HC Deb 08 August 1947 vol 441 cc1887-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—

[Mr. Snow.]

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

This House by a resounding majority has just given a Second Reading to a Bill which gives the Government the widest powers they could possibly ask for to deal with this crisis, and I feel sure that when the news is announced in the country it will be welcomed as symbolic of the determination of the Government to take all necessary measures to deal with the serious problems confronting the country. It would be tempting to continue the Debate if it were in order to do so. As I did not catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, I should like to just make this observation. It was said during the course of the Debate that the passage of this Bill would be an abnegation of Parliamentary government. That claim was made by the Leader of the Liberal Party. It is my belief that the Government——

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is out of Order in now speaking on a Bill to which the House has just given a Second Reading.

Mr. Fletcher

I am anxious to keep myself in Order. I was proposing to show that the point I wish to raise—a point of administration—is related to the Bill to which we have just given a Second Reading. The corollary of the conferring of these very wide powers on the Government is that this House should continually be vigilant to see how those powers are exercised by the Government.

The point I wish to raise on the Adjournment Motion is a matter of the exercise of administrative power by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. The matter has previously been raised in this House on 15th April when I referred to the case of some 12 families of tenants occupying blocks of flats in Islington in the ownership of the Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Association. Since then I have learnt that there are other flats in London owned by the Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Association, in other parts of Islington, in Lambeth, in Hammersmith and elsewhere, and in all those cases three or four months ago the tenants were given notice to quit. In nearly every case proceedings for ejectment were commenced by the War Office. In some cases judgment was obtained by default, and in other cases the action of the War Office was contested, and proceedings were taken in the Law Courts to contest the validity of that action. It is unnecessary to remind the House that in the case of every ordinary tenant protection is given by the Rent Restriction Acts from ejection. The Crown occupies a privileged position in this respect, and unlike all other landlords the Rent Restriction Acts do not apply to the Crown. The War Office, therefore, claim to exercise their privileged position. The validity of their ability to do so was contested in the courts, and the courts have decided in one of these cases, that as a matter of law, the War Office are within their rights in claiming possession and ejecting the tenants.

The position that now confronts not only tenants in Islington, but in other parts of London, is that they are threatened with ejection, and I wish to ask the Secretary of State for War what he proposes to do. Is he proposing, as his agents have indicated in certain correspondence, to exercise his strict legal right, and to turn these tenants out into the street, or will he give an assurance that all these tenants will be found alternative accommodation before they are dispossessed? It is unnecessary for me to paint in lurid details the distressing position in which these tenants find themselves. Everybody knows of the acute shortage of houses in London. There are long waiting lists in every borough and there are a large number of applicants for the accommodation that is being provided by the London County Council and by borough councils. Obviously, local authorities cannot suddenly give these particular tenants any priority over the many thousands who have been waiting for years. These tenants, many of them ex-Service men——

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

And poor people.

Mr. Fletcher

—most of them with families, and in some cases with wives expecting another child at an early date, have literally no opportunity of finding any other accommodation, unless the Secretary of State for War, before dispossessing them, finds them other accommodation. This House would expect any Government Department to act at least with the same consideration and decency as any private landlord would act, or is compelled to act under the Rent Restriction Acts. This matter has some relevance to the Bill to which a Second Reading has just been given.

When I raised the matter before, I suggested to the representative of the War Office who was present on that occasion that the War Office were in a far better position than any ordinary landlord to find alternative accommodation for these tenants, because the War Office has statutory powers of requisitioning, and otherwise. There are buildings that could be taken, and alternative accommodation could be obtained if the War Office chose to exercise their powers. I was told on that occasion that the War Office did not think they had any such powers of requisition. Whatever may have been the position then, it does seem to me that, when this Bill which we have been discussing today has been passed into law, there cannot be any excuse for the right hon. Gentleman or any Government Department saying that they have not the power to do what elementary justice and decency seem to me to require. That is why I say that the observations I was proposing to make about the Bill were relevant. What I think the House is doing by giving the Government these powers is not abdicating Parliamentary democracy but vindicating it. In my view, it is that——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is now dealing with the Bill which has just received a Second Reading. This is not under discussion now, and it is out of Order to refer to, or argue about it.

Mr. Fletcher

I apologise for trespassing on the Rules of Order, and I hope that I can conclude my remarks by indicating that, whatever the position may have been some time ago, the War Office has the power to deal with this matter. Whatever may be the requirements of Territorial instructors or personnel, whoever they may be, for the occupation of these flats occupied by some 50 or 60 tenants in different parts of London, this occupation has been going on for some three or four years, and it has been unconditional, without any promise to give up possession if the premises might be required at a later date by the War Office.

I submit that this is a simple case, perhaps not very important in itself, but one by which the people of London will judge of the spirit in which the War Office seeks to exercise its administrative powers. I believe that it will redound to the permanent discredit of the War Office unless, in a matter of this kind, where humane interests are involved, the Secretary of State is prepared to give an assurance, not only to the tenant in the particular case recently decided in the courts, but in the cases of all the tenants who are similarly situated, wherever they may be, in Islington or elsewhere, that they will not be dispossessed or evicted unless and until some alternative accommodation is found and provided for them by the War Office.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

I had no intention of intervening in this Debate until I heard the speech of the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher), and I must say that I entirely agree with his point of view that no private person would ever dream of trying to dispute the fundamental verities of the Rent Restriction Acts. It is left to the Service Departments, with thousands of houses or thousands of rooms under requisition, to tell people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency that they must get out in order that the Territorial Forces may have places in which to train.

So far as I can discover, the Territorial recruitment at the moment is completely failing to justify the taking over of premises in East Islington. It may well be that we cannot get the answer to this question until the Chief of the Imperial General Staff returns, but, in my judgment; the Service Departments in this country, and particularly the War Office, are behaving without any sort of consideration whatever for the 3 million persons who want homes. I know something about the War Office retention of premises in constituencies like mine. The truth is that there is no longer in the War Office a special department that requisitions land and premises, and the Secretary of State knows perfectly well that, time after time, we have protested about land and houses still held by the War Office, and we have protested because we feel that there is no real reason why the War Office should give directions to people to occupy accommodation that ought to be given to the long suffering public, the taxpayers, for instance, of whom the Secretary of State ought to think sometimes.

I want to say something to the right hon. Gentleman. If he thinks that the wallahs of the War Office can forever help themselves to premises, whether they are in East Islington, Bournemouth or anywhere else, he makes a great mistake. It is a pity for me to have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that the war ended two years ago and that the Army has been substantially cut down and that it must give up premises to the public. I say, without any fear of being accused of exaggerating, that at the present time the Service Departments and Government Departments are holding in this country so many houses, blocks of flats and offices that it would be quite possible to provide homes for at least 100,000 of our suffering fellow-countrymen.

The Secretary of State for War and myself have somewhere to go. We are not in the position of having to live with our mothers-in-law. In my case, I have not got one. We are not in the position of having to live with other tamilies or to go into dreary lodgings in overcrowded houses. I know that the Secretary of State is a humane man, though. I know he is under the control of a dummy dreadnought, the Minister of Defence. I know that he himself feels it is quite wrong that Service Departments should hold on to houses that were requisitioned during the war, and, in point of fact, I think the right hon. Gentleman's Department has forgotten about a lot of the premises which it holds at the present time. Cannot he meet the suggestion of the hon. Member, and provide alternative accommodation in the many houses and buildings held by his Department outside East Islington? I do not often run to the rescue of an hon. Member who is a political opponent, but I am bound to say that I was entirely convinced by the hon. Member's eloquence today.

4.22 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Bellenger)

I am afraid that the right hon. Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken) has taken the Debate a little wider than did my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher), who is concerned, not with requisitioned property, but property which belongs to the Crown, which has belonged to the Territorial Association for some time. Therefore, the case which the right hon. Gentleman has attempted to make about the War Office still holding large numbers of requisitioned premises—and he is entirely wrong in that respect—is a subject I can debate on a later occasion. I should like to give the right hon. Gentleman information as as to how I have, since I have been at the War Office, as Financial Secretary and Secretary of State, done my utmost successfully, to get large numbers of requisitioned properties, which were temporarily acquired during the war released to their owners.

Mr. Bracken

How many does the right hon. Gentleman's Department now hold?

Mr. Bellenger

Very few indeed. The right hon. Gentleman has been a Minister himself. He was First Lord of the Admiralty in the "caretaker" Government, and he will know something about Service Departments. I would beg him, if he is to throw out remarks such as he made about the War Office, to consider that the Admiralty themselves have requisitioned a few properties in their time, and no doubt he has been responsible for some of them.

Mr. Bracken

Unfortunately, I was First Lord for only a few weeks, but I agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman says about the Admiralty. For instance, they are preventing tourists going to the beautiful city of Bath. I agree that the War Office, the Admiralty and the Royal Air Force should clear out of the premises which they have taken away from unfortunate citizens.

Mr. Bellenger

I agree. That is what we are doing, but to have cleared out immediately after the war ended would have been impossible without destroying the whole administrative functions of the Services. If there are any places in Bournemouth which are still occupied by the War Office, I shall be only too glad to look into the details. My whole purpose is to get places returned to their original purpose. Sometimes they are hotels. Even in the case of hotels at Bournemouth, which house tenants quite different from those about whom my hon. Friend has been speaking, I will do my best to get them derequisitioned as soon as possible.

The case which was put to the House quite moderately by my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington concerns a property in his constituency which is War Department property, or rather belongs to the Territorial Association, and which was owned by them before the war. During the war when part of that property was empty and when London was under air attack, the Territorial Association offered the empty property to those tenants who were dispossesed of homes. It was never understood by anyone that we were surrendering the whole of that property for years. True, while the war lasted we did our best to supply homes for these unfortunate people. But I am now faced with the position of housing Service tenants who are in just as hard a position as those for whom my hon. Friend speaks. What does he expect me to do? I have got to house Service men, many of whom have been separated from their families, who have been overseas for many years and who want to live their lives just as much as the constituents of my hon. Friend.

Whose is the greater hardship? I am not speaking of the legal position, because, as my hon. Friend knows, the county court judge has not the power to decide this case on that particular issue which arises under the Rent Restriction Acts. This case is not governed by the Rent Restriction Acts, and I do not find any fault with my hon. Friend's presentation of the legal aspect of the case. My hon. Friend said that there were 12 families involved. Perhaps I ought to correct him; my information is that there were 10 families on whom writs were served for possession. We have done everything possible for these tenants and have given long notice to them, stating that we should require these properties. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we have treated them far better than a private landlord would have done. It is only because there has been no attempt by the tenants to come to an arrangement with us that we are forced to take the issue to the courts. As a matter of fact, I understand that since the issue of the writs one tenant has vacated. I understand—to continue an explanation of the legal position—that these cases will be heard in two or three weeks' time by the court; and I believe I am right in saying that the magistrate, or the county court judge—I forget which it is—has power to make an order for possession. As these are not protected by the Rent Restriction Acts, he must give an order for possession, but he can give grace up to three months and I would willingly accept this.

As to alternative accommodation, I have done what I can, not only in the way of trying to house tenants like these, but others who are not in Government property. Hon. Members plead with me to give us an anti-aircraft site or something of that nature, in order to help out the local authorities, and I have letters written by Members of Parliament personally thanking me for the help which the War Office has given them in assisting to house people in their neighbourhood, although it was no part of my strict duty to do that. I have done it on humane grounds; and the right hon. Member for Bournemouth was good enough to say that I am actuated by motives of that nature. I understand these conditions only too well, but I am faced with the position that I have to house members of the Army, for whom I am under an obligation to find accommodation, and here is accommodation which belongs to the Army, to which the Army has not only a legal right but a moral right. It is the duty of the local authority, if anybody, to take over the responsibility of housing civilians. It is my duty, as Secretary of State for War, to try to house members of the Army. I get very little assistance from most local authorities to house any of my people. I do my best to help them, but, things being as they are—and the right hon. Gentleman has given voice to them today, when he referred to the war having ended two years ago—the fact remains that most local authorities think only of civilians and not of soldiers. My primary duty is to the soldiers. My hon. Friend has once again, as he did on 15th April, said that I have powers to requisition, to find alternative accommodation for these people. But is it my duty to do so? The local authority has power to requisition, and if it is anybody's duty to requisition property for these people, it should be the duty of the local authority.

Mr. Bracken

It cannot be.

Mr. Bellender

Oh, yes.

Mr. Bracken

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me? Certainly, in the particular area I happen to represent, the local authority have been trying to get accommodation, but the Ministry of Health is requisitioning buildings for the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of National Insurance. In fact, so far as Bournemouth is concerned, the council, who want to get on with their housing and to get people into requisitioned buildings, are being told that Government Departments have first claim over private individuals. If the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues would follow his example, it would be a good thing. But the fact is that no fewer than five or six Departments have power to requisition and are using those powers. The local authorities have no control.

Mr. Bellenger

Yes, they have control. In so far as there are any requisitionable properties in Islington—or in adjacent boroughs, for that matter—there is no reason whatever why the local authority should not do its duty and house the civilians; because these people are civilians. I have my duty to house soldiers. These permanent staff instructors are Regular soldiers. We have a property there, although we gave it up for a time in order to house unfortunate people who were dispossessed of their homes owing to air raids.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

Would my right hon. Friend not make a suggestion to the local authorities that they should give the families whom he is to dispossess an A1 priority to get accommodation? That, surely would be of some value.

Mr. Bellenger

Certainly, I should be only too happy to do that; and, indeed, I have offered to try to work in with the local authorities. I can say this in answer to my hon. Friend who asked me if I could give an undertaking, although it is not my duty to find alternative accommodation—if it is anybody's duty, it is that of the local authority—I will help in this way. If there is any vacant camp in the neighbourhood—not necessarily in my hon Friend's constituency, because many people have to go long distances to work nowadays according to where they can find accommodation—but if there is any camp or War Department property which we do not require or can offer to either the local authority or the London County Council, who are also a housing authority, I will gladly offer it. I have done so on more than one occasion. But I must insist that this property shall revert to its proper purpose, shall revert to the purpose to which it must, indeed, revert, namely, to the original owners for its original housing purpose I handed this property over. It has got to be handed back, so that I can house my people.

Mr. Bracken

In three months' time. The right hon. Gentleman said he would give the tenants that much grace.

Mr. Bellenger

I will go further. I am prepared to consider any proposition which will be mutually acceptable between the tenants and the War Office, so long as my legal position is not prejudiced thereby I will give any assistance I can to get a peaceful settlement of this problem. I have already told my hon. Friend that. I have already told certain other hon. Members this, when they have written to me about similar cases. The numbers are not large in London. They are very small in relation to the housing problem of London. But these tenants will come out to allow Army tenants to go in, and I must take legal action to get the legal position put on the record, as it were. They have got to come out some time. Subject to that, without prejudice to my legal position, I shall be only too glad to listen to any proposition. I will do my best—although I have no duty, and cannot guarantee this—to offer any alternative accommodation it may be within my power to offer.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes to Five o'Clock.