HC Deb 27 February 1941 vol 369 cc735-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Dugdale.]

Captain Cunningham-Reid (St. Marylebone)

I desire to draw the attention of the House to a matter of considerable seriousness. It affects the safety of the public, and I think I am justified in saying that many needless lives have been lost. I refer to public air-raid shelters, other than surface shelters, which do not come up to the standard of protection. Unfortunately, a large number of such shelters are still being used, in spite of the warning last year of Lord Horder's Committee and assurances by the Government. The Horder recommendations were made as long ago as November last, and recommendation No. 2 reads as follows: Examination should be made of self-chosen shelters with a view to scheduling them if the standard of protection can be secured. The Government assurance on this point reads as follows: Regional technical staffs have been asked to make a special point of such examination and active work is far advanced. These were the good intentions of the Government last November. Over a quarter of a year has now gone by. What has been the result of the active work referred to and what advance has been made? Presumably, it would be the large public shelters that would be the first to be examined. Last night, after the Alert was sounded, I watched hundreds of people scurrying into one shelter—a seemingly never-ending stream emptying itself into one hole. In order to find a solution of this bewildering conjuring trick I approached an official who was outside this particular shelter and I asked him, "Are you just about full inside?" He replied, "By no means; there are only about 2,000 people in there." I said, "How many do you expect to-night?" and he replied, "We expect over 5,000 people." For obvious reasons I do not intend to mention the location of the shelter, but I have given the necessary information to the Minister. This much, however, I can say. This enormous shelter is located under a railway goods station, which is, of course, a military objective of the first order. By no stretch of the imagination could such a situation for a shelter be included in the standard of protection referred to by the Horder Committee.

If one wants to be facetious about such a matter as this, one might easily say that, considering the German conduct of aerial warfare, the safest place to be in during a raid would be in the vicinity of a military objective, but let any who would put forward such a slipshod excuse as that ponder the following point: There is another well-known station in the Metropolitan area—not a goods station—with an important junction close by. More bombs have fallen around this station and junction than anywhere else in the district, and I cannot believe that this is just coincidence. A few days ago what was supposed to be a 1,500-lb. bomb fell on the station. In the archway underneath the station on that occasion there were over 800 people. The number of casualties was 220, 61 of them being killed outright. It is possible that if the recommendations of the Horder Committee of last November had been carried out, those 61 people would be alive to-day.

It being the hour appointed for the Interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Dugdale..]

Captain Cunningham-Reid

The absurdity of continuing to allow large public shelters to be situated under military objectives must be apparent. There is under that station another archway that has not been bombed. When I visited it last night, I found that, in spite of the disaster which had occurred recently in the parallel archway, over 500 people were allowed to continue taking shelter under this important military objective. What is the sense of the Government setting up a committee to advise on the question of shelters when the advice, having been given and having been accepted by the Government, is then not acted upon? If the second recommendation of the Horder Committee had been put into effect energetically, it might possibly, in the case I have given, have saved lives, and to a lesser degree lives might have been saved even if Recommendation I of the said committee had been quickly acted upon. That recommendation referred to the advisability of dispersal where there are crowds of people in one shelter. Anyhow, 5,000 people in one shelter does not seem to me to be a very good example of the Government's policy of dispersal. For obvious reasons, the tube as a shelter comes into a very different category, and I consider that it is as about as safe a shelter as the inhabitants of the Metropolis could find.

In case I should receive an answer to the effect that it takes time for alternative accommodation to be found when dealing with such very large numbers, I want to retort in advance that in the districts concerned, of the two examples I have given, there is a large number of surface shelters that are very little used. If the large shelters under military objectives were disallowed because they do not attain the necessary standard of protection, the past occupants of those large shelters would have to make use of the surface shelters, and the Government would obtain that dispersal which they rightly consider to be in the best interests of the population. In conclusion, I want to put to the Minister two questions. First—referring to the Government's assurance last year that regional technical staffs had been asked to examine shelters with a view to scheduling them if the standard of protection could be secured—if the examination referred to was in any way unsatisfactory, was the shelter dis- allowed, or was it permitted to continue? Secondly, will the Government in the future officially recognise or disallow all large public shelters?

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

I am glad that the hon. and gallant Member for St. Marylebone (Captain Cunningham-Reid) has brought this matter to the attention of the House. This question is receiving our continual consideration. I would ask hon. Members who refer to shelters in public to be very careful, as was the hon. and gallant Member for St. Marylebone, not to give any indications which might be useful to the enemy. I do not think the hon. and gallant Member was fair in his suggestion that nothing has been done since the first recommendations were made on this matter by the Horder Committee. We have had the matter under constant and active review, and I can assure him that not only were instructions given to the regional and technical officers, but that those instructions were carried out. Local authorities have power to close shelters which have been provided under their auspices, and these powers have been used with regard to shelters which were damp, and in regard to trenches which were hastily dug and which, now, in many cases, have fallen in. In the London area, in particular, a number of trenches have been closed.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

While I am aware that shelters have been closed, might I ask what happens in the case of people who continue to use them? In a number of cases one still finds people in them.

Miss Wilkinson

Where official shelters under local authorities have been closed, the police have powers to deal with any persons who visit them. There is a number of shelters which have not been taken over entirely by the local authorities, but which have in part been taken over by them.

Mr. Lindsay

The case to which I have just referred was that of trenches run by local authorities.

Miss Wilkinson

Where a local authority has closed a shelter then that closure can be enforced by the police. There is a large shelter in London where one section only is officially run by the local authority. The only way in which people who go to the unofficial side of a shelter can be dealt with is by the law of trespass. If the owner of the unofficial part of a shelter does not enforce the law of trespass against people who use it, then the Government can only order the public out from the official part. May I give the House an example? There is a crypt in London which we are very anxious to close. People are called together at nine o'clock each night for a service, but when the local authority tried to induce the church authorities to close the shelter, they were informed that people were attracted to it, not for the purpose of shelter, but for the purpose of prayer. There was no power on our part to say that people should not come together in a public, authorised place of worship for the purpose of prayer. There is another case. It is impossible to close a place used for public shelter if it is on a public highway. One of the tragedies we have had is such a case as that outlined by the hon. and gallant Member where the public highway ran through a place where the public were standing for shelter.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

The public highway has not been used as such for many months. Perhaps we are not thinking of the same place.

Miss Wilkinson

In that case we are not thinking of the same place because there was access to it by a public highway. We recognise that large shelters are simply inviting tragedy, and we have done everything we can to encourage people to stay in their home shelters or to use small surface shelters, such as the brick shelters which have been provided. It was not until 5th February that the Horder Committee submitted recommendations on the matter, which we are now going into, and it is being very seriously considered. We want in every way we can to discourage large shelters.

Mr. Lindsay

What does the hon. Lady mean exactly by "large"?

Miss Wilkinson

I should say that anything over 500 would count as large. Once you get over that number, you can and must provide extra protection. The Minister of Home Security and all our experts are convinced that the compara- tively light casualty roll, in comparison, that is, with the number, the size and the destructive power of shells, mines and other things, has been due to the policy of dispersal and getting the people, wherever they can, into smaller and ever smaller groups. The smaller the group, the fewer the casualties. We are going very fully into the casualty lists of the large shelters, and we are fully alive to the danger of people rushing into places which have an entirely illusory appearance of safety. And while it is not the duty of the Parliamentary Secretary to declare policy I may say that we may have to ask the House for a new Defence Regulation on the matter. We have not power to turn people out of certain places where we certainly think they ought not to go. The matter is under active consideration.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

The hon. Lady says she and her colleague do not dictate policy, but I presume they have something to do with policy as regards shelters. Is it the policy of the Government to allow shelters under military objectives?

Miss Wilkinson

I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman misunderstood me. I did not say we had no power to dictate policy. I said it was not the place of the Parliamentary Secretary to declare policy in the House. We have only power to prevent people going into places for shelter which are under the control of the Department. That is the legal position as we are advised.

Mr. R. C. Morrison (Tottenham, North)

I think figures are published monthly of the number of casualties through enemy action. Would it not be a good idea in future, in publishing those figures, to make a division between casualties among people in and around their own homes and casualties in large public shelters? That, it seems to me, would help to educate the public to a danger that they do not realise at present. Something like 40 per cent. of the casualties in an area which I know fairly well have taken place in one big disaster in a shelter where there was a large number of people. It is fair to argue that if there had not been any deep shelters, the casualties would not have been so great.

I regret that there was a policy on the part of a section of the Government at one time for bigger shelters, and Christmas trees, films and concert parties in the shelters, and even concert parties being broadcast, so that the people in the poor neighbourhoods would begin to say, "This is a new form of entertainment and far better than sitting moping about at home, where we might be killed." Parties were thereupon made up to go to the shelters. While that was going on another section of the same Department was urging the policy of dispersal which the hon. Lady has just outlined. If the Government believe that dispersal is the best, they should embark on a campaign among the people who go to the shelters. I suggest that something might be done, in future publication of the figures of casualties, to educate the public to the fact that the chances of survival are greater if they remain in or around their own homes in such shelter as they can provide rather than by herding together in large shelters which are frequently death traps.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

I hoped that the hon. Lady would add to her statement an account of her success, if any, in persuading local authorities to improve the sanitation, lighting and general condition of surface shelters, which are in abundance in the suburbs but are empty at almost all times.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

Will the hon. Lady answer my question? Is it the policy of the Government with regard to shelters that they should not be adjacent to military objectives?

Miss Wilkinson

Certain military objectives, such as railway stations, may be in a position where shelters are necessary because the people coming out of the stations require them. This is not a simple question. It is an important one, and we are most anxious to deal with it. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison), there never was a time when any section of the Government were encouraging Christmas trees and parties in shelters. In fact, a committee of the Departments concerned sent round an appeal toning down newspaper and B.B.C. publicity and asking that they should not make out that shelters were another kind of night club. The situation was, indeed, what the hon. Gentleman described, and groups of people were going from shelter to shelter seeing what concerts were going on. We have set our foot very firmly indeed upon it. In regard to canteens, it is possible to provide canteens in the shelters, and it has been done, in order to increase the amenites of the shelters.

Everything possible should be done to tell the people that brick shelters are really very useful things. I ask hon. Members to do their best to make that clear. I do not say that these shelters would stand up to a direct hit, but against shrapnel, blast and splinter they are of great use. We are making a survey of them, and those which have been too hastily built may have to be renovated or pulled down. The public can have a definite sense of security in them. People look at them and tend to say: "These are no better than nothing at all," but actually that is not true. Most of them are solidly built, with 13½inches of brick, and they will stand up to a very great deal. I hope that, as a result of this exchange of views, the public will see that we have not put up these shelters for fun but because they are a serious contribution to a solution of the shelter policy.

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