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Territorial Army Premises (Tenancies)

Volume 436: debated on Tuesday 15 April 1947

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8.52 p.m.

May I ask the House for a few moments to turn its attention from this interesting question of Imperial Preference and international trade to more a human problem, which is attracting a great deal of attention and concern in Islington at the present moment as a result of what is regarded as the heartless attitude of the War Office? I am much indebted to the Financial Secretary to the War Office for having arranged at relatively short notice to be in his place this evening to enable me to raise the matter.

I refer to the case of some 12 families of tenants of some blocks of flats at Barnsbury Park, in Islington. The landlords of these flats are the Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Association of the County of London. Some few weeks ago the tenants were given notice to quit, and the reason which was given was that the premises were required as married quarters for Service personnel on the reconstitution of the Territorial Army. There is no need for me to remind the House that the housing shortage in Islington, as in all parts of London, is particularly acute at present, and it needs no imagination to picture the plight of the 12 families in these blocks of flats faced with the necessity for finding some alternative accommodation. The War Office made no attempt to provide any alternative facilities. The tenants applied to the Islington borough council as the local housing authority, who told them — and one knows it from one's own experience — that in Islington today there are 15,000 applicants already waiting for housing accommodation, and, as the chairman of the committee told them, there is not, nor is there likely to be, a house suitable or available for a very long time to come. Obviously, persons placed in the position of these 12 families could not be given priority over the large numbers of people who have been waiting for a very long time, and who are existing today in seriously inadequate and overcrowded accommodation.

At the request of these tenants, I intervened with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. I had a letter from him, in which he told me that he sympathised very much with these tenants, but he had to house his own people, many of whom are in desperate straits. I was proposing to raise this matter in the House in any event, but it has now become a matter of considerable urgency because yesterday writs were issued in the King's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice against all of these 12 tenants, demanding possession of the premises. I want the House to consider the position which arises. These are families, where in most cases the male members have served in His Majesty's Forces either in the recent war or in the previous war; in almost every case there are young children in the family, and in some cases the mother is expecting another child at an early date. It is literally impossible at the present time for these people to find anywhere to go, and they are faced with being turned out into the street. If the War Office persists in its present attitude, the only hope they will have is to be put in some communal centre, and it is very doubtful whether that will be available. One can imagine the plight of these 12 families if they are evicted and sent into a communal centre, deprived of all the ordinary amenities of life. Three of the male members of these families are night workers and, therefore, have to sleep in the day time which is very difficult, if not impossible, in a communal centre.

This attitude of the War Office is apparently based on the belief that the Crown are free from the ordinary obligations of the Rent Restriction Acts. In the case of any ordinary landlord, it would be quite impossible to attempt to turn out these tenants. They would be protected. If any other landlord were to say: "We are sorry; we sympathise with these tenants but we want the premises for our own people, their needs come first", the tenants, thank Heaven, would have the protection of the Rent Restriction Acts. I hope that as a result of this matter being raised tonight, the War Office will reflect further on the justice and propriety of the course of conduct indicated by the fact that these 12 writs were issued yesterday. I feel I ought, in fairness, also to warn my right hon. Friend that if nevertheless the War Office think fit to pursue these legal proceedings, this attempt to evict the tenants by legal machinery will be fought in the law courts. It may be that the Crown is exempt from the provisions of the Rent Restriction Acts, but it does not follow that a body suing as the territorial and Auxiliary Forces Association has the same privileges as wound apply if this action were brought by the Secretary of State for War himself. Be that as it may, my right hon. Friend is clearly responsible for the administrative action which has been taken by issuing these writs

I want to make this appeal to him, on three grounds. First, I ask him to consider the misery and plight of these tenants, for whom it will be quite impossible to find any accommodation elsewhere. Secondly, I would urge on him the duty of His Majesty's Government to act with at least the same decency and responsibility as any other landlord would act, apart from the legal obligations that exist. Finally, I would like to point this out to the Financial Secretary. In many ways the War Office, as a Department of State, are in a much better position than any private landlord would be if they seriously wished to find alternative accommodation for these tenants. After all, it is open to them to requisition premises, perhaps premises that are war damaged; it is open to them to make arrangements to repair empty property, and in that way to provide alternative accommodation for these unfortunate families. They have opportunities that would not be open to an ordinary landlord. Having raised the matter in the House, and bearing in mind the human issues involved, I very much hope I shall have the support of all hon. Members in this appeal to the Minister to reflect on the course of action which has been taken, and to reconsider his policy.

9.2 p.m.

I should like to back up the appeal that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher). Both he and I represent constituencies adjacent to the constituency in which this proposed eviction will take place, the Member for which has been away from the House seriously ill. It is in the borough of Islington, and we both know the housing conditions in that borough, which are among the worst in London. I attend my own Division of West Islington—the case in question is in South Islington—once a week to deal with constituents' cases, as do the majority of hon. Members when they go to their constituencies. I can assure the House that with hardly an exception—and there are queues of constituents—the cases have to do with the housing question in Islington. When the figure of 14,000 or 15,000 on a housing list is mentioned, it does not indicate the kind of problem which exists there. There was a tremendous amount of bombing, and even when people are housed in that borough there are hundreds upon hundreds of cases of families living in circumstances which would not be allowed under normal conditions; there are flats of which only one or two rooms can be occupied; in some cases there are large families with as many as seven people to a room; there is fearful overcrowding and dilapidation.

Under these circumstances the Financial Secretary to the War Office would do well to reconsider the question, or to take some sympathetic attitude towards this matter. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the War Office, or the military in general, are in a much better position than anyone else in regard to such matters as requisitioning. When I see my constituents I hear of cases of threatened eviction by private landlords. I have told them night after night that they need not fear being turned out, because they have the protection of the courts.

However, it appears that these people are to be evicted and have to find alternative accommodation. Thousands of people have for years been unable to do that anywhere even on the outskirts of London. London County Council and borough council estates have long waiting lists. Where can these people go? The military authorities have power of requisition and the advantage of being able to house people some distance away, unlike people who have to come to town every day for work. The Department have a wider area than is usual. I hope the authorities concerned will look at this question again as a matter of extreme urgency. I assure the Minister that there is strong feeling about it in Islington. The Members who represent Islington Divisions have had great difficulty already about housing, without having a new matter of this kind to deal with, especially as it reflects against the Government. It behoves the Minister to give his closest consideration to find a solution to this problem.

9·7 P.m.

I am not a London Member, but I have spent a great deal of my life in trying to prevent hon. Members opposite who represent Islington Divisions from getting into this House. I have been interested in the present case and have had correspondence with the Minister of Health, to whom I turned as a last resort to obtain alternative accommodation for the unfortunate individuals concerned. I was able to secure for those individuals the desolate consolation that they might be accommodated, as the result of the goodness of the Minister of Health and the local authorities, in some convenient rest centre.

It seems a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is impossible for these 12 families, with the complications which exist, to be accommodated in rest centres. It is obviously wrong for a Department so powerful as the War Office to use its power and its secure position before the law to treat people with a harshness which would not be permitted in a private landlord. I am surprised that the Secretary of State for War and his Financial Secretary should take so violent an attitude in this matter. I am convinced that some kind of compromise can be arrived at, possibly by finding alternative accommodation for the people whom it is sought to bring to the flats or for the people who are in the flats. I hope that the Minister will be reasonable with us.

I have said to the people concerned, "If you are brought before a court and are refused right of sanctuary in these premises, you should not get out." I should be in favour of these people refusing to get out of the premises. I should support their action in resisting the law. It is intolerable that the power of a big State Department should be used harshly and unreasonably against individuals who have no security and no capacity to fight back. I hope that hon. Members who are interested in this case will see that these people do not move and that the efforts of the War Office to employ its position of extreme privilege are thwarted. We should not allow these people to be driven from houses to which they went because they were bombed out. That would he a grave injustice. I hope that the Financial Secretary will be able to tell us that he will reconsider the case and will adopt a much more humanitarian attitude than the writs which have been mentioned seem to indicate.

9.11 p.m.

I am sure that the House will appreciate the simple, straightforward and moving terms in which my two hon. Friends have raised this matter. I am afraid the House will appreciate rather less what must necessarily be an unsatisfactory reply on my part. The hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) was good enough to give me a certain amount of notice that he would raise this matter, but unfortunately not sufficient to enable me to consult my advisers. I make no complaint, but he must understand that the reflections I offer to the House are impromptu and without expert consultation or even the facts, other than as he has put them before us.

Speaking as best I can from memory, let me look at the facts of the case. The War Department and agents of the War Department, of which the Territorial Army Association is one, own a certain amount of property throughout the country, including lands and buildings. During the war the property was not on all occasions fully used. When the housing stringency became acute in various centres of population where bombing had been heavy, the War Department, or, as in this case, the Territorial Army Association, made available some of those properties for civilian tenants on limited tenancies, and on the understanding that such tenancies should be only temporary. It was always realised that the time would come after the war when it would be necessary to restore them to their proper use. The particular case of the 12 families has been raised. I will give an undertaking to do what I have not been able to do this evening, to look at the matter very carefully in the morning, and if necessary to consult my right hon. Friend about it. I must make it perfectly plain, in all fairness to the House, that in giving that undertaking I cannot at the moment imply any more than that. We have heard one side of the case, very eloquently put by my two hon. Friends, but there is another side. It is, in fact, an interesting example of where two aspects of Government policy come, if not into conflict, at any rate very closely converging together, and where a situation arises which is not very comfortable.

It has been laid down by the Government, with the approval of all parts of this House, that the reformation of the Territorial Army is to be a matter of very high priority. I hope that hon. Members will realise that there is no question of any Blimp at work in the War Office over this. This matter of the Territorial Army is of the greatest possible national importance. In fact, it is held by many hon. Members on both sides of the House to be one of the keys of our present manpower situation. The Territorial Army can only be run by taking it to the people, that is to say by organising it in cells, if I may use a political term, in centres of population. That involves the provision of a certain minimum staff in order to enable the organisation to work.

We have been criticised on several occasions in this House and it has been alleged even by some of my hon. Friends that we are trying to run the Territorial Army with too small a staff. As a matter of fact, I am not certain that there is not some substance in that criticism. My hon. Friend the Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) suggested that in the case of soldiers it was possible to establish their families, and indeed even themselves very often, at a point distant from their work. In certain circumstances, that may be true. This case is one where they are almost exactly on a par with civilians. These premises owned by the Territorial Army Association are the premises in which these very small permanent staffs of the Territorial Army have to settle down and live and work. They must be on the spot where the job is to be done, among the people with whom they are to work and they are responsible for looking after a certain number of stores, etc., in addition to turning up to do their job of instruction.

Moreover, there is another problem. It is that at the same time as there is an acute shortage of houses for the civilian population here at home, so, with the changes which are now taking place in the Army as a result of long-service men coming home from overseas, we are getting soldiers and their families, after long service in foreign countries, returning to this country; and we are under an obligation to house them. Not only are we under a moral obligation but we are literally under a contractual obligation to house them. We have always said that part of the perquisites which the Regular soldier would get for his work, is the opportunity to live in War Department property with his family. I should like the House to realise that at this moment we have a certain number of Regular soldiers with their families who have returned from long and arduous duties overseas and who are living in the most primitive kind of community centres near the ports of this country while we are trying to provide some accommodation in which to establish them.

None of that refutes in any way the conditions which have been described by my two hon. Friends and of which, indeed, I am very well aware. I am exceedingly anxious that We House should realise that in this matter there is hardship on both sides. It is by no means a straightforward issue of right against wrong as perhaps, all-unconsciously I am sure, has been suggested. Those are our two problems in the War Office. We have to reform the Territorial Army and we have to do it quickly. That is a matter of urgent national policy. Also we must house our own people who have returned with their families from long overseas service and who are at present queuing up in transit camps on the coasts. Somehow, those two jobs must be done. The only way we can see of doing it successfully is to take back the property which belongs to us.

Both my hon. Friends suggested that the War Department was in a far more favourable position than the ordinary landlord or employer in regard to requisitioning, repairing, and so on. I cannot accept that. Again I emphasise that I am speaking without expert advice, but the two Defence Regulations, as far as I remember 51 and 52, under which we do most of our requisitioning are, I think I am right in saying, held by my legal experts not to cover requisitioning for purposes of this kind. Therefore, I cannot accept, at any rate without more chance to look into it, the suggestion that we are in a favourable position with regard to powers of requisitioning. As regards the facility for repairing, we are in no better position than the local authorities. We go to market with the local authorities and take part in the regional schemes with the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Health. Our building programmes in fact are on a par with the others. I must say with the greatest possible emphasis that we have no hidden reserve of treasure on which we can draw to get the work done.

Those are our problems. I hope that against that background my two hon. Friends will at any rate realise that the decision before us is a rather more difficult one than perhaps they or their constituents have thought before. I am perfectly prepared to look again at the question of these 12 families, but I have spoken at some length about the background to the problem because, I say frankly to the House, it is not confined to Islington. There is not an enormous number of these cases, but there is a certain number in other parts of the country besides Islington, and the policy of the Government must be that we have to place the staffs for reforming the Territorial Army where they can get work and we have to fulfil our obligations towards our own long-service men returning from fighting in foreign parts.

Within the framework of these two main decisions we will do everything we can to do the job as humanely as it can possibly be done, and if there is any way in which alternatives can be found for these 12 families, nothing would give me greater delight than to be able to find them. But I cannot help pointing out that it is not my responsibility—I am sure my hon. Friends realise this—to house the people of Islington. I recognise that in Islington, as indeed in Watford, my own constituency, great hardship exists, but there are other great national priorities which are hindering the building of houses in Islington. The fact that more houses are to be erected in the coalmining areas will probably have some repercussions on the people of Islington. The fact that factories are to be built in the development areas will probably have some repercussions on the people of Islington. In the same way, the fact that the Territorial Army has to be reformed must have some repercussions on the people of Islington.

I cannot usefully say anything more tonight but I would give my two hon. Friends an assurance that I will look at the case of these 12 families tomorrow morning and see whether there is anything I can do to help them, though I am bound to say in honesty that I think it is doubtful.

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I say I am sure the House will welcome his assurance that he will look into the matter personally tomorrow morning? May I add that on the question of facts to which the Minister referred, my information is that none of these tenants, at the time that they first went into occupation of any of these places, signed any document, or were asked to sign any document, indicating that they would be—

The hon. Gentleman is now making another speech. He is not entitled to do so.