HL Deb 03 December 1940 vol 118 cc48-62

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether their attention has been drawn to the delays in salvaging furniture and other personal possessions from houses and other buildings which have been damaged in air attacks; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I believe that an Inter-Departmental Committee are now considering the problems that are raised by my Motion and the Government will not be able to inform the House what action they intend to take until the Committee have reported and they have had time to consider the recommendations. I may have probably taken the words out of the mouth of the noble Lord opposite, but I should like to preface my remarks by that observation, because some reason is obviously required for nevertheless pressing the Motion to-day.

I was disinclined, I confess, when it was suggested yesterday that I should withdraw my Motion to postpone its consideration until a later date. For one thing, I was particularly anxious not to inconvenience any noble Lords who might wish to speak, and who might take especial pains to be present on this occasion. One noble Lord who is actually present had already written to me some days ago to say that he was hoping to come. Another reason, I think, for a discussion at this juncture is that it seems desirable to impress on the Government the great urgency of the problem, and the need for arriving at a definite decision and taking the proper action at the earliest possible opportunity. With every day that passes more unfortunate people are witnessing the irretrievable ruin of their most treasured possessions. Finally, I venture to think that the Government might find a discussion of the subject in this House of some value, both as an indication of the widespread anxiety that is felt at the inadequacy of existing facilities for the salvage of household goods, and as a source, possibly, of constructive suggestions about some of the remedies that they are themselves already considering and endeavouring to devise.

The fact, of course, is that delay in removing or protecting the contents of damaged houses and flats has led to grievous losses already for thousands of poor families, and is bound to lead to yet heavier loss so long as night bombing continues and nothing effective is done. It is, after all, the time factor that is all-important. When a building has been damaged by high explosive bombs, the windows broken, the roof probably penetrated and the walls leaking, it is very obvious that the contents can only be saved if immediate steps are taken to protect them. But, instead of prompt and immediate action such as that of fire brigades and rescue squads, who are always immediately on the spot, there has as a rule been a long interval between the actual infliction of the damage by air attack and the removal and safeguarding by the local authorities of what is left intact on the premises. There has been delay, in the first instance, about effecting first-aid repairs to damaged roofs, which means of course that furniture is spoiled by exposure to bad weather conditions.

There has also been delay about the removal of household goods from houses that are damaged beyond repair; which of course exposes the contents to exactly the same injurious influences. But in such instances, in the latter type of case, there is added risk of loss by theft. Premises without doors and windows arc often, I fear, an irresistible temptation to the dishonest passer-by. It is gratifying—and this is a sentiment, I think, that is generally shared—that Judges and magistrates are taking a stern view of such offences, and have been imposing fairly heavy sentences with a view to deterring possible future offenders. The deterrent effect of these sentences would be greatly enhanced if the public Press and the Government would make them as widely known as possible. It is a form of propaganda that could do nothing but good. Yet let us not forget that there would be much less looting and, of course, much less temptation to loot, if property were not left lying about for weeks in damaged buildings. The essential problem is how to remove or to protect the contents of such, premises as soon as possible after the air attacks have been delivered.

What I should like, in all humility, to suggest is that where local authorities have shown, as they have in many cases, willingness and capacity to exercise their powers, the Government should do all they can through their appropriate Departments to assist them; but where they have done little or nothing—and I fear this is no less true in other cases—the Government should assume responsibility and act in their place. In London, for instance, borough councils have varied enormously in their ability to discharge this vital duty. There would, I think, be general agreement in all quarters with the opinion that no Government can wash their hands of something so vital to the community in wartime, simply because certain local authorities are unable to cope with what is an exceedingly heavy task.

I was very glad to hear that the Government had decided—I think the decision was taken last week, and no doubt we shall hear further of it from the noble Lord who replies—to release temporarily 3,000 building operatives from the Army. That will undoubtedly assist local authorities with their first-aid repairs, because these have been frequently held up for the reason that builders are still extremely short of labour. I confess I cannot see why a considerably larger number than 3,000 should not be temporarily restored to their civilian occupation. I am certain that building work of great urgency could be found for a great many more; and the lull in the war on land is surely a favourable moment to take them away for the time being from their military duties. I was also no less glad to hear that the Government are willing to assist local authorities by the loan of Army lorries when they cannot obtain removal vans or other forms of transport for the work of salvage. It would be interesting to know—I have no doubt the noble Lord cannot answer this at the moment, but I hope he will take note of it for a future reply—how much advantage has been taken of this valuable offer. At the same time, I regret that no assistance has been provided in the matter of storage space, which has often been as acute a difficulty with the local authorities as the shortage of transport. This is surely a problem that transcends, borough boundaries. If accommodation can be found outside, yet in the neighbourhood of a badly bombed borough, it should be made immediately available for storage purposes.

Another unhappy aspect of the problem is this. The dilatory methods of certain local authorities have obliged some families of very small means, who cannot afford it, to do the work of removal at their own expense, and they have often been the victims of unscrupulous profiteering removal firms. For example, in one borough two hundred families were charged £6 each for the removal of their few possessions to a place of safety. This matter has been ventilated before, but it shows that steps should be taken to prevent future profiteering so far as possible and to recover whatever can be recovered of money that has been exacted from these poor people through excessive charges, This problem of the salvage of what remains intact in the poorer areas of our great cities after heavy night attacks is surely one of the most vital of our wartime social problems and—to sum up what I want to say in one sentence—I do ask the Government to come to the help of these heroic and sorely-tried people as speedily as possible. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, if I may intrude, there is another aspect of this matter to which I should like to call your Lordships' attention. Those of your Lordships who have looked at bombed property, not in the West End or big properties which are spectacular, but the small homes which have been destroyed, must have been impressed by the fact that the owners of these homes have been dispossessed of everything they have in the world. They are cast out into the streets in the middle of the night, in their night clothes very often—an ordeal which none of your Lordships would care to experience, and which our people have borne with a fortitude which has been miraculous. I am quite sure that if one looks at the thousands of small homes which have been destroyed, their late occupants now sleeping in shelters, tubes, and other places, and thinks that one of the few consolations in life left to these poor people is to go and see, perhaps, where their little ones were killed in the air raid, or see the rubbish under which some little family heirloom or little sentimental souvenir is buried, one feels that one of the few rewards which Government or society can offer to these poor folk is at least to let their homes, for the time being, have a decent-looking sort of gravestone.

The rubbish and litter left about is, from the economic point of view to which attention has been drawn, deplorable. The answer to that is that it is nobody's fault. The noble Lord who I understand will reply to this question will doubtless tell us that probably it is the Home Office sphere—the Home Defence there or the fire insurance companies somewhere else. The real fact of the matter is that it is nobody's business to see that this litter is cleared up any more than it is anybody's business to see that government is properly administered in any Department, as matters are to-day. On the economic side, I would like to call attention to a fact which may have some weight, and may have some bearing with Government Departments after papers in connection with the matter have reached them in their country retreats. It may also hasten a little the process which we desire to see expedited. Your Lordships know, for example, that the rain which fell last night has probably added by many thousands of pounds to the cost of removing the rubbish which has been lying and waiting for removal for weeks past.

If its removal had been tackled and dealt with as it should have been, and as it would have been if it had been anybody's business to do it, weeks ago, then all this talk which is being indulged in about subscribing to loans, charities and everything else would have been, to some extent, unnecessary, because many thousands of pounds could have been diverted into proper directions if what I am suggesting had been done weeks ago. Et will certainly cost us for transport and labour alone twice as much to remove the litter which is lying around as a result of bombings than it would have cost had it been removed at the time when the bombings took place, and every day, with winter coming on, of course adds to the liability. I am afraid these economic considerations do not carry sufficient weight, for the reason I have suggested about responsibility and that is the real answer to the trouble that we are discussing.

Would your Lordships ask yourselves, when you see a bombed dwelling for the first time: "Well, now, how are we going to get this cleared up? Whose job is it? Apparently there is some more or less efficient service which removes core, but there is no service which removes, for example, contaminated butcher's meat that is left lying there and may create plague and pestilence because it is not attended to. There is no organisation what ever which deals with the preservation and tire salvage of food when places have been brought down. The food is lost with the heaps of ruin. We are told that our rations are going to be cut down, we are told all about the problems of food, yet we cannot take a walk in any direction any day without seeing heaps of food belonging to the Government that are allowed to lie about and go to waste because of the litter near it that has not been cleared up. I most thoroughly endorse what the noble Earl said in drawing attention to this matter. I think it is not one for academic discussion, it is not one about which one ordinarily raises a question and says: "Let us have something done about this; Mrs. Jones has been charged too much money by a Government Department for removing her litter." It is a matter of really serious public importance and one which affects vitally our whole system of administration.


My Lords, there are two aspects of this very important problem which the noble Lord opposite has raised that I should like to mention. The first point is one that he stressed—namely, the importance of avoiding delay. I mention this because I had personal experience of it the other day. A house in which were the possessions of a very old servant of mine was bombed, and I wrote to the local authority concerned asking if any help could be given to her to salvage these possessions. For nearly a fortnight I received no reply at all. After that my secretary telephoned to the local authority concerned and was told that they did not answer letters but that they were doing something about it. That seems to me an extraordinarily unbusinesslike admission from a borough of this City. In actual fact after they had been harassed a little they did come up to the scratch and the articles were inspected in a store where they had been placed by the local authorities, so that I have no complaint of the action that was eventually taken. But this does show that unnecessary delay occurs, and I think that this question is one to which His Majesty's Government should give attention.

The only other point I wish to bring to your Lordships' notice is this. As an ordinary citizen who drives about this City one cannot help asking oneself the question: "Why has this particular site which was bombed a very long time ago been left quite untouched, whereas another one has been cleared up promptly, sometimes after two or three days have elapsed?" Weighing up the pros and cons of the cases concerned one comes to the conclusion that the places bombed and not cleared were of equal importance with those that had been cleared. One place may be lucky and be cleared up quickly, whereas another place does not receive the same treatment. At the moment I have particularly in mind Albermarle Street, where a bombed place has been left for months without anything at all being done. It seems to me there is very little system in this work of clearing up debris. I will not detain your Lordships further because I wished only to call attention to those two points which I have mentioned.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I intervene with comment on what my noble friend said at the opening of his speech? He had been asked to postpone the question or take it off the Paper. This is becoming a regular habit of His Majesty's Government, and I want to enter an emphatic protest against it. Some time ago, for example, I had a Motion on the Paper with respect to Lord Horder's Report. I was unsuccessfully besought to take that Motion off the Paper. I cannot imagine why. There are few topics of greater or more urgent importance than the health of the people in these shelters. It was said that the Report had not been published. At all events I postponed the Motion for a week. Even then we did not have the Report, but the day before the debate we had a Paper containing a sort of attempted justification of the action of the Ministry of Health. Last week we had two Motions on the Paper, both of which were postponed by request—one was on the Paper in my name and the other in the name of my noble friend. Now I understand that my noble friend behind me was asked to take this Motion off the Paper or postpone it. I cannot imagine why. I am not sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, in whose name the question stands after this one, is not a fellow victim. What are we here for? It is about time that we asserted ourselves and insisted that we are entitled to discuss these subjects. If the Department after weeks and weeks, indeed almost months, of delay is not able to say-something as to what it is going to do, it is about time that the head of the Department gave way to somebody who will be able to say something.

I myself went last Tuesday round the Victoria Dock district to have a look at things and there I saw exactly what my noble friend has described and what the noble Lord, Lord Perry, has described. I saw people's belongings suspended in midair. In some places there was a bed, in some places there were an easy chair and other household goods, all exposed to the rain. These houses were bombed weeks ago. For my part I am not quite sure that the Ministry of Health, in its continued inefficient indecision, is serving the people as it ought. This is not a job which should be left to local authorities if they are in any way indifferent in their action. A good many, as we are well aware, are very slow to move. Just as in the matter of health so I suggest that this matter emphasizes the importance of this work being centralised under one authority. There should be somebody with authority to deal with it all—health matters, the removal of furniture, the clearing of the streets and so on. At the present time we have a medley of authorities in addition to the local authorities with nobody in complete control over the whole business. That is the reason why we have these shocking and disconcerting delays. It is all very well to pay tribute, as we all do, to the heroism of the people who have stood up marvellously and I have no doubt will, but it is unfair to ask them to go through during the coming winter months what they have endured during the summer time when we had finer weather. I do hope the Government will not endeavour, as one might say, to put the brake on legitimate discussion of matters of public interest and that they will be able to inform us that they are going to deal with this matter in a business-like way.


My Lords, perhaps I may answer first the point made by my noble friend who has just sat down with reference to the suggested postponement of this question. The postponement suggested was only for one sitting. I was informed that by the next sitting we might be able to give a more complete answer to the noble Lord who put down the question. For my part I was anxious to give the information at my disposal now, and I think I can relieve the minds of your Lordships with regard to some of the matters that have been raised. I can assure my noble friend that the only reason why it was suggested to the noble Lord that if it was convenient to him he might postpone his question was that possibly we might then be able to give a more complete picture. Personally I am glad to have had this question put to-day because I think that anything which is likely to stimulate public opinion on this question is to the good. The urgency of the question is most certainly recognised. I think that probably no question has ever been regarded as quite so urgent as that which has been referred to in the debate to-day.

I would like very briefly if I may to show the various decisions which have been taken and the directions which have been given to local authorities. The present arrangements are governed by circulars of the Ministry of Home Security and the London Region. I am referring specially to London. A circular of the 3rd August of the Ministry of Home Security (H.S.C.203/40) stated that the primary responsibility for recovering and protecting removable goods and articles from a damaged building rested with the owner—that was the first thing laid down—but no doubt local authorities would readily give, and are readily giving, such assistance as might be required for the removal and local transport of goods or articles or for their protection against loss or further damage, particularly where persons were rendered homeless. It was indicated that rescue-parties and their vehicles might be used to assist in this action so far as was possible without interference with their primary functions. Where owners could not be traced recovered articles could be stored for a reasonable time without charge.

Again, a circular of September II (H.S.C. 231/40) amplified the first circular by defining arrangements in greater detail. It expressed the desire that salvage of property should be undertaken as far as possible by all local authorities. It gave authority to obtain (if necessary by requisitioning) premises for the storage of furniture. A third circular of October 9 issued by the London Regional Commissioners (London Region Circular 214) pointed out the importance of taking proper steps to salvage furniture and household belongings, and said that all local authorities should regard it as their urgent responsibility to salvage such personal property and to store it pending removal by the owner. An officer should be designated to be responsible for the arrangements who should work in close touch with the billeting officer. A further circular of November 7 (London Region Circular No. 232) advised local authorities to obtain in-formation from the Regional Transport Commissioner as to the availability of light vans and authorised their purchase at a reasonable cost in suitable cases.

Supplementary to these arrangements is the instruction by the Assistance Board that where essential furniture stands in risk of damage from the weather because it has not been salvaged, and the owner is in a position to make arrangements to remove it from the damaged house to a place of safety, he should be given the financial help necessary for this purpose, and an arbitrary limit of £10 to any one grant has been imposed. The whole question of the best method of dealing with the problem of salvaging furniture has very recently, as mentioned by the noble Earl in his opening remarks, been examined by an Inter-Departmental Committee which are meeting at this time. The Report of this Committee is now under consideration and if it is found necessary to make some changes in the existing machinery these will be made without delay.

It has been stated in the debate that local authorities have varied very much in their handling of this problem. Personally—and I think that this is true of all of us—I have taken an interest in this matter, and what has impressed me most is the fact that different districts have suffered so disproportionately. My noble friend Lord Gifford mentioned that he had had difficulty with regard to a friend of his who lived in a house which had been bombed and that it took him some time to hear from the local authority. One has only to consider the position of a local authority two, three or four days after a concentrated bombing raid to realise how appalling are their difficulties; in many cases the difficulties are almost overwhelming. I am not speaking, of course, of the casual dropping of a bomb, but of a big bombing raid. I am glad that my noble friend, after "harassing" the local authority concerned, received an answer in the end (perhaps it was sufficiently harassed already!); but that there should be some delay is hardly surprising. I know that the public officials in some of these places go without sleep night after night, and extend themselves to the utmost of their powers. They have really been subjected to appalling difficulties. I believe that it will be the considered judgment of history, when we have time to look round, that, on the whole, in very difficult circumstances and sometimes amid overwhelming difficulties, local authorities have fulfilled their duties in this respect as far as possible in unforeseen circumstances.

The noble Lord laid particular emphasis on the fact that delay had led to grievous losses. That, of course, is perfectly true; the losses are very grievous. It is a terrible thing for anyone to lose all his household goods in addition, very frequently, to those whom he loves. To see, one's home perish is a terrible thing. I think that we ought to recognise, however, that the Government have very whole-hearterly come to the rescue of these people, as far as that has been possible, allowing for personal factors. I should like to read what the Prime Minister said on September 3 with regard to compensation. I know that there are some things for the loss of which it is impossible to compensate, but when we talk about grievous material losses I think it can be said that the British people, through their Government, have done their duty to the citizens of this country in this respect.

The Prime Minister said: At present in cases where the income of the claimant's household does not exceed £400 a year and his resources are limited, payments are made to cover damage to essential household furniture up to a maximum of £50, and similar payments are made in respect of personal clothing up to £30, subject to income limits of £400 where there are dependants and £250 where there are no dependants. That was the state of affairs when he spoke, but he then went on to say: It is now proposed to abolish these upper limits of £50 and £"30 respectively, so that payments for damage to the furniture or clothing of persons of limited means will now be made up to 100 per cent, of the damage, whatever that amount may be. Hitherto there has been no provision to enable workmen to replace tools which are their personal property and the use of which is vital to their employment. It is proposed to remedy this hardship by making provision for payments for these purposes, subject to the same income limits which apply in the case of the clothing advances. Speaking for myself—and I hope that noble Lords will agree—that seems to me to be a whole-hearted method of dealing with this subject; and I cannot conceive that except in a time of great calamity such a decision could be taken. I believe that on whatever Benches we sit, we shall rejoice that that decision was taken.

Perhaps I may be permitted one last word, with regard to the noble Earl's reference to the lull in the war on land. There may be a seeming lull, but I want to assure the noble Earl that there is no lull in the training of the Army. We realise that the Army has to be trained to a standard to which perhaps no Army has ever been trained before. It has to contemplate, as our airmen have had to contemplate, an enemy numerically stronger than ourselves, and we realise that it is only by the most intense training that we can have an Army which can deal with the situation. I do not think that I exaggerate when I say that in the last two or three months the Army has really for the first time been able to undergo such intensive training; and I beg noble Lords to remember that, if we take very large numbers out of the Army, it is distracting and disturbing to commanding officers. They have been suffering from it ever since the beginning of the war. Commanding officers of battalions have had to part with a hundred men here and 200 men there, to guard aerodromes, waterworks and other vital points, until we could build up other formations to do so. That, as most of your Lordships will know from personal experience, is absolutely destructive of the type of training that we want for the Army.

I beg noble Lords to realise, however, that the suggestion made in some quarters, that even where we can do so we are not ready to give assistance, is untrue. We are more than ready to help; in fact, I rejoice to know that thousands of our Pioneers and large numbers of Army vehicles are being used at the present moment for this purpose in various parts of the country. It is good training for the men; it is the kind of work in which they may be engaged in actual warfare. Moreover, we rejoice to think that assistance is being given to the State. In addition to that—I speak from memory, because I did not know that the point was going to be raised—we have some 6,000 men at present who are entirely engaged on bomb disposal work, which is a very big job. I would also mention that we have wherever possible endeavoured to release men for essential purposes. The noble Lord mentioned that 3,000 men have already been released for the building industry to repair the roofs of houses, and I believe that he is correct in saying that. If you total up the number of men who have recently been released from the Army, and include those required for other technical purposes, the result is very considerable. I mention this simply because the point has been raised; but I trust that it will be realised that the demands on the Army, demands which the Army has been ready to meet up to date, must not be carried too far if we really want an Army which will be worthy of our cause and of our country.


My Lords, I am much indebted to the noble Lord for his extremely sympathetic reply to my Motion, and I should like to say that, as a soldier in a humble capacity, I entirely agree with him that nothing should be done to detract from the efficiency of the training of the Army. My experience is, however, that in my own company three men were taken as building operatives, and the efficiency of that company has not been seriously undermined by the absence of these skilled workmen. I had hoped that by spreading the loss over the very large numbers of our present Army the efficiency of individual units would not be seriously affected; and that is why I ventured to hope that still more men might be released for skilled building work. I was particularly glad to hear from the noble Lord that the Departmental Committee had already reported and that the Government were considering their Report. I hope that I understood him correctly. Furthermore, I understood him to suggest that the Government were prepared to give this matter their consideration immediately, and to act with no great delay. That was exceedingly encouraging.


May I interrupt the noble Earl to say that the Report is now under consideration?


precisely, I am very grateful to the noble Lord. That implies that the Committee have reported, 'and that the Government will act as soon as they have decided on their recommendations. One request I should like to make is that, if possible, the Report should be made public, because I think that Inter-Departmental Committees do generally make their Reports available for those who care to purchase them from the Government Stationery Office, and I think, in view of the fact that the bombing is continuing, it would probably be helpful for the future if we were to know the experience of London in the immediate past. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.