HC Deb 16 December 1948 vol 459 cc1491-501

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

9.12 p.m.

Mrs. Middleton (Plymouth, Sutton)

There is considerable disquiet among many hon. Members who sit for constituencies in war-damaged areas about the way in which some of the claims for compensation on account of war-damaged properties are being treated by the War Damage Commission when these claims have been received by the Commission outside the permitted time limit for claims as prescribed under the regulations and the provisions of the War Damage Acts. This disquiet to which I refer arises from a variety of factors. Claimants were misled or inaccurately informed concerning the presentation of their claims. There has been one Adjournment Debate already on this major subject. On 11th June my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Braddock) raised this question, and there was considerable Debate that day concerning it. I want to say tonight that unless something further is done to deal with the injustices still existing in this regard, more is likely to be heard of this matter in the House than has been heard of it hitherto from my hon. Friends and myself.

Tonight, however, I want to call the attention of the House especially to one case of very great hardship, in my opinion, where the claim has been disallowed and where the claimant lives within the City of Plymouth. Let me say, first of all, that I sympathise rather deeply with my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in that he has the task, whenever this matter is raised, of replying to the criticisms that are put forward. He has to answer to the House in this matter, but, unfortunately, he has not the power to deal with the matter, because under the War Damage Acts of 1941 and 1943, statutory powers are given to the War Damage Commission to deal with matters such as this, and therefore the Treasury has not in this case the power to intervene. The last word rests with the War Damage Commission. Had the position been otherwise, I am quite confident that, with the Treasury, we should have been able to achieve a satisfactory solution of this matter many months ago.

The problem dates back in a general way to 28th May, 1946. Up to that time, repairs to private property in blitzed areas were mainly done by the local authorities drawing the labour they needed for the purpose from pools of building labour brought into being especially for this work. In May, 1946, the Minister of Health, who was quite rightly anxious that the local authorities should push ahead with their housing problems, sent a circular to the local authorities asking them to relinquish repair work, leaving it to direct negotiation between the claimant, the War Damage Commission and private builders, and to concentrate all their efforts on pushing ahead with their housing programmes. Unfortunately, at that time, the change-over was not sufficiently made known to the people who were most intimately concerned, as subsequent events, I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree, have proved.

The change-over took place on different dates in different localities, and a period of six months or more occurred before, in all the blitzed areas of the country, the work of repair of war-damaged property passed out of the hands of the local authorities into the hands of the claimant, together with the War Damage Commission in negotiation with private builders. It is from that transfer and the inadequate notification of it to those who were most concerned, that difficult cases, such as the one I am going to present to the House tonight, have arisen. Among many hard cases which I have handled in recent months, that of Mr. Whitby, of Anstis Street, Plymouth, whose case I am presenting tonight, is about the hardest that I have yet dealt with unsuccessfully.

As the Financial Secretary will remember, I had a Question on the Order Paper to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about this case on 20th July last. The Chancellor of the Exchequer answered that he was unable to deal in the House by way of Question and answer with individual cases of war damage claims, but he was referring that case, together with others that were raised in Questions on the Order Paper by other hon. Members on the same day, to the Chairman of the War Damage Commission. Since that day, I have been in negotiation with the Chairman of the War Damage Commission about this case in order to get a satisfactory settlement of it; until, on 18th November last, I received a final letter from Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve turning down the claim. May I say, in parenthesis, that one of the least satisfactory features of this procedure under the War Damage Act has been that Members of Parliament for blitzed areas have literally had to turn themselves into defending counsel in order to try to secure justice for their constituents who have submitted their claims outside the time limit set by the Commission.

When I consider the hours of consultation and inquiry that I have put in with regard to these claims that I myself have handled from within the confines of my own constituency, probing the details of each case which was submitted and going through piles of correspondence in some cases—letters which have passed between the various bodies before the cases came into my hands—and while I have been very glad indeed to give my constituents all the help I could in this regard, I want to say that that was not really the job which I was sent to this House to do. Nor is it the job that my hon. Friends were sent here to do when they were elected. I would also point out that this kind of investigation has not been required in any other type of constituency case that I have handled on behalf of my constituents.

The property in the case I raise tonight was, at the time it was damaged, the property of Mr. Whitby's mother, and comprised a small shop and a dwelling house. At the time of the damage Mr. Whitby was serving with His Majesty's Forces, and his mother, who was a very elderly lady and in bad health, was struggling along as best she could with all the difficulties of keeping the home and her business going against her son's return to take over from her, and with the added difficulties and dangers which beset every citizen—and especially I would say the shopkeepers—in those towns and cities of our country that the enemy had selected for his attack by aerial bombardment. Despite the fact that when Mr. Whitby was on leave he advised his mother on more than one occasion to get the repairs done with all speed, the poor lady was so overburdened by all the things that she had already to do that she just could not add this additional worry.

So things went on until Mr. Whitby's discharge from the Army in August, 1945, his mother's great illness in the winter of 1945–46, and his mother's eventual death in May, 1946. Then the property passed into the hands of my constituent and he set about getting the repairs done. He did what I suppose most of us would do in those circumstances. He inquired of his neighbours and friends how they had got their repairs done, and was told that they had been done by the local authorities. So he went to the Plymouth Corporation War Damage Department and asked that his premises might be put into a good state of repair. He was there told that they would have to send an inspector to view the premises before they could decide whether the work was of sufficient urgency and the damage sufficiently great for the repairs to be done at that time. They sent the inspector, and as a result of what he found the licence was issued and Mr. Whitby was told to employ his own builder and go ahead to get the repairs done. Unfortunately, this young ex-Service man, who was in the Army all through the war, did not know and was not told that a claim had also to be made to the War Damage Commission, and their inspection carried out and the work approved before the work was commenced.

Having obtained his licence from the local authority, he in all good faith went ahead; he engaged the builder and the work was commenced. However, owing to the shortage at that time of materials for certain war damage repair work, and in this particular case the shortage of plate glass, the work could not be completed until January of this year. The work was completed on 28th January. On 2nd February he received the bill from the builders who had done the job. On 3rd February he paid the bill out of the gratuity he had received on his discharge from His Majesty's Forces, and on that same day he went to the Plymouth Corporation War Damage Department to present his claim for compensation, only at that point to be told that compensation payments were not made by the Corporation and that he must apply to the War Damage Commission in order to get the compensation. After some inquiry about the procedure he wrote to the Commission on 3rd March this year and again on 17th March, because he had not had his first letter acknowledged, only to get after some days this undated, duplicated, peremptory refusal to admit the claim from the South-Western Regional Office of the War Damage Commission—which letter I hold in my hand and will now pass to the Financial Secretary for his inspection.

No inquiry of the claimant why the claim was received so late was made by the War Damage Commission. No reference was made to the local authority for their information or advice concerning the case, and there was no reference even to the notification to the War Damage Commission itself by the local authority at the time the damage was done that damage had been done to this particular property. May I say here that I believe almost all the trouble about these cases could have been avoided by the War Damage Commission if they had had the good sense, when they received claims which were obscure or doubtful, to consult with the local authorities concerned about them. Certainly, in my own area the local authority could have given, would gladly have given and can still give, much invaluable information to the War Damage Commission in those cases where there is some doubt in the matter.

I believe that this House and my right lion. Friend the Financial Secretary will be profoundly shocked to hear that citizens who suffered during the war—and, may I emphasise, ex-Service men citizens who were serving with the Army all through the war, as this young man was—can be treated in this way because of errors or omissions arising out of circumstances over which they had no control. In raising this matter on the Adjournment tonight, I should like to say that I have not done so without being quite sure that all the facts I have adduced in support of my constituent were known personally to the Chairman of the War Damage Commission many months ago, except one. I myself only discovered it recently, for it could only be discovered from the building firm concerned. It was about the delay in the building repairs owing to shortages particularly of plate glass in the Plymouth area during that time.

In presenting this case to the House tonight for their most sympathetic consideration, I ask the Financial Secretary, in any statement that he may make, to tell the House that this claim, which has been so badly mishandled, shall be admitted and that the debt to this man shall be recognised. Also I should like my right hon. Friend to assure the House that he and his right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will take steps to see, even now, that some method is found by the Treasury or the War Damage Commission to prevent such injustices as that with which I have dealt from occurring in the case of any other citizen of this country who had the misfortune to lose his property during the war.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Braddock (Mitcham)

The House is deeply indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) for having raised this question once more. I confirm what she said in her opening remarks, that this House will hear a great deal more about this question unless cases like these are properly met by those in authority. This is a typical case, and it is brought forward as a typical case. Cases like this could be repeated over and over again by every Member who comes from a blitzed area. The important thing is that the Chairman of the War Damage Commission himself admits that the great majority of cases that are being disallowed are disallowed solely on the ground of late notification. We hear a lot of talk about the difficulties in deciding whether or not damage is due to the results of enemy action, and we hear suggestions that people are trying to swindle the War Damage Commission, but we have it on the authority of the Chairman himself that the chief reason for rejecting the great majority of these claims is because of late notification.

The striking thing is that, in spite of the fact that a case may have been turned down two, three or four times by the central office, the War Damage Commission agree to send round an assessor and give the claimant justice when a Member of Parliament takes up the matter. It is an entirely wrong procedure to put this responsibility on Members of Parliament, and it is a procedure that is dangerous. Of the cases I have drawn to the attention of the War Damage Commission, approximately 25 per cent. have been re-examined and dealt with. The Commission are not consistent, therefore, in their treatment. It will be found, in the great majority of cases, that compensation is due to the claimants if an examination is made by the technical experts of the War Damage Commission, but it has apparently been resolved by the Commission to clamp down on the rights of a section of the population by brute force and by over-riding all the arguments and reasons submitted to them.

I will give one example in the case of my own constituency. I discovered, only quite recently, that the central office have issued a directive to their district offices to the effect that war damage claims should be admitted for examination up to 12 months after the date when the local authority placed its last contract for war damage repairs and where insufficient notification has been given. I have discovered that that directive was issued in my own constituency. I have also discovered that the local authority only notified those claimants who came to their office and asked when their war damage repairs were to be done. On occasions of that sort they issued, solely and only to those people, a leaflet which had been issued to them by the Ministry of Health. It might be said that it was the duty of the local authority to issue that leaflet broadcast to all potential claimants. My local authority acted with great care in this matter. They got their instructions from the Ministry of Health, and it was the Ministry which had instructed them only to issue those leaflets in cases where application was made. I therefore suggest that so far as the great majority of my constituents who are in this predicament are concerned, insufficient notification was given.

What are the facts taken in relation to the 12 months' grace which the War Damage Commission has instructed its officers to give? I find that in my constituency the last contract was placed on 22nd December, 1947. I therefore suggest that on the War Damage Commission's own showing, all claims put in up to 22nd of this month should be automatically considered. To most hon. Members that would seem obvious and reasonable, yet the War Damage Commission are attempting to reject this situation on the ground that only a few small orders were placed up to 22nd December, 1947. On this showing alone, although it applies only to my constituency, we have another example of inconsistency on the part of the War Damage Commission, and this is an inconsistency which is inflicting great trouble and worry, and possible financial loss, on dozens of people who are not really well off.

This injustice is affecting the small owner-occupier. In most cases of landlord-owned property, the local council have sailed in and repaired the damage. In many cases they have done a great deal more than that. In a great many cases landlords of poor type property have done very well out of the war damage repairs which have been carried out by the local authority. However, when it comes to these individual owner-occupiers, the War Damage Commission is adamant. On the face of it, it seems that the real reason behind this type of action—which is an obvious injustice which we as a House and a people cannot possibly tolerate—is that the War Damage Commission is tired of the job. It wants to get on with other responsibilities which have been entrusted to it. A deputation waited on the chairman of the War Damage Commission and learned from him that if the Government insisted on a revision of the regulations it was making and insisted on any concession being made to the suffering people, the War Damage Commission itself would resign.

Mr. Berry (Woolwich, West)

Let it.

Mr. Braddock

In those circumstances, its resignation should be accepted. I do not suggest for a moment that the chairman and the War Damage Commission have not done a splendid job of work for the country, but it is obvious that in view of other responsibilities, it is not prepared to carry on with this somewhat difficult work any longer. If that is the case, and if it is the War Damage Commission itself which is threatening or attempting to threaten the Government with its resignation, this is an opportune moment for the Government to make a change and take upon itself the responsibility for the correct treatment of the people.

9.40 p.m.

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

As my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) said, I am entitled to the sympathy of the House. The War Damage Commission is an autonomous body which, under two Acts of Parliament, was given the work of sorting out claims for war damage and making payment therefor. In its wisdom, this House gave the Commission complete authority to decide which claims were valid and which were not, and how much time they should allow claimants for putting in their claims.

The War Damage Commission has for several years now, realised that, as the war receded, it would gradually have to taper off and close down its work. As I think the House knows, it has already paid in claims something well over £700 million and many thousands of claims have been satisfied. Nevertheless, there are cases which from time to time have been brought to this House, either on Adjournment Debates or by way of Question, and on all occasions it has fallen to me, or to my right hon. and learned Friend, to indicate to those raising these cases that we have no jurisdiction whatever in the matter, and that they must go to the War Damage Commission, and that the decision of the Commission would be final.

That is the position, but I should like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth and to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Braddock) and to hon. Members for other areas who have raised this question that I find no fault with what they have said. They have done their best—and if I may say so, have done effectively—to represent what they consider to be genuine grievances on the part of their constituents, and have been perfectly right in bringing these cases to the notice of the House. Having said that, I have to tell them once more—and to underline it—that I have no jurisdiction whatever to tell the War Damage Commission that they must admit the claim of Mr. Whitby, as my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division has asked.

In reply to the Question which the hon. Member for the Sutton Division put on 20th July, my right hon. and learned Friend told her that it was impossible for those of us at the Treasury who answer for the War Damage Commission in this House to answer questions about individual cases, that he would ask—as in fact he has asked—the War Damage Commission to look into the cases which were brought, Mr. Whitby's amongst them, and would ask the Commission to write direct to the hon. Member concerned. I think my hon. Friend will bear me out when I say that she has had a reply from the Chairman of the War Damage Commission on the case of Mr. Whitby.

That being so, and as I have no jurisdiction in the matter it is quite impossible for me to add to what the Chairman has said, and it is outside my scope to insist that he should admit the claim. Therefore, although I desire in no way to be discourteous to my hon. Friend, there is nothing more I can say in reply to the speeches that have been made tonight.

Mrs. Middleton

Is it not possible for my right hon. Friend at least to make representations to the Chairman of the War Damage Commission regarding this case and express his view, and the views that have been expressed by hon. Members here by their applause, in regard to the claim of Mr. Whitby?

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Perhaps, by leave of the House, I may add this, that I took occasion, in view of this Debate and the knowledge that Mr. Whitby's case would be raised, to discuss it personally with the Chairman of the War Damage Commission. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will call his attention to what has been said tonight and invite him to consider in this light the particular case to which my hon. Friend has referred.