HC Deb 17 July 1967 vol 750 cc1455-62

Order for Second Reading read.

10.24 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Niall MacDermot)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Irish Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust was set up under the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1922, so that cottages could be provided in Ireland for ex-Servicemen of the 1914–1918 war. A lot has been done since the Act was passed and today the Trust has 1,896 tenants of its cottage properties on both sides of the Border, and of these, 759 are widows of former ex-Servicemen tenants.

Thanks to the prudent and skilful management by the trustees for many years, a reserve fund has been built up. Interest from this fund, together with rents received, is enough to pay for the current running costs but the trustees have now asked for an extension of their powers so that they can confer additional benefits on the beneficiaries of the Trust, the ex-Servicemen and their widows, in ways more suited to present conditions.

The Bill is designed to give them these powers. Clause 1(1) enables the Trust to provide these men with accommodation other than cottages. The House will appreciate that, at the time when the Act was passed, the men qualifying were young and active, seeking houses for themselves and their families on their return from war service. For them, cottages were an appropriate and satisfactory type of accommodation. So, naturally, the Act was confined to providing this kind of dwelling.

But many years have passed and for a large proportion of those on the waiting list the tenancy of a cottage would be of little advantage. There is now clear need to extend the Trust's powers so that, in so far as its funds allow, it can provide qualifying ex-Servicemen with other kinds of living accommodation —for example, it could be appropriate in some cases for old people's fiats to be made available.

Subsection (2) gives the Trust power to sell cottages to widowed tenants. The Trust has a temporary power to make sales of this kind under the 1952 Act, but that power has long since lapsed. There will be two advantages from the use of this proposed power. First, the widows will be able to secure for themselves and their families the ownership of properties they at present inhabit as tenants and, secondly, additional funds will accrue to the Trust from these sales which can be used either for the benefit of remaining tenants or making additional accommodation available for those on the waiting list. This will obviously increase the prospect of assistance of those still on the waiting list.

The Trust's affairs are managed by five trustees. Three of them are appointed by the Home Secretary—Sir Edmund Compton, who is Chairman, Lord Carew and the Duke of Westminster; one trustee—Brigadier Calwell—is appointed by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, and the fifth trustee—now Lord Killanin—is appointed by the Government of Eire. All these trustees give their services without financial reward and I am sure that the House would like to express our gratitude for the services they render.

Some hon. Members have been familiar with the affairs of the Trust for many years and I am glad to see here today in particular the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills), who has taken an active interest in securing these additional powers for the Trust to enable it to discharge its obligations with even greater adequacy in today's circumstances.

I commend the Bill to the House as a Measure entirely beneficial and which commands the support of the Trust's tenants, the ex-Service organisations and the trustees alike.

10.28 a.m.

Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)

I welcome the Bill, the provisions of which are as we would wish, and add to the tribute paid by the hon. and learned Gentleman to Sir Edmund Compton and the other trustees for the work they are doing. At the same time, I am glad that he also paid tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills), who has taken such an interest in the welfare of the tenants from time to time.

However, there is one important question to which the hon. and learned Gentleman did not provide the answer. It is the key question of how many veterans there are on the waiting list, because this raises a question of policy which I wish to mention. Under the Bill, more of the cottages are likely to be sold to the widows. Is it envisaged that the proceeds of such sales will go entirely to the acquisition of properties such as flats, or are they likely to be taken into investment or put into reserve, which seem already to be very adequate and, indeed, considerable?

If the funds are not all to be exhausted in this respect, and if the waiting list is not as long as some might imagine, should not consideration be given to the position of veterans of the Second World War? Can he perhaps tell us whether a study has been made of that suggestion? When it was raised in another place, the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, who introduced the Bill for the Government, said: … I may say that the proposal has been raised before and it was turned down on the grounds that this Imperial Trust was set up for those volunteers of the First World War—because there was no conscription at that time in Ireland—who were promised that when they came back from the war they would be given appropriate accommodation as a mark of the country's gratitude for their war service. That was what was done, and that is why I do not think it appropriate that the 1939–45 war veterans should have the same kind of treatment. I do not think that the noble Lord, when he said that, meant to rest his case against any such proposal to do something for second war veterans on the implication that First War veterans were different in the sense that they happened to be volunteers and were not conscripted. In case he was resting what he said on that proposition, I must point out the obvious, namely, that, in the Second World War, there was no conscription in the Republic of Ireland since there was no allegiance and there was no conscription in Northern Ireland, although the Government of Northern Ireland at the time asked for conscription to be applied. The situation was not the same. We are, therefore, dealing in both cases with men who were volunteers and who are just as entitled to a mark of their country's gratitude as their predecessors.

I can understand the point which the noble Lord went on to make that he thought there might be reluctance to apply any new provision of this kind to veterans of Eire, because it might be taken as holding out an inducement to subjects from an independent republic to fight in the British Army. However, there need not be any such inhibition about the case of volunteers from Northern Ireland.

I should like to know what the Minister feels about that and whether, even if this is not entirely the appropriate occasion, that possibility will be considered in the future. Otherwise, I warmly welcome the provisions of this small but humane Measure.

10.32 a.m.

Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)

I would join with other hon. Members in welcoming this most useful Bill, and, in passing, I should like to thank the Financial Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) for their kind personal remarks. The House should also place on record its thanks to the trustees of this Trust and, in particular, the chairman, Sir Edmund Compton, for bringing forward this piece of legislation. It would be churlish not to thank the Government for bringing forward the Bill and finding time for it in their very busy Session, and I also appreciate that its place in the waiting list has been rather shorter than most Bills of this kind.

As I say, I welcome the Bill, but I have had several letters and visits from people who have expressed opposition to it on the ground that as there are a number of ex-Servicemen still on the waiting list it is wrong to sell to the widows. I have explained that this view is wrong for two reasons. First, I accept that it is arguable whether it is right to sell the houses to the ex-Servicemen tenants as long as there are people still on the waiting list!

I have put the view to people who have corresponded with me on this that if the ex-Servicemen are entitled to buy then it is right that the widows of those who have not survived—many have died early through war wounds—should have the same right that their husbands would have had if they had survived. I am encouraged in this view as it is also the view of the British Legion of Northern Ireland, which is supporting this legislation.

It is right that the Trust should sell the houses to the ex-Servicemen. Many have paid rents all their lives and if they wish to have the right to own their own homes then it is perfectly sensible. Many of the elderly tenants who are not in the best of health may want a daughter or a son to come and live with them, and there is the additional inducement that, after the tenant becomes the owner, his or her children can live on in that house as of right, whereas, if they die as tenants, their children would not be able to keep the tenancy after their death.

The second reason why it is right for the Trust to sell the houses to the ex-Servicemen is that at present it has to keep a very large reserve—and perhaps the Financial Secretary could tell us the current reserve—of many hundreds of thousands of pounds so that the interest from the reserve can be used to meet the cost of repairs. It is worth remembering that the rents which are paid, broadly speaking, do not cover the cost of repairs which is why this substantial fund has to be kept. The Trust will be relieved of the cost of repairs on the sale of the houses and it will have a further capital sum which can be used to provide new accommodation. This is a point which is worth pointing out to those people who are still on the waiting list of the Trust.

What of the future? I very much welcome that the trustees have taken powers in the Bill to provide other types of accommodation. I quote from Clause 1, subsection (1): … to providing … or assisting in the provision of living accommodation other than cottages …". The Financial Secretary said that the trustees had in mind particularly pensioners flats. Could he say a little more on this? There might be a case for considering some kind of old people's home of the type run by local authorities for particularly elderly ex-Servicemen of the Second World War. I think that that would be welcomed.

While I take the point that many of the tenants are elderly, there is a wish for the Trust to provide a very small cottage of the kind provided by the Northern Ireland Housing Trust near Belfast called pensioners' cottages. These are purely on one floor, with limited accommodation, but they have been extremely popular. I hope that the Trust will consider this. Perhaps the Financial Secretary can give some further details of what the Trust has in mind on those lines?

My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry asked about the numbers on the waiting list. I know that the trustees feel that the waiting list is not big, but I feel that sometimes all the people on the waiting list come and see me. Therefore, I have the possibly misleading impression that the waiting list is extremely long. I should like the Trust to carry out a complete review of the people on the waiting list to bring it up to date. This would be most useful.

There are many people on the waiting list and, as the years are passing by, I should like the trustees to press on most urgently with providing additional accommodation. They will now have new capital. I hope that in the interim period, while the new capital is coming in from the sale of houses, they might perhaps consider borrowing additional moneys from the bank, as well as calling on the reserve, to press on with building new homes, particularly in the Greater Belfast area where the waiting list is longest. If the Trust could set some form of target of perhaps 200 'additional units in a crash programme within the next 18 months, that would not be unduly ambitious.

I end as I began by warmly welcoming the Bill and thanking the trustees and the Government for introducing it.

10.40 a.m.

Mr. MacDermot

By leave of the House, may I say that I have only approximate figures for the numbers on the waiting list, but as such I give them to the House. In Northern Ireland, there are about 450, of whom some 300 are in the Belfast area, and in Southern Ireland there are some 300, of whom about 120 are in the Dublin area.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) asked whether it was intended that the proceeds of these sales to widows where they occurred would be devoted entirely to the acquisition of properties, and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. ,Stratton Mills) developed questions on that theme and on the type of accommodation which might be provided.

Deliberately, the wording of the Bill is extremely wide to allow the maximum discretion to the trustees. It is not envisaged necessarily that it should always be for the acquisition of properties. For example, the trustees might have in mind making contributions to charitable bodies which would be able to provide accommodation for these ex-Servicemen.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North rightly stressed that this was a matter of same urgency. Fifty years have now elapsed since the end of the First World War and, naturally, those on the waiting list are elderly people. As I suggested, some are in need of more than just bare accommodation and need welfare help and assistance. Accordingly, I am sure that the trustees will closely study the remarks of the hon. Member about the kind of accommodation which might be provided and which might be suitable.

I am not sure that it lies within their power to embark on a crash programme of the kind he mentioned, simply because, I imagine, it will take some time before they are able to build up the necessary funds from sales to widows, but, of course, they may think it right to use some of their present reserves in the knowledge that with this additional power they will be able to supplement the reserves again. The interest from the reserves is being used to help to maintain existing cottages along with their beneficial rents. The present total of the reserves is £761,970.

The hon. Member for Londonderry raised the difficult question, which has been mooted before, of whether, when the needs of the ex-Servicemen of the First World War no longer occupy the trustees, the funds can be devoted to similar uses for veterans of the Second World War. Obviously, with a waiting list of this kind there is no need to make any decision about that now, but I must say that it would raise problems of considerable difficulty and complexity, political as well as economic problems. However, this is a matter which will have to be decided in due course and it is not somethng which we have to decide now.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Belfast, North, who has many contacts with the organisations and people interested in the work of the Trust, say that there has been a certain amount of opposition to this proposal, due to a misunderstanding of its nature, and I am grateful to him for the explanation which he has given to those concerned. If it were the position that people on the waiting list would be prejudiced by sales to widows, we would not dream of suggesting that the trustees should have this power, but it is quite the contrary.

The whole object is to be able not only to give this additional security, comfort and help to the widows, but also to be able to get funds which can immediately be applied for the benefit of those on the waiting list. Otherwise, there would be the unpleasing prospect of having to wait to see whether they outlived the widows to get any assistance. Clearly, those on the waiting list stand to benefit much earlier—and time is of the essence—if there is this power to sell to the widows.

As I have already said, for many of those on the waiting list the existing cottages are not the right or the best type of accommodation and with these flexible powers the trustees will be able to give the accommodation of the kind needed. For that reason I am sure that they will closely review the waiting list to make sure that they know what are the real needs of those on it.

I am grateful to hon. Members for the welcome which they have given to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Ioan L. Evans.]

Committee Tomorrow.