I apologise to the House for speaking at this late hour, I should not have done so had the subject not been one of considerable importance to a large number of people. It is also one of extreme urgency. I refer to the case of private traders known as encroachment holders at Bulford camp. The practice has been adopted by private traders at other camps. Their leases are due to expire this year and in 1940, and in all cases they have been given notice that on the expiration, when new leases are granted, they will either have to rebuild on the same site or on some site which will be duly allotted to them. Private traders who are selling food or confectionery have been informed that in no circumstances will they be allowed to rebuild.
There is no doubt that this action has been deliberately taken in order to drive the small traders out of business for the immediate benefit of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute, commonly called N.A.A.F.I. A protest was made on the subject by the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce, to the Major-General in
charge of the administration of the Southern Command. They pointed out that in a letter to the National Chamber of Commerce, dated January, 1931, the Army Council explicitly stated that no restriction whatever was imposed upon individual officers and men, and their families in the matter of free choice of trader with whom they would deal. In answer to that letter the Major-General who is in charge of the administration of the Southern Command wrote:
It is the intention of the Army Council that no restriction shall be placed upon members of the garrison as to whom they shall trade with. This, however, does not imply that the War Office should provide such trading within the barrack areas where, in the opinion of the competent military authorities, such business would compete with the business of N.A.A.F.I.
Are we to believe that when the Army Council said there were to be no restrictions they were speaking with their tongue in their cheek and intending to put the double round the post in that way. I suggest that the intention of the Army Council was plain that there should be no restrictions and I ask what right has the Southern Command to decree that N.A.A.F.I. should have a monopoly.
I would point out that it is not a question of granting facilities but merely of renewing existing leases. If this action is confirmed, what will be the position of men who are no longer allowed to ply their trade? In normal circumstances, under the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1907, the leasehold tenant has the right to claim compensation where he has carried on a trade or business for at least five years, but, unfortunately for these men, the Act contains a proviso that where any Government Department has terminated the lease by resuming possession of the premises for the purposes of the Department, no compensation is payable.
One of these traders is an ex-regular soldier and has been established at Bulford for 20 years. He will now be entirely deprived of his livelihood, and no compensation will be given to him. Another trader was given definitely to understand, when his business was transferred to him, that the conditions would be, as stated in Command Memorandum No. 1397, dated 8th August 1934, that the encroachment
was transferred to him on condition that he agreed to erect a permanent building.
He has applied for a fresh agreement and permission to rebuild has been refused. He is an ex-regular soldier of 21 years' service. What is to become of him if he is turned out without compensation?
There are other instances, but at this late hour I do not want to go into the details of them. I will stress the further point that the removal of competition is not in the best interest of the troops. It is obvious that if the private traders had not been providing a service required by the troops they would have been unable to make a livelihood hitherto. One of the rules of the N.A.A.F.I. states that they deal only with civilians in cases specially permitted by the corporation Actually anyone can buy anything he wants, and one of the civilians quite unknown to N.A.A.F.I. in Bulford, while investigating the case, get in and made a purchase. Still it is the rule that only certain civilians on a strict list can deal with N.A.A.F.I. There is a large civilian population at Bulford Camp, and it is likely to be increased in the future, when the need of civilian traders will be as great as, or even greater than, ever before.
I submit that this action, in trying to establish a monopoly is too high-handed, and the method adopted has certainly a rather unpleasant ring about it. Gross injustice and great hardship have been done to some very deserving private traders, and I earnestly hope the War Office will allow these men to continue to earn their livelihood, unmolested by the N.A.A.F.I.
My hon. and gallant Friend originally brought this question to the notice of my right hon. Friend by means of a letter which he wrote to him, I think, on 8th February. As it was not quite clear to my right hon. Friend what my hon. and gallant Friend had in mind, I got in communication with him and asked if he would be good enough to come and discuss the matter so that I could know exactly what his complaint was. As a result of that we met and had a conversation, and he was good enough to tell me of the particular point that he had in mind, so that I could be in a position to make some inquiries. I am very sorry to have to tell my hon. and gallant Friend that, in spite of the days which have since elapsed, I have not been able to gather up all the ends which my hon. and gallant Friend has unravelled.
There is a variety of interests involved here. It has been physically impossible for me to get all the information I needed or to complete the inquiries which I have instituted. While I am not in a position, therefore, to give my hon. and gallant Friend a complete answer to-night, there are one or two facts I would like to state in reply to the speech he has made. I would like to make it quite clear that no actual formal notice has been given to any of the lessees of these premises at Bulford Camp.
They are on short-term tenancies. They have been warned that they will be required to vacate their premises on due notice. My hon. and gallant Friend has said what their position would be so far as compensation is concerned. I think he stated the legal position perfectly correctly. Actually, I understand they have no claim to compensation. If they could establish such a right, the claim which would be put forward would be carefully considered. It must be borne in mind that these tenants, when they took up these leases, knew the terms on which they held the premises. The other point is the chief ground of the complaint of the hon. and gallant Member. That is the question of giving a monopoly to what is commonly known as the N.A.A.F.I.
On that I can say only that the policy of the Department is that while no complete monopoly should be given to the N.A.A.F.I., leases should not be granted in cases where there is a prospect that the business will compete seriously with N.A.A.F.I.'s trade with junior ranks and their families. That is done for good reasons. The troops get a certain substantial advantage from trading with the N.A.A.F.I. Of course, no restriction is placed upon them and they are perfectly free to trade with whomsoever they choose. I do not think it is technically correct or quite fair to say that the policy of the Department is so completely to restrict trade in the camps that N.A.A.F.I. virtually have a complete monopoly. We seek to serve the interests of the troops themselves by reason of the basis upon which N.A.A.F.I. is constituted.
May I sum up the position as I see it? The hon. and gallant Member is endeavouring to obtain justice for his constituents. I am endeavouring in the inquiries I am pursuing to see that no injustice is done to them. Although we may be approaching this question from slightly different angles I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that at any rate to the extent of seeking justice we stand upon the same ground. As soon as I have completed my inquiries I will immediately communicate with him. I do not anticipate that they will be very prolonged and I hope that we shall be able to clear up the matter in a satisfactory manner.
I am a little concerned about the matter which has been raised, because I have had a great deal of correspondence with one or two Service Departments about the same principle. I recognise that the Financial Secretary to the War Office has endeavoured to give as fair an answer as he could with his present information but there were two statements in his little speech which are contradictory. In one place he said the policy of the Department was to protect the N.A.A.F.I. from undue competition in the interests of the men and their families and the other statement was that he did not wish to interfere with the right of those people to select the tradesmen with whom they will deal.
I want to warn the House that in many cases where leases have been given up or not renewed and a tradesman has endeavoured to obtain a permit to enter the married quarters to canvas the wives of their customers they have in many cases been refused a permit to enter. In fact you throw a wife living in the garrison back upon the N.A.A.F.I., and this is the deliberate policy of the Government. I want to add this: The real purpose of the N.A.A.F.I. is for the co-operative and mutual benefit of the serving troops. There is no doubt about that.
Thirty-five years ago the Co-operative Union of Great Britain recognised that there was much to be done for good and for raising the standards in that direction. The whole service of the Co-operative Union was placed at the disposal of the body formerly controlling these matters, the Navy and Army Canteen Board. For a long time there was an officer of the Co-operative Union on the board to assist them in that object. But to promote the idea that it is the function of the Service Departments to protect such an institution to the extent of completely denying freedom of choice to the wives of serving troops as to where they buy their goods, is a complete anomaly as compared with the original principle when the institution was set up. I would like to say to the Financial Secretary that, while I have no complaint to make about the manner in which he has prepared his case up the present, there are many hon. Members besides the hon. and gallant Member who raised the matter to-night who will be watching this principle with great anxiety and a great determination to see that freedom of choice remains to the wives of the serving troops.