§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Boulton.]
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Robertson (Streatham)
Yesterday I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War the following Question:Whether he is satisfied with the welfare arrangements for soldiers in Euston, King's Cross, St. Pancras and Liverpool Street stations?My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office replied:Adequate provision of rest rooms, washing and lavatory facilities and food canteens at King's Cross station will be available almost immediately. At Euston, St. Pancras and Liverpool Street stations progress is necessarily slow owing to the congestd nature of the stations, but accommodation is available in the neighbourhood and efforts are being made to improve accommodation in the stations themselves."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th June, 1940; col. 285, Vol. 362.]After 10 months of war I regret that I am unable to accept that answer as satisfactory. In addition to the interest which all hon. Members take in the welfare of our troops I have a special interest, because I have the honour to represent the Association of Scottish Societies, 92 in number, who requested me to look 534 into the conditions at the northern stations particularly. To my very great regret I found that there is a total lack of rest accommodation for the thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen who pass through those great stations by day and by night, and that catering facilities are either absent or hopelessly inadequate. I found that if a soldier wishes to wash himself, he has to pay 3d.—if he can get a basin to wash himself in—and that if he wishes to shave himself while washing he is taxed another 4d. for that. If he wishes to use the W.C. he pays a penny. I take the view that the emoluments of a fighting man are inadequate to meet those imposts, which may be quite satisfactory for the civilian population.
I tried to get this matter adjusted without raising it on the Floor of the House. I did not rush in to put down a Question. I spent a month with the Ministers concerned attempting to get things put right, and I am sorry to say that I am still just about where I was when I started. I want to make it clear that this matter affects every hon. Member. Every constituency is represented at those great stations every day. It has been a distressing thing to me to see men lying on trolleys by night, and to hear from Metropolitan policemen, military policemen, railway transport officers and voluntary workers connected with the Y.M.C.A., the Salvation Army and the Church Army of the conditions that prevail, in those stations—for instance of 70 men lying on the linoleum on the floor of the waiting-room at King's Cross. Men arrive at 2 o'clock or thereabouts in the morning, and because there is no accommodation available for them they have to try to sleep under those miserable conditions until such time as the morning trains to their destinations start running.
My attention was directed to this matter by officials at the stations who learned that I was interested in the welfare of the troops and hoped that I could do something. To particularise. Take Euston Station. There is no rest-room accommodation at all for the troops. There is a small canteen operated by the Y.M.C.A. at the extremity of the station. Frequently the entrance to it is cluttered up with mail bags, and in the darkness it must be exceedingly difficult for any soldier or sailor to find it, and I am 535 amazed that they do find it. At King's Cross conditions are similar. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office, when I, spoke to him about the matter, was good enough to take steps to try to meet the needs of the case. He did not get the room which was required but he did get another one, and I, through the associations with which I am connected, found a considerable part of the money to have it fitted with shower-baths, washhand basins, wire beds in tiers where men could rest by day or night and easy chairs in which those who had only an hour or two to wait could sit.
In this connection I wish to make it clear that a trooper is in quite a different position from a civilian. We are masters of our own destiny. We can catch trains to suit our convenience. We can go to the station 15 or 20 minutes before time, or one minute before, and catch the train. We do not need the same facilities as soldiers and sailors, but the railway companies do acknowledge that facilities are required, and provide for the civilians waiting-room accommodation and some catering accommodation. My hon. Friend got a room for us, and I met the Salvation Army authorities and the builders, and we hoped to get to work immediately; but we found we were tenants for a day. The building belonged to the Post Office, or was built for the Post Office, and even though we had spent £500 on it, as we contemplated, it might still have been taken away from us. I submit that my hon. Friend was fobbed off by the railway companies. They gave him not the permanent accommodation which they could have given, but something which they probably knew the Post Office would demand within a day or two.
At St. Pancras Station there is no accommodation at all on the station. Here, again, troops sleep on the floor of a small waiting-room. There is a little hut outside the station, but all that the soldier arriving is confronted with as he marches out of the station are announcements, in letters two feet high, "Café Bar." To his left front and to his right front he sees them, but there is nothing to tell him that there is a little Salvation Army hut where he can get food at cost price and within the limits of his meagre resources. The result is that the soldiers go into the more expensive places, whose prices they can 536 ill afford. I found also on further investigation that the welfare organisations—the Y.M.C.A. at Euston and at Liverpool Street, the Salvation Army at King's Cross and St. Pancras, and the Church Army at Paddington—had for months been trying to put their case before the railway companies and the Welfare Department of the War Office, but without success. They have been thwarted, frustrated, obstructed, and nothing has happened. To show that I am not exaggerating, which is the last thing I wish to do, I should like to read this letter from the Metropolitan Secretary of the National Council of Young Men's Christian Associations. It is dated 10th June and refers to Liverpool Street Station:The use of this station by troops during the night has steadily increased over the last few months, and our canteen, which is open day and night, has often been filled with men who have to wait from four to six hours for a train. Some weeks ago the position reached a climax when our workers counted 40 men sleeping on the platforms and trolleys, in addition to those who packed the floor of our canteen. We applied for the use of a room and were given one of the empty offices. We placed mattresses and blankets therein for 25 men and employed a man to look after the place. To our great surprise we received an official communication from the railway company stating that they proposed to charge us £65 per annum for the use of this room. We have not, of course, agreed to this.I have inspected that room. It is a kind of "Black Hole of Calcutta." There is room for about 15 men to sleep on the floor, on palliasses. The atmosphere is appalling. There is no proper ventilation; in fact, the ventilation is so bad that the paid caretaker has had to give up the job. Many soldiers have felt so suffocated in that room that they have gone out on to the platforms in the hot weather and walked about rather than lie in the room. I submit that by such arrangements we are paying only lip-service to the problem and not dealing with it as it should be dealt with. Here is another letter from a police constable, whose name I will not give, referring to King's Cross:Catering arrangements appear to be very satisfactory, but many more beds such as those already available are very urgently needed. For the past two weeks about 250 troops have been on the station every night between midnight and 5.30 a.m. This means that a large number of troops still hang about the platforms for several hours and sleep in the waiting rooms. One can imagine the appalling conditions that would be prevailing but for your timely intervention.537 That is at King's Cross, where there are very primitive and temporary arrangements pending the spending of £500 upon more adequate accommodation. I find that there is a welfare department at the War Office, presided over by a director who was recently a Member of this House, but has been ennobled. Here is a pamphlet published by him. It is headed: "A Problem of the New Army." What I have told you, Mr. Speaker, is not a problem but a necessity. The pamphlet begins, "New welfare scheme," and goes on with another chapter about the menace of boredom. I am speaking about the boredom of the man who cannot get a wash. The pamphlet goes on to describe "What welfare means in practice." At the end, there is an advisory council of 100 names. That council has been called together once, I believe, to hear a report from the director of what the voluntary organisations had done. The voluntary organisations—that is the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and the Y.M.C.A.—were called together to be told what they had done. My belief is that the welfare has been talked about and not done, and I have no other belief.
Now for the railway companies. They have some responsibility. These soldiers, sailors and airmen have all been paid for by the State, and I feel that the railway companies cannot shuffle off their responsibilities in this matter, as they have undoubtedly done at King's Cross, to places outside the station and not within the station precincts, at Euston to places where one would not have looked, and at St. Pancras, providing no place at all. Every effort is made to force the troops into the catering establishments of the companies or of their licensees. I am sorry to say it, but I have the feeling very deep in my mind, and it is shared by railway transport officers and other voluntary officers whom I have met, that the railway companies have deliberately frustrated this welfare movement because of the loss of revenue to themselves in selling things and the loss of revenue to their tenants in selling cigarettes, tobacco and chocolate.
The railway companies have told the Y.M.C.A., the Salvation Army and the Church Army that they should buy their tobacco, chocolates and cigarettes from the retail establishments in those stations. The voluntary bodies are trying to sell 538 the troops something at cost price, but are compelled to buy from the retail organisations at the full retail price less 5 per cent. That shows, I believe, very clearly, that these welfare organisations are trying to do a job without any profit at all. They are trying only to do good, and it is distressing that this atmosphere of deliberate frustration—and of deliberate interest, if you like—is stopping the movement.
I am reluctant to say these things to the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on"]—but I would be still more reluctant to think that thousands of the most honoured passengers that the railway companies ever carried were subject to this treatment each day and each night. I know that it is not the wish of this House or of the people outside that hours of misery and discomfort should be brought upon these gallant soldiers, and I do charge the Director of Welfare, and those responsible for his work, with neglect. I hope that he stands the court-martial that soldiers who neglect their duty should stand in war-time, and he should pay the penalty. I charge the directors of the railway companies and their managers with neglect and with a great want of sympathy, and I hope that this House will send out a message to-night that will bring this state of affairs to an end.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Butcher (Holland-with-Boston)
I do not know who is to reply on behalf of the Government, but I feel that it is to the Minister of Transport that we are entitled to look for some speedy redress of the conditions existing at the present time. The railway companies are operating under the direction of the Railway Executive Committee, which is under my right hon. Friend. We must bear in mind that these companies have prided themselves, and have spent large sums of money during these months of war upon boasting and placarding in order to say, how they are serving the people. We have heard to-day how the railway companies are serving the soldiers. We remember that, in the months just before the war, these railway companies came squealing for a "square deal." Is there to be a square deal for the railway companies and their shareholders, but a dirty and raw deal for the serving man?
539 The statement made by my hon. Friend is one which I am sure the House will welcome. We are entitled to insist, through either my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office or the Minister of Transport, that the companies shall be made to realise that they are public servants and that they have great privileges. During this time of war they have been guaranteed a return on their capital. They have had the advantage of protection which very few other organisations have, and it is their duty to put their house in order. I am bound to say that control of the railway companies is one of the matters that my right hon. Friend should take in hand at once. I see that two of these stations are Euston and St. Pancras, the property of the London Midland and Scottish Railway, the president of which line is Lord Stamp. He is able, in addition to fulfilling his duties in that capacity, to act as part-time Economic Adviser to the Government; I feel that it would be more desirable if, before he took on additional duties, he made quite sure that the ordinary soldier who travels on his line was treated with the same consideration as the fare-paying passenger.
In regard to animals, the railway companies are under a statutory obligation to observe certain conditions, and are liable for prosecution if they do not do so. Why is not the same consideration extended to the serving men? The statement of my hon. Friend about the way in which the companies seek, in a time of national emergency, to extract from voluntary organisations very heavy rents in London, when property is very difficult to let, and especially from voluntary organisations which administer comfort and help to the fighting men, is a revelation to this House and a disgrace to the country. I hope that before the House adjourns to-night we shall receive definite assurances that these things will be put right within the next 48 hours.
§ 8.9 p.m.
Sir Joseph Nail (Manchester, Hulme)
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) has rendered a real public service to-night. Many of us know that he has been struggling for weeks past with various Departments and people concerned to get this matter redressed. I heard reactions of it and 540 really believed that something was being done. The House will appreciate from what my hon. Friend has said, that nothing serious in the way of a determined effort has been made. Responsibility for this state of affairs rests in several different quarters. First of all, the War Office, with a great flourish of trumpets, set up this welfare organisation to which attention has been drawn. A one-time Member of this House, now gone to another place, preened himself on what was being done, but that Department is entirely futile. It has never done anything about this matter. I am not blaming the present Financial Secretary to the War Office—he has only just taken over his duties—but I would challenge his Department to say that any officer or person on the welfare staff at the War Office, has ever been to any of these stations to see what is going on. I do not believe that any of them know anything about it or have taken the slightest trouble to make any inquiry about it.
This applies not only in London but all over the country. It is the same in Manchester, and I have no doubt it is the same elsewhere. There is complete lack of interest, and of co-ordination between the local authorities, the Ministry of Transport and the railway companies concerned. When voluntary organisations are willing to come along and do something to fill the gap, it is scandalous to demand rent and obstruct their efforts in this way. It should not be necessary for voluntary organisations to have to fill the gap in this way. Four main line railway companies have refreshment departments. They can do something. They cannot provide bivouacs for everybody who wants to stay the night in the station, but the refreshment departments of the railways seem to take no interest whatever in these exceptional tasks which are thrust upon them.
One must be fair to the railway companies. They do cater for the carrying of these men quite reasonably. In certain cases special trains are run. Night trains are available, but the military authorities in sending men on leave seem to take no notice whatever of train connections. The men are not given proper instructions about train connections. They are thrown into Liverpool Street or King's Cross at two o'clock in the morning, after all the night trains have gone. If they are to be 541 sent on an over-night journey they should be despatched from the starting station at a time to enable them to catch the eleven o'clock or midnight trains, and not sent to a Southern camp or training depot just too late to catch the night train and too early to catch the morning train. Nothing appears to have been done. The various training centres could give instructions as to how or when to catch trains.
The Ministry of Transport takes no interest in the matter. It may be said that it is not their job. It may be completely outside the scope of that Department, but at least it is within the scope of the railway companies and organisation to do something with their own refreshment rooms, and not to shut the doors of these places, as they often do, just when a train is coming in, merely because it is eleven o'clock and the licensing hours prevent them selling any more drink. That is what is happening up and down the country. Trains are late and do not arrive at scheduled times; the doors of the refreshment rooms are shut on the stroke of eleven o'clock, and the men cannot get any refreshment because it is after eleven. These points are details in the whole picture of the war organisation, but they are details to which attention should be given. Let us have somebody in the welfare department who can do something, who can get busy and get a move on. Let the Minister of Transport talk to the railway executives and urge them to make some sort of contact between their running departments and the refreshment people, so that these refreshment rooms can be open to people when trains arrive or when the men are waiting in the station.
There is a further aspect of this matter. The Minister will find that this question of night shelters for troops travelling on leave was raised months ago in the House. At that time, a case in point was Inverness, and whoever was in office at the time told the House of what had been done, and that shelters and bivouacs were being arranged. Why was not the same thing done elsewhere? Alternatively, why are not the men sent away at reasonable times? There are two alternatives. Either leave times should be so arranged that men need not come to a London station overnight, or else accommodation should be provided. This matter is not beyond some commonsense 542 arrangement. I only rise now, on the spur of the moment, because it amazes me to think that after all the weeks the hon. Member for Streatham has been slogging away at this he has to state to-night that still nothing has been done.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
I wish to associate myself heartily with the action of the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) in bringing this matter before the House. As a fairly regular user of St. Pancras and King's Cross stations, I have been aware of this state of affairs for a considerable time, and I feel ashamed that I have not acted as energetically as the hon. Gentleman, merely contenting myself with casual complaints here and there. I always expected that the matter would be straightened out. I knew of the activities of the voluntary associations; I knew of the Army welfare scheme; I knew that the railways had been taken under the control of the Government, and I could not believe that in the course of weeks decent arrangements would not be made for the comfort of these men passing through the big terminus stations.
It was driven home to me in the strongest possible fashion in Euston one night about nine o'clock, when I was going up by the Scottish train, and I ran into a group of Glasgow men, members of the Royal Engineers, some of them my own constituents who knew me. I entered into conversation with them. They had been over on the Norwegian Expedition. They had been in the terrible landing at Andalsnes. They had been up to Lillehammer, the furthest advance point of the Expedition, had been battered all over the place, had retreated and embarked again on ships under terrible conditions. They had to travel in a troopship through the most dangerous waters round the North of Scotland, down the west into London, and, having arrived here, were glad of a few days leave in which to return to their homes in the West of Scotland. That was a month or more of concentrated hell. I would have thought that, for men who had gone through those experiences, it would not have been too much to have thrown open the doors of Euston Hotel and given them a shakedown. That is as it would seem to me—and, as hon. Members know, I do not 543 take the ordinary view about warmongers—and it would not be too much for these fellows if they had been given every scrap of hospitality and luxury that Euston Hotel could produce. Do the Ministry of Transport, the L.M.S. or the Army authorities think about anything of that sort—of Army men lying about the platform, with no arrangements made for their ordinary comfort, let alone for special treatment for the men who have been going through a rough time?
I hope that the action of the hon. Gentleman has been sufficient to ensure that this sort of thing will not occur again. It is terrible to think that while I and other Members of this House, and business men who travel up and down between Glasgow and London, can have all the luxuries of the hotels and the dining rooms, and can have first-class sleepers—when the ordinary routine of our lives has not been seriously disturbed by the war—those fellows, who have been going through the hardest conditions, must lie upon the platform among the mail bags. I hope that this Debate has been sufficient to open the eyes of the War Office, and to get something done.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Taylor (Morpeth)
I am glad that this subject has been raised to-night. It is not applicable only to the London stations. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) has rendered a public service in bringing the matter forward. When we consider how much our future depends on the men who are fighting for us, we should at least give some consideration to their comfort. I have been trying for months to get this question settled so far as the soldiers from the North are concerned. Having failed to get proper train connections out of Newcastle, I asked that consideration might be given to the times at which the men were sent on leave. Reference has been made to men being delayed on the London stations because they were unable to catch their last trains to the North, but my problem has been slightly different. The train which used to leave King's Cross arrived at Newcastle one minute before the connecting train left, and the men had to travel about a mile to get that connection. The railway company very kindly brought the connecting train into 544 the same station as that at which the other train arrives. That arrangement lasted for a fortnight. Then they said that, on account of heavy traffic, they had to take the train back again to the other station. They then re-timed the train, so that there was no hope of a connection in any circumstances. Men who came back from France spent the night lying in the Central Station. It is true that we have a Salvation Army hostel, doing splendid work, but these men do not know of it.
Is it not a shame that a man who had been serving in France, should leave London, get to Newcastle, and then be left lying on the platform for a night, when only 10 or 12 miles from his wife and family? I approached the Secretary for War about this, and he pointed out that they could not control the times of arrival of soldiers of the B.E.F. But the same thing applies to soldiers before they have gone overseas. They have been getting into London at times which prevented them from continuing their journey home. There is no wisdom in this sort of thing. If we cannot arrange to get our men to their homes properly in such times as this, we are entirely lacking in organisation. I hope that the Secretary for War will take steps to enable these men, who are making all these sacrifices for us, to get home to their wives and families.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
I have undertaken to support the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) on this subject. I think the House will agree that if nobody else but the hon. Member for Streatham had spoken, an overwhelming case would have been made out. But I want to say, as one other Member who has travelled upon the railways to a certain extent since the war began, that what has been said to-night does not overstate the case in any way. I frequently travel from Euston by the night train, and I have travelled from King's Cross and Paddington. At all these stations the spectacle is to be seen of men lying among the mail bags, often being told by porters to get out of the way. They are obviously in great discomfort, even in high summer. If things are like this now and nothing is done, what will they be like in the autumn and 545 winter, when we shall have many more men under arms, and much cold and wet weather to contend with? It is a question of common sense and of some sort of humanity in the Departments.
Some months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Dobbie) raised a question about pensions, and he felt so hot about it that he was suspended by Mr. Speaker for the rest of that sitting. But the interesting sequel was that, to my knowledge, that afternoon the Department concerned got busy, money was wired to that hon. Member's constituency, and women who had been waiting for allowances for weeks were called upon and dealt with in a few hours. I should like to believe that the representations made to-night to the Minister of Transport and the Financial Secretary to the War Office will have such an effect that within a few days both Departments will have taken steps to end this scandal once and for all. It is a shocking thing that the railway companies of this country should attempt at this time, as they do, to make a profit out of these soldiers, most of whom have only 7s. a week to live on; and that in some instances the companies should be freezing out the voluntary organisations, who are only too willing to provide for the men without profit.
In my view, there are some bright spots on the British railways. It is possible that Lord Stamp has never heard of them; otherwise, they might have to come into line with Euston and the other stations referred to to-night. Perhaps it would have been better if, instead of Lord Stamp having been seconded to advise the War Cabinet, he had been left to look after the railways, and to provide some comfort for the men who are fighting to keep the country safe. But not all centres are like the stations mentioned to-night. If the Financial Secretary to the War Office goes to Hull at any time, he will find that a voluntary organisation is doing something there, at any rate, to cater for the troops passing through. The hon. Gentleman will find that at any rate, within the limits set it, this valuable voluntary organisation is doing all it can for the men who pass through that city. I think that York has done what it can. I was very struck by what happened when I missed a connection and arrived in York 546 at about two o'clock in the morning. I found to my amazement that the Women's Voluntary Canteen, or whatever the title of the organisation is, had been given word beforehand by the authorities in London or by the station or railway authorities, and had placed all along the very long platform trucks with hot tea and coffee in cardboard cups ready for the arrival of the train. The men in the train were supplied with hot drinks within a remarkably short time through just that simple action of getting prepared and having the coffee placed at intervals along the platform. What women can do at York Station, surely a great War Office in Whitehall can do on a larger scale. I hope the War Office will see to this matter at the earliest possible moment.
On the question of some little thought being given in helping men to catch connections, a case was brought to my notice by a constituent of mine in the West Riding who is in the Navy and stationed at a Southern port. The difficulty in this case was that the men had to leave at 8 o'clock in the morning. The train left the harbour station at about 8.5 and unless men desiring to catch it sprinted hard, it was impossible for them to catch it. It needed only representations to be made to the Admiralty or to the Minister who speaks in this House for the Admiralty, for the matter to be put right. The men, in being allowed to leave 10 minutes earlier, had ample time in which to catch the train, and to catch the London connection and reach the West Riding or Northumberland or even Scotland quicker than they otherwise would. It ought not to be left to private individuals to write to a Member of Parliament and for the Member to have to write to the Department. The Department ought to be seeing to these things themselves. They have these men under their charge, and they ought to remember that these men are human and are entitled, in these days, to a proper and a square deal. The Government Departments are strong enough and ought to be willing and able to say to the railway companies, "We insist upon your doing this, and we give you a time limit within which to do it." I hope that the Debate to-night will help the Ministers concerned to say that to the railway companies, and to follow it up and see that the instructions which are given are obeyed.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)
I do not happen to have personal experience of the particular grumbles to which hon. Members have been referring, because my constituency does not cause me to travel by midnight train, but I know of the difficulties that are experienced in a place like Wolverhampton by the late arrival of soldiers on leave and the great difficulties they have in getting to their home destinations. I should like in this connection to pay a tribute to the work done locally by the Toc H hostel, which has given enormous assistance in the way of food and night shelter to a very large number of soldiers who have found themselves in the difficulties of the kind I have described.
The point to which I want to refer, as one has this opportunity to-night, is that a number of complaints have been made to me recently by constituents and others of soldiers who have been sent on leave without adequate food for the journey and without any money. I dare say that other hon. Members have had the same experience. There must have been a very serious lack of care and thought and of organisation in sending soldiers who have been through the terrors of the campaign in France and elsewhere on long, complicated journeys from one end of the country to another with, as I know in one particular case, only a few sandwiches which were totally inadequate for the journey, and without any money with which to purchase anything on the way. I hope the hon. Gentleman, who, I am sure, is most anxious to hear of difficulties of this kind and to remedy them at the earliest possible moment, will take note of the particular type of case that I am bringing to his attention. I can see by the response of hon. Members in the House that it is a complaint of a general nature and not one that is peculiar to my own constituency.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Hubert Beaumont (Batley and Morley)
I feel sure that the House welcomes the opportunity of expressing its view upon this very important matter, and I am certain that if the House had been filled, the temper of the House would have been significant by showing that the whole House desired that things should be altered, and altered soon. I do not know whether the Financial Secretary to 548 the War Office or the Minister of Transport is to reply, but whoever replies I feel sure it will not suffice for this House for them to say that they have no power to deal with this matter. I am certain that if the Minister of Transport, or the Financial Secretary to the War Office, has not the power to deal with this matter, he has only to come to the House and ask for power, which will readily be granted.
There is a point that I would like to mention—it has not been mentioned by other Members—now that this country is receiving soldiers from the Overseas Dominions. These soldiers are to be in this country, as far as we know, for a considerable time, and they themselves will do a considerable amount of travelling. It will be unfortunate for this country if these men have to write home and tell their people of the conditions which exist as they go from station to station. The good name of this country will be besmirched if they have to submit to the indignities to which many of our soldiers have had to submit during the last few weeks. The Minister of Transport, I understand, from what I have heard in this House, is the good fairy godfather of the railway companies. He is going to preserve their profits and to see that they get their profits. May I suggest that if the soldiers do not make this land secure there will be no railway services from which the directors and shareholders can get their profits? At the present time many of these soldiers are guarding the railways. I admit frankly that they are guarding them from the point of view of national safety, but, mark you, if they are successful, as I believe they will be, in guarding the vital points, it will mean that, after the war is over, the railways will be returned to the railway directors and shareholders intact, according to present arrangements. Therefore the soldiers are performing a very valuable service to the railway companies and I have yet to be informed that the railway companies are paying anything towards this police service which is being exercised by soldiers.
Several hon. Members have referred to the inadequacy of the travelling arrangements. There is something radically wrong in the arrangements that are made for troops to go up and down this country. I had an experience the other day when travelling from Derby to Sheffield. 549 I was exercising the privilege which Members of Parliament have of travelling in a first-class carriage—normally I travel third class—and I was the only occupant. The train was packed, and a number of soldiers who had come from Dunkirk were standing in the corridor. I invited them to share my first-class carriage. Nine soldiers entered, and we had not journeyed very far before the ticket collector came along and told these men that they would have to get out. I said that the men were not to get out, and I gave the ticket collector my name and told him he could do what he liked about it. The soldiers continued to travel to Sheffield with me in the first-class compartment. We ought to be ready to give these men our best after the privations they have endured. I submit that if they are given third-class tickets and there is no third-class accommodation available, they should be entitled to travel first-class. Nothing we can do is too much to help these brave men in the fight now being waged.
I was under the impression, obviously a foolish impression, that the railway companies were giving free accommodation to the voluntary organisations, and the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) has rendered a valuable service in opening the eyes of the public to the fact that the railway companies are taking a good deal of the proceeds of voluntary organisations to pay for the very meagre accommodation which is provided. The railway companies are compelling the voluntary organisations to purchase essential things and tobacco from them, which means that they are making a profit out of soldiers through the medium of the voluntary organisations. That should be stopped. I hope that as a result of this Debate immediate steps will be taken, both by the War Office and the Minister of Transport, to compel the railway companies to put their house in order. I hope that soldiers will be entitled, without any charge whatsoever, to free accommodation for washing and other purposes and that that accommodation will be the best which can be afforded on the station. I sincerely hope an endeavour will be made to see that [...]t least one room at every main-line station is reserved for soldiers, a room that is kept clean and is comfortable so that they can sit down to read and while away the 550 hours they may have to spend at the station. If the railway companies are not sufficiently patriotic to do these things without the force of a higher authority, then it is about time that a higher authority exercised its powers and demanded that the companies should do so.
We also have to remember that among the soldiers who will be travelling on the railways there will be quite a considerable number from European countries, so that the language problem will arise. It is very desirable that at the main line stations provision should be made for interpreters to assist these soldiers. I know people give voluntary service, but if you go to Waterloo or any such station it is difficult for a soldier to find an interpreter because the latter wanders up and down the platforms. It would be admirable, if as well as an R.T.O. on the station, there was a friendly advice bureau, provided free, to which these soldiers could go. I hope that the House will determine that the Ministry of Transport or the War Office, whichever is the appropriate authority, shall either exercise to the full the powers it already possesses or come to the House immediately and ask for further powers. If it does so I hope the House will be as generous in giving those powers as the companies have been stingy up to the present.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)
I am glad this serious matter has been brought before the House to-night, because I have felt nothing less than a hooligan when I have seen these lads suffer through the hardships and indignities placed upon them by the railway companies when I have travelled from Newcastle to London. All that the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. R. J. Taylor) has said I can confirm. There are two things which amaze me: First, the lack of organisation by the Army in respect of conveniences and conveyances for these lads, and, second, the amazing patience of the men. They stand chock-a-block in corridors and lie down so that one has to walk over the top of them. I went through all this in the last war, when men with all their muck on them crowded into carriages at Waterloo and King's Cross, and I thought that after 20 years we would have learned something and have treated them better. I know that to the hon. Gentlemen representing the War Office and the 551 Minister of Transport this is very much against their grain and that they are very much hurt by what is being said to-night, but let me tell them, quite frankly, that the House will not stand it. We have seen it going on for months, and if something is not done somebody will have to go. Make no bones about it.
For the railway companies to insist upon rents for the conveniences provided by voluntary efforts at great expense of time and labour is simply amazing. I am getting hot under the collar; I can hardly talk with any patience at all when I think what the railway companies have dared to do. These lads have come out of the jaws of death and the mouth of hell for them and theirs, and yet they charge rent for these conveniences on station platforms. These lads must be provided with the best, for only the best is good enough. I have felt hurt when I have been in a first-class carriage and seen these lads hounded as if they were outside the pale. Every time I see them I think their breed is right, and this House is not worthy of itself or its prestige if it is content with anything but the best for them. If this matter is not put right at an early date somebody here will know all about it.
§ 8.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Ralph Etherton (Stretford)
Very modest language has been used by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) in drawing attention to what is a grave public scandal. It is an amazing thing that the railway companies, which were asking for a square deal not so long ago, should now be doling out this sort of stuff for those who are fighting for this country. I regard it as an extremely unfortunate thing that it should be necessary this evening for us to be discussing this matter at all. One thought that the War Office or the Ministry of Transport would have had the matter put right long since. As we know, the hon. Member for Streatham has been using very endeavour and bringing pressure to bear for six weeks for something to be done, and it was not until he had used every avail in every possible direction that he, with a sense of public duty, came here to-night and drew attention to this scandalous matter.
There are two points which need to be put right, and put right quickly. The first is the lack of proper accommoda- 552 tion, and the second the excessive prices which are charged for ordinary food by railway companies which seek to make a profit out of men who are getting in most cases about 2s. a day. Backbench Members have performed a public service to-night in drawing attention to a matter which it should never have been necessary to raise in this House, and I hope that the Minister of Transport or the War Office will have this matter remedied. One would like to know where the responsibility lies, but wherever it lies I hope they will at once put the matter right. One final word. The hon. Member for Streatham drew attention to the position at the London stations. I would like to tell the House that it is not different at Manchester, and no doubt it is the same at other large stations as well.
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Sir Joseph Lamb (Stone)
I should like to support all that has been said by hon. Members as to the deplorable conditions which exist at stations and the treatment of these men. One hon. Member said that he had had the experience of riding in a first-class carriage with these men standing in the corridor; that he had asked the men to come in and that they were ordered out by the ticket inspector. That might give the impression that the ticket inspector was unkind. I should like to make it quite clear that there is no class of men who feel their position more than ticket inspectors. They are simply doing their duty, and it is not their fault. It is really the fault of the railway companies.
§ Mr. H. Beaumont
I do not want it to be thought that the ticket inspector was unnecessarily dictatorial. He was carrying out his duties. When I said, "Let the men stay here, I will accept responsibility," he said, "I am only carrying out my instructions. I have to tell them that they must not stay here." He was extremely decent about the matter.
§ Sir J. Lamb
I am glad that I have got an explanation from the hon. Member that the ticket inspector was only carrying out his duty.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Richard Law)
Every hon. Member who has spoken has congratulated the House on the fact that the Debate is 553 taking place and that these grave scandals have been exposed. I am not disposed to take such a gloomy view of the War Office or the Ministry of Transport as to admit that there are such grave scandals, but I agree with the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson), who said at the beginning of his speech that Members of Parliament had a special duty to consider the conditions as they affect those who are fighting our battles. It is a good thing that we should consider them and a very good thing that the Departments concerned should be made aware of any deficiencies there may be. The Debate has arisen out of the conditions at the three Northern termini of London, and Liverpool Street Station. Before I deal with the specific points which have been raised in regard to these stations, I should like to make two general reflections. In the first place, great as is the admiration I have for the clarity of the hon. Member for Streatham, I do not think he is addicted very much to the habit of understatement, and I think he did paint a gloomy picture, and an unnecessarily gloomy picture. My hon. Friend has tackled me on this point, and I made it my business to go to the northern termini and see what was happening. I went there late on a Saturday night, and I found nothing that tallied in any way with the description the hon. Member gave.
§ Mr. Law
Between 12 and one o'clock. I did not see the conditions which the hon. Member has described. However, on inquiry from various people at the station I was told that I had chosen an unfortunate night and that if I came in the week, I would see a different picture. I made it my business to go up again about midnight in the middle of the week, and, although there was obviously more movement of troops and more going on at the station generally, normally there were no signs of the conditions which the hon. Member and other hon. Members have described.
§ Mr. Robertson
Is it not a fact that the Under-Secretary made his visit in a period when all leave was suspended from every home town; when not one of the huge number of soldiers was travelling or was allowed to travel?
§ Mr. Law
The first visit was on a Saturday night, and my second visit was at the beginning of the movement of the B.E.F. on its return, when it was being reorganised and men going on leave were being taken to other stations. I am not trying to make out that the conditions I saw were perfectly normal, but I think it is fair to say that the conditions which the hon. Member has described are not universal. He said that day after day and night after night there were thousands of soldiers lying on the platform in great discomfort. I do not believe that that has been the general rule. There may have been brief periods when it has happened. Indeed, the conditions in recent weeks have become rather worse owing to the movement of the B.E.F. I admit that the conditions at these stations are not everything we should like, but improvements are being made and will continue to be made at these stations.
§ Mr. Cove (Aberavon)
Is there a single room at King's Cross where soldiers coming back can rest while waiting for trains? Is there the slightest accommodation for these men? I travel from King's Cross nearly every night, and I see the men walking about the platforms. They even have the impression that they are not wanted in the restaurant rooms at King's Cross.
§ Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)
I think it would interest hon. Members if the hon. Gentleman would say what is the nature of the improvements of which he has spoken. Will he give some details?
§ Mr. Law
The second observation I want to make is that I do not think the attack which my hon. Friend has made 555 on the welfare officers, an attack which was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Hulme Division (Sir J. Nall), is in any way justified. If the House does not know it, I think it ought to know that the welfare officers—and there were none of them in the last war—are in the nature of an experiment.
§ Mr. Beaumont
Is the hon. Gentleman talking about welfare officers at stations or the welfare officers of the Army?
§ Mr. Law
I am speaking about the welfare organisation of the War Office, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham made an attack. These officers, whose work is entirely voluntary, who give very long hours to it, who are put to a great deal of trouble by it, do a great deal of work in the Army generally in the way of organising the leisure of the troops, and at the same time they have done a great deal in the matter of the London termini. For example, when the B.E.F. were in France, when a man got leave the welfare officers made arrangements for his transport from the terminus in London, and if his train got in at an hour when there was no ordinary transport they made arrangements, if they could, for his free lodging, and so on. They have done a very great deal to improve conditions at the stations, and they have done what they could to improve conditions within the stations, although there they have not the 556 authority. When my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham first approached me on the matter, there was at King's Cross a Salvation Army canteen at the end of the platform. My hon. Friend maintained that that canteen was not big enough, and therefore, another room was made available in addition; and that room is being provided with washing facilities, which I quite agree ought to be there. That is one definite improvement that has been made. My hon. Friend says that that is not enough, because within a day or two this building is to be made over to the Post Office. That is perhaps rather an exaggeration. There is no question of its being made over to the Post Office in a day or two. There is some question of its being made over in six months. It seemed to the War Office, so urgent was this matter, that it would be desirable to act at once rather than await the result of the negotiations. The position is that this accommodation is available now, and the War Office is in negotiation with the Post Office on the question of the ultimate use to be made of an extra rest room.
§ Mr. Robertson
Obviously, the Financial Secretary is not at all familiar with the subject about which he is attempting to inform the House. The shed he speaks of is like an open tube station, and the back of it is closed with corrugated iron. There is a great open front, and when the weather becomes colder it will be like an ice house. On the floor there are concrete and dust, and the Salvation Army have improvised trestle tables and little hard uncomfortable chairs. They are serving cups of tea and cocoa, and any washing arrangements which are contemplated are contemplated by the Salvation Army, and the Association I have the honour to represent are finding the money for them.
§ Mr. Law
I have informed myself about this room, and I have seen it. The view of the hon. Member seems to have changed, because when he learned that this room was available he himself inspected it and wrote to me saying that it seemed entirely satisfactory. That improvement has been made, and it is a definite improvement. With regard to St. Pancras, Liverpool Street, and Euston, negotiations are going on at the present time to obtain better accommodation for 557 the voluntary societies. I can say categorically that these negotiations are not being held up by any matter of finance. If the accommodation can be made available, then the voluntary societies will be in a position to enter the premises without prejudice.
§ Mr. Law
It is not finance. That is a very pertinent question. The fact is that there is a very great physical problem. Hon. Members have been speaking rather freely as though there was a lot of space and no one particularly wanted to make any use of it. If we consider how these stations are situated and how old-fashioned and crowded they are, it will be realised that there is very little space. The problem is to find suitable space without inconveniencing the railways and the flow of traffic. This is a very important matter. I quite agree with the seriousness of this question, but, in a sense, it is more important that the railway companies should function properly than that added comfort should be provided. There was a proposal made that premises at Cardington Street should be made available. These proposals were examined by the War Office, and it was decided that the premises were unsuitable and too far away from the station, and that better accommodation ought to be found. The railway company is at this moment seeing whether much more convenient accommodation cannot be made available without loss of efficiency to the railway company and the station.
The same kind of consideration applies with regard to Liverpool Street station. There is a room which might serve very well the purposes of a canteen and rest room for the troops. It has not yet been made available, not because of the question of rent, but because it is already under an option to the London County Council as an air-raid shelter. It has not been used as an air-raid shelter, but the option still remains and negotiations are in train with the county council to see whether the option cannot be raised.
§ Mr. Robertson
The London County Council say they have no objection and have nothing to do with the gymnasium at Liverpool Street.
§ Mr. Law
My hon. Friend must have got his information wrong, because I am confident from what I have heard in the Department that that is the position with regard to the gymnasium. It is under option and negotiations are in progress to see whether the option can be raised. These improvements, which, I think, will be genuine improvements, will provide more rest rooms and washing facilities in the stations and will remove the main source of grievance which, it is clear from what hon. Members have said to-night, exists.
Hon. Members are perfectly entitled to ask, if this is so, why the grievance was not removed before. The answer is, partly, that the problem has become much more acute since the return of the British Expeditionary Force, the greatly increased number of troops in the country and the movement of troops about the country. Also, the various Departments in the War Office which would be concerned in this matter have been so much occupied with matters of greater urgency that they have not yet had time to attend to it. As an example, a meeting was to be held a fortnight ago to discuss this question between an officer of the War Office and an officer of the road department. The officer of the War Office was so heavily engaged in the organisation of the Local Defence Volunteers that he could not attend the meeting, and the officer of the road department was so occupied with the question of the removal of the British Expeditionary Force that he could not attend. That is the sort of thing that has cropped up, and it is inevitable that it should crop up. I can give the House the assurance, however, that this problem is regarded seriously by the War Office and that certain positive steps are in train to improve it. I hope the House will have confidence that the points which hon. Members have raised will be attended to as far as they possibly can be.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)
I can hardly believe that hon. Members will be completely satisfied with the assurances furnished by the hon. Gentleman. While I think we might all agree that there are physical difficulties which prevent a speedy improvement and the complete elimination of the problem, yet, when we 559 are told by the hon. Gentleman that certain key officers were unable to attend a meeting because of difficulties with which we are all familiar, the position does seem to be unsatisfactory. What must be present in the mind of every hon. Member is, if one officer could not attend, why could not another? My intervention is not for the purpose of criticising the hon. Gentleman. I would say that I am surprised that the Minister of Transport is not anxious to intervene in this Debate. After all, this is not a War Office matter. The War Office may come to a conclusion as to what ought to be done, but the matter rests with the railway companies. The War Office proposes, so to speak, and the railway companies dispose, and the responsibility rests with the Minister of Transport.
It is all very well to say that nothing singular happens at King's Cross or any of the other London termini, but everyone who travels knows that soldiers do lie about on railway platforms. What is even more important to my mind is the difficulty they experience in obtaining refreshments, first because there is not sufficient voluntary accommodation and, secondly, because they cannot afford to avail themselves of the facilities at the ordinary refreshment bars. I travel perhaps as much as any hon. Member, mostly at week-ends, and I frequently notice that while the refreshment bars at railway stations are unoccupied by the travelling public, Service men are hanging about the platforms. When they desire refreshments at the reduced prices offered by the voluntary establishments they cannot get them because the places are fully occupied. Why cannot the men go to the ordinary refreshment bars available to the public and obtain tea, coffee and other things at reduced prices? What is the difficulty about that? Obviously one difficulty is that the railways may lose a little money, but surely that can be adjusted between the War Office and the railways if the railways do not desire to lose money because their shareholders might object.
We have been told that improvements are now being considered and that the Minister hopes they will be speedily effected, but can he give us the assurance that that will be within a week or a fortnight at the latest? After all, we cannot wait too long. This war may end very 560 suddenly—who can say?—and on the other hand it may go on for years. The problem may become more acute. Cannot the Government exercise pressure? We must not forget that the Government have told us that they have taken over all property, that under the powers vested in them they can exercise complete control at any time they like. Can we have an assurance that under those powers they will call upon the railway companies, or whoever is responsible, to effect these improvements immediately? I ask for that assurance, and in that I think I reflect the views of every hon. Member.
I do not want to say a word about the sacrifices of the men, but as I listened to hon. Members who speak with much greater emotion than I can muster, I thought of that epic story of the Queen Victoria Rifles at Calais, those men who held out to the last and so enabled thousands of other men to get away. I thought of those sacrifices and many others familiar to my hon. Friends, and then I thought of the stories of these men who have waited in corridors or lain on our railway platforms. The hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Magnay) said that he wondered at the patience of the men. I would say to the hon. Gentleman who has replied, and to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport, that if I had to put up with a fraction of what some of these men have to put up with, there would not be a Debate in this House; there would be a mutiny. I simply could not stand it. I am satisfied that the ordinary Member of this House could not stand it, and if we are not prepared to put up with these unpleasant things ourselves, we ought not to ask the serving men to put up with them. I hope that the War Office will take urgent measures to remedy the defects. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree—he can speak again by leave of the House—within a week or a fortnight from now to inform hon. Members that such improvement has been effected as will satisfy not only hon. Members but all serving men.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Guest (Plymouth, Drake)
I feel, as do a great number of other Members, that this is largely a matter for the Minister of Transport to enforce his will upon the railway companies. There is an obligation on a great 561 many of us in this country to exert certain faculties, or give up certain things, or make certain arrangements, perhaps for the benefit of workers in the factories or of other people, and it is definitely a question for the railway companies to provide accommodation for the men who move throughout their systems, particularly at night. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be drastic in the steps he takes with the railway companies to compel them to make accommodation available for the serving soldiers and to do everything in their power to make the lives of these men better than they are.
§ 9.23 p.m.
§ Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Maryhill)
I listened very carefully to the reply of the hon. Gentleman who represents the War Office, and I do not think any Member who travels regularly and has seen the things that have been described tonight can be satisfied with that reply. I say, frankly, that if the hon. Gentleman were occupying his old place on those back benches he would be the last in this House to be satisfied with the reply that he has placed officially before us. It rather amazes me and makes me downhearted when I think of the terrific changes that can be made in an individual who, after years of emphatically criticising his Government, takes office himself, and then turns round and criticises his own comrades or fellow-Members in the House, by saying that they have spoken freely or have overstated their case. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman on many an occasion; I can say that out of office he was emphatic, but that in office to-night he has been pathetic.
Let us examine one or two of the points which he made. As one who travels regularly and has seen many of the scenes at Euston station, I ask him to tell us how many welfare officers are on duty between 8 o'clock and 11 o'clock at night at Euston station, what powers they have and what steps are taken to direct the attention of soldiers to the presence of those welfare officers? How many have hon. Members seen in the stations? What indications have they seen placed by the railway companies on the stations, other than the indications telling them to apply to the R.T.O.? What indications do the men receive when they come from one station to another, in batches, wandering 562 about the stations and asking questions of various individuals as to their whereabouts? How is it made known to them that these welfare officers are in existence and what the welfare officers can do? I have seen very little sign of anything of that kind being done. It is not only a question for the Ministry of Transport. It is the responsibility of the War Office to look after those men and to state definitely to the Minister of Transport what they want. If they cannot get it from the Ministry of Transport they should come to the House and tell the Members what their difficulties are.
During the last war we had welfare officers in the stations. There were voluntary people who guided, for instance, the Scottish soldiers to St. Columba's Church hut where we washed and shaved, had our boots cleaned and received attention. Go into Euston station to-night or any night when the 9.15, the 9.25 and the 10.15 trains are leaving. Look at the bars there. Men who want a cup of tea and a bun or some light refreshments have to go into the bar along with the men who want refreshment of a different kind. They are crowding over one another's shoulders, waiting to be attended to, and there is a general mix-up. I do not say that because I want to criticise the War Office, nor do I want to make things unpleasant for the hon. Gentleman. I say it because it is a fact, and I have seen it with my own eyes, as have other hon. Members. Therefore, I urge that the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Sea-ham (Mr. Shinwell) should be acted upon.
The hon. Gentleman referred to officers who could not attend the meeting; he said that those things, of course, would and must happen. We have heard of that for the last two years. It has been the excuse. That reason has been put forward repeatedly from the opposite bench when the hon. Gentleman was in opposition to that bench. That is what he was told by the Ministers whom he was criticising. He was told that there were always little difficulties and obstacles. His job is to remove those difficulties and obstacles, and, as a Member who attained his position because of criticism and a statement of a desire to improve the conditions of the men in the Army, it is his duty to act as quickly as possible. We do not want an Under-Secretary or a Minister coming to the House and saying that it was difficult to 563 get a meeting, that a certain person had to go somewhere else, or that somebody else was tied up with another organisation, that they have the matter in mind and that at some time in the future something will be done. The Minister should come here with plans, with the number of welfare officers allocated to different stations, of the accommodation to be allocated to the men, the facilities to be given to the men, the indications and the publication of notices as to where the men can go, and proper accommodation in the trains for the men.
I have travelled first-class and felt thoroughly ashamed of myself. I once inquired at a station whether one of the soldiers could share a compartment with me. I did not want to sleep that night. I once saw Scotsmen of the 51st and 52nd Divisions coming home, crowding 10 and 12 and more in a compartment, opening the windows for room, lying in the corridors; going in these conditions to Scotland, which is never an easy journey for Members of Parliament unless they secure a sleeper. Such a state of things is a national disgrace. Those men should be treated as the people of this country desire them to be treated.
It is the hon. Gentleman's duty, if there are officers who cannot attend meetings, to say to them, as the deputy-commissioner said to one of them, "You will 564 attend this meeting at 10 o'clock, or the man who takes your place will do so." If you cannot get people to take this question seriously, come to the Members of this House, and we will tell you how to do it. But first organise the welfare arrangements, giving the office adequate space on the station, so that the men can see it. Instruct your military police—who are sometimes more adequate at the stations than the welfare officers—how to guide these men. If the hon. Gentleman likes to form a committee to-morrow of half a dozen Members of this House, I will guarantee that those Members will be able to tell him how the accommodation can be brought into being. The hon. Gentleman may smile. It may be that that accommodation can be brought to the soldiers only by interfering with the luxuries of certain other individuals, but that does not matter to-day. What matters is that those men should have adequate treatment. Unless that is done, the question will be raised again and again, until there has been a change made, either in regard to soldiers' conditions or in that office.
§ Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes before Ten o'Clock.