HC Deb 27 July 1950 vol 478 cc828-38

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

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)

The matter to which I desire to call the attention of the House, and of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport in particular, is the widespread anxiety which is being experienced by many families throughout the country who are living in houses under the control of the British Transport Commission and who, for reasons such as bereavement or retirement, reasons beyond their control, find themselves under the shadow of eviction or the threat of eviction. I want to be brief, because I know that the hon. Member for Erdington (Mr. J. Silverman) and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), who also balloted for the Adjournment with me, will wish to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.

This problem is not a new one. In my constituency of Ladywood, Birmingham, before the railways were nationalised, I made a strong appeal to the railway companies not to evict families in the constituency because of the grave housing problem in the City of Birmingham. Unfortunately, a number of families were evicted in the city; but it was my hope and the hope of my hon. Friends, that with the creation of a nationalised industry there would be a better and more moral approach to this problem rather than a legal approach. I can appreciate that railway workers feel disturbed when non-railway workers occupy houses at the expense of those engaged in the industry, but I submit that those who are facing retirement after long service, and the widows of railwaymen, are in rather a special category. It seems to me reprehensible that those who are facing retirement, those who have reached the eventide of life, and also widows, should be subject to the ordeal of facing a court, with the inevitable consequences of eviction.

It is to this aspect of the problem that I wish to call attention tonight. I was very interested to read an article, written by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), on tied cottages and published in the "Railway Review" of 27th May, 1949. He referred to a member of the National Union of Railwaymen, who lived in a tied cottage for 30 years but who was evicted to make room for an agricultural worker. My hon. Friend said that "another feature of this pernicious system" was that when a member of the N.U.R., with a long record of faithful service on the line, reached retirement age he faced the same threat of being turned out of what had been his home for many years. Further, he recommended that "all our people throughout the country should give full publicity" to any cases similar to that he had described.

I do not know if my hon. Friend is here, but if so, he will appreciate the case which I am about to raise. It concerns a constituent of mine, a railwayman who entered the employ of the company before the 1914 war, and who gave no less than 41 years of faithful service, without a blemish upon his character; and during a part of that period he served in the 1914–18 war. This man, unfortunately, died on 28th September last year, and on 3rd October, he was buried. The following day, 4th October, a representative of British Railways called upon his widow, who was naturally distressed, and suggested, at that moment, that she would probably have to give up her house.

On 5th October—the very next day, I would emphasise—an official intimation was received by this unfortunate lady. Six months later, a further letter was sent from British Railways, saying: Referring to my previous letter of 5th October, I have now ascertained that the house you occupy is required for an employee of the Railway Executive and that I am obliged, therefore, to inform you that unless possession is given within two months—that is, on 1st July, 1950—I shall be compelled to instruct the Executive's solicitors to institute court proceedings. This was told to a widow with three children.

I wrote immediately to the Railway Executive, because I thought that this might be an exceptional case. But I was amazed to receive a letter from the Chief Regional Officer, at Euston, in which he said it was unfortunately similar to many others all over the country, and that the necessity for the action which had to be taken in the instance in which I am interested, was much regretted.

When I learned that there were many similar cases—and since then I have heard much information which confirms that there are other cases—I thought this was a problem of fundamental public importance. Therefore, I thought I was entitled to ask a question. Unfortunately, I could not get it past the Table and I think that this is the only appropriate way in which to raise the matter. This particular widow may, I think, be given an extended period during which time she is expected to get further accommodation, but there is a cloud of mental anguish hanging over her and her three children. I approached the Estates Department of British Railways and the chairman of the appropriate committee in Birmingham, though I can appreciate the dilemma of the local authority when it is recalled that there are over 50,000 on the local registers who are waiting for houses and 40,000 families living in rooms.

The General Manager informed me only this week, by letter: The number of court orders dealt with by the Birmingham Estates Department from July, 1949, to July, 1950, was no less than 419–8 per week—out of which 129 were provided with accommodation. Each case is dealt with on its merits and, of course, you will realise it would be impossible to give assistance to everyone, as this would interfere with priorities. I would ask the Minister to consult with the Minister of Health because if there is to be a continuation of evictions in this way, then a very grave situation will arise which will add to the dilemma of the local authorities.

That retired workers with long service and the widows of the men who have given long and faithful service should be subject at this moment to mental and physical distress is, frankly, monstrous. However frequently these actions are committed by private enterprise with legal sanctions, I say that it is morally indefensible that such actions should be committed by a public corporation which is expected to act and speak in the name of the British nation. If these actions proceed it means, ultimately, that the nation will lose its self-respect.

I say, in conclusion, that even from the earliest Christian writers the plight of the widow, the fatherless and the children has been the subject of almost every moral and spiritual appeal to the world. Our own Socialist philosophy is based in essence upon the moral appeal of Christianity. So, tonight, I appeal to my right hon. Friend to do whatever he possibly can to bring about some administrative action which will at least alleviate the suffering and the anxiety of many families.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Erdington)

I think this House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood (Mr. Yates) for raising this important public issue. This is not merely a matter of administrative detail of the railway companies which may be properly left to the Railway Executive. It is a matter of policy and an important matter of policy, too, and I hope that the Minister, when he comes to reply, will recognise it as his responsibility.

I have a case as bad as that mentioned by my hon. Friend. It was a case, quite recently, of a lady—

Major Hicks-Beach (Cheltenham)

Was it since nationalisation?

Mr. Silverman

It was since nationalisation. I admit that these things have been going on before nationalisation: it is simply a continuation of the policy which was adopted before. It is something which we think is wrong. It is one of the bad habits of private enterprise, which is being carried on—

Major Hicks-Beach

The hon. Member said "bad habits of private enterprise." Can he give a single example of where, under the private enterprise, a railway employee's widow was turned out without having been given at least three months' notice?

Mr. Silverman

As a matter of fact—and I want to be quite fair—in this case the Railway Executive has been more considerate than that.

Major Hicks-Beach

Does the hon. Member know any case where the Railway Executive have put anybody out, because I know of many cases in Crewe and so far they have acted with generosity?

Mr. Silverman

I am sorry; I must get on. Some of my colleagues desire to speak. This woman has been threatened with eviction.

Major Hicks-Beach

For how long has she been threatened with eviction?

Mr. Silverman

For several months. I hope that the threat will not be carried out, but it lies over her head at this moment. A person who has worked for the railways for 28 years, who has occupied the present house for 17 years, and who retires is told by the Railway Executive, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Now clear out, we want the house for someone else." That is an entirely wrong and immoral thing, and the House is entitled to protest against it.

I can understand that attitude being adopted in the case of a tied house for say, a signalman, at a remote station where it is, possibly, essential that the employee should live near the station. This did not apply in this case, for it was in the centre of a big city, and it means that one person is being turned out to make room for another. It is a heartless case and I hope that the Minister of Transport will give us more pleasing news of the more favourable intentions of the Railway Executive.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

As the hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. Yates) said, this question of the railway tied house is no new one. As far as I know—and I have had to deal with these matters—the private railway companies used a great deal of discretion in turning out the railwayman's widow, as sometimes there used to be trouble in the newspapers, and trouble which could not really be given publicity. I remember the first time my name appeared in the newspapers. I was accused of persecuting a railwayman's widow in just such circumstances as have been described. The point which did not appear was that the lady was not the man's widow at all, and had no business to be in the house. That was the reason why we were trying to get her out of it.

I hope hon. Gentlemen will think of this matter from the railwaymen's point of view. After all, the railway cottage was not built as a means of getting extra profit. It was built because certain houses were vitally necessary for certain classes of workers, the men who were on late turn or night shift, for whom it was difficult to find accommodation anywhere else.

I give as an example the case of a fireman in my constituency, who is living in one room with his wife and child, 4½ miles from his station, where he is on the night turn. What is more, he is expecting an increase to his family. Those are absolutely impossible conditions and I took the case up with the Railway Executive. I got the answer that they could do nothing because such houses as they had were already occupied. When their own servants cannot carry out their work efficiently—and this man cannot be expected to cycle that distance in the middle of the night in wild weather in the middle of Cornwall—it is an impossible position. There are many such cases and that is why there are railway houses and why they are necessary for railwaymen. I feel that British Railways give every possible latitude to railwaymen's widows, and will continue to do so, but I would ask hon. Gentlemen to remember the position of the railwayman who wants a house.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

Was it not the hon. Gentleman's experience that it was not a question of acting harshly against any one particular person, but of reconciling two conflicting hardships?

Mr. Wilson

Yes. In the case I have mentioned there was no justification for complaint.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I am interested in this problem as I have the honour to represent the division of Kilmarnock, one of the most important railway centres in Scotland, a town with all the locomotive and wagon works at Bonnyton Square, and all the locomotive workers grouped at Barleith, living in railway cottages. I appreciate the difficulties of the Railway Executive in having to meet heavy costs for travelling time and lodging money to men living outside their own area. At the same time, I feel that the Railway Executive are overlooking, or not putting sufficient emphasis on, the matter which the hon. Gentleman has raised. Think of the mental anguish caused to a man of 65 or 70 years of age, and his wife, who have lived in a house for, perhaps, 50 years, when they are threatened with eviction.

Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

The hon. Gentleman should work for farmers if he wants to know about tied cottages.

Mr. Ross

I am not concerned with farmers; I am concerned with the sufferings of my constituents. I have had correspondence with the Minister of Transport on two particular cases; one the case of a man with 53 years' service on the railways, the son of a railwayman with 50 years' service, and a man whose son is now in the railways. They had all been born and brought up in this locality. After 53 years' service, one day he got a letter thanking him for his loyalty, and, the next day, another asking him to leave.

Major Hicks-Beach

What are the dates?

Mr. Ross

I am not concerned with dates or party points. This kind of thing has been going on for years and years, long before nationalisation, and it is far too serious a matter to talk about silly little things.

When this kind of thing happens in a small community where there is a family tradition it causes great bitterness and a sense of grave injustice. I know, for I am the son of a railwayman, and the grandson of one. I can assure the Minister that when this sort of thing happens to old timers whose loyalty and work have never been challenged—in one case the man had 53 years' service and in the other 47 years'—a sense of injustice is felt by the whole community. I suggest that it is wrong at a time when railwaymen are, upset over other things, to add to the feeling of bitterness. If the spirit of the last communication I had from my right hon. Friend—and for which I am deeply grateful—is followed in dealing with the widows of the old timers, and their conditions are given proper and due consideration by the Railway Executive, we shall be quite well satisfied tonight.

What is needed is a proper investigation into the whole question of railway tied houses, consultations with the local authorities regarding future needs, and particularly the giving of warning to men long before they retire so that they will be able to get their names down on housing lists. Meanwhile, my right hon. Friend should reassure these old railway servants and their wives that consideration for them did not end with that stereotyped letter thanking them for a lifetime of loyal service.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. Drayson (Skipton)

This is a matter which has affected a number of my constituents and I have taken it up with the Chairman of the Railway Executive. From another hon. Member who has spoken tonight, we heard of the unsatisfactory state of affairs which arises because one is not able to put down a Parliamentary Question on this matter. I sometimes wonder whether the Minister himself is aware of what is going on in the national railways for which he is supposed to be responsible. I have had a letter from the Railway Executive regretting the action which they had to take in connection with one of my constituents who had served for over 40 years on the railways. They even asked me if I, as the local Member of Parliament, could use my influence with the local authority to see that more houses were made available for railway workers.

I should like to ask the Minister what building plans he has to increase the number of houses available. What approach has he made to the Minister of Health or to the appropriate Government Department to ask permission for the nationalised railways to build more houses for the railway workers? It should be quite unnecessary for the Railway Executive to ask me to use my influence. Surely, they should go to the Minister or to the Minister of Health for permission for the nationalised railways to build more houses. This sort of thing did not happen before the railways were nationalised, because there were plenty of houses. [Interruption.] When a man was going to retire, he was able to save up for a home for his retirement. It is only since the present Government have been in power and have failed to solve the housing problem that many of these problems have arisen.

10.57 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

A subject of this character is bound to appeal to the deep emotions of hon. Members, because from whichever angle this problem is considered it involves individuals who are suffering considerable distress and hardship. The problem is not a new one in this House; it stretches back over a very long period. The problem of housing has been aggravated by two wars, and I have been sufficiently long in the House to have seen the efforts that various Governments have made to grapple with it. Recognising that, whatever was done with regard to housing, a great number of people would be requiring accommodation, Parliament has provided that in these matters resort should be made to the law and the issue decided on a matter of hardship.

Whilst references have been made to individuals whose distress is quite apparent, there has not been a single case quoted tonight of a person actually being evicted. What it amounts to is that hon. Members are asking me to do something which I have no power to do. Hon. Members are no doubt aware that in a matter of this kind the Minister has no power to intervene; he cannot go to the Railway Executive and say that they shall not take advantage of the law as provided by Parliament.

In reply to the suggestion that the Railway Executive should build more houses, I would point out that the Executive receive no Exchequer grant; it is not a case of their being rate-aided. The four main line railway companies had built 52,000 houses for the specific purpose of meeting the peculiar needs of railway men who have to be shifted about, who are liable to be called upon to carry out their duties under all circumstances, and who are performing a vital national service. Of those 52,000 houses which the Transport Commission have inherited with all their other problems, 21,000 are occupied by protected tenants under the Rent Restriction Acts.

With regard to the other 31,000, it is quite clear, from the character of this problem, that when they took possession of these properties they themselves were dispossessing other persons. They took the properties on those conditions. Then the railway operators are faced with the problem of promotion, and the transfer of individuals who have to carry out special duties. This is not a case of the Railway Executive trying to turn people out for profit. It is a matter of having to meet two forms of pressure—pressure from its own staff, who want to be promoted or have to be shifted about the country, and of staff who are faced with the problem of maintaining two homes.

The original case which was quoted by the hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. Yates) involved a man who is a fireman and who wanted this particular house. He and his wife and, I believe, two children were living in one room. The Railway Executive has shown great reasonableness in this matter. Their own staff need possession of the Executive's houses, and it eventually comes down to the point that they resort to the provisions which Parliament has made enabling the courts to decide. In every case quoted tonight the period of tenancy has been extended, and extended with a view to finding some other solution. This is an exceedingly difficult problem and the Railway Executive, being fully aware of the feelings of hon. Members, is doing its best to solve it.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Two Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.