HC Deb 02 August 1918 vol 109 cc843-64

I would like to draw the attention of the House to another matter, namely, the position of those large towns on the East Coast of England which, owing to their geographical position, have been affected by this War in a different capacity from any of the other towns in the country. There is only one occasion since this great War began on which we have troubled the House with the position of these towns on the East Coast of England, and on that occasion we raised the point with the Local Government Board and asked them that some assistance might be given to these towns to enable them to keep up the services which are required to keep any town in a proper condition. I may say that the Local Government Board met them very fairly indeed, and that the Treasury carried out the recommendations of the Local Government Board, and there has been no complaint of any kind on that head since. Now they have another grievance, and that is a grievance against the War Office. They feel that they are not now being treated fairly and with the consideration which should be shown them, and they think it is in the power of the War Office to ameliorate their condition greatly by regulations which they can make, and that they can help in making the lot easier for those people in these towns who are grievously affected by the War.

I need not explain to Members of this House the very sad effect of the War upon these towns. Many hon. Members who have by chance been in these towns have noticed the terrible effect that the War has had upon them. They have in many cases entirely lost their attractive power to visitors, and they have lost large numbers of the tenants of their houses, so that a large number of houses are vacant, and they have also lost, for another reason connected with the War, their great fishing industries, which brought them prosperity in normal times. For instance, at one town, in the last year before the War, they had 1,000 fishing smacks, and last year they had 150 only, so that they had one-seventh of the fishing which they enjoyed before the War. The loss of that industry, combined with the loss of visitors, who do not come there now, has affected both the shopkeepers and all the tenants of houses, many houses now being empty. I may say that the patriotism of the inhabitants of these towns has also contributed to the present position because they enlisted in such numbers. Not only have they gone in immense numbers into the Army, but they have also been drawn upon to an immense extent for the Navy, and it is not only those who are in the Fleet, but the very large number of fishermen who have gone with their boats, many of them, to the Eastern Mediterranean and all over the seas, mine-sweeping and helping in various ways in the War. The houses of many of these men have been shut up, and their wives and daughters have gone to stay with relatives. They have been away for years. Their houses are empty, and have added to the large number of empty premises in these towns.

Then the War Office has come down upon these towns, and has kept considerable bodies of troops in their neighbourhood. In the first winter of the War they did not send men into the towns with which I am more closely acquainted, but for those they did send into billets in the towns they paid 9d. per head per day as billeting allowance. That, I believe, was thought to be entirely satisfactory by the people, and there was not a word of complaint about it. In the second year the distress and the number of vacant houses increased, and the War Office, or the officers there who were carrying out the instructions of the War Office, took possession of many of these vacant houses for the billeting of troops, and that year they paid half of the rents which had been paid before the War. That half paid the rates and taxes, and left a small surplus for the owner of the house. They come from their camps into the towns in October, and they leave again for their camps in March. This last year when they came in they said, "We shall not pay any rents for these vacant houses. We shall take possession of them, and the utmost we shall do will be to pay the rates and taxes." In addition to the rates and taxes in these towns, the owners have to pay the antiaircraft insurance, insurance against bombardment, which is an additional rate to that in any other towns in the country, and the ordinary fire insurance. So that when the military take possession of a vacant house and pay the rent and taxes, that does not pay the outgoings on that house, without taking into account in any shape the natural wear and tear which must result from putting large numbers of men into these houses. There is no recompense for this at all, and, at the present time, when they go out of these premises in March they tell the proprietor, "We shall want these premises again in October if the War is going on, and we shall take them on the same terms." The inhabitants of these towns do not consider those terms are fair in any shape. Their premises, it is true, were vacant at the time, but there is no reason why, because these premises are vacant, in these towns only in the whole country, the Government should be able to obtain barrack accommodation for nothing at the expense of the people who have put up houses for which they are getting no return. That is what it amounts to in effect. If there were not these houses, the military authorities would have to put up barracks or turn people out of their houses and take them at proper rents. But they have found these empty houses and taken them under what I call a very onerous and very unfair terms and conditions.

There is another point with regard to the dilapidations of these houses, and it is a matter more serious than I could have believed if I had not seen the effect of the occupation of some of these houses by a number of troops for six months at a time. The matter was brought to a head last spring, when they left a certain town I need not name for their country quarters. They went through the streets to the station ringing bells which they had torn from these houses, and waving things about which they had taken from these houses. Altogether, I can only describe it as a sad and an unfortunate spectacle for the inhabitants to see. It naturally created great indignation, and I have received many letters on the subject. The mayors of the towns have been lately meeting, and consider that it is a subject which ought to be brought to the attention of Parliament, to see if something cannot be done to obviate what I may call this scandal in the future. I have made particular inquiries with regard to some of these houses. I will not worry the House with regard to the smaller details. A man wrote: I have been over another house this morning. All the bells were removed from this house. The bells were removed from the two adjoining ones. This morning I found, in addition to the removal of the bells, that shelves had been removed. Cupboards in the scullery were removed. The door in one of the rooms was broken off its hinges. The brickwork over a door had been torn out. In one room a bayonet had been driven through the ceiling. In another house—of this I have personal knowledge—they made a passage-way into the adjoining house by removing bricks from the party-walls, and they used this additional means of communication with their friends in the next house, vitiating, I have no doubt, the fire policy, and possibly other policies. I am not going to blame the soldiers for this. It is most unfortunate that there should be such a want of care and supervision, that they should strip the houses in this way, and openly parade the fact that they have done so. That is a matter for the War Office, and I strongly urge the War Office to take greater care of people's property when they have taken it without paying any rent. I will not go into the legal question with regard to that. I believe others will do so, and can do so more competently than I can. I bring it to the attention of the War Office that this goes on, and it is most unfortunate.

The question then arises as to when the dilapidations to these houses will be repaired. The soldiers go out at the end of March and they say, "You had better leave dilapidations over until the end of the War, and then it will be settled altogether. Of course, it is no use doing up the place now, if we are going to take possession again in October, and possibly make it in a bad condition again." Can you imagine a town, with premises left in the condition I have described, not being thereby affected detrimentally? I believe that in roads where a number of these houses were left in this condition, people living there have had to leave, because they say they cannot live in a road where houses are in such a dilapidated condition. "It is," they say, "against our self-respect. We cannot inhabit such houses in consequence of the condition in which they have been left and without extensive alterations being done." And they will not be repaired until the end of the War. I think those houses will be vacant next October, and the following time. What chance has the proprietor of such a house, damaged in the way I have described, to let it in the summer? I will not say what chance there is in these towns. I think they vary a great deal; but I do say the War Office method of arranging the dilapidations, which are only to be made at the end of the War, must necessarily entail these houses being vacant, whatever the demand for them by possible tenants. So that this is a case, I think, which must be remedied. It will damage a house and a neighbourhood now, and it may damage them irremediably if you allow repairs of this kind to be postponed for an indefinite period; the whole character of the neighbourhood and the town will be run down.

I do not wish at any time to raise a point like this without suggesting some sort of remedy. I do not wish to lay the blame upon the War Office. I do not think that the matter, perhaps, can be remedied in a moment, nor do I wish to do anything that would prejudice the War, but I think it is in the interests of the soldiers themselves that there should be better discipline in these towns and the houses, and that they should take greater care of the property of which they have the user. I suggest that it is bad, in the interests of the men themselves, that they should be allowed to do this damage and not suffer for it in any way, or that such damage should be considered trivial, and that such bad habits as these should be, I will not say inculcated, but at any rate winked at by the War Office. I am sure the War Office can make better arrangements with regard to this billeting. I do not know which officer, if any, is responsible in this matter. I have inquired, but I have not yet arrived at the officer who is responsible in the regiment for these billeting arrangements. I do not know whether he is the major, or the senior captain, or even a junior captain. I cannot discover whose business it is to take any interest in the matter and to go round and see in what condition the property is; but I should have thought it was the business of the War Office, in the course of the arrangements, to see that there is some officer whose duty it was to look into this matter in the towns; for sergeants, it may be, to go round every week and report upon the houses, as to whether or not any damage has been done.

We have been told that if we bring particular cases of damaging property against any particular soldier in a regiment that he will be punished. Of course, that is absolutely impossible. We cannot do it. We would not wish to do it if we could. It is not the individual man we want to get at so much as to change the spirit which prevails—the lack of discipline and order amongst these soldiers. It is not the case of the actual individual who may happen to be the culprit in a particular case of pulling down the bells or stealing the knockers off the door. Still, I think some better arrangement can be made in regard to the billeting so as to see that, in particular, these vacant houses are properly taken care of, and not wilfully damaged in the way they are. In regard to the question of rents, which I also raised, and the inadequacy of the payment of the rates and taxes, the amount of damage done to the house must necessarily depend largely upon the number of people who are billeted there. If there are ten men billeted in a house, the rent should be larger than if there were five or six men. I think the old plan of paying 9d. per head per day, which was the original method for billeting, should be revived, or at any rate—for I do not say 9d. was not too much; I do not know what is a fair price; in certain towns it might be 6d.—but a fair price based upon the number of soldiers who are going to be put into that particular house should be the principle on which to measure the rent which the War Office pays for the premises. I wish to impress it upon the War Office that they are doing present damage, and possibly permanent damage, to the towns which stretch from the coast of Northumberland down to the South of Kent, and that after the War, when they have to meet these bills for dilapidations, which are running up against them, they will have a very heavy sum to liquidate and it will be difficult both to assess and to pay. They would be much better advised if they would treat this matter in the ordinary business way, pay as they go, and repair the damage which they do. I strongly urge this method upon the War Office.


In approaching this question, which has already been opened by my hon. Friend, I wish to proceed not upon cases of individual hardship; I wish to put forward the underlying principle. In the view I take of compulsory military occupation by the War Office during the course of this War,—I speak recognising the gravity of the charge I am making, but believing that the charge is well-founded and should be discussed in this House. In the view I take of the action of the Government in this matter, I think I shall be able to show that the Government has perverted public opinion and misled it as to the appropriate remedy lying in the hands of the subject vis-a-vis the Crown, and also that the Government has deliberately abused the obligations of judicial interposition between the Crown and the subject. These are serious charges; but I think the facts—and I am going to discuss them—warrant what I am saying. I am not going to enter into any legal niceties but I must make some allusion to legal history in this matter to justify my argument, and I am very glad the right hon. Gentleman who is responsible for the War Office will be able to meet me upon legal grounds as well as upon grounds affecting the Department of which he is in charge. Requisitioning in all our legal history is only permissible under two conditions, one by Royal prerogative and the other by statutory right. As regards requisitioning by Royal prerogative, legal history shows that in such cases the act was always confined to cases of emergency and measured both in time and extent by the occasion which made the act lawful. So far as the Royal prerogative is concerned. I think it is exceedingly doubtful whether it ever went so far as to involve taking the property and excluding the subject from that property. In every case in which the Royal prerogative has been exercised, it has always been accompanied by compensating rights to the subject in regard to the property. I do not think that the action taken by the Government in regard to property in the course of the War is sought to be justified on the ground of Royal prerogative, and therefore I pass that point by. But I make this proposition, that right through our common law you will find references to it even in Magna Charta, in Blackstone's Commentaries, in the Defence Act of 1842, and in the amending Acts to that Act, in the Military Lands Acts, all through you will find where the Crown has found it necessary for a national emergency to interfere with private rights compensation has always been accorded fully and fairly. The charge I seek to make good is that the conduct of the Government in the taking of private property in the course of this War has departed from historical precedents completely in this respect. In the case of the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914 and Regulations there under which have been the source of action by the Government in requisitioning all property for military purposes during the course of this War, there is expressly reserved and recognised the continued powers of the Defence Act of 1842 and the Military Lands Acts, all of which were compensating Acts.

4.0 P.M.

What have the Government done in regard to the properties taken? They have misled public opinion in this War. They have used the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission, set up for a totally different purpose, not to determine legal rights, but to make in proper cases ex gratia payments, and they have diverted that for the purpose of creating in the public mind the idea that that is the appropriate judicial authority to decide between Crown and subject in the matter of taking property and compensation. That is the first and the most grievous use of this power to which I shall have to refer. The Royal Commission was set up not to determine, and it has no right to determine, rights between the Crown and the individual. It is not a statutory body. It is not mentioned in the Defence of the Realm Act or the Defence of the Realm Regulations. It gives no rights to the subject. It can determine no rights of the subject and its functions are purely advisory. Its duty is to advise the Crown what sum in cases not provided for should, in reason and fairness, be paid by the Crown ex gratia. That is the position of the Royal Commission. If rights exist as between the Crown and the subject, and were recognisable by law or by petition of right, the statutory commission has no locus standi at all and is not a determining body. Its procedure and its decisions cannot be revised or questioned by any Court, and it cannot even advise and it cannot act in any case unless there is no legal right to compensation. The first and the greatest abuse in the treatment of private property by the Government in this War is that everybody has been told by the War Office valuers, presumably acting under the authority of the War Office, that if they do not like the insignificant and in some cases insulting sums offered by the War Office for military occupation, they can go to the Defence of the Realm Commission. The comment I make upon that is either the War Office is ignorant of the functions of the Commission or else the War Office has been deliberately misleading the country—I leave to them the choice. I am afraid that when I get a stage further the alternative of being misled as to the legal position will have to disappear in view of what has happened in the course of a case where the rights were going to be established. If that is so, if the inference to be drawn from the case I shall presently allude to is just, the War Office have never been ignorant of the rights of the individual, but they have been deliberately inviting the individual to take an inappropriate course when he gets an inadequate remedy, and have deliberately been obstructing as between subject and Crown, the subject in the receipt of that to which by all law and precedent he is entitled.

If that be true, and I think I can make it good, it applies to a class of a community that the War Office is hitting hard. There are rich people who are getting richer by the War and the poor people have plenty of opportunities of making money while the War is on, but there is an intermediate class, not rich, and who in peace time were not poor, but had a little money put away, and they have no means of making more of it, and a lot of these people have small house property which has been requisitioned by the Government under the conditions to which I am making reference. That is particularly true of a very large number of people residing on the East Coast of England, and those people have been hit hard enough by the War. Their means of livelihood generally consist of visitors, and that has now been withdrawn. Their expense of living has gone up, and in a single town there are between 1,000 and 1,500 houses empty, and those who cannot go away and are left in that town have not merely to pay their own rates, but also the rates which would otherwise be borne by the houses that have now fallen empty. Those are the people with small houses which have been taken into military occupation, and those are the conditions, and I charge the Government that in a matter of requisitioning this property for military purposes they have treated these people with scant fairness and scant justice. Those people were never bound to submit to military occupation and have their rights determined by the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission. They are encouraged to believe that that is so because there is no appeal from that Commission. There is no decision to be obtained elsewhere, and here I come to the point to which I made previous reference. I say that the public have been misled into believing that the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission was their proper remedy. I go further now. I say that apart from throwing dust in the eyes of the public, and instructing or permitting their valuers to give incorrect legal advice to people who have brought claims against the Government, I say that the Government have actively prevented the true legal position becoming declared by the ultimate Court of Appeal in this country—the House of Lords. It is well that the public should know this. For my part, I feel strongly about it. The trick that has been played would have been shunned by a private individual who was not too careful about his character. When it is played by a Government, I will not venture to describe what my opinion is of the action.

A case was brought in relation to property taken for the Brighton Aerodrome. The people that took it were people in a position to obtain good legal opinion, and they got good legal opinion. They said, acting under advice, "We are not obliged to go to your Defence of the Realm Losses Commission which is a charitable show of an advisory character. We have legal rights under the Defence Act of 1842. We will proceed under that, and have an arbitration under the Lands Clauses Act," and they brought their action by Petition of Right. The fact that this was brought by Petition of Right is merely an incident, for the House will know it is a case between the subject and the Crown, and only by a Petition of Right can proceedings be instituted. Proceedings were brought. Up to that time a decision stood which had got as far as the Court of Appeal, which precluded the subject from having his compensation determined under the Defence Act and the corresponding Acts. The people concerned in the Brighton Aerodrome case challenged that decision. They did not believe it was right, and were prepared to go, and did go, to the House of Lords. Up to the Court of Appeal they were bound by the decision that already stood in our law records. They went further. The case was argued to a point in the House of Lords, and then it became apparent to those who were advising the Crown and deceiving the country, and I say so deliberately, that an adverse decision was going to be given against the Crown, and it was going to be declared by the ultimate Court of Appeal, from which there was no appeal and by which all future conduct of the War Department would have to be regulated—it became apparent that the decision was going to be against the Crown. What happened? The Crown rather than allow the thing to proceed to a decision agreed by consent to pay compensation in regard to the land taken for the Brighton Aerodrome, that compensation to be settled under the Land Clauses Act as provided by the Defence Act, and the appeal was withdrawn. What is the effect of that? It is this. That those who have the responsibility of advising the Crown and yet have the duty of being just to the public, saw that if that case was decided against them, this ex gratia swindle of the Royal Commission would have to stop, the right of the subject would be declared, and that real compensation would have to be paid in respect to property taken for military occupation; and the effect of climbing down and withdrawing without a decision being granted, is to leave the decision in the Court of Appeal in the other case unimpeached so that every subject of the King has now—though the opinion of the House of Lords is known—for those who run may read—nobody can hope to get that right again established unless he has sufficient cause at stake and has sufficient money to take his case again to the House of Lords. It is well for the Department to be economical, but when we are talking about the purity of the motives for which we entered this War it is not unimportant that a great Government Department should observe the principles of common justice to the subjects of the Crown, and in engineering public opinion into the belief that the Royal Commission was the appropriate remedy—as either consciously or through ignorance the War Department did—and when you add to that observation that they were on the point of getting a decision from the ultimate Court of Appeal establishing the subject's right and then deliberately took action which prevented that opinion being declared by the judges of that Court, and made it impossible for any subject of His Majesty to get a similar right established without going again to the House of Lords—the Department deserves the sternest and most righteous censure of every right-thinking man.

I do not allude except to some extent to the way in which this matter has been dealt with by the Crown in practice. It is common knowledge that at the beginning there was a sort of inclination to be just, then an inclination to be less just, and finally an inclination to be absolutely unjust. It has not rested at inclination; it has been really indulged in. I will not weary the House with any particulars, but it is a subject upon which public opinion ought to be informed. The public have been kept in ignorance of their rights, and measures have been taken by those who advise the Government to prevent the public getting to know their rights. The sums paid have been scandalously inadequate, and the answer has always been, "Well, if you do not like it, go to the Defence of the Realm War Losses Committee." Those who say that say it with a knowledge that that tribunal has no power to determine rights, and that it is not subject to revision or correction by any authority in this country. I leave it as a matter of principle. I could give many cases of detail, but I prefer to leave it in its broad aspects. If the country learns that the whole basis upon which compensation has been paid is an unsound, an untrue, and an illegal basis, and that the subject has his rights and can obtain his rights, then good may issue from this Debate. In concluding my observations, may I say, out of courtesy to the House what I have already said to the Under-Secretary of State for War, that I regret that departmental duties call me away, and that I shall be guilty of the apparent discourtesy of running away when I would prefer to wait and listen to any criticisms which the right hon. Gentleman may have to offer on the observations that I have made. I will promise him that they shall receive my earnest consideration when I am able to read them.


I desire to make a few brief remarks in support of the plea put forward by the last two speakers in favour of a more just and equitable treatment being meted out to the owners of these vacant houses. I have never been able to understand why a distinction is drawn between houses which are occupied and houses which are vacant. With regard to occupied houses, if they are requisitioned by the Government, although the tenant has to get out of them quickly, at any rate, he does receive the rent of the premises out of which he has been forced to go. But with regard to untenanted or vacant houses, so far as I understand, they can be requisitioned by the Government without any payment in the way of rent. My hon. and learned Friend (Commander N. Craig) has made me wonder whether I have rightly understood the law. Most laymen have viewed these cases very much in the same way that I have done. I have always thought that the Government were acting on the right principles of law, although their action was contrary to all the principles of equity. The harshness of the treatment is accentuated in the case of the places on the East Coast, where the vacancy of the premises is due, as it is entirely at the present time, to their geographical position and the war conditions under which we are now living. It seems to me that advantage is taken of the misfortunes of the individual in favour of what are considered to be the interests of the State.

The places which have suffered more severely than the rest of the country during this War have been the places on the East Coast. In the earlier days of the War they alone were subjected to being bombed from the air, and they were bombed very frequently. Occasionally, they also had that bombing from the air supplemented by bombardment from the sea. A great many of the inhabitants of those places left their homes in order to secure the safety of their children and their families, while the visitors who used to come in shoals during the summer come no longer. The result is that very many houses are rendered vacant, and, while the owners of these houses are suffering from their geographical position, they are being treated very unjustly. Their houses which are rendered vacant through no fault of their own, are taken by the military without the payment of any rent. Naturally this aggravates very much the financial position. It is an extraordinary paradox that while, on the one hand, the War Office refuse to pay the individuals anything in the way of rent for the premises they occupy, the Treasury has come to the assistance of the local authorities in order to avoid their being placed in an impossible position. I do not think the hardship ends at that point. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Sir A. Fell) has given us some instances of particular damage, but I think I can say with full confidence that although the unfortunate owners of the house is supposed to get compensation, perhaps not till the end of the War, for the damage which is being done, I do not think, from what I have seen of compensation which has been paid, he will get very full compensation, and I am certain he will have to wait for it a very considerable time. I hope the Under-Secretary for War will see whether instructions cannot be given to regimental officers that periodical and frequent visits should be made in order to see that no damage which was avoidable should be done.

Another point I should like to urge is that greater consideration should, when occasion arises, be given to the owners of these properties. I had sent to me yesterday morning a case of the kind which I want to impress on the right hon. Gentleman. It is a copy of a letter to the War Office by the agent for a house which was requisitioned by the Government, I suppose some little time ago, as an officers' mess. It was very much against the owner's wish that the House should be taken, as he considers the premises were in too good a state of repair to warrant their being taken for that purpose while there was a large number of houses adjacent which could have been taken instead. The owner has had an opportunity of letting the house on a three years' tenancy, with the option of continuation at the end of the period, and he has applied to the War Department to quit. They refuse to do it. In his letter to the War Office he said he understood they refused to give up the house because if they gave it up now they would not be able to have it in the winter if so required. He thinks the treatment is very unfair. I do not know whether it is unfair or not, but I think that if the War Office would give more favourable consideration they would remove a good deal of feeling which is existing owing to the way in which the public are treated by the War Department. I agree with the plea which has been put forward by my two hon. Friends, and I want to urge upon my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that he should obtain Treasury sanction, if Treasury sanction be required, in order that he may pay fair and reasonable rents for premises which are occupied by the military. I am of opinion that if you take a person's property and make use of it, the least you can do is to pay something in the shape of maintenance. Another point is in regard to damage to property, and the third point is that due consideration should in all cases be shown to the interests of the owners.


I think a case has been made out showing that hardship is inflicted upon a certain section of the community through no fault of their own. Hitherto the House has understood that the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission is the only ultimate tribunal of appeal to which the subjects can go in these matters. In this particular case of an unoccupied house which, owing to the exigencies of the War, has not been income-producing if it is occupied by the War Department, they should be looked upon as an ordinary commercial tenant. I know there is enormous difficulty, and obviously if houses which are non-income-producing are to be paid full commercial rent, there will be other demands from those who have been equally hard hit. But I think these East Coast towns are a comparatively small section of the community, and they have suffered to an undue degree. I would ask whether or not the Government could not extend the principle which they have admitted in regard to these communities as communities. They have already received Grants-in-Aid to the amount of £130,000 in relief of their local obligations which they are unable to discharge. Could we not carry it one stage further and in specific cases allow relief for actual injury. I know it enormously extends the principle which has been adopted in the past, but I respectfully urge that the circumstances warrant it. As to the administrative difficulty, I think a great deal of the perverted public opinion which we have heard referred to might have been avoided if a little more commercial common sense and a little of the rudiments of humane elements had been exercised in arranging these things. I know perfectly well that the land branch of the War Office has exercised both commercial common sense and the milk of human kindness. I know that an entire reorganisation was made of the officers who had the duty of commandeering these houses and endeavouring to enter into the necessary arrangements with owners. Everything that could be done in that direction I am sure was done, but, owing to the paucity of personnel that had the necessary skill, I am afraid that these negotiations were carried out very slowly, that there was considerable delay, and that arrangements that might have been made in an amicable manner never were made.

As to the actual administrative difficulty, my hon. Friend below complains that he could not find out who were the officers who wore really responsible for this dereliction of duty in allowing this unnecessary delay, but there is a complete chain of officers, from the assistant quartermaster-general downwards. In every division there is a deputy assistant quartermaster-general, in every battalion there is a colonel, and so on down through the whole of these officers, and all these officers in their several spheres are responsible. But it might be well if it were brought home to the company commander at the end of the chain that they would be held personally liable. Many of these houses, owing to the conditions, are hardly occupied in the winter season, and it is difficult to let them in the summer if they are in a dilapidated condition, and in the case of these houses certainly something might have been done. I know that it is a great financial burden on the War Department, and, as a member of the Committee on National Expenditure, it is the last thing that I ought to advocate; but the circumstances are so extremely hard that I do feel that it is worth the consideration of the War Department whether, where there is reasonable chance of a house becoming reduced in condition, something might not be done. In all these places, after all, so far as the leading inhabitants are concerned, they have carried on in the most extraordinary way in great difficulties. I cannot help saying that the display of national character which one has seen in some of these East Coast towns where there were almost constant air raids and bombardment in the early stages of the War, was beyond all praise. I know of a Red Cross hospital in one of these towns where the War Office begged and implored the staff to leave, they absolutely refused to do so. The conditions were such, however, that the matter was finally settled. I want to put a question. It is agreed that a case has been made out in regard to this, and I wish to ask whether the Government are prepared not only to compensate the community, but also to specifically compensate individuals, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should set up a Committee under the Defence of the Realm (Losses) Commission to inquire into the whole subject, with a view to seeing whether some recommendation cannot be made, the result of which would be the payment of compensation in the manner I have indicated. I think that may be found to be a practical solution, of what is I admit an extremely difficult and painful state of affairs.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Macpherson)

I think that everyone who has listened to this Debate this afternoon will have a very great deal of sympathy for the position of those people living in the towns on the East Coast of England which have been specially referred to. I was glad to hear my hon. and gallant Friend who has just spoken pay a well-deserved and just compliment to the inhabitants of those towns on the courage, endurance, and patience they have manifested during the stress of these difficult and anxious times, and I am sure that tribute is endorsed by every Member of this House. The general trend of the Debate has been to cast blame for this hardship upon the War Department. I am sorry that it should be so, because it is quite unreasonable, the hardship being due to much deeper and more far-reaching causes, and it is to these that any difficulties and hardship which have arisen should be ascribed rather than to any particular Department. I think we all recognise that much of the hardship which has been suffered is due to the deeper and more far-reaching cause of the War itself. I was astonished to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman who represents the Isle of Thanet (Commander Norman Craig) deliver such a vigorous attack on the Department which I represent, and also upon the Government. It is true that the War Office is the Department which in the main deals with this matter, but the Department of which the hon. and gallant Gentleman is a member has had charge of the same sort of work, and in my judgment it ill-became a member of that Department to cast the whole blame on the Department which I represent. Hardship such as that experienced on the East Coast was bound to be felt over the whole country. Certain conditions, among them the geographical situation of the East Coast, accounted for some of the hardship experienced there, but, if you look to other parts of the country, you have the case of the one-man business, where the owner of the business has to suffer not only in person but commercially, and I think that is a matter that ought to be remembered when one discusses a question of this sort.

The hon. and learned Gentleman who represents the Isle of Thanet in his legal disquisition tried to make it perfectly plain that not only was the action of the Government Departments concerned—not merely the War Office—unjust and unwarrantable, but also illegal. The House will be perfectly well aware that no Government Department ever takes action in a case of this sort without first of all having consulted the highest legal authority, and the action which the Department has taken is the result of advice received from the only authority which the Government have at their disposal. It is not for me at this time to question that legal authority. It has been questioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I am content to abide by the advice of those distinguished, learned Gentlemen, the Law Officers of the Crown. I understand that the point which the hon. Member put to the House will be decided in the near future in the highest Court of the land. With regard to the specific case—the aerodrome case which he mentioned—in my judgment we were perfectly right in taking it in the way we did. The hon. and learned Gentleman did not go on to tell the House that the claim of the proprietors of the aerodrome amounted to a sum of something like £290,000, and that they actually received as the result of arbitration only £35,000. I will now deal with the specific questions raised by my hon. Friends who sit behind me. I think, if I remember aright, they had two specific points. The first was that the owners of houses in the towns on the East Coast were very badly treated because they were compelled to hand over their houses either for no rent at all or for a miserably low rent, and the second point was that if a house was handed over when returned it was invariably damaged, and the Government were never prepared to pay for dilapidations.


I did not go quite so far as that. There have been cases I know where compensation has been paid.


Let me deal with the case of the houses taken over. Where we have taken them over we have had power to do so under the Defence of the Realm Regulations. When we take the houses over it is true we take them not at the rent which the owner would receive in normal times under pre-war conditions, but the basis upon which we pay compensation is the basis upon which the Defence of the Realm Losses Commissioners, appointed by this House, work. Take the case of a house at Felixtowe which has been mentioned. The rent in ordinary times may be £500, but the Defence of the Realm Losses Commissioners say that the proper compensation is £100, and the reason for that is that under the general war conditions, which have been emphasised to such an extent in the speech just delivered, rents have been lowered very greatly, and the Losses Commissioners have come to the conclusion that the proper basis of payment is the rental value as it now stands.


But £100 in the case of a house of the rental value of £500 would not pay the rates and taxes, so that there would really be no rent at all.


I have explained, as far as I can, the basis on which we act. The House must remember that there are two sets of houses in these towns. The statement made by my hon. Friend and corroborated by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Sir E. Beauchamp) is that towns on the East Coast of England have been practically emptied, and that therefore you have two sets of houses in these towns. You have got the houses which are occupied by the War Department and various other Government Departments, and you have got the houses which are unoccupied. You have, therefore, got two sets of grievances to consider. You have got the grievance of the man who is paid a lower rent than he is accustomed to, and you have got the grievance of the man who has got no rent at all, and who has an unoccupied house upon his hands because of war conditions. It seems to me that if the Government were to pay for an occupied house the same rent as in pre-war days the man who has got no rent at all, because of the same conditions, for his empty house would have a far greater grievance than the man who is getting rent for his house. It was stated time and time again that we are taking over these houses without paying any rent at all. I do not know what justification there is for that statement, and in fact I am quite certain that there is no justification for it. We have authority to take them over on the understanding that the owner can go to the Defence of the Realm (Losses) Commission in order to get a proper compensation for our occupation. Indeed case after case has come from the East Coast to the Defence of the Realm (Losses) Commission, and each case has been decided upon its merits. It is true that we do not enter into a contract with the owner of the house, but we do what we are told, by the proper legal authority, whom we always consult, we should do. We were told that we could occupy any house under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, and that it was not necessary for us to pay any particular rent. But the House of Commons made it perfectly plain that that might be very intolerable, and consequently it brought into existence the Defence of the Realm (Losses) Commission, to which anybody so aggrieved might go and state his or her case, and might get proper and reasonable compensation.


I have mentioned a letter from an agent of a house, and that letter has, I think, received no contradiction. In it he says that he only received a few shillings a week—just enough to cover the rates. There is no question of rent there at all.


I have never admitted that the Government was paying rent in the ordinary acceptance of the term. I have said that rent in the shape of compensation will be given if the proper application is made to the Defence of the Realm (Losses) Commission. As a matter of fact, in every part of the East Coast we have got War Department valuers, and I was very glad to hear the commendation of them which came from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Colonel Weigall). I, personally, know how assiduously those men attempt to meet all cases, and I know case after case which has been amicably settled by them and the owners of houses, and which have never had to come before the Defence of the Realm (Losses) Commission at all. And the same thing applies to dilapidations. I was quite astonished to hear that so much wilful damage was effected by the troops in the East Coast towns. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle made it very evident that, so far as the Army is concerned, very proper and very effective steps are taken to guard against dilapidations caused by wilful damage. We ourselves have issued, not only in 1916, but on several occasions since then strict instructions with regard to wilful damage.


Are they enforced?


Certainly. The instruction issued in 1916 was: In view of the amount of wilful damage to hired buildings and billets whilst in occupation of troops which cannot be brought home to individuals owing to the length of time allowed to elapse before inquiries are instituted, officers commanding units are reminded that it is an essential part of their duty to exercise a strict control over the troops in billets or quarters, and by frequent, and, if possible, daily, inspections by themselves or by their subordinate officers, to prevent wanton or negligent damage. When such damage has taken place they will be held responsible for immediately taking all steps necessary to bring the damage home to the individuals concerned, who may be required by them to pay for such damage. Failure on the part of commanding officers to take reasonable action on these lines amounts to negligence, and consequently renders them pecuniarily liable for the damage. I do not think I need read the other instructions which have been issued, but it is quite clear that we have taken every possible step to prevent wilful damage, and, with regard to other damage which is not wilful but should be regarded as ordinary dilapidations, I was quite astonished to hear the statement that we made no payment of any sort or kind for these dilapidations. As a matter of fact, my knowledge is that we do, in exactly the same way as we negotiate payment so far as occupation is concerned, and I can read instruction after instruction to our War Department valuers, telling them to assess damage as quickly as possible, and to make payment for such damage as quickly as possible. Not only is that an instruction, but the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission have made it perfectly plain that they are quite willing that our War Department valuers should advance a reasonable amount for dilapidations pending settlement by the Commission.

One case was mentioned, namely, that of the seasonal house, by which I mean the house of the man who depends entirely upon the fact that his house might be occupied during certain months of the year, mainly, I am told, July, August, and September. It was suggested that in case after case we occupied houses of that nature during the winter, and then in the spring we left them, and did not give any opportunity to the owner of the house, if a tenant for the seasonal months were forthcoming, to occupy the premises for the seasonal months. My information on that point is exactly contrary to what has just been stated. I could again produce an instruction quite recently to our War Department valuers making it perfectly plain that they should be on the spot at once to assess all the dilapidations and all the damage, and if the occupier assured them that any tenant for these seasonal months were forthcoming the house would be tendered to him in good condition and repair. I think I have met all the points which have been raised. I would like to say, before I have finished, one word with regard to the practical suggestion which was made by the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle. It will be seen from the very fact that the Treasury and the Local Government Board came forward and gave Grants to these towns of the East Coast that the Government does not regard the hardship existing there as being due to any specific Government Department. They regard it, and have always regarded it, as being a hardship arising out of the conditions of War. I will make a point of bringing the suggestion of my hon. and gallant Friend to the notice of the Treasury, whose representative now is on the Treasury Bench. In my judgment there is a good deal to be said for the suggestion made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I hope that something may come of it. But it is well to point out that if further claims were admitted by the Government as a whole, so far as the East Coast of England is concerned, there is no knowing where similar claims might not come from in the future. I hope, therefore, that my hon. and gallant Friend will be content if I merely tell him that I shall do my best to bring his specific suggestion to the notice of the authorities concerned.