HL Deb 22 June 1939 vol 113 cc662-8

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, I should like to remind your Lordships that I remarked the other day that our requirements for war could no longer be developed in that comparative ease and leisure customary in this country before the advent of the aeroplane. It must, I think, follow that any planning for the defence of the civil population and for the preservation and continuation of essential services in wartime must be thoroughly explored, developed and completed before the beginning of any hostilities. It is therefore I think incumbent upon any Government, whatever its political complexion may be, to make the most strenuous preparations for any eventuality. Indeed for this reason, for no other, I regard this Bill in no Party spirit or as one which is required to run the gauntlet of Parliamentary discussion for purely political purposes, but rather as a measure upon which noble Lords of all political denominations can render advice and assistance to the Government by their intimate knowledge upon many of the proposals which are set out in the clauses of the Bill.

When the civil liberties of our people appear to be threatened throughout the world, and the danger of warlike operations by foreign Powers appears to be actively considered, no sane man would oppose the wish of our people for strong defensive measures to be put into immediate operation to enable us to develop our offensive the quicker. Any effort we may make to ensure the defence of our land must lessen the chance of the element of surprise and indeed the chance of war altogether. I look upon this Bill, in view of the reasons which I have just enumerated, as an absolute necessity. Accordingly, His Majesty's Government are asking heavy contributions from landowners and from tenants, from occupiers of businesses and from all those who employ labour, in a form which would never be tolerated by Parliament in normal peace time. I believe that that contribution will be abundantly forthcoming, and that your Lordships will show once again the spirit which has always prevailed amongst us to give help where help is needed and thereby to ensure the complete success of the scheme which it will be my privilege to outline in a moment. The immense powers which will be delegated under this Bill to local authorities are in my opinion sufficiently justifiable in view of the gravity of the times in which we live.

After these few introductory remarks I would ask your Lordships now to refer to the somewhat long and complicated Bill—a measure which I think certainly lends itself to discussion far more easily on future stages than it does on Second Reading. The first Part of the Bill, which is retrospective, makes provision for the delegation of the powers of my right honourable friend to other Ministers of the Crown. The second Part deals with public shelters and supplements the provision of the Air-Raid Precautions Act which your Lordships passed in 1937. One of the duties of the local authority is to provide shelters for the general public, and experience has shown us that without additional powers these local authorities are very seriously handicapped if they are to make reasonable progress in providing these necessary shelters. We propose, therefore, to give powers to enable them to select and earmark buildings for use in whole or in part as public shelters or for any other civil defence purpose. These buildings might naturally require very considerable structural alterations, and the local authority under Clause 2 will be able to enter the buildings so selected and carry out any work which they consider in their wisdom to be necessary. Once that work is completed, no alterations can be made without leave of the authority, and if that consent is refused the occupier can appeal to Quarter Sessions.

I think noble Lords could easily conceive a situation arising in which anyone might suffer a considerable inconvenience from interference, not only by the local authority while work on the designated premises is being completed, but also in respect of the impairment of the normal use of the building after the work has been carried out. It is therefore surely only right and proper that the local authority should pay compensation if such a situation as I have visualised actually occurred. I would recall that in the past debates have been initiated in this House dealing with the whole question of underground shelters, and we propose by Clause 7 to give the local authority power to construct on any land, after giving 28 days' notice to the occupier of any land, underground shelters and any necessary work ancillary thereto. Compensa- tion will naturally be paid in respect of any damage caused by construction of the works to which I have referred.

I pass from that to the question which has been discussed both in Parliament and in the Press—namely, the suggestion that underground car-parks would be suitable as air-raid shelters in any emergency. As we do not rule out the possibility that by this method an important contribution to the shelter problem may be found, we propose to empower the local authority to construct such works, if my right honourable friend approves the proposal. The only grant that the local authority will receive will be for that portion of the work which is solely attributable to making the car-park suitable for use as an air-raid shelter.

It has been suggested to us by local authorities that in the more congested towns and cities a large number of houses have no possible space for the erection of steel shelters or other classes of shelter, and that some scheme must, in their opinion, therefore, be adopted in order to ensure protection to persons who live in this sort of locality. We have examined this proposal, and we are satisfied that drastic powers are required to meet the urgency of the need. We propose accordingly under Clause 9 to give local authorities power to construct shelters on any highway. We have, of course, no intention whatever that such shelters should be provided on the main arterial roads, but principally in alleys and narrow streets used as secondary means of ingress or egress. I realise these are very large powers that we are delegating to local authorities, but nevertheless I hope your Lordships will support the Government in their determination to examine every possible experiment and to make use of all potential resources.

I pass now to the third Part of the Bill, to which we attach the very highest importance. The House will have observed that it contains our proposals for ensuring that Air-Raid Precaution services are properly organised and that air-raid shelters are provided in all industrial and commercial establishments. We are in fact, by this Part of the Bill translating the moral duty of the employer to protect his workpeople into a statutory obligation. Although it can be truly said that every part of the country is within the range of modern aircraft, all parts are not equally vulnerable, and the provision of shelters will only be obligatory in those areas which will be specified in an order made by the Minister. In fact, a provisional list has already been published. This statutory obligation will fall upon all those undertakings who employ more than fifty people, but the smaller employer in the vulnerable areas can, if he so wishes, provide protection for his own workpeople. In any case, under Clause 22 the Government propose to pay grants for such shelters at a rate equal to the standard rate of Income Tax for the year 1939–1940, which amounts to 27½ per cent.

My right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal has already issued a provisional code concerning standards of protection rather than types of shelter. This code contains advice and methods of providing shelter against blast, splinters and falling débris. We are hopeful that it may be of some use and assistance to engineers, builders or architects, as the case may be. The Federation of Employers' Organisations, the Federation of British Industries and the Associated Chambers of Commerce have accepted an invitation to set up a standing joint committee for consultation with the Department upon that code, and it is also the intention of my right honourable friend to discuss this matter with the General Council of the Trade Union Congress. I am fully aware that by this part of the Bill we are imposing heavy obligations upon employers, but I am confident that they will discharge their obligations to the complete satisfaction of His Majesty's Government.

I turn now to Clause 19, which deals with the owners of those commercial buildings which are let off to tenants. We are placing an obligation upon the owner to provide shelter, and he will be required to pay compensation to the occupier if any damage or interference is caused. If the works constructed have diminished the normal use of any part of that building, a reduced rent will be paid, and the owner will be able to recoup himself for the expense to which he has been put by increasing the rent of his tenants. Clause 23 imposes a statutory obligation upon a person who employs more than thirty persons to train his workpeople in air-raid precautions routine and a considerable proportion of them in first aid, fire fighting and anti-gas. A memorandum will be issued giving general guidance to employers, and measures that they can take to ensure that their employees are suitably trained.

I pass on to Part IV of the Bill, which contains provisions for dealing with shelters other than those erected for public use or for industrial or commercial buildings. The House will be aware that for some time past His Majesty's Government have been distributing steel shelters to those who are compulsorily insurable under the National Health Insurance Act and who are living in vulnerable areas. We are now laying down in Clause 26 that local authorities should be required to advise as to the most suitable position in which the shelter can be erected, and thereby minimise the risk of damage to drain pipes, sewers and cables. The House will already be aware that it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to provide free material for certain classes of persons for the strutting of private basements, and both in this and the previous clause the local authority is under no obligation to fit the appliances unless the occupier so consents. It has always been our policy to provide free shelter to the poorer people, but we are well aware that between that class and the richer men there may be a substantial number of persons whose means are such that it would be financially difficult for them to provide their own shelters without assistance. We therefore propose in Clause 29 to give power to local authorities to advance money on loan to this class of person for the cost of erecting shelters of a permanent character.

Now I come to Clause 30, which is of importance to a large number of persons living in blocks of all classes of flats who do not come within the limits of free shelter provision by a local authority. As the Bill was originally introduced in another place the clause was permissive on the owner, but it was amended after discussion, and now requires the owner to carry out a scheme of shelter protection if 50 per cent. of the occupiers request him to do so. Power is given enabling the owner to recoup himself by increasing the rents of both the assenting majority and the dissenting minority for a period of not more than ten years. We have been urged in many quarters to make provision by way of regulations to give power to my right honourable friend to require the incorporation of air-raid precautions in new buildings or in alteration and extensions of any buildings, and accordingly Clause 32 carries out these ideas. We do not contemplate that these regulations will compel different methods of architectural design or practice. I do not know whether it would be for your Lordships' convenience that we should now adjourn the debate.


I think, my Lords, it would probably be to your convenience that we should now adjourn the debate.

[The sitting was suspended at a quarter past five o'clock in order that their Lordships might take the places reserved for them in Parliament Square to join in the welcome to Their Majesties as the King and Queen passed through the streets from Waterloo to Buckingham Palace on their return from Canada, Newfoundland and the United States of America. The sitting was resumed at six o'clock.]