Soldiers' Families (Accommodation)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd December 1947.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

11.2 p.m.

Photo of Captain Charles Smith Captain Charles Smith , Colchester

I wish to raise this evening the question of certain aspects of War Office provision of accommodation for soldiers' families. I do this, naturally, without prejudice to any question of what sized forces we ought to have, and merely on the simple principle that Armed Forces of a certain size presuppose a certain cadre of Regular soldiers, and that such a cadre presupposes adequate accommodation for their families in those areas where the soldiers are required to serve. I have been convinced of the need to raise this matter by a number of tragic cases which have come to my notice in my own constituency—cases of the separation of families of Regulaf soldiers because of the exigencies of war and continued by the exigencies of postwar service.

Let me quote one example. It is not, as I will be able to show, by any means isolated, but it is a good example of the kind of thing which is happening. A soldier in my constituency proposed to get married originally in 1935. He and his prospective wife postponed marriage because the soldier was at that time under orders to proceed to China. He returned in 1939, and the postponed marriage then took place. Within five months he was posted to the B.E.F. in France. He returned from France in the middle of 1940, and three months later was posted—as so many soldiers were—from place to place in the United Kingdom. It was not possible for his wife to spend more than a week or two with him, apart from leaves during the whole of that period. In 1943, he went to North Africa, served in Egypt, Italy and Greece, and was finally posted back to this country in 1946.

At that time he had served seven of the previous ten years of his life abroad, and in a married life of seven years had actually been able to live with his wife for a period of six months. When he returned to this country he found himself immediately posted to a station which had no married quarters, and where it was impossible because of the geographical location, to live out of barracks and live with his wife.

I put this case to the War Office. The man was at that time a warrant officer, who had given many years of excellent service to the Army. I asked whether consideration might not be given to his posting to some centre, after this long period of separation, where he might be able to live with his wife again. The answer from the War Office was as follows: You will appreciate that there is a great shortage of accommodation, and waiting lists at all stations are very long. Many of those who receive quarters have as good or even better grounds for getting them than your constituent. So the case I have quoted, which is serious enough to merit the attention of the War Office, is by no means exceptional and is, in fact, surpassed by many with which they have to deal.

I could quote other cases of a similar character, but will confine myself to one of a woman evacuated from a Mediterranean station in 1940, where she had been living with her husband, a warrant officer. Since then she has been able to live with her husband for a period of only 10 days. When marriages are subjected to a strain of that kind, it is small wonder that some of them break up. Many of the individuals affected are Regular soldiers of many years' service, many of them warrant officers, and although we have all in the past made jokes about warrant officers, sergeant-majors and quarter-masters, anyone with any experience in the Army knows that they are the backbone of it. Their morale and the treatment they receive, together with other Regular soldiers, are matters to which the War Office should give serious consideration.

The first thing I wish to ask from the Under-Secretary is an assurance that the War Office does attach a great deal of importance to providing opportunities for the uniting of families whenever possible. There are two aspects on this matter: first, where a soldier is serving overseas, and, second, where he is serving in the United Kingdom. Taking the overseas aspect first, we all realise the manifold difficulties involved in the provision of adequate marriage quarters in overseas commands. There should be a concentration by the War Office on this problem in those stations where British troops are to remain for a long period. No one would expect or ask for an extravagant or unreasonable scale of accommodation. I suggest that the War Office should make an immediate review of the position in overseas commands, because a written answer from the Secretary of State given to me yesterday indicates that the War Office does not have information of the number of applications in each command. I presume, therefore, that it does not have information about accommodation in overseas commands. They do know, however, as stated in the first sentence of the reply, that the demand for soldiers families at present exceeds the supply in all overseas commands except Bermuda. I suggest that a better control needs to be exercised in the overseas commands.

As far as I can understand from some cases I have had to deal with, the responsibility may rest in certain instances on the individual soldier to find his own accommodation and get it approved by the commander-in-chief. That is obviously unsatisfactory, especially where soldiers desire their families to accompany them when they are posted overseas. If a unit is under orders for Hong Kong for example—and this was a recent case in relation to constituents of mine—the soldier serving in that unit has no means of knowing what prospects there are of getting accommodation for his family. Can the War Office give information on points like that? The reply which my right hon. Friend gave yesterday rather suggests that not even the War Office is able to inform a unit ordered to an overseas station whether there are any facilities for families to accompany the soldiers concerned, or what the position is at all.

Let me turn to the United Kingdom aspect of this problem. Here again there are obviously many difficulties in the way. The White Paper on Capital Investment published yesterday tells us, on page 23, that there are in the possession of the War Office at present 15,000 married quarters. On 7th November the Secretary of State told me that about 10,000 soldiers' families are accommodated in quarters and that eventually some 30,000 families will require quarters. We do not ask for any privileged position for the serving soldier, but at the same time he is entitled to be in no worse position than the civilian in regard to housing accommodation. In fact, in some respects, the serving soldier is disadvantaged. He is moved about from station to station, and consequently his family cannot acquire that residence qualification which it is necessary to have to get on to the housing list of most local authorities. This disadvantage may follow him into civilian life. There are men whose homes are in my constituency and who have been stationed in other parts of the country. Their families have been able to accompany them. But on discharge, the men find they cannot easily return to their home towns because they are classed on the housing list as out-of-town applicants.

Clearly, in present circumstances, the War Office cannot embark on a large-scale building programme. Very often when it does construct new married quarters the project is not looked on with much favour by the local authority or by local opinion, because it draws materials and labour from the local pool. May I put to the Under-Secretary two points which, if the War Office will attend to them, will, I think, be helpful in establishing a better relationship between the War Office and local authorities. First, I suggest that the War Office should co-operate with the local authority in phasing any construction programme. Secondly, it should co-operate in dealing with any of those irregular occupants to whom reference is sometimes made, and I would suggest that it should not in any circumstances evict people from married quarters without careful consultation with the local housing authority.

The War Office must first make sure that all its married quarters are fully utilised. The White Paper on capital expenditure says there are 15,000 married quarters. The Secretary of State quotes a figure of 10,000 soldiers' families accommodated. Can we be told who is occupying or how they are occupying the 5,000 which are not accounted for? The eviction of families of soldiers serving overseas has been the subject of a number of Questions, and was the subject of a long statement by the Secretary of State on 11th November. He made clear the reasons why such steps had been taken, but I have in my hand the copy of an eviction notice issued to the wife of a Regular soldier serving overseas. She, with two children, was occupying married quarters and received a very blunt notice ordering her to vacate that married quarter, but pointing out the possibility of alternative accommodation in an unspecified area.

Can rather more tact and imagination be used in approaching this problem, and when people are asked in this way to offer up married quarters, can they be given a much greater indication of the alternative accommodation the War Office is willing to offer them? They are, after all, the wives and children of husbands serving overseas, very often in commands to which it is impossible for a family in present circumstances to go; and I would suggest that the families of Service men who are serving overseas—for example, in Palestine, by which fact they are subjected to a great deal of anxiety—are entitled to rather more individual consideration and sympathetic treatment than they have received from the War Office. I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to reassure the House on some of the points I have raised.

11.17 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Morrison Mr John Morrison , Salisbury

Because I represent a large area of Salisbury Plain, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Charles Smith) for raising this subject. It does affect a great number of families of long-serving soldiers in Salisbury Plain area, many of whom are under notice to quit. I hope that the Under-Secretary will appreciate the real hardship caused to many of these families. They are in great distress at the present time. We understand, as has been said by the hon. Member for Colchester, there are some 15,000 married quarters, of which only 10,000 are occupied. If the Secretary of State examines the situation in the Salisbury Plain area, he will find a great amount of its barrack space is empty. It could be made available for soldiers' families if money is secured for the expenditure. In the nation's interest, it seems to me much more sensible, when labour and building materials are in short supply, that this should be done rather than we should wait for a long-term building programme. I do hope the Secretary of State will investigate this point, and I would ask the Minister to answer the letters about many families who are in great distress which have not been answered up till now.

11.19 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham East

I, too, am most grateful to the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Charles Smith) for raising this matter. I should like at the outset to give him the assurance for which he asks, that the War Office do attach the very greatest importance to providing family accommodation for the Regular soldier and to enabling the Regular soldier and his family to live together. It is indeed because we have sought that objective that we have sometimes been subject to criticism when we have been obliged to suggest to people who, in one way or another, are "irregular" occupants of our accommodation, that they must make way for the persons for whom the accommodation is properly intended. Our aim has been to see that the accommodation we have is so used as to unite the serving soldier with his family. That was the policy to which expression was given by my right hon. Friend on 11th November.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester quoted more than one moving example of the difficulties with which we are faced, and it is true, unfortunately, that examples of that kind are by no means exceptional. We have at present some 15,000 married quarters, and we are faced with the fact that some of them are being used by people who are "irregular" occupants—civilians who nave no proper claim on War Office accommodation at all. There are, of course, the "key" civilians as they are known, and who have a right to War Office accommodation, occupying these buildings, and there are families of serving soldiers who are occupying many, but who are in the position referred to by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. J. Morrison) where the serving soldier is overseas and the married quarters are not serving the purpose of uniting the soldier with his family.

In all these ways the amount of accommodation used for its proper purpose is cut down. It is true we need to increase the total accommodation, and if we look at the numbers now being built and the numbers which have reached the Command planning stage, it is idle to promise that there can be an early or, an easy solution of this matter. My hon. Friend may be assured, however, that we realise very fully that the serving soldier has in every way as much right to consideration as any civilian has for proper accommodation and as much right to the opportunity to live a united family life. We have represented, and we shall continue to represent, that point of view with every possible emphasis. May I refer to the position overseas? There again, in all the overseas stations, with one comparatively minor exception, there is a demand for married quarters which exceeds the supply. I will certainly bear in mind the suggestions for further inquiry made by my hon. Friend. With regard to his suggestion that the soldier overseas is made responsible for finding accommodation on his own, I do not think the phrase "made responsible" represents the position. Unfortunately we are not at present able to provide the accommodation overseas which is needed in all cases, but where a serving soldier himself finds accommodation and where we are satisfied that it is suitable accommodation, we arrange for his family to join him there. I must add that it is necessary in some overseas stations for us to go to considerable pains to satisfy ourselves that the accommodation is satisfactory.

The position at home has been dealt with by my hon. Friend who made suggestions about collaboration with the local authorities. We have borne the importance of that in mind. For example, when the siting of married quarters is being considered, it is done in collaboration with the local authority and with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. The construction is done by the work being let out to contract, either by the Royal Engineers or through the Ministry of Works, and it is through the instrumentality of the Ministry of Works that we have, I think, in most instances avoided any conflict or waste of effort as between ourselves and the local authorities. There are, indeed, a number of examples of fruitful collaboration between ourselves and the local authorities as to the siting and construction of married quarters.

On the vexed question of eviction, we can claim emphatically that we have gone to considerable pains to collaborate with the local authorities, and we have proceeded with patience and humanity. In the first place, when it is clear to us that we require married quarters to put them to their proper use by uniting a serving soldier and his family, we give those who are in occupation notice urging them to seek alternative accommodation. We make sure that the local authority is informed and that the persons concerned take steps to get their names on to the waiting list of the local authority.

Photo of Mr John Morrison Mr John Morrison , Salisbury

Long-term families who have followed men around for years have no local authority to which they can apply. So the local authority cannot provide for them.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham East

I will come to that question in a moment when I deal with longterm evictions. If we have anywhere any surplus accommodation, we make it available to the local authority sometimes on condition that it is used for the housing of these irregular occupants when we have to require them to leave our premises. As a last extremity, we may proceed to eviction, but only after the case has come under the review of my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for War. Where we have to say to the family of a serving soldier that we must ask them to leave married quarters so that those quarters can be occupied by a serving soldier and his family who will thus be united, we invariably offer alternative accommodation. I would be willing to accept the suggestion—though my hon. friend did not give me details by which I could identify the example he gave—that in some cases we may have proceeded unreasonably, or the formal notice to remove may not have been worded with tact. I would be very glad to look into any case of that kind and we shall do all we can to avoid such cases in the future.

When we have to proceed in regard to families of that description we do provide alternative accommodation, and by this policy of securing that accommodation is used to unite the families of serving soldiers, we are at any rate steadily increasing the chances that these families will one day be united in married quarters. But hon. Members cannot have it all ways. On the one hand, we cannot say we will not evict and that we will not require the shifting to a hostel of a service man's family which is already disunited. If we are to do that, we can- not at the same time say we give priority to uniting service men's families.

Photo of Captain Charles Smith Captain Charles Smith , Colchester

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the figures which I gave of 15,000 married quarters in which only 10,000, according to the reply of the Secretary of State for War, are occupied by soldier's families?

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham East

I think that these figures can be accounted for by the fact, as I mentioned earlier, that the persons who are regular occupants of a certain number of these quarters are not serving soldiers but are none the less entitled to the accommodation. I am certainly prepared to look again into this matter to see if there is anything further that can be done.

In conclusion I would say that we are faced, as every housing authority in this country is faced, with an acute problem springing from shortage of labour and materials; but we can claim, I think, that we are endeavouring to press ahead with the provision of new accommodation as speedily as may be. In the meantime, we are dealing with common sense and humanity with the painful and difficult personal problems that spring from the shortage.

Photo of Colonel Sir Ralph Clarke Colonel Sir Ralph Clarke , East Grinstead

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us something about hostels. He referred to "alternative accommodation" just now. Did he mean hostels, because there is a feeling that they are not at all popular and I wonder if he can dispel that feeling?

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham East

I would only say this—living in a hostel for a family who have hoped to live in a real home of their own can never be a really popular move. Apart from that general and inevitable unpopularity, there would be no proper grounds or reason why this accommodation should be disliked or should be unpopular. It is in my judgment good accommodation, but it cannot be, of course, a substitute for the permanent home that any family naturally want to set up.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.