HC Deb 15 November 1949 vol 469 cc1941-63

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Solley (Thurrock)

I desire to draw the attention of the House to the action of the War Office in refusing to make available to the Thurrock Urban District Council certain military camps in my constituency, and in particular the Orsett camp, which would make it possible substantially to ease the housing situation in Thurrock. I do not think that the gravity of the Minister's decision can be fully realised without an examination of the position in the light of the general housing position in my constituency and, speaking now personally, in the light of the promises which I made at the time of the General Election. I make no apology for referring to this matter, and since this is a question of the collective responsibility of the Cabinet I quite appreciate that the Under-Secretary of State for War will reply specifically to those parts of my speech which affect more directly his Department.

The policy which I and other Members of the Labour Party put forward in 1945 in relation to housing was set out in the Election document "Let Us Face the Future." It read as follows: Housing, said this document which I promised to implement to the best of my ability, will be one of the greatest and one of the earliest tests of a Government's real determination to put the nation first. Labour's pledge is firm and direct—it will proceed with a housing programme with the maximum practical speed until every family in this island has a good standard of accommodation. That may well mean centralised purchasing. Then it proceeds to say that if that course is necessary, as it was necessary to get the guns and planes, Labour is ready. I am under no misapprehension as to what would have been the position in housing had the Tories got into power. I am quite sure they would have landed this country into a dreadful mess. I am also certain that I made that specific promise in relation to housing. As from time to time I saw that promise becoming more and more difficult to implement because of the consequences on the home front of the foreign policy of the Government, I had to object. This objection, as many hon. Members know, led to my ultimate expulsion from the Labour Party. If it had not been for the policy against which I protested, my constituents would, I believe, have been better housed. The logical conclusion to the foreign policy to which I object, in so far as it refers to housing, was that the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 26th October, when debating in this House the Government's proposals to deal with the economic situation, said that there would be a reduction in the current housing level from about 200,000 houses a year to about 175,000 houses a year.

In the light of the grave housing situation, I am satisfied that the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer calls for substantial comment, especially when he excuses himself by saying that it has also become necessary to limit the amount of dollar expenditure on the purchase of timber. He added that the quantity of timber which might be secured from non-dollar sources was uncertain. One of the reasons why I was critical of our foreign policy in the interests of my constituency was that I wanted timber to be purchased from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe where it would not cost dollars. If that had been done even at this late stage, the cut from 200,000 houses to 175,000 houses a year would not have been necessary.

It is with that background that we approach the decision of the Under-Secretary in respect of the military camps in my constituency. I will first give some local statistics. I have been informed by the Clerk of the Thurrock Urban District Council that there are some 4,000 applicants waiting for houses in Thurrock, that the Council's rate of building is some 400 houses annually, and that two new names are added to the waiting list daily. That is merely a statement of statistics, but behind statistics one discovers human tragedy after human tragedy.

I have here a letter sent to me by one of my constituents which I shall read to the House without disclosing the name or the address of my correspondent. However, I shall be pleased to show it to the Under-Secretary if he is interested. This is the sort of thing which he is perpetuating by his action in refusing to permit the council additional housing accommodation which would be available in these camps. The letter reads: My wife, five children and myself are living, eating and sleeping in one room. I am appealing to you for help of some sort. Everyone I talk to has never heard of such a case. My children are getting into a very bad state of health and the worry is driving my wife and myself to despair. I have appealed to the council again and again with no results. I would like you to send someone to see my one room, if possible. That is merely one of many letters which I have received, each of which reveals the depths of despair to which many homeless families in my constituency have sunk. Young couples who would like to marry are prevented from doing so because they have no place where they can live. People who are already married are frequently forcibly separated because they cannot find a place to live in. I can imagine nothing more serious than the state of affairs which I have described.

Situated in that part of my constituency known as Orsett there is a camp where 500 of these tragic families could find almost luxury accommodation almost overnight, and yet the Minister says, "No, that must not be. The war machine comes before the human being." I confess that I cannot speak with first-hand experience about this camp. The reason is a little significant. I asked permission to inspect the camp. As a Member of Parliament, whatever my political opinions may be, I should have been given permission to inspect that camp and to ascertain whether what I was being told about it was true or not, especially as there are not merely Service men but children and married women living in the camp. I should have thought that the argument about security was pure poppycock, but that was the argument put forward by the War Office. They said, "You, a Member of Parliament, must not go to this War Office establishment, on grounds of security."

Fortunately, although the hon. Member for Thurrock was refused permission to go into this camp to which the wives and children of officers and soldiers serving in the camp have access, Colonel A. E. Loftus, who is a councillor of the Thurrock Urban District Council, got into the camp. I shall not say how he got in, but he did not get in officially. Having got in, he made his report to the local council. I have not got his actual words and therefore I do not guarantee that I am putting the case as he would have put it, but the substance of what he said was that the Orsett camp was one of the most luxurious camps in the country. I believe it is common knowledge that more money was spent on it than on almost any other camp of corresponding size. Perhaps the Minister will correct me later if I am wrong about that.

The camp is a ready-made town. It has well-built brick huts, it has all the modern conveniences and services, and it could easily be converted for civilian habitation. Its floors are covered with luxury lino which in many cases is not obtainable by the general public. The officers' quarters are almost exotically furnished in their luxuriousness. I am not speaking now; it is the colonel. Taken all in all, they are premises which to the homeless of Thurrock would be as acceptable as perhaps an invitation to live in one or more of the more commodious country houses in or near Orsett. It is of some significance that the camp is capable of housing over 2,000 troops, and when I say that it could house 500 families from my constituency, I am putting it on the very conservative basis that four soldiers equal one family. However, in these difficult times I have no doubt that at a pinch 750 families could be housed in the camp.

The history of this matter in relation to the War Office arose in this way. About last April I was requested by the Urban District Council of Thurrock to assist them in arranging a deputation to the Minister so that they could put their case. This was not the first time I had raised the matter with the War Office, but having received an official request from the Thurrock Urban District Council, it was my duty to attempt to arrange the deputation. I was successful, and on 21st July the deputation awaited on the Under-Secretary. The case was put forward after I had introduced the deputation, and the final decision of the Minister was given in a letter to me dated 14th September. In the letter the Under-Secretary said that he had to adhere to his former decision of refusal. He said: The whole of the camp should be retained for military use. The Council did not ask for the whole of the camp. If I may criticise them in that respect, I think they were wrong. They should have said that they wanted the whole camp. Their case was, however, that they would like part of the camp. The War Office said, "Oh dear, no. We do not care two hoots about your poor unfortunate families. You cannot have any part of the camp." I should have thought it would have been easy to rope off a small section of the camp. Indeed maps were produced showing that that could be done, but that argument apparently was of no avail.

In the same letter of 14th September I was further informed that the War Office was obliged to use much of the accommodation now vacant at Orsett Camp for conversion to quarters for families. I have been hearing that argument in relation to certain other camps also in my constituency, not merely since September this year but over the last couple of years. It would appear to be the case that whenever the War Office are asked to give up some of what I might call its ill-gotten gains, it says that it is in process of converting them for something or other. It would be interesting to know when that process of conversion began and when it will end, because it is an excuse that holds no water.

If the Minister has any difficulty about it, let me call his attention to the fact that if he will have a discussion with the Foreign Secretary he might arrange for the 7,000 American airmen now occupying magnificent quarters at Burton-wood kindly to remove themselves from this country where, in my view, they are not wanted by the majority of the citizens, to have a general shuffle round, and then it would be found that the homeless of Thurrock would be able to some extent to occupy the camp of Orsett. I say to the Minister and, through him, to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that, as far as the homeless of Thurrock are concerned, they do not care two hoots for the American airmen in this country. They do not want the American atom bombers here. They would be pleased if the American atom bomb civilisation took itself off to its own country. Do not let it be said that we are hard up for quarters. The answer to that is, kick the Americans out and let Britishers take over.

Secondly it is about time we stopped spending something like £900 million a year in preparation for the third world war. It is time the people of Thurrock who cannot get houses were given houses and the policy of the Government in this respect changed.

Mr. Walter Fletcher (Bury)

It is time the hon. Member sat down.

Mr. Solley

I know it does not appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite who have their country houses and their clubs. I know they want an atom bomb war. But the people for whom I speak do not care two hoots about appellations of "cryptos" and "fellow travellers." They want homes and peace. I know they would back me up and, indeed, they back me up 100 per cent.

Mr. E. L. Gandar Dower (Caithness and Sutherland)

They would not appreciate some of the hon. Member's views.

Mr. Solley

There are a number of detailed matters which I wish to put to the hon. Member who is to reply. First, I should like to know the precise purposes, which so far have not been disclosed in writing, for which this camp is used. I understood that at the time of the docks dispute there was a suggestion that soldiers who might be used in Tilbury Docks in the event of trouble—and no one is more pleased than I am that there was no trouble—were to be installed at Orsett Camp. I tell the Minister here and now that the people of Thurrock and the homeless of Tilbury do not want soldiers to be put into Orsett Camp and used against the dockers in any eventuality.

If, on the other hand, it is to be used as a transit camp—and I should like to know whether that is the Minister's intention—again I say that the people of Thurrock are not interested in transit camps as a preparation for the third world war. They are too near the atom bomb front and they do not like it. My third question is: can the Minister give me precise figures of the number of soldiers who have occupied this camp month by month in the last two years? It is suggested that from time to time this camp is nearly empty and at other times it appears to be reasonably full.

Finally, I call the attention of the Minister to one or two other War Office establishments. There is Abbotshall, Stanford-le-Hope. This is owned by the War Department, and here again we are told that it is being converted for married quarters. The War Office tell the local authorities that they cannot have it for civilian housing. When did this conversion begin, how much has it cost, when will it end and when does the Minister think that soldiers will go into Abbots-hall? If his plans are that, should a third world war start next year, he will use it next year, let him say so. If it is still empty, as I am told it is, let the people of Thurrock have it.

The next War Office establishment is Bucklies Camp, South Ockendon. In this case I hope the Minister will be a little more accommodating. The trouble there is that a game of shuttlecock is being played by his Department and the Ministry of Health. There is a suggestion about a loan from the War Office to the Ministry of Health. I plead with the Minister to examine this question with his colleague the Minister of Health and not allow the urban district council to become the victim of a shuttlecock system between one Department and another.

Then there is the Chadwell St. Mary Camp which we are told is also being converted for married quarters. I ask the same questions: when did the conversion begin, if it ever did, when is it proposed to end, and how many married people are now living there on the instructions of the War Office? We in Thurrock would like to know.

My concluding question is about the Purfleet Garrison. I have received tragic letters from families there who are being evicted on to the cold stones by his Department and they are not interested in the slightest degree about the desirability of having extensive accommodation for the military. They want homes. They deserve homes. I promised at the General Election to do what I could to give them homes, and that is why I am taking up this attitude now.

I appreciate the difficulties of the Minister. They are not of his own making; they are the result of Cabinet policy which gives priority to bombers over homes, to guns over houses, to military camps like Orsett Camp rather than to the homeless of Thurrock. But even within the limits of this Cabinet priority system, cannot the hon. Gentleman do something, if only temporarily, to make available to the Thurrock Urban District Council some of this tremendous potential accommodation so that to a substantial extent the housing difficulties of Thurrock can be alleviated?

8.10 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I have a great deal of sympathy for the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Solley), because in my own constituency I have had precisely the same difficulty, and what I may say in this Debate may, perhaps influence the War Office in taking up a more sympathetic attitude than they have done previously.

The hon. Member has said that 4,000 people in his constituency are waiting for new houses. Most of us in Scotland have far bigger lists than that.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

And in England.

Mr. Hughes

Recently in my own constituency we had precisely the same set of circumstances as the hon. Member for Thurrock has described, with an empty military camp in the neighbourhood of a mining town which had a very grave housing problem. The camp had been empty for something like 12 months and there had been various rumours that it was to be handed over by the War Office to the local authority. Naturally, inhabitants of the nearby mining area became very curious to know when they would get into the camp. Negotiations with the county council continued for a considerable time, and the council had even gone to the length of drawing up a list of prospective tenants for the huts which formed the camp.

Suddenly, news came from the War Office that all the negotiations were off and that the camp was still to be required for military purposes. As a result, of course, considerable dissatisfaction was aroused, and one afternoon in the House I received a telegram from my constituents saying that the local miners had invaded the camp and asking me to come immediately to help to ease the situation. I deliberately kept away from the camp in case it was suggested that I had instigated their entry into the camp. I had done nothing of the kind; I never attempt to encourage people in disobeying the letter of the law. After waiting a fortnight, I received a further telegram to say that still more people were in the camp. On returning to my constituency I found that it was in the occupation of the local miners, many of whom had seen long service in the Forces.

I want to give one or two illustrations to show the complete anomaly of the housing situation in relation to the military situation. I went to interview the camp committee and asked, "Have you any ex-soldiers who think they have a case?" The next thing we heard was that all these people had had a notice that they were to be prosecuted for trespassing in the camp. The camp was run in a very orderly fashion by the people, who were called "squatters" but did not merit that name, and at least a dozen had served on all fronts during the war. I had men who had served in the Royal Air Force with distinguished records; men who had been on convoys, in France and at El Alamein. I went to the police court to defend them, and I put the case before I brought the men into court. I said, "These men have had years and years of fighting for King and country, by air, by sea and by land, and I submit that it is not just to evict these men from their homes at a time when the housing situation is so bad."

I will say this for the War Office. When these facts became clear, after a good deal of pressure by me on the Secretary of State for War, the right hon. Gentleman withdrew the eviction notices; and the men are still in the camp. I suggest that the same consideration which the War Office showed to the camp at Pennylands, near Auchinleck, in Ayrshire should be extended to the homeless people who are now demanding homes in the neighbourhood of Thurrock. I am quite sure that the hon. Member for Thurrock could take a cross-section of the 4,000 people of whom he has spoken and find men with distinguished service records who had fought on all fronts.

Mr. Solley

indicated assent.

Mr. Hughes

What irony it is that when people return after giving six years to their country they are without homes in which to house their wives and families!

On other occasions the War Office have not been quite so considerate. I admit that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary try to approach these human questions in a friendlier spirit than did previous War Secretaries, but we have a certain ground of complaint against the attitude taken up by the War Office towards soldiers who have given up a quarter of a century of their lives to the Service and are living in married quarters. I am sorry that the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore) is not here to testify to all I have said. The War Office very often take up a very heartless and brutal attitude towards these people who are still living in married quarters, and the time comes when the War Office—after considerable warning, I know—evicts them on to the street. The cases which I shall quote will show the drastic need of a complete change of heart by the War Office towards these people.

One day, outside the barracks at Ayr, I found four families who were homeless. Their belongings had been thrown out of the barracks and their furniture was covered by tarpaulin sheets, which had been given them not by the War Office but by the charity of a travelling showman. For 13 weeks the War Office let those four families lie out in the rain, refusing to do anything for them. One of the men was actually on the clerical side of the local Territorials; and although he had been in the Army machine for 25 years, his belongings were thrown outside the barracks and no provision was made for him.

That is a heartless way to deal with men who have been in the Army for 25 years. It is not a sufficient excuse to say that the quarters they occupy are needed for other people. Surely it would have been a gracious act by the War Office, if hutted accommodation was not available, at least to have given them a few tents. Actions of this sort create the attitude that, "You can give your life to your King and country, but at the end of the day what will be done about housing accommodation for you?" It is ironical and a remarkable commentary on our social system that people who entered the Forces on the plea that they were to defend their homes are without homes after giving a quarter of a century of their lives to the Service.

I do not know how the housing problem is to be solved if there are to be any economy cuts in housing. In the Debate last Friday I quoted figures showing that every unit of a man, wife and three children is now called upon to pay 28s. 6d. per week for defence, but less than 2s. for housing. The hon. Member for Thurrock has now quoted figures that 4,000 people with their families are having to pay 25s. per week for defending homes which they do not possess: We must try to face the question of housing as it relates to the functions of the War Office. It has been argued very firmly that we need accommodation for Service men, and I will not deny for a moment that if men are called up, they are entitled to all the shelter and amenities of life. But at present building labour is being taken out of industry into the Forces and being used for goodness knows what—certainly not for building. I suggest that a partial solution to this problem would be that, so long as our housing conditions are so bad that men who have served in the Forces for six years cannot get homes, there should be an end to this policy of calling building workers out of the building industry and putting them in the Services.

I have read articles recently by distinguished military ex-officers which reveal that today generals are cursing conscription because it provides more men than they really need. I suggest that it is reasonable to ask that building workers should not be called up and that building apprentices should be allowed to remain in industry until the housing problem has eased. I am sure that I carry with me in this matter my colleagues from the West of Scotland, who realise how acute is our housing position. We need apprentices to be trained to be plumbers, plasterers and joiners, to build houses. That should be a priority No. 1 task. We hear a lot about our commitments in Malaya, Hong Kong, Africa, and in other parts of the globe. But priority No. 1 is the housing front at home. Long before certain right hon. Members became Cabinet Ministers, and interested themselves in these commitments, they went round saying that housing was definitely a priority.

We have been told that housing should be a military operation. At the rate things are going in Scotland today—and the Under-Secretary is also expressing alarm in this matter—I can see that operations on the housing front will last for another 20 years. I wonder what the War Office would say about military operations in any sphere that were likely to drag on for another 20 years. We need to mobilise all our building resources to provide homes for our people. The operation on the housing front is going too slowly.

The Government ought to pay special attention to the urgent commitments we have for clearing slums and building new houses in our towns and in the countryside. They are just as important as our commitments in Hong Kong, Malaya, Aqaba or anywhere else. I want to see military camps used for civilians, and not solely for soldiers. I am sure that if conscripts especially could have their say, they would say "Our commitments are primarily to the working people of our country, who are shamefully housed in slums and overcrowded dwellings. That is priority No. 1, and we must not allow any Government to forget their responsibilities in that direction."

8.27 p.m.

Mr. E. L. Gandar Dower (Caithness and Sutherland)

I am sure that everyone here will wish to support the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Solley) in his plea that the Secretary of State for War, and indeed the heads of the other Service Ministries, should make certain that such camp accommodation as is available should be used where possible for housing purposes. There are in Scotland not only aerodromes—with which we are not particularly dealing at the moment—but military camps which have housed German prisoners, displaced persons and recalcitrant Poles and which should be carefully examined with a view to housing the people.

The Government are well aware of the contents of "Let Us Face the Future." I never believe that it is a good thing to try to make party capital out of an Adjournment Debate, but I am certain that the people of this country will shortly say to them "You must face the past on this question of housing." I am sure that no one is more disappointed than the Government that more has not beer done to achieve the laudable intentions which they announced when they took office.

We in Scotland feel that the problem of housing in Scotland is ultra-desperate. Anyone seeing the housing conditions in the outlying parts of Caithness and Sutherland, and other vast agricultural areas in our country, would realise how dismal it is to contemplate the progress of housing at its present rate. Although it is not appropriate now to plead for the removal of restrictive practices, such as laying only a certain number of bricks in a certain time, I think that building workers should work from dawn to dusk to catch up with housing arrears. I support the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). It is most unfortunate that building workers and apprentices should be called up for the Forces when workers are more urgently needed at home. I appeal to the trade unions to relax their restrictions on building operatives.

I draw attention to the neglect to derequisition camps and buildings on aerodromes. I hope shortly to be raising the question in regard to an airport which I know well. Within my knowledge, at Aberdeen Airport there are no fewer than 40 or 45 rooms which have been standing empty for more than five years, and a farmhouse which I own was requisitioned in 1939 and has been allowed to degenerate into a chicken run and piggery.

I think it rather sad that on a matter of housing there are not more Members of the Opposition present, while the complete absence of the Liberal Party obviously shows that they do not consider housing as a matter of importance in the coming General Election. I do not wish to go into party questions, but I hope that what the hon. Member for South Ayrshire said will be considered very solemnly and that no hutted accommodation or camps will be wasted, in view of the tremendous demand for housing and the abysmal conditions in which people live—conditions which would apply a strong temptation to any hon. Member of this House to take possession of premises against the law if he were homeless.

8.31 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has intervened in this Debate to raise a topic which is a favourite one with him and which I have answered before in this House. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Solley) will forgive me, since it is a somewhat separate topic from that which he raised, if I first address myself to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire.

My hon. Friend laid particular stress on the fact that it does happen from time to time that the War Office are obliged to take eviction proceedings against civilians who formerly have been soldiers and who are living in army married quarters. My hon. Friend described those occurrences with all the eloquence and feeling of which he is a master but he omitted certain important facts, of which I can hardly think he could be unaware since I drew his attention to them the last time he and I were speaking on this matter in this House.

First, the responsibility for housing civilians is quite naturally not a War Department responsibility. It is the responsibility, in the first instance, of the local authorities, and it is noteworthy that in certain areas in the country where there are military or naval establishments and where this problem arises some local authorities have found it possible to give us help in dealing with this problem. They say that we can arrange to put on their lists and provide accommodation for a certain number of the men who have to leave Service quarters every month. Where that has been done we have got some way towards a solution of the problem.

The reproaches of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire ought to be directed not so much against the War Office and Service Departments as against local authorities who have not been so co-operative in this matter.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Does the hon. Gentleman realise the colossal problem that affects local authorities? The town council of Ayr, which is not my town and is a Tory town, tried every possible device to find housing accommodation for these people. They completely failed and, in face of that, I maintain that it was a heartless action on the part of the War Office to throw those people out.

Mr. Stewart

I was saying that there are local authorities who have been co-operative on this problem and, if every local authority were as co-operative as some are, this problem would not be of the dimensions it is. When my hon. Friend says that it is a heartless action, has he no heart for the people we put into these houses? To judge from the way he and the hon. Member for Thurrock have spoken, one would imagine that as long as a man is a soldier he is to be described as part of the war machine and any action taken on the part of the War Office to provide him with a house is harsh and overriding a civilian need. Once the soldier has left the Army, once he is a civilian—and despite the fact that there is a civilian local authority responsible for housing—it is then and only then that hon. Members are prepared to invite our sympathy for him.

While we must all have great sympathy for people who suffer from the present housing shortage, whether they be Service men or civilians, it is surely both justice and common sense that where there is accommodation which belongs to a Service Department and which has been provided out of moneys voted by Parliament for that Service Department, we ought to use it in the first instance for men who are actually in the Forces. All that I am saying would, I agree, not carry very much weight if we proceeded in a hasty or reckless manner. Hon. Members know very well, however, because this is not the first time that this problem has been discussed in the House, that from the time when a man ceases to have any entitlement to a Service quarter months, and in some cases years, elapse before we require him to vacate it.

It is only in the last extremity—and, in some cases, when we have reason to believe that if we show willingness to proceed with eviction civilian accommodation will be found for him, whereas if we are patient we shall be required to continue being patient and see that quarter misappropriated indefinitely—that, with the personal sanction of the Secretary of State for War, we proceed with eviction. Therefore, when we say, as we are obliged to say from time to time, "This quarter is War Department property; our first responsibility is actually to the man in the Services rather than to a civilian but, admitting that first principle, we will none the less not rush hastily into eviction but will proceed cautiously, patiently and with humanity," as indeed we have proceeded, I do not think that we deserve the strictures which my hon. Friend has passed on us.

I now turn to the beginning of this Debate. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Thurrock was gratified but he must at all events have been surprised at the variety of subjects introduced into the Debate, and at the surprising variety of support which he has collected for his attack on the Government. It is not the first time that united fronts have made strange bedfellows. In the first instance the hon. Member for Thurrock developed a considerable attack on the policy of the Government in general and addressed many observations to me which he hoped I would pass on to the Foreign Secretary.

It would be undesirable in this Debate to go into that major issue which was raised by the hon. Member. That would to some extent he a repetition of the Adjournment Debate of last Friday on the cost of defence which was initiated by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire. The hon. Member for Thurrock said that we ought to be devoting a far lower proportion of the national resources to defence purposes of any kind in order that we might devote more to housing.

Mr. Solley

I did not quite say that, I did not put that gloss upon it. The Minister refers to "defence purposes," I put it rather differently—"preparation for the third world war."

Mr. Stewart

I was using the phrase "defence purposes" as it is commonly used in this House. The hon. Member takes the view that the military expenditure of this country is preparation for a third world war. What does he say about the preparations of other Powers, which consume a much larger proportion of their national income and production than does our expenditure on defence in this country, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire last Friday? If one compares the amount of its resources which this country spends on defence with that spent by certain other powers, it cannot be said that any charge of aggressive intent or deliberate preparation for war could be levied against this country. Hon. Members who are anxious—as I take it we are all anxious—to see this country delivered from what is no doubt a very great burden of military expenditure will, if they consider the problem rightly, realise that much of their addresses will have to be made, not to the Government of this country, but elsewhere.

I do not think that either the hon. Member for Thurrock or the House in general would wish me to pursue that point at great length. The hon. Member was more concerned with what he called the action taken by the War Office in refusing certain camps in his constituency and the neighbourhood, and particularly Orsett camp. I would invite the attention of the hon. Member to this point. He speaks of the action taken by the War Office in refusing certain camps. He appears to start with the initial assumption that if there is in any area a military establishment, there is naturally a prima facie case for handing it over for housing purposes; and that it is the immediate duty of the War Office to do so unless they can produce a defensive case why they should not.

I wonder if he will apply that criterion to many other types of accommodation, public and private? If, to take as an example, we were to discover somewhere a large building occupied by persons employed in the working of the football pools, could he say that any overcrowding and any housing problem in the neighbourhood was directly due to the action of the football pools in having the premises as their business premises and not allowing them to be used for housing? That is what the hon. Member is saying in regard to the War Office. He takes the view that the purposes for which the War Office exists, and for which military camps exist, is by any criterion a completely useless and worthless purpose. If that is the point he is making, and that I daresay is the view taken by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, then we reach a field where argument is useless. But I do not believe that most people will take that view.

Let us look at Orsett camp in particular. The hon. Member for Thurrock mentioned the figure of 2,100 soldiers who could be accommodated in that camp. But we must point out that that is purely a theoretical figure. It depends on the assumption that every piece of accommodation in that camp is used entirely for housing, as places where the soldiers will actually sleep. If we were to put 2,100 soldiers into that camp there would be no buildings left which could be used as offices of any kind, or which could be used for medical purposes, or lecture rooms, or for instruction or recreation. It is only on that assumption that we could get 2,100 soldiers into the camp. When the hon. Member for Thurrock suggests that, on this assumption of putting 2,100 soldiers into the camp, we could therefore put 500 families into it I doubt if he would carry many people with him. It is the nature of families that they do not consist of people of the same age and sex.

If these families were put into the camp on that basis they would find themselves living in barrack room accommodation, as soldiers live in a barrack room. Once we had attempted to provide the reasonable degree of separation and privacy which, even at the lowest standard would be necessary, it would not be possible to put anything like 500 families into the camp, even if we took up the whole camp which, as has been pointed out, the local authority did not ask. When we look at the fact that there must be some buildings for instructional purposes, medical rooms and the rest, the accommodation comes down to that sufficient for about 1,700 soldiers.

Then we have to notice that this camp has to meet, both in the summer camp period and at week-ends, a Territorial Army commitment. That commitment takes away accommodation for about another 400, and leaves us with possible accommodation for about 1,300 soldiers. When, as a result of the representation of the hon. Member for Thurrock, I visited the camp the number actually occupying it was about 900. It is now in the neighbourhood of 1,000. The real gap between what this camp could accommodate if it were full and fulfilling its T.A. commitments and what it is now accommodating is a matter of about 300 soldiers, though I shall show that a hole has been knocked even in that figure since the matter was first examined.

Even the bitterest critic of military arrangements will agree that it is not possible so to arrange War Office accommodation that every piece of it is 100 per cent. full at any one moment. It will be recognised that if we are to fulfil the duties that the nation requires of us, men must be sent to various places in this country and overseas. Men must be sent as reinforcements, and other men must come back home. At any one moment, if we are to have moderate elbow room for such movements, there is bound to be a certain amount of vacant accommodation. In fact, the vacant accommodation at Orsett amounts to about one-fifth to one-sixth of the total. We could increase the number of soldiers in the camp by about 20 per cent.

When I had examined this matter, and when I had received a deputation from the Thurrock Council, I did not feel entirely satisfied with the use that was being made of the camp, and I visited it personally. At this point I would comment on the description of it as a luxurious camp. That is a description which appeared to be based largely on the fact that there was linoleum on some of the floors. I am bound to say that good linoleum is hard to come by today. It is a very attractive material to have on a floor, particularly if otherwise one would be walking on bare stone, but I have never regarded the presence of linoleum as evidence of the almost sybaritic luxury which my hon. Friend described. This is good accommodation. It is decidedly above average when I compare it with some of the accommodation in which, unfortunately, we are still obliged to ask soldiers to live. I am extremely glad that we have some camps like Orsett where the accommodation is above average.

It became apparent when I visited the camp that we were keeping a greater cushion of vacant accommodation than was really necessary, but it was also apparent that if we were to abandon that and to turn it to any other use, there was one use which cried out for priority, and that was that the accommodation should be converted into married quarters for soldiers. It would have been quite inadmissible to hand over this accommodation for civilian housing while there was still a responsibility for the housing of soldiers which we had not fulfilled. Following upon my visit, arrangements were immediately made for the conversion of some of the vacant accommodation to married quarters. That work is now proceeding rapidly.

The present situation at the camp may be summed up in this way: There are some 297 buildings in the camp of which 221 are fully occupied by troops; 25 are in process of being turned into married quarters and shortly another 14 will be converted; and 37 buildings remain empty and not committed for married quarters. The latter buildings are required in order to fulfil the Territorial Army requirements which I mentioned earlier.

It cannot be maintained, therefore, that we have recklessly and extravagantly allowed useful accommodation to stand idle in face of the undoubtedly serious civilian housing problem. I was obliged to conclude that it was not possible to help the hon. Member for Thurrock or the local authority in its problem of civilian housing by offering them the whole or part of Orsett Camp. To have done so would have meant interfering with the training of the Territorial Army, cutting out altogether the accommodation provided for certain military units which had to be in the neighbourhood, and interrupting part of our important programme for the provision of married quarters.

I might add, in view of what was said by the hon. Member for Thurrock, that if the London dock strike had continued, it might well have been necessary to use the accommodation at Thurrock, but I would say not to house soldiers for use against the dockers. If the hon. Member had been a little more successful in helping to prolong that dispute, to the impoverishment of this nation, it might have been necessary to move large numbers of troops, and we should thus have required some of that accommodation.

Mr. Solley

I was not one of those who was responsible for the continuation of the dispute; on the contrary, I urged that the dispute should be terminated almost immediately after it started by isolating the ships in dispute. The hon. Gentleman should not introduce this red herring, but should keep to the path of the Debate.

Mr. Stewart

I am introducing the topic of the London dock strike because it was introduced by the hon. Member himself, and the attitude he took in it is well-known to hon. Members, who will be able to judge whether my description was or was not correct.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

The hon. Member had nothing to do with it from beginning to end.

Mr. Stewart

That, I think, was not his own view of the matter.

It was not possible to meet the hon. Member on the lines that we should make over the whole or part of this camp, but it would be wrong to say that we have ignored the housing difficulties of Thurrock. The hon. Member mentioned certain camps which are now being turned into married quarters. Well, that work of conversion is proceeding, and that is a good reason why they cannot be handed over to civilian use. What the hon. Member did not mention were certain camps in the neighbourhood which have been transferred entirely or handed over on loan for civilian housing. He mentioned in particular Bucklies Camp, and, as I informed him for the information of the Thurrock Council some months ago, we should be willing to consider lending that camp to the Ministry of Health for use by the local authority for civilian housing, and we invited the civilian housing authority to take the necessary steps to that end. If, since then, any administrative difficulties have arisen, I would be glad to accept the hon. Member's suggestion and do my best to resolve them.

I ought to mention, since the hon. Gentleman has not done so, the Bucklands Camp at Tilbury and the Belmont Camp at Grays, both of which are lent to the Ministry of Health for civilian housing. Two camps at Purfleet were transferred outright from the War Office some time ago. This illustrates that we have not been blind to our duties and that we are not holding on to accommodation unnecessarily. What is being suggested by the hon. Member for Thurrock is not merely that we should, wherever we can, transfer, but that we are in fact obliged to hand over any accommodation which any civil authority may require. If we did that, it would be impossible for us to carry out the responsibilities which this House and the nation require us to meet.

Finally, I put this question to the hon. Member: What is it that he and his constituents are saying? Are they saying "We do not want this country to have any military preparations at all"? If they are, it is at least consistent, though I doubt very much whether that is what his constituents are saying. Are they, then, saying "We are agreed that there should be an Army, that there should be soldiers and that they should be housed, but it must be done somewhere else where it cannot possibly inconvenience us"? I do not believe his constituents would be so lacking in public spirit as to take up either attitude.

Mr. Solley

Since the hon. Gentleman has asked me a question as to what my constituents have been saying to me, may I tell him? What they have said to me from time to time is that they appreciate that it is necessary for our country to have adequate Defence Forces. For that purpose, they appreciate that it is necessary to have camps, and they also appreciate that the increasing expenditure on the Army would be quite unnecessary if we did not pursue a foreign policy that involved all these commitments. These camps, such as that at Orsett—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The hon. Gentleman really cannot make a second or third speech. He may be entitled, as the Minister gave way to him, to intervene for a moment, but he certainly cannot make another speech.

Mr. Solley

I was asked a question, and, with respect to the Chair, I ought surely to be given the opportunity of answering the question?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think the question was more rhetorical than anything else.

Mr. Solley

Then it should not have been put in that way.

Mr. Stewart

I think the hon. Member has answered it plainly enough, though it remains to be seen whether his constituents will take the view about the Government's foreign policy which he attributes to them.

In conclusion, I would draw the attention of the House to the camps I have mentioned in this neighbourhood which we have made over for civilian use, and which were not mentioned by the hon. Member for Thurrock in the presentation of his case. I believe that if they are kept in mind, it will appear that we have tried to discharge our responsibilities while maintaining a proper balance between our duty to provide for the defence of the country and for the adequate accommodation of soldiers, and our duty not to be unreasonable in face of civilian difficulties and distress in regard to housing.

Mr. Solley

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him two questions? The first is, in order to put the matter into proper perspective, will he say how many soldiers were housed in the camps handed over to the Thurrock District Council compared with Orsett camp, and, secondly, in view of his statement about the conditions in Orsett camp, would he be prepared to permit me to visit that camp in order that I might satisfy myself that what he has now said meets the situation? May I have an answer?