HC Deb 11 February 1953 vol 511 cc416-24
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir David Maxwell Fyfe)

I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, make a further statement about the flooded areas on the East Coast.

Good progress continues to be made in the work of repairing the breaches and it is hoped that more than two-thirds of the breaches will be closed to high tide level before the next high tides; the remainder are for the most part in areas where any flooding which may occur will not be likely to endanger the public. Since my last statement five more deaths have become known to the police, so that the total number of deaths is now 288. About 50 persons are still reported to be missing. There are still nearly 30,000 persons living away from their homes.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Food, in order to help housewives to replace stocks of rationed food which they have lost in the floods, has authorised the food offices concerned to give an additional temporary ration card which will enable them to obtain two weeks' extra supply of rationed food. Arrangements are also being made, through local food offices, for retailers to rebuild their stocks of rationed foods and to obtain additional replacement supplies of the scarcer unrationed foods such as canned milk and dried fruit.

In my statement on 9th February I undertook to give information about arrangements for collecting and distributing furniture, offers of which have been coming in generously from the public. From now on, any person wishing to offer furniture should make the offer in writing in the first place to the nearest local office of the W.V.S., and no furniture should be despatched until arrangements have been notified to the donor by the W.V.S., who have undertaken to be responsible for the distribution of the furniture, in co-operation with the local authorities, as needs are ascertained. The W.V.S. will arrange for the transport of suitable furniture to the appropriate centre, if necessary visiting the person making the offer. The Government will bear the cost of transport of furniture accepted under these arrangements.

The Government hope that local authorities, voluntary organisations and others will be prepared to co-operate, if approached by the W.V.S., in providing local centres in which furniture can be temporarily stored pending transport to the main depots.

The most useful gifts are likely to be floor coverings, materials for curtains and chair covers, household utensils, heating stoves, household linen and small—I would emphasise small—tables, chairs, chests and cupboards.

Victims of the flood who are in need of furniture should make application to the local authority of the area in which they normally live. They should give their names and both their usual and their present addresses, and should state the extent of the damage which they have suffered and their requirements. The local authority will, after checking the applications, pass them on to the W.V.S., who will get into touch with the applicants and will try to meet their needs out of the gifts that have been made.

I am now in a position to announce the arrangements which have been made to give warning to the public if it is thought that there is likely to be danger from further floods. The essential features of the scheme are as follows;

  1. (1) Warnings will be localised as far as possible.
  2. (2) The river boards will be responsible for advising the police if there is, in their opinion, any threat of danger.
  3. (3) The police will be responsible for giving warnings to the public and to local authorities and public utility undertakings. The river boards will be responsible for warning people at work on the repair of the sea defences and for securing their safety in the event of further inundation.
The river boards will receive from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries by teleprinter reports from the Meteorological Office and also data of high and low tides obtained from Leith, the Tyne, the Tees, Grimsby and Harwich or Felixstowe.

The police in the coastal areas have been asked to make surveys, in consultation with the officers of the river boards, in order to find out which are the probable danger areas. They have also been asked to nominate senior officers to attend at the headquarters of the river boards during the hours of high tides in the emergency period in order to initiate police action if required without delay. They are taking steps to inform the public in the danger areas of the times of high tides and of the local warning arrangements.

The precise arrangements will depend on the circumstances of the areas concerned. They will include, as appropriate:

  1. (i) the posting of police or civilian watchmen at threatened points;
  2. (ii) the patrolling of villages and towns with loudspeaker cars;
  3. (iii) the use of suitable warning devices, e.g., maroons;
  4. (iv) warnings to isolated houses and farms;
  5. (v) warnings to local authorities;
  6. (vi) warnings to public utility and major industrial installations;
  7. (vii) stand-by warnings to owners of small craft and any owners of vehicles who may be able to assist in evacuation,and
  8. (viii) the surveying of practical escape routes.
Chief constables are being asked to report to the Home Office on the nature of their plans.

All these arrangements will be in operation from this evening.

In addition to these local arrangements, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries has arranged with the B.B.C. for the broadcasting of information as follows:—

  1. (1) The Ministry will be informed by a river board of the issue of any local warning and will, where necessary, inform the B.B.C. with a request to broadcast the warning.
  2. (2) At hourly intervals throughout the day and night the B.B.C., in the Light Programme on 1,500 metres, will broadcast details of warnings of high tides at various points on the East Coast, and of any flood warnings which had been issued.
Further details of these arrangements (which will operate from tomorrow afternoon) will be issued by the B.B.C.

So far as can be foreseen, the danger areas are likely to be few and there is little risk except during the period from three hours before to one hour after high tide. The Government have, however, thought it right for the present to err in the direction of excessive precautions and they hope that the public in the areas affected will co-operate, in particular by strict compliance with the advice of the local police. Special vigilance should be shown by the occupants of bungalows in low-lying areas and the owners of bungalows in the Canvey and Jaywick areas are particularly warned that it will not be safe for them to return before Thursday of next week at the earliest.

Mr. H. Morrison

We are much obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his statement. Can he tell us whether there are any possibilities of trouble on the West Coast such as has been predicted in a certain quarter, with I know not what truth? There was some comment at the weekend on the assumption that there was delay between the meteorological warnings of the original trouble and administrative action, either locally or in Whitehall. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman say anything about that?

We note that in his statement, without prejudice to the very valuable services of everybody else, there is notable reference to the work of the Women's Voluntary Services, and I think that it would be the wish of both sides of the House to pay tribute to the work of that very great organisation, the value of which I know from my war-time experience as Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

With regard to the first point, I should not like that to be emphasised at the moment. I will take an early opportunity of dealing with it in detail if it is necessary. On the second question, the system that was in operation with regard to the river boards was one with a limited design. It would take rather a long and technical explanation to give its effect. I should be grateful if the House would suspend judgment on that until we have an opportunity of discussing it. I have tried—and I hope the House will forgive me for having dealt with it at length—to show that the apprehensions expressed have, as far as possible, been met in the scheme which will come into operation today and tomorrow.

On the third point, I add with pleasure my own thanks to the Women's Voluntary Services, and I am sure that the whole House will share our gratitude.

Mr. H. A. Price

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take note of the fact that certain plant-hire firms are taking advantage of the situation to inflate their charges, one example being that of a sixinch self-running pump quoted at £23 per week last Friday compared with less than £10 per week on 23rd January? Will he have this matter dealt with promptly and firmly.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I will certainly look into that point at once.

Mr. Dodds

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that in giving permission to the Erith Borough Council to requisition 15 empty houses, he has earned the gratitude of the people who are doing their best for the flood victims, on whose behalf I have been asked to say, "Thank you "?

Mr. Braine

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in respect of Canvey Island there is still some doubt whether people will be able to return or not? The local authority have expressed the hope that people will not return, but no clear-cut direction has yet been given. As there is only one line of communication with the mainland, can my right hon. and learned Friend give a much firmer direction so that disaster may not occur if there has to be a total evacuation?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I will look into it and see that his wish is complied with if possible.

Mr. Woodburn

There is a great deal of misunderstanding as to what kind of furniture will be acceptable. Obviously, it would be a waste of time to send scrap furniture, but is it necessary that the furniture should be of a very high standard, or would usable furniture which people are at present using be accepted if it were sent in?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

Yes. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has used a very good phrase: usable furniture which people would find of use at the time would be acceptable. It ought to be understood that it is furniture in good condition which will be helpful. I did not want to put anything too strong in my statement, because it would appear rather like looking a gift horse in the mouth. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for emphasising that point. I am sure that people will appreciate it.

Mr. Bullard

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether the Government are considering the possibility of help to people with small businesses, especially small farmers who are very hard hit by the floods, to enable them to start in business again? Quite apart from the Fund, are the Government considering help in that direction to enable people to get on their feet again?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

Yes. Certainly we are considering that.

Mr. Edward Evans

Can the Home Secretary amplify the reply he gave to me on Monday about the financial responsibility which the Government will take, apart from the Fund mentioned by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard), whose anxiety I share? I should like the Home Secretary to realise that there is a tremendous amount of anxiety among local authorities as to what their financial situation will be, and also among small people who have had material damage and who are not covered by insurance. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will amplify what he told us on Monday, and that the attitude of the Government will be sympathetic towards those small people.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I think that there are three categories envisaged in the hon. Gentleman's question. The first is the one that I have dealt with and which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland repeated. That is emergency work. The second is general local authority work. I should be glad if the local authorities would get in touch with their usual Ministry contacts as soon as they like. The third is, of course, the Lord Mayor's Fund. I understand that the Lord Mayor will be issuing a statement about the procedure he is adopting, and the matter is receiving consideration from Her Majesty's Government. I hope to announce soon a clear-cut method of application and I hope also that it will be possible to continue de-centralisation. I am very anxious, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is, because it is tremendously important, that action should be taken quickly in this matter.

Mr. Alport

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he is aware that one of the materials which has suffered most damage in the furnishing line is linoleum, and whether he will take steps to ensure that reasonably priced linoleum is available in the coastal towns to replace that which has been lost? Is he also aware that gifts of this material would be most welcome?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

My hon. Friend will remember that I did mention floor coverings first, and suggested that supplies would be most useful gifts, but I will certainly consider what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. David Jones

Is the Home Secretary aware that I have had particulars given to me this morning about a railway-man who was evacuated from his home in Great Yarmouth on 1st February and was temporarily accommodated in two chalets at the Gorleston Holiday Camp, and who has been told by the camp manager that he will now be expected to pay the hire charge for these two chalets, in addition to the £1 a week mortgage repayment which he has to meet on his house in Great Yarmouth?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

If the hon. Gentleman will be good enough to give me particulars of any individual case—if he will either write to me or speak to me about it—I shall be very pleased to look into it.

Mr. Lewis

While appreciating the undoubted help of the Lord Mayor's Fund, may I ask the Home Secretary whether he does not agree that something should be done on the whole question of compensation? Has his attention been called to the report that the Netherlands Government are to bring back into force in their country some scheme similar to the war damage scheme? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider some such scheme being brought into existence? Secondly, has his attention been drawn to the very regrettable and disgusting—though fortunately isolated— cases of looting, and will he consider the issue of a very severe warning to people who might be caught in disgusting actions of that kind?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

Regarding the first point, I will certainly consider it, and I will consider any suggestion that the hon. Gentleman cares to make to me in detail. In reply to the second point, as I indicated a few days ago, there have been isolated cases, but I would repeat what I said last week that, on the whole, the standard of conduct and morale has been very good.

Mr. Fell

Following on the question put by an hon. Gentleman opposite about the holiday camp, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he is aware that both the holiday camps near Yarmouth immediately threw their doors wide open to evacuees without any question of what recompense there might be in any way? I am sure that in the case to which his attention has been drawn there may be a reasonable explanation, which I hope I shall hear myself very soon. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that both holiday camps, in fact, have given sterling assistance?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I said that I would look into the matter, and I am sure that the House will realise my difficulties. When statements are made about individual cases, all that I can promise is that I will do my best to inquire into them.

Mr. Follick

Would I be in order in thanking the Home Secretary for the very prompt attention he gave to the question that I raised on Monday last in regard to the Import Duty charged to Luigi Infantino?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I am very glad that, in that minor but, of course, important question, we can say that all's well that ends well.

Mr. Pannell

May I ask the Home Secretary whether, in drawing up these arrangements, he will try to place them on a general compensation basis? I am speaking now of the basis of compensation, and I am asking the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he will bear in mind that people want to get this sort of compensation as of right, and that we really do not want any kind of charitable stigma about it. Will he also give consideration to the question of how far insurance covers the damage, because I have heard of a firm suffering £300,000 worth of damage, and what we want is. one comprehensive statement dealing with the lot.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has in mind, but I should like to say—and I hope the House will agree with me—that, in regard to the Lord Mayor's Fund, there is no question of anything charitable in the sense in which the hon. Gentleman referred to it. The Fund is the response of the country, by common effort, to the misfortunes of some of our fellow citizens; and I hope that no one will feel that, on these occasions when the country does respond to such an appeal, there is anything in the slightest degree derogatory about using the funds provided.

Forward to