HC Deb 24 January 1940 vol 356 cc727-40

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I desire to raise a matter of which I have given notice to the Minister of Health, concerning the national camps which are now being dotted about the country. I took a great deal of interest in this Measure when it was being passed through the House earlier in the year, and there is a good deal of public interest in what is going on and what use is to be made of these camps. There was a leading article in the "Times" on the subject only a day or two ago. In the public interest, I feel, it would be desirable for the Minister to make some definite statement on the position. Originally it was intended to make a grant of £1,200,000 for the erection of 5o camps. Owing to the cost involved, it has now been found possible to start the erection of only 31 camps. This raises the point—to which I hope the Minister will pay careful attention—as to whether later on, when the National Camps Corporation have finished their work, it would be right to make a further grant to enable them to carry on with this admirable work which they have so effectively done up to now. It is not a matter about which I expect a decision to-night, but I am sure it ought to receive the attention of the Government.

At present, according to a reply which I received a day or two ago, there are 12 camps actually completed, and a further five will be completed at the end of this month. We have then practically avail- able at the moment 19 camps, and the rest of them, making up the 31, are well on the way towards completion. The startling thing is that, in spite of the fact that we have all these camps available and in prospect, only two are occupied at the present time. One of them is very properly occupied by physically defective children. The other, I was startled to learn, is occupied by the Bank of England. When I first heard that I really began to wonder whether things had come to such a pass that we had Mr. Montagu Norman and Lord Stamp in double-decker beds in some camp in the middle of a wood in some remote part of England. I am glad to learn that things are not as serious as that, and that it is some of the female staff of the Bank who are there ensconced. I am also glad to learn that they have been given notice and they are going. They ought not to have been sent to the camp at all. It was not intended for such a purpose and I venture to think that the Minister of Health was guilty of an error of judgment. If he was not, why does not he allow them to stay there? They are not suitable occupants. It was never intended that civil servants should be sent there, and I am glad to learn that they will not be there much longer.

The Press has been asking, and we naturally ask, why these camps are being built? Nine of them have been ready since nth December. It will not do to say, "We have only just had them in the last few weeks or days." Nine of them were available on nth December. I had an opportunity during the Recess of inspecting some of the camps, and I would like to take this opportunity of most heartily congratulating the National Camps Corporation upon the manner in which they have carried out the great task which has been given to them. They have shown initiative, imagination and energy, and I think they may be proud of the work that they have done. The sites seem to have been well chosen and well laid out, and the buildings in cedar are agreeable to look at. They are tiled with cedar tiles, and I understand that a certain number of Canadians have been brought over here from the Far West in order to do the tiling, which is not readily understood in this country, and to instruct people in this country how this work may be carried out.

These camps are centrally heated. It is a magnificent system of central heating which would be greatly appreciated by many people in this country in the present weather. They are suitable for occupation during the winter months, and even during the coldest winter months. There is electric light. There are four class-rooms for teaching purposes, and there is, in addition, a large dining-hall capable of seating 400 persons, which can also be used for the purpose of teaching, f necessary. There are six dormitories capable of taking, in double-decker beds, 58 children. The kitchens are admirably equipped with the latest machinery. I remember seeing there a machine which was capable of cutting and buttering go pieces of bread per minute without any human activity at all. You can vary the thickness of the bread or butter by the manipulation of the machine. Twenty-live managers have been appointed at a salary of £5 a week each, and with the chefs, who receive £4 a week each, and administrative staff, they are the only persons in the camps. There is this substantial weekly expense incurred for the carefully selected staff but there are no children. It is really a shocking piece of waste which the Government will have to defend and justify in some way. It will not be possible to say that these are new problems suddenly come upon us. They should have been foreseen months ago. Yet nothing has been done.

Recently, however, there has been some sign of life in a Government Department. The Board of Education issued a circular to local authorities throughout the country on 17th January stating the conditions under which these camps would be available for children. Originally, of course, these camps were intended for use by schools in peace time, during the warmer months of the year. It was intended that in war-time they should be used for evacuation purposes but not necessarily for children. When we talked about the Bill the idea was that they should be used for families and not only children. I notice in the circular just sent out by the Board that it is laid down that not less than 150 children shall be sent to any one school. That is the maximum and it seems a strange figure. It is seriously suggested that permission might be given in certain circumstances for 150 children to use the camp when there is room for 350. Obviously there is a large margin of waste of unoccupied premises and I would like to know what possible justification there is for not endeavouring to use these premises to the full. I think the figure of 150 ought to be substantially raised.

There is, no doubt, difficulty about teachers. I am sure there is no more patriotic body in the country than teachers who are accustomed in the ordinary way to looking after children during teaching hours. It has not always been necessary for them to do a great deal beyond that. But in these camps it is clear that some teachers will be on duty 24 hours a day for seven days a week because they have to be on the spot and will be responsible for children day and night. The remedy obviously suggests itself to anyone—there should be a sufficient number of teachers sent to the camps so that reliefs can be supplied as may be required. That would appear to be the remedy for the very real difficulty that may present itself to teachers. They are being supplied with free board and lodging during the time of their residence.

That is the case I want to present to the House and to ask the Minister to explain how soon and by what methods occupation is going to be carried out. A great opportunity is presenting itself to the country in this matter. You have these splendid camps—empty. You have evacuated children scattered about in unsatisfactory conditions in some cases as far as education is concerned—and you have a broken promise. A promise was made that the education of these children should be continued. We know the difficulties, but that promise has been broken. Let us fill the camps and at the same time fulfil the promise that the education of these children should be continued and thus fortify them for the great battle which lies in front of them.

10.42 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Elliot)

I welcome the opportunity which the hon. Member has given the House for reviewing the position with regard to camps, and for dealing with the establishment, in consequence of the Camps Act, of 15 or 20 camps, educational camps, each of which will accommodate as many boarding pupils as some of the great public schools in England. I think 250 is the number in Mill Hill School, a not incon- siderable school in the estimation of many people and certainly in the opinion of its pupils. We must regard the Camps Act as providing an opportunity not of shovelling into a series of boxes 200 or 300 children but an opportunity of founding a number of educational institutions whereby we may get the greatest possible advantage from an admitted disadvantage.

The experiment of school-camps was not delayed at the outbreak of war as the hon. Member suggested. At the outbreak of war a number of existing camps —not erected under the Camps Act—were filled with children from London, Newcastle, Gateshead and other places. In the opening days of the war over 5,000 children left for these camps and were accommodated for many weeks. Indeed, 3,500 children are still in the camps. From this we have learned many valuable lessons. It was the desire to take advantage of these lessons which explains the fact that some of the camps constructed by the National Camps Corporation are temporarily unoccupied—not through wastefulness or lethargy as suggested by the hon. Member.

Those who, like the Parliamentary Secretary and myself, have had an opportunity of reviewing the experience we have had from the transfer from day school conditions to boarding school conditions will realise that a perfectly different set of considerations apply. The teachers had as much to learn as the scholars on the novel transformation from day school conditions to boarding school conditions. Hon. Members who have had experience of boarding schools will know what a difference a good or bad housemaster may make to a house in a great public school, and how a lad's life in a bad boarding school may become a very unhappy experience indeed.

We had, of course, to continue to deal with those 5,000 children who were moved into camps. Some of the camps were well built and some of them were not so well built, and before we decided to carry them on as all-weather camps, extensive alterations had to be made, heating had to be installed, and so on. Some of them could not be used for children in all-weather conditions. At the outbreak of the war, 30 camps were occupied, and 24 are still occupied. The number of children in the camps has been brought down from 5,000, for which number the camps were suitable in the weather of September, to 3,500 to-day. The other children have had to be rehoused in big houses, hostels, residential schools suitable for winter occupation, and in one or two instances, in additional camps.

I come now to the actual experience of the Camps Corporation. I welcomed the tribute which the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr.:Mander) paid to their work. In particular I should like to commend the work of Lord Portal and Sir Edward Howarth, who have toiled unceasingly to complete the camps in accordance with the schedule and to take advantage of all possible experience in every weather, and who may now look upon their work with pride. Now that they have handed over to us these beautiful buildings, it is up to us to see that the best possible use is made of them. As the House will remember, we hoped originally that some 50 camps would be provided out of the £1,200,000 voted by Parliament, but I found it necessary to give a warning when the contracts were being placed that the cost would be greater than we had anticipated and that therefore the number would be somewhat smaller. This was to some extent due to the rise in prices which took place during the year, but to a greater extent to further improvements which had to be introduced as the camps passed from plans to actual buildings. In fact, some of the extra cost was due to requirements or suggestions made by this House itself.

The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton asked whether, when the programme is completed, a further programme will be undertaken. We shall certainly consider that. We shall need to consider it with reference to finance and, still more, to the materials available; but certainly, we do not close our mind to the provision of further camp buildings if and when we find that these are suitable. Of our present construction programme, I think we can say that the speed was good and that we made admirable progress up to the time of the crisis in the autumn, although we were slowed up thereafter. For England and Wales the figures are as given by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton. There are five camps in Scotland, under the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. All five are in an advanced stage of construction. My right hon. Friend hopes that the first will be ready to be occupied by the end of February, and three more in April. All the testimony is that in both Scotland and England the camps are very pleasant to look upon from the aesthetic point of view, and well suited to the purpose for which they were intended. It is necessary to add, however, that the all-weather, permanent, use of the camps has involved certain alterations, and for use as schools classroom accommodation has had to be added—the Camps Corporation have had to add a classroom block. That has been done in all but one of the camps that are now ready, and is being done as part of the original construction in those approaching completion. Let me deal in passing with the remarks made by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton which require an explanation as to why one of these camps has been occupied by adults instead of children.

Mr. Mander

By the Bank of England.

Mr. Elliot

Not the Bank of England—the hon. Member withdrew that remark afterwards and said that the camp in question was occupied by girl clerks. The hon. Member will remember that when we were examining the problem of evacuation before the war, we were all agreed that it was necessary to consider the use of camps as shelters for adult evacuees and not solely for children. Indeed, in some parts of the House it was impressed on us as the solution of the whole evacuation difficulty. We had to examine the suitability of the camps not merely for the housing of children but for the possible housing of adults as well, and I do not deplore or apologise for the experirnent made in housing adults.

Mr. Mander

Why are they leaving now?

Mr. Elliot

Because the experiment has been carried out. What is more, the hon. Member will be pleased to hear—or perhaps he may deplore—that these tenants have carried out many improvements in the property while it has been in their possession. They are leaving at an early date and receiving no compensation whatever for the great improvements which they have carried out. These improvements will inure to the landlord, but as in this case the landlord is a public body no doubt the hon. Member will be glad to hear that. As I say, this experiment, carried out not at our expense, has resulted in an enhancement of the value of the property. It was an experiment vitally necessary for the examination of the possibilities of evacuation, and I make no apology to the House for it. I am sure it is an experiment which the House would have desired.

The main use of the camps in war-time, we have now decided, is for the children, and we think the best thing is to make a large proportion of them available for schools which had been evacuated and were finding it difficult to carry on in temporary accommodation in the country. Our experience of other camps and our discussions with medical and school authorities led to the conclusion that camps were not suitable for very young children, who are less able to adapt themselves to camp life, and are more prone to epidemic diseases. We have therefore turned our attention to schools for pupils of it years and upwards, either secondary, or senior, or selective central schools. As the House will see, in the choice of tenants for these buildings it was very necessary that the school should be fitted to the camp as the key is fitted to the lock—a camp should not be used merely as a receptacle into which to shovel 300 or 400 children. As soon as a camp was near enough to completion it was inspected by the education authorities. At the beginning of November we proceeded, through the inspectors of the Board of Education in the reception areas, to get into touch with the schools which seemed likely to be suitable, and with their local education authorities. Hon. Members may say "This ought to have been foreseen and all this ought to have been done during the previous months." But a prospective tenant of a building learns a lot more when he sees the building erected than he can gather from merely seeing prints or plans. The school authorities went to see the premises to which it was suggested that the school should be transferred. They were not willing to buy a pig in a poke and nobody suggests they should be asked to do so. Some improvements had to be made in the schools as a result of this practical inspection by the practical people.

Again, I make no apology for having given the school authorities an opportunity of looking over the premises which were to be occupied, perhaps not for months but for years, by children for whose lives and health they—not I or any Member of this House—were responsible. These were trustees and guardians, and they looked over the premises into which they were to put the young people entrusted to their care. I do not blame them for having carefully examined the premises. We aimed at finding schools of a minimum number of 250 boys or girls which, in the first place, were not satisfactorily housed in the reception areas and which were most likely to make a success of novel conditions—and that is almost more important than any other criterion. There were not many schools satisfying all these conditions, and very few had as many as 250 pupils left in the reception areas. We did not, and we do not, think that assembling them in bits and pieces will be satisfactory. The esprit de corps is, in the working-class school, felt just as keenly as in some of the older foundations.

I have been very struck by the discussion which we had only last Monday with the various authorities concerned with evacuation. An hon. Member representing an education authority spoke very strongly of the desirability of recognising that the tradition of a school was a thing which was not confined to an upper-class school alone. When it is said that there should be some authority to compel the filling up of these camps to the exact number, I say that that is not the spirit in which we should approach this problem, nor the spirit in which the House would desire us to approach it. We found some half dozen schools satisfying the conditions I have mentioned, and the local education authority and the head teacher went over the camps with representatives of the Board of Education and of the Camps Corporation. Remember that these camps were built for other purposes than for schools. They were built primarily as holiday camps.

The undesirability of undertaking a considerable number of these experiments in the creation of boarding schools just before Christmas needs only to be mentioned to the House. In December we were all working to prevent Christmas destroying the evacuation scheme. In practice we had found that every time you stir the children around you lose a considerable percentage, and to set out in the middle of December to uproot the children from the billets to which they and their parents had become accustomed and to move them, before the Christmas parties which we had arranged with the object of keeping them in the safer areas —move them probably many miles away, would have been to lose 50, 60, or 70 per cent. of the children.

If we had moved them in the bitter cold weather, knowing that winter conditions still lay ahead of us, we should have started the experiment under the most unfavourable conditions possible. Everyone would have criticised me in the House, together with the President of the Board of Education, the Parliamentary Secretary and everybody connected with the Government for their gross ignorance in not knowing that children were sensitive plants, and would freeze if left out in the cold weather.

I do not apologise at all because I am not going to rush and uproot children from warm houses and transfer them even into central-heated huts until I see the weather improve a little. I have a report on one of the dormitories in a camp which shows that on one day this month they could not get the temperature above 48 degrees. In these circumstances I am sure everybody will realise that to have a camp unoccupied at the present moment is not a serious blunder, but a very wise precaution. If we moved a number of children under severe weather conditions we might get illness—colds and pneumonia—and everyone would condemn us for gross carelessness in the human lives entrusted to our charge.

We had the camps inspected and later we sent out the circular to which my hon. Friend referred. In the circular we did, as he says, go as low as 150 because, again, school unity is most important. We are not wasting space by having the camps occupied by 150 instead of 300 because evacuation space is space which is valuable to us. If intensive bombing starts we shall have only half the space occupied, but there will still be room for more children if they have to be moved in a great hurry. In that case, of course, all our scruples about preserving the individuality of the schools would have to go by the board. The vacant space would be doubly valuable. If we can use that space profitably and preserve the individuality of the schools, and get the good will of the teachers and parents, I am sure the hon. Member himself would be the first to say we were doing right. The response to the circular has been considerable. We have requests for over a dozen camps, and others are coming in daily. I have no doubt that the schools will be forthcoming for the camps which are now ready and those to be completed in the near future. Since last Monday even—

It being Eleven of the Clock the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.)

Mr. Elliot

Since last Monday arrangements have been made for three camps in the North of England to be occupied by scholars of three different authorities. Now we have to consider what use we can make of the whole programme of the camps, and whether we are to mortgage the whole of them permanently during the war for whole-time boarding school use. I think that a number of these camps could properly be retained for the purpose for which we originally built them, for relays of children not only from the congested areas of the great towns, but from some of the reception areas where their presence is becoming a little tiresome to householders. They may well turn into holiday camps from two points of view, benefiting not merely the children who go to them, but also the householders who will be temporarily relieved of the children. Furthermore, the use of these camps by relays of children passing through them will enable us to take a larger number of children, give them the necessary drill in assembly, and getting them together in unfamiliar surroundings, which will be invaluable if afterwards they have to do that under the stress of intensive aerial warfare.

This is one of the reasons why we do not wish to fill up all the camps at once. Even the numbers which we are already considering constitute a very great educational experiment. We are having to fill 11,000 places for children of 11 years of age and upwards. That is nearly twice the number of pupils there are in the 10 biggest public schools of England, which have not got more than 6,500 pupils between them. If any of us had before the war proposed to found 10 great public schools in one year, we should have been laughed out of court for an arrogant set of busybodies who had no conception of what the task of founding a boarding school is like. Yet that is what we are to try to do this year.

Do not let us under-estimate the size of the experiment and hastily demand that all these things should be in full working order by 1st April.

These are the main points which I wished to bring before the House. I say again that it is a very important and it may be a very lasting and far-reaching experiment which we are conducting. It it true that we owe it to the lull which we now enjoy, and it is possible that that lull will not continue, but so long as it does let us make sure that we are doing our best to utilise this strange gift which fortune has put into our hands, and say to ourselves, "We are not setting about the education of flocks of young children but about the founding of one, two, five, 15 or 20 boarding schools in which thousands of young people will live and where the conditions will bear very much more instantly and immediately upon them than do the conditions in any day school or billet." Let us remember the responsibility which is placed upon us, and not hesitate to keep a camp empty a week, two weeks, or a month if need be, if we can thereby make sure that the young people we are sending to it look upon their stay there as one of the best times in their lives, and not as a period of imprisonment from which they would be only too glad to be released.

Mr. Paling

I have never seen a statement of where these schools are situated. Has one been issued, and if not, can we be supplied with the information?

Mr. Elliot

I have here a statement showing where the camps are situated, and I should be very glad to show it to the hon. Gentleman.

11.7 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson

I want to express my thanks for at any rate the greater portion of the statement made by the Minister. I realise the value of the analogy between what he is setting out to do and the great public schools, but I hope that he will not carry that analogy too far. I am not sure that on this side of the House we are all capable of appreciating aright schools which we have not had the advantage of attending, but I am thinking in terms of the school population, with which we can deal in this way in relation to the whole. While I realise that the principal value of this experiment is the retention of the school entity, yet I want at the same time to prevent a whole area of dissatisfaction being created as a consequence of one entity having been retained while another section of the community is broken up. In no circumstances could we provide for all our children in this way. I realise the value of taking children over a given age, particularly in the circumstances of the war; but I would impress upon the Minister this fact —it is a fact, gained from experience at our camp schools organised under different circumstances and with less haste—that while they have been of great advantage to the younger children who are suffering from some physical defects, in the main the value of these schools lay in the retention of the entity of the school. To the extent that they can be used for, say, a central school, not necessarily a selective central school, when the children are approaching the critical age in their education, to the extent to which they can be retained as an entity, and their education can continue even in these difficult times, these camps will be a blessing in disguise for that section of the school population.

I hope also that there will be cooperation with the Board of Education, and that the Minister will not take offence at my suggestion that these camps are being organised under the wrong Department. I am not suggesting that the Minister is not doing his best but that the camps ought to be under the Board of Education. I believe it is their job. I know that the moving of the schools from the danger zones into reception areas was the job of the Minister of Health, but he has done that job; now the organisation of the school camps is a job for the education authority and ought, in my judgment, to be under the President of the Board of Education. Educational facilities ought to be the first consideration because, included in them, is the health of the school child.

One cannot, at this time of night, develop this subject, to show the valuable use to which these camps could be put, but I want to express thanks to the Minister for the explanation which he has given to the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander). Many of us who are interested in this aspect of the subject will look for its further development with as much interest as the right hon. Gentleman himself has. Whatever we can say to encourage the settlement of these children in the camps will be said, and every encouragement will be given to them.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.