HL Deb 08 December 1949 vol 165 cc1388-96

6.26 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, like the last Bill, this Bill was welcomed by all Parties in another place, and I assume that the same welcome will be given to it in your Lordships' House. The provisions of the Bill are largely financial, but as the sum of £40,000,000 is involved I would claim your Lordships' indulgence for a few minutes to explain the purpose of the measure. Its main purpose is to authorise the Treasury during the five years ending March, 1955, to issue out of the Consolidated Fund sums not exceeding £40,000,000, to be used for the provision of capital for approved housing for the Services in Great Britain. This will place the financing of Service houses more on the basis of the financing of housing generally. The money so borrowed will be repaid by the Service Departments over a 60-year period. The annual repayments will be carried on the Service Estimates in the normal way. In effect, the Services will be empowered to finance a proportion of their housing on borrowed money in the same way as local authorities do, rather than to find all the capital required from current revenue. This special measure is justified by the special need of the Services to overtake the heavy arrears which have undoubtedly accumulated in the provision of married quarters.

His Majesty's Government have appreciated the deep interest shown by noble Lords and Members of another place who have been pressing for sonic time for alleviation of the difficulties faced by Service men in the lack of adequate married quarters. Broadly speaking, the present situation is quite unsatisfactory. For the three Services our urgent need is for about 60,000 married quarters in this country. To meet this requirement we have at the present time only about 29,000 married quarters of a permanent or semi-permanent character. Of these, the permanent houses actually provided since the war number about 3,000 and the other 26,000 may be described as being of all kinds and, indeed, of all conditions. Some of them are fairly decent dwellings, which were erected before the war in the more modern camps, especially by the Royal Air Force. Others, however, are admittedly unsatisfactory. Our urgent need, therefore, is for about 30,000 additional permanent quarters in this country, and we are hoping that the provision made in this Bill will enable us to accelerate the speed with which they will be provided.

It is well known that the policy of His Majesty's Government, and indeed the desire of all members of your Lordships' House, is that the highest possible proportion of our peace-time defence requirements should be met by Regular Forces. It is therefore essential in the national interest that we should take all proper steps to stimulate Regular recruitment, and in this connection the provision or absence of married quarters plays a most important part. I can say that, in the nature of things, no greater inducement can be made to obtain recruits and retain the long-service men we require, than to provide them and their families with suitable quarters in which they can reside reasonably comfortably. The problem has been increased through a number of factors. One of them is the fact that, so far as the Army and the Royal Air Force are concerned, there is a greatly increased requirement arising from the changes which have been made in the rules governing entitlement to married quarters. As noble Lords are aware, the age of eligibility for married quarters has been very considerably reduced, and this greatly affects the figure of requirements.

From my own experience at the Admiralty, I am satisfied that the conditions under which a number of married officers and other ranks live at the present time are causing great concern and present a real social problem. The Service mar is essentially mobile; changes are frequent and the accommodation problem is always one of great anxiety to the married man and his family. Many have been compelled to take furnished rooms for their families, for which exorbitant rents are being charged, with the result that these men are faced with a financial burden, in many cases too heavy for them to bear. This causes worry and anxiety, which are bad both for the Service man himself and for the Services as a whole. We hope to start building approximately 6,500 married quarters in the year 1950–51, and to complete an annual average figure of some 5,000 during the period covered by the loan. The £40,000,000 will be divided roughly between the Army, £18,000,000; the Royal Air Force, £16,000,000; and the Royal Navy, £6,000,000. After the Bill has become law, married quarters will he provided for the Service Departments partly by the ordinary Estimates procedure and partly by loans under this Bill. Those provided under the Bill must have the approval of the Treasury, who will consult both the Ministry of Health and the Scottish Office on the question whether, in the event of the Services no longer requiring the accommodation, there is a reasonable prospect of the houses being taken over by the local authority for general housing purposes. Thus housing that does not qualify under the conditions of the Bill will continue to be met from the current Service Votes in the ordinary way; and the same is true of the cost of housing overseas.

Noble Lords will probably want me to say a word about the effect of these proposals on the civilian housing programme. The total housing programme of the Services, whether financed from loans or from votes, will continue to be provided as at present from within the total allocation for housing under the capital investment programme. The number of houses required to make the important improvement in the provision of married quarters for the Services to which I have referred, is very small in relation to the housing programme as a whole. But it is right to regard the housing programme of the country as one problem and not two, and the step we propose to take is a measure to adjust the adverse balance from which the Services have suffered since the end of the war in the matter of housing.

It is His Majesty's Government's intention that full Parliamentary control over expenditure for the provision of housing accommodation for the Services shall remain unimpaired. Accordingly, that part of the housing accommodation which is to he financed through the provisions of this Bill will be provided for under a new and separate Vote in the Service Estimates. The loans made under this Bill will be shown as appropriations-in-aid of the new Votes for the three Services, and the sum appropriated will not exceed in any financial year the sum approved in the Estimates. With those remarks, I commend this Bill to your Lordships' House, and beg to move its Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a.—(Viscount Hall.)

6.36 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount opposite has explained this Bill very clearly, and has put the position, so far as facts go, exactly as we on these Benches see them ourselves. Of course, we welcome this Bill, because we always welcome any steps which go towards the efficiency and contentment of the Regular Forces, for exactly the reason mentioned by the noble Viscount—namely, that without the efficiency and sufficiency of Regular Forces we in this country cannot meet our commitments for armed Forces. Here at last is an attempt to tackle this problem which has existed for a long time. I am not going to pretend that under previous Governments the problem has ever been successfully solved, because when the 1939 war broke out the Army, so far as married quarters were concerned, had hardly recovered from the redeployment which took place when we left Southern Ireland in 1922. It is true to say that we on these Benches have drawn the attention of the Government to this problem for a long time. I find it was as long ago as October, 14, 1946, when my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye, in a debate on recruiting for the Regular Forces, said he was sure the first and most important of all the remedies was housing.

It really is a serious problem, and I sometimes wonder whether it can ever be fully appreciated except by those who have served in the Regular Forces in peace time and, as they say, have "followed the drum." No one who has not seen regimental life in peace time knows the great hardship which even before the war was felt by young married officers and non-commissioned officers who had to live out. Hardly ever, in my experience, was it possible to obtain lodgings at anything like a rent comparable to the marriage allowances which those young people received. The result was that for a young married man, officer or other rank, there was always a substantial reduction in real wages. The position cannot possibly be better since the war—in fact, it is a great deal worse. As to the officers, the point arises that we are now obliged to treat officers just like other ranks in this respect, so long as we continue the policy of drawing officers from the ranks and making the King's Commission a career open to anybody who proves his worth.

Even at this late hour, I feel we cannot accept this Bill in blind admiration, and I am obliged to make one or two points on it. First of all, as I have said, we have drawn attention to this matter since October, 1946. It is hard to understand why it has taken three years to produce a solution like this, which, after all, is not so difficult. It is a matter about which the Government have known the whole time. I find that the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State for Air, when talking, I think, on the Second Reading of this Bill on November 29 last, said that, as compared to the size of the programme for the whole country, Service men certainly have not been allocated fair shares of national resources. Why not? I do not know, but perhaps noble Lords opposite do. Surely it is the plain duty of the Service Departments to see that when a national programme like this is available the Service Departments get at least as fair treatment—I am not asking for better—as their civilian counterparts. However, we now have this Bill and, although we welcome it, it does have a faint smell of inter-departmental bargaining behind it—a faint smell, but quite a perceptible one to me.

Some of that inter-departmental bargaining does not appear to be immediately directed to what is the object of the Bill, which is a solution of the housing problem of the Forces. I say that because I cannot fully understand the references to local authorities and civilian accommodation. Surely, so long as we deal with the problem of housing for the Forces on level pegging, so to speak, with the problem of civilian houses, it does not matter whether a house is suitable for local authorities or not. If we need more houses for the garrison in Catterick or in some airfield in the West of Scotland, what does it matter whether the local authority is interested in them or not? It is nothing to do with the problem of dealing fairly with the Forces. I was going to make another point, but the noble Viscount opposite has given me the answer, for which I am grateful. It was with regard to how far the plan, as now envisaged, was meant to deal with the whole problem of houses for the Forces. He gave me the figures, which lead me to suppose that out of 60,000 houses needed, 29,000 houses were there, leaving only 31,000 houses to be provided under this scheme. That almost completes the sum. Therefore, I am satisfied with it and I am grateful for the information.

This Bill, as we all know, leaves two other problems still unsolved. First, there is the problem of housing overseas, which is an extremely serious one into which I will not go at this late hour, because it was fairly fully ventilated in another place. But some of the housing conditions overseas, particularly in the Suez Canal area, are about as bad as housing for the Forces anywhere, and in a climate which is as bad as anywhere. Then we come to the housing in areas which, as envisaged in this Bill, are not places where local authorities are concerned to see houses. I would ask the noble Viscount opposite whether steps are to be taken apart from this Bill, presumably in the ordinary estimating, to deal with those problems, because it seems to me that on the face of things the problem of getting houses in unpopulated areas, away from local authorities, is more difficult than the problem of getting houses near to a populated area.

It occurs to me to ask two or three more questions on this Part of the Bill. First of all, I wonder whether, in these negotiations with local authorities, any steps can be taken to modify the more difficult attitude of some local authorities in dealing with housing for Service men and ex-Service men on the grounds that they have not the residence qualification. I am going to throw out one suggestion, which may or may not he a sensible one. A great many cases for title to a house on a local authority's list might easily be proved by the position of a Service family on the Electoral Register as Service nonresident voters. I mention that only because it is a problem which needs to be dealt with.

There are two other smaller questions I would ask, and I apologise for not having given the noble Viscount notice of them. One is whether steps are being taken, concurrently with the building of new houses, to deal with the obsolete houses in existing military quarters, such as those which have no bathroom and so forth. There is also a point which occurred to me only during the noble Viscount's speech—namely, whether Northern Ireland is or is not covered by these arrangements. Then we come to this comparison with the procedure for loans to local authorities. Here again, it seems rather odd to me because, if I understand the local authorities' procedure aright, the reason for raising loans is to equalise the rates. I wish I could think that this procedure would reduce the rates in the same way. I begin to wonder why it was necessary to go through all this procedure merely to equalise the spending of £6,000,000 a year; I also wonder why this figure looms so large in Service estimates, and how it would look if it came in the estimates of the Ministry of Food. At the same time, I do not want to quarrel with the procedure. I believe that His Majesty's Government are right in fixing this programme as a five-year programme, although the analogy with the local authorities seems to me a little strange.

My last point is that in these days money alone does not buy houses. There is the licensing, the materials and the allocation of labour. Whatever procedure the Service Departments have, licences and allocations have to be obtained for bricks; they have to be obtained for steel; they have to be obtained for some softwoods which have to be paid for with hard currency; and priorities have to be obtained for the building labour. I hope that we can have an assurance to-day that the sound provisions in this Bill are not going to be stultified by difficulties later on in securing the proper proportion of labour and materials, because otherwise we are wasting our time to-night. Those are all the points I want to raise. I have attempted to point to one or two matters which do not seem to be quite right and which need further attention outside the scope of this Bill, but I do not want to disparage the Bill for what it is. I would point out that this Bill is only one of the measures which will have to be taken to achieve what I know we all desire, which is proper housing for the Regular soldiers, sailors and airmen of His Majesty's Forces, so that the right people may be attracted to those careers which are so important to the State. With those words, I should like to support the Bill and say that we shall not seek to amend it.

6.48 p.m.


My Lords, as I expected, the noble Viscount has welcomed this Bill. It is a substantial step forward. Taking up the last point of the noble Viscount, I think he can be assured that there can be complete co-operation between the local authorities and the Service Departments, both with regard to housing for Service men and ex-Service men, and particularly in relation to the question of the residential qualifications. So far as the building of houses is concerned, the proportion to be built for the Services, even under this measure, is very small in relation to the proportion as a whole. The noble Viscount asked me whether married quarters can be provided in Northern Ireland under the loan. I am afraid they cannot. Northern Ireland will be treated just as some of the isolated districts in this country and the overseas requirements will be treated, which is out of the normal method of providing married quarters by estimating each year. Estimating, of course, will proceed, and we hope that, as a result of the additional houses to be provided, in the course of the five years it will not only be the £40,000,000 which will be spent, but sums in addition to that. I have answered the points put forward by the noble Viscount very briefly, although they are important. I am pleased that he has raised them, and I thank him for the welcome which he has given to this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.