HC Deb 08 February 1945 vol 407 cc2368-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

6.9 p.m.

Mr. Martin (Southwark, Central)

The question to which I now wish to direct the attention of the House is that of the release of members of the Services with particular technical qualifications for employment in the building industry. I want to raise it as a general question, but I wish to devote most of my remarks to illustrations which have occurred in my constituency which, I think, show the sort of thing that is happening at present. I have been in some difficulty in this matter because the truth is that no one Department is, to a satisfactory extent, responsible for this matter. The Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Health are both interested in the technical and building side of it, and the Ministry of Labour in the labour side. But the final court of appeal rests with the Service Departments and it is, therefore, rather difficult to pin the responsibility on to any particular person.

The three cases of which I want to give illustrations are as follow: In the summer of 1943 a certain area in my constituency had been badly blitzed. There was in that area a small working builder of the name of Murphy, trading as C. Taylor, who had long experience of the houses in his particular district. I would like to emphasise that these small working builders are like the family doctors in country villages. They know everything about the insides of the houses in their district, in the same way as the family doctor knows, or should know, everything about the insides of his patients. Their technical knowledge is of great value and importance at the present time in the maintenance and repair of houses under existing conditions. Where a house has been comparatively slightly damaged the local builder, knowing all about its interior conditions, is much more competent to render first aid repairs than a highly skilled and highly articulated firm which may be called in to deal with a number of houses. Members pointed out that fact at the time to the Government, and it was as a result of those representations that small local builders were called much more into activity. Moreover, nearly all these builders are highly skilled, technical, craftsmen; they are not just mere business men; they do a great deal of work themselves.

Now I come to the particular point with which I wish to deal. This man, Mr. Murphy, was called up by the Navy and enlisted as a craftsman, but since then he has been employed as an ordinary seaman. Owing to the great disrepair in that district at the time of the blitz representations were made to me by the local sanitary inspectors, by the Metropolitan Water Board and by the local agents of two large estates in the district, and by a number of other people connected with the council, that this man should be released at once. I wrote to the Ministry of Health at the time when the Ministers of that Department were changing. I also wrote to the Admiralty in the hope that they might do something, with a little pressure, on their own. They sent a most sympathetic reply, stating that they would be glad to consider the matter if the Ministry of Health would make the necessary recommendation. The Ministry of Health replied that it could not do so because the Admiralty would certainly take no notice of them if they did. There the matter rested. I made some representations to the Minister of Health at that time, but he was newly come into office and there were difficulties in going very much further.

Then we pass to the summer of 1944. The flying bombs began, fresh serious damage was done in the neighbourhood, and the position again became urgent. Fresh representations were made to the Ministry of Works and Buildings for Mr. Murphy's release but again it was refused. In September the manager who had been put in to run the business when Mr. Murphy was called up was found to have peculated its money and to have neglected to carry out the repairs which in fact the local authority believed he was carrying out during this time, or even to obtain the necessary materials, and a large number of bombed houses went unrepaired for a considerable time. Mrs. Murphy, who had a young child and a sick mother on her hands as well as the business, wrote in great distress and fresh efforts were made, which were equally unsuccessful. Shortly afterwards we had a Debate on bomb damage and there was a good deal of conversation between Members and Ministers, and a number of us received positive assurances that skilled men would be released where necessary. Mr. Murphy was a highly-skilled plumber, and I believe he was also a skilled slater, but these qualifications were not sufficient to obtain his release. I put down a Question to the Prime Minister who, as Minister of Defence, seemed to be mainly responsible for the collective action of the Service Departments, and the Question was transferred to the Ministry of Labour. The Parliamentary Secretary said that if I would inform him about the particular case he would do what he could. Once again I began on the sad story and appealed to the Ministry of Works that Mr. Murphy should be released for the benefit of his neighbours, but I was told that nothing could be done.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Hicks)

The Ministry of Works recommended that this man should be released but the Services were unable to release him. It was not the Ministry of Works who turned my hon. Friend down.

Mr. Martin

My hon. Friend is quite right. Mr. Murphy's father intervened and we jointly wrote to the Ministry of Works, who made an application for him, but it was turned down. I appealed as a last resource to Lord Woolton, who I knew took a great interest in the matter and who I felt would at least approach it with a good deal of resolution. He was kind enough to go into it with me and, as a result, things began to move. The Ministry of Works put in an application to the Admiralty. That application was in due course turned down on the ground that it was not justified. That is the story of one case.

I have another very similar case. The partner of a small business a mile or two away was a man of 73, who became ill and was sent by his doctor into the country and became practically bedridden. He had a son serving in the Artillery, and, most of his men having been called up, this young man was given compassionate leave to see whether he could do anything for the business. In addition to being associated with his father as partner in the business, he was a qualified slater and tiler. He was exactly the kind of man who the Minister of Health in his speech in the House on 27th October said was most needed at that time for this purpose and who, he assured us, the Service Departments would release. Except in very exceptional circumstances such men would always be released. A number of us also received the solemn assurance that that would be so. This man, however, in spite of being a qualified slater and tiler, and also the only surviving mainstay of the business, was refused release. In consequence, the business ceased to function. One business was functioning under a dishonest manager who was peculating the profits and neglecting to do his job, and the other business ceased to function, in spite of the fact that it has large reserves of material which are not being used on the stricken houses in the neighbourhood. The third case I have is that of a foreman plasterer who was employed by a big firm and is now in a cavalry regiment at York. He was also applied for in the same way and turned down. I do not expect my hon. Friend to deal with these cases as it is not for his Department to do so. I am only quoting them as illustrations of what is going on. I am assured by other hon. Members that they have similar cases in their constituencies and that all over London repairs are going short for the want of certain skilled craftsmen.

I have certain questions I want to address to my hon. Friend. I do not know whether, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, he will be able to answer them, but I feel that the House will agree with me that they are reasonable questions to ask. The first is: Who are the officers in the Service Departments who deal with these applications? Who is for practical purposes the final court of appeal? Who is the final authority for deciding whether a man should go or not? Whoever it is presumably knows a great deal about the need of the Service Departments, but has he any training or knowledge or experience which qualifies him to compare the respective needs of the civil population in this grave dire necessity with the needs of the Services? The second question is: What knowledge does he have of the particular case involved? Does he take the word of the man's commanding officer that the man is indispensable, or is there some general standard laid down which he has to observe, or how is it decided whether a man is indispensable?

Like other hon. Members, I was a soldier in the last war. I was for some months in a brigade office, and I have a little knowledge of how these things very often are worked. I shall not be satisfied with a mere assurance by my hon. Friend or by anybody else that the thing is most carefully and elaborately gone into. I have seen many cases in the past where an appeal has been made for the release of a man and the Commanding Officer says: "Oh, no, on no account. He is my batman," or "He is the sergeant-major's right-hand man," and the thing is ignored without any consideration of the merits of the case.

Commander Prior (Birmingham, Aston)

Can the hon. Member say whether Mr. Murphy was qualified in any way? Was he a gunnery expert or had he any other kind of qualification?

Mr. Martin

He was enlisted in the Navy as a craftsman. I suppose he was in a parallel position to a master builder, but up to last Christmas he had not been employed in any technical way at all, and only as an ordinary seaman. To return to the point I was making: Does the officer who decides these matters have any knowledge of the particular cases involved? Thirdly, is there any case on record in which the officer concerned with these matters has consulted the Member of Parliament, the Minister, the representative of the local authority or anybody else responsible for asking for the release, or has gone into the case and tried to ascertain really whether there was a case which ought to be granted? Or, on the other hand, does the officer proceed simply on the naval, military or air force evidence that happens to be before him? Fourthly is a point which I have been asked to put by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling), who is unable to be present to-night although he would have liked to take part in the Debate. The question is whether there is any case on record of a Member of Parliament being told what the grounds were for the release being refused. So far as we can tell, there is no evidence of any of these things being done.

I do not want to keep my hon. Friend too long, but I want to say that I consider this is a very grave and serious matter. The people of London have suffered a great deal, mainly from enemy action during the last few years but greatly from the natural neglect of houses incident upon the war, the increasing disrepair of houses, and the damage done by the weather. They have suffered very severely indeed. I feel that the Government—when I say the Government I mean in particular the War Cabinet—have shown incompetence and neglect in this matter. I feel that they owed it to the people of London to treat the question as one of much greater gravity and with a much more efficient organisation than they have done. The final decision should not have been left entirely to the Service Departments, but there should have been a court of appeal where the merits of the Service case could have been contrasted with the other claims. I hope I shall receive the support of the House in asking that this matter be dealt with with more seriousness than it has been dealt with in the past. Unless the Government can show that they are making efforts to see that the people from London receive more relief and unless satisfaction is received from the Minister, we shall not allow the matter to rest in this House.

6.30 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

I wish my hon. Friend had given me a little longer in which to reply. I have only seven minutes left and I would have liked a good quarter of an hour in which to rebut some of the charges which I think he most unjustly made against the Government. The Government have made the most prodigious efforts to deal with the situation in London. We have maintained a labour force of some 130,000 on this job of repairs of houses alone. We have 45,000 building trade workers being fed and billeted in London. The whole of the rest of the country has been denuded of every mobile builder who could be moved. In many other parts of the country repairs and building have stopped because London is righty regarded as having preference at this time. London should recognise that the rest of the country is making a sacrifice on their behalf and that the Government are doing the best they can.

I would like to spend half a minute in thanking the many organisations, the National Hostels Corporation, voluntary bodies, the girls who came from Scotland, domestic science students, trade unions and other interested bodies, people who came together to feed and maintain this vast body of people who came into London to help London in her necessity. I do not believe these people have had their full meed of praise up to now and I would like to take this opportunity of giving it to them. Also, I think the people of London should be grateful to the Services for the great effort they have made to provide help in this problem. The Services provided immediately on demand and at great inconvenience to themselves a considerable number of men in uniform which had a great effect on the morale of the people as well as on getting repairs done. There has been something between 5,000 and 6,000 Service men in uniform maintained on this work during the last six months. In addition to that there are nearly 2,000 Americans in uniform, and we are very grateful to them—about 8,000 people of the American Forces and the Army, Navy and Air Force in uniform. In addition, the Army has made nearly 2,000 individual releases and there have been some from the other Services of skilled craftsmen where that could possibly be done in order to meet the difficult position in London. That is as I have said 7,000 to 8,000 people in uniform, and 2,000 released for a period of six months or more from the Forces to help in this situation—9,000 or 10,000 in all.

We must remember in this matter the position in which we are in the war. We are at the climax of the war, we are at an intensity of fighting and of military operations such as has not been reached before in the war, and nothing we do must, in any way, starve or hinder the operational needs of the Services. At this moment above all other matters that must be the first care of the Government and I am not prepared to stand up here and say I will challenge in any way the decision of a Service Department as to whether on operational grounds they can or cannot release any member of that Service. What the hon. Gentleman said about Mr. Murphy and Mr. Palmer is quite true. One happened to be in the Army and the other in the Navy. I have not the full particulars of the other man. I think I suggested to the hon. Member in the end in correspondence the method by which he should proceed. These applications were made by the Ministry of Works, and were supported by the Ministry of Labour on industrial grounds. It is the duty of the Ministry of Labour to report to the Service itself whether on industrial grounds we consider that a demand should be made to the Service to take an abnormal step of releasing a skilled man—skilled in his trade of fighting—from the Forces.

In both these cases, we said that we would like to see the men released on industrial grounds. In each case, the Department looked into the matter carefully. It was not the decision of a single officer: the case was built up; the position of the units in which the men were serving, what duties they were going to, whether they could be replaced, and other matters were taken into consideration by the Departments; and in both cases the answer was that the men could not be released.

I am not going to challenge that decision, and I am not going to ask the Service Departments to justify their decision. The Service Departments have to justify themselves by winning the war, and they cannot be expected to argue each case to civilians, who may not be able to appreciate the operational emphasis which has to be placed on a man's work. The Ministry of Labour, who are the focal point through which all these applications go, have found the Service Departments most co-operative, especially in releasing skilled building labour for this present crisis. But the Service Departments have an overwhelming responsibility for fighting the war, and we must not ask them to do anything which might hinder them in that responsibility. When all that is taken into account, for example, I find that the Army have gone to the limit over skilled specialists, such as slaters. That is a very bold thing for them to do, and they would not do it but for the fact that they realise the importance of these problems.

But I ask the hon. Member, would it be suitable for the local Member of Parliament to wait on the commanding officer of one of these men, who may shortly be going into action, to show what he can do in the civilian field? The right system is for the Minister of Works to sponsor the application, for the Minister of Labour to vet it from the point of view of civilian needs; and the decision must be made by the Service Department in the interests of the war effort, and of operational and other needs. That is the system upon which we operate. We are very sympathetic, the country is very sympathetic, and the Services are very sympathetic to London in the difficulties it has gone through; and I believe that when the story of the last eight months comes to be written, the people of this country will be astounded at what has been done.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two Minutes before Seven o' Clock.