HL Deb 26 January 1954 vol 185 cc473-81

5.27 p.m.

THE EARL OF LUCANrose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the housing difficulties confronting married Regular Service men on their leaving the Service and having to quit married quarters; whether they are satisfied that housing authorities are acquainted with, and are applying, the provisions of Circular No. 8/52 of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government; whether the Service authorities inform these men in good time of the steps they should take to secure places on local authorities' housing lists; and what further action Her Majesty's Government are contemplating to relieve the anxieties of this class of Service man. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in asking the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper there is no need for me to make a long speech, because the main headings on which I am asking for assurances and information are set out in the Question. I should, however, like to spend a few minutes in explaining the situation in connection with this subject as I see it, and my reason for raising it. That reason becomes obvious when one reads the recent statements on Defence or on the Services, all of which have complained of difficulty in regard to, and pointed out the need for, an increase in the Regular manpower of the Forces.

Numerous schemes have been introduced in the Services to encourage men to make the Services their life career, or at any rate to serve for a long period. The Memorandum accompanying the Army Estimates last year said: We are having more and more difficulty in finding long-service warrant officers and senior non-commissioned officers. We want men to stay in the Army and are trying hard to improve conditions of service so that they do stay. In another section of the same Memorandum the Secretary of State says: There has been some tendency …for Regular married non-commissioned officers to leave the Army. We are doing everything possible to reduce and limit the cause of this trend. My Lords, I ask: are the Services in fact doing everything they can to reduce the disabilities under which some of these men are serving?

May I say that if I speak of "soldiers" I hope it will not be taken to mean that conditions are not the same in the other two Services? I have no first-hand knowledge of conditions in the Royal Air Force and the Navy, but I can speak from some experience of the Army; and some up-to-date contacts with soldiers have convinced me that there are a number of cases of great hardship where senior soldiers of long service are subjected to quite needless anxiety and worry at the close of their service. I have in mind in particular three current cases of soldiers with an aggregate length of service of sixty years, living in married quarters with their families—their wives and a total number of twelve children. Of these three cases, two have already been taken to court by the Army authorities, and eviction orders have been made against them. It is only by the extreme forbearance and patience of the Army authorities that those families are still occupying married quarters. However, they have this hanging over their heads—that they may be evicted at any time at a week's notice, and that they will then be cast on the civilian housing world which, as we all know, is a very difficult one.

The problem has been recognised by Governments for a number of years. In 1945, the Ministry of Health issued Circular No. 109, which stated, among other things, that serving officers and men are recommended by the Service authorities to apply to the local authority for the area in which they wish to reside, or intend to take up employment, after discharge, giving particulars of the size of their families and of their present accommodation. And local authorities were asked to consider the claims of such applicants as though they were local residents. Two years ago, in January, 1952, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government issued a circular on similar lines pointing out the difficulties. This circular stated: Many of these serving men have no established association with any particular district. If, therefore, a rigid residential qualification is imposed by the local authority for the area in which they wish to settle after discharge they would, because of their service, be prejudiced in their application for housing accommodation. The Minister is confident that this is a position which local authorities will be anxious to avoid and that they will agree that these applicants should be given equal priority with others for consideration on the basis of relative housing need. That was the situation which these circulars were designed to remedy.

Before going further, I should perhaps say that this applies only to soldiers who are not in a position to buy their own houses. A number of soldiers, no doubt, are in a position to do so, and for them the prospect of return to civil life is comparatively easy. But in the case of those who have to depend on local housing authorities for their future homes, what happens? I am quite sure that the local authorities—certainly in some cases—give all possible weight to these circulars. They have them in mind, and they do the best they can for the soldiers and their families. But what can they do if a soldier applies to them only within a short time of his discharge? They receive a soldier's application for housing and they put him on the housing list. They cannot give the soldier absolute priority—and, in fact, they are not asked to do so—over civilians on the housing list; because, obviously, there are civilians living under conditions of great hardship. All that the Ministry asked was that the soldier should be given equal priority with others for consideration on the basis of relative housing need. The local authority cannot straight away allot the soldier a house; that stands to reason, when they have long waiting lists. So what happens? Time goes on and the soldier is discharged, the Army require his quarters for other soldiers, and, after warnings, the soldier is taken to court—where, incidentally, he will probably have to pay the costs amounting to a few guineas—and at the court an eviction order is made against him, with a certain number of weeks' notice. From then on that man and his family live in a state of anxiety which no one would wish a soldier or anyone else to suffer unnecessarily.

As I have said, the Army authorities, I am sure, exercise great patience and do not proceed to eviction for a considerable number of months, I believe, after a soldier's discharge. But, sooner or later, they will have to evict him. Then the onus is on the local authority, because the family are homeless, and they are accommodated in one of two ways. If they are lucky, they may go to what is known as a "halfway house," where the family are together, it is true, but in very unsatisfactory conditions, with communal feeding and living rooms—conditions in which it is impossible to make a home. If they are not accommodated in the "halfway house," the wife and children may be sent to an institution and the husband may have to find lodgings for himself. In either case, the home is broken up and the family have to start their career in civil life under the worst possible conditions. There is no other way, so long as soldiers cannot give long enough notice to the housing authorities to earn points for hardship to qualify them to take their place at the top of the housing lists.

And there is another small worry that faces soldiers. All their Service lives they have lived in Government quarters with Government furniture. Suddenly they have to go to civil life. They have to equip their new homes, and it is entirely beyond the means of most of them to do so. But there are provisions, of which most local authorities know, by which people can borrow money to equip their homes, and I wonder whether soldiers are told about those provisions. The responsibility for housing these people is a dual one: it rests on the local authorities and on the Service authorities. If the Service authorities do not do their job, the local housing authorities are helpless, and they cannot do what they should be able to do for these families. I should like to know that the Army authorities have this matter in mind, and that they regard it as at least as important as finding a man employment when he leaves the Service. Some years ago we heard a great deal about resettlement of Regular Service people, and I believe that a great deal is done to help them find employment. But it is at least as important that they should be helped to find houses when they transfer to civil life. Discharge at the end of a long period of Service is always a painful business. A soldier who has lived within the four walls of Service administration and regulations suddenly has to fend for himself and go out into the competitive world. It is bound to be difficult. Surely the Service authorities must do everything they can to ease this transition of the men to civil life.

I would ask your Lordships to think of the effect on younger soldiers when they see their seniors who are coming to the end of their service suffering this totally needless anxiety—dispersion of their homes, interference with their children's schooling, and so on. I maintain that all this is because the Service authorities do not give to the soldier in sufficient time information of what he must do in order to get on a housing list The soldier is not helped and given the advice he deserves. I hope the Government will be able to assure me that they do regard this matter seriously, and that it will be brought constantly to the atten- tion of the soldier that he must give his name in several years, before his discharge in order to get the chance of a house.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes. I think this is a very important question. As the noble Earl opposite said, it divides itself into two parts: what the Army can do to help, and what the civilian, authorities can do. I understand that there are still in the Army what used to be called vocational courses for men to learn a new trade, and I think that in every unit—this may be done already in some units—lectures should be given to soldiers quite a long time before they leave on what they should do about putting their names down on housing lists. I think that these lectures should be given particularly to those men who have been abroad for some time, and they should deal not only with the question of housing, but also with social affairs, which may have changed while the men have been abroad. Many of them have been abroad for a very long time, and new civilian rules and regulations have been brought out; and when they get home they want to know what they are all about.

As the noble Earl said, if men in the Services are worried about the future of their homes and families, their morale and efficiency are bound to deteriorate. They will be looking over their shoulders all the time, and thinking more about the future than about doing their jobs. That is one thing we want to avoid. It also may have an ill-effect on other soldiers who are thinking of staying on for a further term of service. These men may say to themselves that it would be better to get out now and not wait until they become older, because then it would be all the more difficult for them. That is another thing we want to avoid. The question of hostels, to which the noble Earl has referred, is also a difficult one. I have personal experience of this matter, and I know how difficult they are to run. Soldiers get married in the various countries in which they have been serving, and we get wives from all parts of the world coining into these hostels and living together. It is hardly a question of "Welcome home" if they have to start their civilian lives again in hostels.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, I can certainly assure the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, that Her Majesty's Government are fully aware of the housing difficulties to which he has drawn attention in his Question. These are due partly to the shortage of houses which, though much alleviated, still persists, especially in certain areas, and partly to the special position of the Service man on account of the conditions under which he is serving. I can also assure your Lordships that local housing authorities are acquainted with the circular of January 31, 1952, issued by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, to which my noble friend refers. But this circular, which asks local authorities to give ex-Service men equal priority with other applicants on the basis of relative housing need, can only recommend to the authorities vested by Statute with the management of housing matters that they should give all possible consideration to the special difficulties in which Service men and their dependants are placed in seeking housing accommodation

Her Majesty's Government have no reason to think that this advice is not generally followed by local authorities in considering individual applications. If, however, any council appears not to be carrying out these recommendations, my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is always willing to use his powers of persuasion, and I am sure that in the vast majority of cases the local authority concerned will be ready to reconsider their attitude. The Service authorities publish information from time to time about the steps which it is necessary to take to secure places on local authorities' housing lists. I will read later a copy of a notice exhibited on Army notice boards, which explains to the Service man how he should make his application.

Her Majesty's Government will always consider sympathetically any special steps open to them to improve the position generally, but if my noble friend has any cases in mind where local authorities appear to be disregarding their obligation to married Regular Service men in their areas, I shall be glad if he will send full particulars to Mr. Macmillan, at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who, as I have already said, will be pleased to examine them in consultation with the local authorities concerned.

That is the official answer, my Lords. I am glad that we have had a short debate to-day because I am just as keen as, if not keener than, anybody else to see that our Regular soldiers, sailors, and airmen are properly provided with houses when they leave the Services. The trouble, of course, is that there are still not enough houses. That is why the present Government are building them so energetically. We hope that this will be a problem which will disappear. It has not disappeared yet, though, to put your minds at rest, a good deal is being done. As I have said, we have no powers over local authorities and do not wish to have them. What we ask for is fair and equal treatment between the ex-Service man and his civilian brother. I think local authorities will be satisfied with our arrangements, but some useful suggestions have been made about ensuring that serving soldiers know what to do early enough, so that they get their names on to a housing list.

I do not want to detain your Lordships but I should like to read out a notice which is pinned up in canteens, barrack rooms and elsewhere, and we can only hope that Service men read it. But, happy-go-lucky fellows, some of them probably do not take the trouble to read it. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, made a good point when he said that we should give lectures to the men and make certain that, though they do not read this notice, the information it contains is brought to their attention. I think this is a good notice and if your Lordships will allow me, I propose to read it. It is headed, "It is important that you should read this"—which is probably the reason why it is not read!—and there then follow, under the heading Housing—Application for Accommodation in the United Kingdom. these words: Although substantial progress has been made in housing since the war, there is, in most districts, still a large unsatisfied demand for houses"— and now, in bigger type— so if you are soon leaving the Service and will need civilian accommodation for your family, this N.B.I."— which is short for Notice Board information— tells you how to apply for it. Local authorities are entirely responsible for the allocation of council houses. These authorities deal with applications for council houses on the basis of relative need. Where there is a housing shortage, therefore, it is probable, for instance, that a family without children would be less likely to obtain a house than a family with children. Also it would not necessarily be the family which had been longest on the list which would obtain the next available house. Local authorities are usually disposed to give more favourable consideration to applicants who have previously resided, or have secured employment, in their district, although they do not all of them insist on this when dealing with Service applications. Regular personnel, therefore, who wish to apply for council houses, are advised to write first of all to the local authority in the district where they may have some residential or employment qualification. They should write as follows:— 'I am a serving member of the Army and I desire to apply for a council house for my family.' Information on the following points should be added:—

  1. (a) Whether or not the applicant's wife has a separate house or flat. If so, give the address, and the number of rooms occupied.
  2. (b) Whether or not he has already applied for accommodation.
  3. (c) Particulars of the family, divided between adults, children, sexes and ages.
The local authority may require their own form to be completed, in which case the applicant should complete and return the form without delay.


May I ask the date of that Notice Board Information?


This N.B.I. refers to A.C.I. 273 of 1951. I will ask my Service colleagues to satisfy themselves that there are sufficient of these notices, and that they are displayed in prominent places so that they may be seen by everybody; and to see that married men are told by their company or platoon commanders, or whoever is responsible, of the notice which I have just read out. I will also ensure that it shall be brought to the notice of all married men, or of potentially married men, as early as possible in their careers.