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Naafi, Streatham

Volume 388: debated on Thursday 22 April 1943

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

On 16th February I asked the following Question of the Secretary of State for War:

"On what grounds it has been decided to erect a Navy, Army and Air Force Institute on the site in Streatham he has been notified of, in direct competition with the Forces Club established by the public at Streatham, which supplies the troops at cost prices and makes no profit; and whether he is satisfied that the use of labour and materials for this purpose is justifiable?"
The Secretary of State replied:
"As the hon. Member is aware, this case has been very carefully considered by my Department. The N.A.A.F.I. to which his Question refers is being built in acordance with tie accepted policy in these cases to meet the very real needs of the personnel on the site, in particular of the Home Guards. They are there in considerable numbers either for operational duties or on training and it is considered they should not leave the site in the course of their period of duty. I am therefore satisfied that this institute must be built. I am glad of this opportunity to say how much the Streatham Forces Club is appreciated and I hope the troops will continue to benefit from its amenities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1943; col. 1569, Vol. 386.]
I regret that circumstances over which I have no control have prevented me from raising this very important question earlier, and this is the first opportunity I have had to ventilate the matter. The reason for starting the Streatham Forces Club is that a large number of North country troops arrived in my constituency in December, 1941, to prepare a camp. They were constructing the foundations in very cold weather and under very uncomfortable conditions, and members of the Women's Voluntary Service went round with a mobile canteen and gave them hot tea. That was very much appreciated, but the Civil Defence authorities had to stop the canteen going there because petrol and food had not been allotted for that purpose. A number of my constituents then came to me, headed by the rector of Streatham and the leaders of the Women's Voluntary Services, and suggested doing something more for the troops. We considered taking a large empty house adjacent to the camp and using it as a Forces club, but before taking any actual step in that direction I decided to approach the War Office in writing setting out our aims and objects. That was on 24th December, 1941, and on 10th January, 1942, I received a reply from the Welfare Department reading as follows:
"It is recognised that the unit now stationed on Tooting Bec Common is entitled to more canteen and recreational accommodation than it at present possesses. Headquarters, London District, is arranging for N.A.A.F.I. to set up a suitable canteen at or near the site. A survey is being made of suitable and available accommodation, including (a certain house), and in due course a decision will be reached for the military authorities."
I at once got into touch with the London district and other military authorities who appeared to have a hand in the pie, because we thought it would be a great waste of labour and material to build premises in these difficult days, when a number of suitable houses were already available. We realised the need of the troops for comforts, because they were suffering from intense cold—hon. Members will remember the hard conditions of that winter—I could not get a decision, and as there was no room for a N.A.A.F.I. and a Forces Club I took the matter to the then Under-Secretary of State for War. I am grateful to him for the prompt action he took. He called a meeting of interested parties, senior officers and others, and listened to their arguments in favour of N.A.A.F.I. They were fairly and squarely beaten. The main reason was that this was a small camp, and the house which we proposed to use was within three minutes' walking distance of the site. If it had been a larger camp, the house would have been within the area of the camp. One significant thing which impressed itself on us was that some of the officers seemed very interested in N.A.A.F.I. profits. They argued that the troops would spend money, and that the profits would not go to the Army, and they seemed to consider that a real grievance.

Having regard, however, to the fact that in the club we contemplated there would be no profits, I do not think that was a good argument. A house which had cost £5,000 was rented to us chiefly because of the good purpose for which it was to be used, and the local authority gave us a low rates assessment. My constituents found the better part of £1,000 to furnish it and agreed to provide £10 a week to subsidise it. The club is kept open for seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10.30 p.m., and women who have to get their husbands off to work and their children off to school are still able to provide the personnel for three shifts a day. They supplied the troops with comforts, and a welcome which I do not think N.A.A.F.I. could provide, good though N.A.A.F.I. may be. I agree that in remote places N.A.A.F.I. is a fine institution, but in a London suburb where women are willing to give their time to help in looking after the troops and there are empty houses available it is wrong to build special premises for such a canteen. We got the support of my hon. and learned Friend who was then Under-Secretary of State for War, and he told us to go ahead.

A few days later I received an entirely unsolicited letter from the War Office in which it said:
"You will recollect that at the conclusion of the meeting you wished for an assurance.…that no N.A.A.F.I. would be permitted to be set up"
on the site. That was the sole purpose of the meeting. There was no other object. I could not understand why I received that letter, which went on to say:
"Sir Edward Grigg could not give the assurance for which you asked.…but pointed out that limitations of supply of labour and material made it extremely unlikely that any N.A.A.F.I. would be installed in the near future."
That was on 5th February, 1942. We got our club under way. We supplied cups of tea with sugar and milk and cups of cocoa at a penny a cup. We supplied Oxo at the same price, and we sold buns for a penny and sandwiches at 1½d. and 2d. each, and Welsh rarebits for 2d. each. We provide hot baths for 3d., including a towel and soap, and we supply electric irons for the use of the women in the Forces, which they find a great help. We purchase cigarettes, tobacco, and other articles required by the troops from local retailers, and we sell them at exactly the same prices. We organise dances and provide the men with partners—nurses from the local hospital and other ladies. We have dancing classes for lads who cannot dance. We have a singsong every week, and we have a billiard room, table tennis, darts, dominoes, shove ha'penny and pin-tables. We also cater for outside sports, such as clock golf, croquet, and we have a hard tennis court. Members of the Women's Voluntary Service darn the men's socks, sew on flashes and press their uniforms. Accommodation is provided for relatives of men who visit Streatham. Tickets for theatres given by members of the community are handed out to the soldiers. The house contains about 15 rooms, and altogether it is a most desirable place. The community are very proud of it, and they have a right to be proud. Everything went well and great good for the troops was achieved until one day a posse of soldiers arrived at the club to remove the private telephone. We used that to enable men who were called for to get back to their post of duty quickly. I have said that the house was three minutes' walk from the camp, but men going at the double could get back to the camp in half that time. Some months before this incident I took the Under-Secretary of State down to the club, so that he could see for himself what my constituents were doing for the troops, and perhaps when he comes to reply he will say something about that visit.

At this stage I ought to mention that before the club was opened a wet canteen had been set up in a neighbouring house some distance away from the camp. If that had not been up, we should have supplied beer, but we had no wish to compete with a canteen already established for that purpose. I inquired why the telephone was being taken away, and I was told that N.A.A.F.I. was coming. That was the first intimation we had after we had exploded as we thought the threat of N.A.A.F.I. 12 months earlier. The Under-Secretary of State met me and the leaders of the Women's Voluntary Service, and the hon. secretary expressed his sympathy with our views, and at his request I met the commanding officer of the regiment at the club, who said he knew nothing of the project, and after a full discussion he left. A minute or so after he returned and said that the battery com- mander had told him that plans were all out for N.A.A.F.I. A few days later I met certain other senior officers, including some who were so keen on N.A.A.F.I. a year earlier and were apparently still determined to have one. I viewed the site and saw masses of material being brought on to it, bricks, steel, iron, timber, kitchen equipment, all the things that people cannot get.

Yet we hear that the Minister of Labour cannot transfer labour into certain districts, because there is no accommodation for the workers, and we hear of munition workers travelling 100 miles a day because there is no housing accommodation where they are employed. Labour and materials are not available for the thousands of damaged houses and other properties, yet, although there is a perfectly suitable house of 15 rooms solely devoted to welfare, they must build a N.A.A.F.I. in this district. It is very hurtful to the feelings of my constituents who have paid money and given their services in order to help these young men from the North. Not only have we been able to look after them, but we have attracted personnel from balloon barrage sites, Royal Engineer detachments, Naval and Air Force cadets, and women in the A.T.S. undergoing a course in motor training at a nearby works.

It has been a great joy to me to visit the Forces Club, as I have done week after week, and see men and women from almost every county in England, Scotland and Ireland, particularly on Sunday, and Sunday can be a very lonely day in a great city. How pleased their parents would be to think that there is a place like this where their sons and daughters could go and get such a homely welcome from kindly Londoners. You can imagine now I feel about the creation of this institute. My constituents have rallied so splendidly behind the Forces Club. Every political party, associations of all kinds, and the churches, all have held raffles and done all manner of things to raise funds, and we have kept this thing going as a real and worth-while venture. In a few days' time the N.A.A.F.I. will be finished. This building, which has taken three months' labour to build, will be open.

The last excuse—and we have many excuses which we have been able on logical grounds to dismiss without serious argument—is that the personnel has changed. They are still human beings doing the job on the site, but they are no longer Regular troops. They are irregular troops, Home Guards, men who enjoy freedom six days a week and on the seventh day have to be confined in that camp. It is an unworthy suggestion that Home Guards, who represent the cream of our people, the great bulk of them volunteers, have to be penned in and cannot be allowed to walk three minutes away to our welfare house. I question that very severely. I was not satisfied with that answer. We were told, "We want to lecture to them." I said, "Why not do it in the dining room, which was erected at public expense?" They said that they were serving dinners at all hours of the night, but obviously they were not serving all the men all the time. There would be ample room for lectures. "But we have now had a N.A.A.F.I. built, so that the military can give lectures." That was the final answer. I have tried by every known method to settle this matter privately. It gives me no joy to ventilate it in public. The creation of this N.A.A.F.I. is a scandal; it reflects no credit on the administration of the Army, of which I am so proud. It is too late to stop the waste of this unnecessary building, but this House should demand that it is not opened, and that the officers responsible should be dismissed. If nothing else is achieved, I hope the ventilation of this matter will put an end to further waste of precious labour and materials.

I intervene very unwillingly in this Debate, because I necessarily intervene as a critic of the Department to which I belonged only a short time ago and in which, as my hon. Friend has just told the House, the discussions originated with regard to this Forces Club and the erection of a N.A.A.F.I. I do so unwillingly on two grounds; in the first place, because of a feeling of very real and intense indignation at what has been done, and secondly, because I believe it to be absolutely essential in the interests of the Army that this sort of thing shall be stopped.

Let me deal with the special case. I felt, when I intervened in this matter many months ago, that the case was not settled as I myself felt it ought to be. I felt that underlying the whole thing was a determination that this moloch of the N.A.A.F.I. should in due time erect its temple and its altar. I felt that that was underlying the thing the whole time and that unless a strong hand were shown, that would happen. It has happened. There is absolutely no justification for it. With the aid of a special telephone, and one-and-a-half minutes at the double, men can be back at their stations. Anyone who knows anything about military camps knows that distances can be greater than they are. It is a slur on a public service which was ready to do everything possible on behalf of the troops in that club. I subscribe to everything that my hon. Friend has said. The spirit shown by the people of Streatham towards the troops could not have been more generous. They got nothing but a saying, "We can do all this ourselves; your action and kindnesses are not wanted." That is very bad for the Army, and I very much regret that this has been done. But it is not on the special case that I particularly want to speak. That special case, unfortunately, is over and settled. The temple has been erected; the altar stands. Unless this House chooses to tear it down, which it will be well advised to do, the Streatham Forces Club, which represents all the real spirit of generosity and appreciation of patriotic service in that part of the world, will surfer this slur. The priests of Baal will carry on. I do not stress the point, but I come to the general principle.

What is the general principle? Why are essential materials and resources of labour diverted to this quite unnecessary purpose at the present time? That is what I want to know. Quite recently, and out of my very limited experience, I have got to know of a children's hospital which cannot get an essential addition and has been told that no labour and building materials are available. I know of two important secondary education establishments which have been told the same thing. Children are being made to travel three and four miles to school. Why? Because we are told men of the Home Guard cannot double for a minute and a half to their station. It is grotesque. I know of another case which I may still have to raise in this House, but I do not refer to it at the moment. I know of a case in which an academic proposal of international importance is meeting with great difficulties on the same ground. There is no labour and no material while these quite unnecessary buildings are going on.

I understand that the Financial Secretary is going to answer. I apologise to him as an ex-Secretary for making difficulties for him, but I feel too strongly about this business to be deterred by any scruples of that kind. The thing is much too serious. What are the grounds on which it is decided to erect these N.A.A.F.I's? Is it a rule-of-thumb regulation which simply says, "If there are so many troops, then the N.A.A.F.I. people are entitled to erect their institute"? Is that the rule? Let us know that. In the second place, if that is the rule, is any regard whatever paid to the private enterprise which may take the place of a N.A.A.F.I. in that particular neighbourhood? Finally, who fixes these priorities? Is it the War Office? Who is it that says that absolutely essential material and labour may be diverted to these unnecessary purposes? I hope my hon. and learned Friend will answer this question quite clearly, because it is a matter of very great national importance at the present time. I beg my hon. and learned Friend and other members of the Government to pay attention to the fact that there is growing in this country a very strong feeling against the way in which little Caesars, dressed with brief authority, are using that authority at the present time. I beg them to realise how dangerous that is, and I ask them to see that such authority is properly used.

I had not intended to speak in this Debate to-day, but after hearing the two powerful speeches which have just been made, I feel that I must intervene for a few moments. Yesterday I had to take a deputation of builders from Bath to Bristol to the Ministry of Works because they were perturbed about the concentration scheme in which they must join and be under the control of larger firms. It is a matter which has been handled with as much consideration as possible in these days, but, nevertheless, it is a matter of real concern when small builders have to join in a large pool and lose their individual identity. The reason given for this concentration is that it is absolutely necessary because there is a crucial shortage of building trade employees in this country at the moment. There is not one of us in this House who does not know that that is true. There are no builders for cottages, schools, hospitals and air-raid shelters—all of which are urgently needed.

Yet here we have this appalling waste of public money and of vital war material and labour. I agree with everything that has been said; we in this House must have some assurance that this sort of thing will be impossible in the future. Most of us are now engaged in going round the country asking our constituents to give and lend their money for the carrying-on of the war. We have to make appeals to people not to spend, but to give and lend everything they have. They willingly do it, but it is of little encouragement either to us or to them when we hear of this wholly unjustifiable and disgraceful waste of public money.

I intervene in the Debate for only a few moments to mention one factor which has not yet been touched upon, namely, that it is not merely a question of the use of labour and material in the construction of this N. A.A.F.I. canteen, but a question of the amount of female labour that will be required to run it after it has been erected. Only a short time ago, in answer to a Question put to him, the Minister of Labour replied that the N.A.A.F.I. had been approved as an employment agency under the Employment of Women Order for the purpose of engaging women's labour for their own services, and that they had to that extent priority over other employers and over all private employment agencies. We also know that women are being directed into the service of the N.A.A.F.I. in the same way as they are being directed into other essential Government services. These women are badly wanted in a hundred other directions. Now we have been told—and I am certain that it is the fact—that an unwanted and unnecessary canteen is being erected at Streatham, and women who could be very well employed in other essential directions will be engaged for the canteen work. It is only for that purpose that I have intervened in this Debate—to add one more to the reasons which have been so eloquently and so fully adduced by my hon. Friends as to why this canteen ought not to have been built and why no similar canteen should be erected in similar circumstances in the future.

I did not particularly want to intervene in this Debate, which seems rather in the nature of a private quarrel about something regarding which the House of Commons has not been given much information. It has been sprung upon us, and I feel that the time allotted to-day for the Adjournment might have been devoted to questions of greater national interest. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I do not think there is any need for any interruption. I am not putting the controversial point. [HON. MEMBERS: "You are."] I am merely stating my view, which hon. Members cannot dispute, and I see no reason for being interrupted. My view is that the subject is not of sufficient importance, as it is being presented to-day, and that the time might be better used for questions of greater national importance.

I made it clear to the House that I raised this matter early in February and that I had made a number of attempts to raise it since, but that circumstances outside my control had compelled me to raise it to-day.

I also represent a constituency in which a number of grievances are brought to my notice, but I do not think it necessary to bring little grievances of this kind to the attention of the House if I can have them dealt with through the Departments. [Interruption.] Surely I am entitled to express my point of view.

Well, I will leave that point. I am sorry that so much indignation has been aroused on the subject. One would have thought from the speeches which have been made that the matter was one of vital concern to the whole country. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is."] I am entitled to express my point of view. I will give way if there is any question of dubiety about what I am saying. [HON. MEMBERS: "There is."] There may be differences of opinion, but they will not be resolved merely by interrupting me. I am expressing the view I hold and a view which I am entitled to express.

I will give the hon. Gentleman an instance of dubiety. I represent a constituency which is subject to nuisance raids. I have tried to get a shelter for a school, but I am told that there are no materials to build it, yet there are materials to build this canteen.

I really do not understand the intense feeling that has been aroused against me on this question because I doubt the desirability of spending so much time on it. Surely I am entitled to put a point of view. In view of the indignation that has been expressed, those who have presented this one-sided issue—because nothing has been said on the other side—ought to give more particulars. We do not know what the circumstances are at present, and I think we should have been told. I remember the kind of opposition that N.A.A.F.I. had when I was at the Air Ministry 10 years ago. It is a cooperative and not a profit-making institution. If it is going to be attacked in this way, something should be said to justify the assertion that some terrible national scandal has been brought to light. I doubt whether it is a scandal at all. I think it is perfectly right that the Services should have a co-operative institution of this kind and that the comfort of the troops should be looked after. It is all very well to tell me that there are private clubs. No doubt they perform a service, but we do not know whether they perform all the services that are required. If there is a scandal at all, let us be told what it is and not have an institution of this character attacked without any real facts being given. I hope the Financial Secretary will state the other side of the case and wind the point up.

I ought to let the House know that the hon. and learned Gentleman is going to make a second speech at my suggestion. I thought it would be more convenient to the House.

Whatever difference of opinion there may be with regard to the complaint made by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson), there is certainly no difference of opinion as to the remarkable results that have been achieved by the Club for which he is responsible. As he indicated, I, like my predecessor, have paid a visit and seen for myself the type of club that it is, and in my opinion it is one of the best to be found in any part of the coun- try. The workers are all voluntary, and, as far as I could see, they were working with the greatest enthusiasm, and those who were enjoying the amenities of the club seemed to be deriving much pleasure from them. The issue before us to-day is not, therefore, whether the Streatham Forces Club has or has not failed in its functions, but whether or not there were justifications for constructing the N.A.A.F.I. canteen. The hon. Member was perfectly fair. He quoted from a letter sent him in February last year which, I think, at any rate, protects the War Office from any suggestion that it has been guilty of a breach of faith. The letter states that Sir Edward Grigg could not give the assurance asked for in regard to the N.A.A.F.I., but pointed out that limitations of the supply of labour and material made it extremely unlikely that any N.A.A.F.I. would be installed in the near future. That was the position taken up in February last year, and it continued to be the position until the latter part of the year, but subsequent to the sending of the letter a decision was taken to include the Home Guard personnel in certain anti-aircraft battery units, and in War Office letters sent out in April and August it was laid down that institutes, that is, canteens, should be provided at each battery site for 20 non-commissioned officers and 200 men. The battery in question was one of those affected by this decision. Some of the batteries concerned already had N.A.A.F.I. canteens, but, as regards those which were without a canteen, contracts were made in August for their construction.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg) has taken great exception to what he called this unnecessary diversion of labour and material for the provision of canteens which he considers unnecessary. I hope that as long as I remain at the War Office I shall never be accused of not doing everything I can to safeguard the interests of members of the Fighting Forces, front-line troops, anti-aircraft units, or any other branch of the Army who have to spend their lives at battery sites or in camps or wherever they may be stationed. It is true that in large camps the N.A.A.F.I. are three, four, five or six minutes away from the men's sleeping quarters, but I know very few operational sites where that is the case, though it is the case at a good many training establishments. The battery that we are concerned with is part of the air defence of London and must be looked at from the point of view of operational requirements. The point was raised in discussions before my advent to the War Office, and we have been told to-day that the operational basis was overruled. That may or may not have been the case. I will accept that it was, but the point that I am making is that the situation, rightly or wrongly, subsequently changed as the result of the policy now being carried out in relation to the employment of thousands of the Home Guard at the various battery sites forming part of the air defence of London. The present establishment of the type of battery in question includes between 100 and 200 Home Guard, in addition to a number of Regular soldiers and members of the A.T.S. This number of Home Guard is on both operational and training duty on each night of the week, and, in addition, there are from 16 to 20 trainees on the site each night and a further 100 at the week end.

Every battery in the Metropolitan area has been, or is being, provided with N.A.A.F.I.'s, and this battery is no exception. It was considered essential that a N.A.A.F.I. institute should be completed to meet the needs of this battery, and it was considered that a N.A.A.F.I. canteen had been made additionally essential by the reason of the advent of the Home Guard. It appears—in fact, my hon. Friend has said—that there was no wet canteen at the Streatham Forces Club, for reasons which he has given, and I am informed that it is desired by the men, both Regular and Home Guard. During training periods, especially on Saturday and Sundays, breaks of only ten minutes are allowed, which are regarded as being too short to enable the men to leave the site. From the operational point of view the Home Guard are on duty only during the hours of darkness, and during that tour of duty it is considered not possible and certainly not desirable to allow them to leave the site. Formerly, when the battery was at its normal full strength of Regulars, the men were on the site all day and night, and during their leisure periods a proportion of them were allowed to visit Streatham Forces Club. This is not the case with the Home Guard. The objection to troops on operational duty leaving the battery site during their tour of duty must, in our view, be upheld. Within the confines of the camp they are, of course, under Army control. In the case of the Home Guard personnel who are under instruction—50 to 200 each night and 300 at the week-ends—the intervals between instructional periods are only short and do not permit their being allowed to leave the site. There is no intention of debarring personnel of the battery using the Streatham Forces Club when they are off duty. In fact, the facilities offered by this Club are greatly appreciated by all concerned.

The real point of difference is whether or not, having regard to the existence of this Club four or five minutes outside the perimeter of the battery, the military authorities, having regard to the changed circumstances, should have subordinated their operational requirements and allowed both Regulars and Home Guard at their will to leave the site between their instructional period and go off to the Club. That is not the view which is taken by the military authorities and it is a view which I think cannot be upheld. As regards the charge that there was widespread wastage of labour and material in the case we are considering, the number of men engaged in building the canteen was nine and it took twelve weeks to construct it. If that were to be repeated in a large number of places for the purpose of constructing canteens or any other buildings which were unnecessary, the House would agree that the sooner it was stopped the better. We come back to this point: do we approve of the provision of N.A.A.F.I. canteens for the various units in the Metropolitan area which form part of the air defence of the Metropolis, and do we agree that in so far as it has become necessary to use large numbers of Home Guards it is reasonable to give them amenities on the battery site so as to make it undesirable and unnecessary for them to leave the site during the hours of duty? That is a reasonable view to take and, therefore, because of this change of circumstances it was decided not to stop the construction of this canteen. I can only say to my hon. Friend who raised this matter that, as he knows perfectly well, no one would hope that what has taken place would interfere with the magnificent service that the Streatham Forces Club has rendered in the past, and I see no reason why it should not render the same excellent services in future.

May I ask my hon. and learned Friend to answer two Questions I put to him? How many men on a given site are held to justify the erection of a N.A.A.F.I., and who is responsible for the priorities?

In a War Office decision in August last year it was provided that where there were 20 N.C.O.'s and 200 other ranks it was permissible to erect a N.A.A.F.I. canteen. As regards the second question, my hon. Friend knows as well as I do, having served in the War Office, that where a War Office letter is issued it is issued to the command, and it would be for the particular command—in this case the London district—to determine priority in relation to the erection of a particular N.A.A.F.I. on a particular site.

My hon. and learned Friend has not quite answered my point. I understand about priorities inside the Army. What I want to know is, whose responsibility is it, whatever the demands of the N.A.A.F.I. may be, to say that they are apparently to be satisfied in preference to all other national demands?

I do not think my hon. Friend would want to cause anyone to have a wrong impression as to the position. It is not a question of satisfying the demands of N.A.A.F.I. It is a question of satisfying the needs of the troops, and that is not a matter for the controlling authority of N.A.A.F.I. but is a matter ultimately for the Army Council, acting through the Quartermaster-General.