HL Deb 26 June 1940 vol 116 cc699-704

4.17 p.m.

LORD STRABOLGI had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government why it is considered necessary to allow announcements to be made in the Press and by the B.B.C. of the districts to which evacuated children are taken; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this may seem a small matter, but it has an importance. There is great reluctance on the part of mothers, especially in working-class families, to part with their children. That is the reason why so many of them have clung to their children rather than allow them to be evacuated. In working-class families, where nurses and governesses are not employed, where the habit of sending children to boarding schools is not followed, families are much closer together and the mothers especially want to keep their children with them in time of danger. I do not agree with that attitude, but it is a human attitude and we have to recognise it. There is a widespread feeling about this matter. I have myself met six different cases amongst working-class mothers who complain bitterly that when their children were recently evacuated it was promptly announced on the wireless and through the Press, and information was given of the districts to which they had gone. These mothers say, "Our enemies will endeavour to bear us down by terror and by frightening us. If they know where our children have gone, they will endeavour to break our spirit by bombing those areas." My noble friend Lord Croft may say that that is absurd, but the feeling exists; and it is not necessary, I submit, to broadcast the places to which the children have gone.

I know that mention is made only of counties—Devon for example, an immense area—and it may be said that the enemy will know that that would be an evacuation area in any case. That is not the point. The mothers themselves object very strongly and there may be some justice in their objection. It may be that our enemy, who will stick at nothing, may concentrate on evacuation areas in order to break the spirit of the mothers who let their children go. It is not for me nor for any other noble Lord to say that the mothers are entirely wrong in this ob- jection. If it is said that people must know where their children are, then the reply to that is that they receive a postcard the next morning. A sort of field postcard is issued and the parents know the next morning where their children have arrived. There has been lack of imagination and a Departmental blunder here, and I raise this question so that it shall not be repeated. I beg to move.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, may I add one word as to what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, on this question, because I am not quite sure on what principle these announcements are made. When an air raid has taken place we are carefully not told where it took place. We are told that there has been a raid on a southwestern town or in the eastern districts, that certain lives have been lost, and a certain amount of damage done, but for reasons which may possibly be sound, no information is given about the precise locality. If it is agreed that the past should not be known, I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken that it is just as well to be equally reticent about the future. As he was saying, in the minds of some people who are sending their children away there may be a fear lest their evacuation may be regarded by our unscrupulous enemies as affording an additional reason for throwing bombs on that particular spot. It therefore does not seem to be quite on all fours with the reticence which is kept about past raids, when, after all, whatever damage has been done is concluded and regretted and there is no more to be said. I have no doubt that the representative of His Majesty's Government will be able to offer some explanation of what appears to me to be an anomaly.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, I appreciate the views of the noble Lord who asked this question, because it has been uppermost in all our minds, I am sure, that it is a tragic necessity even to suggest to mothers that it may be for the welfare of their children that they should be parted from them in this manner. I think that is very present in everybody's mind when we are considering this matter. The view of the Ministry of Health from the very start has, however, been that there is no real advantage in concealing the actual locations of the reception areas. That has been so for a long time. When the Ministry were made responsible for the preparation of the evacuation schemes, it was in fact a definite part of Government policy that the plan should have the widest publicity. The classification of districts for evacuation into neutral and receiving areas was a matter for open discussion, and that, I think, has been going on now for eighteen months. Maps have constantly appeared in the newspapers to show where these areas were. The reception areas, of course, cover a very large portion of the whole country where it is easier to disperse a great number of children. These areas have been in public knowledge for this long period of time. It is not thought probable that the enemy will direct an attack on reception areas as such, where serious material damage is, of course, less possible from the military point of view. I agree with the noble Lord that you have to be prepared for any devilish form of warfare from the enemy, but I think the military opinion is that the enemy suffer great casualties, great loss of fuel, and so on in air raids, and it would still seem to be military insanity to spread a vast bombing attack over very large areas where, to the greatest extent possible, these children are scattered in the rural districts. But I have noted what the noble Lord has said, and will see that his views are conveyed to the Department.

The Ministry do not usually mention the individual reception areas by name, but that is because each evacuation area is generally known to have a particular reception area attached to it. In the recent moves which have taken place, more especially from the coastline of the country, there are very special reasons for referring to the reception areas. First, certain coast towns, where there had been considerable menace, had become evacuation areas for the first time, and it was thought that an explanation would convince parents that their children were going to places well away from these disturbed districts. Secondly, parents of registered evacuees from London were assured that their children would not be taken to the East Coast localities where they had been previously sent. The Department thought it was very desirable that both those facts should be well understood. Despite all the effort at popularising evacuation in the past which has been made by all Parties in the State, it is still a fact that many parents, for those very human reasons which were referred to by the noble Lord, were strongly against it. The first concern of the Ministry of Health has therefore been to encourage parents to send their children away. In their view the best argument for this is to make it clear to all parents that children are going to safer areas. Whether as a result of this policy or not, I may mention that 84 per cent. of registered children were evacuated this time, a figure which I think must be regarded as satisfactory.

The question of publishing evacuation movements in advance has to be kept constantly in view. The noble Marquess mentioned just now the actual question of locality: whether it was desirable to mention an area in the west or the east of England which had been bombed. That is a subject which really requires attention. As a matter of fact I am assured that the Press have been very helpful in support of the whole evacuation scheme and have done a great deal to make the facts known. But it so happened that a recent bombing attack on a port in South Wales was greatly stressed in the newspapers, and this wide publicity had a most unfortunate effect, because it caused a large number, of mothers, whose geography was not perhaps very complete, to imagine that because the port happened to be in South Wales, therefore their children in the whole of the scattered parts of South Wales—where, it will be generally admitted, these children can be happily housed without any fear of concentrated attack—had in fact come under attack and ought to be brought home. I think, therefore, that the argument would rather be against emphasizing the names of places for fear that, just for that very reason, one might find that a large number of people became fearful for the fate of their children. As a matter of fact, I think that we can most definitely say that the military results of that particular raid must have been very discouraging to the enemy. It was on a military objective which, I think it can be said, was removed from the likely localities to which children would be evacuated.

There is another point to which I should like to refer. The Press have been so helpful on the whole that it is rather unfortunate to find that, although we want to encourage this movement, ordinary mishaps among evacuated children are very often emphasized. That again, of course, causes uneasiness in the minds of mothers, although it has nothing to do with the particular point raised by the noble Lord. The Ministry of Information are in favour of giving as much publicity to matters of evacuation as possible, and the ban which was imposed at the beginning of the war on the publication of the names of reception areas was later withdrawn for this reason. They recognise, however, that policy in these matters is the ultimate responsibility of the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Information are strongly of opinion up to date that their policy has not been an unwise one.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to my noble friend for his reply, which of course is Departmental, as I expected. I thank the noble Marquess, my noble friend Lord Crewe, for his support. I hope that this matter will be looked into further. These mothers may have forgotten their geography, but their apprehension is real, and I do beg my noble friend to look into this matter further. While I am talking about this, perhaps I may be allowed to put another suggestion to my noble friend. He is very interested in the production of guns and other equipment for His Majesty's Forces, and so am I. I do hope, therefore, that a careful watch will be kept on whoever it is who is responsible for giving air raid warnings, to see that they are not given unnecessarily. This is very important indeed. If the enemy, by sending one bomber thirty thousand feet over London, can get everybody up in the middle of the night in an area housing eight million people, disturbing them, sending them out into dug-outs, spoiling their night's rest and perhaps leading some of them to catch cold, it will be splendid for him; that is a real military objective, much more important than hitting a brewery in the West Country. If there is an air raid on London by hundreds of bombers, give us a warning; but for a single messenger of death do not disturb us all. Since this war began, many more people have been killed by being run over in the streets than in all the air raids on this country—many more—and many more will be killed, I venture to prophesy, by being run over in the streets; but we are used to that and do not pay any attention to it, whereas the air raid is a new menace. I take this opportunity of putting that point of view to my noble friend, who I know wants to see production proceeding as fast as possible. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before five o'clock.