HC Deb 02 March 1945 vol 408 cc1786-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major A. S. L. Young.]

5.0 p.m.

Sir Frank Sanderson (Ealing)

I welcome the opportunity which has been afforded to me to raise the question of the location of the offices for the Ministry of National Insurance, with particular reference to its effect upon the thousands of civil servants who are to be directed to these offices. I regret any inconvenience which may have been caused to my right hon. and learned Friend in having to be in his place instead of in the environment which he might otherwise have enjoyed, but I am not unmindful that it is purely a temporary inconvenience. Thousands of civil servants, of whom many reside in my constituency, will be affected by the proposed location of this office. It will not be for a short time or even for the duration of the war. Many of them will be affected during the whole course of their lives. Some of my constituents write stating that, in effect, they regard it as a continuance of war conditions to the end of their days, whereas others describe it as penal servitude for life, though that may be an overstatement. It will be accepted generally that the proposed removal of civil servants from Blackpool, to Newcastle or elsewhere, has caused a good deal of heart-burning on the part of the civil servants evacuated from London who expected to be able to return to their homes after the conclusion of the war against Germany.

I understand that other staffs, with which I do not propose to deal to-day, will be affected; that the Treasury propose that many Departments shall not return to London. It will involve the dislocation of home life, the selling of homes, and the starting of new homes. The appeals and protests that I have received, and the deputations and the countless letters which I have received, and also the petition signed by hundreds of my constituents who are engaged in the Civil Service, and which I have already handed to my right hon. Friend, are evidence of the very grave concern and misgiving in regard to their future. No great enterprise could be successful without a happy and contented staff. It is the experience of all large employers of labour, in whatever field or sphere of activity they may be engaged. The success of such a tremendous scheme as that which is being set up under my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of National Insurance depends upon co-operation and good will all round.

Surely the proposed action is not in accord with the democratic principle which, for the past five years, they have been told—and I think quite rightly—the country is at war to maintain, and which they knew they had to sacrifice in part in time of war. But they were assured, so I understand, and confidently expected that they would be restored to their original homes in time of peace. They are told that the housing conditions in and around London are very precarious and that it would not be possible to find the necessary accommodation for them, which I fully appreciate, but those for whom I am making a special appeal are civil servants at Blackpool, and other places, whose homes are waiting for them now. Many of them are, of course, single individuals who have been transported from their homes to Blackpool for the duration of the war, and their homes are waiting for them. Then there are the cases of married couples who have closed their houses, or lent them to some friends for the duration of the war, and those civil servants are waiting anxiously for the day when they can return to their own homes.

I have had hundreds of letters, and among them are some which are really heartrending. They disclose types of cases which the ordinary individual would not imagine possible. I had intended—but unfortunately time is very limited—to read extracts from some of these letters, with the purpose of helping my right hon. and learned Friend to appreciate the difficulties of the people concerned. Briefly, however, they can be placed in two or three categories which I will enumerate. In the first are widows of men who were killed in the last war who have since built up their careers in the Civil Service, made their homes, created local interests, and lived and worked all their lives in Ealing and other places in Greater London. In the second class are cases where the civil servant has only a few years to complete before he arrives at pensionable age. Those who have from four to seven years left are particularly anxious, and I can assure my right hon. and learned Friend that if he can give them a little hope to-day, I shall not have wasted his time. In the third class, are civil servants whose houses are being bought on the instalment plan, where the purchase is not completed, and the money put into those houses represents their whole life's savings. We know what a homestead means, and to have to give it up and to be transported to another part of the country is, indeed, a very serious matter.

There is another type of letter which I have received, from civil servants who live with their aged parents. Some cases are really pitiable. It may be the case of a girl who is deeply attached to a father or a mother, over the age of 70, and the only relative of that father or mother. One parent is 84. One girl says that she cannot take her parents to Newcastle or elsewhere; it would definitely shorten their life. What is she to do? She is divided between her duty to and love for her parents and her future career. Then, naturally, there is the human element, namely, the separation from friends and all their social life, private lives will be disrupted, and so forth. A strong feeling of bitterness and resentment is not really the feeling with which to start a new Ministry.

I understand that it is proposed to build these offices in Newcastle, where there is a great scarcity of housing and where there are, I am told, 3,000 applications for houses on the waiting list. It will take two years or more to complete those offices, and I would like to ask the Minister whether it is proposed to build houses there in which civil servants can live. I hope it is not suggested that hostels are to be put up in which civil servants will have to start again, the sort of life which they have so willingly accepted during the war.

I understand that the decision to set up the offices of the new Ministry away from London was a Cabinet decision. If that is so, I fully appreciate that it will not be easy—indeed, it may be impossible —to prevail upon the Minister to reverse that decision. Arguments can well be advanced in favour of that policy, and as a policy I would perhaps find it difficult to argue against it, but it is the method adopted towards the Civil Service to which I, and civil servants, take special exception. As the new Ministry of National Insurance is unlikely to be in operation before 1947, there does not appear to be any immediate urgency about coming to a decision without this matter being fully considered. How should the change-over be done to be successful? I think the Minister will agree that that point must be considered. I would like to see the Newcastle proposal scrapped, and a place much nearer London chosen, if possible within a radius of 50 to 80 miles.

There is some talk of building a number of small towns around Greater London, and if that is so, I suggest that it might be practicable to build a centre at one of them, which would not only provide the offices but all the necessary accommodation, amenities and houses for the staff of the new Ministry. I understand that Cardiff has been suggested as a location for the new Ministry, and that certainly would be preferable to Newcastle, which is 268 miles away from London. I should like to see the return of civil servants to London when possible, and where practicable. The Government should then set about the reconstruction of the Civil Service and the question of the future location of the various Departments. In the view of civil servants, decentralisation should not be a short, but a long-term, policy, spread over a period of years, and its main principles should be clearly stated so that recruits entering the Civil Service will be under no illusion as to what the future holds for them. Plenty of people would be willing to go to a centre such as I have suggested—for instance, young married people who have never had a home, and those who are more or less carefree, and to whom it makes little difference whether they continue to reside in my constituency or around London, or whether they are transported elsewhere.

I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will see that the conditions for those who go are satisfactory, that special consideration is given to those who are approaching retiring age, and who have their homes in Greater London, and that allowances are continued in lieu of billeting as long as London commitments remain—where they continue to pay towards their house, or any such expense as that, which they cannot discard. In the case of inter-departmental transfers, seniority rights should be maintained and promotion prospects safeguarded, so that they shall not lose their position, merely by the fact that they have been transferred from London. Finally, no civil servant who volunteers to go elsewhere should, in any way, be financially worse off than he would have been had he been able to remain in his own home. The Government should state their future policy in this matter in clear, concise terms, and give the staffs concerned an opportunity of fair and free discussion and negotiation before the policy of decentralisation of Government Department is finally adopted. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is just and I believe he is also very human and that his desire to preserve these people's interests is in no way less than my own. I hope he will be able to reply to the points I have raised and to send out some message of consolation and hope to this great loyal and patriotic body of civil servants who are acclaimed everywhere as the finest in the world.

5.18 p.m.

The Minister of National Insurance (Sir William Jowitt)

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised this point and I am glad of the opportunity of replying to him. If I cannot give him satisfaction, I hope I can give him at least some small measure of consolation. I am bound to approach the question with rather a different emphasis from his. He is looking at the present interests of his constituents, whom he is concerned to protect and defend. I am bound to look at the future running of this office. The facts with regard to the staff of my office are as follows: At present there is a staff of about 3,000 at Blackpool, who are concerned with current health and pensions insurance matters, and of whom approximately two-thirds are temporary. They have been recruited locally from the Blackpool area. There remains a nucleus of about 1,000 of the permanent staff, who used to be located at Acton and were moved to Blackpool early in 1940. There is still at Acton a staff of about 1,000 who are concerning themselves with unemployment insurance records and so on. Of that staff about two-thirds also are temporary. There remains a nucleus of about 400 permanent staff, and I have no present intention of asking them to move, because I have not any immediate prospect of a place for them to move to.

Not only must I consider the existing staffs, but I must also consider the future staffs. When my scheme comes into operation, and when we are preparing for it to come into operation, I shall obviously want a large staff. At the very minimum I shall require a staff of about 5,000 to do the recording and central work. There is some need for urgency in this matter, because so far as the staff at Blackpool are concerned their office accommodation consists of hotels and hoarding houses which have been requisitioned. Here and elsewhere there is considerable agitation that these civil servants should vacate them.

Sir F. Sanderson

I am informed that civil servants are moving out of some of the hotels in Blackpool and that other Departments are taking their place.

Sir W. Jowitt

I am only concerned with my Department and there is no truth in it as far as I know. The urgency is to get my people out so that the hotels and boarding-houses can be restored to their proper uses. Where are they to go? Am I to bring them back to London from Blackpool? There is great difficulty in finding accommodation in London for anybody. Here again we have civil servants in many requisitioned buildings and there is great pressure everywhere to de-requisition the buildings and to leave them to their proper and former use. Any accommodation there is in London belonging to the Crown will most certainly be needed to accommodate those civil servants who are now in requisitioned premises.

I have, therefore, to consider where to move these people, and I think the hon. Member will agree that I must act on these principles. In the first place I must avoid a succession of moves, and have only one move. Secondly, I must have a place where I can unite the existing staffs, where, for instance, I can move the Blackpool people and then add the Acton people, and, ultimately, get my future staff for national social insurance work. Shall that place be London or the provinces? If we are to carry out the Government's policy—it is not my policy, but Government policy, with which I cordially agree—for a better spread of the population, we find a decision here which squares entirely with a provincial location.

This has been a matter of careful consideration. It has been discussed exhaustively with the Staff Side of the National Whitley Council for the Civil Service, and they were unable to dissent from the proposition that there should be a provincial location. Granted the provinces, the question is, Where? We must first have a city which has, to use a metaphor, a large "catchment area" from which we can recruit people, so that we can get our future staff largely in that area, and one from which we can get temporary staff; and we must have an area where there is a high standard of educational facilities, because we shall want well trained and educated people for this task. We must make a prompt decision, because we must start, so far as we can, on our building.

After considering many suggestions we came to the conclusion that Newcastle was the best. It fulfilled all our requirements. We have an excellent site in prospect. We have ample room there for developing complete amenities. I do not want my hon. Friend to think of Newcastle as a depressed or depressing place. It is, in fact, in a lovely area within short distance of such places as Whitley Bay, and I am satisfied that we can get a happy and contented staff there. I do not pretend that the housing situation in Newcastle is easy, but if the hon. Member will tell me some town where it is easy I will consider going there. At any rate the housing situation in Newcastle is no more difficult than that in London. Although there has been no substantial building during the war they have not had the great loss of buildings that we have had in London.

Captain Plugge (Chatham)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend considered Kent and the South coast, where the weather and the climate are so temperate and where the other conditions he mentioned are also satisfied?

Sir W. Jowitt

I have considered also the invigorating air of the North which is very necessary to these civil servants. I can assure my hon. Friend that, so far as Newcastle is concerned, we shall do everything we can to cater for the comfort and happiness of the staff. The Ministry of Works is responsible for the provision of the temporary offices. Although they are temporary they will last for many years, and we shall vacate them gradually as and when permanent offices become available. We shall do everything possible, in the way of billets or hostels or homes, to look after these people, and, of course, we shall have to have building which otherwise would not have taken place, in view of the fact that we are going to locate our new office there.

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a human side to this, and I have to see that the utmost possible is done, consistent with the work being carried on, to mitigate hardship. I do not want to go into details, but I can say that I shall discuss this question with the representatives of the staff. I give the hon. Member my assurance that I shall personally see that hardship is reduced wherever possible. He mentioned officers who are nearing the age of retirement. Those cases particularly should receive sympathetic attention and I shall consider the possibility of obtaining volunteers from other parts of the Civil Service to replace such of the present staff as have really strong claims to repatriation. It is impracticable to bring all the staff back, and it would not, in the long run, be wise. We must not, because we have present difficulties to face, overlook the long-term point of view. I am certain that the decision to locate this Ministry, that is to say, the central, recording part of this Ministry, in Newcastle is wise. I believe I shall be able to build up a happy and contented staff, and I agree with the hon. Member that that is essential for the proper functioning of the machine. I shall certainly try to do so, and so far as hardship is involved—and hardship there must be, I am afraid—I shall do my utmost to see that that hardship is reduced to the greatest possible extent consistent with the efficient building up of the machine.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes after Five o'Clock, till Tuesday next, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.