proposition, on the same lines as the question of sending the men away. Of course, in sending the men away we had no option. We were then fighting for our lives, and money could not come into the account, but now the position is different. It is a question of business, and you put one consideration against another.
This is the position. I am giving the view not only of the present head of the Board of Inland Revenue, a very capable man, with whom I have not the same acquaintance, but of the present head of the Treasury, who was, during my time, head of the Board of Inland Revenue, and they tell us without any doubt that the concentrating of their staff is essential if they are to get the business done in the best possible way. Admitting that, let us look at the position as it strikes members of this Committee. We know perfectly well that not only the Government, but the whole House of Commons are pressing upon the country to-day that the building of houses is the most essential thing for the life of the country, and almost in the same position as the carrying on the War while the War was on. We recognise that, but we have got to put against it the other consideration. It is admitted that as this staff must be turned out; of some buildings that are at present occupied, either an effort must be made to get a new office in which they can be concentrated, or we must take other premises in order to accommodate them, and I ask the Committee to consider what that means. It is quite true that we must have the houses in which people can dwell, but everyone acquainted with Manchester, or indeed, with any of our big cities, knows that it is with the utmost difficulty that business premises can be got for carrying on the ordinary business of the country. If, therefore, you turn business people out of premises in order to put Government servants in, you are inflicting a real hardship on the industrial life of this country. That is clear, and it is really no good saying we will build nothing but houses. If you cannot allow enough of the other kind of work to go on to enable the business of this country to be conducted, then you will leave people without wages which will enable them to pay the rent of houses—even if the houses were there. That is the position, and I myself am satisfied that, taking all the considerations, financial and psychological, into account, it is in the interest of the nation to get this change made in order to get our revenue properly collected.
I am satisfied of that, but I do not wish—the Government do not wish—to give the impression that we are trying to bully the House of Commons on a matter of this kind. We know very well that not merely is the feeling that the houses must be built, but there is a feeling also that in the present stress of financial conditions we should not spend a penny that we can avoid spending. We realise that, but really, after all, you have got to weigh one consideration against another, and you cannot imagine, without taking particular cases, that the House of Commons can come to this general conclusion, that in no ease is any building to be permitted except for erecting houses. It cannot be done. Very well, then, it is weighing the necessity of this particular case, and that is all. I say that not only the Board of Inland Revenue, but the First Commissioner of Works was himself anxious to stop this building. It was discussed over and over again with the Treasury, and we do think it is good business to do it. Another thing I would like to put before the Committee. Do not mix up one Vote with another. We know that immediately after this Vote there will come another large Vote which the Committee will have to discuss, and when that comes we will deal with it on its merits, but I would like to say to the Committee, to show them that these considerations are fully in the minds of the Government, that before the discussion had taken place in this House at all, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour had come to the conclusion that the conditions were not now what he hoped they would be at the time the Estimates were framed, and we are prepared—we were already prepared—to take the very course suggested by my hon. Friend (Mr. E. Wood) in regard to that Vote.
In this case I think it is worth while to get on with the building on its merits At the same time, we have already said that we realise not only that the building of houses is a necessity everywhere, but that there is no part of the country where it is a greater necessity than in Manchester, and my right hon. Friend the First Commissioner has already stated that in view of that fact he will under take that no building of this kind will go on unless the representatives of the Ministry of Health say that it will not interfere with the building programme. We were prepared to do that—[Cheers]—but I say—and I am not influenced by the ironical cheers which have come, for I rose to say it—I say we do not wish to seem to put undue pressure on the Committee in a case of this kind. The House of Commons know that if they cannot trust the Government in matters of this kind there is only one remedy, and that is? to get a Government which they can trust. Let there be no misunderstanding about that. I say this without the smallest hesitation, that if in a matter of this kind, when the House of Commons has realised that the Government has given it its closest attention, they are not prepared to trust the Government, then the House of Commons must find one they can trust There is no question about that. I know what the feeling of this House of Commons is, and I believe they do trust this Government.
Perhaps some opportunity will be given to see generally what the situation is, but not immediately. But I do believe that this House of Commons is prepared to trust this Government. I may be mistaken, but that is my view, and I am not the least afraid, after what I have said, that the Government would be defeated in this Division. But my right hon Friend has already said that he would not do this if it is going to interfere with housing in Manchester. The request made by my hon. Friend behind me (Mr. E. Wood) goes a very little further, it only goes the length to which we had already decided to go in regard to the next Vote, and while saying emphatically that we will not allow this Vote to be withdrawn or to be cancelled, I do believe that the loss of time involved if we were allowed to purchase the site, but not to have this power to get on with the building, and putting it in subsequent Estimates later, is not so great as to make it the duty of the Government to insist on building at once. Therefore, I wish to say, on behalf of the Government, that we will not accept the Amendment of my hon and gallant Friend on any terms, but that I am prepared to give the assurance asked by my hon. Friend (Mr. E. Wood).
I rise to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment, being satisfied that the substantial part of the expenditure to which I have objected has been temporarily withdrawn. The House will on a future occasion have the whole matter before it to review, and with the assurance given me by the right hon. Gentleman, I am perfectly satisfied.
I am extremely disappointed, and I think the country will be too. One crack of the whip which hon. Members dread more than heaven or hell, one hint that the Government will make this a Vote of Confidence, and they run away like—well. I do not wish to be rude, but at any rate they at once retreat. I rose to protest and to say that it is not my pleasure—speaking for myself and, I believe, for other hon. Members—that the Amendment should have been withdrawn. I tried to get your eye, Mr. Chairman, earlier in the Debate, and I would myself have moved a reduction of the Vote, but was told by an hon. Member that the hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton), was going to do it. I therefore left it to him. Might I ask your ruling on this matter? I tried to protest and to say that it was not my pleasure at any rate that the Amendment should be withdrawn. Am I in order in moving a reduction of £5 now? I understand I am in order in moving a reduction of £5, which was originally moved by the hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel (Gretton), and I do not propose to recapitulate any of the arguments. We have all heard the case that has been made out. I think the Government defence is very weak. The only argument of the right hon Gentleman, the Lord Privy Seal, that had any meat in it was this, that most of the hon. Members in this House were his—I do not say servile—but his faithful supporters, and if they proved faithless in this matter a General Election would follow. I hope the country will pay attention to this state of affairs. This would not be the first time the Government had been defeated. It has been twice defeated in this Parliament, and nothing has happened. The Government simply laughed at the last defeat. I twice asked what they were going to do.
I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £5. We shall now sec in the Division Lobbies what Members are in earnest in their appeal for economy and in their love for the working classes and their desire to give them houses.
I only rise because I think there is some misapprehension as to what the right hon. Gentleman promised. If I understood him aright, it was that he would come back to the House with any proposals.
What I promised was exactly what was asked by my hon. Friend, that is, that we will have the right, if circumstances make it desirable, to purchase the site, but we will undertake not to go on with any building programme until it has been fully discussed.
As the Member who started this discussion yesterday afternoon, and showed how large a sum was intended to be spent in Manchester and how it interfered with houses, I would like to say for one, that I am content with the attitude the Government has now taken, and regard it as rather a triumph for the House of Commons. The House, with one exception, is in agreement that the Government has to a very consider- able extent given way, and I am willing to accept it.
I do not think the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), unimportant as they may seem, ought to be allowed to go unanswered, as they may be made use of by important bodies outside in order to attack the Government. He is entirely ignorant of the fact that the whole point of the objection to the Estimates as they stood was the large sum of money that was going to be spent in actual building, on two grounds, one, that the country could not afford the expenditure, and the other that by employing men and materials in this building you would lower the slender chances already existing of being able to build the houses required for the workers in the vicinity of Manchester. Those were the two arguments, but, in view of the Fact that the Leader of the House has given way to the objections made on that point, I think, even from an opponent of the Government, it was extremely ungenerous to have made the speech which the hon. and gallant Member has just made. It is easy for him to talk of independence, because he, like the Leader of the National party, belongs to a party of his own. When a Government gives way on the main objections made by the Committee, surely it is not showing a sense of independence, but rather a want of common sense, not to assist in leading the Government into the paths of economy. The immediate cost to the public will be enormously decreased by the decision come to by the Leader of the House, and the Committee need have no fear that this House will agree to this building being commenced unless the bargain is carried out by the Government, as it will be. Therefore, we have made our point, and the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Hull are not only entirely inaccurate, but show that he, not for the first time, has not followed what has taken place in the Debate.
After the moving appeal made by the Noble Lord opposite, and in spite of the fact that we belong to different parties, I often find myself in agreement with him, added to which I think really that the last remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman did meet us to a very great extent, and, in the hope that on the subsequent Votes we may further press the Government, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.