Ministerial Changes.

Part of War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 24th February 1942.

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Photo of Sir Cyril Entwistle Sir Cyril Entwistle , Bolton

Let me modify that statement to this extent: No outstanding personality who is available for Government office is not in the Government. I am sure we are all only too ready to welcome the new members of the Government, and we hope that the change will result in greater efficiency and in an improvement in the conduct of the war. I think the disquiet in the country and some of the despondency that has undoubtedly prevailed over our failures in the conduct of the war have not been so much due to any feeling that there have been faults in the higher strategy, although no doubt there is a good deal of criticism on those grounds, as to the fact that when things are not going well the country feels more conscious of something, and that is the extraordinary inefficiency in the bureaucratic machine as a whole. At times like these one finds people full of specific instances, some of them comparatively trivial, admittedly, where the working of the bureaucratic machine has apparently been so stupid and so unimaginative that it is almost impossible to believe that the facts can be true.

Let me give one or two trivial incidents which I have had from inside the bureaucratic machine and of the truth of which there can be no question. A certain Department sent a canteen to one of the blitzed areas—this was months ago, of course—and among the things in this canteen were some milk churns. The canteen did its work in that blitzed town, but when it got back it was found that one of the milk churns was missing. One would have thought that when we arc waging a war like this, and after a canteen had performed its services under bombing, the loss of one churn would not have been regarded as a very serious matter, but believe me the loss of that churn is still occupying the time and services of various people. Chit after chit is going round about this absurd milk churn. They tried to bury it; they said, "It is lost"; but it keeps resuscitating, and the time and energies of innumerable people are engaged on the absurdity of accounting for a missing milk churn. That sort of thing ought not to happen in war, and it is time somebody who is in control of these Departments did something to prevent a recurrence of this kind of thing.

Various new Ministers have been appointed, and probably we shall get further changes among junior Ministers. I should like to imagine how a junior Minister spends his time in the normal course of his job. I strongly suspect that if we asked him to give a time-table of his daily work and the sort of job he does in the discharge of his duties, we should find that almost invariably his agenda is prepared for him by his civil servants. I doubt very much whether he exercises any initiative himself in determining how his time shall be applied in the performance of his duties. I have no doubt that most of his time is spent either in signing the letters that are put before him or in performing the normal routine work of the Department.

I suggest that the greatest service a junior Minister could do to-day—this applies to every one of them in every Department—would be to devote practically the whole of his time for a week, two weeks or a month to examining his departmental machine from top to bottom in all its essentials, with the one object of simplifying the routine and getting rid of the red tape, and above all of finding out whether, in the various posts, and particularly the subordinate posts, which in war-time are frightfully important—there are men being paid only £800 or £1,000 a year who are in control of Departments where the turnover is equivalent to that of some mighty combine, the managing director of which gets £,20,000, £130,000 or £40,000 a year—the people are or are not badly chosen and inefficient. If they are, there is the explanation of a good deal of dissatisfaction at the inefficiency of working of our bureaucratic machine. The public all unite upon the one demand that the inefficients in the machine should be ruthlessly sacked.

I cannot help thinking from the experience that we have that that is not done. It is said that you cannot sack anyone in the Civil Service, but that is only true in the sense that you cannot deprive a Civil servant of employment altogether. So far as I know, there is nothing in the terms of the employment of the Civil servant which means that he cannot be degraded if he is inefficient, and nut into a less important post. Instead of that, the tendency to-day, if a Civil servant is inefficient, is merely to put him into another post, very often of a higher category. I respectfully suggest to the Government that the junior Ministers could take up that task of seeing whether it is possible to get rid of sortie of the peace-time methods and red tape procedure in our Departments, and to produce more efficiency. Of course, the Minister himself is responsible for this task, and one has been told often that, however powerful a Minister may be, the machine will beat him in the end, as he cannot get over the normal working of the bureaucratic machine. On the other hand it is the general view of the public and Members of this House that in war-time a Minister ought, at any rate, to be able to shake up that machine so as to get rid of the complaints of red tape which are so, prevalent.

There is one other matter which I suggest should be altered, and that is the way in which Treasury control is working at the present time. From what inquiry I can make, it appears that the peacetime system of Treasury control is operating to-day in the Department just as, or nearly as, much as it was before the war. I see that the hon. Member for Bromley (Sir E. Campbell) shakes his head, but I can tell him about the case of a man in a very important position. I do not want to mention the name of the man, because one is so afraid of doing him harm. This is a very small matter. He had a most important post in a Government Department. During the blitz, some of the windows in his room were shattered. The result was that he had to carry on under very disagreeable circumstances. He works terrifically hard, probably 18 hours out of the 24, and his health would soon have been undermined. The expense of repairing the windows was trivial, and the labour to repair them was available. I ask the hon. Member to believe me when I say that this gentleman could not get the work done without Treasury sanction. He told me so himself, and I have only his word for it, but he swears to me that he was able to carry on his job in his office without draught from the broken windows only by paying for the repair of those windows himself.

The present system of requiring prior sanction for any expenditure was probably started in Gladstone's time, or was going strongly then. It was the very basis on which we ran the country economically, but it is a ridiculous system in wartime. I may be asked what check we should have if the system were departed from. Would there not be all kinds of extravagance, and eventually an outcry against wasteful and extravagant expenditure? All I can answer is that you do not stop waste and extravagance by insisting upon prior Treasury sanction for expenditure It can always be obtained by making liberal estimates. You can have prior sanction and still have extravagance. Surely there is only one way in checking extravagance within reasonable limits, and that is to do so after the event. There must be the normal audit. If a certain official is found at the audit to have been guilty of extravagant or improper expenditure, he should be warned on the first occasion. On the second occasion he might have a further and more severe warning. On the third occasion he should be sacked. That is the only way of obtaining non-extravagant expenditure. The official who is responsible for it should he removed and another put in his place. Instances have come within my own personal knowledge showing how the antiquated system of Treasury sanction is operating, and I suggest that it ought to cease.

Far more important than that, however, is the broad question that the working of our bureaucratic machine is still entangled in red tape. There are still men who are not worthy of their jobs, and whom it is apparently extremely difficult to get rid of. A Minister is not a good Minister and not a success unless he devotes a great deal of his time, not only to examining the machine and seeing whether it can be improved, but to examining all the persons who occupy posts in his Ministry in order to find out whether they are guilty of any lack of efficiency and, if so, to remove them at the earliest possible moment.