§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. F. Hall.]
§ Sir KINGSLEY WOOD
I wish to raise a question to which I have already referred in the House, namely, the action of the Secretary of State for War in proposing to proceed to evict Mr. Arthur 2159 Oakey, an ex-soldier, with 10 children, from 15, C Block, Artillery Place, Woolwich. The House will remember that on the last occasion, the Secretary of State raised the question as to the number of children in this particular case, and he put forward the plea that instead of 10 children this man only had eight. Since then I have seen Mr. Oakey, and he has given me the names and ages of the 10 children, the eldest of whom is a girl of 18, and the youngest is a child nine months old. He has five girls, who are the eldest in the family, and I might mention this point, because of the difficulty of finding housing accommodation, that the three youngest children are aged three years, two years and nine months. Mr. Oakey has served this country, and with some distinction, for 21 years. He is in possession of the medal of the Order of the British Empire, the 1914–15 Star, the General Service Medal, the Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal, and I may say that at the present time he is unemployed. The Secretary of State for War, in answering the question which I put to him, when I asked him for an assurance that he would not proceed with the eviction of this man, stated that he had given him, I think, six months' warning, and he took, apparently, the view that that was sufficient, and that he must leave his particular quarters at Woolwich.
The case, I think, is particularly hard, because, in response to his orders some two years ago, he gave up his house at Woolwich, and lost possession of it, in order to go to Colchester, and the Secretary of State for War issued a summons before the County Court Judge at Woolwich demanding possession of the premises. As I dare say the House knows, in these cases where the Crown is concerned, the County Court Judge is not permitted to consider the question of alternative accommodation. There was a case, well illustrating the position which the Secretary of State for War has taken up, a few days ago, when I raised the question of another eviction which the right hon. Gentleman contemplated, at the Brentford County Court. I then asked the Under-Secretary of State for War whether the question of alternative accommodation had been put before the Court? The counsel, who appeared for the Secretary of State for War, had said that, so far as the War 2160 Office was concerned, and, in fact, other Government Departments, they were not concerned with the question of alternative accommodation. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for War whether that was so, and he said, "I have no information on these details."
The question of alternative accommodation, even when the Government are taking proceedings, is not a matter of detail, at any rate to the person who is going to be dispossessed. In the result, in this particular case, the County Court Judge, had no other course in the absence of not being able to give consideration to the question of alternative accommodation, but to make the order. He remarked that the case was a very hard one indeed, and I think it is fair to say that he was very reluctant to grant the Order in question. So this man, unless some expression is given to this case to-night, is about to be turned into the street by the Secretary of State for War. He certainly merits better consideration at the hands of my right hon. Friend. I say this all the more definitely because of the statements which have been made by some of his colleagues who seem to think he is following some precedent. But I venture to put it to him, that when I raised this question upstairs in Committee, the Attorney-General apparently took a very different view of what the Government would do when proceedings of this kind were contemplated than what has actually been done by the Secretary of State to-day. I ask him where this kind of thing is to end?
At Woolwich, as in other parts of the country, there are hundreds of people on the waiting list for municipal houses and for the houses on the Office of Works Estate. Is he going to proceed with this eviction, and with the other evictions? Since this case came to my knowledge, I understand the Secretary of State for War has been plaintiff in a number of cases of this kind in which men with families are concerned. He may endeavour to say that he needs these particular houses; but so do other people up and down the country; but they have got to be considerate, and to have regard to the circumstances of the time, to the absence of houses, and the delay in the housing scheme of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health. I want him, therefore, to give an assurance that so far as this particular case is concerned, 2161 this man will not be turned out until other accommodation is available, and that in any other case in which my right hon. Friend may care to proceed in the County Court, he will not raise the plea that the Government are not concerned with the question of alternative accommodation, and that he will not seek to obtain any order until alternative accommodation is available, as in the case of any other landlord. If I cared, I could quote the speeches of some of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues to show how they characterised the action of landlords who have taken certainly far less harsh action than that taken by the Secretary of State for War.
§ Mr. J. JONES
Before the right hon. Gentleman answers, I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) on his newly-found zeal for evicted tenants.
§ Mr. JONES
It does not help you now when you have got one case. I am against evictions by any Government. We in West Ham have got troubles in this connection. West Ham counts for something. Woolwich, which is represented by a gentleman like the hon. Member, naturally counts for more than a place which is represented by a man like myself. I am a Member of Parliament by accident, and a bricklayers' labourer by profession. So far as we are concerned, that kind of sob stuff will not go down. Evictions are bad whenever they happen. I do not know what the Government have done, but if they have been guilty of cruelty to any 2162 individual then they should be brought to book for it, and if any man is being thrown out of his home without just cause then I hope they will be called to judgment hereafter. I am sure that the Secretary of State for War has got an answer. If he has not got an answer, then I will answer him back. No working man should be thrown out of his home. I happen to be, in addition to my other crimes, the Mayor of West Ham, and I was able this morning to find a house for a man with seven children. I was glad to have the opportunity of doing so, but I wanted to say that we should not be cruel to any of our public servants, and if the man is under the War Office, or under any other Department of the State, he should be guaranteed a home to live in, provided that he is willing to meet his full responsibilities.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. S. Walsh)
The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken hoped that the Government would not be guilty of cruelty. I am sure that that is the last quality of which the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) or the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones) would accuse me. There is not the slightest cruelty being exercised. In the particular case under discussion, the man, for whom everybody has a high regard, has been a most excellent soldier. He has a splendid record, but his period of 21 years expired at the end of last year, and he was told by the people then in office that the quarters which he occupied would be required for other married people. Now it is impossible to institute any comparison between the War Office as a State Department and the owner of private property. A private house-owner has no obligation to house other people. There is no legal obligation and no social obligation upon him. All that he requires is that his tenant shall pay the rent of the house he occupies, and if he does not pay the rent the landlord is entitled, under the law, to get the house into his possession again. This House imposes upon the War Office the definite obligation to house people in its service. There are thousands of them, married, and with children. The people who are on the married strength of the Army have a right in the matter. They have been invited into the State 2163 service, and they have accepted that invitation. The State, through the War Office and through other Departments, has contracted definite obligations to these people. One great social obligation is that when a man is on the married strength of a regiment, he with his wife and children must have a house provided. That is one of the tacit obligations—that decent quarters shall be provided for those whom the State has taken into its service. Cruelty has been alleged in this case. No one knows more of the conditions in this neighbourhood than the hon. Member who has raised this question. I am sure that he will admit that there have been very few evictions. That is so—certainly so far as my knowledge goes. I am speaking now entirely for the period during which I have been responsible. No eviction at all has taken place.
§ Sir K. WOOD
That is not the fault of the right hon. Gentleman. He has issued a number of summonses to try to get them out.
§ Mr. WALSH
In so far as the summonses are concerned, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is only a formal process. The hon. Gentleman need not confuse the two processes, as there are hon. Members of the House who are, perhaps, not so well informed as to legal procedure as is the hon. Member. The mere process of taking out a summons in order to obtain formal possession is vastly different from the process of the ejectment order. No ejectment has taken place. No cruelty has taken place. I never stated last week that the eviction would take place. What I said was that I had no right—neither have I any right. The people who are in the service of the State, to whom the State has contracted definite obligations, have a right equally with everyone else that these obligations shall be carried out. As the hon. Gentleman knows quite well, there is an appalling absence of married quarters. There are in the service of the Army enormous numbers of married men who are living under conditions which really do not err on the side of decency. Those people have an equal right to, in fact a greater right than those who have completed their service with the State. This man knew in November that his quarters would be required. The process 2164 of obtaining formal possession by Court order took place on the 7th of this month. That order itself only becomes formally operative at the end of four weeks, and so far as I know, there is no desire on the part of the War Office to put this man or his family to any distress or trouble whatever. He is a man for whom everybody has a high regard and he has rendered the State very great service. I have said already that no parallel can be instituted with this case.
§ Sir K. WOOD
Will he give an undertaking that he will not put this man into the street until alternative accommodation is found for him?
§ Mr. WALSH
Hon. Members know that the Estimates of the War Office, as of other State Departments, are quite properly put down, and they have to meet the requirements of this House. How can the War Office provide alternative accommodation. It has no alternative accommodation. Every ordinary landlord is in receipt of rent. There is no rent paid in these cases, and the men are not tenants in the ordinary sense of the word at all. [An HON. MEMBER: "It is part of the consideration."] The only thing I can say is that the same process will take place as that which has taken place in the past. Every forbearance has been shown in the past. Whenever a person in occupation of quarters has shown anything like good will, no ejectment has taken place. That is all I can say at the moment.
§ Mr. G. BALFOUR
Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake not to evict this poor fellow, with his 10 children, until some decent alternative accommodation is provided?
§ Mr. WALSH
I cannot enter into such an undertaking. I can only say this: I do not know why my hon. Friend the Member for West Woolwich should wave his hands in such an imploring manner. I have said that forbearance has been 2165 exercised in the past. No evictions have taken place during my term of office. This is a most deserving case, the case of a man of whom everybody speaks highly, and I have said that in this case there will be no departure from the usual forbearance that has been exhibited by the Crown.
§ Mr. WALSH
And, as my hon. Friend knows, you might easily have the whole of the military quarters occupied by civilians. All that I can say is this: I have no knowledge of the proceedings that took place in Committee. I have no official knowledge of what the Attorney-General 2166 said, but I can promise this—and this is the only promise I will make, and, I think, it is the only promise that hon. Members ought to ask me to make—that the same forbearance, the same proper regard to all the circumstances, will be given in this case as has been given in the past.
§ Sir THOMAS INSKIP
The right hon. Gentleman has not appreciated that all that he has been saying is really what has been said many times in answer to the Minister of Health, the Prime Minister, and others of the Labour party, when they have made most unfounded accusations against people who have only been doing exactly what the right hon. Gentleman himself is doing, and is defending with so much warmth to-night. I hope he will tell the Minister of Health some of the excellent things he has just been telling us.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.