HC Deb 27 May 1960 vol 624 cc954-64

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

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)

Every hon. Member who is fortunate enough to have his or her name drawn in the ballot for the Adjournment considers that the subject he wants to raise is the most important ever discussed in the House. I do not hake that claim, but I make the point that as this subject concerns ex-Regular Service men—and for the purpose of this debate I refer to all the Services—and the problem of housing after they have left the Services it is of great importance. I am much obliged to the Under-Secretary of State and Financial Secretary for being in attendance. I feel confident that he shares my view about the importance of this matter.

In a very short time we will rely entirely on Regular Armed Forces, know that the Government have tried by way of improvement of wages and conditions to attract a considerable number of men into the Armed Forces. One thing that I think they have forgotten to do, or have not given enough attention to, is the problem which men face when they leave the Armed Forces. It has often been said in this House that it is not the numbers of personnel in the Army which are important but the number of man-years which those numbers produce. For example, it is obvious that if a man can be induced to sign on for twenty-one years he is three times the value of a man who signs on for seven years.

One of the important aspects in recruiting a Regular Army is that we should try to attract men to stay as long as possible and give them continuity of Service. I am one of those who believe that when a man signs on for 21 years or over this country owes him a very great debt. I do not compare, and never have done, his job or life with that of the civilian. Special concessions have to be given to him and therefore special and privileged action is called for, in this case, on the part of the Army to ensure that he is given security when he leaves the Army.

I have raised this matter with the War Office on previous occasions when I had cases which came to my notice in which men who were leaving the Army with their wives and children had nowhere to go. Some short while ago, in another place, a Question was asked about the number of evictions which had taken place in the Army, and I have here the reply given by the noble Lord the Earl of Onslow.

The numbers of soldiers' families evicted from married quarters in the Army at the end of their term of service are as follows: for 1955, 90 families; in 1956, 77 families; in 1957, 91 families; in 1958, 78 families, and in 1959, 82 families. These were the families of serving soldiers who were evicted because their term of service to their country had come to an end. They had to go out of the married quarters in which they were living, though they had nowhere else to go, because the Army had to get rid of them.

I will not press too far this question of eviction, because the Army authorities are tolerant and kindly, and I recognise that they have to have these quarters. I am not making too much of the argument of eviction, because I recognise that at the end of the day it has to be done. What I strongly object to is that it should occur at all. The Army, like the other Services, has first-class welfare facilities available, and I believe that a great deal more imagination is required in dealing with this problem.

Recently, I had two cases brought to my notice, one of a soldier who had twenty-one years' service and the other who had over twenty-five years' service. One had already left the Army, and left his married quarters, and had gone out to try to find accommodation. He is living at the moment in furnished room at five ginueas a week. He was advised by the welfare authorities to see whether he could not get his name on the local authority housing list. This is often said to soldiers: "Get your name put down on a local authority housing list, and perhaps they can help you". The fact of the situation is—I am not trying to enter into any party political argument—that with many local authorities today there is no such thing as a waiting list. The subsidy paid by the Government for housing is for slum clearance, and, therefore, local authorities all over the country find that it is not possible to rehouse people from a general waiting list. They have their own local problems, and cannot take over the responsibility of accommodating Regular soldiers who are in need of houses. That gives rise to a great deal of hardship.

I know that the Army authorities have tried to help to some extent. I have been making inquiries and I find that they have issued a Services Resettlement Bulletin, which I am sure the Under-Secretary has seen. I have here Bulletin No. 2, of 1960, in which housing is featured. This is supplied to Regular Service men and it sets out to show them how they can get houses. I have read this Bulletin, and while I do not want to be too critical, I want to refer the Under-Secretary to page 9. There the soldier is told that he must buy himself a house, and it gives details of a house costing £2,000 and what would be required initially from the soldier before a house of that kind could be considered. He would have to pay, the Bulletin says, a deposit of £200, legal fees of £51, Stamp Duty of £4 10s., and surveyor's fee of £5, a total of £260 10s. That is what they say to a soldier, as if he were a civilian, pointing out that this is the method and manner in which to buy a house. It is then stated that, with a bit of luck, he might get a 95 per cent. mortgage and have to find the other 5 per cent., which would cost him £260, and he could then buy a house. Alternatively these men are told that they can apply to be placed on the local authority housing list. I have explained that that is quite unreal. The wretched Regular soldier finds when he enters civil life that such lists do not exist.

I find it ironical, although typical of the approach of authority in these matters, that towards the end of a book they give suggested colour schemes to the Regular soldier to tell him how to paint the house he has not got. You will be interested to know, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it is suggested that the soldier's house might have warm white walls, pale blue ceilings, dark blue carpets, and a pale blue and white bedspread, with accessories to match the carpets. This is typical of the Army —and I say that having had six years in the Army. The unfortunate man who is looking for a home, and who certainly has not succeeded in finding one, can read at the back of the book how he could furnish it to his advantage. That is the last straw.

I want to be practical today. When a man gives twenty-one years of his life to the Army, the nation owes him a debt. I raised this issue previously when I had the great distinction of speaking from the Front Bench on Army matters. I raised the question of how the Army can approach this problem with a view to finding a 100 per cent. mortgage, with a very low fixed interest charge, as a special privilege for those who are in the Armed Forces. I have had correspondence with the War Office about it, and no doubt they looked into my suggestion, but eventually they abandoned the idea of proceeding with it.

I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary today not to reject my suggestion out of hand. I want him to be imaginative and to tell the War Office to prepare such a scheme and to show how it could be implemented. This is what I want to happen: when a man has signed on for twenty-one years, then three or four years before the end of his career he should be offered a scheme whereby he can obtain a 100 per cent. mortgage through Army facilities. I do not know how the Army would arrange it. It might be arranged through a building society and it might need a new Vote in the Estimates.

I want the Army to say to the Regular soldier, about three years before the end of his engagement, "We can provide you with a 100 per cent. mortgage on the lowest possible interest terms. We want you to select a house of your choice in the district in which you want to live." This could be done about three years before the end of his engagement.

because in the main the Army then knows that the man will not be sent overseas again. Many of these men would settle down and start making their repayments before they left the Army.

There is collateral for the Army. The Army need not worry about repayment of the loan. Soldiers have good pensions today, and they receive a lump sum gratuity. All these things help him. The Army need not worry about the finances. We are recruiting men today at the age of eighteen, which means that after their twenty-one year's service they are only forty. The Army is therefore pretty certain of getting its money back. I want the Army to show more imagination here, and not simply to give me the reply which the Parliamentary Secretary gave, when I raised these two shocking cases with him. His reply was, "The best solution to their housing problem lies in buying a house of their own on their return to civil life."

The position must not be left there. The Army has a responsibility to these people. It must provide the home before the soldier leaves the Army. I am certain that recruitment is hindered by the fact that many of the older men in the Army say to the younger soldier who is thinking of signing on, "I warn you about signing on for twenty-one years, because there will be no home for you when you have finished and you will have great difficulty in fitting into civil life." I am certain that there are many young men who would sign on for much longer service in the Army but who are deterred by the story of the old sweat who has been in the Army for some time and who is having these difficulties. The Army must have a different approach to recruitment.

I will tell the Parliamentary Secretary what I should like to see. I should like to see Britain with the finest possible Army, with the soldiers living under the best conditions and receiving the best salaries, and with our saying to them, "We can guarantee you a home at the end of your twenty-one years' service". Why not? What is so terrible about that? It would be a good advertisement for the Army if we were able to say, "We are not concerned with you only while you are in the Army, but also when you leave. We do not just kick you out". We must look after the man who has spent many years in the Armed Forces.

I raised this with the War Office because I thought that I would get a more sympathetic reply than if I raised it with the Minister of Defence. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on the principle of my argument. I ask him to get his Department—and to do it soon—to prepare such a scheme and we will look at it. If money is needed I am sure that we shall find unanimity to provide it.

A number of cases have been brought to my attention where men who have given many years of service in the Armed Forces are now suffering great hardship. Local authorities cannot, or will not, help them when they return to civilian life, and they end up living in furnished rooms and paying exorbitant rates, as in the case I mentioned where the individual concerned pays 5 guineas a week rent. Others have large families and landlords will not accept them.

The situation is a disgrace to those who run our Services today. I hope that the answer from the hon. Gentleman will be friendly, and will give hope to the many people in the Army today who are worried about what will happen to them when they leave Her Majesty's Forces.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

My answer to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) will be friendly but I doubt whether it will be satisfactory. We must accept, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), who served with great distinction in the office which I now hold, before he became the leading spokesman for the Opposition on housing matters, will agree, that the housing of ex-Regulars must fall into the general pattern of our national housing policy.

Mr. Mellish

I disagree.

Mr. Fraser

I think that that must be so. I am sure that anyone with experience of the War Office realises that, although we can help by way of grants and pensions, the best we can do is to give advice and be of any help that we can through our resettlement services.

As regards general conditions, may I refer to the debate held only a few weeks ago. The number of houses to be built this year is over 300,000 and in the debate which the hon. Gentleman had with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government it was made clear that housing starts this year are well up.

I think that it would be of benefit to go through some of the things we are endeavouring to do. First, the question of evictions. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman said that this was being done in a humane fashion. I personally sign the order for every eviction which takes place and it is inevitable, even though we are building large numbers of houses every year, that some young soldiers with families should be evicted. The time comes when, after a certain number of months, we must ask people to go and if they cannot do so we have to push them out. I assure the hon. Gentleman that these evictions are carried out in a humane fashion and we have to weigh very carefully the needs of the ex-Regular against those of the soldier coming forward.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks about local authorities do not have a countrywide application. It is true that in certain areas there is a grave housing shortage, especially in the London area, but in most cases we receive the full co-operation of local authorities. Since 1955 it has been the policy to give ex-Regulars parity with the local inhabitants provided that certain conditions, such as having a job and having local connections, are fulfilled. I am sure he would agree that the present system, whereby an ex-Service man has a fair deal in comparison with others on the waiting list, is the right one.

The hon. Member made mock of the housing pamphlet we have issued. I gravely disagree with him over this. Our housing advisory service is of considerable value. The hon. Member may have found bits of the pamphlet amusing, but he will find contained in it references to all the methods of obtaining a house. No one admits more than I do the importance of this for the ex-Service man. Whether the house is bought through a local authority, through a building society, by self-build methods, or through an insurance company, reference is made to it in the pamphlet in considerable detail.

The information service is available to the Regular soldier throughout his career in the Army, and it is concentrated into two interviews which the soldier has with the resettlement board. One takes place about eighteen months before he is due to leave the Army and the final one three months or so before he leaves. The hon. Member may have greater experience of local government than I have, but I believe that the pamphlet supplies an immense amount of useful information. It concentrates the soldier's mind upon the sort of problems he will have to face.

The Royal Army Education Corps, which runs this resettlement advisory service, is even better briefed. If the hon. Member would like to see it I can show him a very valuable brief which I have with me, which contains a small report upon the Bermondsey Borough Council, saying how good it is at rehousing and giving the telephone number of the housing authority. It contains reports upon Stafford, Fulham and every other constituency and important major town, and goes into considerable detail in regard to the problems which will have to be faced by the soldier leaving the Army.

This is a great step forward from what we have been able to achieve before, because it tells the individual what his chances are. It tells him where to go, or where to aim at going. It also means that, through a branch of the War Office, hard cases are brought to the notice of local authorities. A man may have been killed, leaving a widow and children, and this branch has had considerable success, through the goodness of local authorities, in ensuring that such tragic cases are handled expeditiously. This bulletin and service together provide a great step forward.

So much for the advice we can give. I now turn to the means of following it up.

Mr. Mellish


Mr. Fraser

I would point out that since April, 1959, the soldier who has served for twenty-two years is not too badly off. On leaving the Army he will receive a pension of about £114 a year, plus a terminal grant of £343. The hon. Member made some mock of the figures I gave in relation to buying a house, hut with his £300 the private soldier would be well on the way to paying the necessary charges in order to raise an initial mortgage on a house worth £2,000.

Mr. Mellish

I thought that the hon. Gentleman might say that. We are dealing with a man coming into civilian life for the first time for many years. All the money he gets will be needed to set up a home, without taking into consideration the idea of buying a house. That is why the hon. Gentleman has had to secure evictions.

Mr. Fraser

This has nothing to do with evictions; it is absolutely unrelated to that question. I can show the hon. Member the details of the 90 cases of eviction. Many of them are bad tenants. In addition, the British Legion may make interest free loans—and I would like to thank the Legion for all that it is doing.

Further, if a man is in a difficult situation he can commute part of his pension. Therefore, it is not impossible for the advice to be followed by a private soldier coming out of the Army after twenty-two years' service. Of course, it is not very common for a soldier still to be a private after twenty-two years' service. A warrant officer Class I would get a pension of £243 a year and a terminal grant of £729.

Quite a lot of men serve for more than twenty-two years in the Army. It is not impossble to have a private who has served for 32 years, 34 or even one who has been in the Army for 37 years. He might have been a field marshal during that time, but has ended up as a private. He would get a pension of £239 a year and a terminal grant of £717 that is, a private soldier after thirty-four years' service. Going to the more likely rank of sergeant, a man, who is probably still under 50 years of age, would get a pension of £321 a year after thirty years' service and a terminal grant of £963.

I believe that for a man with twenty-two years' service and over all the advice about house purchase could well be accepted. There are the two cases, the particulars of which the hon. Gentleman has sent me. As far as the terminal grant is concerned, one of them would be getting about £550 and the other would be getting quite a considerable sum—something like £400, I think.

The main problem is not with the man with twenty-two years' service, but with the man who leaves the Army after a shorter period of service. Some help is given when a man has been in the Army for more than twelve years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, no pension is paid to a solidier until he has done twenty-two years' service, unless, of course, he suffers an injury attributable to service, when a pension is naturally paid.

Terminal grants after twelve years' service have also gone up. After fifteen years' service a man will receive £250 and after twenty-one years' service there will be £570 available to him by way of gratuity when he leaves the Army.

There are other methods which we believe are of value. We believe that the self-build organisation is something which should be looked at. I am happy to be able to announce that the War Office has recently negotiated a scheme with the British Legion and with the National Federation of Housing Societies. It is an ingenious scheme. These self-build societies are scattered all over the country and the British Legion is providing a central information bureau through which a soldier can be put in touch with a self-build society.

I hope, too, that in the next few months we shall reorganise the resettlement pre-release schemes so that a man who wishes to join a self-build society will receive training in the building of a home. That is a small point, but it is one of the things that we are thinking about.

All these things apply broadly, of course, to the other Services. I am glad to say that the leaflet on which the hon. Gentleman poured such scorn has had a very wide distribution in the other Services. I think that the Army has dope remarkably well in these various schemes and in the information and advice which it has been able to give. I think that I can claim that we have made good progress recently. The long-service soldier has been enabled through the increased terminal grants and gratuities to purchase a house. The 1959 Housing Act will, of course, help him here. Backing all this is a comprehensive information and advice service based on a system of personal interviews by officers who are really expert in these matters. This comes at a time, well before discharge, when the individual can freely and frankly discuss his problem and receive advice.

We cannot be complacent, and never can be, about what the hon. Gentleman so rightly calls an important and pressing matter, but I really believe that the Army can be proud of the success of the steps we have taken and are taking.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.