Orders of the Day — Evacuation.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 14th September 1939.

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Dr. Guest:

I agree. Therefore, there is nothing unusual about discovering that a number of the children who go into the country areas from the towns are actually infested with vermin. I do not believe there is more than the usual number. I may say that beginning on Sunday last, I made an inspection, as detailed as I could, of the conditions in certain reception areas—in Essex, a fairly detailed inquiry, and other inquiries in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Kent—and in all cases the answer was very much the same. It was the answer which has already been conveyed to the House by different hon. Members who have spoken—that is to say, that as far as the unaccompanied school children are concerned, on the whole the evacuation has been an outstanding success. I must say that when the hon. and gallant Member for Carnarvon (Major Owen) mentioned that a number of children had travelled 120 miles in a non-corridor train, I was sorry that that should be the fact, but in view of the fact that we are trying to move 3,500,000 people from the towns into the country to save their lives in time of emergency, if that is the worst hardship they have to endure, I do not think it is very serious. One must not exaggerate. It has been a tremendous transport and organising achievement, an achievement which is, as far as I know, unparalleled.

There have been all kinds of difficulties in the reception areas that I have mentioned. I want to deal with the question which has been raised by one or two Members of rooms being fouled by people using them as latrines. I have had a good deal of experience in very poor districts in the East End of London, in South Wales and also in Southwark and other parts of South London, and I have never known that particular thing happen in people's own homes. I have heard accounts of this not only from Scotland. I have heard one from an extremely responsible observer, a Fellow of an Oxford College, and an exactly similar account from a builder, a responsible man, in an Essex village, and I have heard it elsewhere. It seems to me that the explanation may have been a psychological disturbance due to the evacuation from the towns and people going into country areas, where the latrine arrangements are entirely different from those in towns, and the people not understanding and so misbehaving themselves in that way. It is very unfortunate that it should have happened, but it appears to me that these are abnormal cases which will be rectified as soon as people get to understand the usages that prevail in country districts. 7 do not think it can be held as a general accusation against any class of the population and I am sure it was not meant to be made in that way.

But, while it is agreed that the arrangements for school children have been good, it is also agreed everywhere I went that having adult women in the houses with other women will not do. They must have separate arrangements made. In fact, in a little Essex village where I am living at present people are discussing whether they can make separate kitchens. It is a very complicated matter and it is leading to a number of women going back to London. I do not think, from inquiries that I have made, that it is anything like 50 per cent. There may be, in special areas where there have been unfortunate conditions, a large proportion of a little group, but it is much more likely to be 5 per cent. than 50. It is impossible to give any definite figure. I asked for definite figures from the people I was interviewing and they were unable to give them to me.

There are, however, some other problems of a more far-reaching character which have not yet been mentioned. For instance, in Essex, which is partly an evacuating area—the town parts—and partly a reception area, the children are distributed over 17 different villages, and there are children taking various kinds of higher education dumped down in villages where there are no facilities for that kind of education. Those are matters which will, of course, have to be rearranged. Then there is a further difficulty with regard to feeding. The different scales of payment for mothers with children and for unaccompanied children are bound to cause very great dissatisfaction. There is no reason why a child with its mother should be paid for at one rate and, if it is in a different house, should be paid for twice as much. That must be corrected in some way.

I am rather sorry that this Debate has occurred at such an early date after evacuation has taken place, because there has hardly been time to get the reports, but, as it has occurred, I should like to take the opportunity of saying that we ought to aim at giving every child from the town districts not only a good diet but the optimum diet necessary for its development. The children of the nation are its most important asset and we have an unprecedented opportunity now of dealing with those children under country conditions, where they can grow strong and well. With a little intelligence and organisation, we can see to it that they get, not only ordinary good diet but the optimum diet laid down by the medical authorities consulted by the Government. Under the conditions of evacuation, this would cost little if anything more than the Government are now paying.

I was glad to see that the Minister in the circular sent to local authorities referred, in particular, to this question of feeding, and suggested the importance of a mid-day communal meal. I hope that suggestion will be carried out. From inquiries I have made I am sure that if the mid-day communal meal is made of general application, it will have to be paid for by deduction from the billeting allowance. It should not be a voluntary arrangement, because then some people would not be willing to make that arrangement, while other people would, and you would thus fall between two stools. In fact that has already occurred in many districts where arrangements for a communal meal have not been made because many of the villagers were not willing, on account of money difficulties. If a certain amount could be deducted from the allowance for each child for billeting and food allowance, that could be applied to the payment for a midday meal and would make it possible for that meal to be constituted so as to make it, along with the breakfast and tea meals which the children get, the optimum diet which they require. I carried out a feeding experiment on those lines many years ago and found that it was possible to concentrate the major nutritive foods in the mid-day meal, allowing also for the food which the children got at the beginning and the end of the day. It would be much easier to do this under the conditions of living in the country districts than it was in the case of the experiment which I have in mind, which was in the town.

Then with regard to boots and clothes. I speak as a Member for a London district which has been evacuated and also as a resident in a small Essex village to which children have been sent. There are some children billeted in the house in which I live. I know about this thing, as I think the Minister of Health also knows about it, from personal experience. The question of boots and clothes is very important and I suggest that the boots and clothes should be provided through the school authority and paid for by the parents in instalments. This will become even more important as soon as the weather becomes wet. I have still another suggestion to offer. In many parts of the country there are school gardens used for growing flowers and so on. It would be a good thing if every village school set out to have its own allotment and to grow food for next year. There is no reason why enough potatoes and vegetables generally should not be grown in a school garden to supply the needs of children next year. In that way the children would learn something practical about agriculture and it would be an extremely valuable work.

As regards education it will be very difficult, in present circumstances, to keep up the standard of education. Schools have been split up so that you have the junior teacher in one place and the head mistress in another, so far apart that they cannot keep in touch with each other. Very great care will have to be taken in order to keep up the standard of education. I want to point out also what a very large amount of work this is going to throw on the teachers. Everything should be done to relieve the teachers of unnecessary work. I think it is quite right—and I know, because I have had talks with leaders of the teachers' organisations on this matter—that we should ask the teachers to do a good deal more in this time of crisis than they normally do, and I believe that, generally speaking, they are quite willing to do it, but I think it would be advisable, if we could, to help them by providing means by which some of the very heavy work which they have to do would be lightened.

In that respect I believe that nothing would lighten their work more than a very large extension of broadcasting in the schools. The B.B.C. put out an extremely good schools programme, and they are now I visited them yesterday at their new headquarters and discussed it with the schools department there— ready to put out very much more extensive schools programmes of an extremely good quality, specially adapted, as it were, to make the country come alive to the town child. They can do that if the schools have radio sets to receive the programmes. At the present time I believe that something like 20,000 schools only in the country as a whole have radio sets. In the county of Essex very few schools have them, and I think the Minister might consider whether he should not himself make an appeal to well-intentioned people of all kinds in the different villages and in the country areas to give radio sets to the schools in order that this excellent broadcasting for schools may be given attention. I will not refer further to the problem of the mother with the child under five and the expectant mother, except to say one thing, and I put it in the form of a definite statement, subject, of course, to challenge, but I do not think the Minister will disagree. I am quite convinced that the problem of the mother with the child under five and the expectant mother will not be solved unless they are put either into large hostels, as one hon. Friend says, or into camps, and I believe that the sooner we get on with the organisation of that, the sooner we shall be ready to meet the situation.

May I say a last word, which I hope may be taken as a word of warning, to people from towns who have gone to the country and who are now coming back because up to the present there has been no danger in the towns? I believe that it would be the gravest mistake in the world for more people to come back from the country now than have already come back. I regret profoundly that people have come back. If they have to remove at some future time in a hurry, it may be extremely difficult. It is not because anybody is afraid of danger, it is not because we think women are less able than others to face danger, but because we think it is a wrong use of human life to have women and young children in a town which is liable to be bombed. For the sake, not only of themselves, but of the nation, they ought to be as far as possible away from the danger if they can get away, and if any words of mine can have effect, I do appeal to all mothers with young children not to come back from the country if they are already there, to take advantage of any arrangements which the Government may make to go to the country while things are quiet, and to stay away for a period in order to see what may come. I cannot believe that we have passed through the crisis of danger in this war. I hope that people will remember that this great evacuation scheme will fail if people, of their own volition, filter back from the country into the towns and, therefore, give us all the problem to do over again, under conditions which may be infinitely less favourable than they are at the present time.