HL Deb 27 January 1944 vol 130 cc559-70

LORD TRENT rose to call attention to the increasingly inadequate provision of hostels for men and women of the Forces travelling from one part of the country to another on leave or duty, and especially to the bad moral effect upon men of the British and Dominions Forces of finding themselves stranded in strange towns without accommodation for the night; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I much regret that a good deal of time has elapsed since I first put my Motion on the Order Paper, but unfortunately I have had that common complaint, influenza, and could not be here. I am glad to say that since then there has been, as far as I can gather, a considerable improvement in the position as regards canteens, though I still think that the position as regards hostels is very bad. While there has been a certain amount of building, the increased numbers of Service personnel travelling about more than takes up the increased accommodation. Every investigation that has taken place shows, I think, that the position is really bad. I do not propose to give you a great many illustrations, but I should like to mention a few typical instances. In a town which I know very well, on more than one occasion recently the police have had to accommodate from twenty to thirty men in their recreation room on a concrete floor. In another town, a comparatively small town, which I also know well, the local newspaper has an air-raid shelter. In that shelter there are six palliases on a stone floor and during the past year or eighteen months there have been accommodated in that room more than 300 troops. That is a town with very bad conditions. The American Red Cross has quite a good club, but nothing adequate is being done for our own people. Another town has a rest centre. A good many of your Lordships know what rest centres are like. Some of them are good and some are bad. They are all right for bombed-out people to meet an immediate emergency, but I maintain that they are not places in which to put Service men travelling about, whether on leave or on duty. When I say "on duty" I am referring to Service men who go about the country in small parties, say half a dozen, under a corporal. Small parties ordered to go on a course are in no better position than men going on leave.

Within the past fortnight I was in a small town where I talked to local officials about this problem of men on leave. They said: "Frequently we have men both from neighbouring aerodromes and from the Army who miss their connexions with main line trains and are put up in the police cells—anything up to twelve in number." Yesterday I had a letter from a Chief Constable and, if I may, I will read just one paragraph from it: On many occasions British and Dominion troops call at the local police station to inquire where they can obtain food and a night's rest, and they have to be told that there is no accommodation and are offered a police cell to spend the night in. I do not consider that is correct in the fifth year of the war.

I am sure it must make us all uncomfortable to think that Service men—men who, it may be, have been four years or more in Fighter Command, who go out on those extraordinarily gallant bombing raids, or men who have fought through long campaigns, and won great victories in Africa—when they come home and go to some strange place, if they are sent to coast towns or if they live in the north and have to change trains at some junction, should be faced with the great possibility, if not probability, of having to spend the night in a police cell. I have given your Lordships a few instances which have come within my personal knowledge, but according to Press reports things are equally bad in London and in Manchester.

There is not the slightest doubt that the matter has caused, and is causing, grave concern to the police, to all social workers and to the Churches of all denominations. I have here some figures which I have had checked, as carefully as I can, in various ways. It is extraordinarily difficult to get accurate figures, and perhaps it would be inadvisable to give them publicly, but I shall be very pleased to hand them over to the noble Lord who is going to reply on behalf of the Government. From these figures, I calculate that we want in the country as a whole at least 10,000 more beds every night and we probably want more at week-ends. The figures which I have been able to get show that there are, roughly, twice as many airmen requiring accommodation as soldiers. That is only natural, because, after all, troops as a rule know some time ahead when they are going to get their seven days' or 48 hours' leave. Members of the Royal Air Force, however, are really in the front line. I imagine that the ordinary airman has very small knowledge of when a bombing operation is going to take place, so that he cannot plan ahead in the same way as the average fellow in a training battalion or some other battalion at home can. We know that in many cases in the R.A.F.—owing to our wonderful British climate—it is suddenly learnt at two or three o'clock in the afternoon that operations are off for that night, and the Station Commanders wish to take the opportunity to grant leave. They want to get men away on leave from their stations to a place whey they can forget flying for a bit.

Now these men want canteens. As I say, the canteens are improving, but I do not think there are enough of them to satisfy all requirements for rest, for recreation and for noise. It may seem a funny thing to couple the two things, rest and noise, together, but those of your Lordships who have had the experience of going into some of these hostels or Red Cross clubs must have been surprised, as I have been, to find that in almost every room there is a loud speaker in operation at its very loudest, or a gramophone at work, while within a few feet people are lying down, or sitting in easy chairs, fast asleep. They like to be free to do as they please. The sort of thing that they require is something like a junior common-room at a university.

I would like to put in a particular plea that there should be more and better facilities to help these people to spend Sunday afternoon agreeably. The typical picture which must often have been seen many times by all of your Lordships is one of crowds of Service men and women walking aimlessly about the streets on a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do except to wait for the public-houses to open. I think that is deplorable. I mention specifically the Dominions Forces because, after all, many of these men have been in this country for a considerable time, and one of the bright things which one hopes will come out of this war is that these soldiers from thousands of miles away will get a better idea of this country, its traditions and its life generally. I must say that it seems a poor way for them to start assimilating that idea, if they are turned out of a train in the black-out in a strange town with no prospect of any accommodation. The countries from which these people come have such wonderful reputations, such deservedly wonderful reputations, for hospitality that I feel that this sort of thing alone must have a very chilling effect.

Conditions have been made a good deal worse in the last eighteen months because of the opening of the American Red Cross hostels. I do not wish to imply in any way that there is anything luxurious about these American hostels. In my opinion they are only what any troops have a right to expect. They are decent, they are clean, they are comfortable, and they provide beds and meals at a reasonable figure. But the contrast between the way in which the American Government have treated their men, coupled with the priorities which our Government have given to the American troops, and the treatment which our own men get is much too glaring, in my opinion, to have escaped the notice of our own troops, and, particularly, Dominion troops, and even the Americans themselves. I have heard a good many comments from American officials, and they are very uneasy in their own minds because so little is done for our people. In the early days, the Americans, whenever they had beds available, very kindly took in men of our Services, and the numbers of letters of appreciation which they received showed how great was the need for something of this sort for our own people.

I have already said that the Americans seemed to get the necessary priorities. I received a letter this morning from Manchester—I do not wish to weary your Lordships with the whole of it, but I have the facts here—in which it is stated that within two or three days the Americans obtained the requisite priorities to get a new club going for a thousand men. We are often told that one of the difficulties is to provide staff for British hostels. But, after all, at the majority of the American hostels which I have seen, while there are perhaps one or two American men or women at the head of affairs, the bulk of the helpers are British —British volunteers. I think that people would be just as willing to work for our own Service men as they are to work for the Americans.

We now come to a much more difficult problem, the problem of what is to happen to these people when they cannot get proper accommodation. I feel that the authorities of all three Services axe under a great moral obligation to see that these men, the majority of whom are young, are not put in the position of having unnecessary moral temptations put in their way. This applies particularly to towns which are near O.C.T.U.'s and pre-training depots both for the Army and for the Air Force. The young men there are perhaps not as accustomed to looking after themselves as their more mature colleagues, and if through any neglect on our part to provide the proper facilities they come to suffer from some disease which may mar the whole of their lives, I think that they will have a thoroughly legitimate cause of complaint against the Government and against the whole nation, because, after all, the Government are merely our representatives.

I wish to make it clear that I am offering no criticism at all of those responsible for welfare. I think that they do their utmost in very difficult conditions, but up to now, in my opinion, they have tended to confine their attention too much to their own station or unit, and once a man has gone away they seem to wash their hands of all responsibility regarding him. The last thing I wish to do is to criticize such organizations as the Y.M.C.A., the Y.W.C.A., the Salvation Army and other voluntary bodies, which are doing the best they can in very difficult circumstances. They have to go to the Office of Works for one thing and to another Ministry for another, and it may take them months to obtain the few things they need to run a canteen. I have a small place in mind where it took six months to get a few extra cups and saucers so as to be able to serve tea. One thing which has been tried with only limited success is private hospitality. I think that the reason why it has not been more successful is entirely creditable to the men in the Forces. They know the difficulties of rationing and staffing, and they do not want to put the average housewife, especially if she is a stranger, to any inconvenience. I am told, however, that if these men have a bed in a hostel there is nothing that they like more than going to see somebody privately and spending an hour or two in the afternoon with them. They do like, however, to have some sort of clubroom of their own, where they are free to do what they like.

I may be asked what suggestions I have for dealing with this matter. There are, I think, two possibilities, which will not be applicable everywhere, for reasons which I have just heard, but which should be practicable in certain places. We all know that the hotels in the large towns are crowded out, but I am told by people who ought to know that in the smaller towns, and particularly on the outskirts, there is a certain number of residential hotels which, owing to staff difficulties, will not put people up. I understand that they are legally bound to do so, but they do not. Owing to the law of supply and demand, there is very little for them to sell in the bar, and I am given to understand that some of these hotels would be glad to be taken over and turned into residential hostels.

The other proposal which I have to make is this. All over the country there are numbers of buildings which would be suitable for this purpose which are earmarked by the War Office and not used. Two days ago I had a letter from a man who is very concerned about this matter, and I should like to read an extract from it. He writes: The existing facilities in this town are fearfully inadequate. Men are turned away late at night with nowhere to go. Some have slept in air-raid shelters; where others found a billet is the subject of disquiet rather than conjecture …. There is a hall in this town which is earmarked by the War Office, and in the past six months it has been used only once for one night for the billeting of troops, and in the past eighteen months it has not been used more than three times for similar purposes. There is room for a hundred beds, and the hall is heated.

There may be good reasons why that hall is not used, but I think that up and down the country there are such places which, if the need for them were realized, could be made available. I hope that the Government will not say that at this late stage of the war it is not worth while spending a great deal of money on these hostels and camps because we are assured on the highest authority that the war in Europe is approaching its closing stage. I wish to emphasize strongly that when the actual fighting against Germany is over it will be a very long time before there is any material decrease in the number of troops who are travelling. There will be a great many people here training for the Far East, and men will always be going backwards and forwards to Europe. During this period, too, leave will have to be granted on a more extensive scale than at the present time. At any rate for the next two or three years, therefore, these hostels will be wanted, and wanted very urgently.

There is a further use for them. I do not pretend to know our demobilization plans, but, judging by what has been said publicly so far, there will be all sorts of training schemes for people coming from the Services to industry, to enable them to be re-educated at the universities and elsewhere. I suggest, therefore, that in towns where there are universities or university colleges or technical schools which will be used after the war to re-train these people in civil work, there will be an enormous demand for hostel accommodation. It may be possible to fit these men into the classrooms, but sleeping accommodation will be very short in a number of these places. As we all know, after the last war mixing up the men who had been in the Services for four years with fellows straight from school did not work out too well. You have to have a certain amount of discipline, but you cannot treat men as schoolboys. Therefore I think it is fair to say that probably for the next five or six years at the very least there will be a great demand for such hostels, which I hope we shall have before very long.

Last week-end I was very much encouraged to see in the Press that N.A.A.F.I. is being authorized to go in for a big scheme of canteens, but I was disappointed to note that, except in one town, these canteens were merely to provide recreation and feeding facilities, and not sleeping accommodation. Of course, it is a great advance to get the men off the streets, but I do strongly urge that the N.A.A.F.I. organization, which after all is not bound by rules and regulations, as are such organizations as the Y.M.C.A., should not only have the opportunity of providing wholesome and healthy recreation on Sundays, but should be allowed and encouraged to provide sleeping accommodation. If N.A.A.F.I. were so encouraged to put up well-equipped hostels for 10,000 beds I think it would go a great way towards solving this problem. Whilst I do not criticize the welfare officers or the voluntary organizations, I feel that the Government are to blame for being shortsighted over this matter. We have been told for four years that we were sooner or later to invade the Continent, and it must have been foreseen that a time would come when we should have all these troops in this country. Nobody can blame the Government in regard to the first two years, 1940 and 1941, when we were fighting for our lives. But, after all, as was said by the Chief Constable whose letter I quoted, we are now in the fifth year of the war and things are not good.

As regards the Air Ministry, I think it is a momentary lapse on their part, because they do not usually show a lack of imagination. Whoever coined those great titles Fighter Command and Bomber Command, showed in my opinion a great flash of imagination and knowledge of psychology. I do not believe the Prime Minister himself has ever coined any finer phrases. Any one must be proud to belong to Fighter Command. There is nothing of a "phoney war'' about Fighter Command and Bomber Command. Apart altogether from enemy Flak, these men are running a ghastly risk of frostbite, and many of your Lordships have seen cases of frostbite and know that it is a thing to be taken seriously. I feel that these men deserve the very best that this country can give them. If we could have a sufficiency of well-equipped hostels it would help to raise the efficiency of the Fighting Services by adding to the amenities of leave; secondly, it would reduce the incidence of venereal disease, which is often the result of men taking an easy way of getting a night's lodging; and, thirdly, it would do a great deal—and in view of coming events this is very important—to discourage gossip in public-houses, which is one of the great problems for all the security officers.

I have confined my remarks to other ranks, but I do urge that the Government should seriously consider the provision of a few hostels for young officers in suitable places—I do not suggest that they should be provided everywhere. I understand that the Officers' Club in London is immensely appreciated. It is very difficult for some of these young officers, on their present pay and with present prices, to get anything like adequate accommodation. I think the other ranks should come first, but when the Government are looking into this question they should see whether they can do something for officers as well. I beg to move.


My Lords, I would say at the outset that I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trent, as everyone must be, for bringing up this question, because those who travel at all or have any dealings with the troops in this country know that it is a very important one. The noble Lord is a Regional Commissioner, and although he is the only Regional Commissioner present in your Lordships' House to-day, I know that there are several others who share his views on this matter. I want to assure him and your Lordships that His Majesty's Government are fully alive to the importance of the question of hostels, and of all its implications in regard to the way in which troops on leave or moving about the country are treated. There are one or two facts that I would like to point out. The noble Lord quoted a Chief Constable as saying that though we were in the fifth year of war nothing had been done, but perhaps the matter might be looked at from another standpoint. In this fifth year of war it is far more difficult to build, and get the labour for building, hostels than it was at the start of the war. That is the real obstacle in attempting to deal with this question. The noble Lord referred to what he called priorities for American troops. I should never be ashamed to support such a priority. The American troops have no homes to go to here. The airmen, soldiers and sailors in our own Forces, when travelling about the country, are usually going to their own homes, and certainly a priority is given to troops who are 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 miles away from their homes and families. Therefore I certainly make no apology for the fact that priority is given to the Americans.

This is a very difficult question, and we shall not be able to give one hundred per cent. accommodation—that we know. There are two questions that we are dealing with here. One is that of the hostels where men go to spend their leave. That is one side of the problem, and on that we have not had many complaints. There are approximately now some 30,000 beds available throughout the country. But the difficulty arises from the fact that certain areas become popular, and then for some unknown reason cease to have the same attraction, and men do not wish to go there. If we put up hostels in all areas and made arrangements for men going on leave wherever they might choose, then we should have to expand on a scale which would obviously be impossible. As I say, while we are not satisfied that it is enough, there are, for this type of people, 30,000 beds available now. The noble Lord sent me the names of places with which he is closely identified officially and which he knows personally, as I do. Comparing this area with other areas, I am satisfied that it is one of the most difficult with which we have to deal. So far as the Royal Air Force is concerned, it is an area where we have, as the noble Lord said, bombing stations and active warfare going on, and where leave is given because it is frontline action in which the men are engaged. Therefore, they perhaps get longer leave than is the case elsewhere and, of course, every minute is of importance to them.

The noble Lord gave me a list of certain towns, the names of which I shall not mention. We have got in that area twenty-two hostels with 700 beds. We are hoping to get, and we shall get, a further 200 beds. I am not going to say that I am satisfied with this, nor is it the end we are trying to attain. Undoubtedly there is a problem which we have to face, but I can tell your Lordships that the complaints we have had from the airmen and the troops who are involved in this discomfort are not so great as one would expect. The noble Lord said it was a terrible thing for a man to have to go to a police cell for the night, but there is a great deal of difference between whether the door is locked or not. This is not a matter of putting the men in a low category. It is due to the kindness and solicitude of the police who have helped so much in this matter. I agree with the noble Lord that this is an important point and we are not going to rest satisfied with the present position.

One of the difficulties we have had relates to troops going on leave and returning from it. There is no doubt that the practice of catching the last train, so that the men may have a few additional hours at home, creates one of the problems we have to face. We have only got a very small number of trains running now, and there are a great many people going on leave. We have been into the question of whether we can say to airmen, soldiers, and sailors, "You can only go at a certain time," but we have come to the conclusion that that is not possible. When a man goes on leave he likes to choose the first train to get away, and he will come back on the last train. That is largely why we get at the stations such an enormous number of people catching the last train. We do not think it would help if we tried to organize the rights of a person on leave as to which train he should catch. Then there is the question of labour and of building other places. As the noble Lord reminded us, this is the fifth year of war and we are very short of labour. I am grateful to him for the suggestion he made about other houses and certain hotels which might be taken over. I shall certainly go carefully into that— not that I have much hope, because practically everything that can possibly be used in the way of accommodation is fully taken up.

Before I sit down, I should like to express the gratitude of His Majesty's Government, and I am sure of all your Lordships, to all members of the voluntary services who run these hostels and do so much at the stations and elsewhere for the troops on leave. The value of their work, which is all voluntary, cannot be over-estimated. The Government are fully alive to what they are doing, and I should like to take this opportunity of thanking them for everything they have done.


My Lords I do not want to delay your Lordships but there are a couple of points in the noble Lord's speech to which I should like to refer. First, there is this question of the American priorities. I do want to point out that we have got magnificent squadrons of men from our Dominions here, and I feel strongly that they should have at least the same priority for accommodation as these men, who may ultimately turn out to be as good fighters as the Australians and the New Zealanders, but who, up to the moment, have not had the hardships to contend with which the men from the Dominions have had. The noble Lord seemed rather surprised that the demand for hostels should vary from time to time in certain places. That ought not to cause much surprise. It all depends on the manager or manageress of a place. It happens, time after time, when a man or woman is moved to another place, that every one wants to go there. Whatever canteen accommodation you provide, if one in Town A gets a first-class name, it will always be crowded and there always will be a demand. It creates its own demand. It is like a good hotel. In the old days people used to go to Gleneagles to play a round of golf. The same sort of thing applies here. I thank the noble Lord for his reply, and I do hope it will not be long before the Government are able to say that we have, through the N.A.A.F.I. funds and organization, provided at least comparable facilities for our troops with those enjoyed by men of any other nation in the world. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned.