HC Deb 26 June 1947 vol 439 cc817-26

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

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Palmer (Wimbledon)

Last Tuesday evening, I asked a question of the Secretary of State for War about an Army camp at Raynes Park in my constituency, and its use for housing purposes by the local authority. I have been in correspondence about this camp for quite a considerable period. My right hon. Friend presented an argument which I described as showing both procrastination and incompetence on the part of the War Office, and, therefore, I am sorry, on that account, that my right hon. Friend has not found it possible to be present tonight. I sent him a note and told him that I proposed to take this matter further on the Adjournment, and I am afraid that I shall have to speak in his absence as I would have spoken had he been present. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will pass on the information, as no doubt he will.

The camp concerned consists of Army huts in a fairly well built up area. At times, it has housed 500 men, and it could be adapted for the housing of the homeless who, in my constituency, as in the constituencies of most hon. Members, are quite considerable. In September, 1945, and July, 1946, at the request of the local authority, I asked for the release of this camp. I took the matter up directly with the then Secretary of State for War. On each occasion I was told that the camp was required for military purposes. It is quite a stock answer. At the end of April this year, on one of my usual visits to my constituency, I was told that the German prisoners of war who were the last occupants of the camp had gone, and that four families of so-called squatters had moved in. It seemed to me that there was obviously no time for the usual rather leisurely War Office correspondence and, considering the matter urgent, I saw the Secretary of State for War personally and asked him for the release of the camp, as I could not see any reason for the War Office continuing to retain it. My right hon. Friend said he would go into the matter at once. I regret to say that I have heard nothing from him. On 6th May I put a Parliamentary Question, and again I received an answer which I can only describe as a War Office stock answer to Parliamentary Questions, namely that the matter was under consideration. I was once again promised an early decision. Between 6th May and, I think, Friday, 13th June, I made other approaches. I sent a note, but again all was silence. On 13th June, I telephoned to my right hon. Friend and I told him that although I regretted it, I would be forced to ask him another Parliamentary Question and that I should be obliged to raise the matter on the Adjournment as soon as I was fortunate in the Ballot.

In reply to a second Parliamentary Question on 17th June, my right hon. Friend said he was now considering using this camp for the rehousing of certain families whom I may have to assist in finding accommodation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1.7th June, 1947; Vol. 438. c. 1796.] But while my right hon. Friend was considering, others had been acting, and the number of families who have now—I am told—unofficially rehoused themselves at the camp has grown from four to 28. Personally, I am making no comment on their action. Most of them are probably in great need, but, unfortunately, so are many others who are law-abiding and look on in despair when people take the law into their own hands. This situation does not encourage respect for the law. Also, imagine the disgust of the local authority concerned. They are not allowed to allocate the accommodation to those with the greatest need, but must provide essential services to those who have taken over the accommodation.

Having delivered that account to the House, I believe the words "incompetence" and "procrastination" are thoroughly justified. I now wish to submit my main points to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. First of all, what is now to be done about this camp? It has finally been refused to the local authority, I believe, although I have given up supposing that there are final answers at the War Office. If it is now to be handed over to the local authority complete, are we to assume that these camps are only to be obtained from the War Office by physical force? Secondly, what has happened to the inter-departmental machinery which the House understood had been established last year at the height of the -squatting boom, to deal with matters of this kind? What has happened to the co-ordinating machinery between the service departments and the Ministry of Health? Had that machinery been put into motion, probably this situation would never have arisen, because I am certain that the Merton and the Morden Urban District Council, the local authority concerned, would have been prepared to co-' operate in any scheme for rehousing people in this camp.

The third point I want to put to my hon. Friend is this. When a question is raised—and I would not have taken it up personally and intimately with the Secretary of State if it had not been important, because he, like other Ministers, has many things to look after—but when a question of this sort is raised by a Member of this House, why must it take two months to get any sort of reply? I cannot imagine that that is treating this House with proper respect. In the answer I received the words were wrung from reluctant lips. To this day I have not received any communication in writing. I have had an answer, as I say, wrung from the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State by telephone. That is all. Unfortunately, I know that in all quarters of the House —I am sorry that, in the circumstances, it is so empty—the War Office is regarded, in its dealings with Members of this House, as being slow, uncertain and unreliable. It does compare unfavourably with the other Service Departments, particularly the Air Ministry. Some of us on these benches had hoped that when the right hon. Gentleman the present Secretary of State for War took it over, he would be the vigorous new broom that would poke into all the corners of that great and ancient Department; but I must confess that it is my experience and my opinion that he has hardly moved a speck of dust.

10.18 p.m.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

I take the opportunity to intervene in this Debate because, while I do not pretend to be acquainted with the facts that the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Palmer) has just put before us, I am very much acquainted with the acute nature of the housing problem in the London area, and, in fact, all over the country. The Under-Secretary of State for War, who is here tonight, might, perhaps, convey to the Secretary of State for War the suggestion I venture to make, that it is about time that an overall survey was made of the amount of housing accommodation available in Army camps, Air Force camps, or any other camps that are available—in fact, of every kind of accommodation—in view of the facts that the housing programme has had to be slowed down for excellent reasons we know about, and that the housing situation in the London area, and in many other parts of the country, is very acute indeed.

I have no doubt that hon. Members will have heard on the radio that we are to have coming from Austria shortly, 500 voluntary workers a week, who have to be housed. There are, perhaps, other displaced persons coming from other parts of Europe who will also have to be housed. Some of them may be housed in public institutions; some of them may be housed in camps; some, indeed, may be housed in houses, hotels, and so on. But I do think that it is urgently necessary that there should be an overall consideration of this acute deprivation of houses that is prevailing everywhere and causing acute suffering to many people at the present time.

I do suggest to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War that if he would initiate an operation that might, perhaps, be conducted as a military operation, and call it "Operation Bellenger," to clear up this housing question and ensure the utmost possible use of all camps, hotels, and any other kind of accommodation that could be made available for housing, he would confer the greatest possible benefit on the community as a whole; and he could take in his stride, in that venture, the complaint of the hon. Member for Wimbledon. There is undoubtedly a need to get a move on. We are having very nice warm weather now, but the winter will be coming on later, and we all know that that winter may, unless our coal output is increased substantially, be a difficult one. All the more reason, therefore, for drawing attention to this housing question all over the country, and to start this "Operation Bellenger," to get all the housing available at the earliesr possible moment.

10.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. John Freeman)

I will reply very briefly to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest). To him I only want to say that I am of the opinion that what he said is, if I may say so, extremely sensible, and it is the sort of line along which we are trying to approach this problem. I say quite frankly to the House that one of the reasons the Service Departments—obviously it applies mostly to the War Office, but I think the other two Service Departments would probably endorse it—sometimes move slowly in this matter of accommodation, is simply because we are trying to meet now the accommodation needs of the future for our own purposes. We know that everything we give up now we cannot possibly get back in the future. Therefore, we are making a perpetual survey into the future to try to estimate what military needs there may be some years ahead, and to make our accommodation plans to meet those needs. That is a difficult operation, and I must now ask the House to exercise some patience over it.

I wish to reply in detail to the case which my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Palmer) has raised, which I think he did in very moderate terms. However, I must draw the attention of the House to his repeated use of the words "incompetence" and "procrastination." The fairest thing I can do is to leave this to his judgment when I have put my case. I will ask him to say that, whether he finds what I have to say palatable or not, those two words "incompetence" and "procrastination" are not the appropriate words to use about this case. I do not want to waste too much time in going into the interchange of correspondence over this matter. As a matter of fact, I think my hon Friend will agree that, although he may not like the nature of the answers he has been given, he has no cause to complain of not being given an answer, at any rate until quite recently. On the recent occasion this year when he raised the matter, I think he had some slight cause to complain that he should have been answered in writing, whereas, in fact, he was not. If he feels that an apology on that ground is here appropriate, I have no hesitation at all in giving it to him.

I am far more concerned with the actual facts of the case which he revealed, and I will try to explain to the House some of the difficulties in which I find myself. This is a hutted camp on requisitioned land, as he has said, in a substantially built-up area, where there is an acute housing shortage. For the last two years the hon. Member has played the part of an extremely assiduous Member of Parliament, very properly lobbying on behalf of his own constituents, for which I respect him He has asked us repeatedly if it was possible for us to release this camp. We have had to tell him that it was not possible to do so because we required it for military purposes He seemed to take a rather satirical view of that answer, but I really do not know what answer he would expect to get from the War Office. It appears to me to be a very appropriate answer for the War Office to give, that a camp is required by the War Office for military purposes. At any rate, I am prepared to leave that to the judgment of the House.

This camp has been used continuously. It has had a fluctuating population; people have gone into it and come out of it. I do not doubt that there have been occasions when it has, for a short time, stood empty, and occasions when it has not been fully occupied. But, by and large, it has been used extensively. Recently, it has been used to house 500 prisoners of war who have been doing essential work, and for whom there was no other accommodation. When I tell the House that the extent of this camp is 33 Nissen huts, it will become apparent that it is not under-populated with 500 prisoners of war. The prisoners of war were evacuated from this camp permanently at the beginning of April. I am going to demonstrate to my hon. Friend that at that point we took action, or rather failed to take action, which, I think, lays us open to some degree of blame, and I propose to confess it quite frankly. At the beginning of April, these prisoners of war were evacuated, and my right hon. Friend had it in mind, in response to the urgent plea my hon. Friend had repeatedly addressed to him, to make this camp available to the local authority for housing purposes. I must interject at this point the remark that the interdepartmental machinery, about which my hon. Friend inquired, exists exactly as set up last summer, but that it is not relevant to this particular case.

It will not have escaped the notice of my hon. Friend the Member for North Islington that on 15th April last he and some of the other Islington Members raised the most distressing case, to which I replied, of those citizens of Islington who held what we call "irregular tenancies" on certain military property in that borough, against whom we were having to take eviction action. I do not want to go into all the rights and wrongs of that case again, because I explained it fully at the time, and it is on record. I gave a promise to the House that we would do our level best to find alternative accommodation for any tenants we had to evacuate from this and similar properties. I also undertook that we would not carry these proceedings to the point of physical eviction, without being completely satisfied that we had done everything possible to provide some sort of alternative accommodation. The situation which arose in the case of the Borough of Islington is reproduced in a good many Metropolitan boroughs and in the Greater London area. In examining that problem, my right hon. Friend came to the conclusion that the only way in which he could deal honour- ably with what was an extremely distasteful and unpleasant situation, was to try to make available somewhere Army accommodation which would not be permanently required by us, and which could, as a last resort, provide accommodation for people who had to be evicted.

Having taken that decision, and looking at the accommodation which was available in the Greater London area, not already handed over to the Ministry of Health for housing purposes, it became apparent that the camp at Raynes Park could be used for this purpose. I told my hon. Friend a moment ago that we had been guilty of one piece of neglect in this matter. It was simply this: this camp was evacuated at exactly the moment my right hon. Friend was considering this matter and taking these decisions, and we did not take effective action immediately to safeguard against squatters.

Mr. Palmer

Does my hon. Friend know that an attempt was made to pull down part of the camp?

Mr. Freeman

We did not take immediate steps to protect it against squatters. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it would have been very much better if we had done so. The fact remains that we did not, and four families of squatters moved in very quickly. The only effective action against squatters is to fill a camp with other people. We cannot fill it with troops at the moment. We do not require it for military purposes, and therefore, we have taken the only effective step open to us, which is temporarily to dismantle sufficient of the hutting to make certain that further squatters do not get in. It is true, as my hon. Friend has said, that the number of families increased rapidly from four to the number he has given, but the situation at the moment is that there are 19 huts occupied by the squatters and the remainder are vacant.

May we go back to the problem of the eviction? There are at the present time, I am sorry to say, some fifty cases where legal action to evict families who are irregularly occupying War Department property has been taken and these evictions have got to be carried out if we are to fulfil the very important item of Government policy to reconstitute and relaunch the Territorial Army. My right hon. Friend has laid down this policy: that these legal processes are to go ahead, but that no physical eviction will be finally carried out except with his personal authority in each individual case, and I need hardly assure the House that, before giving that authority, he will attempt to satisfy himself that every reasonable step to alleviate hardship has been taken. Some of these fifty families will undoubtedly require accommodation which only we can provide for them, and until we know how many require accommodation, it is quite impossible to say for certain whether the Raynes Part camp will be required or not.

It seems probable that to meet this human problem we shall require the whole of the Raynes Park camp that is left to us, and very likely more accommodation still, but it is quite impossible to decide that until eviction processes have taken their course and we know what the position is. That part of the camp which is now occupied by the squatters we are, of course, dealing with, as my hon. Friend said, through the inter-departmental machinery of the Ministry of Health, in order that that part of the camp may be administered either by the Ministry or the local authority. That is a matter which they will settle together. The remainder of the camp will have to be held until we can solve this problem of the evicted families, and if it should happen that when the eviction processes are settled we do not require the remaining part of this camp, then there is no objection whatever to offering it to the Ministry of Health who, I have no doubt, will make it available to the local authority.

I am well aware, however, that to give this explanation does not meet the needs of my hon. Friend in respect of his particular borough and the people in that borough. But, it is absolutely impossible to tackle these onerous problems of accommodation for the Army on a basis of local government boundaries.

The hon. Member for North Islington has asked us to make a comprehensive survey, and I think the corollary to that is to take comprehensive action in order to deal with it. It would give me immense satisfaction, as a tribute to the way my hon. Friend has pressed this case, if we could hand it over to his own local authority for their own purposes. I am quite certain that it would be bad administration to do so, and I should be guilty of breaking a promise I gave earlier to this House that I would do my utmost to provide alternative accommodation for the evicted families. I have admitted one case in which we should have acted with greater promptness and for which we are paying some penalty. So far from this being an example of incompetence and procrastination it is an example of the difficulties we are meeting in this extremely difficult human problem.

Mr. Palmer

May I be allowed to point out on the matter of bad administration that bad administration has already occurred. The Under-Secretary is proposing to hand over—or may hand over—to the local authority accommodation which they cannot use, but he proposes to keep for his own purposes, the other accommodation.

Mr. Freeman

That intervention does not really get us any further. In following the plan that we are following we are taking a course of action to deal with a problem which is every bit as serious as that with which my hon. Friend is concerned and which is just as distressing from a human point of view, and we have taken an imaginative line in trying to solve it. That shows, I think, that more humanity is being shown than a good many of my hon. Friends sometimes credit the War Office with having.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five minutes to Eleven o'Clock.