HL Deb 27 February 1962 vol 237 cc883-7

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question of which I have given Private Notice:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make on gale damage in North-East England, and what action they propose to take, particularly in respect of financial assistance."


My Lords, as the whole House knows, the gale on the night of Sunday, February 11, and the still more serious gale on the following Thursday and Friday, caused widespread damage. In the West Riding of Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, where the worst of the damage seems to have occurred, it is estimated that something like 400,000 houses were damaged. The scale of the damage ranges from the loss of a few tiles or slates to total destruction. Fortunately, comparatively few cases fall in the latter category, but in Sheffield alone 400 houses were a total loss.

Given the scale of the damage, it is obvious that full repairs will take months to complete. The urgent need, therefore, is to carry out first-aid repairs to keep out the weather, and local authorities have been urged to organise such repairs both to their own houses and where necessary to private property. In addition to the visit of my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government to Sheffield on February 18, I have myself paid two visits to the area to see what was being done and what the needs were. Stocks of tarpaulins and ladders have been made available from Government sources and the Ministry of Works have been active in speeding delivery of these and other materials needed. So far no serious shortages have been reported. Although an enormous amount remains to be done, it is, I think, fair to say that the situation is under control. Civil Defence workers, the Women's Voluntary Services and other volunteers have given invaluable help, to which I should like to pay a sincere tribute.

It is impossible at the present stage to hazard any estimate of the total bill or of the need for financial assistance from Government sources. Much, of course, will be covered by insurance. The Lord Mayor of Sheffield has opened a relief fund to deal with such things as damage to household effects and preparations have been made for launching a regional relief fund, if needed. The Government will be prepared to contribute to the extent needed, up to the limit of £1 for every £1 raised by way of appeal. So far as the cost of repairs to local authorities is concerned, if, after taking account of insurance and other factors, it represents an excessive rate burden, the Government will consider sympathetically any requests for special assistance.


My Lords, we are very much obliged for that statement, and I am sure the whole House will wish to echo the words of the noble Earl in expressing our appreciation of the voluntary work which so readily and speedily has been done in that area.

So far as the Answer goes, it appears that the Government are dealing with the problem under two heads: first, the question of first-aid work to buildings themselves; and, secondly, the question of household effects which many families must have lost entirely, or very largely. I gather the Government are accepting full responsibility in the end if the rate burden is too heavy in respect of the repairs to property, but they are accepting only a limited responsibility for household effects. While appreciating that the Lord Mayor of Sheffield has made an appeal and it is hoped that the appeal will be readily responded to, is there any reason why the Government should limit their own contribution to the restoration of the household effects of people to the amount which happens to be realised from this appeal? Is there not an obligation on the Government, with the co-operation of the local authority and insurance and so on, at the end of the day to make quite certain that no family which has lost its household effects or suffered grievously as a result of this misfortune should not get the equivalent of what it has lost?


My Lords, I think I should like to say two things in answer to the noble Lord's question. As regards emergency financial assistance, in the first place from such contacts as I have had with the local authorities in the area it would appear that it is not felt there that there is a need at this moment for a regional relief fund of that nature. The reason for that is that, apart from Sheffield and the immediate Sheffield area, where houses were actually destroyed, the damage to houses has not been of the sort to occasion at this moment much damage to goods and chattels, clothing, and that type of thing. I should like to say that first, by way of preface. Secondly I would merely repeat that it seems to the Government that in dealing with emergency assistance of that type there is a great deal to be said far the principle of the Government's matching voluntary contributions.


My Lords, are not the Government making the wrong approach to this? Is not my noble friend right, that it is unfair to put the initial burden on the local authority or upon the voluntary fund, to which I have no objection in principle? But this was not an act under the control of the local authority; it was, so to speak, what is sometimes called, perhaps unfairly, an act of God. I admit it was outside the control of the Government, too. But when a local authority or town—or district, indeed, because this went outside the city of Sheffield—meets with grievous things for which they have no responsibility, ought not the nation as such to accept the major responsibility, if not the whole of it?


My Lords, I think there are again two issues involved here. There is the big question which is going to be the big bill of damage to property, and I would submit it is too early at this stage—when the size of the bill is unknown, when how much is met by insurance is unknown—to be more precise than I have endeavoured to be. But I have been, I think, fairly precise in saying that the Government accept a residual responsibility here and will look sympathetically at any expenditure borne by the local authority which has caused an excessive burden on its rates. As regards the short-term emergency relief, I would merely again point out that, except for Sheffield and the immediate area, there is no demand from within the region itself for such a relief fund at this moment. A lot, of course, depends on the weather, but at present there is no demand for a general emergency welfare relief fund.


My Lords, I do not think we can profitably pursue this matter, but I should like the noble Earl to appreciate that there is a feeling, certainly on this side of the House, that the Government are wrong in fixing a limit at this stage to the amount of assistance they are going to give. Of course we cannot say what will be the response from private charity or insurance, but to fix a limit and say that if the requirements are greater than a pound for pound the Government will not provide it, is, I think, quite wrong and rather harsh in the circumstances. If the noble Earl will convey that to his right honourable friend we shall be much obliged. Of course, we shall come back to this question later on when we know exactly what the actual figures are.


My Lords, could I ask the noble Earl whether the principle which he has expounded with regard to damaged property would not be equally applicable in times of war? May I remind him that during the war when damage of this kind occurred the Government immediately undertook to be responsible, irrespective of the area?


My Lords, might I ask the noble Earl whether when the Government review this unfortunate situation they will interpret "excessive rate burden" very sympathetically?


My Lords, before my noble friend answers that question, may I ask whether there was not war damage insurance?


My Lords, I think there are a number of questions to be answered here and I am not sure I have them all in my mind at the moment. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and indeed to other noble Lords, that I will, of course, see that the various suggestions made are looked at by the Department and are examined by the Government. I do not think that at this stage I should wish to go further than that, save to say that insurance obviously plays a very important part in this general picture.


My Lords, has my noble friend yet managed to formulate any idea as to how great a set-back to the very great building programme going on in the Sheffield area will take place as a result of diversion of labour to repairs?


My Lords, I do not think at this stage it has been possible to assess that particular factor. I would agree with my noble friend that it is one of considerable importance and it is one which I have in fact been inquiring into myself, but the answer I received to my inquiries is that Sheffield themselves do not at this stage know the extent to which it will put back their whole building programme.


My Lords, can my noble friend say what proportion of the 400 houses which were completely destroyed will be covered by insurance, and how much of the liability will fall on local ratepayers or, perhaps, on Her Majesty's Government?


My Lords, not without notice.


My Lords, can the noble Earl say what proportion of those were prefabricated, temporary houses?


Not precisely, without notice, my Lords; but there were a large number of prefabricated houses which were, in fact, totally destroyed.