HC Deb 31 October 1947 vol 443 cc1281-92

12.58 p.m.

Mr. Osborne (Louth)

After the crowded benches of yesterday and the rather highly-charged atmosphere, the House today seems almost unreal, but the situation which I wish to bring to the attention of the House, I can assure hon. Members, is far from being unreal. I wish to draw the attention of the House to what I consider the neglect and, in some cases, the shocking neglect of surplus Government property. I admit that the Government have had a very great task in the last two years, with the enormous quantities of property left on their hands.

My complaint falls into two classes. First, I complain that surplus Government property has been left in many cases, uncovered and unguarded, and allowed to go to rack, ruin and rust. Secondly, I complain that when it has been sold, it has been sold in some cases, in a most unsatisfactory way, which has left a very nasty taste in certain people's mouths, and there has been a suspicion of negligence and favouritism almost amounting to corruption. I hope to prove these two points. I want to ask the Government if we can have a thorough inquiry into this so that the facts may be known and where suspicions are unfounded they can be swept away. On 30th July, 1947, I asked Question No. 84, addressed to the Ministry of Works, and that Question was suggested to me by my own constituents because of what they had seen at the Kelstern Aerodrome. On that aerodrome there were tens if not hundreds of thousands of bedsteads, and the scandal was so widely known that the place was called Bedstead Alley and it was a great joke.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

Where was this?

Mr. Osborne

At Kelstern in Lincolnshire. As I said, the aerodrome was known as Bedstead Alley and there were almost mountains of bedsteads. There they were rusting away completely uncovered, and not only that but they were unguarded and a standing temptation to the public. There was no one to look after them at all. In my reply to Question No. 84 I received a written answer from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works stating: Kelstern is used as a clearing depot for beds and bunks declared surplus by Government Departments. Owing to the shortage of covered storage accommodation the less valuable equipment is stored in the open. The work of sorting and re-issuing the equipment is proceeding as quickly as possible and in present conditions the stock is not deteriorating."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1947; Vol. 441, c, 60.] On 4th August I went with one of my friends to visit the aerodrome to have another look for myself and for two hours I walked or motored round it and no one challenged me at all. The property was left in the open and if one cared to go and help oneself there was no one to hinder one. The first thing I did was I went to Hut BK52, which is the Ministry of Works' Office and that was the only hut I found locked. The official who was supposed to look after affairs was away, the hut was locked and there was no one on the site—no one to challenge those wishing to go round and help themselves. I should like to give a report on three or four of the huts I visited. The first hut I visited was BK53 which contained tens of thousands of what are technically known as "biscuit" mattresses for beds. The three "biscuits" are made into one Service man's bed. My complaint is that this hut had got a perfectly good lock on the door and the key was in the door but the door was wide open, and how long it had been like that I do not know. Obviously no one was interested to care about the contents. The hut was left open to the wind and the weather and the contents were deteriorating.

I then went to Hut BK 62 which was the photographic development block. There again there was a perfectly good lock and key with the key inserted but the door was wide open. Many parts of the equipment had been taken away and not too cleverly either, but I saw in that hut rolls and rolls of very valuable lino and nobody was bothering. If we had wished to take them or throw them into the back of the car no one was there to stop us. I remembered how much the ordinary housewives in the country would have liked to have supplies of that very nature. I then went on to Hut BK 16 and this I think is the greatest scandal of the whole lot. That was the workshop hut and the door was not only wide open but as well as having the normal lock there was a lock inside too. This was a great workshop hut. Inside there were cookers, heaters, electrical heating plates, refrigerators, water heaters, tanks, and portable coppers, many of them new, but there was no guard about anywhere and no one seemed to take any care of them at all. On the north of the aerodrome in a large hangar there were huge piles of these bedsteads which were in part covered a few days after my question, but it was typical Government eyewash, I do not mean merely this Government but all Governments. The tarpaulins were put in front of these great piles but the back was completely uncovered and the weather got in at the back of the great stacks where the stuff was left uncovered. It had suited someone to put these tarpaulins across the top and over one side to cover these bedsteads and there they were left.

I was told that many thousands of these bedsteads had been coming into Louth station since May, 1946, and as far away as from Scotland, and that after transport had been paid to bring them right down they had to be manhandled again and brought by road these ten miles to get them to this aerodrome—to be left neglected. It seems to me that this was an absolute scandal. That is why I have brought the matter up. The local farmers who are being urged by the Government to produce more and to take care of what we have got ask themselves naturally why they should exert themselves when Government officials do not seem to bother. Why should they put themselves out when they can see in their own fields this great wastage. In the "Market Rasen Mail" of Saturday, 26th July, it said, Every kind of wire mattress used in the service must be represented in the giant Kelstern stock pile. The reporter saw some almost new bearing the names of famous makers. Others had springs and steel supports red with rust. There were enough two-tier bunks alone beside the potato field to provide beds for a battalion and rain glistened on them and on all the other bedsteads following a shower. This is the point I want to make. Some of the bedsteads were sheeted down with tarpaulin coverings but more were without any protection at all. Six cars passed during the half hour the reporter spent walking round looking at the bedsteads. But the drivers gave no more than a glance at the odd piles lining the road. 'They have got so used to them that they don't bother.' said the farm worker. If we are going to ask the farmer and the farm worker to put their best foot forward and make a special effort in this time of emergency I feel that the Government themselves ought to set a better example. In "The Times" on Thursday the Minister for Economic Affairs is reported as having said this at his Press conference: We have not reached the production levels necessary for our winter supplies and so our whole production programme is in jeopardy. It is very difficult to get farmers and farm workers up in those remote areas to believe our position is in jeopardy when they see before them such neglect.

In answer to my Question the Parliamentary Secretary said that this was a re-issue depot and that, therefore, we must expect things like that. I thought I would check up at another place and so I visited the Barkston Heath Aerodrome, near Grantham. I went there on 30th September but there were a lot of people working on that 'drome, including officers and men. Even there we were allowed to go round for half an hour before we were challenged and I found there that there were hundreds—I would not say thousands though they looked like thousands because a pile gets greater when one gets near to it—of steel filing cabinets that seemed to be little used. The drawers were pulled out and thrown anywhere and going to rust. Nobody cared and these very steel cabinets are things we cannot get very easily in civilian life. At the side of them—again it looked to me like thousands—there were numerous six feet steel airmen's cupboards all left open. The drawers were open and there was nobody bothering. Nobody seemed to care.

I found the same thing as I found at Kelstern. There were great piles of bedsteads in all degrees of rust, and some were obviously new. Inside No. 3 hangar were tens of thousands of these iron bedsteads, which had at great labour been piled there, some very well piled and some badly. Most of them were in some state of rust.

What is more important is that in that hangar I found modern bacon-cutting machines thrown on the floor. I was told afterwards that they were awaiting repair, or were surplus, or something like that. They were left in such a state that if they had been owned by private enterprise or had belonged to anybody personally, someone would have kicked up a row. I complain that there is apparently nobody, under our present system, who is prepared to go and kick up a row about it. I found on a scrap-heap just outside No. 3 hangar some wheeled stretchers with rubber tyres. I was told that they had been used for wheeling patients into operating theatres. Their tyres were burst open and they were thrown on the scrap-heap. Nobody bothered. It seemed just about equal to the easy way in which the Minister of Health announced yesterday that 50,000 hospital beds in the country were not occupied merely because he could not staff them. Nobody seems to bother.

I found also on the site of this scrap-heap a great quantity, not heaps, of steel safes, just chucked about, nobody caring about them. Nobody is worried. Then there were quite a number of bacon-cutters with electric motors attached, just tipped out, ready to rust, and left to wind and weather. One of the airmen who, by then, had challenged me asked what I was looking for, said, "You should go and see some of the aerodromes nearby. This is a mere nothing. This is quite good compared with those." That is why I am asking for an inquiry and for information.

There are two other cases of neglect that I would like to bring to the notice of the House, again in my constituency. A year ago I raised a matter in the House about some huts in Donna Nook. A local farmer would have liked to use them for normal agricultural purposes, but he could not get possession. Now the doors and windows have been smashed. Somebody from the nearby prisoner-of-war camp came to pull down first this, and then the next thing, to burn them. Had the farmer been given permission to take possession of those huts he would have looked after them, but he was not. Nobody cared, and the huts were finally destroyed.

Here is a further example, again from my constituency. A year ago I asked about the huts on the Waltham aerodrome near Grimsby. The local rural district council wanted to use the huts for the homeless. A certain number of the huts were surrendered to the rural district council, but not the whole lot. Now the council are asking that the remainder should be given into their possession, because they fear that squatters will take possession of them this winter. Surely it is better to let the local authority deal with the matter in an orderly fashion than to allow unorganised squatters to go in and take possession.

Last week I was in Waltham and I went to have a look at this site. On one part were the huts which a year ago the Government allowed the council to use. Fires were burning, windows were clean, and clean washing was hanging out. On the other side were the huts which were not given to the local authority, and they were in a very different state. There has been neglect, and there has not been that sense of urgency in dealing with this matter which would have existed had the property belonged to some individual person. It is nobody's business, so nobody cares and nobody does anything.

My next complaint is perhaps more serious. When various items of Government property have been sold there has, in some cases, been a suspicion that favouritism has been shown to certain buyers and that better prices that could have been obtained have not been realised. In some trades there is a definite feeling that there is corruption of one degree or another. I think that matter ought to be investigated. To substantiate what I say perhaps I might give three examples. The first is from Barkston Heath again. I found a large pile of iron coal boxes. They were terribly rusty. I put my hand into one of them, and I said to the fellow who was taking me round, "These have been out here for a long time full of rust." He said, "We sold"—[Interruption.] Mr. Deputy-Speaker, this is not a matter of "tut-tut". This is Government property that has been allowed to be thrown away. I rather resent that interruption of "tut-tut".

I was told that 1,300 of these coal boxes had been left on the site. More than a year ago 1,600 had been sold. The man who bought them had made such a great profit that he had not troubled to move the other 1,300. These had ceased to be Government property but they are still there, although they have been sold—or rather given away. I want to know why such things are allowed to happen. I was told that the Ministry recently sold something like 1,780 tons of scrap beds to a Leeds firm. I shall not give the name of the firm. I do not think I ought to say the name. I was informed that the price per bedstead was something less than is. The men who were doing the work of handling them said that there was a firm in London, one of the biggest and best known multiple stores, reselling these beds at 35s. 11d. after they had been taken to Leeds and had just been sprayed so that the rust could not be seen. If it is true that beds sold for something under is, are being resold at 35s. 11d. it is gross scandal. I do not know. I am merely asking for information. It is because I am not sure that I am not giving the names that were given to me. The information was passed on to me by people who should know what they are talking about.

The second thing that I found there was a large heap of what were called repairable enamelware. There were jugs, washbasins and things like that. I was informed that they had been sold once by the Ministry of Supply but because, when they were delivered the buyer found that they were in a worse state than he had thought, they have all been dumped back at Barkston Heath. When they were sold, was it a condition that the buyer should send them back if he did not want them? To whom were they sold and at what sort of price? This is not the way I should handle such things in my business.

My third example is that the Board of Trade admitted some months ago in answer to a Question of mine that 71,000 pairs of officers' Army shoes had been sold to a Brighton firm at 26s. a pair. These shoes were resold, to my knowledge, at between 65s. and £5 a pair, free of coupons. The trade hotly resented this. I will not give the name of the Brighton firm. Why were they not sent to the boot trade centres of Leicester, Norwich, or Northampton? It is a scandal that property is being thrown away like that. I want an assurance that the fear that some traders have that one must have a friend in the Ministry if one wants to get a plum is unfounded. When I raised the matter of the iron bedsteads in the House one firm wrote to me and said they would like to be put in touch with the Ministry which would be handling them because they had agricultural buyers who needed them for Polish and Irish labour. I did my best, but finally the firm wrote: It is no use kicking against red tape because if you do you get nothing. So one has to bow down to all these restrictions in the hope of getting a little" bit of material to keep the business going. But when one does get a little, it is nothing but a flea-bite to what the favourite firms get. We are entitled to know whether there are favourite firms on Government lists. If there are, they should be removed for it would be a scandal. I am certain, from my knowledge of my own constituency, that Government property has been neglected. If it has been neglected to this extent in one constituency, what must the scandal be all over the country? From my own knowledge, I do not think that the best prices have always been obtained for what is sold. When I asked the Minister about this on 6th August he said he would look into the question and make a report. It is three months since he made that promise, and I hope he will now give us a report.

1.22 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) usually makes three charges against the stocks policy of my Department. He has today added to those a charge associated with price and commercial conditions of sale. But I would like, first, to deal with the charges of physical neglect. It is sometimes asserted that we are holding excessive stocks of goods which would be of use to the ordinary domestic consumer. The hon. Member did not mention that charge today, but I would like to deal with it briefly because it is a common misunderstanding. We have a double function in this matter. We receive certain types of stores that are declared redundant by other Government Departments and particularly by the Service Departments, and we dispose of them partly to meet other needs arising within the machinery of Government and partly to the public.

Secondly, in the difficult supply conditions ruling in the markets for furniture of various kinds, we have to hold stocks to meet needs which are presented to us by other Government Departments. I think that it can be demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that our stocks held for this second purpose, which are our only real stocks, are far from excessive. I will take for an example, the question of bedsteads to which the hon. Member referred in his previous Questions and again today. Just before he asked his second Question on this matter, our total stock of beds was 50,000, held for the second purpose, that is, to meet the needs of Government Departments. That was in July.

Mr. Osborne

I suppose they were not all at Kelstren. It appeared as if they must be.

Mr. Durbin

Those are for the first purpose for which the stock is held, namely distributing them to different uses, but the stock for issue to Government Departments was only 50,000. Then, in a single week we had demands from one of the Service Departments for 65,000 beds. We now have in prospect from various directions, particularly the movement into this country of various types of foreign workers, a potential demand for somewhere between 120,000 and 160,000 beds and equipment for hostel purposes. Thus, far from our stocks being excessive for this purpose, they are dangerously low. At the moment we have only 14,000 pillows and less than 20,000 mattresses of the normal type in stock. In regard to cutlery and crockery, we are literally living from hand to mouth. Thus any conception of my Department holding on to stocks in excess of those needed for the continuous flow of demands upon us is quite mistaken.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

Will the hon. Gentleman say whether that supply which the Ministry are keeping in hand includes the same equipment which has been used hitherto by the German prisoners of war, because many of these E.V.W.s and displaced persons are going into prisoner of war camps and it is interesting to know whether they will use the same equipment as the prisoners of war?

Mr. Durbin

Part of the equipment might be used for that purpose but the standards for these civilian camps are considerably in excess of Service standards and a fortiori, prisoner of war standards, so that a very large net demand for furniture of all kinds will arise as a result of substituting E.V.W.s for prisoners of war.

Mr. Osborne

Will they be given priority over normal civilian demands?

Mr. Durbin

We have to supply the demands put up to us by Government Departments arising out of Government policy, such as the bringing in of these persons.

Major Legge-Bourke

Would the hon. Gentleman say what additional amount will be required by the E.V.W.s over and above that required by the prisoners of war?

Mr. Durbin

That would be a very uncertain calculation. I can only say that the sort of figures involved are between 120,000 and 160,000, and that our stocks even of beds, amount to only 50,000. It is perfectly clear that we are running at a dangerous minimum rather than an excessive level of stocks.

I now come to the charges of physical neglect. The House should realise that the shortage of covered accommodation arises from the deliberate decision of this Government in 1945 to release two million feet of storage space for the use of industry. It was felt that storage space was so heavily concentrated in Government hands that industry would find it extremely difficult to do with as little as was left to it. It was perfectly clearly realised when that decision was taken that this would necessarily involve some open-air storage.

Mr. Osborne

I am informed that at Kelstren a lot of the stuff was left outside while the hangars were empty.

Mr. Durbin

When we come to the case of Kelstren, the hon. Member will know, as I informed him, that I myself visited Kelstren. He has made two charges, first, of these' beds being out of the hangars and, secondly, of the hangars not being locked. On the second charge I have two things to say. First, that my information was that this was during working hours, and I should like from him particulars of dates and times. I will certainly look further into any statement he feels able to make that, outside working hours, they were unlocked.

Mr. Osborne

I can reply to that question at once. It was 4th August between eight and ten o'clock at night.

Mr. Durbin

In that case I will have further inquiries made, because I was assured that at all times when the men are not actually working in the hangars and sheds, they are all locked. As far as the storage of these beds out of doors is concerned, the hon. Member will realise that beds come into that depot in every condition, and that most of the rust that he saw on them was the rust they had, when unloaded from the lorries. This was an exceptional period of very good weather, and when I visited there later, they were all covered. I am assured that all stores which could deteriorate by exposure to rain had been covered before the series of droughts came to an end. So much for the charges of physical neglect.

The last charge is that these stores are not properly guarded. This was the charge amongst those originally made which I thought to be the most serious, and I went into the matter carefully. I assure the House that there is no sub stance in this charge whatever. In my Department we are responsible for 150 different stores, of which 12 are these aerodromes. The total loss by theft from all these 150 stores was only £3,500 in the 12 months ended in August—

Mr. Osborne

As far as you know.

Mr. Durbin

—and of that only £2,200 arose from thefts on the part of outside persons; that is to say, less than one-twentieth of one per cent. of the value of stocks held. Much more important than that, to provide even a token guard on these 12 aerodromes—for example, a night watchman in each case—the charge would be not less than £3,000 a year, that is, greatly in excess of the losses from all the 150 stores for which we are responsible. Moreover, to keep a real watch on the 12 aerodromes alone would cost £20,000 a year to offset against external losses of £2,200 from the whole 150 stores. That would be a wild and irresponsible waste of taxpayers' money.

Mr. Osborne

May I say, in answer to that, that within five miles of Kelstren there is a large Polish camp where there are hundreds, if not thousands of men kicking their heels not knowing what to do with themselves. It would not cost a penny more to put on a guard.

Mr. Durbin

To provide a properly manned and paid night guard to these 12 stores would cost nearly ten times as much as the loss from the whole of our 150 stores. Therefore it is safe to conclude that we are not holding excessive stocks; that it is necessary, to realise covered space for industry, that open air storage in certain cases should be permitted, but that what could be done to protect these beds from weather has now been done; and that the provision of further watchmen is not possible or financially desirable. The hon. Member did not give me notice of the other type of charge, so I am not in a position to make any statement upon the various price matters that he raised, some of which are not the concern of my Department. However, any information leading to the kind of conclusions he suggested, with which he can supply me will be exhaustively investigated.