HL Deb 18 December 1940 vol 118 cc162-77

My Lords, I desire to draw attention to the present provision of air-raid shelters and to move for Papers, and I would ask your Lordships to think especially of the needs of workers in thickly-populated munition centres. It will be generally agreed that indiscriminate bombing in crowded industrial areas exposes the civilian population to danger greater than that which threatened front fine troops in the last war. Such a development, it may be said, was foreseen by successive Governments and their servants, but if this be granted it must be admitted that there has been a sad lack of clear vision. During the first six months of the present war our aerodromes were favourably placed for night raids over Germany. We dropped leaflets. The war, in the expressive American phrase, was "phoney." The air-raid shelters produced were adapted to a "phoney" war. The possibility of attacks, merciless and savage, by waves of bombers coming hour after hour and dropping hundreds of tons of high explosives, to say nothing of ordinary and explosive incendiaries, was never seriously faced. The consequence is that to-day in our industrial areas a state of affairs exists that demands rapid and decisive action.

In calling the attention of your Lordships to the evils of the present situation I will be careful neither to give information which in any way might help the enemy, nor to speak in a manner which might rightly be termed defeatist. Our people have shown and are showing heroic endurance, especially the lower middle classes and the skilled workers, who are, as we know, not only the largest but also the most valuable section of our population. More than that they have, generation after generation, given leaders of commerce and industry, of science, of letters and religion. Some sociologists have speculated that under the stress of industrialism this section of our people was losing the qualities that had made England great. The last year has proved that such gloomy beliefs were false. The section of the community which I have just described provides not only the best men of our military forces, it provides also the munition workers, men and, more especially, women and girls, without whose steady labour the military machine could not exist. They are as important as your armed forces. Their safety is equally imperative. Their confidence and good will are essential to national morale. As I have said, they are showing heroic endurance.

There is also among them—and I use words That are deliberately weak—a growing feeling that their protection against air raids is less satisfactory than it might be. I must stress this fact, although I know that during the war it is thought inadvisable to focus attention on popular discontent. The policy of silence can be carried too far. It was carried too far in France and contributed to the collapse of that country six months ago. I say that to-day it is dangerous to pretend that complaints do not exist with regard to matters which are the common subject of anxious conversation among millions of our people. I find myself, with great regret, forced to the conclusion that the Government's air-raid shelter policy has failed. How serious the consequences of that failure are only those who have first-hand knowledge of the shelters and the miseries associated with them can properly understand. I imagine that most of your Lordships have never been at night in a public shelter in an industrial area or at any time in the strutted cellar of a worker's house. My own knowledge comes from personal observation and in larger measure from social workers, from clergy and ministers. All unite in a demand for better protection, for shelters that so far as is possible shall be, above all else, safe, sanitary and dry.

Existing shelters belong to a few definite classes. There is first of all the Anderson shelter, a great invention, giving protection against anything but a direct hit and so small a target that a direct hit is unlikely even in a heavy raid. But if the subsoil be clay, and clay is common in this country, the Anderson soon becomes waterlogged. Then it is not enough to dig a nearby sump. You must get your water away into the local drainage system, and this is a task beyond the average householder when he has put up his Anderson. Even when the Anderson is thus drained, if the bedding in it is not to get damp in a few hours, it has to be cemented inside. It has been impossible to get cement. I would mention next the strutted cellar of a worker's home. Of that I would say that unless strutting is massive—and how can it be?—the protection is illusory. I could take you to cellars where all will agree that collapse of the house would mean collapse into the cellar. The strutting merely adds to the danger of fire.

I come next to public shelters. Here at once a new problem enters. It is sanitation. Those seeking public shelter have left their homes for, it may be, twelve or fifteen hours. You must have lavatories, and, speaking generally, these must be connected to the main drainage system. You cannot, therefore, as a rule have deep shelters. Surface shelters, or shelters sunk a few feet into the earth, are imperative. All over the country, a large number of trench shelters have been dug. Of them it must be said that almost invariably the sanitary accommodation, if it exists, is hopeless. As I have learned from the clergy of Birmingham, and have confirmed by my own observation, many trench shelters are to-day waterlogged. Most of the others—I think I am not exaggerating—are damp. And lest it be thought that I exaggerate or that Birmingham is exceptional, I will quote from an investigation by Manchester medical women reported in the Manchester Guardian of December 9 last, These medical women say of north Manchester: The trench shelters provide the greatest problem, since, of eighteen Corporation trench shelters, designed to hold fifty persons in each, eight were flooded and ten were damp. They go on: The people do not expect a great deal to be done for them. What has dismayed them is that the efforts they have made to improve the shelters have been ruined by wet. I will not quote further from a most illuminating report. Speaking generally, trench shelters fail because damp, crowded shelters without adequate sanitation spread dirt, vermin and disease.

I pass next to consider the familiar brick surface shelter. It is splinter proof: it gives some protection from blast: but it is not safe against a hit or against a near hit. As evidence I will quote Miss Ellen Wilkinson. Speaking on December 3 last, after a visit to Liverpool, she said: I was surprised to find how well the little brick shelters have stood up in this heavily bombed area. Those that were actually in the line of blast, of course, went down, but the others stood up. I would comment that the workers will not be satisfied with surface shelters that collapse when in the line of blast. May I interpolate a tribute to Miss Wilkinson, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security? We are, I would say, greatly fortunate in having in her position a woman of capacity, of understanding and of great human sympathy. She has learnt at first hand of the miseries to which I am directing your Lordships' attention. Many of these surface brick shelters are damp because of the use of lime mortar. The flat roofs should have been of the best reinforced concrete, but owing to the use of inferior materials water seeps through. Some roofs, as inquests have revealed, owing to use of inferior materials, have even collapsed under their own weight. Local authorities doubtless did their best, but it was impossible to get cement. If adequate supplies of cement are forthcoming in the future the brick surface shelters can, no doubt, by extensive reconstruction, be made dry if internal heating be introduced, but they will not be safe.

I would repeat that the three primary needs in public shelters are safety, sanitation and dryness. May I give point to this general consideration by quoting from a report laid by the Christian Social Council of Birmingham before the Chairman of the local A.R.P: Committee on November 7 last? The report spoke of streets and courts by name and number. For obvious reasons I must suppress such details, but here is one statement: For seven houses (in a specified court) there are two attached twin surface shelters, unfinished, with mud floors, dimensions 6 ft. by 4 ft., extremely malodorous. The clean old woman occupying one of the houses said it was impossible to keep the cats out. The report went on to say—and it is to this point that I would especially direct the attention of your Lordships—that people from such courts could use adjacent public shelters. These shelters, however, are only blast and splinter-proof, and they are almost under the walls of a great factory likely to be an enemy objective. As a consequence, these shelters are not much used, owing to the fear that they may be hit.

Need I say more to justify my statement that the Government's air-raid shelter policy has failed? The blame cannot be put upon local authorities. They have not had adequate freedom. The lack of cement has been a lamentable hindrance. As for the provision of ventilation and heating to counteract dampness, Miss Ellen Wilkinson herself said, on December 4 last, that the provincial towns have only recently been given permission to do these things. In the report of the Birmingham Christian Social Council dated November 7 last, a report which was drawn up after the interview with the local A.R.P. Chairman to which I have referred, it is stated: The question of the waterlogging of the public shelters seems to be due to the specifications of the Government, and now they "—the public shelters, not the Government—"will all have to be stripped and recovered if they are to be made habitable. I should like to give a personal experience. A fortnight ago I visited a vast underground shelter in Central Birmingham. The drainage from the latrines that had been erected was inadequate; in blunt Saxon, the shelter stank. Almost everywhere there were drops of water on the roof. People in one corner had brought their beds and—it was a pathetic sight—had tried to protect them from wet by stretching sacking above them. In one part of the shelter, where the water lay half an inch deep on the floor, I asked a workman what was the cause of the dripping from the roof. He replied: "The water lies above there; the Corporation have not been able to get cement to finish it off." That was a fortnight ago. I could, of course, produce masses of further evidence to show that in the provision of air-raid shelters the policy of the Government has been ill-planned. Local authorities have been hampered by restrictions which should not have been imposed; they have not had freedom to experiment, and in consequence they, and I think the Government, are urging dispersal. In effect this means that the workers, if their Anderson shelters are wet, must remain in their homes. "Crouch under the stairs while the raid is on" has actually been given as official advice. Now, it is one thing for those who live, as most of us do, in solidly-built houses so dispersed that bombing (save as spasmodic terrorism) is not worth while, to accept the risk of staying at home; it is quite another thing for a worker to remain in a fragile home near a munition factory which is likely to be heavily bombed.

I plead that the Government should not only permit but should also encourage local authorities to build surface shelters of the so-called Haldane type. I need not describe these shelters in detail, as pamphlets advocating their construction have been widely circulated, and they are of course known to all the Ministers concerned; but, in brief, the sides and top of these shelters are of cement, made monolithic. The top is some five feet thick and capable of resisting, so experts say, a 500 lb. bomb. The shelters can be made dry and sanitary. I ask, your Lordships will have noticed, for surface shelters of this type. It is calculated that shelters of this kind to accommodate 750 persons would need 300 tons of cement, and steel and labour would also be required. Labour is more difficult to obtain now than it was, say, in June last, when the need for relatively safe shelters, such as those for which I am pleading, could, I think, have been foreseen. Steel is none too plentiful, but, unless all the gossip that reaches me is wrong, there is not that acute shortage of it that our enemies would desire. Inasmuch as these so-called Haldane shelters are protection for front-line workers, steel could rightly be diverted for their production, and I suggest that labour might well be released from the Army. Some surplus labour would be available if the continued building of brick surface shelters were brought to an end.

Steel and labour can, I think be provided; there remains the question of cement. Portland cement has been in the hands of a "ring." The term was used by the Director of Army Contracts in his evidence before the Select Committee on the Estimates of 1938. On page 234 of the Report it will be found that he said that there was "no effective competition outside". The ring, whose title is The Cement Makers' Federation, is said to control something like 80 to 90 per cent. of the output. The policy of rationalisation pursued of recent years has meant that cement factories have been closed down. Such closing, of course, has meant an increased need of transport. The number of workers in the industry is remarkably small, and has declined from some 13,600 in 1924 to 10,400 in 1935—I have no later figures. According to the Economist—I will not quote Left Wing papers—of December 3, 1938, just over two years ago, Viscount Wolmer, then Chairman of the ring, pointed to the tendency of newcomers to enter the industry as "a dangerous development likely to lead to indiscriminate price-cutting." The warning was sufficient; the plan to erect two new factories was abandoned. Needless to say the principal companies of the ring are, to put it mildly, prosperous.

In early July last, the need of cement for home defensive works—and I do not under-estimate the importance of that aspect of the need—and for air-raid shelters was obviously about to become acute. The overcoming of the shortage lay with the cement ring, if the Government did not intervene. The Times— not, I think, a Left Wing paper!—on August 25 last urged that the Government should see at once whether cement production was. "at the maximum, and not merely the maximum of plant in present production." On October 2 last the Chairman of Associated Portland Cement, the chief constituent, as I understand it, of the ring, said that all cement plants but two were operating to fullest capacity; but, if my information be correct, he did not say that closed plants were being reopened or that new-plants were being established, or that, to meet the shortage, Portland blastfurnace cement was being introduced. On October 3 last, the Financial News, after an interview with a spokesman of the ring, commented: It is readily understandable that the Portland cemens interests, which have to take into consideration the long-term welfare of the industry, should be diffident about sponsoring any suggested emergency measure likely to prejudice this welfare. The long-term welfare of the industry-means, does it not? the post-war profits of the ring. Should they have weighed against the needs of the State?

On the morning of November 30 last, when I opened an exhibition of Haldane shelter models in Birmingham, I interviewed a leader of the City. I learned that on that day the lack of cement was seriously hindering local effort. A change came on December 3, when the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works and Buildings said (I quote from the Official Report): With the formation of this Ministry "— the Ministry of Works and Buildings— the industry"— that is the cement industry— is now controlled, and the question of making provision for the manufacture of blastfurnace and other types of cement and for laying down additional plant is under active consideration. He added: There are at present ample supplies of cement for all purposes, and there are over 250,000 tons already in stock. To some the reply gave great satisfaction. Miss Ellen Wilkinson, speaking in Manchester on the following day—I quote from the Manchester Guardian of December 5—said: The cement problem—thank Heaven—is solved at last. Could the Minister who will reply for the Government tell us what that problem was?

Had there been a long drawn-out conflict between the Government and the cement ring, during which the Government had hesitated to imperil the long-term welfare of the industry? I ask for information because many who earnestly desire Haldane shelters remain apprehensive. Is there enough cement now available? The annual output of cement was, a year or two back, some 9,000,000 tons. The quarter of a million tons mentioned by Mr. Hicks is but ten days' supply. But, further, the question of laying down new plant and of producing blast-furnace cement is only "under consideration." Surely the period of consideration by the Government should have ended months ago. For months action has been urgently necessary. And may I add another consideration? It is no secret—I quote from the Financial News of December 3 last—that most of the active cement-making capacity (of the country) is concentrated in a few large and vulnerable plants. Have the Government done anything to meet the danger of this situation?

During the latter part of this speech especially, I have tried to speak with great restraint. If more rapid action by the Government might have been prejudicial to the long-term interests of a powerful and wealthy monopoly, inaction has imperilled the happiness, the health, and even the lives of millions of our fellow-citizens, and especially those on whose labour the country's war effort depends. May we have an assurance from the Government that they will empower local authorities to erect air-raid shelters of the so-called Haldane type or alternatives that shall be relatively safe, dry and satisfactory? And will the Minister endeavour to secure that labour and steel for the purpose shall be available; and, above all, that the disastrous lack of cement shall be finally ended? I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I should like to support almost all—not quite all—that has been said by the right reverend Prelate on the provision of air-raid shelters. With regard to the design of Haldane shelters mentioned by him, no doubt this design is very excellent, provided it is not erected in areas where another type of shelter could be constructed which could be adapted for peace-time purposes after the war. I think that is necessary, but I propose to deal with that point a little later on. I think a number of your Lordships will agree that the shelter policy has been rather a vacillating one. It has never apparently been thought out in a large way, and in fact for a time it was considered unnecessary to provide any type of protection for people living in the Western centres of Britain. One is sorely tempted to repeat to-day almost exactly the same speeches which were made in your Lordships' House nearly two years ago, and it seems a pity that His Majesty's Government at that time did not seek advice from a more representative body of engineers and experts, who had studied the question not only from the engineering but also from the psychological point of view.

I remember arguments being put forward that the people at home would not like to feel that they were being better protected than their relations and friends in the Fighting Forces, and that as it was not possible to provide full protection for everyone in this country, protection from blast and splinters only should be considered. I am glad to see that the question of using the Underground Railways for shelter has now been settled, that certain unused sections of the Underground Railway lines are also going to be used, and that additional spurs are to be constructed from the main tunnel. That of course is all to the good, but the whole root of the trouble has been the lack of co-ordination between the different authorities. On the one hand there are the local authorities, on whom a tremendous burden has been placed by war activities; and on the other the Government Departments, such as the Ministry of Home Security, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Transport and also the Regional Commissioners. I cannot help feeling that casualties might have been less severe, if there had been some central control and if proper accommodation had really been provided and had been erected by a central authority. In that case the country would not now be faced with a very difficult problem limited by materials, labour and, what is most important, time.

His Majesty's Government have gone a very long way to improve matters by freeing the local authorities from the burden of finance in the construction of shelters. The designs put forward by the local authority are of course submitted to the Ministry of Home Security, which is right and proper, and no doubt if they are reasonable they are accepted, and building takes place. But I do trust that good and well-planned designs will not be whittled down so that their usefulness is greatly impaired by some niggardly financial claim, which I know occurred in the case of two designs put forward by certain London boroughs. The particular shelters I have in mind have already been built, but the protection afforded and then-amenities are nothing like what they might have been if the original plan had been adhered to. There is, however, also the case of local authorities who, for some reason or other, are loath to put forward any satisfactory and well-thought-out scheme at all. This shows how necessary it is that there should be some central controlling authority who, if the local authorities are unwilling to act, can exercise his overriding powers. In fact, I am amazed at the apparent satisfaction on the part of certain local authorities with the totally inadequate shelter accommodation which they so far have provided. There is a steadily growing demand for more public shelters, and surely it is time that the controversy which has now been going on for some years as to the rival claims of Anderson shelters, large public underground shelters, basements, etc., should cease, for it is obvious there is a need for them all.

I fully appreciate the very great work that has been done by the Ministry of Home Security and more especially their organisation of A.R.P. as a whole, but I feel that there has been a certain lack of grasp of essentials in the production of shelters. I suppose one of the principal points which had not been foreseen—and it is very easy to be wise after the event—was that the public would require to use shelters for a prolonged period, and consequently none of the necessary amenities had been provided. I am of course aware that every effort is now being made to provide sanitation, ventilation, heating, bunks, etc., and no doubt considerable improvement in these directions is now taking place, but this cannot be properly arranged in small surface shelters which, from the point of view of dispersal, are admirable; but if such shelters had been constructed below ground as units of a complete structure, all the required amenities could have been provided and at the same time the policy of dispersal maintained.

The question is what type of shelter can be built which can give reasonable protection and all the amenities required and yet can be constructed in a comparatively short time. I trust I shall not weary your Lordships if I summarise the requirements of a good shelter which have already been put before you by the right reverend Prelate. I propose to do it a little more fully. It must give a large measure of protection, a reasonable degree of comfort, absolute dryness, good lighting, ventilating, and heating where necessary. It should comprise a number of chambers of limited capacity, each separated from the other, thereby making provision for the dispersal of the occupants into small groups and providing accommodation for medical and first aid centres, infirmary, lavatories, dormitories, and canteen. All of these separate units should be interconnected so as to be under a central supply and control. Such shelters could not only be built beneath the open squares of London and other large cities but, if sufficiently strengthened—and this is a point I particularly wish to make—could serve as the foundation of basement floors for various types of buildings which, after the war, should and could be erected on them.

There are plenty of spaces which have now become available owing to demolition by bombing and on which buildings will eventually be erected. By this means the capital involved in shelter construction will not be entirely lost and unproductive after the war. Squares and open spaces in the centres of all large cities can be provided in a comparatively short period with shelters similar to the one I have described which, after hostilities have ceased, can be used as underground garages, provision for which has already been made in the Civil Defence Bill. In Dockland and in areas where a garage would be unsuitable shelters can be constructed so that they may be used as warehouses, which are very necessary at the present time. I am convinced that there is no reason why shelters should not be built which combine the necessary reasonable protection and amenities and at the same time will have a capital and productive value after the war and not be an entire loss to the nation. Any other scheme which does not provide for this combination is, to my mind, a gross waste of public money. I need hardly remind your Lordships' House that the Home Front is of paramount importance, and that the war can be just as easily lost on this Front as in any other theatre of war.


My Lords, I only want to say that my friends and myself on more than one occasion have taken part in, or initiated, discussions on this subject in this House, and we do not propose to-day to repeat the speeches in other forms which we have made before. I sincerely hope that the noble Duke (the Duke of Devonshire) will be able to make a more satisfactory statement than we have had hitherto, but it is fair to say that the terrible statement, as I can only describe it, which was made by the right reverend Prelate is in line with others which have been made in this House before, and it fills one with profound and continued uneasiness. I regret too—and in saying this I am making no reflection on the noble Duke who is going to reply—that the Minister of Works is not present, because I think the statement made by the right reverend Prelate with regard to cement and other building materials was of an exceedingly grave character. I believe it is a fact that the head of this great concern has been made the Controller of Cement. If that is so, it requires justification and explanation. I am sure he will do his best, because I know him to act fairly and properly with respect to the great matters committed to his charge, but it is not right—I am sure it is not—that those who have been responsible for the policy which has been mentioned to us to-day should have been put in complete charge of this business. It should have been someone who is not at all interested in the business in any way whatever.

I would only add that whilst we do not propose to prolong the discussion to-day, we shall, at a very early date, on the resumption of our sittings, call attention to the matters referred to and to the Report of my noble friend Lord Horder, which was left in a very unsatisfactory condition in a recent discussion, and want to know what progress is being made. I am sure it is of the first importance that this House should continually keep this subject before the people, and in doing so we shall be rendering a real service. Every debate we have, and the speeches which have been made to-day, only reinforce what we have said three or four times already, that there is necessity here for unity of direction and control, and that until we get it we cannot hope or expect to have adequate provision.


My Lords, I must apologise in advance for the inadequacy of my reply. Unluckily, neither of the Departments principally concerned with this question of shelters—the Ministry of Home Security and the Ministry of Health—is represented in this House, and although I made every endeavour yesterday to get into touch with the right reverend Prelate who initiated this debate, I was unable to do so. I had hoped to get into touch with him and find out what points he would be raising in order that I might as far as possible get information from the Departments concerned. If in these circumstances I can only answer the right reverend Prelate somewhat sketchily this afternoon, I can assure him and other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate that I will call the attention of the Departments concerned to everything that has been said so that it shall receive the most careful consideration.

I think it should be realised that the brick and concrete surface shelters to which the right reverend Prelate referred have really got a very satisfactory record from a performance point of view. They have frequently withstood very close misses, and from the point of view of the amount of safety they provide they have really done extremely well. From other points of view such as comfort, dryness, and, above all perhaps, freedom from noise, they have been very much less satisfactory, and there is no doubt that they are the least popular form of shelter. My right honourable friend is making every effort in heavily raided areas, by the provision of bunking, heating and lighting, to make these shelters more comfortable and to increase their popularity.

I do not propose to go into the difficult and complicated question of cement to which the right reverend Prelate referred, but I am informed that the cement position is now very greatly improved. As your Lordships will be aware, this shelter question began to receive very serious attention at just about the same time as the invasion of this country seemed probable, and the demand upon the available cement by the Army was necessarily enormous. It was that competition rather than any shortage of cement which for a time made the distribution of cement extremely difficult. The position is to-day very much better, but I do not want to hold out to your Lordships any hope whatever that the enormous quantities required to provide really safe shelters for the whole of the population in bombed areas are likely to become available, and, if they were available, it is doubtful whether the steel and the labour necessary to erect them would be available also. I am informed that to provide really safe shelters something like one ton of cement per person would be required, and your Lordships will readily realise that under war conditions, with a shortage of labour and difficulties of distribution, that is really out of the question.

Short of that my right honourable friend is pressing ahead, and I think I can fairly say pressing ahead rapidly and successfully, with the improvement of shelters. There are still some bad shelters—too many of them—but there are less this week than there were last week and last week there were less than there were the week before. Where damp and so forth can be put right it is being put right; and unsatisfactory shelters are being abandoned and new ones provided. Sanitation presented a very grave problem, but this is being dealt with, and my right honourable friend authorises me to say that by the end of the year, or very early in the new year, he believes that the problem of sanitation with regard to the Tubes and Tube stations will have been solved. We discussed the question of bunks when we last debated this matter, and your Lordships will be interested to hear that the provision of bunks is proceeding very fast. Bunks have been installed for 206,000 people, and other bunks for over 200,000 have been issued and delivered to local authorities, but have not yet been installed. My right honourable friend has urged the local authorities to get on with their installation as soon as possible. There are feeding arrangements now in about a thousand shelters in addition to mobile canteens. There are 126 canteens in Tubes, and seven tons of food are delivered daily to stations in specially adapted trains.

I think I have said enough to show your Lordships that my right honourable friend is aware—and he is not in the least complacent about it—how much there is to be done, and that, subject to possibilities, he is pressing ahead as urgently as possible with the improvement of the shelters. Much remains to be done, and the difficulties are very great, but so for as they can be tackled my right honourable friend is tackling them, and I think I can say he is tackling them with energy and resolution.


My Lords, I wish to thank his Grace for he reply he has given, but I must express very great regret that he does not hold out hope that comparatively safe shelters can be erected in the great industrial areas. His reply will arouse widespread misgiving, but I trust that on reflection the Government Departments concerned may see the urgent need of doing more than the noble Duke was able to promise. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.