HC Deb 15 March 1955 vol 538 cc1257-66

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

In raising this matter I ought to point out, first, that the Royal Army Pay Corps in Leeds is not actually in my constituency, but I must also mention that some of its employees live in my constituency and that my attention has been drawn to the trouble which has been going on for twelve months inside the Pay Corps. When I found out the trouble I realised that this matter ought to be investigated; and when I get my teeth into a thing I do not like to let go so easily. It is true to say that I have been assisted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), and I understand some of the employees live in his constituency.

I must make one admission, that when the War Department decided it had to find fresh premises it did make a survey in the City of Leeds but found it impossible to find the right type of premises. Finally, it decided to go to Ovenden where, I believe, it found premises. After that my right hon. Friend and I went to see the Secretary of State for War, and we pointed out that a short time ago employees in the Pay Corps had been promised that the camp would be permanent in the city. So many of the young people purchased houses and moved into the city, and when there was talk about it going 18 miles out of the city there was consternation.

When we saw the right hon. Gentleman he quite nonchalantly said, "If you can find suitable premises in Leeds I am quite prepared to stop the job being done at Ovenden." Fortunately for us, wedid find a place, Greenbanks, situated in Horsforth just about equi-distant between Leeds and Bradford. It is an admirable place, with a sportsfield, theatre, baths, sleeping accommodation, and room for expansion. In August we received a communication from the Under-Secretary of State for War, promising that he would make some in- vestigation and I believe that in September we received a report, if it could be called a report. He said that he found Greenbanks was not satisfactory, that it was not big enough to make it suitable, particularly because the cost of conversion would be four or five times that of Ovenden, and that, moreover, the Home Office had turned it down.

I say emphatically that only a cursory inspection of Greenbanks took place and the Home Office did not turn it down. It was the public outcry that turned it down. It is wrong for a Minister to fob off hon. Members of the House of Commons with such a report, which we knew was entirely wrong. We all felt very indignant about this matter, and 1 am in a better position to judge than the Minister is because I have been round and about Greenbanks and Ovenden, while the right hon. Gentleman and the Under-Secretary of State for War are dependent upon Departmental reports. My experience in local government tells me never to depend too much on Departmental reports. I can imagine people in the Department saying, "These Members think that they have got something, but we are not going to be outbid."

We approached a chartered quantity surveyor for a report, and here I should like to draw attention to the public money which is expended quite unnecessarily on the camp at Ovenden. It had been derelict for seven years. No one would have it. It has been exposed to the elements on the Pennine Range, but the War Department said, "We must go there at all costs." Yet it is only a fortnight since the Minister was saying how interested he was in the well-being of the Department which he represents.

The report of the chartered quantity surveyor was overwhelmingly in favour of our opinion. We then thought that surely the Minister would have a little common sense and agree to the camp being removed from Bishop's Palace to Greenbanks instead of to Ovenden. I am quite prepared to give way on certain points, but I would say, as an impartial person in this case, that the report, all things being equal, was in favour of Greenbanks. The Minister should realise that as a result of this decision people are being forced to travel 18 to 20 miles. It means that they have to set out at 5.30 or 5.45 a.m. to get to Ovenden to start work. That results in less efficiency and more sickness, especially in the bad weather which we have been experiencing during the past months. I would remind the Minister that we have had photographs taken of the camp during the last fortnight.

Before the removal took place, we tried our best to avoid its being carried out, but our efforts did not achieve any success. The result is that we are now receiving complaints from the people who are working at Ovenden. We were promised some time ago that if something could be made of Greenbanks, the Minister would do all he could to assist us. Why has the Minister not shown more recognition of the opinion which we have expressed than of the opinions put forward by his Department? During the Parliamentary Recess, I had to telephone to London at my own expense at a time when the removal was actually taking place. The Minister had promised my right hon. Friend and me that there would be no removal until he had received the joint report. That is the sort of thing which is taking place inside the Department, and it is something to which we ought to take strong objection.

During the past few days I have received a number of complaints about Ovenden. I am told that the morale throughout the camp is low. The huts are not weatherproof in spite of money having been spent. Thousands of pounds of what I call hidden money has been spent on repairs, and so on. The average travelling time taken by those at the camp is three hours per day. The incidence of sickness has increased considerably, and the cost per week to those who are not eligible for the usual grants is 17s. 6d. There are inadequate facilities for troops to wash up their plates, mugs and cutlery.

I have a photograph in my hand which I will pass to the Minister. In the barrack room there are only two wooden writing chairs and one writing table for 13 men. The young soldiers have to sit on their beds. It will readily be appreciated that the female personnel have no time whatever to do their shopping because of the distance which they have to travel.

I cannot understand why the removal took place. It has been argued that in case of emergency no expansion would take place at Greenbanks, but, surely, after what we heard during the defence debate, would there not be need for expansion? After having heard speeches about what should be done to care for young troops and civilian personnel, I think it is a shocking shame that the removal took place from Leeds to Ovenden.

I want to be factual—I have tried to be honest over this matter. I should like to know why the Minister did not send the Under-Secretary with some other hon. Members to make an inspection instead of depending on some Departmental reports—what I call a "hole-in-corner" method. Naturally, one cannot stop feathers flying about. We know who has been to the camp. The caretaker at Greenbanks can tell us. We know what is taking place. We know what some of the colonels have said about it.

The War Office is at present paying out £100 per week in grants. The commanding officer and other officers are still living in Leeds. The £100 per week will amount to a large sum over a period. If the Ovenden scheme had not been carried out, although £10,000 had been spent, we should in the long run have saved money by staying at Greenbanks and carrying out the alterations there.

I want the Minister to realise that if he is going to be honest about this—1 take it he will be—and give me satisfaction he must agree to the inspection of Greenbanks and Ovenden by a joint committee of hon. Members in not only my interests but the interest of the public and those employed by the Royal Army Pay Corps.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

I should like very briefly to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. A. Roberts) has said. It is one of the great features of our Parliamentary system that even a small body of Her Majesty's subjects can, when they have a grievance, have that grievance attended to in this House; and it is because of such a grievance that my hon. Friend has raised this matter tonight.

There is quite a number of civilian personnel employed in this pay office in Leeds. I think it is about 150. There is no doubt at all that they have a very great grievance with the Secretary of State, because the pay office was moved to Ovenden Park. My hon. Friend has described the inconvenience and other disadvantageous features about this removal.

I think we would both agree that, if there really was no real alternative, the Secretary of State would have had to have done this. When we saw him the first time that, in fact, was what he said. He said, "I realise that it is unpleasant and awkward, but we have to clear out from our existing premises and this is the only place I can find." He said, "If you can find somewhere in or nearer Leeds that is better, I would be only too happy."

After that interview I was very disappointed with the failure on the part of the Department to take the action that was necessary. It was within a week or so of our seeing him that we sent him the proposal that the Department should take this hostel at Horsforth, Greenbanks, instead. I was amazed to receive a letter from the Secretary of State not referring to this, but turning down any idea of any alternative accommodation.

After some difficulty, I managed to see the then Parliamentary Secretary and impressed upon him that this hostel was available and that the local authority had refused to agree to its use for Civil Defence purposes and that I was given to believe that they would welcome the War Office going there. However, it was not until September, I think, that any proper inquiry was made and it was a very inadequate inquiry even then.

It was not until 1st November, when we saw the Secretary of State together, that it was then at last agreed that there should be this joint investigation. It was extremely unfortunate, to put it no higher, that four or five months were allowed to elapse before the possibility of using the Greenbanks hostel was properly considered.

I cannot help saying that I think that the War Office had really made up its mind at the start that it was going to Ovenden Park and had become committed to that project too early, had begun to spend money on it and was frightened to change in the middle and become exposed to being accused of having made a mistake. Taking that attitude was wrong, because from the point of view of the convenience of the staff it would be much better, even though £10,000 had been spent, to go to Greenbanks hostel.

I want to ask the Secretary of State how much has been spent on the repairs and alterations which have been necessary at Ovenden Park. Was it as much as, or more than the £19,000 originally contemplated? I should like to ask him why it was that he turned down the Green Park hostel proposal. I know some of the difficulties of the time and of adapting it, but I cannot believe that it would have been impossible to have persuaded the bishop to have allowed the use of his palace a little longer while necessary alterations were taking place.

I very much hope that he will be able to give a far better explanation than we have yet had from his Department. I do not think that this affair reflects very much credit on the War Office. It has not handled its relations with its employees at all well and has paid no attention to their wishes or desires in this matter. It has neglected to make any serious search for alternative accommodation and has delayed investigating the possibility of using that accommodation when it was brought to its notice and, finally, made its decision without giving full or adequate explanation to my hon. Friend or to myself or to its own employees.

10.20 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)

The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) has asked me to give a full explanation of this matter, but he has not allowed me a great deal of time in which to do it. Ten minutes is not long for a subject as complicated as this, and I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have known that. I wish to give a proper explanation, and I shall do my best in the time available.

I know how deeply the people concerned, the civilian staff, feel about this matter. I know that both the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. A. Roberts) and the right hon. Gentleman have represented those feelings, as is their duty as Members of Parliament for that area, and I know how strongly and sincerely they feel about this. But, as so often happens when people have strong feelings, the whole story has not been told. I do not wish to delve into past history, but the original proposal was that we should remain in the Bishop's Palace. For that we were to have a lease of 21 years. That was negotiated in 1951, but unfortunately—for no one would deny that it is preferable to have this office in Leeds—the Bishop died, and the new Bishop would not go on with the project for a 21-year lease. He said that he wanted the palace for a boys' school. He wished us to get out as early as possible, and the beginning of 1955 was the end of the period which he allowed us.

We therefore set out to find a pay office. At that time Greenbanks was not available, and a very extensive search was made throughout Leeds. I think that both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member would agree that at that time there was nowhere available. Meanwhile the new Bishop was pressing us about what we proposed to do and how soon we would get out of the palace, and the time factor arose. The only place available was at Ovenden which, I admit, has the major defect of being a long way from where everyone lives. But there is there the asset of a capacity for expansion. One cannot organise the Army on the assumption that in the event of war everything else will go by the board.

There was no alternative, and the Ovenden site seemed the best that could be found. We started these negotiations, and at that time we heard nothing from any of the employees. I think I am right in saying that if Greenbanks had not turned up there would not be the present complaint.

Mr. Gaitskell

The matter was raised before that.

Mr. Head

All I am saying is that there was nothing else but Ovenden available at that time.

The next thing was that we were told, in 1954. when time was getting very short, that there was this possibility of obtaining Greenbanks. On two occasions I received delegations, arranged by the right hon. Gentleman and from the hon. Member for Normanton, of members of the Civil Service concerned who felt strongly about it. At their own cost they commissioned a chartered surveyor or architect to make a special reconnaissance of Greenbanks.

From the point of view of the War Office, Greenbanks has two major defects. The first is that this original survey was based on the requirements of the civilian staff, but not of the military staff. We made our own survey of Greenbanks and our estimate was £45,000, whereas the figure in the original survey was £7,000. There is a very great difference between those two figures, and the reason for the disparity is that the requirements of the military staff of the pay office were not originally included.

The second consideration was that at Greenbanks there is no opportunity for the expansion which would be necessary in time of war. It was also found, upon examination by the Ministry of Works, that there were no facilities nearby for the expansion of billeting, and so forth, which would be necessary in war for the personnel which would have to be accommodated there.

On account of cost and on account of size, we came to the conclusion that Greenbanks was not suitable. I know that the hon. Member thinks that we came to that conclusion because we were committed to Ovenden and would not change. When I saw that delegation, however, I went back to the War Office and said, "If Greenbanks is really suitable, and it will avoid the necessity for travelling, we will change. The only sensible thing to do is to change. If you find that it is suitable, do not bother about the fact that a change has to be made. We will change because it is the sensible course to take."

It is true that I did not go there myself, but there are an awful lot of places in respect of which changes are resented, and where buildings are unsuitable, and I cannot look at all of them. If there had been a doubt in the matter I should have gone there myself, or sent the Under-Secretary, but my Department were categorical about the matter. I said, "Are you sure that you are not saying this because we are committed?" and they said, "No: Greenbanks will not do, and it will be very expensive. Under the circumstances we had better stick to Ovenden."

I realise that the people in the pay office have lived in Leeds and are probably Leeds people, and I know full well the inconvenience that may have been caused to them, but there are many civil servants who have to travel 15, 20 or 25 miles to work. We have laid on a bus service from Leeds to Ovenden, and anybody who takes three hours to travel there must either miss the bus or use an alternative form of transport. I also realise that the housing situation in Halifax is difficult but. as hon. Members know, special allowances and rates exist for those who live some way from their place of work.

Mr. A. Roberts

In the right hon. Gentleman's final letter he promised that something would be done about Green-banks. I hope that he will make some reference to its future development.

Mr. Head

When the hon. Member says that I promised that something would be done, he means not as a pay office but perhaps as an alternative place of employment for some other organisation. That is perfectly true, and we discussed that very project with the people concerned, and the matter is still under consideration.

I know that the roofs at Ovenden have leaked, but we have had rather bad weather conditions. I know that the canteen facilities are not all that might be desired, and that some of the furniture is not adequate, and we are trying to put these matters right. I also know that the large offices in the gymnasium are very good ones, and compare favourably with offices anywhere.

I would not pretend for a moment that this is an ideal place; in fact, I would say that it was extremely inconvenient—but we have to have a pay office somewhere in the Leeds area. Greenbanks was too small, and I think it would have been wrong to go to a place which we knew to be too small, too expensive, and not really capable of doing the job. Although I appreciate that it is extremely inconvenient for the staff at the present time, it is my belief that, either through their finding alternative accommodation in a different place, or in some other way, the problem may sort itself out. Some will move, and others will find the conditions less wearisome and tiresome as time goes on.

I know that when an office is moved the daily life of civil servants is disturbed but these things happen in the Army, both for civil servants and military staff. There is a great deal of disturbance, difficulty, and separation, and problems arise which affect married life, domestic life and accommodation. I am extremely sorry that we could not have found a better solution, but I think that it would have been wrong to go to Greenbanks simply because of the admitted difficulty for the 150 people concerned. It would not have been right to go into a building which we knew to be too small, which we knew would have been expensive to adapt, and which we knew we could not possibly have got into in the time available.

If there had been a sensible solution we should have taken it. I was not pigheaded about Greenbanks, and I should have been quite prepared to put up a case to the Treasury and write off the loss, but having been into the matter carefully, I am sure that no other decision was open to us in the circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'Clock