Personal Explanation.

– in the House of Commons on 30th July 1942.

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Photo of Mr Ness Edwards Mr Ness Edwards , Caerphilly

I should like to make a personal explanation. A Question on the Paper, No. 22, refers to an incident in Weston-super-Mare in which a man and wife from my constituency had been killed in a blitz. A very young collier son, who had been sent for, went to Weston-super-Mare to identify the bodies. While he was there he was seen by someone and was asked to leave the question of the burial of those two people to somebody else. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Leave it to us." When the Question was put, the Minister made his reply. In a Supplementary Question, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) suggested that this. Question was slanderous on his constituents, was based on insufficient evidence and that the hon. Member who had put the Question had taken no steps to verify the statements in it. I want to say. Sir, that this young collier boy was sent for from South Wales and that he was accompanied by a very responsible local welfare worker. That local welfare worker was with him at the mortuary when the bodies were identified. He confirms that they were touted, and the bill which was sent by this undertaker in Weston-super-Mare, amounting to over £50 for those two bodies, is in the possession of the Minister of Health, who has charge of the Civilian Injuries Scheme. I took reasonable steps to test the evidence before puting it to this House. I accepted the word of the highly respected local welfare worker, and I took the statement down in writing. I can assure the hon. Member that there was no intention of slandering his constituents but there was a desire to prevent inhuman exploitation of a tragedy of this sort.

Photo of Mr Walter Womersley Mr Walter Womersley , Grimsby

May I be allowed to say a word on this matter? When the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) brought this matter to my notice I took it as a very serious charge. My Department is responsible for dealing with the relatives of victims of these air raids, paying out allowances immediately and giving help wherever we can. I have given very strict instructions to members of my staff in regard to this question of charges for funerals. I have said in this House that I would not allow exploitation of the victims of enemy action. As soon as I received that notice from the hon. Member I sent down for a full report from my own people, not from the local authorities. Perhaps I might be allowed to read an extract from the report: I am informed that my staff explored every inch of Weston, interviewing widows and paying special temporary allowances, but in no instance did they hear any allusion that undertakers were touting for funeral grants. In the course of their inquiries they ascertained that some victims were being buried under the local authority communal system and in only one case was an application made for a funeral grant from this Ministry. The form was completed on the spot and the grant is being dealt with. Not satisfied with that, I sent down a special inquiry officer. He made a full inquiry, and he interviewed not only the son Edward but the deceased man's brother, Mr. Brake. They were both called to Weston to identify the victims. The information received is this. Mr. Brake gave this information: They were not touted or canvassed by undertakers in any way; that, while at the mortuary, they asked the official in charge if he could recommend an undertaker. He did so and they immediately rang up and were given an estimate over the phone The prices in question ranged from 10 to 18 guineas, and the decision was left to the son Edward, who agreed to pay 18 guineas. I am going to suggest to my hon. Friend that, in a case of that kind, where the relatives, after knowing the full circumstances, knowing that the bodies could have been buried by the local authority without any charge whatever, and knowing also that the grant due from my Department is £7 10s. and where they, knowing all that, make arrangements themselves and agree to pay what I consider a very high figure—I have the bill here—we cannot say that that is because they had been touted. It is just a matter of using their own free will. As to whether the gentleman in question was authorised to give instructions for funerals or whether it should have been left to the son, that is a matter for them to decide. I believe there is a little difficulty on that point as between the two relatives. In fairness and justice to my own officials and the local authority officials in Weston, I think a general and sweeping charge that there has been touting generally is going a little too far. As regards the bill, it might interest the House to know that this coffin was upholstered in swansdown complete with chromium-plated fittings and engraved, at 18 guineas.

Photo of Mr Ness Edwards Mr Ness Edwards , Caerphilly

Would the right hon. Gentleman not read the rest of the bill?

Photo of Mr Walter Womersley Mr Walter Womersley , Grimsby

It refers to other charges, such as railway companies' charges for conveying the coffin from Weston to the place where they wanted the burial to take place. I am not concerned with that, of course. I am concerned with the charges made by the undertaker for his own work.

Photo of Mr Ness Edwards Mr Ness Edwards , Caerphilly

May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that he has had the information from the wrong person?

Photo of Mr Ian Orr-Ewing Mr Ian Orr-Ewing , Weston-Super-Mare

May I add my word to the attack made by the hon. Member? I think he raised objection to the Supplementary Question that I put to the Minister of Pensions. I would like to assure him that there is nothing personal in this matter. I would also like to say that I have a letter in my hand from the local authority that leads me to believe that very little inquiry was made by those who gave the information to the hon. Member. Is it right or wise for Members of this House, among whom I include myself, to put Questions on the Paper containing statements of fact when those statements may have a very damaging effect? Could we have your guidance and advice, Mr. Speaker, as to whether in a case like that Questions should not be put in the form of a Question rather than in the form of a statement?

Mr. Speaker:

I have already given a Ruling on that point. Hon. Members should verify their facts before they put them on the Paper.