I beg to move, to leave out "£1,040,172 6s. 4d.," and to insert instead thereof "£1,039,672 6s. 4d."
I move to reduce the Vote in respect of the expenditure on 100 locomotives. I understand that the expenditure on these locomotives when they are completed will amount to ho less a sum than £16,000 each. I ascertained this morning that the largest sum paid by one of the leading railway companies in this country to a private firm of locomotive builders during the most expensive period of the War for an 8-coupled express goods engine was £12,425, which included profit to the private builder. It may be said that the reason for building these locomotives was that at the end of the War it was not desirable to suspend work in the arsenals, and there may be something in that, but it must be remembered that these men had had very high wages. They knew that their services would not be required when war conditions were ended, and the only justification for the enormous wages paid was the fact that they would not then be retained in employment, and during the four years in which they were working at these very high wages they should have put something by in order to provide for the period when they would be out of employment. It would have been easy for the Government to give them one, two or three months' salary to tide over the period of unemployment, instead of entering into the work of building locomotives on a very large scale, for the building of which they had not the facilities, and of which they used very few. With regard to railway wagons, Sir Eric Geddes stated that they were able to turn out railway wagons at Woolwich £100 cheaper than the price paid to private builders, but the fact that they may have been successful in one thing was no reason why they should embark on another and a much bigger enterprise, which was unsuccessful. When Sir Eric Geddes made that statement in the House of Commons I challenged it. At that moment the Ministry of Transport was eager to spend money. There was no sort of economy, especially with regard to wagons. The consequence was naturally that firms of private wagon builders, thinking that large orders were coming to them, put their prices up very high, but it was not necessary to go to the man who asked the highest prices, and the company of which I happen to be chairman bought wagons under the highest prices which were quoted at that time, and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend did the same.
First, because there was no profit, and it was done in an efficient manner. The hon. Member apparently is not aware that before the War the railways built an engine at £2,500. That included the cost of labour, material, drawings and superior staff. It did not include overhead charges because the railway companies have got their factories. Therefore it was not necessary to put in the cost of the factories. But they have always been able to build far more cheaply than they could buy from private firms, both wagons and engines. A 10-ton wagon before the War cost about £80 at the works. I would like to know what is going to be done with these engines? Engines, like everything else, have gone down in price. Steel rails, which a short time ago were £23 or £24, were bought by my company the other day for £8 15s. All these things are going down in price. I would like to know what my right hon. Friend is going to do with these 100 engines. As far as I know, in England there is no demand for engines. If anything, the British railway companies have more engines than they want. An hon. Member says, "Sell them to Russia." That would be a very bad bargain, for we should probably lose not only the value of the engines but the cost of transporting them.
I think we may dismiss Russia. It was a Labour Member who suggested Russia yesterday. It was a foolish and futile suggestion, unless the object was to give Russia a present, which is an entirely different matter. It is a serious question what is to be done with these engines. There is only one ray of satisfaction, and that is that the enterprise has turned out so disastrously that nothing of this sort can ever be attempted again. I am sorry that the Labour Members are conspicuous by their absence to-day. I hope that those who are present will notice what complete failure results from their favourite scheme that the State should direct everything and become the supreme authority in commerce, in trade, and in every other walk of life. The moment the State attempts to do anything of this sort, we see what results.
The right hon. Baronet who has just spoken is rather perturbed in his mind as to what is to become of these engines. I suggest that there is a splendid opportunity for patriotic railway directors to buy them. It is not so very long ago since the right hon. Baronet said that the railway companies were unable to run cheap excursions for want of plant.
That remains to be seen when you have bought them. When this work was first put in hand at the Arsenal the people of Woolwich, like the rest of the people of the country, were in a state of convalescence. Something had to be done to appease them, and if it had cost £2,000,000 I think the experiment would have been worth it, because if work of this kind had not been done in the Arsenal and in every big manufacturing centre, even in places that were under private control, we should have had serious labour disorders which would have cost far more than the sum now under discussion. In allowing for this large sum, it is only fair we should take into consideration the amount of public money which would have been expended in giving these unfortunate workmen the unemployment dole. We have saved a considerable amount in that way.
I desire to make a suggestion as to how any other alternative work which may be put into Woolwich Arsenal can be reduced in price. We have heard the hon. Baronet say in regard to one company that there were no overhead charges, and that raises a very sore question with everyone who is connected with, or interested in, Woolwich Arsenal. The overhead charges there are much in excess of what they are in any private firm, the reason being that there is a big staff carrying out experimental work. I suggest that these experimental charges should be looked on as a national insurance and placed in a separate Vote instead of being put to the ordinary working expenses of Woolwich Arsenal. For these reasons I support the Government in regard to this expenditure which I consider to have been fully justified.
I absolutely agree with every word which fell from the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), and I entirely disagree with the Government going in for any form of competition with private enterprise. At the same time, I remember the state of affairs which prevailed when the Army was being demobilised—not as quickly as some thought it should be—and when labour conditions all over the country were as difficult as they could be. I can remember also being in this House when we first heard of this order for railway engines, and a universal sigh of satisfaction went up at the fact that something was going to be done for the workers of Woolwich Arsenal in the way of providing employment. It was with that idea that this was done. I entirely disapprove of the principle, and I think, if you are going to do anything of that sort, it should be done by means of the unemployment dole, though that too is demoralising. At the same time, there it is. We have this bill to pay, and it seems to me this was the only thing the Government could have done to keep these men quiet. Therefore, I do not feel I can support the right hon. Baronet in moving a reduction.
A point was made last night by the Secretary of State for War which seems to have received scarcely sufficient attention. This is not
the last of the money to be spent in this way. We have only spent £5,000 each on locomotives, but the Secretary of State for War informed as last night:
I am going to say something more. That was only the cost up to the 31st March, 1921, which is the date of this account. There has been more money spent since, and the total cost of these locomotives is estimated at £16,000 a piece."—[OFFICIAL KEPORT, 23rd March, 1922; col. 818, Vol. 152.]
That is to say, we have sunk £5,000 per engine so far, but eventually we will be spending £16,000 a piece. It may be worth while to ask whether it would not be well to cut our losses in some way. We propose to spend on these engines as much as the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London says will buy a perfectly good engine and we propose to spend £11,000 per engine—in addition to this Vote—on making engines which according to many will not be suitable when they are completed. This is a matter of particular importance when we consider the support given to this Vote by hon. Members opposite. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean), speaking last night, said:
The Government requires no more criticism for under-estimating the cost of manufacturing locomotives than does any other employer of lahour for under-estimating. It is to be hoped that in the further work which will be undertaken at Woolwich and Waltham Abbey, they will be able to make good any losses that have been incurred, and that in the next Estimate they will show a surplus which will cover these losses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1922; col. 808, Vol. 152.]
Therefore, if it is a question of continuing with this calamitous and expensive proposal in the hope of eventually recouping ourselves for these sums which we have already squandered past all possibility of recovery, it is worth while the right hon. Gentleman telling us whether the extra expenditure of £11,000 per locomotive, which is not authorised in this Vote, has actually been made, and, if not, whether there is any possibility of obtaining any economy by ceasing this enormously expensive work. This example raises questions of the very highest importance and is a working example of State manufacture which we must all look at with tremendous misgivings, remembering that there is a large party in the State which says that all our great industries should be carried on on the same footing as this.
I ask the Secretary of State to give us the assurance that the proposed continuance of this work, or work of this kind, is not in any way in his mind, and, secondly, whether the £11,000 per locomotive has already been spent, or whether there is any possibility of cutting any part of this loss.
I join with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) in regretting that there are so few Members of the Labour party here on the occasion when we are discussing the charge which is brought against Members on this side of the House on every platform, at every street corner, and in every debate or discussion in any part of the Kingdom at the present time,, namely, why we do not set the unemployed at productive, useful work instead of giving them unemployment doles. We have that everywhere in the country, but not here in the House of Commons, and not one of them comes down here to defend it or to explain it. I think the country would do well to take note of that. In the discussion on the Committee stage the only argument brought forward was that this was an insurance against possible trouble with the employés at Woolwich, but I would like to point out that this is paid to the employés at Woolwich by being levied on the men who are making these same engines in other parts of the country, in the great locomotive and rolling stock works, many of which were conducted as munition works during the War and have had to bear the heavy expense of conversion back to their ordinary use. The money paid to the employés at Woolwich is being paid' by sending the taxgatherer to the competitive side of this work, by taking away the manufacturers' profits, which really means the wages of the employés in the private works, and handing it over in a cheque to the Government to give out in this unproductive work at Woolwich. Instead of facing the facts at the time when employment was good and trade was booming in this country, we kept these men on at an employment which was gradually diminishing until now the inevitable nemesis has resulted. They will not get any more locomotives to build, and instead of being thrown on to a labour market which could and did absorb enormous numbers of men, they are now being thrown on to a labour market which is already overstocked to the extent of 2 millions of unemployed at the present time.
If I said anything contrary to the Rules of the House, I withdraw it; but the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just sat down was one of the most extraordinary that could be delivered, having regard to the position he took up in this House a short time ago. He has levelled charges against people on these benches for suggesting that certain work of a non-economical character should be put into operation to remedy the distress of unemployment in a certain area. A little while ago the same hon. and gallant Gentleman was asking the House to subsidise a lead mine in his constituency, and, in fact, make a present of a large sum to set people going on work which has yet to be proved will be of a remunerative character.
I am not going to give way. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) referred to the lack of Members on these Benches. I have been here the whole day. There are hundreds of Members on the other side, but there have never been more than two or three, except in the last hour, present in the Debate. That should be taken note of in regard to the relative number of Members of the respective parties present. After all is said and done, the whole case has been met, and the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London showed that there is no objection to private employers exploiting the community, and making a huge profit at a time when the nation was fighting for its life; but when steps are taken to endeavour to find means of livelihood for men who are likely to be thrown out of work, there is an outcry, although, a little time ago, this country was dependent upon them to do all that was necessary in order to win the War, by supplying the necessary material. That, surely, is the right perspective we have to get in regard to this matter. We on these Benches are in favour of providing remunerative work for the unemployed, but if you are unable to provide remunerative work, it is necessary that you should find them the means of living, and you had far better put them to work than give them money for doing nothing at all, as is the case in many instances. I am not here to defend the Government; it is not my job; but the House as a whole must share in the responsibility. The House passed a Vote to put this work into operation, knowing full well what it was doing, and it is very poor, now that it is asked to foot the bill, to try to ride off and put the blame on other shoulders.
We had a considerable discussion last night on this Vote, and I only hesitate to address the House again, because it is almost inevitable that I should repeat something that I said last night if I deal with the case, which has been made afresh to-day. I want the House to realise that this order for locomotives arose from the circumstances immediately following thy Armistice. It was discussed first in December, 1918. The actual order was placed in May, 1919. The position then was that there were 60,000 or 70,000 employés at Woolwich whose work of producing munitions had suddenly come to an end. A large number of those men had been in Government employ for 30 or 40 years, and just as a private employer tries to arrange his work so that in times of stress his men shall not be thrown into the street, so the Government tried to arrange. That was the policy underlying the finding of alternative work at Woolwich in 1919. Whether or not it was a right policy, I cannot now discuss. The House then approved of it. It is so easy, of course, to say after the event: "What a loss you are making," yet at that time, in view of the situation, in my judgment, it was a right decison, and one in which the House concurred.
I have been asked what money has been spent, what is to be spent, and whether or not it would be wise to cut our loss. In 1919–20 we spent on account on these locomotives £72,000; in 1920–21, £510,000; up till now, in round figures, £600,000 has been spent. There is still in the Estimate for next year £400,000 to be spent. It has occurred to my hon. and gallant Friend that an inquiry ought even now to be made as to whether it was possible or better to cut the loss. That inquiry has been made. My technical and other advisers say that it would not be wise to endeavour to save that £400,000 or to cut the loss. You would not now save it anyhow. There are sub-contractors who would have to be compensated, and there is a large amount of material in course of manufacture which would be practically scrapped. I understand there are 45 locomotives on the rails, and in the anticipated sale you may recover some of the loss.
I believe so. I am told it is perfectly safe to ride behind them. I am going to take the risk. They are quite good locomotives. They were made under technical supervision of the highest order, and there is no question of the workmen at Woolwich being skilled men. Unfortunately it is not the province of the War Office to go into the market, to travel in locomotives. But I may say that if any hon. Member knows any possible client who will pay, not paper, but cash, I should then be prepared to cut considerably the loss so as to get to the end of these Votes. Quite seriously the House was pledged to this policy of alternative work at Woolwich in 1919 under the conditions that then prevailed.
I am not competent to sell them myself, but I can introduce the hon. and gallant Gentleman to people who are competent, so that he may place his order with them. I am advised that we cannot get out of this by cutting the loss. We are in it, and have to see it through. But let me again repeat that it is not the policy of the Government to go into trading operations, either at Woolwich or elsewhere. I am fully confident that placing a competitive order does not increase the sum of employment in this case, but displaces it. This money has been spent in these circumstances, and I am not surprised at the protest made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury). I hope that now the House will let me have this Vote.
May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Crown Colonies have recently been issuing loans in order to provide locomotives and additional new rolling stock? I think that, with a little more co-operation between the Crown Agents and the Government Department interested in this matter, the Colonies might be induced to take some of these locomotives, instead of placing new orders.