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War Damage, Lewisham (Late Claims)

Volume 486: debated on Friday 13 April 1951

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. K. Robinson.]

4.0 p.m.

I regret very much having to add to the heavy burden which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has had to carry this week, but I trust that he will forgive me, as the matter which I wish to raise—that of late applications in respect of war damage in Lewisham—is one which presses very heavily on many of my constituents, and which spells injustice to many of them, as well as financial hardship far beyond the capacity of the person concerned to bear.

This subject has been debated in this Chamber before; the usual arguments are universal, and apply not only in Lewisham. They apply to all those whose houses have been damaged, and who, for one reason or another, have failed to comply with the requirements of the War Damage Act in that they have not notified the damage to the War Damage Commission. They may have notified it to the local authority, but not to the Commission.

I have always felt, and I still feel, that the War Damage Commission have given insufficient weight to the circumstances which apply in a good many of these cases. It has always seemed to me that they have been far too difficult to satisfy. They seem to expect from everybody, in very abnormal circumstances, irrespective of age, health, ability, education and experience, the same standards that one have a right to expect from young, alert, able, efficient and well-educated business men. They seem to give far too little consideration to the fact that there are many people who are not young, alert, well-educated and experienced, and also to the fact that they were operating in very abnormal circumstances.

Even when they do accept a late application, it seems to me that they are far too strict in the conditions which they demand shall be satisfied, and far too severe in the conditions which they attach to the late notification. Firstly, there have to be really exceptional circumstances. Secondly, they will only accept late notification where severe structural damage has taken place, and it has to be quite clearly war damage. Thirdly, the verdict of their assessor is absolutely final; there is no argument or appeal in these cases. Fourthly, their assessor will not meet on the site the claimant's surveyor in order to give the latter an opportunity of arguing the claimant's case. Fifthly, if, after all that, they do accept a late notification, they cut the specifications very severely indeed.

I can quote one case in my constituency where such a claim was cut from £1,200 to something between £400 and £500, leaving the claimant to shoulder a burden of nearly £800, which was something fantastically beyond his capacity to bear. I do not want to say any more about that particular case, as it may well be the subject of a separate Adjournment debate later on, if fortune smiles upon me in the Ballot.

I pass now to my main argument, which applies not in one case but in hundreds of cases. Indeed, the same principle applies to all cases in Lewisham. I have already advanced this argument to the Financial Secretary by letter, and he has dismissed it, in my view all too lightly. Acre for acre, Lewisham was the worst bombed borough in the whole of London. Out of 56,000 houses, 53,000 were damaged and 3,600 were completely destroyed, and there were 78,000 separate notified incidents. I contend that that fact alone qualifies Lewisham for kindly treatment in this matter.

There is one other aspect which, as far as I know, puts Lewisham in a category all by itself. Prior to 1st November, 1945, Lewisham Borough Council was dominated by a Conservative majority but had a Socialist minority which was severely critical of the Conservative method of handling bomb-damage repairs. Before, during and after the borough council election, which was held on 1st November, 1945, Socialist policy was stated to be complete repairs, house by house, street by street. That phrase and many variations of it were repeated time and time again both inside and outside the council chamber.

As far as I know, it appeared in the local Press for the first time in February, 1945, which was 8½ months before the borough election. Eventually, it appeared in a Socialist borough councillors' election address which said:
"On bomb damage repairs, for example, the Labour Party strongly criticised the Tories for the chaotic way in which they allowed repairs to be carried out. The Labour councillors have consistently pressed for a planned system of repairs, house by house, road by road throughout the borough with adequate supervision and the minimum of inconvenience to householders."
They also circulated a kind of broadsheet bearing a photograph of, and the signature of the right hon. Gentleman Who at that time was the Member for Lewisham, East, and is now the Member for Lewisham, South, and also Foreign Secretary and Deputy-Prime Minister. I think I need not name him. The same phrase appears on that document:
"The Labour councillors have consistently pressed for a planned system of repairs…house by house, road by road throughout the borough, with adequate supervision and the minimum inconvenience to householders."
Those two documents were pushed through every letter-box in Lewisham. Every house owner or tenant whose house had been damaged by enemy action received those documents and learned from them that if the Socialists were elected to power at that election that would be their policy. I was a candidate in that election and I know the effect of that campaign. The Socialists were elected on that promise and the people of Lewisham expected them to keep that promise. They had every right to expect it.

In my view it was a dishonest promise. The powers of the borough council in this matter were limited by the overriding authority of the Ministry of Health. The standard of repairs laid down was firstly Serial 56. Later it was Serial 166 which was the highest standard ever laid down. But to give credit where it is due, having been elected on that promise the Socialist borough council tried to honour it. They reorganised the bomb-damage repair service, they hired quantity surveyors and started the work.

Thousands of houses were visited, thousands of schedules were prepared and many houses were repaired. During this period thousands of householders waited their turn. Many inquired at the Town Hall when their turn would come. They received a reply along these lines, "Don't worry old chap, your turn will come. We cannot do them all at once, we have only a limited amount of labour. Go to such and such a street and you will find the men working there. They will be round to your place in due course. Don't worry, your turn will come." Unfortunately for many of them their turn did not come.

Early in 1947 the Council got into trouble with the Ministry and they received instructions that Serial 166 was not to be exceeded. That standard was replaced later by Serial 213, almost identical but if anything a little stricter.

The Council fought the Ministry. They sent a deputation to the Ministry of Health. We saw the Parliamentary Secretary of that time, and although he allowed the council to proceed with the repair of those houses which had been scheduled up to the standard to which the council was working, he refused to allow any more houses to be scheduled. In future Serial 166, which I emphasise was a very low standard, was to be adhered to and under no conditions was anything better to be permitted.

I am not concerned with the merits of that policy—it may or may not have been perfectly defensible—but I am concerned with its consequences. The consequences were as follows. On 9th July, 1947, on a recommendation from the housing committee, the borough council decided to cease carrying out bomb damage repairs to these D category houses. I have here a copy of the borough council minutes of that meeting, and if the Financial Secretary wishes to see them I shall be very happy to pass them to him.

All those who had been expecting their repairs to be carried out by the borough council up till then—and there were thousands of them—were left to negotiate with the War Damage Commission and to get their repairs done under licence by private builders. It is with these people that I am concerned. Many of them—I do not know how many, but probably hundreds—had been relying upon the promises of the borough council to which I have already referred and had not notified damage to the War Damage Commission. Why should they? As they have said to me many times, "The borough council said they were going to do it; I didn't think I need bother."

To make matters worse, in some cases it was anything up to two years after 9th July, 1947, that some of these people discovered the change of policy. Exercising the patience and restraint that had been urged upon them by the council, seeing work going on all around them in houses which had been scheduled up to July, 1947, they did not worry the council. Like good citizens, they waited their turn, and it is for those very virtues of patience, restraint and good citizenship that they are now being punished. The more patient they were, the longer they waited, the more certain did their punishment become and the more heavy was the penalty.

The cases vary widely. Some are small, some large. In some cases first-aid repairs were carried out under Serial 56, in some cases a little more, in some cases less. In a few cases where the claimant was fortunate enough to discover very quickly that the council had changed their policy, the War Damage Commission accepted a late notification, but I have already indicated the limited value of that concession.

In almost every case hardship has been inflicted and injustice done. People with limited means have found themselves abandoned by the borough council, rejected by the War Damage Commission and forced to carry this burden by themselves. What is their crime?—merely that they had relied upon the promise of the borough council and that they had exercised the virtues of good citizenship urged upon them by the borough council.

In reply to some of my letters, of which there are literally dozens, the War Damage Commission used phrases such as this:
"The local authority placed their last order for the repair of private houses in April, 1947, and had Mr. Beatty"—
that is the name of the claimant—
"made inquiries at any time after that date he would have been told the position. The Commission cannot agree that further delay of over a year after April, 1947, is reasonable."
May I repeat that:
"The Commission cannot agree that further delay of over a year after April, 1947, is reasonable."
In the first place, the relevant period is not a year; it is only nine months. In the second place, whatever the period—be it nine months or a year—who were the Commission to say whether or not it was reasonable? It is against the Commission that the claim is being made. They are judge, jury and prosecutor in their own case.

Who is to say that a delay of nine months in such a case is unreasonable? The man was merely being patient, as I have lready emphasised, and was refraining from bothering the council. Had he been a nuisance to the council and gone once a week or once a month to their offices to worry them he would have discovered in August, 1947, that the council had changed its policy, and presumably his claim would then have been admitted as a late notification. That is the deduction I draw from the Commission's letter, and I claim that it is a fair deduction. Because the man was patient he was penalised.

May I emphasise here that the penalty in such cases very often amounts to a substantial sum—anything up to £500 or £600. What a fine for such an offence! Why should the Commission be the judge in their own case? Indeed, I am amazed that such a situation should have been permitted to arise or, having arisen, should have been permitted to persist in this country which has for so long prided itself upon being the home of justice.

The cost of putting matters right is comparatively small—only a small proportion of the extra £1 million which this House is being asked to find for the Festival gardens. Is that too much to ask? I hope not. It is with a clear consciousness of the deep distress which this painful problem is causing to many hundreds of my constituents in Lewisham and to constituents of the two other hon. Members for Lewisham that I call upon His Majesty's Government to right this wrong and I accord to the Financial Secretary the privilege of being the instrument of justice.

4.17 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. Price), has done right in bringing this important matter before the House. We are all grateful for the clarity and great knowledge with which he has done so. Time is short, and we all wish to give the Financial Secretary ample opportunity to reply to the cogent arguments which have been addressed to him. I rise only to point out that this grievance is by no means confined to Lewisham—a borough of which I have some knowledge; indeed, I can confirm from personal experience the facts which my hon. Friend has mentioned.

Exactly the same kind of thing is prevalent in Hampstead, and many Hampstead people feel exactly the same kind of resentment that they are not being dealt with fairly—in their opinion or in the opinion of their Member of Parliament—by the War Damage Commission. I am sorry to have to say this, but my experience is that when one takes up these matters with a member of the Government one receives a reply from which one can only draw the conclusion that arguments are being found to produce an absolute refusal in every case. That is an experience which one does not meet in communicating with Government Departments about any other matter.

Insufficient allowance is made, as my hon. Friend has said, for the ignorance and inexperience of many of the claimants who quite genuinely believed that when they had made sure the borough council knew of their bomb damage they had done all that was necessary to establish a claim with the War Damage Commission. Neither can they understand why the Commission refuses to allow a mee- ing on the spot between their surveyor and the representative of the War Damage Commission for a discussion on questions in dispute.

I could go on to illustrate, from my own borough, the kind of facts which my hon. Friend has put before the House, but there is no time to do so. I trust that the Financial Secretary will recognise that, not only throughout London but, I believe, throughout the country, this is a matter upon which keen public feeling exists. None of us wishes to see public money squandered. On the other hand, we all wish to see justice done. Indeed, that is why we Members of Parliament are here.

4.20 p.m.

I assure the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price), that I have no objection at all to his raising the matter, even at this hour in this week because I am sure that we shall all be doing a great deal more overtime in a few weeks' time than we have done this week. I am not sure that I can agree with him that his constituency suffered worse damage in the war than my own. I sympathise entirely with those who feel that they may have been unjustly treated, but the fact is that this question of late notification becomes, as I think he will agree, more complex the more one looks into it; and if he has any doubts about that I would ask him to consider whether, if he were preparing a new war damage scheme for the future, he would or would not have some final date for notification in the scheme.

The fact is that Parliament gave the responsibility to the War Damage Commission, by the war-time Act, to decide the issue in these cases. The hon. Gentleman asked: Who were the War Damage Commission to decide whether something was reasonable or unreasonable? The fact is that Parliament laid it down that the War Damage Commission should, in fact, decide that question; and that is really the answer to that point.

We do also have to bear in mind what the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. H. Brooke) said, that although there is, of course, the necessity to be fair to the claimants on the one hand, there is also the need to protect the taxpayers' interest in all this, and to see that public money is not unnecessarily paid out. We are still paying out nearly £100 million a year at this late date on war damage claims—and I was engaged at this Box yesterday in defending the Government against hon. Members opposite who attacked us for lack of attention to the taxpayers' interest.

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that although, originally, a short time-limit was set for notification of war damage, that limit was extended again and again. In the years after the war, claimants were given one opportunity after another to put in late notifications. We debated this general issue last summer, and I expect the hon. Gentleman is very familiar with that debate. Sir Stafford Cripps then promised, in response to requests from the House, that the War Damage Commission would consider whether it could not make some alleviation—that was the word he used—in its policy regarding late notifications. I think hon. Members with whom I have discussed this will agree that, in fact, the Commission has carried out that promise.

That is not true—that claim. Every time the Commission has referred, in its letters to me, to that promise it has always said, "The Commission has looked at the case in the light of the undertaking given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the debate on 11th July, 1950, but does not consider that exceptional treatment is justified." That has always been its position on that particular point—without exception.

The hon. Gentleman said, rather categorically, if I may say so, that what I said was not true. What he has said may be so in his limited experience, but in other cases, of which I could give him evidence, if he wished to have it, there has, in fact, been alleviation.

In the few minutes that remain, I will come to Lewisham, in which, obviously, the hon. Gentleman is mainly interested. The issue here is not, I think, whether the Labour Council at Lewisham did or did not carry out its election promises. The issue, at any rate so far as the War Damage Commission and myself are concerned, is whether the events that occurred in Lewisham during the council election laid an obligation on the Commission to vary its ordinary late notification policy in these cases—because clearly it must, in dealing with these cases, have regard to the general policy that it is following in Hampstead and Battersea and all over the rest of the country. For several reasons I do not think that the case is made out for the Commission's varying its policy on account of what happened during the 1945 council elections.

First of all, the Commission's final warnings, that notification should be put in without further delay, were, of course, given a long time after that election. Those warnings were given extensive publicity in the Press and on the wireless and, indeed, the Commission did all it could to see that the public generally understood the position. That was done after the local election in Lewisham. Those warnings did, of course, emphasise particularly what was always stressed by the Commission: that house owners should not rely on their council for the final repair of their war damage.

My second reason is that the council decided in July, 1947, not to undertake further repairs to private houses, and that decision, according to my information, was given very considerable publicity in the local Press. Therefore, there was reasonable opportunity, as far as there can be in these matters, for the local population to discover what was the policy of the local council.

Third, and this seems the most important point, the Commission went on accepting the argument of reliance on the council for repair as a good reason for justifying late notification up to the spring of 1948, that is to say, nine months or so after the period at which the council altered its policy and made that known to the people of Lewisham. There was, I understand, an ample opportunity, of at least nine months, during which these people had a chance, knowing of the change in the policy of the council, to put in their claims to the War Damage Commission and get them accepted as valid late notification claims. As far as I can see, they were in very much the same situation in this matter as other claimants who relied on their local councils in any part of England, Wales or Scotland.

Finally, my information is—and this comes from the Commission—that no case which the Commission has received from Lewisham has included any men- tion of the statements alleged to have been made—I am sure the hon. Member correctly reports them to have been made—in the election campaign in Lewisham in 1945. If those statements have not been mentioned in any single claim, it seems a matter of common sense that the events of that election are no very strong reason why the Commission should vary its general policy on account of those particular election promises and the documents, which the hon. Member has so carefully and, no doubt, rightly preserved.

Although I fully recognise that this whole question of late notification gives rise to great difficulties and, undoubtedly, some sense of hardship, which has been fully discussed in the House, I believe that, in all the circumstances, and taking into account the alleviation of the last few months, the Commission has done its best to hold a balance between the interests of the claimant and of the taxpayer and I am not persuaded that any case has been made out that the events in Lewisham to which the hon. Member referred should induce the Commission' to vary its policy now.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Four o'Clock.