Orders of the Day — Government Contracts (Major Reid-Kellett).

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd May 1940.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg , Altrincham 12:00 am, 2nd May 1940

I must congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) on having, at last, got the opportunity of raising this question. He has been shouting challenges at me, like Puck in the "Midsummer Night's Dream," through the thickets of Parliamentary business for a long time past but has failed to get at me until to-night. I have been quite ready to meet him and it is no fault of mine that this Debate has not taken place a long time ago. I must apologise for not having been here when he was speaking, but he knows what my difficulty was. I had an engagement in the country and I came straight to this House from the railway station. I am sorry that the Debate began at an hour which prevented me from enjoying the hon. Member's speech.

Let me say, in the first place, that I make absolutely no complaint about the hon. Gentleman's desire to see that due economy is exercised in Government expenditure. If any Member of this House thinks that any form of expenditure used by the Government does not adequately safeguard the interests of the State, it is his duty to raise the question in this House. Certainly I make no complaint against the officer named in this case for stating his suspicions to his superior officer. No one has ever said that there was any impropriety in raising questions of this kind where genuine doubts and suspicions exist either in the Commands themselves or in this House. As far as the appeal which the hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) has addressed to me, let me tell him that I consider Ministers, like other Members of the House, should be very jealous guardians of the taxpayer's money. That is what we are here for; we are not here to screen off or excuse extravagance, much less corruption or dishonesty. It is our business to track these things down and find out if they can be proved. I repudiate altogether his suggestion that it is the object of the Front Bench to be complacent, to say that nothing needs investigation, and that no fault can be found with anything the Government have done in the past. I have never heard of such an attitude being taken up—although perhaps it might be useful to state that such an attitude has been taken up because it makes an effective contribution to the Debate. But it is not true to say that such an attitude has been taken up during my experience.

Let me try to give the House a picture of the problem with which the Government, and particularly my predecessor, were confronted when all this building began. The hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) said that we ought to have foreseen that great expenditure was lying ahead. Of course we foresaw that, but the rate at which it has multiplied certainly went far beyond the previsions of the great majority of Members of this House. Personally, I can say that I was not one of that majority. The great majority did not foresee the expenditure, although I think the hon. Member for Barnstaple was one of that majority; on the other hand, more foresight was shown by the people he is now criticising than by the people with whom he is now associated. Let us see what the problem was. In the early Thirties the building programme with which we had to deal consisted only of about £2,500,000 to £3,500,000 a year. It began to grow very rapidly in the late Thirties when the pressure of the economic crisis began to pass, and in 1939 the expenditure had risen to £19,000,000. That was before we reached the beginning of the financial year and it represented a very heavy burden on the peace-time machine. The normal peace-time contracting was already becoming difficult and at that point this House, advised by the Government, took three rapid decisions which enormously multiplied the strain.

The first decision, to call up all Army Reservists, added to the strain on the existing accommodation. The next step was to increase our air defences and man them permanently, and, finally, the House passed the Compulsory Military Service Act, adding still further to the strain on the accommodation which existed or which had to be supplied. In the case of Militiamen alone the duty which this House laid on the War Office was to find new accommodation for 20,000 men by July—I think the Bill was passed in May, leaving us two months to provide the accommodation after the decision had been taken. I am talking now only of peace-time. Then we had to find new accommodation for a further 100,000 men by December. Somehow or other we had to build 30 Militia camps within a period of 2½ to 4½ months, in addition to hutted accommodation to hundreds of barracks. Naturally that was a tremendous strain on our building system, and owing to the speed at which the work had to be done it was quite impossible to employ the established form of fixed lump-sum contracts, which I agree is a much better way for work of this kind. We should always employ that system if we could, but it is impossible without having inevitable delays to work out the quantities and details required by that system. Great demands were made by this House in regard to the character of these camps, and I shall return to this point later. I remember very well that throughout those Debates Members were urging us to look after these boys and to see that the accommodation provided was good, that everything which could assist their welfare was provided, and that there would be no undue strain placed on their health. Demands were made for provisions which can be regarded as entirely new for the Army. These were the demands made by the House when the Bill was passed. I think it was quite right, but it greatly increased the problem of finding the accommodation in time.

It was impossible to adopt the proper—the right procedure where time is available, that is, the lump-sum contract. The only course to carry the work out in time was to proceed on the basis of prime costs plus a fixed fee, a system which I greatly dislike and which should never be employed except when circumstances make everything else imossible. It was employed most unwillingly by all the Government Departments which had to use it, and it will never be used except when war necessity absolutely compels.

On that basis only 18 reputable firms were invited to tender, and out of those 18, 11 were accepted. There has been a good deal of talk about supervision, but the steps taken by the War Office seem to have been correct. The War Office went to the Surveyors' Institute and asked them to nominate leading firms of surveyors to supervise the execution of the work, and that was how the supervision was provided. I am not sure that the supervision was adequate, but I agree with the hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) in what he said about this form of contract making supervision difficult. At any rate, the work was done, and that, after all, was the main point. I have looked at some of these camps, and only to-day I saw one and was immensely impressed with it. Certainly it cannot be said to be anything but luxurious in character. Everything has been done for the comfort of the men.

If any hon. Member would like to see one of the camps, I shall be glad to make arrangements. The House has taken a great interest in them, and I wish hon. Members would go and look round one or two of them now that they are in operation. The standard of comfort of these camps is something that was unknown to the Army before. I went, in order to refresh my memory, to look at some of the older quarters which the Army has hitherto thought good enough. I began with a Militia camp and then went to the non-commissioned officers' married quarters of the type put up just before the war. All I can say is that the Militia camp is infinitely more comfortable, with a higher standard of comfort all through. At one of these camps I had the opportunity of hearing a comparison from an officer who had trained on the very site in the last war with the Naval Division. On this site now is a Militia camp complete with barrack room, gymnasia, mess rooms, recreation halls, properly prepared playgrounds, covered drill halls, complete roads and central heating. This officer said that on that site they lived in tents through the winter of 1914–15 and right into 1916, and that they only issued from their tents buried in mud or covered with chalk.

I think that the House, while quite rightly insisting that there should be no waste, must recognise that the scale and character of these camps were demanded from the House itself. In fact, the demand of the House for the highest possible standard of comfort has been carried out. I feel glad that these camps are now available. They are making an immense difference to the training of the Army which is now going on. So luxurious is the scale on which in some respects they are planned that it is possible to accommodate more men than was originally planned. That will represent a new value for the money which is being spent. A further point which struck me is this: It may be said that too much was spent on the camps, and I am inclined to think that the scale was very high. I have seen parade grounds, recreation grounds, gymnasia, covered drill halls, canteens, garrison theatres, all of them extremely well constructed, which cost a great deal of money, but although I think the scale was very high, I have no doubt whatever that we got value for the money, in getting such excellent and magnificently equipped camps. So much for the general picture.

I come to the allegations of dishonesty and malpractice on the part of contractors and surveyors. I will, first, take the allegations with regard to camps at Devizes and Larkhill which were made by Major Reid-Kellett. I did not hear the speech of the hon. Member for Ipswich. It has been asked why a full, independent inquiry has not been held. My answer to that is that an independent inquiry has been held. It was an inquiry to consider whether a prima facie case could be established for the wider inquiry which Major Reid-Kellett and others wanted. It would be agreed that it is the duty of the Government, before the time of soldiers and civil servants is taken up in the course of the war, to be satisfied, at any rate, that a prima facie case exists. That is common sense procedure. Major Reid-Kellett's allegations were referred to the hon. and learned Member for Bolton (Sir C. Entwistle), and Major Reid-Kellett had every opportunity of producing evidence.