HC Deb 05 May 1967 vol 746 cc953-64

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

4.3 p.m

Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Merton and Morden)

The House has always considered very carefully the conditions under which its servants in the Armed Forces operaate and live. I am very grateful for the opportunity this afternoon to draw attention to the provisions which the Government have made—or have not made—for the proper housing of some of Her Majesty's Forces.

The whole matter arose from the Government's decision announced in the Defence Review last year to bring numbers of troops back to this country. In the defence debate this year, on 27th February, the Minister of Defence for Administration quantified the number of serving men whom it was expected would be returning to this country. He said: This is in two parts, as will be plainly seen from reference to the Defence Review— withdrawals and possible withdrawals from Germany at some later stage. We are talking in terms under the Defence Review of 30.000 men and 6,000 families."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February 1967; Vol. 741 c. 222.] As to the accommodation for the 30,000 men and 6,000 families which the Government propose to bring back to this country under what they call the Defence Review withdrawals, we find in this year's Statement on the Defence Estimates, Cmnd. 3203, at Chapter X, paragraph 13, that Work will continue on the renovation of various temporary camps required in the short term to accommodate troops returning home as a consequence of Defence Review decisions. It was not until 12th April this year that we were able to discover precisely where the camps would be in which the returning troops would be accommodated. On that date, in answer to a Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark), the Under Secretary of State for Defence for the Army listed, at C. 1173–4 of HANSARD, 10 camps where troops returning to this country as a result of Defence Review decisions would be accommodated. I assume that those 10 camps will house 24,000 men—that is, the 30,000 less the 6,000 who are married with their families and who will, therefore, be going into married quarters.

My first question is to ask whether it is the Government's intention that those 10 camps—I use their own expression "camps" rather than "barracks"—will be in use indefinitely, or whether it is their intention to provide permanent quarters, which I would describe as barracks, in which to house those men.

By far the most serious matter, however, concerns the accommodation for men being withdrawn from Germany. It was foreshadowed as long ago as 20th July last year, in that famous or infamous statement made by the Prime Minister on that day, that large numbers of men might be, or would be, withdrawn from Germany to save foreign exchange costs. We were told at Chapter I, paragraph 18, of this year's Statement on the Defence Estimates that Accommodation is now being prepared in Britain for these men should it be required.

Naturally, the House assumed that since that information was published in February, which was the date of the Statement on the Defence Estimates, and it had clearly been written some weeks, if not months, before, that accommodation was being prepared. It was, therefore, of interest to the House to know exactly what accommodation was being prepared and where.

The matter was raised in the Army Estimates debate and on 6th March the Minister of Defence for Administration gave us some details. He said: With regard to possible German withdrawals. … We are starting these preparations in 16 separate barrack complexes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1967; Vol. 742. c. 1203.] The hon. Gentleman went on to list them and said that those barrack complexes were at Perth, Edinburgh, Catterick, Barnard Castle, Scarborough, Ripon, North Weald, Pembroke, Crowborough and Warminster. The first thing to note is that that list includes not 16 places, but only 10.

Leaving that aside, however, The Times investigated this matter following the hon. Gentleman's statement and published an article on 14th March, in which its defence correspondent said that Eight out of ten barracks named by the Government as being prepared to receive emergency withdrawals from the Rhine Army are not suitable for such plans. Only two barracks are capable of receiving a major unit within the immediate future. Of the other eight, two are fully occupied, one is likely to be fully occupied, one has been deserted for nine years, one is so derelict that the Army are not going ahead with their plans, and the other three are completely ruled out by local Army commands. The fact that that article was not so very wide of the mark was evidenced by the immediate reaction of the Ministry of Defence, which put out a Press statement that same evining and followed it up with an Answer to a Question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) about the precise location of the barrack complexes. On 16th March, only 10 days after the hon. Gentleman had given his list, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a new list of barracks which were being prepared to receive men coming home from Germany. He gave 14 names, which were reported in HANSARD of 16th March at column 149. I shall not read them out because they are on the record.

There are several remarkable things about the second list. The first is that, in spite of what the hon. Gentleman said about there being 16 barracks under preparation, the Secretary of State listed only 14. The second is that that list is substantially different to the one the hon. Gentleman gave the House only 10 days earlier. For example, two of the names which the hon. Gentleman gave, Scarborough and Crowborough, have been completely dropped, and six have been added.

It is interesting to note that the second list still includes six names which the article in The Times told us spokesmen of local Army commands had described only two days earlier as being completely unsuitable. They said that Edinburgh was unsuitable before Redford Barracks could take two battalions. One was already there and the remaining accommodation was earmarked for troops coming home under Defence Review withdrawals. North Weald, the site of a disused R.A.F. airfield, had been empty for nine years. Half was let to local tradesmen, and there were no married quarters, because the R.A.F. had kept them. Northern Command spokesmen said that Catterick was fully occupied, and that Barnard Castle was out of the question. Pembroke was unlikely to be available because the School of Artillery was planning to move there while its premises were being rebuilt, and Perth because there were no facilities for a major unit.

Therefore, in the Secretary of State's latest list, the latest of several, two barrack complexes are still unnamed, six are described as unsuitable or unusable by local Army Command spokesmen, and six are brand-new names which had apparently been thought of only between 6th and 16th March this year. The only two which appear to be firm are the barrack complexes at Ripon and Warminster.

That is most unsatisfactory, because the possible withdrawals from the Rhine Army were foreshadowed as long ago as last July, and one would have expected the Government by now to have made up their minds which barracks could and will be used if required by troops coming home from Germany. But from all the information we have in the House they are still undecided, or at any rate have only made their decisions at the last moment.

In answer to a Question I asked on 12th April as to whether the list given by his right hon. Friend was firm the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army said: Of course the information is not fixed and final. The situation is changing from time to time, …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th April, 1967; Vol. 744, c. 1173.] The hon. Gentleman can say that again. It appears to change about every ten days. It is time the Minister came clean with the House and told us where he proposes that these troops shall be rehoused when they return to this country. He now knows how many troops will be coming back, for we have the Statement of the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs on 2nd May that it is the intention of the Government to withdraw one brigade group and certain units of the Royal Air Force from Germany by the end of this financial year. I therefore hope that at long last the Government will be able to tell us their firm plans for the rehousing of the men whom they have decided shall be brought back to this country.

4.14 p.m.

The Minister of Defence for Administration (Mr. G. W. Reynolds)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Humphrey Atkins) for raising this subject, because, as he said, it gives me an opportunity to go into some detail on the point on which he and the House are interested as are, of course, the individual units and returning families. As the hon. Gentleman said, it was only earlier this week that the firm announcement was made on the withdrawals from Germany, and we can now finalise the position concerning both the Defence Review withdrawals and possible withdrawals from Germany.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has become a little muddled with the lists given in the past. They were accurate at the time, and even though he may say that there were very few days between them, the position has been changing so rapidly from time to time, through making different assumptions of the number of units which we might or not be bringing back from Germany and through having to shuffle around with units in the United Kingdom, that there may have been some confusion. During the next quarter of an hour I shall be able to give some information which will clear up the matter.

Of course, I have no responsibility for some of the rather mischievous newspaper reports which have appeared in the last 12 months in what, in the past, have been regarded as reasonably responsible newspapers.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins

If the hon. Members considers them mischievous, perhaps he will take the opportunity of denying them specifically.

Mr. Reynolds

That is exactly what I was about to do.

It is most mischievous when a newspaper sends a photographer and a reporter to the ex-R.A.F. aerodrome at North Weald, which, as the hon. Member has said, stood empty for some years, they search all round the camp and find one place where a bit of plaster has fallen off the ceiling and take a picture saying that it is the cookhouse. It had been empty for nine years. It is, however, a solid 1930s-built regular Air Force aerodrome with good barrack blocks, central heating right through and all the amenities which are necessary.

All that is required to be done at that camp is to check all the central heating and electric wiring and things of that nature, which would probably have been due for renewal because of the age of the camp irrespective of whether it had been empty for seven or eight years, and to carry out decoration and other minor works throughout.

I was there earlier this week and can say that this is an excellent camp and will be perfectly adequate for an infantry unit once we have carried out a check of the central heating and electric wiring and other things. It will be January, February or March next year before the unit will have to move in. I think that it is mischievous for these people to find one place where a lump of plaster had fallen off the ceiling, take a picture and then say, "This is the condition in the camp. This is the terrible camp in North Weald". It is a good camp and it will be up to pretty good standards when we have carried out £100,000 work over the next eight or nine months.

I could say the same about other places. Someone goes to Edinburgh, sees one barrack occupied and does not bother to inquire about those which are not occupied. That is a mischievous report. These matters could easily have been dealt with by inquiries at the Ministry of Defence Press Office rather than by telephoning or getting in touch with the people in the various districts who are not directly concerned in the matter and who are bound to say that they know nothing about it, or that they do not think that the camp would be suitable. Information would have been available had it been asked for in the proper place.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for having given me the opportunity this afternoon to deal with the matter.

Before I go on to the emergency withdrawal programme—both the Defence Review withdrawals and the withdrawals from Germany—I must refer to the present position in the United Kingdom in respect of barracks and married quarters. There are at present—nothing whatever to do with the withdrawals-24 units in the United Kingdom who are living in war-time or militia-type camps and not in purpose-built barrack accommodation. We are short of nearly 30,000 married quarters in the United Kingdom. The deficit is made up by all sorts of methods, such as hiring or people finding their own accommodation. As for barracks building—and this has nothing to do with the withdrawals—under a regular programme going over the next three years we shall provide permanent barrack accommodation for 30,500 at a cost of £73 million. For some years we have been building about 4,000 married quarters a year. This programme will continue until 1975 so that we wipe out the 30,000 deficit which exists at a cost of about £120 million.

Considering the emergency programme, we have to bear in mind that we start with this deficit of married quarters and with a large number of men living in unsuitable accommodation or accommodation not up to modern standards. The emergency programme has been designed to provide proper married quarters and reasonable barrack accommodation for the numbers of men and the numbers of families returning to the United Kingdom. The emergency withdrawal programme will not worsen the position in respect of married quarters in the United Kingdom because of the numbers of families coming back, because an additional number of married quarters is being obtained by methods which I shall mention in a moment. I am afraid that my figures will not add up to the 30,000 which the hon. Member mentioned as from the Defence White Paper.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins

It is 30,000 troops returning.

Mr. Reynolds

It is 30,000 returning.

What I am talking about is not unaccompanied units on emergency tours overseas. They are included in the 30,000 but their barracks are standing empty in the United Kingdom and their families are already in married quarters in the United Kingdom. They are included in the 30,000 soldiers coming back.

Here, I am talking about soldiers on proper tours overseas, very often accompanied by their families, and not emergency tour forces, who present no problem because they simply move out of their barracks for the tour and then return to them.

As I have said, the figures will not add up to 30,000. This is one of the complications. They do not add up because the individual figures mean different things, depending upon the subject one is tackling. We need extra hirings of houses wherever possible, and this, of course, is somewhat difficult. We are accelerating the planned building programme of 4,000 houses by a further 3,600. We are building these latter earlier than planned and we are also injecting a further 1,600 houses into the married quarters programme for the three Services.

We are also, of course, making purchases and will provide mobile homes if they are necessary. So far, this has not proved necessary, although at Inverness they will be provided because the houses to be purchased will not be ready for six months. We are providing some caravans there.

I come now to the withdrawals and the provisions we are making. There are two separate withdrawals here, one the so-called Defence Review withdrawals and the other from Germany. I will deal, first, with the Defence Review withdrawals. In the Royal Navy, we shall bring 1,120 men back here from posts overseas, but there is no problem there because they will be posted as individuals to existing establishments or ships. This is different from the position of the Army, when complete units are withdrawn home. Men in the Navy are posted as individuals.

In the Army, we are bringing back about 5,000 men. They will go into camps at Barton Stacey, Maresfield, Tonfanau, which are already occupied by units brought back, and other camps we shall use are Fort George, Inverness, Weeton, Lingfield, Longmoor, Worcester, Plymouth, Plasterdown, Taunton, Winchester and Chatham. Work is in progress on these camps and they will be ready when the units arrive.

The first programme is to ensure good working and living accommodation in these camps and then work will begin on amenities, such as junior ranks clubs. There might be a little delay in this respect at two camps, but it will only be marginal. At one, the sergeants' mess kitchen will not be ready for some weeks after the arrival of the troops and the meals for the sergeants' mess will have to be brought in from the junior ranks' dining facilities. The work is based on the assumption that it might be necessary to use these camps for at least five or six years. They will be brought up to the proper standard.

In the Royal Air Force, 9,700 men are coming home but there is no particular difficulty there either because, as with the Royal Navy, the men will be posted as individuals to Air Force stations. In dealing with married quarter3 under the Defence Review withdrawals, we find that we shall need to provide for 650 families brought home by Navy personnel. These will be provided for by houses at present under construction, under the normal married quarters programme and by purchases of 200 houses at Plymouth and 20 at Chatham. All this means that we can cope with these withdrawals of families. Altogether, about 3,000 Army families will come home under the Defence Review withdrawals. We are planning for 3,031 houses and at present have bought, or are in the process of buying, 2,355 of those required.

These are at Plymouth, Honiton, Barton Stacey, Longmoor, Weeton, Kirton-in-Lindsey, Fort George, Felixstowe, Lydd, Watchet, Shorncliffe, Gravesend, Chatham, Maresfield, Ling-field, Worcester, Devizes and Netheravon. Homes are being purchased now in these localities.

Altogether, 2,700 Air Force families will be coming home in this way. We have in the pipeline 1,059 houses for them. Thus, with the R.A.F. and the Army we do not expect any particular difficulty, but, although many additional houses will still be needed in many places, units and individuals will not be returning for months.

We have not had a great deal of difficulty so far. As my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government knows, we started by thinking that we might have to buy a large number of second-hand houses, but we have been able to deal with the problem in other ways, by buying estates of new houses, 20 in some places, and more than 100 in others, while the houses are under construction, and these will in most instances be ready within the time scale within which we will require them.

The purchase of property and the preparation of camps for the Defence Review withdrawal has gone amazingly smoothly, far more so than was feared when we started this programme. I do not think that there will be any difficulty here, and in any event hon. Members will have seen in the Press during the last 48 hours something of the arrangements being made for the wives and families arriving from Aden, who started to come here 48 hours ago, and who will be returning over the next 2½ months. These arrangements appear to be working smoothly.

I propose now to deal with the German withdrawals announced earlier this week. I must emphasise that this matter is still being discussed with our N.A.T.O. colleagues, and through the W.E.U. machinery, but we have announced that, subject to the various procedures, we intend to withdraw one brigade from Germany. We shall not, however, pick up an existing brigade and bring it back. We shall bring back a brigade headquarters and units that make up a brigade, and then re-brigade, if I may use that word, the remaining units in Germany so that there will be five brigades there instead of six.

The units coming back from Germany and the camps to which they will move are as follows: brigade headquarters and a brigade signal squadron to Streatlam Camp, Barnard Castle; an artillery regiment to Barford Camp, Barnard Castle; a field squadron, Royal Engineers, to Deverell Camp, Ripon; one infantry battallion to Alma Barracks, Catterick, another to Kirknewton, Edinburgh, and another to Broadbridge Heath, Horsham and Hobbs Barracks, Lingfield; a transport squadron to Deverell Camp, Ripon; a field ambulance to Old Hospital Camp, Catterick; an ordnance field park to Streatlam Camp, Barnard Castle; an infantry workshop to Piave Lines, Catterick; and a heavy air defence regiment to Horseshoe Barracks, Shoeburyness. Those are the units which will be returned from Germany and moved into those camps.

The brigade which will remain in the United Kingdom, but assigned to N.A.T.O., will not, when it is completely organised, be composed of these units. It will consist mainly of units concentrated in the Catterick-Barnard Castle area. Some of the infantry batallions, two of them, in fact, coming back from Germany will be nearing the end of their tour there, and will be replaced by two battalions in or due shortly to move into the Barnard Castle-Catterick area. They are the camps which will be avail able, and work is being carried out on them to enable the proposed German withdrawals to come off.

With regard to Air Force withdrawals, it is the 18 Wessex Squadron which will come back from Gutersloh to the United Kingdom and will occupy a Transport Command station at Abingdon or Odiham, but the arrangements are being sorted out.

We are purchasing 1,447 houses for married quarters for Army personnel coming back. These houses will, in the vast majority of cases, be at Barnard Castle, Catterick, Ripon, North Weald, Lingfield, Horsham, Denbury, Edinburgh, and Shoeburyness. We do not expect any difficulty in obtaining these houses within the timescale for the return of these units from the B.A.O.R.

We are trying, but there are difficulties, to keep the maximum possible liaison with local authorities into whose areas major units will be moving. We try to give them the earliest possible information of the proposed move. One of the problems arises from the number of school places to be provided, but as we are buying the vast majority of these houses in places in respect of which the local authorities gave planning permission many months ago, they will have information of the additional school places being required in the area, although we will probably bring more children on to these estates than would have been the case if they had been sold in the normal way. If, however, hon. Members know of difficulties which may arise locally in areas where we are proposing to station troops, I hope that they will let me know and I shall be glad to look into the matter and write to them.

We estimate the cost of this operation at £33 million over the financial years 1967–68 and 1968–69, of which about £30 million will be spent on buying houses and about £2½ million to £3 million on refurbishing camps to be occupied by units. The only real expenditure, therefore, is that on refurbishing camps for five or six years, because the bulk of the rest will either enable us to add those houses to our pool of regular married quarters and perhaps make it unnecessary to build some in later years, or, if they are in areas where there will be no long-term use by the Services, to resell them and recoup our capital and perhaps a little more. It is not often that the Services can make a capital profit on something, but this may be possible in those areas where there will be no long-term need.

The operation has gone very well, and better than many of us feared. We know where the camps are and we are getting the married quarters with no particular difficulty. We are pressing on with building the regular permanent barracks. I express my thanks to the officials in the Ministries of Housing and Local Government and Public Building and Works and in the Treasury and many departments of the Ministry of Defence who have done much work over the last six months. This will, I am sure, lead to a smooth operation which will satisfy the people coming back and provide married quarters and barracks accommodation in which people will be content to spend a reasonable period.

Question put and agreed to.

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