HC Deb 07 October 1942 vol 383 cc1320-8
Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I am afraid I must ask hon. Members to turn to an entirely different subject, but one in which they are personally interested and of which they have had experience. I refer to the destruction of houses in this country not by the enemy but by our own troops—by the troops in the Army and the Air Force. Up and down this country are houses requisitioned by the Army. Many of them are of great beauty. Nearly all of them are in process of destruction. I wish to take three examples and then to suggest one or two remedies. I take three examples, not because they are particularly bad, but because I happen to have seen them myself and know the state these houses are in now. The first is an ordinary modern house of no particular merit but a house which is very well constructed. In this house the window sills have been used as firewood, panelling has been split, the radiator grilles have been thrown into the fireplace and burned, the porch roof has fallen in and the lead has been torn off—not used for salvage but thrown away. Everywhere the plaster is off, and to complete this picture, in the garden the officer concerned considered that the most suitable place in which to build certain necessary offices was in a shrubbery. He cut down all the flowering shrubs so that this useful and important adjunct to any establishment for troops should be suitably housed. I submit this is not a satisfactory state of affairs.

I will give another case of perhaps greater interest. This is the case of a house, a 15th century house, a very beautiful house. It has been taken over by troops. In this house 15th century panelling has been torn out deliberately—

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

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

Mr. Dugdale

This panelling has, I say, been torn out deliberately, thrown on the fireplace, and burned. I visited the place recently, and found that, although it is under the care of the War Office, children are running about in it, and smashing what they like. My last example has more interest, because it has some historical significance. Whatever we may think of him, Warren Hastings has some importance in British history. I have been to. his home, and have seen the damage caused by the troops. They have taken the protection off the mantelpiece, thrown that away, and then thrown the mantelpiece away. Finally, they took the stone portico base, and used it as a chopping block. I could give the names of these places, but I do not propose to do so, as I do not think that these examples are worse than many others I could give. However, I will give the names to the Minister who is going to reply, if he wishes. These actions show a total lack of appreciation of any form of beauty, a total lack of manners, and also, what is more important from a military point of view, a grave lack of discipline. It is not only the men who are to blame; it is far more the officers. Many of the men have never seen such houses before, and do not know the value of the things they are destroying, but the officers do, or, at any rate, should, know. They take no action.

It is said by some people in defence of this state of affairs that it is necessary in war-time. Almost everything has been defended on those grounds. One officer, I am informed, said that it toughened his men. They were toughened to fight the Germans by tearing up bits of houses, which, I take it, were not well defended, and in which there were certainly no machine-gun nests. I know that the Minister who is to reply has this matter at heart, and that the War Office have taken certain steps to deal with it but they have not so far been successful, and they must take other steps. I, personally, have had experience, as no doubt every other Member who has been in the Army has, of those inspections which take place of military equipment and stores. The meticulous care which is taken shows the importance that the Army attaches to military equipment. If the officer going round finds a man without a button, with his battledress torn or with his boots worn out, something is at once done about it. The man is told that it is a disgraceful thing, and he is called up perhaps before his commanding officer, and reprimanded or punished. But what is done in the case of equipment and uniform is seldom done in respect of houses and furniture, which, I submit, should be treated with as much respect as is given to uniform, and even to a rifle. I hope that in future the War Office will see that suitable disciplinary action is taken.

It is sometimes said that this does not matter much because adequate compensation is paid. Can you compensate people for the loss of things which are completely irreplaceable? Suppose compensation is paid, who pays it? The Chancellor of the Exchequer pays it. It may be said that it ought to come out of the regimental fund. It does not come out of the regimental fund but out of the pockets of the taxpayers. I will give one example of compensation. A certain regiment occupied a house in Wiltshire for three months. At the end of that period there was an inquiry as to the damage, and the War Office and the Treasury agreed upon damages of £1,600. The claim was for £1,700, but I have no doubt that the owner was satisfied when he received £1,600. But that money has come out of the pocket of the taxpayer. I see no reason why it should come out of his pocket and why action should not have been taken to prevent this damage from having been done.

I ask the War Office to give this matter more careful consideration. They should decide to inform all commanding officers and commanders of units, first, that they insist on a very much better inspection of all these premises, and secondly, that disciplinary action be taken which will make these offences of a far higher category under War Office regulations than apparently they are at present. I ask this for the sake of the houses themselves and also for the sake of the honour of our Army.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

May I add a few words to those which the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) has used? I am very glad in deed that he has raised this issue. In my own part of the country I have had similar experiences to those which he has described to the House. He is correct in what he said about the officers. That is quite easily proved because when you see unit after unit moving through the same billets, as I have seen them, you find that after occupation by a good unit which is well officered and with the quarters being inspected properly, those quarters carry comparatively little damage as against the damage done in a shorter period of occupation by some unit not under the same degree of discipline. I believe that an old custom should be revived. It was in force during some period at least of the last war. Where damage beyond a reasonable extent was proved to have been caused by the mis-use of billets and equipment by troops, the officers themselves were made responsible for the payment of part of the damage. It may have been a local order but I think I am correct in saying that something of that nature was in force. Nothing could be worse as regards encouraging war savings movements throughout the countryside than for many of the poor lenders to see their money being wasted by the mis-use of what is, at the moment, Government property. For that reason, added to by the imposing arguments of my hon. Friend, and for the other reason that it is a sample of lack of discipline, I believe that this matter is of very great urgency and importance, and I trust that my hon. and gallant Friend when he replies will give the House some assurance that the strongest possible step will be taken to put a stop to this extravagance and waste.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I do not dispute the facts which have been stated by my hon. Friends, but I would like to remove, as a result of my own experience, an impression that damage necessarily always happens whenever houses are occupied by soldiers. I had in my own house 150 soldiers for some weeks, and I want to bear testimony to the fact that during that time no damage whatever was done to the property. Although I was living in the house at the time I had no reason to complain either of their behaviour so far as the property which they occupied was concerned—and it was entirely under their control—or their conduct in the house generally. I think it is right that that should be stated because, quite unconsciously, an impression might have been given that the sort of thing to which attention has quite properly been drawn to-day, will always necessarily happen whenever troops occupy a house. I do not think it would be fair to suggest that it was because I happened to be living in the house at the time, the troops treated the place as I have stated, I believe that in certain regiments the practice is to inspect carefully the property which is occupied by troops. Possibly Members are amused by the fact that I was able to house 150 troops in my house but I was a house-master at a college for many years and that was how I came to have so large a house. I was able to compare the behaviour of the men with that of the public school boys who used to be under my care and I want to say that these men in every way compared favourably in their conduct, as members of the Army, with the public school boys who were members of my house. I think it only fair to soldiers of the British Army that the impression should not be created that the sort of conduct, to which attention has been quite properly drawn today, is necessarily general.

Mr. Hannah (Bilston)

I cannot help thinking that the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) has done a great service in drawing our attention to this matter to-day. We all know that examples of the same kind of thing can be given from other parts of the country. We are, in all conscience, losing enough of the heritage of our fathers to-day through blitzing and the other terrible events that are happening. The whole of Europe is far poorer in ancient monuments to-day than it was at the beginning of the war. On one occasion when a very pretty young girl asked Dr. Johnson the reason why he put something or other in his dictionary that was quite inaccurate he made the answer, "Pure ignorance, my dear." I cannot help thinking the same thing was very largely true of these soldiers, and I suggest that before going into any house, especially one with historical and archaeological associations, a soldier should be told just why it is valuable and why it carries on into this generation the ideals of days gone by. From what I heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) I think he would be a very good lecturer for such a purpose. I believe these men ought to be appealed to earnestly to do everything in their power to preserve the priceless heritage of days gone by. The whole country is deeply indebted to my neighbour and Friend the hon. Member for West Bromwich for bringing this matter before the House to-day.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Arthur Henderson)

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) will not expect me to deal with the particular cases to which he has referred in his speech, but I hope he will let me have the necessary information later, because the War Office would be only too happy to investigate it. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lip-son) put the other side of the picture, and I think the House will accept it that, having regard to the vast numbers of men who are billeted throughout the country and the very large number of houses in which they are billeted, the number of cases in which there are complaints, serious though it may be, constitutes a very small proportion of the total number. I am not seeking to minimise in any way the fact that we have received numbers of complaints from various parts of the country, and I think it would be wrong of me to seek to suggest to the House that the complaints were exaggerated out of all proportion.

After the days of Dunkirk, when billets had to be found for large numbers of men, the organisation which then existed was such that inevitably incidents occurred with which it was not possible to deal at the moment. Consequently, instructions were issued with a view to seeking a radical improvement in the position. I think the House would be interested to know the machinery that has been established with a view to checking this evil. I should say that there is a difference, although not perhaps from the point of view of the owner of the premises, between cases of wanton damage and cases of what might be called unsatisfactory occupation; but with a view to bringing to notice cases of wanton damage, the following measures have been put into operation: First, a monthly regimental inspection has to take place for which the commanding officer of the unit is responsible. Secondly, there has to be a periodical inspection by R.E. representatives of all accommodation which is occupied by static units. Thirdly, a marching-out and a marching-in inspection has to take place whenever a unit changes station. I want to be quite frank with the House; I admit that in some cases, especially when units are ordered overseas at short notice, the marching-out inspection does not take place.

Mr. Leslie Boyce (Gloucester)

Is an inventory of the damage made when the inspection takes place?

Mr. Henderson

Yes, an inventory is made, or should be made. I am stating to the House the steps taken to try to check the evil. I do not say that in too per cent. of cases the regulations are carried out, but they are in the vast majority of cases. The War Office have also started a system of "flying inspections." These were instituted under specially appointed assistant quartering commandants and certain officers of the Claims Commission with the object of supplementing and checking the more routine inspections to which I have referred. As regards the disciplinary aspect, Army Council Instructions have been issued warning troops of the complaints that have been received regarding damage and the penalties to which they become liable, and it may interest the House if I quote two of these Army Council Instructions on this matter. On 2nd July, 1941, an Army Council Instruction was issued which stated that Avoidable damage done to requisitioned buildings and billets through wantonness and negligence on the part of individuals and units not only wastes valuable material but causes considerable irritation to the owners. It is essential that in all cases where avoidable damage occurs it is brought home to the individuals or units responsible. Responsibility can be fixed only if the instructions regarding the handing and taking over of buildings, fixtures and chattels are properly carried out. Frequent inspection by regimental officers of the buildings in which their men are quartered in order that damage may be noted are essential. The cumulative effect of disregard of orders is assuming proportions which the Army Council view with great concern. The attitude of mind shown by too many officers and other ranks towards their responsibility for Government stores and requisitioned property with which they are entrusted suggests that there are some who are incapable of properly assuming this trust. It cannot be too strongly stressed that the Battle of the Atlantic is being fought in vain if the determination and resource of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy on the high seas is not applied in kitchens, stores and buildings and on the roads of this country. Another Army Council Instruction is about to be promulgated, from which I will give this extract: Frequent needless damage to billets and requisitioned property and the removal and looting of private property from houses and bungalows taken over for defence purposes constitute a deplorable breach of the trust that has been imposed on the troops and causes indignation and a sense of distrust in the mind of the public. All ranks will understand that houses and bungalows, whether taken over as billets or requisitioned or entered on duty or otherwise, are private property, and they and their contents will be respected as such, and troops taking over, entering or guarding such property will be regarded as having a special responsibility for the safety and care of the buildings and their movable contents. Removal of any contents without authority will be regarded as a serious offence.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

Recently the Army Council agreed that some Army Council Instructions should be posted in canteens. Is this one of them?

Mr. Henderson

That procedure will be' followed.

Mr. Boyce

In the billets as well?

Mr. Henderson

Yes. As regards disciplinary action, it is possible, under Section 137 of the Army Act in the case of officers, and 138 in the case of other ranks, that where damage has been occasioned by proved negligence, whether of the officer or other ranks, it is possible to compel some degree of contribution towards the cost of compensation either from the officer or collectively from the unit, and in some cases that has been done. The cumulative effect of the measures to which I have referred, in spite of the fact that it is still possible to bring forward cases where damage has been occasioned, has been reflected, according to information at the War Office, in a marked decrease of cases of wanton damage to private property, as evidenced by the report of the "flying inspections." I do not suggest that in the tens of thousands of billets under the control of the War Department "flying inspections" have taken place in each case, but they are to be regarded as being in the nature of test audits.

Mr. Dugdale

Have any officers been reprimanded as a result of what has been found at these inspections?

Mr. Henderson

I prefer to have notice of that question, but I think I am safe in saying that in those cases where negligence has been proved to be the personal responsibility of a particular commanding officer or other officer, the appropriate disciplinary action has been taken. I do not for one moment deny the existence of this problem, but I hope that what I have said indicates that the War Office have been fully alive to what has been alleged to have taken place in various parts of the country and that they have made strenuous and largely effective efforts to bring this problem within a reasonable degree of control. As regards the future we hope that the second Army Council Instruction which I have quoted, and which will be issued in the next few days, will have the effect of calling the attention of officers and other ranks to their responsibilities in relation to requisitioned property and that it will have the desired effect.

Mr. Boyce

Does not my hon. and learned Friend think that the cost of the damage which is done should be a first charge on the regimental funds of the unit responsible before it falls on the taxpayer, which means that the outraged householder has to pay for the damage done to his own house and the regiment gets off soot free?

Mr. Henderson

My hon. Friend will agree that we can only deal with a question of that nature under the law as it exists. Under the law his proposal would not be possible.

Mr. Boyce

Will my hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the suggestion which seems to be an equitable one?

Mr. Henderson

The Government are always prepared to consider any suggestion if it is a good one.

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