HC Deb 20 December 1945 vol 417 cc1579-84

2.8 p.m.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

The matter I desire to raise is one concerning conditions in this country, and it is one which not only seriously affects a considerable number of my constituents, but which may also be of some considerable interest to constituencies in other parts of England. From 1885 until after D-Day, Weed on Ordnance Depot was the principal ordnance depot for the supply of small arms to the Army and throughout the British Empire. Throughout the Boer War, throughout the 1914 war, and throughout this war until after D-Day, it functioned in that capacity, and, if we can agree on nothing else, I am sure the Financial Secretary to the War Office will join me in paying a tribute to the men and women who have worked there, for their efficiency and for their labours. From there the Army was re-equipped with small arms after Dunkirk, and from there the 21st Army group was equipped. Now that long established and successful depot is under sentence of extinction and, so far as I can ascertain, the reasons for that decision are either thoroughly bad or, in so far as they possess any merits at all, are totally inadequate.

During the war a vast area of land at Bicester was taken over by the War Department. No less than nearly £ 5 million has been spent on it. Last November— maybe now—there was a notice in the room at the depot there which said, "The bricks used in the construction of this depot would make a road 8ft. wide from London to Berlin." That is an indication of the size of that depot, all created in wartime and, I understand, intended to be the base for the operations of the 21st Army Group and a depot at which it would be possible to equip a whole Division from a tank to a rifle. I am told that it was not ready in time to be used for that purpose. I can understand the desire, if it exists, to justify in peace, by peace time use, this war time expenditure, the desire to seek to rebut in advance the suggestions that this is a War Office white elephant, but that desire if it exists is not the sole factor which should be considered. As to the advisability of centralising ordnance depots at Bicester on military grounds I am not competent to express an opinion; but, so far as locations are concerned, I would say that the location of Weed on possesses many advantages over that of Bicester. Weed on is on the L.M.S. main line, on the Watling Street, and on the Grand Union Canal. Bicester has the main road to Banbury going through it, it is on the Great Western main line to Birmingham, and on the branch L.M.S. line from Oxford to Bletchley.

Now it is proposed to transfer all the small arms work which has been done so well throughout the greater part of three wars from Weed on to Bicester. The Secretary of State, when I asked him a question on this matter, indicated that the decision to do this was based on both military and economic grounds. As I say, I am not competent to deal with military grounds though I suggest that if we were faced with another war we should get again as great a cry for decentralisation as we had at the beginning of this war, and I suggest that the concentration of all our Army stores and small arms in one big depot in this atomic bomb age should be seriously considered. I also suggest that really it would be false economy to make this centralisation chiefly to justify the war time expenditure on a project which was not completed in time for its wartime purpose.

There is another side to this problem which requires careful consideration, and 1 think more careful consideration than has yet been given to it by His Majesty's Government. Round the depot at Weedon a community has grown up. The small arms depot is a source of employment for many in the surrounding districts. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that something like 2,000 men, women and children are dependant for their livelihood on the existence of that depot. Prior to 1939, the work at Weedon was almost entirely done by civilians. Since 1939, soldiers and A.T.S. have been employed there and they, of course, have had to be shown how to do their work by the civilians. Many of these civilians at Weedon have sunk their life savings in buying their homes there. Some still have the mortgages to pay off and now for them the future does not look particularly rosy. I am told that a definite pledge was given that the representatives of the civilian employees would be consulted before any definite decision was made as to their future, and many regard that pledge as not having been kept. On 8th October of this year the Director of Warlike Stores informed those representatives that Weedon would either be closed altogether or would become a bulk stores depot. A bulk stores depot does not sound to me as if it would provide permanent employment for the number of people who have, until now and in the years before the war, been engaged in this depot and are concerned with small arms work.

The Director of Warlike Stores, I am informed, also said—and I regard this as most important—that Bicester would be run as a military depot, that no substantial body of civilians would bewanted, beyond a few from Weedon who would be accommodated in a Ministry of Supply hostel. I received a letter from the Financial Secretary on 9th October, the day after the Director of Warlike Stores had made this statement to which I have referred. The Financial Secretary said that Weedon would have a very active role in the ordnance small arms organisation as a bulk stores depot and—what appears to me to be more important, I think—as a returned stores depot for small arms in this country. He said the transfers from Weedon would cause a surplus of only 70 clerks and that the work remaining at Weedon would occupy the rest. The satisfaction which that letter gave was somewhat discounted by the statement of the Director of Warlike Stores the day before that letter was despatched, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to confirm that the contents of that letter will be fully adhered to. If the present decision remain, I would ask the hon. Gentleman how long employment of the sort to which he refers in dealing with returned stores is likely to last? It does not sound to me as if it is very permanent.

One important question which I desire to raise is this: Will the Financial Secretary to the War Office confirm the statement made by the Director of Warlike Stores as to the employment at Bicester of soldiers and A.T.S.? Are we really going to employ hundreds, and, it may be, thousands of men and women in uniform in peacetime in doing work which, prior to the war and during the war, was excellently done by civilians? If that is the intention, it may, perhaps, explain why demobilisation in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps is not proceeding more quickly. It will, of course, mean that, if that is the intention, a vast military establishment with many people holding high rank, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the view is held pretty widely that there are two chief reasons for this concentration at Bicester. One is to cover up, in a peacetime cloud, the millions of pounds spent in wartime on this project which did not come into use. The second is the creation of a broad-based pyramid of military personnel so that a few at the top may hold high rank and enjoy the pay and emoluments attaching to it.

I hope the hon. Gentleman may be able to say that these suspicions are un-founded, but I assure him that they exist, and I mention them so that he may have an opportunity of dealing with them.

Some civilians are being asked to go from Weedon to Bicester. They have been asked to "volunteer." On 30th July, 30 civilians already selected were asked to go and were told that they were key men, although some were only temporary clerks and their average age was 54½years. Of course, that transfer, in peacetime, would mean separation from their homes and additional expense, because they were going to be required to live in. hostels, and if they shared a double room, to pay 30s. a week, or, for a single room, 35s. a week. In view of the expense, it is not surprising that there were only 11 volunteers, and they only volunteered after having been informed that, if they did not accept the offer, they would find themselves redundant or transferred to other depots. That is what, I understand, "volunteering "means in that connection.

On nth December, I asked the Secretary of State some Questions about this, and I do not think one answer was very frank. I asked if he would state the number of houses it was proposed to build at Bicester to accommodate civilians transferred from other depots, and his answer was as follows: It is not within my province to build houses for civilian employees at depots, except for a few key personnel who must live on the premises. The civilian labour will be drawn as far as possible from neighbouring towns, but, if any extra local housing appears to be necessary when the permanent establishment is fixed, I shall bring the point to the notice of the civil authorities concerned." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th December, 1945; Vol. 417, c. 195.] I am informed that plans have already been made by officers or officials in the War Office for the erection of 250 houses for civilians at or in the neighbourhood of Bicester. Indeed, one informant has put the figure very much higher than that, and I am informed that negotiations are already proceeding with the County Planning Authority as to the site on which these houses shall be placed and as to whether an addition shall be made to the town of Bicester or a separate town put up a mile or a mile and a half away. In the light of the fact, as I believe it to be, that these negotiations are now being carried on, and that plans for the erection of these houses are now in existence, I must say that I do not regard the answer of the Secretary of State to me as being very full in nature, and I suspect that, perhaps, he may not have had full information on this point put at his disposal.

At this time, before houses are built for people intended to be transferred, or for people who have houses already, surely houses should be built for those who have not got accommodation? I ask the hon. Gentleman to go further into this matter and reconsider it. Recently we were told that one advantage with regard to the production of aluminium houses was the fact that it would keep those engaged in the aluminium industry in employment. Now, it would appear that the Government, in order to justify this expenditure at Bicester, which will provide a basis for high military ranks, are going, if not immediately, then in the future, to create unemployment in my division, and I cannot let that pass without the strongest protest.

I ask that Weedon should be retained as a small arms depot, with its experienced staff, all housed there, with its efficiency proved by its wartime prowess, and I can inform the hon. Gentleman that there is land at Weedon already in the possession of the War Department which could be used for any further extension of small arms accommodation if that was required. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to go into this matter very thoroughly and take every possible step to see that the Government's policy in this regard is not one which, instead of providing full employment, will, in fact, create unemployment.