HC Deb 09 December 1952 vol 509 cc389-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Draft Civil Defence (Billeting) Regulations, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th July, 1952, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.—[Mr. Butcher.]

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I am rather surprised that there is no Minister here responsible for these Regulations relating to Civil Defence. Neither the Minister nor the Parliamentary Secretary is here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"] Here comes the Parliamentary Secretary. After we have heard what the Government have to say about this Motion we can, perhaps, agree to it, Is there no explanation?

10.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The explanation is that if an emergency comes, it will be necessary to see that the people who are in difficulties are able to get accommodation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I can assure the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) that the Government have gone into this very thoroughly before, as he knows from his term of office at the Home Office. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it really will be necessary to see that the unfortunate people who are in difficulties are able to be housed and properly looked after in the case of enemy hostilities. It is for this praiseworthy reason that the Government have these Regulations in mind. If there is any particular respect which the hon. Gentleman has in mind, or to which the Opposition object, I am quite certain that the Government will be agreeable to look at it, hut the Regulations are to enable the unfortunate people who are in difficulties in the case of enemy hostilities to be looked after.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. de Freitas

Many of us thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been in better training than this after all the physical jerks he does and the amount of bicycle riding that takes place. He did not do too badly considering he took the order quite unseen. However, I think we are entitled—without any question of taking any great time over the matter—to be told what local authorities these Regulations apply to. As I understand it—if I am right, the hon. Gentleman will tell me so: if I am wrong he will correct me—this order completes the billeting scheme covering various types of authorities, both the reception authorities and the authorities from whose areas people will he evacuated. The basis of the whole scheme, which would have to operate if, unfortunately, we were involved in a war, is the dispersal of population. This would be so whether the attack were atomic or by other methods of mass destruction or by what we call "conventional" methods.

There are one or two questions I want to ask. One concerns the speech made by the Minister of Housing and Local Government a week ago, in which he said, as reported in "The Times," that arrangements should take into account the possibility that Britain might have to receive refugees from other countries. That is either mere speculation, in which case we ought to be told that it is; or it is a statement of major policy concerning our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. If it is a statement of policy, we ought to know why it was not made in this House, and we ought to know the details of that plan. On behalf of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Ede) the then Home Secretary I did have conversations with other Ministers concerned with civil defence in Europe. But there was then no question of schemes for the reception of refugees.

I should mention that we like the way the Government have followed the previous Government in impressing upon people that so much can be done in Civil Defence to mitigate the effects of atomic attack by study and careful training; but as I have pointed out before, the manual on which we work is based on the effects of the 1945 Horoshima type of bomb. I should like to know whether the Government intend to bring forward a manual based on the Montebello type of bomb. The Government must bring forward such a manual.

As to the Regulations which the Parliamentary Secretary somewhat ignored, they complete the scheme for billeting, and on behalf of my hon. Friends I would ask local authorities who have this heavy burden imposed upon them to accept it as they did in the past. Those of us who have served on local authorities sometimes think that Parliament imposes duties upon them without much consideration. I hope it may be said that at least the Opposition if not the Government has considered this and thinks it justifiable that there should be this scheme.

Mr. Marples

If I may speak again, by leave of the House, I would say that the local authority associations have been consulted and have agreed with the Government the draft Regulations. Therefore it is not right to say that this is an additional burden. The purpose of these Regulations is to enable local authorities in evacuation and neutral areas to make formal arrangements for the accommodation of homeless persons and refugees. I do not think the House will expect me to go into the possible effects of an atomic explosion, whether of the recent, or the older, type.

All I can say is that these Regulations are necessary to enable authorities in evacuation and neutral areas to make preparations for the reception not only of homeless people, but perhaps of refugees rendered homeless in this country. The local authority associations have been taken into consultation, and, as they are in agreement with the Government, I hope the House will agree to the Regulations.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

The House has reason to complain of the casual way these Regulations have been introduced. Surely Regulations which are so far-reaching in character that they affect huge masses of the population should have been treated in a more detailed way than they were by a Minister who was handed his brief at the last moment and did not seem to understand the importance of it. He referred to an emergency. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that these important Civil Defence Regulations have been before us since 4th July, and it is only now that the Government have found time to submit them for the consideration of the House. We have had all kinds of less important legislation, such as Bills affecting the rights to control the "pubs" in the new towns, but apparently consideration of the fate of the civil population in the next war must be delayed and delayed until December, when time is found to consider Regulations which have been before us since 4th July.

These Regulations impose very heavy duties upon local authorities, who will have every reason to complain about the way this has been done. References have been made to the possible results of an atom bomb explosion over London. Far from a small fraction of the population having to be dispersed throughout the country and billeted in country districts, we are concerned here with a huge problem to which the Government have not given the necessary consideration. The Regulations lay down that: It shall be the duty of every local authority, in accordance with the directions of the Minister, to make plans for the provision and maintenance of a service in their area for the billeting therein of persons who, owing to hostile action or a threat of hostile action, are made homeless or leave their homes, or are refugees or persons repatriated from abroad. We are entitled to know how many people are likely to be affected in this way. If atom bombs drop on London, Liverpool, or any of the other big seaports, we shall have to deal with a billeting problem entirely different from the billeting problem of the last war. What will be the fate of the unfortunate billeting officers in Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire or Wales who are called upon to provide accommodation for millions of homeless people who are likely to be taken from the big towns? In addition, they are asked to provide for large numbers of homeless people from Germany. I suggest that we are placing a far greater burden of responsibility on the local authorities to find homes for these people than can possibly be undertaken with the machinery outlined in these Regulations.

Although the Parliamentary Secretary did not realise it, these Regulations establish military Communism on a large scale in our rural areas. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If a billeting officer is given power to take the name of every inhabitant in his area, to find out the number of rooms and to provide information for billeting people from other parts of the country, or foreigners, that is surely an invasion of the Englishman's home and establishes the worst kind of Communism in this country. I suggest that the Government have not given sufficient thought to this; that they have not the housing accommodation in the country, and that these Regulations show that, instead of having elaborate plans for Civil Defence, while the Government have elaborate plans for attacking other countries, they have no adequate plans for defending our civil population against possible counter-attacks.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

Having regard to the claims which the party opposite have been making since 25th October last year that the danger of war is receding, and particularly having regard to the fact that the Prime Minister announced last week a cut in the defence programme, I cannot understand why this Regulation should be brought forward at this particular time.

We are told that since this Government came into power the tension has eased and the danger of war has receded. The party opposite have tried to pretend that we have been the war party and that over the last 14 months they have justified their claim that peace is safe so long as they are in power. But if that is so, then I do not understand why this Regulation should be brought in now. Nor do I understand why it should be so loosely worded. It does not make clear whether the billeting officers will have power to invade the Englishman's home, which is his castle, or not.

Is it to be a voluntary system or a compulsory system? If it is to be a compulsory system, then I hope it is going to be applied in a much fairer manner than was the scheme operated during, the last war. Although I lived in a reception area throughout the last war, I know that there was a large measure of discontent because people who had the facilities, the accommodation and the time failed to give the children and the workers who were evacuated to their areas the accommodation to which they were entitled. On the other hand, the poor, humble homes that lacked facilities and accommodation very rightly, due to their humanity, overcrowded themselves.

I would like to know—assuming that it becomes necessary for this Regulation to operate, which God forbid—whether the billeting officers will have compulsory powers, and, if so, whether they will use them fairly and will not send the homeless people into working-class homes while people with much bigger houses and more accommodation fail to do their duty.

Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

They never were.

Mr. Fernyhough

The hon. and gallant Gentleman says they never were. It is useless for him to say that, because I know what happened in my own locality.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

May I ask the hon. Gentleman if he is aware that in other localities precisely the opposite happened?

Mr. Fernyhough

I am glad to hear that, and I hope that in my locality that will be our experience if ever these Regulations become operative, which I fervently hope they will not. It would be the greatest tragedy of this world if ever these Regulations had to be given effect to.

The Government would appear to have brought forward these Regulations at a most inopportune time. They have not given the House the information it ought to have, and I hope they will see to it that on any future occasion the unfairness which operated in many instances on the last occasion will not be repeated.

Mr. Ralph Assheton (Blackburn, West)

May I ask the Minister one question? In Clause 1 (2), the Interpretation Act, 1899, does he really mean the Interpretation Act, 1889?

Mr. Marples

indicated assent.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary one question, and one only? Would it not help the local authorities in the exercise of their duties if his manual were brought up to date?

10.59 p.m.

Sir Sidney Marshall (Sutton and Cheam)

I hesitate to break into this debate at this time of night,. but I am forced to do so because of the remarks that have come from the other side in regard to these Regulations. I should imagine that every person who is in this House tonight and who had some experience of Civil Defence during the last war would be fully aware of the necessity for these Regulations. I had the experience. and I was not proud of it.

These Regulations are essential. The Civil Defence services should realise, as the Home Secretary said the other day, that they are the fourth line of defence. They were warned of the necessity for making provision for the larger numbers that were expected to be evacuated from London at very short notice. They did not agree, but we made what provision we could.

The Regulations enable the local authorities to do what they had to do in 1939 and 1940. No one would deny the necessity for the local authorities to be able fully to make all the provision which may be necessary, because of the changed forms of attack which might occur, whereby the home front might easily become the battle front. That is the difficulty in anything we may have to encounter in the years to come.

In the latter part of the war the battle front came very near to our own homes, and it is therefore necessary to give to the local authorities all the powers needed to prepare for such things. I hope that the House will give that authority by passing these Regulations, which are needed for the common defence, and will give them united support.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

I speak as one who remembers his own experiences during the last war of getting children away into the country. It must be within the knowledge of many hon. Members that billeting officers found some of the best areas of the country occupied by wealthy business people. I had the experience during the early part of the last war, after the billeting started, that there was splendid accommodation acquired in Somerset and Devon, where well-to-do people had got away to the country, and when it came to finding a place to put our children we could only get them accommodated in cottages, often in overcrowded conditions.

In the burgh where I lived, in Clydebank, the people were billeted several miles away from the residential areas, where ample accommodation existed. There was ample accommodation there for the working men and women, but that area was jumped over and they were billeted out in the mining villages 15 or 20 miles from their work, whereas they could have been billeted in Bearsden, five miles from their work. Much of the accommodation they hoped to get had been bought up. Many, who were concerned with these operations during the raids well remember that in Worcestershire, the billeting officers found it difficult to get men, women and children accommodated while well-to-do people from London and other cities were sitting in comfort in the big houses there. The children went into farm cottages which were overcrowded.

I remember four children being billeted in a small cottage, whereas, a mile away, there was a vicarage with only two people with well-to-do people as paying guests. That was a common experience of working-class people in the blitzed cities. Under these Regulations, I see nothing to prevent that happening again in future. The people of Clydebank are deeply concerned that if anything should happen again they may be put 15 or 20 miles from their homes while highly-residential areas can escape their obligation. They are concerned that, unless firm action is taken, this may occur again.

11.7 p.m.

Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

It is right we should put this matter in its proper perspective. We have had a very fine class hatred speech from the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence), which I was surprised to hear. He has taken the example where things were not as they should have been and has assumed that the whole country was like that. Nothing of the kind. There may have been people in what are called the upper classes, who did not do their job. There is an equal number of people in what are called the lower classes who did not do their job. But the great majority of classes did their job and it is highly undesirable, in bringing in such a Regulation, that we should have class hatred introduced.

Mr. Bence

I am not preaching class hatred.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

There is no doubt about it. The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) said exactly the same thing.

Mr. Fernyhough

And I maintain it.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

The hon. Member maintains it, so he backs up the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East.

It is deplorable to think that when we are faced with tragedy the only outlook is that of class hatred. No more damnable thing can be done in this world than to set one class against another. I do not think that the hon. Gentlemen really mean it, but it is deplorable, when these Regulations are brought forward with a view to making arrangements for an emergency, that they should put them on this basis.

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)

I want to ask only one question. Why has the Minister decided to include the Common Council of the City of London and the Councils of the Metropolitan Boroughs as authorities suitable to arrange for billeting?


That the Draft Civil Defence (Billeting) Regulations, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th July, 1952, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.