HC Deb 27 January 1947 vol 432 cc725-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Carson (Isle of Thanet)

In rising to open this discussion on the evacuation of civil servants, I would first of ail like to say how grateful I am to the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary for coming here tonight at such short notice to reply to the Debate. Unfortunately, I only gave him notice this morning that I was raising this matter. I am indeed grateful to him that he has managed to be present tonight. On the question of evacuated civil servants I put two Questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the last year. The first was asked on 20th November, 1945, when I inquired of the right hon. Gentleman whether he would give an approximate date when the Estate Duty Office branch of the Civil Service, now at Llan-drindod Wells, would return to London The right hon. Gentleman replied: No Sir. I am afraid that the shortage of accommodation in London makes this impossible. I then asked him whether he could give a future date when this office, and the Civil Service generally, would return to London, to which he replied: I have great sympathy with these and many other civil servants who had to work in the provinces owing to war conditions, but it really is not practicable at the moment to name a date. It would only be raising false hopes and expectations to do so, but I am very sympathetic towards the persons concerned, and as soon as possible we will make suitable arrangements for them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1945; Vol. 416, c 223–224.] That was satisfactory enough. We realised quite fully the difficulty of His Majesty's Government as far as accommodation in London offices and living were concerned. Therefore, I let the matter rest. But nothing happened for a very considerable time. Therefore, I put down a further Question on 5th March, 1946, asking much the same information. The answer in that case was: No, Sir, I am afraid not. I then asked whether the right hon. Gentleman was aware that these men were, in some ways, in a worse position than the serving soldier, in that they had no idea when their service away from home would end, and asked him whether he could not limit the period before they were able to come back. He replied: No, Sir. I really cannot accept the view that they are in a worse position, than the serving soldier. This is a grotesque extravagance, as any serving soldier would know. There is a great pressure on space in London, and a great deal of work, including that of the Estate Duty Office, can be performed perfectly well' in the country. There is no need for these people to come to London so far as the nature of their work is concerned. On the long view we must try to disperse a lot of our Civil Service"— and I would ask the House particularly to note this— away from the Metropolis in the Provinces."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th March, 1946; Vol. 420, c. 181–182.] That is a perfectly acceptable view, but it is a very different story from what the Chancellor told me in answer to my earlier Question. He was then suggesting that the Civil Service should be decentralised extremely rapidly and without bringing the Departments concerned back to London. I realise quite well that he possibly had a touch of liver that day. He had been dealing with a rather tricky question beforehand about Japanese bonds, and he had got rather excited about that, but, in any case, that is no reason why he should go back on a statement he had already made.

What is the case for the return of these people? The Chancellor says that to suggest they are in a worse position than that of the serving soldier is grotesque, but in some cases it really is not. The serving soldier does know when he is coming home. He has a time limit set to his service abroad or away from home, but the civil servant who, in many cases, is living in most uncomfortable conditions, does not know at present when he is going to be allowed back. It is well known in the Civil Service that prior to 1939 the Government were contemplating decentralisation of the Civil Service. When war came and evacuation was proposed, many civil servants knew this and, therefore, they had an interview with Sir Horace Wilson, who was the then head of the Civil Service. He gave a specific pledge at that time that if any Departments had been evacuated because of the war and were subsequently selected for peacetime decentralisation, actual selection of staffs to be decentralised would be carried out first in the ordinary way by calling for volunteers, and, secondly, if volun- teers were not sufficient, by taking the men and women whose responsibilities were the smallest. Does this still stand? Does the right hon. Gentleman still stand by what was said then? If so, will he make a definite statement?

Many Civil Service evacuees at this time are extremely unwelcome in their billets. I would refer to a Question J asked the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary on 5th March, 1946. I asked him whether he could say if it was true or not that civil servants were being forced to sleep in their offices and not in the billets to which they were allotted, because their landladies wished them out during the summer season. He replied that he had no knowledge of this, and he did not think it was so. I have since discovered that it very definitely is so. They are not welcome where they are, and their landladies are only too anxious to get rid of them. If the Chancellor goes ahead with his decentralisation policy, is this not a direct breach of the Wilson pledge, which was a very definite pledge?

So much for the tactual side. But what of the human side? Many civil servants live in my constituency. The Isle of Thanet is a pleasant place in which to live. It is within a reasonable distance of London. It is possible, although I admit that in view of the present transport difficulties not easy, to get to London, work there during the day, and go back at night; and a lot of people still do it. For one reason they like living out of London, and for another reason they have had houses on the coast before the war and, as the House will know, if they now got rid of those houses they could not find other accommodation. Rightly or wrongly, when these people joined the Civil Service before the war they considered that they had an implied promise, though perhaps not an expressed one, that they would work in London. They could not foresee the war. Now they have to keep two homes going. They are living in lodgings, yet they still feel they must keep their homes going in my constituency, or in many other constituencies, because if they do not it means they will have to sell their houses and have nowhere else to go. As I am sure the Financial Secretary realises, keeping two homes going at this time is an expense which is quite unbearable for the ordinary citizen of this country.

Above that, I would mention the women. They can only return to London if they have equal compassionate reasons and equal compassionate responsibilities with men. I believe that is the wording of the official statement. Well, it is rather hard to prove that a sick mother, a sick father or a sick relative is an equal compassionate responsibility as that of a man who can claim that his wife is ill and needs his immediate attention. For some reason —and I have talked to a great many of these people—it is not always accepted that a sick mother is the same as a sick wife. How many of these people wish to come back? It is rather hard to find out, but a little while ago a questionnaire was sent round to the Savings Bank Division of the Civil Service, and replies were received and collected. The result was that in the Savings Bank Division at Morecambe, of 100 per cent. of the officers employed—including all officers, from principal clerks down to temporary clerks, staff officers, executive officers and the like—63 per cent. wished to return now, 19 per cent. wished to return at a more convenient date, and 18 per cent. were willing to remain until the Department returns. In the Savings Bank Division at Harrogate, 47 per cent. wished to return to London now, 17 per cent. wished to return at a more convenient date, and 36 per cent. wished to return when the Department returns.

In conclusion, I would say this. This is a human problem that must be faced by His Majesty's Government sometime, and I hope they will face it now. I hope that when the Financial Secretary replies he will give some definite preview of what the Government's intentions are. I hope he will bear in mind, when doing so, that a very definite pledge was given at the beginning of the war that before any thoughts or plans of decentralisation were put into effect, that these Departments would be brought back to London I hope he will also bear in mind that the majority of these Departments wish to return to London as soon as, they possibly can. They are suffering hardship, more hardship, I think, than it is possible to describe in a short speech in this House tonight. I hope he will consider the matter sympathetically, and will extend to them some hope to which they can look in the future.

10.14 p.m.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)

In the very few sentences for which I have time tonight, I should like to put forward a plea for a number of civil servants in the constituency which I have the honour of representing. Colwyn Bay has had the honour of housing the Ministry of Food for seven and a half years now. There is no question that many of these civil servants are placed in difficulties, although I would not go so far as the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Carson), in saying that they are all anxious to come back to London as soon as possible. But beyond doubt many of them are suffering hardships. Some of them still have their homes in London, they have their families in London, and they find the going very heavy indeed with double expenses to bear. On the other hand, they have had nearly seven and a half years in the pleasant atmosphere of my constituency, in North Wales, and they have made a great many attachments there. The evidence in regard to a desire to return to London so far as the wishes of the civil servants themselves in Colwyn Bay are concerned is rather conflicting. I should be very glad if the Department could take a ballot, a secret ballot, in some adjoining constituencies like Llandud no there is a very strong view in favour of returning to London; but as regards Colwyn Bay, I would ask the Department if it is possible to take a ballot of all the civil servants who are still remaining in that town to find out what their real wishes are. I fully appreciate the difficulties of the Government. When I see London with its acute housing shortage and with its great difficulties of travel, and the vast amount of time spent going to and from work, I rather wonder why so many civil servants should wish to return, particularly those who have no affiliations or family ties in London.

I do not intend to keep the House, because time, is short, but I should like again to emphasise to the Minister that in my constituency it is very difficult to get the civil servants' real wishes because so many of them are local people who have taken up work with the Ministry. I should like to say that the people of Colwyn Bay have regarded it as a very great privilege to house civil servants all these years and a very happy relationship has been established. The town council would like to see some nucleus of a Government Department remain there if possible. On the other hand, of course, quite a number of hotel proprietors are anxious to have their properties released to them, and to be relieved of what they regard as a great hardship.

10.17 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

It is quite true that there are a large number of civil servants who have been evacuated to the provinces for about seven years, but some of them have not been away as long as that. There were three evacuations—the first when the war broke out, when a certain number went; a second evacuation, of an even larger number, when the "blitz" began; and a third evacuation which took place when the flying bomb period was at its height. But, taking it by and large, it would be true to say that many civil servants have been evacuated for a fairly long period of time. At the end of 1940 about half the headquarters staffs were evacuated in the provincial centres. About 50,000 were in the provinces. In 1944, in spite of the fact that some had come back to London and others taken their places, and that there were various changes of one kind and another, the number in the provinces still stood at about 50,000. Today, the number actually in the provinces, who, normally, if war had not come, would be in London, is about 35,000.

But it is, so far as we know, nothing like the number desiring to return to London. Some of them, as the hon. Member for Denbigh (Sir H. Morris-Jones) said, have been at, say, Colwyn Bay, for a long period of time, and they have made friends there, and have got used to it and settled down there, and they do not want to go away. In addition, the figure of 35,000 does include locally recruited staff, people who live there anyway, have no affiliations whatever in London and have no desire to come to London. That, in fact, adds to our problem, as I hope to show, if I have time, in a moment.

Just one word on the pledge with which the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Carson) made great play, the pledge by Sir Horace Wilson, when he was permanent head of the Civil Service. I make no complaint about what tie said there, except for the gloss that he placed on the pledge. If I understand it aright, the pledge given—and this is what he said—by Sir Horace Wilson was that, before decentralisation took place, consultation would be held with the staffs. That pledge still holds, but that is a very different thing from the pledge which some people assert was made, namely, that as soon as hostilities ended Civil Service staffs who had been evacuated from London to the provinces would be brought back.

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but that is not the pledge given by Sir Horace Wilson. I had a great deal to do with that pledge myself, and I would like to read to the right hon. Gentleman what the pledge was and what the query was, and then he must never again attempt to deceive the House. This was the query raised with Sir Horace Wilson—it was then prior to 1939, and the Government had been contemplating the decentralisation of large blocks of public business. Many of the various evacuees knew of this, and were apprehensive lest wartime evacuation might be allowed to merge into permanent peacetime decentralisation. Sir Horace Wilson gave us a specific undertaking that this would not happen, and said that if any sections of the Departments which had been evacuated because of the war were subsequently selected for peacetime decentralisation, the actual selection of the staffs to be decentralised would be conducted in accordance with the general practice, of first calling for volunteers and then taking the men and women with the minimum of domestic responsibilities.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

The hon. Gentleman has taken up a good deal of my time in reading out something which we all knew—

Mr. Brown

But you must not mislead the House.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I protest.

Mr. Brown

I said why that pledge was given—

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I had no intention of misleading the House.

Mr. Brown

You are telling the House an untruth.

Mr. Glenvil Hall


Mr. Brown

You are.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I was talking—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

The hon. Member has now charged the right hon. Gentleman with telling an untruth. That is an unparliamentary expression and the hon. Gentleman must withdraw it.

Mr. Brown

I am very sorry. I will not withdraw it. I was the recipient of that pledge in 1939, and I know what the pledge was, and the account of the pledge given by the right hon. Gentleman opposite is not a true account.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the expression.

Mr. W. J. Brown

All right, I do not want to get across your bows, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but let me say that the account of the pledge given by the right hon. Gentleman opposite is one which I do not recognise.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I was repeating what the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, if I understood him aright. My paraphrase was slightly different, but there is no quarrel between me and the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) and there is no reason why he should get so hot about it. The pledge given was that wartime evacuation and peacetime decentralisation would be regarded as separate problems—

Mr. Brown

That was half the pledge.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I know—and that, if any staff were removed from London to a provincial centre, discussions would take place with the staff side of the Whitley Council. That is the understanding in the Treasury, and that is the advice I have received. It is a longer document, of which I gave a paraphrase, but it coincides with what the hon. and gallant Gentleman said. I think, too, and" I have no desire to mislead the House, that it coincides with the recollection of the hon. Member for Rugby.

What is the Government's attitude towards this problem? Let me say straight away that the Government are well aware of the desire, of some at least of the evacuated staffs, to return to London at the earliest possible moment. We fully understand that desire, and see in it something that is only natural on their part. I want to make it quite clear that the Government are not keeping those staffs in the provinces simply for the sake of keeping them there. They are there because up to now it has been quite impossible, owing to difficulties which I will come to in a minute, to do more than "has been done in the period that has elapsed since hostilities came to an end.

What are these limitations? First, there is office accommodation. Accommodation in London, particularly in the City, which was badly blitzed, is in very short supply. As the House knows, many City firms have gone into the West End to try and find accommodation, and sometimes these firms have not been successful. There has been terrific competition for office accommodation all over London, and in some cases firms have had to go into the suburbs and take over private houses. Then the Government have had to take over some of the older houses to house their staffs in London. What we have to do is to try and strike a balance between the needs for housing accommodation and for office accommodation in and around London and the West End. The Civil Service still occupies in this way, in spite of the urgent pressure to derequisition property, over 1,000 flats and 1.000 houses in London alone. In order to try and help in this direction, the Ministry of Works have just completed a survey, which shows that the supply of old houses, as a potential source of office accommodation, has now been practically exhausted.

The same difficulty would be accentuated if we brought back these people. It is true that some have their own houses and homes, but although there are some in that position, they are by no means the majority, and if we brought all these people back to London, we should have the same difficulty—I put it no higher— in finding accommodation. Many of those who have houses, have let them or lent them to tenants, and in some cases there would be difficulty in getting the tenants out for the civil servants to come in, which would mean they too would form a housing problem. I am told that even now there are 1,000 people in London living in rest centres, and 4,000 in camps which have been taken over. As the House knows, there are thousands of people on the waiting lists of local authorities for houses.

It will be seen that the problem is therefore a very large one. We are doing our best to face it, but with the best will in the world, it does in some senses seem at the moment almost insuperable. To this is added the difficulty of temporary staff. The hon. Member for Denbigh indicated that at Colwyn Bay he has in his constituency the staff of the Ministry of Food The staff numbers about 2,000, and 1,800 of them are temporary staff, recruited in the area where they have homes and all their interests. If we brought the Ministry back to London, there would be the difficulty of finding new staff, or prevailing upon these 1,800 people to come to London.

Mr. Nigel Birch (Flint)

Would the right hon. Gentleman say a word on his plans in regard to local temporary staff, which also arises in my constituency?

Mr. Glenvil Hall

The difficulty is prevailing upon them to move, if the Ministry move.

Mr. Birch

Will they be helped to move?

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Yes, Sir, every effort would be made to encourage them to go where the Ministry moved. What have the Government done? In spite of all these difficulties, the Government have done what they can. Since the end of hostilities, they have brought back to London something like 11,000 people, and this has only been possible by, going in for all kinds of makeshifts, crowding people together and using accommodation which we would not dream of employing in better times, and in one way and another trying to get a quart into a pint pot. There is, of course, a limitation to what can be done in this direction.

I quite agree about the question of uncertainty, and that these people would like the Government to say what they are going to do, and to know when the Government think they will be able to move them. We realise that, and all the difficulties it makes for people living in Llandudno or Southport, which prevents them making any plans for the future, for their homes, their wives and children. In this connection I would say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is meeting a deputation from the staff side of the Whitley Council in about a week's time. I cannot say what will be said, but I am sure hon. Members will be interested to know that this matter is to be discussed within a week by the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself with those who are interested. It is my hope that out of these discussions they will gain some knowledge of what is to happen.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having been continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.