HC Deb 13 June 1939 vol 348 cc1231-43

9.39 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Elliot)

I beg to move, in page 47, line 32, at the end, to insert:

"(3) The Minister, if it appears to him that, in view of the imminence or existence of an emergency involving the possibility of hostile attack, it is expedient so to do, may make regulations for the purpose of securing accommodation for any persons transferred under any such plan as is mentioned in subsection (1) of this section, and without prejudice to the generality of the preceding words, any such regulations may—
  1. (a) provide for occupiers of premises being required to furnish in the premises such accommodation as may be specified in the requirement;
  2. (b) declare the circumstances in which, and the extent to which, responsibility shall be assumed by occupiers of premises for the feeding and care of any children accommodated therein under the regulations;
  3. (c) authorise the imposition, on summary conviction, of penalties for failure to comply with any requirements imposed by or under the regulations."

This Amendment carries out a pledge which was given after a Debate of some length during the Committee stage, and is self-explanatory.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, as as Amendment to the proposed Amendment, in line 1, to leave out from "Minister," to the end of line 2, and to insert: within three months after the passing of this Act shall. As the right hon. Gentleman says, we debated this matter at some length during the Committee stage and he has gone some way towards meeting the points which were then advanced. I understand that what he proposes to do under this Amendment, is to invite associations of local authorities who are concerned with receiving evacuated persons, to meet him and consider the Regulations which he proposes to make.

Mr. Elliot

Both receiving and despatching authorities.

Mr. Ede

I am more concerned, and I think the Amendment is more concerned with the receiving authorities. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not think that I am other than grateful for the extent to which he has met us if I suggest that he ought to obey the Scriptural injunction: Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. The right hon. Gentleman said as long ago as last December, at a conference at which I was present, that the problems of the receiving authorities were ten times as great as those of the evacuating authorities. After due consideration I think that is not an over-estimate of the proportionate difficulties of the respective classes of authorities. While every one is gratified at the response which has been made to the right hon. Gentleman in connection with the census of accommodation in the receiving areas, those of us who have to deal with the receiving areas are perturbed at the difficulty of ensuring that the promised accommodation shall be available if it is ever required. We are also concerned about whether people will then be prepared to accept the conditions laid down by the Minister. The Minister now indicates in this Amendment the kind of regulations that he will make, in the phrase in view of the imminence or existence of an emergency involving the possibility of hostile attack. He thus indicates the time at which the regulations that will be made, and, in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), the specific points which they will cover. The local authorities concerned are anxious to be able to make these specific conditions known in the areas to which persons are to be evacuated. We think we shall get the best response from public opinion if we are able to tell the public specifically what is required of them and the penalties which may be imposed on those who do not comply with the Minister's requirements. I think it is especially necessary that we should be able to make plain exactly what compulsory powers we shall be armed with, as agents of the Minister, when the time comes for evacuation. I was on Saturday in a certain small town, near which resides a Duke, and he had announced that, in no circumstances, would he have any one billeted on him. He is not a Duke who takes any great part in public affairs. But that kind of thing is having its effect on other peoples in the district who say:" If the Duke can get out of it, why should I be expected to put up with the inconveniences that may result?" We want to be able to say in a case like that "Very well, you may rest assured that when the time comes, no one will be able to escape from carrying out this national duty merely because of personal prejudices and dislikes, and that will apply to all persons, whatever their social status"

There may be grounds of escape on such things as the age or infirmity of the occupier of the premises or inability to perform some of the duties that may be required, but certainly social status and local influence will not be among the things that will entitle a person to exemption. We are seriously concerned as to what might have happened last September if evacuation had proceeded one stage farther than that which it in fact reached. Over the wireless people had been informed in the areas to be evacuated of the provision they were to make for the children who were to be evacuated and the kind of things that were to be provided for them, and the people in the receiving districts had been warned of what they would have to do if the children were sent out and had to be billeted, and we had every reason to believe that a very great effort would be made on the part of a great many people to do the very best possible under the circumstances, but in practically every part of the country that was scheduled as a receiving area difficulties arose because of persons who, of their own volition, had moved out and had gone to those receiving areas and, after accommodation had been promised to the local authority had, by means of money payments or cajolery, persuaded the persons who had undertaken to have accommodation available for the local authority to let them have that accommodation for themselves.

I detailed to the House, in Committee, some of the experiences that I had in making inquiries a few days and weeks after the crisis of last September and the difficulties that we foresaw arising. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that one can imagine few worse plights than that of the officer of a local authority having a troop of children at his heels, going along the village street, when the children have been evacuated in circumstances that maybe in themselves have tended to unnerve the children, and being met, at some house in which he expected to find billets for two or three of the children, with the statement that since the accommodation had been promised to the local authority someone else had been admitted and the accommodation was not then available. My experience of billeting troops was that whenever one went around billeting it was always raining hard, and if you add rain and the discomforts attendant on that to the other circumstances which I have just detailed, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will see that very difficult circumstances indeed in securing the proper billeting of the children might arise. Therefore, we think that to avoid all that kind of difficulty and to make the position quite certain in the receiving areas, the right hon. Gentleman should publish now the regulations that he proposes to make.

I understand, from some conversations that have taken place, that his objection to that course is that just when the moment comes, after agreeing the regulations with the local authorities, he might want to alter them, and that then there would be two sets of regulations known to the public—one that had been previously known and the revised set of regulations which he would find it necessary to publish at the time of the actual emergency. I am bound to say that 1view with very considerable misgiving the administration of a Government Department that cannot think ahead better than that. After all, this is a matter in which, unless the details are sound, the greatest possible confusion may arise and the greatest amount of discomfort and possibly disease and suffering be caused. I should have thought that after his negotiations with the local authorities, it would have been possible for the right hon. Gentleman to feel that he had been able to devise a set of regulations in general terms that he could safely publish and that he could expect to work when the time came. Quite frankly, I am bound to say, on behalf of the receiving authorities—

Mr. Elliot


Mr. Ede

We had a discussion on the matter this morning. We had a special meeting of the County Councils Association Air-Raid Precautions Committee this morning to discuss this Clause in particular, and what I am going to say now is in a resolution that was put at that meeting. It will undoubtedly reach the right hon. Gentleman, if not tomorrow, certainly the day after. I am authorised to say, on behalf of that committee, which had negotiations with the right hon. Gentleman's Department, that we can see no reason why these regulations should not now be prepared and published, on the understanding always that in a state of emergency the man on the spot will often have to act, no matter how recent the regulations are that have been published by the Minister. I am sure that in the practical affairs of an emergency there will always arise some small point of detail that the man on the spot will have to deal with. Even if the right hon. Gentleman had published his regulations that very afternoon, I can foresee circumstances arising in one or other of the localities where it would be necessary even then for the man on the spot to act and to say, "In view of the emergency, I am going to take this particular action."

What we are concerned about is letting our public know well beforehand exactly what the position will be that will confront them. I am one of those who believe that you do no harm in this matter by taking the public well into your confidence. I have urged on the right hon. Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal more than once that I wish he would publish the Defence of the Realm Act which is to supersede his Civil Defence Measure when the time comes, because I believe the temper of this country is such that it would welcome the knowledge of the exact things that will be required of it when the emergency arises. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to publish his regulations and make them known to the general public only when the emergency actually arises, I can see all sorts of doubts and difficulties then arising that need never arise if the right hon. Gentleman will only take his courage in both hands and make these matters public now. The point of this Amendment is to secure reasonably immediate knowledge for the public who will be affected. We suggest that, instead of holding up the making of these regulations until the time when the emergency actually arises, he should within the next three months make these regulations, so that the public in the receiving areas shall know exactly what is required of them and shall be able to prepare themselves, local authorities and individuals alike, for the duties that the right hon. Gentleman will then place upon them.

This Amendment, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will realise, is moved in no spirit of hostility to his Amendment. We desire to ensure that his Amendment, for which we thank him, shall be made really and thoroughly effective, and I sincerely hope that the right hon. Gentleman will realise that if his intentions are to be made known over the wide sweep of country over which he proposes to evacuate these children and other persons, it is desirable that his exact wishes and the exact powers that the local authorities will have should be made public as soon as possible.

9.55 p.m.

Dr. Guest

I want to support the Amendment to the proposed Amendment, and to reinforce what I believe is true, that the more the public is taken into the confidence of the Government with regard to the arrangements which will be made at the time of an emergency, the better those arrangements are likely to work. One of the chief general criticisms that I have to make on our organisation is that not sufficient information has been given to the public, and with regard to this matter of evacuation it is particularly necessary that information should be given as fully and as completely as possible. If the Minister publishes the regulations it is obvious that there may have to be an alteration at a time of an actual emergency—I concede that at once—but they will not be so entirely dissimilar as to cause any confusion, and it will be a difference of detail rather than of principle. I believe that, if the regulations are published and are discussed in the reception areas, it will enable the Government to get a large amount of information about the details of evacuation and the facilities available, many, of which they do not themselves yet realise and know of. It will enable them to get information, of a kind which will be extremely valuable at the time of an emergency, which otherwise they will not get.

My own experience of the reception areas is not as extensive as that of my hon. Friend. I have no personal connection with the County Councils Association and I cannot speak from the administrative point of view, but what I know of the reception areas leads me to think that the work in connection with evacuation, if it falls to be carried out, will be done sometimes with enthusiasm and always with great willingness to serve the country. There will be a few exceptional cases of people who are pernickety and will put obstacles in the way of carrying out what is their obvious duty, but, in the case of those people, the publication of the regulations will have the very salutary effect of bringing them up against their duties and responsibilities as denned by the Minister. In the case of those whose only desire is to fulfil their duties and responsibilities to the utmost of their capacity, the publication of the regulations will give them a fuller and completer understanding of what they may be expected to do and will result in the Minister receiving a considerable number of suggestions of value to him in the work of evacuation. After the publication is will probably be found, as the result of the suggestions that he will get, that it will be possible to make adaptations and to improve the conditions of evacuation. It will certainly enable him to be certain of what is going to happen in the different areas, and it will enable that difficult problem to be definitely settled of how the claims of the public arrangements with regard to children versus the private arrangements are to be adjusted. The competing claims are already causing difficulty in certain country areas and, when the regulations are published, it will enable people to understand better what their duties are.

I asked the Lord Privy Seal in a question to underline the fact that the Government's arrangements for evacuation apply to all school children, to all women with children under five and to all expectant mothers, because that was not understood previously. I am not sure that it is even now fully understood in the country that there is no class distinction of any kind at all. It is extremely desirable that that should be known, and that the implications of it should be known, that is to say, that parents of children who do not send their children to elementary schools or to schools with which normal arrangements will be made by the Minister to evacuate the school population, have an equal right to participate in the scheme of evacuation with others. That applies also to women with children under five, of whatever social class, and to expectant mothers.

I believe that the publication of the regulations after three months would help to clear up a large number of personal difficulties of that kind and would give the Minister a great deal of very valuable information which he will be able to use in an emergency. In fact, the publication of the regulations would be, as it were, a kind of rehearsal of the arrangements and would, as the result of the information that he got, enable the Minister in time of emergency to make regulations which will be of a more precise and definite kind than could possibly be the case otherwise, and regulations more able to be carried out with complete exactitude. It will be necessary for arrangements for evacuation to be made on a very much more extensive scale than anything the Government are contemplating and, if they make regulations now and get in from the reception areas a great deal of information about the precise conditions in each area, they will be in a very much better position, at a time of grave emergency, when arrangements will have to be made for the evacuation of greater numbers than are at present contemplated, to make the emergency arrangements for that greater evacuation which will be superimposed on the evacuation of school children and other classes at present contemplated. I think the Amendment will facilitate the work of evacuation and help in every possible way and can in no sense at all be thought to be in conflict with the Government's point of view.

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Elliot

There is not much that divides us either on the Amendment or on the Amendment to the Amendment. I think we all agree that the utmost possible collaboration on the schemes for evacuation should be continually in progress, that the utmost possible information should be communicated to the localities, and that the utmost possible details should be collected from the localities. All that is actively in progress at present. It is not a matter that depends upon the regulations. It depends on such matters as railway time-tables, the numbers of persons to be sent to the areas, the amount of accommodation and the amount of water and of shelter available in those areas. All that is being accurately collected and redistributed, and will be actively collected and redistributed in the months immediately to come. Where we differ a little is that hon. Members opposite think this process will be very greatly facilitated by the making of the regulations. I doubt that, but I do not close my mind to it at all. We are now passing a Clause which will enable me and my Department to get into conference with the local authorities upon these draft regulations, and I gave an undertaking to the Committee, which I repeat now to the House, that I will, as soon as the Bill reaches the Statute Book, get into communication with representatives of local authorities, both despatching and receiving authorities, for the immediate drafting of those regulations.

I was a little lost when I saw so definite an Amendment that the regulations should be made within three months, but my mind was somewhat cleared by the speech of the hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest), who seemed to contemplate much more the communication as widely as possible of draft regulations. I think it would be premature for us now to pass a mandatory Motion that the regulations must be made within three months. I have here letters from the County Councils Association, the Rural District Councils Association and the Urban District Councils Association, in which they all say they will be pleased to consult with the Ministry over the regulations. [An HON. MEMBER: "What was the date of the letter?"] The letter from the Urban District Councils Association was dated 9th June. I sent each of these associations a draft of the Government's Amendment in accordance with an undertaking I gave to the House. They all expressed themselves as gratified, and as willing to confer on the drafting of the regulations. The letter from the County Councils Association states: I will submit them to my Air-Raid Precautions Committee on Tuesday next with a view to obtaining the appointment of representatives to confer with the Ministry on the question of draft regulations. When we have not had the first meeting of the conference on the draft regulations I suggest that it would be a mistake for the House to make it mandatory on the Department that these regulations should be published within three months. The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) quoted the resolution of the association's A.R.P. committee passed at their meeting to-day, that they could see no reason why eventually the regulations should not be published. While I am anxious to go as far as I can with the hon. Members who have moved the Amendment, I think it would be unreasonable to expect me to go as far as they suggest. The matter is governed not mainly by the regulations, but by the infinity of interviews and negotiations that are now taking place— interviews with voluntary societies for receiving the evacuees, and interviews with railway companies who are rapidly modifying time-tables. Only recently I accepted representations that a number of areas should be added to the evacuation areas, and that certain areas should be withdrawn from the reception areas. The railway companies warned us that the consequent amendment of the time-tables might take a month or two, or even longer.

Clearly the making of regulations in a technical sense might easily cut across the complicated arrangements for evacuation which I announced to the House only a few days ago. I will go as far as I can with hon. Members. It is my desire to discuss matters very fully with the local authorities, and to take into account any representations they might make. I will give a pledge to the House to do so. That is as far as I can go. If it is suggested that any part of the regulations should be put in draft I will see whether that can be done. I am as anxious as anyone in the Kingdom to see that this great movement, if it has to take place, shall run smoothly and sweetly. In deference to the views expressed by hon. Members opposite I will undertake to put forward in another place the suggestion that the penalty section of the Amendment should be amended so as to put in a definite penalty instead of an indefinite penalty, and I will suggest that the penalty might be that which is applied for non-compliance with similar billeting regulations. I should be prepared to specify that penalty not in the regulations but in the Statute, and that would go some distance to meet hon. Members. If I meet them on that point, and undertake to discuss the draft of the regulations in the fullest and frankest manner with the local authorities, to take into account any representations they may make, and to consider the desirability of publishing some part of the regulations, I suggest that I have met hon. Members very fully.

Dr. Guest

Would the right hon. Gentleman be willing to go outside the orthodox methods of discussion, and publish draft regulations, or attempt to get them published, in local newspapers? I am concerned with the idea of getting the people in the towns and villages, who will have to deal with evacuated population, understanding fully what they will have to do. More publicity would be of the greatest advantage.

Sir P. Harris

I appreciate the conciliatory tone of the right hon. Gentleman, and I realise that since his Department has taken over this difficult work he has been prepared to appreciate the difficulties of the local authorities both in evacuation and reception areas. But I am amazed now, in June, that the right hon. Gentleman apparently has not made up his mind yet on the form of the regulations. I was a member of the committee, of which the Lord Privy Seal was chairman, which was told to expedite its report last July because of the urgency of having machinery to deal with evacuation. We sat often six days a week, and pressed on with our evidence, and under the skilful guidance of the right hon. Gentleman we got our report ready last July. I am surprised at the form and character of this Amendment, which has taken the right hon. Gentleman three months to make up his mind about. I do not want to make difficulties or debating points. I realise that we are making history, and that this is a difficult problem which needs wise guidance if this machinery is to work smoothly if it comes into operation. But I think it is most necessary that the draft regulations should be made public, without more delay.

If we are going to have effective and efficient machinery from both ends the public should be taken into the confidence of the Government. In going about the country I find all sorts of questions being asked as to what evacuation implies and what are the obligations on householders in the matter of accommodation and the provision of food. I think that in June, 1939, a year after the committee reported, we ought to have the draft regulations and make them public. We are then much more likely to have the help and the active co-operation of local authorities and the good will of the public, which is vital. If these measures have to be put to the test the good will of the public is most important. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, be up and doing. Three months will mean September next, and we may have another crisis. September is a critical month. I think we should have the regulations, and then they can be modified or altered and changed if necessary, but we are entitled to know what form the draft regulations will take.

10.17 pm
Mr. Dingle Foot

I welcome the announcement from the Minister of Health that he is prepared in another place to insert in the Bill itself the extent of the penalties for breaches of the regulations. Paragraph (c) says: authorise the imposition, on summary conviction, of penalties for failure to comply with any requirements imposed by or under the regulations. There is absolutely no limit there. Under these words the Minister can impose the death penalty if he thinks fit. We had a long Debate on a similar proposal the other day on the Military Training Bill and I pointed out that it was entirely wrong to leave it to the discretion of a Government Department to say what the penalty should be for a breach of the regulations, whether it should be a fine or imprisonment. The question of the punishment to be imposed on His Majesty's subjects is a matter which should be decided by this House and by this House alone. But only a week or two after the Debate on the Military Training Bill a precisely similar proposal is brought forward again. It only shows how very little regard Government Departments have for what is said in this House. On the last occasion I was answered by the Attorney-General in these words: Quite frankly, however, I agree with the principle. I think Acts ought to contain the maximum penalties that can be imposed under regulations."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th May, 1939; col. 1710, Vol. 347.] This is an entirely new practice. Until the year 1937, even when we have given Departments the power to make regulations, we have always said in the Act itself what the penalty shall be for a breach of the regulations. It is only in the last two years that this new and vicious practice has grown up of saying that we will leave it to the people who frame the regulations to say what the penalties shall be. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will carry out his assurance and, before the Bill becomes an Act, will provide exactly what the penalties are to be.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I want to thank the Minister for the way he has met the point raised in the Amendment to the Amendment, and to say on behalf of receiving authorities that we gladly accept the assurance he has given with regard to immediate negotiations. I am grateful to him for his undertaking that he will not, from any preconceived notions, budge at publishing the draft regulations when they have been agreed upon between himself and the Associations. We regard that as being very important, and in view of the right hon. Gentleman's assurance on that point, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.