HL Deb 13 July 1943 vol 128 cc437-46

LORD HEMINGFORD had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government what is the total weight of metal railings (including gates and other things comprised in the term "railings" by the Ministry of Works and Planning) which have been requisitioned and removed under Regulation 50 of the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, and have been found unsuitable for munitions purposes; what weight of such railings has been disposed of as surplus and at what average price per ton; what is the average amount per ton paid as compensation for requisitioned railings where compensation has been claimed, and what steps are taken to avoid the severance and removal of railings unsuitable for munitions purposes and so likely to become surplus to Government requirements; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask His Majesty's Government the question which is on the Paper in my name and to move for Papers, I shall make my observations as brief as possible in view of the important business which is still before your Lordships' House; but I make no apologies for raising this matter of the requisitioning of iron railings and gates because, although it is a comparatively small one, it is one which I think has caused a considerable amount of obloquy to fall upon His Majesty's Government. It has been felt that an injustice has been done to a very large number of usually uncomplaining and patriotic people. This question of the requisition- ing of railings and gates is rather like eczema; it is not very serious, but it is most confoundedly irritating, and causes a vast amount of bad temper. The noble Lord who I understand is going to be good enough to reply is not, of course, responsible for the form of the regulations under which these materials are taken. These regulations arc one of the results of hasty legislation in the early days of the war, for which every one of us who was a member of either House of Parliament at that time must take his share of responsibility. The noble Lord, however, has to administer the regulations. It is in that respect that I want to make an appeal to him, and to express the hope that he may be able to exercise a little more merciful discretion in carrying out these powers, and perhaps even get the regulations revised, although I fear that it is a little late for that to be done.

These materials are requisitioned under three different Defence Regulations—namely, Regulations 50, 50B and 53. My own impression from reading them—I may be quite wrong—is that they were never intended, nor was any one of them intended, to be used for the purposes of obtaining this scrap metal; but, when the need for obtaining metal arose, the Government turned to the Defence Regulations to see how they could do it, and they succeeded in finding a method of doing it. I do not for one moment raise any legal argument to suggest that they have exceeded their powers, or anything of that kind, but what I do say is that, whoever may be to blame, the taking right and left of railings and gates of almost every sort and kind, with very few exceptions, has caused unnecessary hardship to a great many people. It has resulted in a considerable amount of damage in various places to garden produce and so on, and, although it is suggested that compensation is given, that compensation is really negligible. Indeed, it is almost worse than negligible; but I shall have to say a word or two about that later on. The way in which it is offered, and the ridiculous smallness of the amount, are almost insulting.

I have already said that there are three Defence Regulations concerned. I shall not go into them now in detail, but I do want to say a few words about the question of compensation. In effect, the only compensation which an owner receives for having had taken away from his garden premises, or wherever it may be, possibly handsome and expensive gates and railings, is the value of the scrap metal. That is at any rate what it is said to be, but I am not sure that often it is not less. It is, according to the Ministry's own statement, 25s. a ton, which I think they justify as the average value of the scrap metal. The average, I am afraid, must include a great deal of very worthless scrap metal, because a short time before the war the value of any scrap metal which the merchants would have bought as such was £2 to £3 a ton.

I am going to refer, if I may, to a letter from the Directorate of Lands and Accommodation of the Ministry of Works on this subject of compensation. In many cases, as is not surprising, the Ministry's request has been complied with and no claim for compensation has been made at all. When it amounts to such a sum as 3s. 9d., it will be realized that for most people that is not worth troubling about. Compensation, however, is dealt with in Regulation 50B (4), which says: No compensation shall be payable under Section 3 or Section 6 of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, in respect of the severance of any fixtures in pursuance of this regulation, or of the requisition of the chattels resulting from the severance, but the compensation payable under that Act in respect of any such severance"— that is, in effect, for the railings— shall be a sum equal to the price which might reasonably have been expected to be obtained upon a sale of the fixtures effected immediately before the severance to a purchaser intending to sever them, no account being taken of any appreciation due to the emergency in the value of the chattels resulting from the severance. That right to compensation is a right to the scrap metal value. What I have described as the rather insulting part of these provisions is that further provision with regard to compensation on appeal does not carry the unfortunate victim any further.

I should like now to quote from the letter to which I have already referred: It would appear that you believe that the Ministry is trying to restrict your claim under paragraph (4) of Defence Regulation 50B to one for scrap metal only. This, however, is not the exact position. The Ministry agrees that you have a statutory right to claim for the value of the gates on the basis defined in paragraph (4). Let us see what it is which is not the exact position, because I cannot complain of the Ministry being anything but honest in this letter, though they seem to have a perverted sense of humour. In this Directorate's view, the price which might reasonably have been expected to be obtained from a sale of the gates effected immediately before the severence to a purchaser intending to sever would be equivalent to the rate of 25s. per ton. It is considered that the circumstances then and now existing render the market for gates a very limited one, the number of potential purchasers for such goods, if any exist, having been greatly reduced by their knowledge that the goods cannot be retained for their own use, and that the only willing buyers who would have made an offer would wish to purchase for the obtaining of scrap metal.

If they did buy them in this way, they could make no use of them whatever, but would only have them requisitioned again and get the same value of 25s. per ton. The letter goes on: Claimants have been continually invited to produce evidence to show that, having regard to the full wording of paragraph (4), they could have obtained a higher value, but as yet none has done so. What is required are some concrete facts as to the number of sales of such goods which took place near to the time of requisitioning at prices higher than those offered by the Ministry. It may be mentioned, however, that the Ministry"— and here we get complete honesty— considers this evidence impossible to obtain, and has, indeed, by extensive inquiry, obtained evidence to show that there is no market for such gates"— the Government having cornered the whole market, so to speak. I think that is hard. Not only is it hard, but as I have already said I am inclined to think that it is somewhat insulting and, to use a common expression, it causes the enemy to blaspheme, because all sorts and kinds of nasty things are said about the Government which treat people in that way. I should say, perhaps, that that particular letter finishes up by saying: Under these circumstances it is hoped that you will be able to accept the offer made by the Ministry for your gates of the sum of 3s. 9d. in settlement. That was a pair of garden gates which cost, in making and erecting, something like £35. That is not a bad example. It is really just about the proportion of the cost which is generally offered. If you are going to confiscate goods for the purposes of the war, well do so out and out, and do not insult people by offering 3s. 9d. for what cost £30 or £35.

But, apart from this matter of compensation, I do think the Ministry have been most unwise in the way that they have proceeded. Part of my question is based upon the fact that there appeared in the "Ministry of Supply Surplus Stock Sales List" not long ago the offer of a number of rails and gates for sale, from which one is apparently justified in assuming that the Ministry have thus requisitioned a great many gates and railings which have turned out to be useless for their purpose. What a misfortune that those probably very useful rails and gates should have been taken away to be sold for scrap and that they were no longer available to fulfil their useful purpose. I hope the Minister will consider whether something more cannot be done to exercise these powers with rather more merciful discretion. Those down at the bottom of the scale in the Ministry's great army who were responsible for taking these things away have done their duty most thoroughly, and it has been very difficult indeed to get them to make any exception in very extreme cases. Not only have large gates and railings been taken away at the entrances to gardens, but people have not been allowed permits for wooden gates, or for timber to make gates, or to obtain bricks in order to put up walls in the place of the railings. To my own personal knowledge there has been tremendous loss of garden produce through gates and railings in front of houses and gardens being taken away and cattle, while being driven through the streets, naturally getting in and trampling down the good stuff in the gardens. Added to that there is a really irresistible temptation to a large number of children—some of them, I am sorry to say, are rather a nuisance to the places to which they have been moved—who go into gardens which are left open without gates or railings round them and steal the fruit and other produce there.

To go a little lower down the social scale, I saw only the other day a row of very small cottages, I suppose cottages with not more than four rooms at the outside, with their small gardens in front of them, many of them tended with very great care, where the railings—which can have been of very little use to the Government, for they were not much more than wire made into an upright fence—have been taken away from the front of the gardens. I cannot but imagine that those railings were useless for the purpose for which they were taken, and must have been among those which have since been sold by the Ministry of Supply. I want a little more power vested in those who take away these railings to make exceptions in the case of those which have a real and substantial value for their owners, when the actual amount of scrap metal is not great, and also to try to do with taking less than they sometimes take. For instance, I have known a number of cases where the people who have had their gates removed have asked to be allowed to retain the iron posts on which the gates were hung, in order to be able to put up on such posts some gate or wooden rails, or something like that. That has been refused. Again, there are cases where sometimes the leaving of one upright bar here and there and one along the top might be quite sufficient, and the Minister would thus be able to take nine-tenths of the whole of the rails and leave the other tenth which would be of very considerable use to the owner. I beg to move.


My Lords, first of all, I should like to thank my noble friend for postponing his Motion over a week ago to suit my convenience. Before I answer his question, with which I have every sympathy, I should like to draw attention to the need of scrap in this country. Nobody deplores more than I or His Majesty's Government do, having to take anything away from people, but I should like to take your Lordships' minds back to the time when we started to remove railings and gates. It was in August or September, 1941, that we had to stop importing scrap from America, in order to save shipping space and also because the Americans wanted scrap for themselves. In those days my noble friend Lord Beaverbrook was at the Ministry of Supply. My noble friend Lord Hemingford said that I was not responsible. I was in those days under Lord Beaverbrook. He suggested to my noble friend Lord Reith, who was formerly in the office that I now have the honour to hold, that he should take over the job of collecting these iron railings and scrap, because my Ministry had the labour force available. The idea was that the Minister of Works should take over the collection for the Iron and Steel Control which is under the Ministry of Supply. Lord Reith accepted and when I had the honour of succeeding him I found the work in the hands of the Ministry.

It was decided that the question was of paramount importance because we had no scrap available at that time to compare with what we had been bringing over from America. Perhaps I may be allowed to recall the remarks I made to your Lordships on April 8 on the question of the saving of fuel and shipping. I said then: We have also to remember that the collection of scrap in this country helps enormously in the saving of shipping space, as one ton of scrap saves approximately two tons of fuel which would have been necessary in conjunction with the 3¼ tons of ore which each ton of scrap replaces. My noble friend asked about the total tonnage of railings. The total tonnage of railings cleared up to June 12, 1943, by the British Iron and Steel Corporation (Scrap), Ltd., was 532,189 tons. These have been requisitioned and removed under Regulation 50B. My noble friend knows much more about the legal side of these questions than I do. Soon after I came to my present Ministry it was found that Regulations 50 and 53, by which scrap was requisitioned, were not quite convenient for the purpose and those Regulations were both merged into Regulation 50B. It is under that Regulation 50B that we are now requisitioning railings. Besides the 532,000 tons of railings and gates, we have also salvaged about 500,000 tons of bombed steel and 1,700,000 tons from the national survey. I gave the full figures of scrap in the recent debate on raw materials.

In answer to my noble friend I can assure him that all railings are suitable for melting purposes and the Iron and Steel Control will bear me out in saying that. As to the question of gates and railings appearing in the list of the Ministry of Supply, I looked into that and I found that the amount concerned was infinitesimal and ought not to have appeared there at all. Naturally it caught the eye of the public and I noticed it myself, but I can assure my noble friend that the fact that these gates and railings appeared in the list is no proof that scrap is not required. It is all required. In the early stages of the campaign before the embargo on resale of severed railings became effective, a small number of lots which were sent to merchants for preparation were resold for use as reinforcement for shelters. This was stopped as soon as it was discovered. Some railings had been purchased by merchants in the ordinary course of business and no control was exercised on disposal. The standard rate of compensation was fixed at the outset of the campaign at 25s. per ton which was calculated on the controlled price of scrap (No. 14 Scrap Order) less cost of severance, making good and carriage.

Twenty-five shillings per ton, I agree with the noble Lord, is a small amount, but this is a case where we have asked everybody to help and I will quote figures to show how well all have helped. As I say, I know this is a very small amount but it is a question of almost everybody helping the country, as they were asked to do when scrap ceased to be available from the usual sources. It was decided that scrap had to be collected and scrap has accordingly been collected. When it is realized that the basis of all our armaments is iron and steel and that in order to make iron and steel you must have scrap, it will be agreed that what was done was necessary for the prosecution of the war. It is very hard, I agree, on many people but those who have given scrap have the satisfaction of knowing that they have made a very valuable contribution. I can assure noble Lords that it is a most unpopular duty to collect this scrap but one has to try and do so, as we do, as fairly as possible. Up to the present 3,500,000 properties have been dealt with in this country and claims have been made up to date by only 130,000 owners. I think that shows what a magnificent answer the people have made to our appeal. I would emphasize that only 130,000 out of 3,500,000 have made claims. I am not saying that there has been no hardship but that people have been public spirited in allowing their railings to be taken as they have. We are very grateful to them. Of these claims approximately 113,000 have been settled either by local authorities or the Ministry within the standard rate of 25s. per ton. The balance of outstanding claims amounts to 17,000.

As most noble Lords know the way the collection is carried out is that local authorities schedule the railings and my Ministry comes in and takes them away. Anyone who considers that his railings are of historic or artistic merit has a right to appeal to the Central Panel of Experts set up by my Ministry. The General Claims Tribunal set up under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, is used for people who are not prepared to accept the compensation offered. The figures which I have given to your Lordships with reference to the 3,500,000 properties with only 130,000 claims demonstrate how whole-heartedly and unselfishly the public of this country have responded to the appeal for scrap. The noble Lord asked me if we would temper our judgment with discretion. I can assure my noble friend that about a quarter of each of my mornings is spent in trying to help in cases of hardship. In this connexion I have had the greatest number of letters that I have ever received in the course of my life. I can assure noble Lords that I try to administer this matter in as fair a way as possible. This is one of the things that has to be done and I admit that there are cases of hardship, but I do my best to mitigate them. In conclusion I ask for the support of the British public in this matter in the future as they have supported us in the past.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his answer and, if I may say so, I hope it may do something to allay at least a part of the discontent and bad temper which have been aroused in various places. The noble Lord has disposed of one thing—namely, the entry in the surplus stock list of the Ministry of Supply. That seems to be a case in which someone or other has blundered.


May I interrupt the noble Lord to say that the mistake was in my Ministry and not in the Ministry of Supply? We work closely together, but I must take the responsibility.


It is very good of the noble Lord to say so. I do not mind in the very least which Ministry it was that made the mistake. The point is that what the noble Lord has said will, I hope, enable many that I have spoken to on this subject, to tell people that the scrap which has been taken is all being made use of and that there is at any rate no appreciable quantity of it which is being resold as useless for the purposes for which it was taken. There is one other thing which occurs to me to say and that is that I am glad very few complaints, as the noble Lord says, have been made. These would probably have been avoided altogether had it not been for the unfortunate way in which this matter of requisitioning has been dealt with under the regulations as they stand. Originally if anyone having these railings had been asked merely to make a gift of them straight away for the good of the country, I think even fewer complaints would have been made. In the circumstances I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.