HC Deb 08 June 1962 vol 661 cc912-24

3.38 p.m.

Captain John Litchfield (Chelsea)

I am very grateful, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for being given this opportunity to raise the subject of the rebuilding of the north-east wing of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, in the last debate on the Adjournment for the Whitsun Recess. It is a formidable thought that I now stand alone between this House and the Recess, but I am sure that this is a worthy subject for the House to give its attention to before we disperse. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who has been kind enough to come here to reply to this debate, will be encouraged by the sunny prospect for Whitsun to listen with sympathy to what I have to say. I make no apology for seeking to raise this matter because, as I shall hope to show, all other means to have this matter treated as one of urgency have failed to produce action.

The Royal Hospital must be familiar to most hon. Members of this House, many of whom, indeed, live within a stone's throw of it in Chelsea. I am sure I do not need to remind the House of the beauty and fame of this building as one of the greatest and most noble of all Wren's buildings in London. Nor are hon. Members unaware of its historic association with the British Army which has been maintained unbroken for 270 years. The Chelsea Pensioners, bearing the medals, and in some cases the wounds, of campaigns fought all over the world in the service of Queen Victoria and her successors, and who still wear much the same uniform as their predecessors who fought at Blenheim and Waterloo, are also a familiar sight to hon. Members. No one privileged to be present at the Annual Founder's Day Parade last week could have failed to be deeply moved and stirred by the sight of these veterans marching past their Queen to the strains of "The Old Brigade" in the setting particularly of Figure Court, nor, I think, could they have failed to be moved by the covering words of the orders for the parade, the words at the opening, "Those able to march."

However, the purpose of this debate is not to arouse emotion, although I hope that my hon. Friend's approach will not be entirely cold-blooded or hard-hearted or hard-boiled; but I have to state the facts. In brief, the Royal Hospital sustained damage from enemy action in both World Wars. In February, 1918, the north-east wing was destroyed in a daylight air raid with loss of life. After its first destruction it was rebuilt, in 1921; that is to say, three years later. In 1944, unhappily also with loss of life, the north-east wing was again destroyed, this time by a V2 rocket. It has not yet been rebuilt, 18 years after its second destruction.

Hon. Members and others who pass that way along the Royal Hospital Road may observe the derelict gap which still so prominently defaces the Royal Hospital front. On aesthetic grounds alone, therefore, it seems to me a grave reflection not only on my hon. Friend's Department but also upon our country that a part of such a noble and historic building in the very heart of our capital should still be unrepaired and derelict so long after the war. Visitors to London may well ask, as they pass this bombed site, and with the towering materialism of the new office blocks and hotels going up round about, "Do the English really care for their heritage?"

But there are other and more practical and urgent reasons for rebuilding. There are 410 pensioners in the Royal Hospital at present, and there is a waiting list of around 100. The rebuilding of the north-east wing is urgently needed to provide accommodation of a geriatric nature for some of the more infirm and elderly pensioners, those who, perhaps, do not need full hospital treatment but who need greater care and attention than is possible in the general life of the Royal Hospital. This north-east wing, when rebuilt, will contain two air-conditioned wards and will provide accommodation for 65 of these old fellows.

But there is more to it than this. There are social aspects which extend far beyond the Royal Hospital itself. Many of the 65 old men who would be accommodated in the north-east wing are at present living in circumstances of hardship and distress in various parts of the country. That distress and hardship will not be confined to themselves alone, but may extend to and also affect those with whom they are living. The House often directs its attention and sympathies towards the problem of old and infirm people. We all know of the distress and loneliness in which old people exist if they are not cared for and what calls upon others their care involves if they are living with relatives.

Most of these old men who could be accommodated in the north-east wing of the Royal Hospital, if it were rebuilt, are certainly being cared for by others, relatives and friends, who would otherwise be employed in other work. Some of them are occupying places in National Health Service geriatric hospitals at no inconsiderable cost to the country and effort to the Health Service. Against the cost of rebuilding the north-east wing must also be set the present effort and cost to the National Health Service which is being absorbed by the care of these old persons outside.

What is the expenditure involved in this reconstruction? It is £83,000. I suppose that if this work had been undertaken when it certainly should have been, at least 10 years ago, the cost might have been £50,000 and that if it is postponed for another two or three years it may well cost at least £100,000. However, if the present figure of £83,000 is divided by 65—the number of geriatric cases which it could accommodate—I do not think that result would compare unfavourably with the cost per bed of a modern geriatric hospital building.

I understand from correspondence with my hon. Friend that the Government do not feel that this expenditure for this purpose would be justified in the present state of the national economy. So as to get this problem into perspective, let us therefore look at one or two other recent expenditures of public money. How much money is my hon. Friend's Department spending on other historic buildings, many of them in private ownership and, so far as I know, few of them, if any, contributing to the care and welfare of old people?

Grants under Section 4 of the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act, 1953 towards the repair and maintenance of historic buildings and their contents and the upkeep of adjoining land have run in recent years as follows: £550,000 in 1960–61; £550,000 in 1961–62; £500,000 in 1962–63, the current year. The expenditure voted for the upkeep of ancient monuments in 1962–63 is no less than £900,000. I would be the last to grudge this expenditure, which I support, but it makes a mockery of my hon. Friend's failure to spend one penny in respect of the Royal Hospital.

I will not attribute to my hon. Friend responsibility for the expenditure of public money by other Departments. To keep this comparatively small expenditure in perspective in relation to overall expenditure, however, how about, for example, the £2¼ million which has just been spent on the new Army barracks across the road from the Royal Hospital and how about the £2 million Supplementary Estimate—which, as a member of the Estimates Committee, I assisted the other day in discussing—for Government stationery and printing, on top of the £6½ million already voted by this House?

I cannot accept that this expenditure, which by Government standards is trifling, cannot be afforded; but I do not think that that is likely to be the burden of the argument of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. No doubt, he will say that it is a question of priorities, which I quite understand. The burden of my argument is that the Government have their priorities wrong.

I do not criticise the Ministry of Works for what has happened. The responsibility lies not in that Department, but in the Treasury, where the cake is out up and handed out. Whether there is a lack of co-ordination between Government Departments in dealing with these matters or whether some Ministries argue more strongly than others, I do not know. At least, I am fairly sure that aesthetic and human values do not, perhaps, rank quite as high in the Treasury mind as they should.

How has the matter been handled so far? Successive Governors of the Royal Hospital have pressed for this work to be undertaken over a great number of years. In the 1946–50 period, the Ministry of Works actually started to plan the rebuilding, but with the coming into office of the Conservative Government—I say this with sorrow and shame—a change of policy stopped the work. In 1952, the then Minister of Works visited the Royal Hospital and expressed concern at the absence of the wing and the Ministry agreed that year to tackle the problem. Nothing happened. In 1954, the then Governor visited the next Minister, who explained that available resources were being concentrated on the new infirmary. That was a desirable object, but it was not enough. Again, in 1957, another Minister of Works visited the site, but without result.

In 1958, the predecessor of the present Governor returned to the charge, this time with encouraging results. It was at last agreed that plans should go forward and provision was made for work to be started in August, 1961. In June, 1961, the Royal Hospital was informed that £83,000 was being included in the 1962–63 Estimates so that rebuilding should be completed that year—that is, this year. This happy decision was announced publicly by the Governor at last year's Founders' Day Parade and brought great satisfaction, both to the Royal Hospital and throughout Chelsea.

Alas, that satisfaction was premature. No sooner had the first sod been turned in September last than a letter came from the Ministry on 15th September announcing that the rebuilding scheme was to be stopped forthwith to meet Treasury wishes to curb expenditure There the matter rests, in distress compounded of doubt and hope many times deferred.

I have a shrewd idea of what my hon. Friend will say. I expect him to express sympathy, and I do not doubt his sincerity. I expect that he will express hope, but I doubt that he will commit himself to a promise or a date. I am not interested in sympathy. Sympathy is a very dangerous sentiment to arouse in a Government Department because it is nearly always a substitute for action, and what we seek is action. I urge my hon. Friend to tear up the brief he has brought with him, unless, by some happy chance, it contains a promise of action. I urge him to throw it away and speak, as I know he would like to speak, according to his own conviction and judgment. What a shot in the arm it would be if Ministers occasionally did this.

I urge my hon. Friend to remind his right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General, who not only holds the purse strings in the Treasury but is Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Royal Hospital—I wonder whether my hon. Friend realises that—that it was his own predecessor Sir Stephen Fox, the grandfather of Charles James Fox, who was the original great benefactor of the Royal Hospital 270 years ago when he gave £13,000 out of his own ill-gotten private purse for its promotion. What a happy repetition of history it would be if the present Paymaster-General, in Whose hand a decision of this kind rests, would now come forward in the footsteps of his predecessor and release the money for this work.

The reconstruction of the north-east wing of the Royal Hospital should be undertaken without further procrastination. There is an unanswerable case for doing the work. The reasons go far beyond the boundaries of the Royal Hospital or of Chelsea. I urge my hon. Friend to give me the promise for which I ask on the ground of past promises, the long overdue need to repair this structure of outstanding merit, fame and historic association, and also on the more human ground of the provision of geriatric relief for deserving old pensioners.

I want my hon. Friend to give the House a definite assurance that provision for the work will be made in next year's Estimates. If, by an unhappy chance, he has not come here armed with such a promise, I ask him to go back and ask his right hon. Friend to insist that this long-standing obligation shall be fulfilled.

3.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Richard Thompson)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelsea (Captain Litchfield) has made an eloquent and moving plea in a matter which is of the greatest importance to him in his constituency. For one thing, he has in mind increased provision for the pensioners themselves, and I think he would prob- ably put this at the very top of the list. There is then the point that this work has undoubtedly been outstanding for a very long time, and, until the building is restored to its former glories, it will continue to be something of an eye-sore in the fair Borough of Chelsea which he has the honour to represent.

The interest of the Ministry of Works in the matter is not as obvious as might appear. If the Royal Hospital were an ordinary hospital we should not be concerned with re-building it, and neither should we if it were an Army barracks. It is because it is an historic building that we are concerned with it.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

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

Mr. Thompson

As my hon. and gallant Friend has said, this building was bombed at the end of the last war. He drew a contrast between the relative speed with which it was repaired when it was bombed in the 1918 war, which took about three years, and the failure to repair it by now following the second war. I hope he will not press that point too far, because the difference in the scale of devastation as between what happened in the first war and what happened in the second war is absolutely colossal. We were confronted with an enormous job not only in London but up and down the country. However much my hon. and gallant Friend may feel that we do not always get our priorities right, we have completed a tremendous amount of very important work since the war.

When the north-east wing was bombed, it is fair to say that the part which was completely destroyed and about which we are talking was not being used for the pensioners. In those days, the north-east wing provided six staff residences, and the proposal now on the rebuilding is to convert it into pensioners' accommodation on the lines my hon. and gallant Friend described, so that the present complement, which I make 401—I think that it is within two or three of my hon. and gallant Friend's figure—can be increased to 475, the figure authorised by the War Office and the Commissioners.

Not only war damage makes it necessary to provide this additional berth accommodation. Since the war, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, there has been a considerable amount of internal reorganisation and rebuilding in the hospital, one effect of which has been to enlarge the old berths, which were only 6 ft. by 6 ft., to 6 ft. by 9 ft. This has meant a net loss of 32 berths. I do not quarrel with that, but it has meant that the additional space required has been increased by what has been done in the hospital and not only because the hospital was bombed.

I do not think my hon. and gallant Friend did us justice when he said that not a penny—those were his words—was being spent on the Royal Hospital. He referred to other things, some of which are not the responsibility of my Department, on which money was being spent. I wish to remove the impression that the Royal Hospital has been a Cinderella in this respect, because that is not true. I have armed myself with a list of the more important items of work which we have done there since the war. While I agree that it is not complete, it adds up to a quite respectable total.

My hon. and gallant Friend was good enough to mention the new infirmary, completed in 1961. This cost about £203,000, a very considerable sum. It is, I believe, the finest infirmary of its kind in the world and is probably the best fitted. I think that the order of priority there was perfectly right. The hospital, in the dictionary sense of the word, was the part of the accommodation that needed dealing with first, and I think that we have had a wonderful return for our money.

I spoke earlier of various conversion works inside the hospital and the modernisation of bunks, which amounted to £38,000. We completely renewed the steam boiler plant for the heating. That was another £30,000. We completely re-equipped and adapted the great kitchen at a cost of £15,000. I do not want to go through a long shopping list of items.

Captain Litchfield

When I used the words "not a penny", I meant to refer to the cost of rebuilding the north-east wing. I appreciate that a great deal of money has been spent on this new infirmary, though I am not aware of the details of the other expenditure. Of course, I accept that a great deal of money has been spent on maintenance and improvements.

Mr. Thompson

I am glad to have that acknowledgment from my hon. and gallant Friend, because I should not want it to go out that we had done nothing for the hospital as a whole. I made a rough total of the money we have spent so far, and, including the work which is going on at this moment on the orangery, which is being converted into a Roman Catholic Chapel and library, we have spent about £385,000, to which will have to be added whatever the final cost of the north wing may turn out to be.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

Over what period?

Mr. Thompson

Since the end of the war. The money has been spent over a period of years.

May I now say a word on the rebuilding of the wing itself? This is not as straight-forward a job as one may think, simply because of the reason, which I gave at the start, that this is an historic building—one of the finest of Wren's masterpieces. If we were proposing to replace it by a simple, functional, concrete block, which heaven forbid, it would be much cheaper and the work could be done much more quickly. Indeed, it might even have been put in hand by now. It is not open to us to do that. We have to try to restore, at any rate, as far as the outside appearance is concerned, the beautiful building which was there before, and I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend will feel glad that that is the way in which we propose to tackle it. The cost is very considerable. My hon. and gallant Friend quoted a figure of £83,000, but my information is that it is more likely to be in the region of £130,000.

I wish now to say something about the pensioners themselves. I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend did not confine the whole of his speech to the bricks and mortar aspect, because, after all, the real justification is what we can do for the pensioners. I accept that those on the waiting list who will be accommodated when the new accommodation is completed—or indeed some of them—may be in National Health Service hospitals, and some may be in local authority old people's homes and other accommodation of that kind. We have no means of identifying them precisely, but it is fair to say that if we compare the situation with that, for instance, pre-war, in our national arrangements today we make vastly increased provisions for old-age, infirmity and sickness than we did before. I think it would be emphasising it too much to suggest that because these people could not get into the hospital immediately, they were necessarily not being cared for in other ways. I do not think that is the case, and I should not have thought that it was wise to suggest that it was. Nevertheless, I entirely accept what my hon. and gallant Friend says about these soldiers; if they can get into the hospital, they would prefer to spend their declining days there.

What of the future? My hon. and gallant Friend said that he hoped that I was not going to be hard-hearted or cold-blooded in my approach to this matter. I wish I could say to him that it was possible for me to give him the kind of categorical assurance of inclusion in the Estimates for 1963–64, which is what he really wants. I cannot give him that assurance and I know that he is not disposed to being fobbed off with sympathy. I can say, however, that although this work has been delayed we have been able to complete a great deal of the pre-contract work which would have to be done in any case. To that extent we are a bit further on with it.

My hon. and gallant Friend is right in saying that we had to take this out of this year's Estimates. That was done because we were under great pressure to curb public expenditure and after the most careful and detailed review of all the possibilities, including the other things on which we were spending money, we came to the conclusion that we could not keep it in. This decision was taken with the greatest regret and I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that, regarding next year, he will certainly have achieved something for the cause he has at heart by having raised the matter today. I cannot give him any categorical assurances, but he can take it from me that the bulk of the precontract work has been done and we are very anxious ourselves to reinstate the scheme as soon as finance permits.

My hon. and gallant Friend may feel that that falls short of what he came this afternoon to achieve, but I am afraid that that often happens in Adjournment debates, particularly when we are concerned with whether certain things can or cannot be afforded. Our pet schemes so often appear, taken by themselves, to present an absolutely unanswerable case for being carried out, but if we took the sum total and aggregate of all of them we should be biting off more than we could chew. What he has done today will, I am sure, materially contribute to the speeding up of this project which I, just as much as he, would like to see speeded up.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith) rose——

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member will need to ask the leave of the House to speak again.

Mr. Hoy

With the leave of the House, I wish to point out that the Ministerial reply we received in relation to a previous debate today made the answer we have just heard a little surprising. In the first Adjournment debate today, the Minister then in charge was anxious to assure the House that money matters were now so much better that the Government did not even have any difficulty in providing subsidies for ships built abroad.

Since the position has, apparently, improved to that extent, it is a little difficult to understand the sort of reply we have just received. If the finances of the nation are so improved that the Minister in the first debate was able to take the steps I have indicated, why was the Parliamentary Secretary so reluctant to give the assurances sought by his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelsea (Captain Litchfield)? After all, this hospital—while it is situated in Chelsea, in a salubrious part of London and is a beautiful building in many ways—serves the needs of the nation and of the older section of our military community who have rendered great service to the country.

I thought that the Parliamentary Secretary made a little too much of the figure of about £300,000 spent on this hospital, because included in that figure is a considerable sum which is at present being spent.

Mr. R. Thompson

About £385,000 was the figure I gave and all of that, except about £20,000 for the orangery, has been spent and a large chunk is still ahead under the scheme.

Mr. Hoy

But the Parliamentary Secretary indicated that he has not yet made provision for the additional expenditure in the Estimates, so that that amount cannot deserve our consideration at the moment. If one divides the figure spent on a tremendous institution such as this since 1945 one finds that it represents less than £20,000 a year. I agree that we had considerable difficulties after the war and I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary made that admission. It would be a good thing if some of his hon. Friends realised that.

This institution arouses considerable sympathy because of the section of the community which it serves. Obviously, we should want to do what was possible for it. I was a little surprised that the hon. and gallant Gentleman should have said that he would be prepared to agree if the item were included in the Estimates. He said that there was no shortage of visits by the Minister of Works and many others of that ilk, but it was the money which was short. But I should have thought that even to have had the sum included in the Estimates would not have been sufficient. After all, the sum was included previously, but the Ministry came along at the behest of the Government and said, "In view of the financial state of the nation, we must cancel this expenditure". I should have thought that the hon. and gallant Gentleman would have wanted an assurance that not only would the sum be included in the Estimates but that it would be spent for the purpose for which it was in the Estimates.

Captain Litchfield Being a comparative newcomer to these things, I am naturally optimistic and fairly confident about people. I should have thought that if the sum was in the Estimates the job probably would be done. However, probably the hon. Member is correct in thinking that until one sees the job completed it is optimistic to make assumptions.

Mr. Hoy

I agree with the hon. and gallant Member. He will appreciate that the sum has already been in the Estimates and has been taken out again. All I am suggesting is that not only does he want the sum included in the Estimates but he wants the money spent.

I well understand the comparison that the hon. and gallant Member made. It must be difficult for people who live in the area to watch the tremendous expenditure going on in respect of other buildings. The Minister rightly said that that was not the responsibility of the Government or of a Government Department But it is difficult for the old people to understand how these considerable sums can be spent on other buildings while this comparatively small sum cannot be found for the purpose which we are discussing.

I can only hope, along with the hon. and gallant Gentleman, that as a result of this short Adjournment debate the project will be hurried forward and that the Minister and all the Departments concerned will be able to find the extra £80,000 or £130,000—there seems to be some dispute about What the total sum will be—'When they next come to make their decisions about future buildings in this service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Four o'clock, till Tuesday, 26th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 5th June.