HC Deb 10 April 1941 vol 370 cc1770-800
Major Milner (Leeds, South-East)

It will be within the recollection of the House that on 19th October last my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary issued a circular which provided that in respect of contracts for air-raid shelters entered into by local authorities after that date grants of 100 per cent. of the cost would be repaid to them. The question I desire to raise is the failure of the Government to make that grant retrospective. I am raising this question at the special request of the Association of Municipal Corporations, but I have reason to think that it has the support of the County Councils' Association, of the other local government associations, of the London County Council, and of the majority of local authorities throughout the country. That is most powerful and responsible support. I had hoped to have been able to call an even more powerful witness in support of my case. I refer to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has been for five or six years the principal protagonist of the view which I venture to put forward to-day. He does not usually hide his light under a bushel, and the House can only assume that, as he is not present to-day, he has thought that discretion is the better part of valour and has asked the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary, whom we know to be extremely competent and who is in charge of some portion of the shelter work of the Government, to tell us, as I hope she will, whether the right hon. Gentleman is still of the same opinion as when he was on these Benches or whether, and I can hardly think this likely, his translation to the other side of the House has changed the view he then expressed.

However that may be, there is one preliminary observation which I should like to make and which it is due to the local authorities that I should make. It is clearly the duty of all of us to put forth our utmost efforts in the prosecution of the war, and the local authorities give way to no one in their determination to do their part. They have had many responsibilities thrust upon them, and they have responded, almost without exception, cheerfully and manfully, but they do expect that they should have a fair deal in return. Now, Sir, the history of the particular matter which I am raising is a long one, going back to 1935, and I cannot hope, nor do I wish, to go through it in detail. It is sufficient for my purpose to say that throughout the whole of that period the local authorities, led for the most part by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, have pointed out that air-raid precautions are a national responsibility. They have never receded from that position. As recently as 3rd April last year my right hon. Friend himself clearly set out the principle when he led a deputation to the then Home Secretary, the present Lord President of the Council. He said: The State should pay the whole cost of Civil Defence operations in war-time. The Civil Defence organisation is an essential part of our war organisation, and as its direction is in the hands of the Government the Government should bear the whole cost He pointed out, and I adopt his argument in toto, that air-raid precautions are a part of National Defence and that there is no more reason why local authorities should bear the cost of air-raid shelters than that they should bear the cost of the Army, Navy or Air Force. Air-raid shelters are quite outside the field of the normal expenditure of local authorities. He went on to say: If you want swift, clean-cut decisive action the State should bear the whole cost, and it is unjust, improper and not conducive to good administration for the State to take complete control and not to pay the whole cost Now my right hon. Friend appears to have convinced his colleagues in the present Government that the 100 per cent. principle was the right one, but when he comes to put it into force he does not make it retrospective. He admits the principle but leaves the inequalities, the anomalies and the injustices unremedied. For what is the position? All the progressive authorities, all those in areas which are termed vulnerable areas, who did the right and proper thing by pushing forward with the provision of shelters, and have gone far to completing the work, will for many years have to bear a very substantial burden, whereas the slackers, the local authorities who neglected their duties will receive payment in full as their reward and will have no such continuing burden.

Let me give a typical example. I wish that my right hon. Friend had been present, because I am sure that he would appreciate the particulars of his own borough of Hackney. The Borough Council of Hackney, which is a progressive and responsible authority, as I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree, has estimated its total air-raid shelter expenditure at £458,000. It has already expended more than £350,000—over 76 per cent.—leaving only 24 per cent, to be expended. By reason of the fact that it has gone ahead, that it did the right thing, it will have to bear an annual burden of thousands of pounds for some years to come. That is not by any means the worst example. There are many other places, particularly in vulnerable areas, where the rates have had to be put up owing to this burden which has been thrust upon them. Take the constituency of the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I am sure she will be interested to hear about Jarrow. If my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does not pay the whole cost of the shelters, then the ratepayers of Jarrow will be mulcted in something over £10,000. We all know that Jarrow is, or was, a very hard-hit part of the country, and I cannot think that the hon. Lady would willingly see her constituents mulcted in that sum, and I hope that one result of this Debate may be to bring her over to our side, and to prevail upon her to use her persuasive powers with the right hon. Gentleman in order that he, in turn, may bring persuasion to bear upon the Treasury. My own city of Leeds will have to bear a charge of £109,000, Manchester £331,000, Sheffield £295,000, Wolverhampton £27,000. The more progressive the city, the more it has done to protect its citizens, the greater the burden that has to be borne.

What is the answer of the Government as we understand it from Questions answered by my right hon. Friend in the House? He first said that it was due to the "Blitz." We all know that the "Blitz," or repeated "Blitzes," have covered a multitude of sins, but it does not seem to me that it in any way affects the question whether the 100 percent. should be or should not be retrospective. Then he said that if local authorities did not do their duty he would have had to do it for them, and therefore he had better make the grant 100 per cent. and thus ensure them doing it. When pressed to make the grant retrospective he said that it was inexpedient to do so. In my submission nothing is expedient that is unjust, and if the justice of the claim is admitted then there can be no answer to the request that the 100 per cent. grant should be made retrospective. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has not pressed the Treasury as closely as he might have done, but if it be the Treasury who are at fault I wonder whether it has been pointed out that the failure to pay the full 100 per cent. will mean that local authorities will have to have recourse to borrowing; that borrowing will mean competition with the State; also that rates are a charge upon industry and will reduce the yield of the Excess Profits Tax. The principle of rating is quite inequitable in its application to air-raid shelters, because the occupiers of highly-rated premises require no more shelter than their less affluent neighbours, and, indeed, the great majority of well-to-do ratepayers will have erected shelters for themselves.

If the hon. Lady says that she and her right hon. Friend entirely agree with the grant of 100 per cent., but that at this late stage it cannot be made retrospective, then I want to quote from a speech made by the Home Secretary himself on 3rd April, 1940, on this very point. Representative as he was of the local authorities and speaking to the then Home Secretary, the present Lord President of the Council, the right hon. Gentleman said: If any change is made and more favourable terms are given to local authorities in future, then they should have retrospective effect. That is precisely the plea that I make today. I ask the hon. Lady to tell us frankly whether the right hon. Gentleman still agrees that the question of shelters is not one of local liability, but should be a wholly national charge. If so, will she tell us why the local authorities are not being granted by the right hon. Gentleman that full 100 per cent.? If she cannot give a favourable reply to-day, I hope that she will request the Home Secretary to press the treasury and the Government again and to tell the Treasury what is, I believe, the case, that there is a very large body of opinion indeed in this House in support of the appeal which I am making. Apart altogether from the justice of the case and I ought to say that if the grant is made it will cost £9,000,000, it would bring about a feeling of good will and appreciation of fair dealing and an even more willing cooperation by local authorities than exists to-day—if that be possible—which would be of far greater value in the present troublous times than the expenditure of pounds, shillings and pence by the Government as a whole than by the varying bodies of ratepayers

Sir Annesley Somerville (Windsor)

The hon. and gallant Member who has just spoken presented such a clear case that I can usefully add very little to it. He said that nothing that was unjust could be expedient; it is very difficult to dispute that statement. He spoke on behalf of the Association of Municipal Corporations, a comprehensive body. I also would like to speak on their behalf and also on behalf of the Non-County Boroughs' Association. In my own constituency I have two non-county boroughs. One of them provided the necessary shelters promptly, before 19th October. The other borough had certain causes for delay, such as correspondence with the Board of Education to determine the type of shelter. Sanction was required from the Board of Education, and that occasioned some delay. The result is that the prompt borough which had completed its shelters before 19th October receives 60 per cent. grant, while the other borough gets a grant of 100 percent.

It is very difficult to defend that distinction. The Home Secretary put up what we must regard as a very feeble case. We know from Holy Writ that there was an occasion when the eleventh-hour workers in the vineyard received the same remuneration as those who had borne the burden and heat of the day, but the Home Secretary gives 40 per cent. more to the eleventh-hour localities than to those who have borne the burden and heat of the day. Perhaps he thought it gave him a better case in his dealings with the Treasury. We are informed by the Parliamentary Secretary that the cost of granting the full 100 percent. to the prompt authorities would be £9,000,000, and we can well understand the reluctance of the Treasury at this moment to hand out that sum of money, but I suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he should treat the willing and prompt authorities in the same way as, or probably rather better than, he proposes to treat industrial concerns in the matter of their reserves. Without paying cash immediately to them, could he not grant them, say, War Bonds, to the extent of 40 per cent., to be the property of those prompt authorities, which they can deal with at the close of the war, without any deduction in respect of Income Tax? I believe that suggestion is worth considering.

This is a matter of simple justice. I would ask the Minister of Home Security, whose fine work for national security we appreciate so much, not to act in the interests of a certain number of boroughs which are dilatory, but to regard the interests of justice. I would ask him and the Treasury not to place at a disadvantage those efficient and prompt authorities which exist in every part of the country and which have done their duty by providing the shelters which were necessary to national security, but to do justice and not create an evil precedent.

Mr. Chater (Bethnal Green, North-East)

I desire to reinforce the plea made for the reconsideration of this matter. From the commencement of hostilities my constituency of Bethnal Green wanted to fulfil its duties in regard to air-raid shelters, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that it thoroughly carried out those duties. It seems a very great hardship, amounting almost to injustice, that that borough and others like it which made themselves responsible in the first onset of the war should now be treated unfavourably in comparison with those who more belatedly fulfilled those responsibilities.

There are other considerations which I would place before the hon. Lady. The borough which I represent is very poor, from the point of view of rateable value. Recently I made a tour of the constituency to view the destruction caused by one recent raid, which took place on 19th March. I am informed that about 700 houses were rendered uninhabitable in that raid. In other polling districts in the area two-thirds of the houses are already uninhabitable. I want hon. Members to realise what that means to a borough like Bethnal Green. The number of properties from which rates can be raised has already decreased by over one-third. Even in normal times a 1d. rate from such a borough realised only about £1,800. Perhaps the hon. Lady appreciates what a heavy financial burden will be placed upon this borough if the grant is not made retrospective. I am not sure that the whole amount has been borrowed on account of air-raid shelters, but certainly it would appear that a very great proportion of it has relation to air-raid shelters when I say that the borough has recently been compelled to borrow something like £50,000 in order to meets its financial responsibilities in this respect.

One other point has to be taken into account. We cannot always have in mind just the present moment. The borough of Bethnal Green, like other boroughs in this country, has to live in the future as well as in the present, and when the war is over and when we shall want to attract people back again to follow their normal employment and their daily avocations as they did prior to the outbreak of the war, what will happen then with all this devastation of property and with the reconstruction which will have to be carried on? Not until this reconstruction is nearing completion shall we again be able to gather the rates in order to finance these responsibilities. In circumstances like that, businesses and manufacturers, instead of coming back to the place, will be repelled and will probably go elsewhere. These are very serious considerations.

My hon. Friend who introduced the subject made some reference to the ideas which he said the Minister of Home Security possessed before he became a Minister, and he said that he was rather curious to know whether the Minister had now changed those views. If the Minister's answer should be that circumstances have changed, I only have to point out that the circumstances have changed enormously in Bethnal Green, and they are very much more insistent in calling for some assistance now than they were when the Home Secretary held his previous views. So I hope that the pleas which are now being made, and which I hope will be echoed by other hon. Members, will have the effect of producing relief in some form or other to boroughs such as I represent.

Mr. Brooke (Lewisham, West)

I am very glad that the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) has initiated this subject to-day. I believe that I was the first Member to raise it in the House as long ago as last November, and nothing that has happened since has altered my original view that this is the gravest injustice that has been done by administrative action to local authority finance for many years. I would like also to put before the House this aspect. We can speak of the past and of the present, but we have also to look to the future. I am a member of a local authority, as are many other hon. Members present. If in future a local authority is offered a percentage grant for some work which the Government wishes it to do in the national interest, is the local authority likely, or is it not, to act speedily in response to the Government's request? This experience has shown local authorities that if they hang back they have a good and reasonable hope that the grant basis will be altered, and that the whole cost of the work will eventually be paid by the taxpayer and not by the ratepayer. Local authorities, rightly I think, have long memories and that will not be forgotten.

I am gravely surprised at so experienced a local authority man as the present Minister of Home Security introducing an action of this kind. The ratepayers, of course, know all about this. My peacetime home happens to be in Hampstead, a London borough which went forward rapidly and successfully with its shelter programme when it was first called upon by the Government to do so. Hampstead people now have plenty of visual evidence from one or two neighbouring boroughs further out, which I shall not name, that the shelter work there was not speeded up until the 100 per cent. grant became available. Do they ascribe that unfairness to the Minister? The House should realise that they ascribe it not to the Minister but to Parliament. The Minister acts in the name of Parliament, and the explanation given at council meetings everywhere and in the local Press is that Parliament has taken this decision that the laggard shall be paid and the efficient shall be penalised. The Minister of Home Security, who as we know has been questioned many times already on this subject, has I think made it reasonably clear by his answers that he sympathises with the view which has been put forward by his questioners, and which appears to me to be almost the unanimous view of the back bench Members of this House, and probably many others in the Government also. He sympathises with this view, without a doubt. In answer to one Question he said: I fully appreciate the point of my hon. Friend and would not argue as to its merits" —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1940; col. 330, Vol. 367.] Does that not show that the Minister himself sees the justice of what we are claiming, but does not feel strong enough to stand up to the Treasury in the matter? I have sympathy with the hon. Lady who is to reply to this Debate. In my view there ought to be here a representative of the Treasury. The Chancellor ought to be here. This is a Treasury decision; fundamentally it is not a Ministry of Home Security decision. The Treasury hides behind the Minister of Home Security, and, so far as local authorities and the public are concerned, the Minister hides behind Parliament, and yet here we are in the House, all of us agreeing that we are not prepared to support the Minister in his decision.

This matter goes far. We in this House should carefully see to it that we maintain the confidence of local authorities in the financial arrangements made for them —I must even say, imposed upon them—by Parliament; that is, by us. That confidence has recently waned somewhat. I am delighted that the House should be showing its active interest, because we shall hear much more of these things. The House may not realise that, at this moment, local authorities are having to argue with the Ministry on such a trivial point as this, that when a Civil Defence authority hires vehicles for Civil Defence purposes they qualify for 100 per cent. grant, but though the Ministry say that it is more desirable to purchase the vehicles, if the vehicles are purchased the local authorities find that they qualify for only a 60 per cent. grant. That kind of reasoning is extremely hard for borough treasurers, town clerks and members of local authorities to understand. It gives them the impression that we in this House are not treating them fairly, and are not seeing that this matter of financial administration is being clearly and intelligently handled at the centre. The other day I saw that a responsible person in local government, referring to the A.R.P. grant system, quoted Shakespeare:— Here is such patchery, such juggling and such knavery Hon. Members may laugh, but it is not a matter for laughter in the council chamber. I hope that the House will show that it is unanimous to-day in its belief that the Government's administrative action has been wrong.

Mr. Hubert Beaumont (Batley and Morley)

I have been requested by the three boroughs in my constituency to enter a protest against the arbitrary decision taken on this matter, and a plea for its reconsideration. My hon. Friend quoted a certain extract from a speech made by the Home Secretary on some previous occasion. I am one of those who do not think that the Home Secretary has departed from the position he then maintained, but rather that he has been faced with a difficulty which up to the present he has not been able to overcome. The difficulty seems to be that of persuading the Treasury to act fairly to local authorities, and it may therefore well be that the Home Secretary himself, and the hon. Lady who is to reply, will welcome the most trenchant criticism of this circular. Consequently there may be a little softening, and, as a result, the local authorities may be reimbursed for expenses incurred prior to 19th October, 1940.

I submit that this circular discriminates in favour of laggard authorities, and that it definitely penalises the patriotic, progressive and public-spirited authorities. Those who have got on with the work are punished and impoverished, and the circular definitely put a premium upon incompetence and delay. The principle, if there be a principle, underlying this circular is one that will act as a great deterrent to local authorities in the future. It is certain that it will stultify effort, and the Home Office or the Ministry of Home Security may be extremely sorry in the future that they have made a decision of this character. For many months a slogan has been pressed upon us: posters on walls all over the country have enjoined upon the populace to "go to it" I am wondering whether local authorities, when they receive instructions or requests from the Ministry of Home Security in the future will interpret "Go to it" as "Wait for it"—because if they "Wait for it," they may get the whole of the expenses paid, while if they "Go to it" they may be involving themselves In additional expenditure. If local authorities believe that they will get better terms if they are dilatory and unresponsive, it may so happen that their hesitancy, indecision and inaction will definitely imperil the life of the nation and the national effort. We need to do everything we can to encourage local authorities to carry out the duties and obligations imposed upon them, and we do not want to see them deterred by the consideration that if they wait a little longer they may get better terms.

It is very true, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, that protests have come from all over the country. He has spoken on behalf of the great municipal authorities, but this also applies, maybe in a lesser degree, to the smaller local authorities—the small boroughs and urban district councils,. which have also been patriotic and are being penalised. Local authorities may be placed in a position in which their ratepayers will object to extra burdens being put upon them because their authorities take action. We have been told by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, in an answer to a Parliamentary Question, that it is not practicable to avoid inequalities when the rates of grant are altered. I submit that if there is to be any inequality or imposition it should not fall upon those authorities which did the work, but upon the sluggards, the incompetents and the hesitants. As it is now, the public-spirited, enterprising and realistic authorities are being penalised.

In my constituency I have three authorities, and may I just quote the case of one, namely Morley, a very enterprising and public-spirited authority, a small borough whose penny rate works out at £645. Because of their activity and enterprise, they are being compelled to pay a penny rate for additional shelters, and they are having to pay loan charges for providing shelters for schools. For the next 12 years they will have to pay a 1¼d. rate, yet if they had waited, if they had not considered the well-being, health and care of the children, they would now be able to get the whole cost of the school shelters, provided they were open to the public after school hours. It is tragic that in these days we should embarrass local authorities in the effective carrying out of their duties.

One could quote many more figures, but there is a number of Members of the House who wish to speak. We do not want local authorities to think that they are not going to be dealt with fairly and squarely. We do not want local authorities to feel that Government Departments will not play the game with them. We believe in the patriotic spirit of our local authorities, and we want to encourage them in every possible way to carry out the wishes of Parliament. Surely the first thing we have to do now is to restore the trust of the local authorities in the administration of the Home Office? Perhaps, so far as the Home Secretary and the hon. Lady who is to reply are concerned, we are pushing at an open door. I believe that, if they had been on this side of the House, they would have been emphasising even more strongly the points that are being made.

Therefore, if the hon. Lady has to say that there can be no alteration of this decision, it may be possible, as a result of the emphasis that has been laid upon the point in this House, and of the fact that hon. Members of all parties from all parts of the country are strong in their protest against this matter, that it may be reconsidered. If it is a question of Treasury opposition, I am certain that this House can prove the truth of the axiom that the whole is greater than the part, and can insist on the Treasury making restitution to those authorities which have carried out the wishes of Parliament. We are not opposed to a grant of 100 per cent. In fact, we support it, and we want the 100 per cent. grant to be given to all the authorities which have done their job. All we are asking is that additional expense incurred by local authorities shall be met out of this grant. It is, I submit, an act of common justice and common sense. It is dangerous for local authorities to suffer from any grievance, and I believe that restitution to the authorities of the amount they have expended will revive their trust in the national administration, and will ensure the greatest measure of co-operation in the days that are to come.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby (Epsom)

I think the case made out by my hon. and gallant Friend who raised this matter to-day was really made for him some time ago by the Home Secretary, and I am only sorry that the Home Secretary's other pre-occupations have kept him away from the House to-day, with the result that he has had to leave his charming understudy to hold the fort. She will no doubt make an adequate reply to the criticisms we have heard, although I venture to think that her heart will not really be in it, because no more strenuous advocate of fairness to local authorities exists in this House than the hon. Lady herself. It is a little hard, therefore, that it should fall to her lot to have to defend the indefensible.

I think one of the most trenchant criticisms has been that of the hon. Member who sits beside me. Unless this injustice is corrected, it will inevitably lead to local authorities in future deciding that they had better wait and see whether something better will turn up before embarking on a constructional policy. In my own constituency all the boroughs have done their best since the beginning of the war—and, indeed, since before the war—to make proper provisions. For having done so, they have been penalised —they have been doubly penalised, because originally, before France collapsed, it was reasonable to suppose that the area would not prove particularly vulnerable, but the collapse of France led to what would otherwise have been a more or less neutral area becoming one of the most dangerous areas outside London itself. Having faced up to that, before the date of the circular, the boroughs in my constituency took what steps they could to secure adequate shelters. One provided shelters for 10,000 people. If they had waited, and had only now begun to embark on a policy of adequate shelters, they would have been given an 100 per cent. grant.

I do not think anyone who has listened to to-day's speeches would doubt that on a vote the decision would be overwhelmingly in favour of this House asserting itself against a most unjust Treasury decision. I suggest to the hon. Lady that, even now, it might be possible to reconsider the matter. I cannot believe that it is right to put a premium upon laziness and incompetence. Boroughs which have not faced up to their responsibilities are to be treated better than those which have done their best to look after the people living within their domains. I cannot see any inducement for any local authority to make provision for its inhabitants when it knows that if it does it will probably be penalised for its enterprise. The Home Secretary himself has been the most ardent and convincing advocate of what has been urged on both sides of the House to-day. If there is any way in which it is possible for the obvious will of this House to prevail, I hope and believe that the hon. Lady will be found only too anxious to submit to her chief that it would be better for a stand to be made against this Treasury decision and an effort made to reverse it, because a reversal of that decision is what the House of Commons demands.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

On a point of Order. In view of the very great importance of this subject and the principle involved, is it not possible for us to have the Home Secretary here?

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security (Miss Wilkinson)

Perhaps I might explain that the Home Secretary is in the North of England on a long tour of Civil Defence organisations, which had been fixed up some time before this Debate was arranged. The Home Secretary told the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) on a previous occasion that he could not be present, because he would be away then also.

Major Milner

In fairness, I should say that the right hon. Gentleman told me that he could not be present at any time. I was prepared to suit his convenience when raising this matter, but the right hon. Gentleman declined to attend, and asked the hon. Lady to represent him.

Miss Wilkinson

In fairness to my right hon. Friend, I should say that when this discussion was originally fixed, it was arranged that the hon. and gallant Member should raise it on an Adjournment Debate at the end of the day. My right hon. Friend said that he had stated in the House of Commons all that he could say on the matter. On the date in question he could not attend, but he said that in any case he had said all that he had to say. I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree that this Debate was fixed to suit neither his convenience nor mine, but to suit the arrangements of the House.

Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Further to that point of Order—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is not a point of Order at all. We had better get on with the Debate.

Mr. Isaacs (Southwark, North)

I do not wish to say anything on the principle involved, but there is particular hardship so far as Southwark is concerned. In Southwark, we incurred an expenditure of £300,000 in providing shelters. We agitated for some time for permission to provide a deep shelter by converting two disused railway tunnels. Finally, we were given permission to put that work in hand. If that permission had been delayed a fortnight longer we should have got this grant. As it was, we did not get it, and out of that £300,000 the borough has to meet a charge of £75,000, which involves 1s. 6d. on the rates. This one shelter results in an additional charge on us of about £26,500, so that that alone costs the ratepayers an extra 6d. on the rates. The important point is that, whatever may be the case in other boroughs—and I dare say there are a number which are in the same position—this particular shelter is more a general public shelter than a Borough of Southwark shelter. It runs along the main road from London Bridge to Little Dorrit's Church—St. George's Church. In the last few months last year, when we had so many daylight raids, it was crowded every time a warning sounded with hundreds of people from all parts of London. The Southern Railway were emptying thousands of passengers from their trains in the early mornings and late evenings, and when the warnings were given the people flocked down into that tube.

There is another point about it. Although there is some question whether we might have delayed the building of this shelter a bit longer, and thereby saved money, if we had known about it—a lot of boroughs would have done that—there is no doubt that the existence of that deep shelter saved thousands of lives in those weeks when there were such heavy raids over London, and particularly over Southwark. When I say thousands, I mean thousands. It is possible for 8,000 to 9,000 people to sleep down there. There is ample evidence that people were in that shelter when their homes were wrecked, and that they would have been killed or injured if they had been in the streets. It is life-saving. It is all part of the war effort, and in addition to all the burdens which the boroughs have to bear, and we hope that the Ministry will reconsider this matter. I add my plea to that of others that pressure should be brought to bear on the Treasury that the nation as a whole should help to meet the burden, so as not to make it so heavy for other boroughs that were public-spirited and got on with their job.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Norwich)

I want shortly to support a great deal of what has been said from all quarters of this House on this subject. On the question whether the original grant should have been 60 per cent. or 100 per cent. there may legitimately be a difference of opinion, but I do not think that there is anybody in any quarter of the House, and I include the Treasury Bench, who is going to say that the decision which we are criticising this afternoon is a just decision. The serious aspect of the question seems to me to be this, that, if this decision is adhered to without change, the Government are deliberately doing something which does not purport to be just. I do not think that the unanimity of this view, as hitherto expressed, will be broken when the hon. Lady comes to reply, because so far, when the question has been raised in this House, the reply of the Government has been that they say nothing on the merits. The Government say nothing on the subject of the merits, because in the particular action that they have taken there are no merits.

The decision has been referred to as a Treasury decision, but it is not for any private Member to try to divide an indivisible Government and to say what is a Ministry of Home Security, and what is a Treasury decision. But whichever Department has made this decision, it is, in my respectful submission, most shortsighted. I would associate myself most strongly with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lewisham (Mr. Brooke). I hope that whichever Department it is that wishes to maintain the decision will consider what is likely to be the result in the future. Assume that the Government of the day wish a local authority to indulge in some expenditure in the national interest. The local authority, perhaps, for some reason or other is not enthusiastic about complying. The Government press it and offer a contribution. It seems to me that the reluctant local authority will simply laugh at the Government. It will say, "Really, these arguments are not good enough. You know perfectly well that, if you are really keen about it, you will give way and give 100 per cent. as you did in the case of the shelters." This is as shortsighted from the Treasury point of view as it is from the point of view of every other Department.

I will only say one more thing. I think all the speakers who have hitherto spoken have said that the right remedy is to increase the grant in all cases to 100 per cent. Perhaps it is, but I am prepared, at any rate, to suggest a possible alternative. I protest against the present decision on the ground of its admitted injustice. The Government must do one of two things. They can either agree to the plea that has been made from all quarters of the House this afternoon, to increase the 60 per cent. to 100 per cent., or they can take appropriate measures to put some financial disability in the future on those languid authorities which lagged behind until the 100 per cent. was granted. It seems to me that that may not be impossible through the machinery of the block grant. By one method or another the Government must abandon their present position, in which, on the one hand, they do not pretend that the decision is just, but, on the other, propose to maintain it. If the decision must be altered there are two possible ways of altering it, either by making up the grant in all cases to 100 per cent. or by penalising in some way, through the machinery of the block grant or otherwise, any local authorities which waited to do their duty until they were bribed.

Mr. Douglas (Battersea, North)

In the whole of this matter of Civil Defence the local authorities have been performing a national task. They have been part of the national war effort. They have been acting as the agents of the Government in doing something which the Government could not otherwise have formed an organisation to do, or, if they had been compelled to form a separate organisation, it would have been more inefficient and far more costly than having it done through the existing agency of the local authorities. We have put forward the case time after time to the Government that this expenditure ought to carry grant at the rate of 100 per cent. We have put forward in addition numerous claims for financial adjustment within the framework of the scheme which the Government have operated, claims which have not been disputed in principle but which have been outstanding for months and years past without any satisfaction being given to the local authorities. They acquiesced, although they did not approve of the general principle of a percentage grant for various services, and they might have continued to acquiesce in it so long as it operated equally between all local authorities. But when the new principle was introduced by the right hon. Gentleman of making the 100 per cent. grant in respect of shelters as from a certain date and not making it retrospective, then the equality as between one local authority and another was broken. I am not going to make any aspersions upon any local authority nor to say that the delay in some cases has been wilful or culpable. I am not making any point of that kind at all. I am merely making the point that there is a discrimination between one local authority and another determined by a purely arbitrary date.

I understand what the arguments are in general against making legislation, and especially financial legislation, retrospective. The argument is that by doing so you do not necessarily secure any justice or equality. If, for instance, you raise the rate of old age pensions, you cannot make it retrospective, because some of those who would have been affected by it would be dead and could not benefit by it, and there could, therefore, never be any finality or justice about making it retrospective. But here we have a case of an entirely different character. This job has been in one compartment for a very short period of years. The accounts are available. The Home Office and the Ministry of Home Security know as well as local authorities what amount of money is involved in it. There is nothing which cannot be ascertained. There is no difficulty in making it retrospective from the beginning. The only objection which can be made is that the Government do not want to provide the amount of money which is necessary in order to do it. That is an argument, which, I hope, the hon. Lady is not going to use to-day.

A suggestion has been made that the Treasury should carry out the principle of deferment which has been introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget, and that if it is not able to provide the money to-day, it should give the credit to the local authorities which would be valuable to them in the future. It is a suggestion which may help, at any rate, to bridge the difficulty, as the difficulty is a purely financial one, and I ask the hon. Lady to remember that the local authorities have borne a very large burden of expenditure for which they get no grant whatsoever. They are contributing the services of administration in carrying out this scheme, and where they are using their permanent officers to do it they get no Government grant in respect of it. This is not negligible. I am a member of two local authorities' Civil Defence committees and chairman of their finance committees. In one case, out of the total expenditure one-third is for Civil Defence purposes and in the other case, out of the total expenditure of the local authority, one-half is for Civil Defence purposes. Thus one-half of the energy and organisation of that local authority is, in effect, being used for purposes of national defence, and I do ask that the hon. Lady, if she is not able to say "Yes" to the plea which I think is unanimous in this House, will not say "No." I hope this point will be kept open, so that the Home Secretary and the members of the Government who are responsible for this decision can appreciate the force of the opinion which there is behind this demand for justice as between one local authority and another.

Mr. Craven-Ellis (Southampton)

I would no have intervened in this Debate had it not been that I see the establishment of a very dangerous principle in the consequences of the Government's decision—a principle which is calculated to undermine the whole relationship between Government Departments and local authorities. When we passed the Air-Raid Precautions Act I was opposed to local authorities making any contribution at all to A.R.P. and other essential services. What is standing between us today? The Air-Raid Precautions Act provides that local authorities shall make a grant of 60 to 75 per cent., and in addition it provides that if the local rate exceeds one penny, the local authority has, for that amount in excess of a penny rate, further assistance to the extent of 80 to 85 per cent. The House has been quite satisfied with these conditions. The margin is not a very serious one, but the principle underlying this Government decision is vital, and for that alone I take my part in protesting against that decision.

But I have another reason for intervening in this Debate. I have the honour to represent the county borough of Southampton, which has suffered somewhat severely as a result of enemy action. We have at that Box been complimented for our enterprise and initiative, and in this House Southampton has been put up as an example of what a progressive corporation has done under the Air-Raid Precautions Act. It has resulted in an expenditure of £219,000, and under block grants the Government contribute to that expenditure £46,500, leaving a balance of £172,500. This was expended before October, 1940, which means that all the Government propose to contribute to Southampton is the percentage under the block grant formula. What is the net result? It is that Southampton will have to find £63,885. Who are these local authorities who have not been using their initiative and have not proceeded to provide shelters for their communities? I think we should know who they are. Why should it have been necessary to offer this bribe to people who were not prepared to get on with the Job? We must look this matter squarely in the face. Had it not been that Southampton had been enterprising, being one of the early towns which were "blitzed," it is very likely that the number of casualties would have been very considerably greater than they already have been. Is the hon. Lady to put forward to-day a statement that can justify the Government decision to penalise my constituency and others in this way? It is incredible; it is not English, and I appeal to the hon. Lady, whatever her brief may be, to face the facts and let us have an honest decision and not one which is meant to please either the Home Secretary or the Treasury.

The Treasury is at fault, and it is for this House to bring the matter to the notice of the Prime Minister. The principle adopted is very serious, and if the Government hope to have the confidence and good will of local authorities, they must act different from the way in which they are acting at the present time. Not only that; my constituency will suffer when this war is over. It is true that because we have been "blitzed" we are receiving financial assistance from the Treasury, but at some time that will be withdrawn, and the town will be left with the whole responsibility of loans which have had to be raised to meet this obligation. Therefore, a constituency which has done its duty is again penalised for the second time when the Treasury withdraws its temporary financial assistance. I sincerely hope that this matter will be dealt with in a realistic way and not merely as a piece of Departmental strategy.

Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I cannot disguise my delight that at least a voice from Scotland is to be raised in this Debate which, the hon. Lady knows, affects us very considerably indeed. I will not grow indignant as the previous speaker did, but rather try to follow the eloquence of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) when he was placing this case before the Lord President of the Council, who was then Home Secretary, in the hope that he will tell the Prime Minister the views of the House and advise him that he should adopt what most Members desire. I raised on a previous occasion the question of the absence of the Home Secretary from this Debate. It is an absence which I think is very regrettable, because I have never known my right hon. Friend suffer from cold feet. Indeed, I have in my hectic moments called him a diplomat of the first order, and I am afraid that diplomacy has won the day so far as his attendance in the House is concerned with this Debate. I am afraid that his diplomacy has won the day as far as attendance at the House is concerned.

It is also rather strange that we should have here the President of the Board of Education, because when, in 1937, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary moved an Amendment to the effect that the House, while conscious of the regrettable necessity for taking measures to protect life and property in the event of air raids, could not assent to the Second Reading of a Bill which did not provide for the cost involved being made a national charge, one of his most ardent supporters in the Debate was my hon. Friend who is to-day Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education, and who has not seen fit to grace the Front Bench opposite with his presence. The Minister who moved that Amendment sends his Parliamentary Secretary to speak on his behalf, and the hon. Member, now a Parliamentary Secretary, who supported the Amendment has his Minister here to speak for him. I do not know whether to condemn the Home Secretary for his tyranny, or compliment the President of the Board of Education on his understanding.

This is a very serious question. When I was sitting in the committee which dealt with fire-brigade orders and Air Raid Precautions plans, I heard the representations of local councils. There were joint representations by the nation's local councils, when the Scottish local councils combined under the joint leadership of the Lord Provost of Glasgow and the right hon. Gentleman who is now Home Secretary to try to impress upon the Home Secretary of that time the justice of their case. I know of local authorities who thought they were comparatively safe from air raids and who, in their own narrow little minds, thought that they could afford to be selfish and not take the necessary steps in the nation's interests. Those bigoted councils were seriously condemned by every right-minded man and woman, who asked that they should undertake fully their duties with regard to air-raid precautions. If a soldier refuses to do his duty, he is punished, and rightly so. If a shopkeeper, taking advantage of the war, tries to sell goods at an excessive price, he is severely punished by the Government. Anyone who takes advantage of the war situation in this way has been condemned by the Prime Minister and by every Cabinet Minister, and by almost every Member of the House. Why should we allow local councils which neglected their duties, and which, because they neglected them, forced the Government to make a 100 per cent. grant, this extra pocket money? The Scriptures have been quoted. Certainly, the fatted calf was killed for the prodigal son, but the Home Office are not only killing the fatted calf for the prodigal son, but are giving him pocket money out of the pockets of those who stood by the household in its period of distress.

The Government are doing something which affects every ratepayer. They are asking the common men and women, the small businesses that contribute to the rates, to bear the burden in order that 100 per cent. may be paid to those authorities which failed in their duty. The Government say to these people, "You stood by your country, you have done your part, and now, after your work has been practically completed and after the expenses have been practically met, at any rate for years, you will see that those who are now going to cost us a lot of money will get preferential treatment." Go into the Army, the Navy or the Air Force and tell the soldiers, sailors or airmen that the man who slacks will receive the decoration; go into public life and tell the shopkeeper who commits a felony that he will be rewarded more than the shopkeeper who is honest—do those things, and you will be acting in strict line with what the Home Office have undertaken to-day. I say that the position is absolutely ridiculous.

I have spoken in this Debate not on behalf of Scotland, nor concerning Scottish administration, because I know that neither the Home Secretary nor his Parliamentary Secretaries are sufficiently qualified or knowledgeable with regard to Scottish administration to take up my points; but in a general sense Scotland is affected. Some of our local authorities have done their part, whereas in other cases the Provost or Lord Provost went strutting about assuring people that this or that was being done when it was not. And the hon. Lady and the Lord President of the Council, in his replies to me in the past, knew that it was not being done. There were in Scotland certain individuals who went about prating and crowing and having "puff" paragraphs in the Press saying that this or that was being done, when it was not being done. Those men were more of a menace to the country than many of the conscientious objectors whom they have been so ardently following up. Those people ought not to be allowed to get away with it. It must be very clear to the hon. Lady and to the Lord President of the Council, who I believe is watching the Debate for the Government, that the majority of the House, which is a pretty representative gathering to-day, is certainly in favour of fair play to those local authorities which carried out their duties in the past under very great difficulties. Unless those local authorities receive fair play and fair treatment, there will be a feeling of antagonism and disgruntlement which it will be very difficult to ease in future, and which will make it very difficult to get good working plans for the future.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

In view of what the hon. Member for Mary-hill (Mr. Davidson) has said, I had better mention that I speak not as an ex-Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education, but because I was asked to do so by the Provost of my constituency in Kilmarnock. We are suffering in just the same way in Scotland as in England, but there is one particular point that I want to put to the hon. Lady. I think my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council will agree that shelters are a novel service. There was no precedent. It was difficult to decide how the percentage should run and there was a great deal of coming and going about it in the beginning. On the question of shelters for schools, there was very great difference of opinion, and my right hon. Friend had to receive long deputations over many months on that question. Whatever the feeling at the beginning may have been, whatever difficulties there may have been as to whether it was mostly local or mostly national, I feel there is now no dispute. All the old arguments about mutual reception areas and evacuation areas have pretty well ceased to have much meaning. The inside and outside of shelters are now under the Ministry of Home Security, as I understand it. The administration of special offices is under the Region. Therefore, to all intents and purposes this has become no longer a local service, as has been made clear by the hon. Member for North Southwark (Mr. Isaacs). This has become a national and a regional problem. The local side has ceased to have the meaning that it had in the beginning. That strengthens the argument very much for the 100 per cent. Could the hon. Lady give us some idea which are the authorities that have lagged behind? Is there any other argument that is going to be produced—we know so well how, if she had been there, she would have joined in this demonstration—besides the perfectly good argument that we must get on with the job and that money does not matter? If there is any other, everyone would like to hear it.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security (Miss Wilkinson)

I assure the House that this Debate will be read with the greatest care by my right hon. Friend. He is away in the North, and in any case he has already said to the House all that he has at present to say on the matter and, if he had been here, he could not but reiterate what he has said before. I want to make that quite clear, because anyone who knows him knows that it is absolutely absurd to suggest that a man of his fighting qualities is hiding behind my inadequate skirts.

Mr. Lathan (Sheffield, Park)

Are we to take it that any further argument is unavailing and that the last word has been said on the question?

Miss Wilkinson

If the hon. Member will wait until the end of the Debate, he can make up his own mind. I have noticed the moral indignation that hon. Members have put into the Debate. Anyone listening to it would imagine that my right hon. Friend had been engaged in placing even more grievous burdens on those who have borne the heat and burden of the day. In justice to him, I think the House must agree that in this question of the 100 per cent., he has performed a perfect miracle of political consistency. He has stood on that side of the House and has led deputations to the President for 100 per cent. grant to local authorities for shelters, and within three weeks of taking office he managed with great difficulty, in the very difficult circumstances in which we are all placed, to carry out his promise and get 100 per cent. for domestic shelter grants. I know that gratitude is not a quality of politicians, except on the basis of a lively anticipation of favours to come, but I really think someone might at least have said "Thank you" for what my right hon. Friend has already done. Therefore the only point at issue between us is the question of retrospective payment. Anyone listening to the Debate would assume that there is no case on the other side at all, and that the issue is between vice and virtue, between laziness and industry.

I must thank the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) for at least giving us the opportunity of putting the other side of the case, because I think there is a case. It is a case that should be heard. Almost everyone has stated the lowest case, and has talked about the 60 per cent. grant. I would remind the House that the grants range between 60 and 85 per cent. May I ask Members not to speak of this shelter question as though it were a private affair of the Government? After listening to the Debate, one would assume that this war was a private concern of the British Government, and that people were pretty reluctant to provide shelters for themselves. The suggestion that if local authorities such as Southampton, Liverpool and other target areas, had known that at some future date they would have received a 100 per cent. grant and therefore would not have provided shelters when they did, is really absurd. We are all in this war together, and the question is to provide shelters as quickly as we can, and as widely spread as we can. This has to be done under very difficult and improvised conditions.

I would remind the House that the cost of materials for domestic shelters has been reimbursed all along. The materials for Anderson shelters were provided by the Government, and the cost of the material for domestic shelters which were not provided directly was also reimbursed at 100 per cent. The famous Circular of 1st October announced that in future the cost of material used in the equipment of public shelters, as well as domestic shelters, would be reimbursed in full. The public shelters were put on the same basis as domestic shelters. The reason for that was that we were just entering upon the "Blitz," and the distinction between public and domestic shelters had become rather obscured. Shelters were not being used for day raids but at night. Thus they served the function of domestic shelters, for which 100 per cent. had already been paid.

There were other confusions and delays which occurred, arising out of the difference between county councils and district councils. County councils were responsible for public shelters and were receiving grants on that basis only, whereas district councils had delegated to them responsibility for domestic shelters and were receiving 100 per cent. And so. even before Circular 262 was sent out, there was some difficulty. The Circular announced that in future, as from 19th October, all expenditure on the construction and equipment of shelters—and I want to underline this, because it means labour costs as well as material—would be reimbursed 100 per cent., provided that reasonable economy was practised. There were two or three reasons for this. One of the reasons, as the hon. Member for North Southwark (Mr. Isaacs) has pointed out, was that the distinction between areas was being lost, and that people were going from one area to another to take shelter. It was unreasonable in that case that one local authority should have to pay for sheltering ratepayers of another local authority. That point had not been previously considered. Before the "Blitz" came the assumption was that local authorities would provide shelter for their own areas. Our policy and financial arrangements were based on that assumption. I must underline the fact that in a war like this, when strategy and conditions are rapidly changing from week to week, it is not possible to assume that the shelter policy laid down before the war started would remain the same, and that we should go on assuming nothing would ever change.

We had to have flexibility and to be able to alter our plans accordingly. That was impossible unless you were paying the money to do it. We had to do a lot of things, such as the taking-over of basements and all kinds of public shelters and re-equipping them. All this could not be done by the local authorities, and it had to be done at the centre. It was not just a case of saying to a certain authority, "You lazy things, why have you not done this?" It was a case of suddenly finding areas, for reasons we need not go into, having hundreds of bombs when other areas three miles away were not being affected. You had to go into the first area and make vast provisions for shelter. This House was screaming for shelters and asking why the work was not being done. This scheme had to be undertaken very quickly. It was impossible to put the cost on the rates of the local authorities, and therefore we had to say, "We will pay 100 per cent. all round" We recognise that the decision not to reimburse retrospectively has led to some inequalities. But the question is not quite so clear cut as hon. Members seem to think. For instance, in Sheffield and other parts—I do not think the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds need talk about the amount for his constituency—which knew they would be a target, they went ahead. They would have done that without receiving anything from the Government. They have had considerable help all along, and have had 100 per cent. for materials for domestic shelters. It is therefore only a question of 100 per cent. for labour.

I would remind hon. Members that there were other authorities which were discouraged from putting up shelters as well as those which were encouraged. Why is that? It is because in this little Island, with all the difficulties of sea warfare and the rest of it, there is not an unlimited amount of material. We had to deal with the dormitory problem, bunks, lighting and heating, and all those things, and those authorities which had previously spent the money have now had the money from the Government for these extra amenities. Therefore the work could not be spread equally all over the country, and we had to deal with certain special areas and give them more. I know that it is not altogether realised what has been done. At a time when there was difficulty in getting sufficient bunks, an indignant lady, who was not getting all the bunks she needed, said impatiently, "Why do not you order them from Harrods?" Well, you just cannot ring up a store and order as many bunks as you want. These things have to be planned out. Those authorities which had done the most for themselves were rewarded by the Government on a 100 per cent. basis.

Major Milner

Can you give us an instance or two?

Miss Wilkinson

I could give the House the names of certain London boroughs. We need not particularise, because we all know which they are.

Mr. Douglas (Battersea, North)

So you are discriminating between London boroughs?

Miss Wilkinson

I did not think I should be jumped on and asked to produce figures. But I would point out that there are some boroughs in London which have had 400 bombs to the acre, and that there are other boroughs which have had only 1.3 bombs to the acre. Is it suggested that we should not discriminate between boroughs of that kind when you are in a jam like this? It is not as clean cut a question as it appears. We have to deal with the position as it is. There is not a Member of this House who if he was placed in our difficulty would not have done what is obviously a commonsense thing to do.

Major Milner

Give 100 per cent. all round.

Miss Wilkinson

I am beginning to think, with all due respect to the hon. and gallant Member, that trying to give 100 per cent. to local authorities is like trying to wash a white cat. When you have once started, you have to go on.

Sir A. Southby

At any rate, you cannot wash half a cat.

Miss Wilkinson

We have now to consider the future. No one knows better than my right hon. Friend the difficulties in certain highly-rated areas. I have pleaded and many have pleaded in this House for the areas which have had their rateable value severely hit. Hon. Members have spoken as though the payment of this retrospective amount of £9,000,000 spread over the whole country would solve the financial difficulties of local authorities. It is clear that nothing of the kind would happen and that no such amount as this would be adequate.

I ask hon. Members to be realistic. It is no use saying that you can win a war like this on the basis of bookkeeping transactions of the meticulous kind that have been put to us to-day. How can we, looking into the future, say what the financial position of local authorities will be at the end of the war? There are many of them now hopelessly bankrupt. I should imagine that there is no local authority either in this country or in Germany which is not practically in that position. The whole question of financial arrangements between the Government and local authorities is infinitely bigger and more complicated than this small question of £9,000,000. There will obviously have to be at the appropriate time after the war a complete review of the whole question of local finance and its relation to the Government. [Interruption.] We may have to rebuild cities probably from the very ground, for before this war has finished we may, as the Prime Minister said, be fighting under the rubble of our big cities. We cannot bother about this and that little percentage. The whole thing may have to be in the melting-pot before we have finished. I really must ask hon. Members to take a realistic and big view of the situation. The 1937 Act provided that within three years of the passing of the Act an investigation should be made into the working of the financial provisions, with particular reference to the expenditure falling to be borne by local rates. With the agreement of the local authorities this investigation has been postponed. The question whether any changes due as a result of the investigation should be made retrospective will have to be discussed when the investigation takes place.

The whole question will have to be looked at in the light of the situation as it then is. It is not doing any good to anybody to foment the idea of injustice between local authorities and the Government. The Departments concerned in Civil Defence are entirely at the service of the local authorities, and neither money, service nor anything else is allowed to weigh in the balance. If a city is "blitzed," there are arrangements both at the region and the centre for giving aid at once to the local authorities. You cannot put the service that the Ministry of Home Security are performing for the "blitzed" areas on a basis of this or that percentage.

Major Milner

Why not deal with the local authorities generously in all respects?

Miss Wilkinson

This £9,000,000 would be a tiny thing compared with the whole work that has to be done. I do want to remove this sense of injustice. This is an extraordinarily big question, and a lot of difficulty can be created about it between local authorities and the Government if you go on fussing about this retrospective payment of a small amount when what we want to do is to put the whole thing on a proper basis as soon as we are able to do it. If it is to be done on the narrowest basis of justice, there is nothing more to be said, but I have tried to point out that difficult issues are involved and that the biggest issue of all is that the local authorities and the Government shall pull together in this matter. Nobody can do more than Members of this House to help in that direction, and nobody can do more to foster a sense of injustice about something which is largely imaginary because of the general financial situation. I ask hon. Members to help the local authorities and the Government to pull together in this difficult situation.