HC Deb 14 September 1948 vol 456 cc61-72

5.43 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I wish to draw the attention of the House, and indirectly of the Secretary of State for War, to the question of eviction from Army barracks. We have heard a good deal in Scotland about eviction from other property, but it is an entirely new development to have families evicted from barracks—families of men who have given a quarter of a century of service to their King and country—and it is an almost incredible story which I have to unfold this afternoon. I do so because it is a matter of urgency. On the last occasion I visited the barracks at Ayr relatives of these ex-soldiers were still outside the barracks, from which they had been evicted by order of the War Office. Apparently the order of the day for these ex-soldiers was; "Your King and country no longer need you, clear out." It is rather an ironic attitude for the War Office to take up at a time when the Leader of the House asks us to go on the recruiting platform to ask for recruits. There will be repercussions all over the country if incidents such as those outside the Churchill Barracks at Ayr are to be repeated in other county towns.

These people received notice from the War Office that their married quarters were required for other personnel. Everyone who knows the housing position in the West of Scotland knows that it is an absolute impossibility at present to secure housing accommodation for all kinds of people. These people were evicted at a time when the normal housing difficulties were accentuated by reason of the fact that the town of Ayr was crowded with visitors and no rooms could be obtained. There is the case of ex-Sergeant Cockley, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who has given 26 years' service to his country. He is still in the employ of the War Office, engaged in secretarial work organising the activities of the Territorial Army and is also a serving Territorial. This man's belongings and his wife and children were evicted from the barracks and left in the street in the pouring rain at the time of the worst storm in that part of the country for many years.

The furniture belonging to these people was under a tarpaulin, not provided by a considerate War Office, or by the Army authorities, but by a travelling showman. If it were necessary for the War Office to evict these people, they could have provided a tent, or a piece of tarpaulin, to cover their furniture, which had been thrown out of the barracks. I interviewed these people and was told by the wife of an ex-Service man, sitting on a sofa under a tarpaulin barely protected from the rain, that in the last war she lost her only son, who had been honoured by receiving the Military Medal. Cannot we appreciate that there is bitterness when members of a family have served in that way and they are evicted and there is no housing accommodation available in the town?

There was another case of an ex-soldier who had been in the Army for a long time and was a non-commissioned officer. He was evicted and obtained a job in a neighbouring coal mine. He spent a long time searching for accommodation for his wife and family. Accordingly he missed a few days work in the coal mine, and, as a result, when his goods and chattels were outside the barracks, he received a summons from the National Coal Board threatening to prosecute him because he had been an absentee from the pit. For weeks during the holiday season these people were in camp outside the barracks, but I know of two families who are still there, and this scandal will be perpetuated unless we can bring pressure on the War Office to change their callous attitude towards these people.

The Secretary of State for War says that the premises are wanted for other people: and that soldiers who wish to go into the barracks to train Territorials are also men with families and are also undergoing hardship. I can understand that, but for 26 days after this ex-sergeant had been evicted, there was no one in those rooms and he had to go to his clerical work in the barracks knowing that the house was empty and his furniture was in the street. The War Office takes the attitude that it is the business of a local authority to provide houses for people unable to secure housing accommodation. Theoretically that may be correct, but it must be remembered that local authorities, especially in the West of Scotland, have already innumerable difficulties and this matter is accentuating the problem. We claim that it is not exactly the duty of the local authorities to take on these additional burdens imposed as a result of the conduct of the War Office.

We know the War Office has certain responsibilities, but I was careful to ask the people if there was any accommodation inside the barracks, ever. a few square yards, until the emergency situation created by the holiday season was over. I received the reply from men who know the barracks very well that there was room in the barracks at the time for a whole regiment of soldiers. Can we wonder that there is comment about this? Soldiers coming home on leave see this temporary encampment outside the barracks and ask themselves, "Is that what is going to happen to us when our term expires?"

I ask the War Office to go into the question again and modify their attitude so that some temporary solution can be offered to these people. I make a special appeal for men serving overseas whose wives and children are in the barracks and who are now threatened with eviction. It is true that they have been offered some kind of temporary accommodation, but that means splitting families. I suggest that with all the powers the War Office has, it is possible to solve this problem and end this scandal of men who have spent so long in the Army being put on the street and of the anxiety of those awaiting eviction notices unless the War Office is prepared to change its attitude. This is not a party issue; I am sure the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore), who has taken an active interest in this matter, would corroborate every word I have said. I hope that the case that I have put forward will get to the War Office so that the Secretary of State can go very carefully into the position to see if the harm done by these evictions can be undone and some greater security offered to men who have served in the Forces for so long.

5.54 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles (Down)

I wish to raise the question of the shortage of sugar in this country. I have already heard complaints that people are stopping picking blackberries because there is not sufficient sugar with which to make jam. It is a pity if good wholesome fruit is wasted as a result.

This question also affects the mineral water manufacturers. I am a fortunate person in that I prefer a glass of ginger ale to a glass of whisky if the choice is offered to me. The most important aspect is that of the export market for mineral waters. In Northern Ireland there are several firms which before the war did a large export business in mineral water manufacture all over the world. That market is contracting and I believe one of the reasons is the lack of sugar. I do not believe that the mineral water sold generally in this country today is of as high quality as it was in 1936, 1937 and 1938. Naturally, all our exports depend on quality. We must expect people abroad to drink American drinks such as Coca Cola in preference to ginger ale if the quality of our products goes down, and due to the minute issue of sugar the manufacturers must reduce either quantity or quality.

I have taken the earliest opportunity of raising this matter on which I received a letter this morning from a constituent in the mineral water business. I wish to bring the matter to the notice of the Minister of Food and the President of the Board of Trade. If sufficient sugar were released to improve mineral water manufactured in this country, that would add to our export market, and provide more welcome dollars for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

5.56 p.m.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I do not rise for the purpose of following what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down (Sir W. Smiles) has said on a matter of very great constituency and personal interest to him, but he must not think that I am not interested in what he has said. I wish to say a word or two in support of what was said by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), which is an unusual thing for me. We are all indebted to the hon. Member, particularly those who represent Scottish constituencies, for having taken advantage of the valuable time at our disposal to bring this very important matter before the House. What the hon. Member has said must surely impress the Under-Secretary of State for War with the fact that if something is not done to arrest the alarming conditions the hon. Member so vividly outlined, there may be a very serious state of affairs. I congratulate the hon. Member on having persuaded the Under-Secretary to come to hear this matter raised. Earlier we had a former Minister of the Crown raising an important matter, but there was not a Member on the Front Bench to reply. The hon. Member for South Ayrshire has been more successful and I hope that the presence of the Under-Secretary on the Front Bench shows that he is not merely there to listen but will have something concrete to say by way of explanation and something concrete by which our reasonable doubts can be cleared away.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire and I do not share the same views very often on matters relating to the defence services of this country. He believes in a Utopia where neither army, navy nor air force—and on one occasion I think I heard him say even police—would be necessary. I completely dissociate myself from his point of view in that regard. I do not like the word, but can think of no better, when I say that the hon. Member has shown true humanitarianism in advancing the claims of these people. He, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore) and I believe they have been very hardly treated by the War Office. Whenever the hon. Member for South Ayrshire thinks of something to raise on the Adjournment he is always peculiarly and particularly happy in raising something which will embarrass the Government he was elected to support. This afternoon his choice of subject has proved no exception to the general rule. The three cases he has cited must have harrowed the feelings of all of us who have listened to him. I should think that it would be very difficult for the Under-Secretary to provide any valid excuse for the treatment that has been meted out with regard to the Churchill Barracks at Ayr in general and in the three cases in particular which the hon. Member has cited.

The hon. Member at once came to the point when he said that if this kind of thing were to go on, if no proper assistance were forthcoming to the local authorities in regard to making increased provision for the housing of the people of Scotland, there would be a serious state of affairs. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not, with his usual candour, prosecute that point to its logical conclusion and say that the Government have failed miserably, particularly in Scotland to make proper housing provision. Now we are having these almost wholesale—that is not too extravagant phrase to use—evictions from the Churchill Barracks at Ayr in particular, and the local authorities are completely unable, owing to the lack of assistance from the central authorities, to make proper housing provision for these people who have given gallant service to their country. I am glad that the hon. Member underlined that. Although I know that he does not approve of that kind of service to the country he certainly sympathises with these men in their plight, and that is something.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an adequate reply. His Government do not know where they are on this all-important question of housing in general and the housing of evicted ex-Service men in particular. I hope he will show that he has been seized of the importance of what the hon. Member for South Ayrshire has said here—a Member who was elected to support in this House the Government of which the Under-Secretary is a Member. I hope that the Under-Secretary will get up and give the House the benefit of his views on this particular matter.

6.3 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

I greatly regret that I was not in the House at the time when my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) rose to speak on this matter. He had been kind enough to apprise me by note that he would do so. The note was written in something of a hurry as it did not indicate from which hon. Member it came. It is true that the choice was limited but knowing as I do how all Scottish Members pursue nearly all questions relating to all parts of Scotland, there were several possibilities. My hon. Friend also said that he would raise this question on the Adjournment as soon as possible. I must confess that I did not realise when I received it half an hour or so ago how soon that would be.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the matter, as it provides an opportunity for me to state what is the War Office's position on this undoubtedly difficult question. What is at issue are Army married quarters, buildings constructed for the purpose of providing homes for serving soldiers and their families. The House will be aware that there is a shortage of these married quarters, which is a serious problem as it affects Army recruiting. If that argument does not particularly appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire there are many Members to whom it will appeal. I will put it in a form which will appeal to my hon. Friend. Surely his hostility to the idea of military service in general does not extend to malice towards particular men who happen to be in the Armed Forces at this moment? They are as fully entitled to have somewhere for themselves and their families to live as any other section of the community.

Serving soldiers often find it difficult to find accommodation in any other way than by Army married quarters. The conditions of their life often make it difficult for them to get on the lists of housing authorities. This is a matter of first importance from the point of view of Army recruiting, the general efficiency of the Army and the welfare of the troops. To give ordinary justice to soldiers as compared with other sections of the community, Army married quarters should be used as far as humanly possible entirely for the purpose for which they were constructed, to give homes to serving soldiers and their families.

It is necessary to give something of this general background in order to depict in its proper perspective the particular case in which the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie) betrayed so much interest. Unfortunately not all Army married quarters are at present used for their proper purpose, some of them are accommodating the families of soldiers who are serving overseas, some of them are still in need of repairs, and some of them are occupied by persons who are known to us in our official language as irregular occupants. During last Session I was asked what was an irregular occupant. On the spur of the moment I replied that it was someone who was occupying quarters who ought not to be so doing. Here we have the precise example of an irregular occupant. It is true that in most of the cases, it may be in all the cases, the men and women on whose behalf my hon. Friend has raised this question, are ex-soldiers and their families, but those ex-soldiers are now civilians and I think it will be agreed that their housing is not one of the responsibilities of the War Department.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend and also for the fact that in the circumstances he has to make a difficult reply, but I pointed out that one of these ex-sergeants is actually still in the employ of the War Office and is still a Territorial clerical worker.

Mr. Stewart

If he were what is known as a key civilian doing a particular kind of work that would give him an entitlement to married quarters, but from what has happened I think that the man concerned does not fall into that category—he is not one of those for whose housing the War Department can be regarded as responsible.

When we get irregular occupants of that kind in Army married quarters, what is the choice with which we are faced? On the one hand, it is very hard to turn anyone out of any accommodation at the present time. If we merely sought to avoid such attacks as have been made upon us this evening, we could take the easy way and leave it at that. But what would be the result? Serving soldiers who have in many cases been separated from their families for a long time would have to go on waiting. It would mean that the families for whom these quarters are constructed would be denied accommodation and that persons for whom we had not a responsibility would continue to occupy those quarters.

I should not wish it to be thought that we took a narrow and Departmental view on this matter. Our first responsibility is to the serving soldier and his family, but if the House will bear with me while I state how we have dealt with these particular cases I feel sure that it will be agreed that we have not taken a narrow or Departmental view. We gave long warning to the families concerned. One family was first warned of the situation in June, 1947. A six months extension of the period for which they might stay was later granted. Finally, my right hon. Friend gave his authority for this eviction in July this year, rather more than 12 months after the situation was first put to those concerned.

That gives the family an opportunity to make it clear to the local authority, who have the immediate responsibility for housing them, what the position is. We sometimes feel that they are in a stronger position to represent their case to the local authority if we make it clear that after a certain time we must evict. It was right to give these warnings and the date at which we proceeded in the case I have quoted shows that we did not proceed with any inhuman haste in this matter. The same is true of another family. The first warning was given in June, 1947, and authority for eviction was granted in July of this year. In another case the warning was given more recently, in December, 1947, but even in that case eight months elapsed before final authority was given for the eviction. There was no unreasonable haste about this matter.

Nor do we confine ourselves to what might be regarded from the narrow point of view as our responsibility because Scottish Command are still doing all in their power to assist these families to obtain accommodation. They have got in touch with the Town Clerk of Ayr, the Department of Health for Scotland and the British Legion, and have represented the position that our Department is not responsible for housing these families but that we are anxious to give any help we can, consistent with the discharge of our responsibilities.

The House may feel that even so, eviction in any circumstances is harsh, and the House may feel reluctant to give its approval to such an action. I have no doubt my hon. Friend depicted the position of these particular families in the most striking and eloquent language. May I, though no doubt with less eloquence, draw the attention of the House to the position of some of the serving soldiers and their families who are to go into these quarters? I will not mention names as they might not wish their affairs to be brought so precisely before the public eye. One case is that of a man and wife who were married in 1938 and who now have two children. For six years the family have been separated and they are to go into these quarters from which we have been obliged to evict these irregular occupants. Another case is that of a man and wife who were married six years ago and who up to this time have not had a united home. They also have two children. Another man and wife married in 1943, who have two children, have been separated for two and a half years. In a fourth case the man and wife were married shortly before the war and again there is a family of two children. The family has been separated for five and a half years.

The hon. Member for Galloway asked if I would be able to provide any valid excuse for what we have done. These four cases which I have mentioned are the valid excuses for what we have done. I ask the House to believe that the War Department are properly discharging their responsibilities in these matters, and that they have indeed gone beyond what was a narrow interpretation of their responsibilities. The general policy which we are pursuing about married quarters in the Army—that they should be devoted to their proper use—is in the long run in the interests of a proper solution of the housing problem of this country.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I understand my hon. Friend's difficulties quite clearly. I know the background, I know the cases he has quoted, but I understand that there are four women whose husbands are overseas who are still threatened with eviction. All I asked him was whether he would give a little further consideration and thought before putting their goods and chattels out on the street?

Mr. Stewart

I think my hon. Friend is now referring to families of serving soldiers who are now overseas. They are in a somewhat different category from people who have already left the Army. We do not turn out the family of a serving soldier, even if the soldier is overseas, from married quarters until we have seen that alternative accommodation is provided. My hon. Friend may be quite sure of that.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter past Six o'Clock.