HC Deb 02 February 1953 vol 510 cc1480-4
The Prime Minister

Before I come to our later misfortunes, I think the House would wish me, following my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, to convey to the Government and Parliament of Northern Ireland its sorrow at the loss of their Deputy Prime Minister, Major Maynard Sinclair, in the "Princess Victoria," and, at the same time, to express its sympathy with the relations of all those, including a much respected Member of this House, who lost their lives in the shocking and tragic disaster at sea.

The House will have learnt of the disaster which fell upon the country on the night of 31st January. Its first wish will be to express our deep sympathy to the relations of all those who have lost their lives; to all who are suffering from the loss of homes and belongings and who are, in one way or another, the victims.

It is not yet possible to give any detailed account of all incidents, which are spread almost from the Humber to the North Foreland, as well as over large areas in Scotland. As one might expect after the experiences of two wars, organisations of all kinds, national and local, military and civil, reacted immediately to the call upon them. A whole series of complicated operations have been carried out and are still proceeding. These divided themselves broadly into arrangements for the rescue and care of people and for the restoration of public services, particularly health services. Under the first, the local authorities, with the help of the regional offices of the Ministries concerned, immediately began to arrange for rest centres, billets and accommodation of various kinds to be made available. Clothing and blankets are being provided from the most handy sources, and a further statement will be made later about an appeal for gifts. Meanwhile, the Women's Voluntary Services and the Red Cross are actively at work. The food supplies have been maintained in all the areas, in some cases by the use of mobile columns.

In many cases there have been the difficulties of contamination of water, and here both civilian and Service resources of water tanks have been used. Military stores are being drawn upon wherever necessary. Certain emergency plans for restoring healthy sewerage are already working under the guidance of local and central engineers. Eleven Ministers whose Departments were mainly concerned met this morning and further arrangements were made for the constant co-operation of all Departments, local authorities and other organisations.

It is not yet possible to measure the magnitude of the loss either in life or in material, but it is clear that the catastrophe is one which will require to be treated upon a national basis and, broadly, as a national responsibility. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The Lord Mayor has informed me that he is opening a distress fund immediately. Her Majesty's Government will contribute to it on a scale to be announced when the magnitude of this disaster has been assessed. Meanwhile, I can assure the House that financial support for personal relief and for emergency repairs will be available.

It is estimated that the constituencies of a good many Members on each side of the House are involved. I hope that arrangements for pairing may be made through the usual channels so that these Members can be in their constituencies during the emergency if they so wish.

I ought not to end my statement without reminding the House that a no less serious stroke has fallen upon the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, on Belgium, to both of whom we express our keen sympathy as fellow sufferers.

Mr. H. Morrison

I am sure everybody in the House will join with the Prime Minister in the words of sympathy he has uttered to our fellow citizens who were victims of these terrible events over the week-end and also to the people of Holland and Belgium who have suffered. We deplore the loss of the life of the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles, who sat in this House as a Member from Northern Ireland. Both of them were well known to me and I am very sorry about their deaths, as, of course, we all are about the deaths of everybody else who was a victim of this terrible disaster.

With regard to the reference by the Prime Minister as to the wish of hon. Members from constituencies affected to be in their constituencies, there will be no difficulty on our side through the usual channels in making the necessary arrangements. Indeed, we shall be most happy to do so in the circumstances of the case.

The Prime Minister

Thank you very much.

Mr. Morrison

I should like to ask the Prime Minister whether, in addition to the aid from voluntary funds like that which the Lord Mayor is raising, the assistance to which these unfortunate people might statutorily be entitled under various insurance and other schemes will be available to them, and, also, whether the Government are mobilising the military forces in particular and others as well for the purpose of getting a very quick move on to plug the gaps that exist on the East Coast so that further damage may be avoided to the greatest possible extent? This is in the nature of a large-scale military operation. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that all the resources of the State, including the military, will be mobilised not only for the things which he has mentioned but to plug the gaps that exist in the defences on the East Coast?

The Prime Minister

Everything in human power will be done. All the resources of the State will be employed so far as they can usefully and effectively be brought into action to meet this emergency and to make such temporary arrangements for closing the gaps in our sea defences as are necessary for the safety of the population. Other more permanent measures will have to be taken later, and I am bound to say that it seems to me that it is a matter which falls within the general scope of my assurance that this disaster will be dealt with on national lines.

Mr. Woodburn

So far as I know the disaster in Scotland proportionately has not assumed the extent it has in England and Wales. On previous occasions the Lord Mayor's Fund applied only to England and Wales, and I was wondering whether the right hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State for Scotland would tell us whether a similar arrangement is being made for any damage that may take place in Scotland. May I further suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the Government might inquire whether it would be possible to restore something of the system of war damage insurance so that there might be some form of national insurance to recompense those who lose their all in these disasters.

The Prime Minister

I will carefully consider the second part of that question, but it would be very imprudent for me to give a decisive answer at this moment. As to the Lord Mayor's Fund, I will carefully consider what the right hon. Gentleman said about Scotland. Speaking on the spur of the moment, I should say that the Fund ought to cover the whole island and that divisions should be made in proportion to the damage suffered by any particular part of this island. It does not rest with me to settle that at Question time, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will present his view and see what happens.

Mr. Braine

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his reassuring statement and adding my tribute to the devotion of those who worked all through Saturday night and Sunday and to the superb spirit of the people of my own constituency, who were so sorely afflicted, might I ask my right hon. Friend whether he would bear in mind the necessity for the earliest possible statement as to the time when Canvey Island may be declared habitable again? Ten thousand people have been evacuated and they want the earliest possible information.

The Prime Minister

The committee of Ministers who sat this morning, or a similar body, will sit as often as may be necessary, certainly every day, and they will issue statements which can be given to the Press or, if convenient, read to the House of Commons until, at any rate, we know where we are in this matter. I hope that that will be satisfactory to my hon. Friend. I might add that the disaster which has fallen upon the habitants of Canvey Island seems to me to be a most grievous one. Our hearts go out to them, as will our help, in their hour of need.

Mr. Edward Evans

As representing one of the constituencies very much hit by this catastrophe, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he will arrange for the appropriate Departments to undertake once more a survey of the sea defences, particularly along the East Coast, and that these vulnerable spots, which have been there for a considerable time and are a constant source of danger and anxiety not only to the local authorities but to the inhabitants, will be thoroughly surveyed and a comprehensive scheme brought forward for consideration?

The Prime Minister

That is a longer term issue than that which we have before us this afternoon, but I think it requires the most earnest consideration.

Commander Maitland

Will my right hon. Friend convey to the Armed Forces the thanks of the House for the magnificent work they have already done and without which help many more lives would have been lost? May I also convey to him the thanks of the people of the coast of Lincolnshire for the words which he has uttered this afternoon?

The Prime Minister

We will in due course convey thanks to the Armed Forces, including the Army and others, for the way in which they are conducting themselves and helping everybody, but I think we had better get through the immediate emergencies before we do that.