HC Deb 04 February 1944 vol 396 cc1585-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Drewe).

Captain De Chair (Norfolk, South-West)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye. In doing so I am availing myself of the right which every Private Member possesses of raising the grievances of the smallest township in his constituency that is subjected to the pin-pricks of a petty bureaucratic tyranny, whether this tyranny masquerades in the form of an arrogant county council or a pompous Civil Defence Commissioner. Naturally, before raising these matters in the House, I adopted all the usual methods of personal persuasion, and even attempted the chances of Parliamentary Question and answer. On 10th December I asked the Home Secretary whether he is aware that the Eastern Regional Commissioner has issued an order to move the A.R.P. report centre in Downham Market from the place where it has functioned for four years to a building which the voluntary workers upon whom the smooth working of the A.R.P. arrangements depend, regard as less suitable and if he will suspend this action until an impartial investigation has been held. The Home Secretary replied: Full inquiries were made both by the scheme-making authority and the Regional Commissioner as to the necessity of the changes before a decision was reached. I am satisfied that the decision was in accord both with local needs and the proper working of the Civil Defence Services. The accommodation at the existing control centre was quite unsatisfactory."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th December, 1943; cols. 1255–6, Vol. 395.] I shall endeavour to convince the House that the right hon. Gentleman was completely misinformed. One might ask, in the first place, whether or not this town of Downham Market is notably lax in its public duty and requires this prodding from above. I am happy to say, however, that Downham Market is noted for its public spirit throughout Norfolk, and, although it comprises scarcely 2,000 voters, it subscribed enough money during a recent warship week to provide for a destroyer. This destroyer when built did not content itself with patrolling the wide horizons of the Arctic Ocean, but rushed to within 400 yards of a German battleship before launching its torpedoes. That was the destroyer "Stord" when it attacked the "Scharnhorst." Those who know Downham Market will not be surprised that any destroyer adopted by this town should act in this impetuous fashion. Indeed, Downham Market was probably a strong point for Hereward the Wake in his resistance, and it was from Downham Market and South-West Norfolk that Cromwell drew his Ironsides. And this is the town which the Regional Commissioner is now trying to push around! I could have warned him of the unwisdom of that course, having been acquainted with the town for a number of years.

The present issue centres round the air-raid precautions arrangement of this town. It is argued by the Regional Commissioner and defended by the Home Secretary in this House that the control centre is quite inadequate for its purpose. I have visited this centre and satisfied myself that it is in every way adequate so far as I can see. It has functioned smoothly during four years of war, and the voluntary workers are all convinced that it is unnecessary to move it. I have seen the various reports of the Regional Commissioner on this building, and they would give the impression to the Under-Secretary, if he studied them, that this control centre was a mere basement room in which there was hardly room to stand up. That is not at all the case. This centre is housed in a large brick building. It is approached by a broad side road nicely away from the traffic. It has a considerable open space in front of it, and even a garden path—up which, I think, the right hon. Gentleman was led. You enter the building on the ground floor, where the control room is situated. Here are the telephone switchboard, maps and everything that is required. When I visited it, it seemed to me cosy and convenient. On the floor above is a large administrative office with an adjoining vestibule, both of which are well lighted. There two permanent officials conduct their immense amount of paper work. In the basement is a splinter-proof room, which is small, where the voluntary workers sit. They have a wireless to keep them happy and they can do their knitting during their hours of duty if there are no raids, and they would be able to shelter there if there were.

This set of rooms would be considered entirely adequate for a battalion headquarters in any garrison town, and this would mean the administration of some 800 people. It is not less commodious and convenient than others I have visited. It has functioned smoothly during four years of war and throughout the worst that the Hun was able to inflict on us during the Battle of Britain and in the height of the blitz. Now suddenly, in the fifth year of the war, the A. R.P. official from the county council descends upon it and says that it is inadequate for the purposes of a report centre. This coincides, strangely enough, with the opinion of the two permanent officials that the accommodation is not in keeping with their dignity, and, like all permanent officials, they would like to be housed in a more palatial building. Immediately the question arises why, if this report centre has not enough room, did not the Regional Defence Commissioner requisition the whole of the building in which it is situated. The whole building was, in fact, offered to the Regional Commissioner for this purpose when the original requisition took place, but he did not consider it necessary. The rest of the accommodation was taken over by the Ministry of Food. Surely it is rather late in the day for the Regional Commissioner now to step forth and say that the centre must be removed because there is not enough accommodation for it in the present building.

However, if he is determined upon the course of removing the centre, there are various other buildings in the town available, of which I and others have given him particulars. Does he avail himself of those alternatives? No; with unerring instinct he chooses the one place in the whole town where there is already installed an efficient voluntary mobile ambulance unit. It may be said that it is not a very great matter to turn out an efficient mobile ambulance unit and ask it to go somewhere else, but that would show a complete lack of understanding of the local conditions. We must carry our minds back to the urgent days of the Battle of Britain, when patriotic people took the most appropriate and immediate action without waiting for forms in triplicate and the rest of it before getting down to the job. At that time Dr. Gibb, a prominent local practitioner, organised this ambulance unit, and, finding that the casual wards of the Poor Law institution were unoccupied, installed the unit there. Perhaps he should have waited until 30 or 40 letters had passed between himself and the Regional Commissioner. He did not do so. He got on with the job. He communicated with the chairman of the Guardians Committee, under whom the casual wards are administered, and the chairman gave him his complete approval. This public-spirited doctor then spent £60 or £70 of his own money in installing the unit efficiently.

Now, at this stage of the war along comes a petty A.R.P. official of the Norfolk County Council by the name of Captain Berney-Ficklin. He seems to consider it his duty to deputise for God Almighty or the Regional Commissioner—I am not sure which—by annoying as many people as he can and upsetting all the voluntary workers upon whom this Civil Defence organisation depends. He orders the ambulance unit of the patriotic Dr. Gibb to quit these premises and move into others which are occupied by another Civil Defence unit, which in turn must move out and find accommodation elsewhere. All this would be bad enough, but, to add insult to injury, it is argued that this is done with the approval of the A.R.P. workers themselves. This is too much even for me. This town is literally goaded to distraction by an ignorant bureaucracy in the name of the Regional Commissioner for the Eastern Civil Defence Region. The fact of the matter is that the Regional Commissioner is simply a rubber stamp, and he has rubber stamped my constituents until they are purple in the face. Before raising this matter in the House I took every step to persuade the Regional Commissioner to alter his decision, but he is obdurate. He writes to me: I am informed that the staff at the existing report centre have been very dissatisfied with the conditions under which they have been required to work since the beginning of the war and it is only their loyalty and the personality of their officers that has enabled an adequate service to be maintained under very trying conditions. They are all very much relieved to know that at last something was being done to ameliorate these conditions. I would draw attention to the word "all" because it refers to the permanent officials. The remaining 40 or 50 voluntary workers are all violently opposed to the scheme.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

Has the Regional Commissioner himself been anywhere near Downham Market?

Captain De Chair

I believe that he did on one occasion visit it, and he appears to have gone only into the small basement room and to have come away with the impression that that is all that the report centre consists of. In a last attempt to bring the authorities in question to see reason, I appealed to this Captain Berney-Ficklin, the A.R.P. official for the Norfolk County Council, and suggested to him, as an honourable way out of this impasse, that it would be natural for him as the A.R.P. official to wish to see the A.R.P. officials in the region installed in the most palatial building possible, but that he would not want to call upon the voluntary workers to make a change to which they are all opposed. I therefore suggested, what was a natural procedure, that he should call a meeting of the voluntary A.R.P. workers and explain to them that he wanted to have the report centre moved, but that, if the majority were overwhelmingly against it, he would not wish to force it upon them. The only reply has been for them to hurry forward the work, no doubt in the hope that a fait accompli would prevent me from taking any definite action about it in this House.

There remains the argument put forward by the Regional Commissioner as to not taking any of the alternative accommodation that has been suggested. It is that it would require the expenditure of some £325 to condition one of the houses which were suggested and which is at present empty and available, and that it would cost only £100 to prepare the casual wards of the institution to receive this report centre. My unofficial information is that the work which is now being done to accommodate the report centre in the casual ward, will, in fact, cost nearer £400, and if it is proceeded with—I very much hope that it will be stopped—I shall attempt an another occasion to raise the whole question of the expenditure and to see the actual figures of the contractors for the whole job done.

In conclusion although it may seem that this is only a storm in a teacup compared with the great issues of the war, it raises wider issues. Is it really necessary, in the fifth year of the war, when some voluntary workers who have carried the burden, without the glamour, of active service with patience and with fortitude, are naturally feeling some war weariness and strain, to harry them in this obstinate fashion? It raises very forcibly the question whether the organisation of Regional Commissions, which was set up in 1940 when, for the purpose of meeting invasion, the country was divided into regions, has not outlived its usefulness and is not now merely adding an extra wheel to the juggernaut of bureaucracy which is crushing the spirit of a free people. What useful purpose, one is bound to ask, is served at this stage of the war by the Regional Commissioners in general and the Regional Commissioner for the Eastern Counties in particular? Yet they still have these immense powers conferred upon them, and it seems that they can bully or harry us, without let or hindrance.

In writing to the Regional Commissioner I said that I was confident that if he realised the mistake he was making he would be willing to admit it and countermand the instructions he had given, if he was a big enough man, but this was a forlorn hope. Therefore, I have no alternative but to appeal to this House and to the Under-Secretary of State to stop the move of this report centre to the casual ward, to stop this senseless reorganisation of the Civil Defence arrangements in Downham Market. When I raised this matter by Question in the House and asked the Home Secretary if he would have an impartial investigation, he would not agree to it. Therefore, I repeat, at this late stage, my request to the Under-Secretary of State is that he will give an order now, to stop this report centre being moved on Monday, and if possible will agree with me as to the need for a more impartial inquiry which will look into all these matters.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

I am deputising to-day for the representatives of the Ministry of Home Security who, through unavoidable reasons, are unable to be here. If I show, perhaps, rather less familiarity than they possess with the technicalities of Civil Defence, I hope that the House will forgive me on account of my inexperience. The hon. and gallant Member has rushed into some territory upon which hon. Members are usually a little careful about treading, that is a dispute between two local authorities both operating in the area of his constituency. The Urban District Council of Downham Market takes great exception to certain action taken by the Norfolk County Council.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

The County Council are the Civil Defence authority?

Mr. Peake

Yes. As I understand it, they are the scheme-making authority for all Civil Defence purposes, apart, of course, from the Fire Service, which is a national service. My hon. and gallant Friend's quarrel, therefore—if he has a quarrel—is with the Norfolk County Council and not, in my view, with the Ministry of Home Security or with the Regional Commissioner. The functions of the Regional Commissioner in this matter are very limited. They are limited to approving or disapproving of the action of the scheme-making authority. My hon. and gallant Friend's complaint, as I understand it, is not that the Regional Commissioner has rushed in and done something which he should not have done, but that he has refused to disapprove of the action taken by the competent and duly elected local authority. As hon. Members are aware, the usual complaint about Regional Commissioners is of a different character and is that they are representatives of a brutal and highly centralised bureaucracy, which is continually over-ruling and over-riding the decisions of the properly-constituted and duly-elected local bodies.

Mr. McEntee (Walthamstow, West)

Would not the Minister agree that it is generally upon the advice of the Regional Commissioner that the duly elected local authority acts?

Mr. Peake

I am not sufficiently experienced in these matters to know who takes the initiative, but the law places the responsibility fairly and squarely upon the backs of the local authority, and it is only where the Regional Commissioner disapproves of the action taken that the Government grant is withheld. My hon. and gallant Friend's complaint here is that the Regional Commissioner has failed to act as the representative of centralised bureaucracy and has failed to interfere with the arrangements, in my view the proper arrangements, which were made by the Norfolk County Council. I think that my hon. and gallant Friend is perfectly aware that this is the position, because he began this issue by a letter to the Regional Commissioner on 19th October in which he said: I understand that you have approved the proposal of the Norfolk County Council A.R.P. Committee to move the Report and Control Centre to the Casual Wards of the Public Assistance Institution. Perhaps I may say, in passing, that the Public Assistance Institution is, of course, the property of the Norfolk County Council, and I may also say that when the Mobile First Aid Unit occupied the rooms in the casual wards there, from which they will be displaced, they were doing so as interlopers. They had not received any permission to occupy that part of the institution at all. My hon. and gallant Friend clearly understood that this was the decision of the Norfolk County Council to which exception was taken by Down-ham Market.

Captain De Chair

My right hon. Friend says that they were interlopers. I dealt with that point in my speech, when pointed out that Dr. Gibb had obtained the approval of the Chairman of the Guardians Committee at the time the action took place, and I do not think it is fair to say they were interlopers. It may have saved a tremendous amount of paper work.

Mr. Peake

The point may have been verbally mentioned but, as I understand it, there has been no proper authority given for the occupation of those premises. My hon. and gallant Friend followed up his letter of 19th October, when he had a reply from the Regional Commissioner, by a further letter of 8th November. The very first sentence of that letter is: There seems to have been a complete lack of understanding between the Norfolk County Council A.R.P. Committee and the Downham Market people over the question of removing the report centre. My hon. and gallant Friend was clearly aware, at this stage of the proceedings, that his quarrel was with the Norfolk County Council and not with the Regional Commissioner, whose part in this matter was purely a passive one, that is to say of refusing to interfere and override the decision of the proper local authority. In those circumstances I think perhaps, that my hon. and gallant Friend, when he looks at the terms of the Question which he put to the Minister of Home Security on 8th December, will on reflection consider that this hardly did justice to the position of the Regional Commissioner in this matter, because one of the questions asked was whether the Minister of Home Security was aware that the Eastern Regional Commissioner has issued an order to move the A.R.P. report centre of Downham Market from the place where it has functioned for four years to a building which the voluntary workers, upon whom the smooth working of the A.R.P. arrangements depend."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th December, 1943; col. 1255, Vol. 395.] I am sure that anybody reading that Question would think that the Regional Commissioner had issued an order and had taken the initiative in this matter, whereas, in point of fact, the direct opposite was the case. This action was taken by the proper authority. The Regional Commissioner was appealed to for his approval. He himself went and viewed the different premises, and, having given his consideration to the matter, declined, and I think quite properly declined, on the merits of the case, to interfere with the action of the Norfolk County Council. I do not really know whether, in these circumstances, it is necessary to go very much into the suitability of the different premises involved. In the view of the Minister of Home Security and of the Regional Commissioner, the action of the local authority was perfectly correct and fully justified. My hon. and gallant Friend said that he very much doubted whether these premises were inspected and that we imagined that they consisted only of two basement rooms. We have a report, a copy of which was sent to my hon. Friend, from the Senior Regional Technical Adviser of the Region, dated 12th November. This is the report: I inspected Downham Market Report and Control Centre to-day. This consists of two small compartments, one cannot call them rooms, in a basement, and one room above on ground floor level. The basement is approached down a stairway with insufficient headroom. The first compartment is about 8 ft. 6 in. and about 5 ft. 8 in. high only, and I could not stand upright in it. Inward telephones are in this compartment. Between this and the next compartment there is an opening, heavily timbered, of a height of 5 ft. from the floor, there are two steps up to the next compartment. This is about 6 ft. by 10 ft. and about the same height as the first. There is no adequate ventilation. Then there is a description of the Control Room on the ground floor which is stated to be about 12 feet square, with one window. The report concludes: The basement compartments are not fit for human habitation and the upstairs room is also very poor accommodation. I have no hesitation in saying that it should never have been used as a Control Centre and it should cease to be so used as soon as possible, as nothing can be done to improve it.

Captain De Chair

This report cannot be regarded as very thorough, because it leaves out of account the two rooms which are on the first floor and which I have mentioned.

Mr. Peake

There is evidently some dispute about this. I know the hon. and gallant Member has visited these premises, that he spent a short time, only a short time, there one morning on his way to catch a train at Downham Market station. But we have had the reports, not only of the appropriate authority, the Norfolk County Council, but of the inspectors of the Regional Commissioner, and our information is based upon reports of officials who are familiar with these premises and the local situation and have been so familiar for some time. I must confess that the impression I got from the reports is that it is a source of wonder this position has been allowed to be maintained for such a long time. I am surprised that some change has not been made earlier.

As regards the premises which have been suggested as alternatives we are advised that this Mobile First Aid Unit will not be seriously inconvenienced by giving up two rooms to us for the Report Centre at the Public Assistance Institution. This seems to be the most economical proposal. My hon. and gallant Friend said they wanted more palatial accommodation. This is a Public Assistance Institution. I am quite sure that the accommodation is not of a palatial character. It is already owned by the County Council, so it will not cost anything except for adaptation, and so far as adaptation is concerned we have an estimate, I think, of £100 to be spent for the necessary alterations. Alternative premises have been considered in regard to which the cost would be very much greater, and if they were requisitioned a rent would have to be paid for them. It does not seem to me to be an appropriate case in which the Regional Commissioner should be asked to interfere, and in my view this is a matter which might well have been settled locally and need never have troubled the Mother of Parliaments.

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