HL Deb 15 October 1940 vol 117 cc491-500

THE LORD BISHOP OF NORWICH asked His Majesty's Government whether they intend to provide any financial help for the benefit of persons whose business in sea-coast towns has been lost through war-time occurrences and the evacuation of inhabitants. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, we are all told to-day, and rightly, that we are in the front line. Your Lordships have been in the front line in a sense this morning, and many more of you were in the front line last night, but if the front line has a front I think we may say that the position is occupied by those who live in our sea-coast towns, and I want to enlist your Lordships' sympathy for them. This subject was dealt with some time ago in another place, and I gathered that direct losses of household goods, furniture, tools and retail stocks due to enemy action will, within specified limits of income, be made good or mitigated. Also the coast town authorities will be treated well if, owing to evacuation, etc., the proceeds of rates are deficient. But I think that the retail shopkeepers and those who let lodgings will need very real help. I cannot define the range of the people who ought to be the beneficiaries under such a scheme—that is really a part of the question I am asking.

I certainly do not speak at all in a critical way; I simply inquire as an interested friend of these people what steps are now already in contemplation. It was said in another place that, so far as individuals are concerned, His Majesty's Government are well aware of the difficulties, often serious, imposed upon such persons in different ways by the conditions of war-time, and in particular by evacuation. Certain action has already been taken in the direction desired. Thus some protection has, I read, been provided for debtors. A moratorium in respect of rents, rates, and certain other local debts is applicable in defined areas. But that in itself does not come to very much in regard to the generality of those who are suffering these losses. It was said the other day in our district by our admirable local paper that outside the scope of the grants obtainable from the Assistance Board by people who lose their homes, their clothing, and perhaps their earning power, there must still remain a great deal of unrelieved immediate hardship which colleagues with close knowledge of the circumstances could do much to mitigate. That was said in connection with a weekly collection in works where some of those people liable to suffer were employed. Then again there is the question of medical health in the larger sense. Is that adequately and fully provided for?

I am afraid that we may be found a little callous or cold-hearted when we hear of such awful sufferings in all directions. It is quite impossible to visualise what is going on in each individual case, but each individual case is deserving of sympathy and help. I remember during the last war, when the names of places that suffered were mentioned, I used to make it a rule next day, or as soon after as I could, to see the sufferers. I remember, very vividly, visiting one of our coast towns. A shell had gone straight through one house in a row, but the other houses were undamaged. The owner took me round to see the damage, and with that splendid spirit which is not lost among us to-day, when he had shown me that everything had gone except his dog, he turned to me and said, "And I read in the paper this morning that the damage was 'negligible.'" We do not want to estimate these things by statistics, but by personal sympathy with those who are in trouble.

I have naturally been visiting on this occasion the parishes in some of our coast towns. I dare say your Lordships have been among them too. It is quite miserable to see the state in which they are. In one town which I visited it appeared to me that two out of every three shops were closed for the duration. Where one had been accustomed to seeing happy children playing on the beach, there was merely an announcement that it was dangerous because of bombs. The pier, which was the scene of amusement and happiness, had been cut in half. Wherever one went in that town and in the others it was quite miserable to see the complete absence of children, and the way in which those who could afford it had left the town—very properly—and many of the children had been carried away under official management.

I have no doubt that some assistance may come to the landladies through billeting arrangements. Billeting is on a very large scale in this war, and already men are passing from encampments in canvas into billets. That will go some of the way. Of course these men are likely in certain shops to spend some money, but I cannot think that that help given to the shops and to the landladies will in any way be adequate when you consider the full needs. Those who work in factories can, of course, move out and join other works, but there are professions that cannot be transferred. There are medical men Whose practice is ruined because their patients have left, and there are the many little businesses—retail shops—which cannot be moved; they cannot follow their evacuated customers. I am afraid the winter will be as bad a time for them as the summer has already been. There are many in this state. I do not want to raise false hopes, but I believe it would help these sufferers to know they are not forgotten, and it would encourage them in facing their growing financial stress.

I am quite certain that, speaking here, I may count on the sympathy of the House, in the spirit of the queen of old who said she had learned to sympathise with others owing to the scale of suffering she herself had endured. One thinks of what happened on the last occasion, but all the way through one has to bear in mind this wholesale evacuation. That is a new feature of this war that did not exist at all in the same way in the earlier war. So also are the extensive air raids on the scale on which we now know them. These are new features, and they need new attention. I have been looking up the reports of the National Relief Fund that was raised during the last war. The first report is dated May, 1915, and it explains the inception of the Fund which resulted from an appeal by the Prince of Wales made in August, 1914. Two other appeals were made at the same time, one by Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Mary, and the other, on behalf of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association, by Her Majesty Queen Alexandra. But these various appeals came to be very wisely united.

In the case of one report it deals with the whole question of the National Relief Fund raised during the last war. The Executive Committee divided its work into a military section and a civil section. I am not speaking about the military section. The local funds were also brought into co-operation, but for this purpose they had to accept the rules laid down by the Central Fund. It is interesting to note that in these reports, as time went on, the East Coast was dealt with more than once. In March, 1916, the depression in the watering places on the East Coast was said to have become even more acute, and a year or two afterwards, in March, 1918, the report stated that special assistance had been given to lodging-house keepers and that this expenditure had been made out of the fund generously provided by the Canadian Government. But this fund had by that time been exhausted. A little later, in June, 1919, it was recognised that special assistance was given in the case of lodging-house keepers in the East Coast towns.

The National Fund dealt with a very wide area of assistance. The reports deal with money paid for the relief of various kinds of distress, such as assistance to demobilised soldiers and sailors and disabled officers and officers' families, to certain annuitants of the United Kingdom Beneficent Association, and indeed assistance given in many directions. There are also paragraphs with the heading "Distress on the East Coast". If there was distress on the East Coast then that distress is now much greater. I venture to ask the Government if they can tell us now, or, if not now, at a later date, something about the public funds that were then provided and the amounts that have been provided now. First of all there was the Prince of Wales Fund, then there was the Canadian Fund—Canada has this time, I believe, helped London areas—and there were other funds. I should like to know how these funds were collected, how they were distributed, how the needs were ascertained and compared and arranged with the beneficiaries. I think Canada has this time generously helped the distress in London. Those are the questions which I venture to address to the Government, and I shall be very grateful if at least to-day we might hear a sympathetic and effective answer showing a desire to help these poor people in their distress.

After a few remarks by the LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words for myself and my colleagues in very strong support of the plea that the right reverend Prelate has made and also the rather different plea which the most reverend Primate has added. On grounds both collective and individual it seems to us that the claim is unanswerable. I would like to call particular attention to the hardship of those places which have not been accorded the measure of relief recently granted on the score of rates to places where the Defence Order applies. There are many places—some are particularly known to me on the East Coast but doubtless there are others on the South Coast—which are suffering in equal measure, but owing to the technical absence of the Order in some cases they have not the same measure of relief. The hardships can hardly be exaggerated which have arisen from business losses and those, not much less, from liabilities not discontinued which are like a millstone round the necks of countless people. It is an extraordinarily good claim in equity. One knows very well that the Treasury are right to resist any claim which involves waste of national resources and is not firmly based, but the case I refer to is a case in which ruin is due to Government action in prohibiting, for instance, the incursion of holiday makers on whom the entire welfare of many East Coast places is based.

It is Government action which has destroyed the means of livelihood of practically the whole population of many such places. Therefore, among other measures which I would venture to suggest, one is the application of the relief in regard to rates, which applies to some places, to all such places. There is another suggestion I would like to make. There ale in towns which live by what I may call catering a great many people specially skilled who really represent a high level of expert efficiency. It is a question whether help might not be given by the offer of jobs for many such persons in places, perhaps in the Midlands or further west or north, where war industries have suddenly arisen and where there is need for hostels of various kinds and skilled workers to manage them. That is one possibility for a measure of help. We must not, as the right reverend Prelate said, ignore the extraordinary hardship which is now falling on the various classes of people who made their living in these coast towns—the bulk perhaps by letting rooms, others by working hotels, others employed in connection with bathing and boating, in the shop services of the town, in entertainment and in the provision of games.

The claim is really on a par with many claims which have been recognised and accepted by the Government. I would specially call attention to the hardship arising in connection with rates, but there are many others equally strong which are due to Governmental action. They are due to the direct action of the Government in saying "Your customers shall not come to this place." Therefore we would like to support with all our force the plea for the admission of a claim, both collective and individual. It appears to us to be a case of very great hardship in which the Government ought to take a greater measure of responsibility.


My Lords, I should like to support most strongly the plea of the right reverend Prelate. While I feel that the ground has been thoroughly covered, I would like to make one concrete suggestion. At the present moment rates can be remitted altogether where buildings have been cleared of furniture, but in the case of enormous buildings, with the impossibility of finding storage for furniture, it is not possible in most cases to clear the building. Certainly these people are being helped through the moratorium, but a tremendous load of debt is being heaped up against them for future years because the rates are being carried over until after the war. I would like to make the suggestion that in the case of hotels and boarding houses in these areas rates should be remitted altogether, whether the building remains furnished or not.


My Lords, it falls to me to give a reply to the question raised by the right reverend Prelate and supported by other members of your Lordships' House. Let me say first—what I am sure we all without exception feel—that this question brought before us by the right reverend Prelate must engage our sympathy not merely as an expression of feeling but as a motive which should, as far as it can, inspire the action of the Government. I naturally here am speaking at second hand for the Department of the Treasury, and the question put on the Paper by the right reverend Prelate is the extent of the material that I have had for purposes of preparation. As he said, while we feel and express the deepest sympathy with these exceptional and grievous cases, at the same time it is almost equally important not to raise false hopes by mere vague and general expressions.

The pronouncement was recently made on behalf of the Government that a Bill is about to be introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—the Prime Minister also made a reference to it, as your Lordships may remember—and this Bill covers a very considerable field. I do not wish to be understood to assert—because I do not know, and I do not think that the matter has as yet been finally determined—what will be the full application of that measure. It will be obvious that there is a difference between being able to devise a scheme which deals with the destruction of definite property and the far wider and far more difficult question of dealing with grave injury inflicted upon the trade or occupation of the people. I think that the right reverend Prelate, for example, referred to the injury to the medical men in certain coast towns because of the way in which the population has declined. I could not hold out a hope that the plans as at present devised, so far as I know them, extend to offering full compensation to every variety of person who has undoubtedly by the circumstances of war had to face quite exceptional difficulties and, it may be, a very serious reduction in his normal business. That is true of a great many people in wartime, including the vast majority of those who are serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force and in other branches of public protection.

What I will say is that the Government have already done what they could do in many directions. Take the particular case which has been mentioned, the case of shops which would normally suffer a considerable loss by the destruction of food and the like if they happened to be the victims of a bombing attack. It is part of the policy of the Ministry of Food—and it is a policy which has been most carefully worked out—to protect such shops as far as possible by making special arrangements by which the local store or shopkeeper will not have to keep the usual supply of necessary commodities, but, on the contrary, their stores will be kept at suitable points at a distance, and they will be helped if necessary by much more limited supplies, in order the better to protect their own interests and the safety of the food. In the same way, as your Lordships are aware, very elaborate arrangements have been made, for the most part by Regulations under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, to prevent what would otherwise be the automatic and unfair imposition of burdens on the citizen; and throughout the policy of the Government has been so to provide for this emergency as to protect those who would otherwise be crushed financially by the demands which would normally be made upon them and to which they would have no defence whatever if they resisted. I think that I am right in saying, though I do not speak with certain knowledge, that what has been referred to by my noble friend Lord Noel-Buxton—namely, the burden of local impositions—is included in that arrangement.

But if the question which is put is whether I can announce here and now on behalf of the Government a complete scheme which would cover these very grievous matters, I must make the statement plainly that it is not within my power to do so. The question is under the most active and careful consideration of the Departments of Government that are concerned. It is expected that the Bill to which I have referred will be introduced very shortly, and I have no doubt that it will lead to a very close examination of a vast variety of cases. If I may say so, I think the observation that these are very large problems, the range and boundary of which it is hardly possible for us without the closest examination to fix, is a very just one. That at the same time, however, they are matters of the greatest importance to that portion of the population which has suffered most will, I am sure, be denied by nobody. I must therefore ask to be relieved from making a more precise statement, for I have no authority to do so.

I think that those who have spoken, and your Lordships at large, will realise that this matter does raise such a series of questions of great difficulty and great amplitude that it is not right that there should be delivered sonorous and sympathetic phrases which may lead to some misunderstanding. It is much better to say that great efforts have been made and will be made in order to meet the difficulties, and to wait to see what are the proposals which are shortly going to be made by His Majesty's Government.

I was asked, I think by the right reverend Prelate, whether any information could be provided about the large funds set up at the time of the last war, such as the Prince of Wales's Fund and, I think he said, a Canadian Fund, for the purpose of assisting in grievous cases of this kind. The extent of the problem was then, of course, nothing like so great; the difficulties, though they are very considerable, were within a comparatively narrow compass. I will certainly make inquiries on the subject, and I shall be very glad to inform the right reverend Prelate in due course. The matter is not mentioned in his question, and I naturally have not informed myself about it. It is the case that great efforts were made by means of voluntary funds, and I have no doubt that the sympathy which we all feel is at this moment being translated into action by contributions of that sort; none the less, the problem is a national one, which very properly concerns the Government as a whole. I hope that the answer that I have given, while it does not involve the announcement of any new proposals, will be recognised by your Lordships as being couched in a spirit of genuine and effective sympathy.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Viscount for the answer he has given, and I am particularly pleased to know that the Government have these questions in mind, together with others. I am speaking rather for the future than for the moment.