I beg to move "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The Bill is extremely simple, and its main Clause is quite self-explanatory. What the Bill seeks to do is to give powers to the Treasury, in consultation with the War Damage Commission and the local authorities, to extend the, time during which late claims for compensation for damage suffered during the air raids may be considered.
In the first place, it was laid down that every owner of a hereditament would have to contribute towards the fund out of which war damage compensation would be paid. As the Prime Minister said at the time, we all stood together in that matter. Later, the extent of the war damage was so great than the amount of money subscribed to the fund was not sufficient to compensate for the amount of damage, and the taxpayer had to be called into supplement the fund. There is no other impost that the taxpayer has been so ready to accept. A regulation was then made that within 30 days of the bombing a notice had to be sent to the War Damage Commission and that they would return a form to be filled in by the person affected which had to be completed within 30 days of receipt.
Shortly after bombing took place, the local authorities undertook first-aid repairs, and later on, as the bombing grew more intense and a great deal more damage was inflicted, they made a survey of the damage and employed builders and gangs of workmen to repair it. Minor officials of the local authorities went round and informed those who had suffered damage what the local authorities intended to do, and in many cases they told people that they could either have the damage repaired then or wait until later when more labour and building materials would be available. In a number of instances some of the more public-spirited people said they would wait so that more urgent cases could be dealt with.
Unfortunately, when the officials of the local authorities went round they did not always tell people that it was not sufficient for their claims to be registered at the town hall or civic centre, but that a form must also be filled in and sent to the War Damage Commission. Thousands of people got the impression that once their war damage was registered at the office of the local authority, no further steps were necessary. In addition, some of the minor officials of the local authorities actually informed people that they need not take any further steps, as registration at the local authority office was sufficient. I have received scores of letters from people all over the country who thought that registration with the local authority was sufficient, and that there was no need for them to take any further action.
I do not wish to trespass unduly on the patience of hon. Members, so I will quote only one or two of the many letters I have received. The first letter is from the London area, Forest Hill, S.E.23. It reads:
I reported my war damage to the Lewisham council as I was quite unaware that I had to report the damage to the War Damage Commission. The local council have a full report of five lots of damage received, but even so the War Damage Commission have refused my claim. My husband and I are old age pensioners, and we had a great struggle for many years to buy this house. It took all our Post-War Credits, £81, to pay for the damage, and we are left with less than £10 to face the future.
Mr. Skeffington took up the case with the War Damage Commission but could not get them to give way.
This is a letter from a citizen who suffered war damage during the raid on Coventry:
I am just an ordinary £5 a week workman buying my own house which was damaged in the raid on Coventry, 14th November, 1940. I had a report on this put in the City architect's office. Thinking this was all right I did not claim, so when my house was repaired I had to pay the whole of the bill, £130. All I could get from the War Damage Commission was, 'Your claim was not in our office when it should have been. My M.P. was very helpful but there was little he could do.
I will now read a short letter from the Carshalton council surveyor. It reads:
I have instructed a builder to repair the roof of the above and also the ceiling. This work will be put in hand very shortly and there will be no need to inform the War Damage Commission.
In that case the War Damage Commission were not of course notified. Time
went on and nothing was done, so this person wrote again to the borough surveyor and the borough surveyor, having by that time apparently discovered what should be done, advised him to write to the War Damage Commission. He wrote to the War Damage Commission and received a reply that his claim was too late to be considered. I have also received a letter from a district close to my constituency. The writer says:
I consider that I was badly let down by the Eastleigh local authority. The clerk to the borough engineer gave me to understand that they had reported my damage and quoted the number 410.
When the compensation did not come along the writer of this letter went again to see the clerk to the borough engineer, who advised him that, after all, he had better write to the War Damage Commission. He wrote, and the claim was rejected as being too late. Another letter comes from Chelmsford:
During the late war my house suffered a certain amount of damage from blast. The local authority was notified at the time and an official came along to inspect the damage. He took the particulars and my claim was admitted. Some time later the damage to the walls, ceilings and doors was made good, but the windows which were greatly bulged could not be put in order at that time since windows were not available. The verbal undertaking was given, however, by the official, in the presence of the workmen, that the work would be done as soon as such windows were obtainable. I wrote to the War Damage Commission who had taken over the duties previously performed by the local authority and asked when I might expect the windows made good. The reply was that the claim was too late.
I have not those particulars at the moment, but I shall be very glad to supply them to the Financial Secretary as I have them on my file, although I do not think these particulars are germane to the argument I am adducing. I also received a letter from a long-established and reputable firm of auctioneers and valuers at Southampton. They are Messrs. Goater and Co. They write:
I have found that many people were under the impression that notification to the borough engineer's department was sufficient and the
impression was given that all war damage would be made good. I am personally aware that the Eastleigh Council advised owners that there was no need to notify damage.
This is an extract from a letter sent out by the Wallington Council, signed by their borough engineer and surveyor:
The Ministry of Health have given instructions that until further notice no more contracts for war damage repairs are to be met by the council. The effect of this is that the projected repairs to your house by the council will be postponed. As soon as definite information is available and the council are again in a position to proceed a further communication will be addressed to you.
There was not a word in that letter about notifying the War Damage Commission, and I submit that anybody who had received that letter would have thought the matter was being looked after by the local authority and that there was no need for him to take any further steps towards notification.
The next letter I wish to quote is, I think, a very human letter which I received from a lady living in East Ham who says:
May I wish good luck to your War Damage Bill, and thanks for fighting for those uninformed people such as myself who did not know that we should inform any other body but the local council. Apart from ignorance, it took all our time getting in and out of shelters and trying to get food for our families. I have been unable to make my claim until now as I have been very ill and had three operations since 1944. We are trying to buy our house under the Small Dwellings Act so cannot afford repairs ourselves. I am the wife of an old Navy man, 1910–20, mother of a war-time 'Wren,' and pushed a milk barrow myself during the 1914–18 war, and expect justice in this old England of ours.
The reason for our Bill is, of course, to obtain justice for people who were so circumstanced.
I should like the House to know that almost all of these people who thought that notification of the local authority was sufficient were poor people in humble circumstances. Well-to-do people had the advice of auctioneers and surveyors, and did not neglect to take the necessary steps. In addition to that, I am afraid that the circumstances of recent years have compelled well-to-do people to be extremely familiar with the forms which have been issued from Government Departments, like leaves blown before the autumn wind; they probably get more of them than people in humbler circumstances, and they are better accustomed to see that those forms are filled up. But why should these poor people be penalised because they neglected to send in a form of whose existence they were unaware? Why should they be heavily fined in amounts varying from £50 to £100 for a mere informality?
I would also remind the House of the circumstances prevailing when this form filling was necessary. They were circumstances of great anxiety; circumstances of a certain amount of terror; circumstances of violent disruption of the normal course of life. I served in the British Army in France in the 1914–18 war, and I was in some fairly hot spots; I was at Lagnicourt, Bullecourt, on the Somme, and at Passchendaele; during the 1939–45 war I lived for several years in one of most heavily blitzed towns in this country—Southampton—and if I had to choose again whether I should walk the duckboards from the Ypres canal bank to Passchendaele or sit in a shelter under a four hours' bombardment, I certainly would not choose to sit in the shelter under the four hours' bombardment. Those circumstances of anxiety and fear should, I think, be taken into account in dealing with people who neglected to fill in the War Damage Commission form.
That, perhaps, is the chief reason for my claim; but there are a number of other reasons, which I will deal with as rapidly as possible. One reason for neglect to fill in the form was the fact that the person was absent when the damage occurred. He may have been evacuated: he may have been away from his hereditament for a year or two when the damage occurred; or he may have been serving overseas in His Majesty's Forces. I have here a letter which I received from a soldier, who says:
I own a small house at 142, Ridge Road, Sutton, which was damaged during the war. First-aid repairs were carried out by the local people. This I considered acknowledgment of any subsequent claim made by me. On my return from Italy in November 1947, I wrote to the builder re war damage. He asked me to pay him. This I was not prepared to do. Later I made a claim for damage. In return I was informed that my claim should have been made before the end of 1946, and that the information had been published in the newspapers. At that time I was in Italy and knew nothing of this. My war service commenced on 15th August, 1939, and finished 11th September, 1948. There is no doubt my claim is legitimate, and I consider that I am heavily penalised because I
was in the Army concerning myself with soldiering and not with my personal interests.
Well, I have every sympathy with him. I think it is monstrous that a man who was abroad fighting for his country, whose property was heavily damaged during his absence, should come back to find that he can receive no compensation for the damage done.
There is also the case of successive incidents. A house was damaged by a bomb and the necessary form filled in and sent to the War Damage Commission, and the owner of the house thought the filling in of this form once would be sufficient to cover incidents which might occur thereafter. Then other incidents occurred, doing more damage, and when the War Damage Commission was written to for compensation for these successive incidents the owner has been informed that as he had not notified the Commission of each successive incident as it occurred he was not entitled to compensation. Examination of form C.1 of the War Damage Commission will not, I think, show anything precise laid down to tell people that they must notify the Commission of each successive incident as it occurs. I believe that there have been cases where the War Damage Commission has paid for the repair of the back part of the house which was damaged in a first incident, of which there was notification, but refused to pay for the repair of the front part of the house which was damaged in a second incident, which was not notified.
Then there are property owners who have very bad tenants; careless, negligent tenants who, when the house suffered damage, did not report that fact to the owner of the property, so that the owner did not find it out until perhaps 18 months or two years later, and sent in his notification too late to entitle him to compensation. Then there are very old people in their late 'seventies and' eighties, people at an age when they are becoming drowsy and preparing for the last sleep of all, who neglected to notify the War Damage Commission of incidents which had occurred. They have died and left their property to a son or daughter, and when the heir examined the property he found this damage and reported it to the War Damage Commission, only to be informed that the claim had been sent in too late to be considered.
There is then the question of illness. I have in Southampton a friend who is a member of the Southampton borough council and a rising hope of the Conservative Party, who had some properties damaged and sent for the form to fill in. He was then taken seriously ill and had to go to hospital; he had nobody else to look after his affairs, was in hospital for a considerable time, and on coming out duly filled in the form and sent it to the Commission, to receive the reply that his application was too late for consideration.
I do not wish to detain the House unduly long. I hope I have said sufficient to show that we have a valid reason for bringing in this Bill for whose Second Reading I ask today. My seconder, my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) will, I have no doubt, embroider further on the theme with a great deal more eloquence and far more knowledge than is at my poor command. I should like to express my thanks to my hon. Friend and to my hon. Friends the Members for North Ilford (Mrs. Ridealgh) and Mitcham (Mr. Braddock) for the great assistance they have given me in preparing this Bill.
In conclusion, I should like to make a few general observations. It may be said that the Bill is, in effect, a vote of censure upon the War Damage Commission. We do not intend it to be anything of the kind, because we say in the Bill that the Treasury, in consultation with the War Damage Commission and the local authorities, should review these late applications. I have had nothing but consideration from Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, and from the staff of the War Damage Commission in regard to the many cases which I have sent to them. I think that the War Damage Commission are fully upholding the very high traditions of the British Civil Service, but we feel that there should be some appeal from the decisions of the Commission. We do not think that the War Damage Commission, excellent as their administration has been, should be entirely judge and jury in their own case.
It may be argued that, in introducing the Bill, we are trying to exert political pressure in order to secure the payment of money to our constituents. I would point out that there is no appeal from the decisions of the War Damage Commission. Several months ago some of my hon. Friends put Questions to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in regard to late claims. The Minister, in his usual courteous manner, replied that he was sorry, but he could not deal with that matter as the whole power to decide was vested in the War Damage Commission. If the Bill is passed, we shall have an opportunity of putting Questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Financial Secretary on the refusal by the War Damage Commission of late notifications. Is it any worse to put down Questions about late notification to the War Damage Commission than it is to put down Questions about the payment of disability pensions, unemployment insurance, or sick benefit? That is the sort of pressure that hon. Members are entitled to exercise on behalf of their constituents.
Some Members from the blitzed area groups think that the Government have not done all that they might have done for the blitzed areas, in view of the sufferings of those areas and their very great necessities. When we have put that point of view to the Minister of Health we have been told in reply that we have the parish-pump mind. I am quite aware that we have not that faculty of surveying mankind from China to Peru that is possessed by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health. That is only one of the very great qualities with which Nature has so lavishly endowed him, but the representatives of the blitzed areas are, for the most part—I hope that my colleagues will not mind my saying so—simple men and women. Our thoughts are homing thoughts. We think of our constituents who suffered the terror by night for long periods and endured it with a bravery which earned them the admiration of the rest of the country. We think that their just grievances are entitled to remedy by this House.
This is not a party Measure. There is no party division over the redress of legitimate grievances. I hope that I shall receive support from Members of the Opposition as well as from Members on this side of the House. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will give his blessing to the Bill, and that if he cannot do so he will at least be able to make us some substantial concession, such as a promise to review again all these late claims that have been rejected and to extend for a period at least the time when claims may be accepted. If he gives us a substantial concession of that kind, my hon. Friends and I will be willing to withdraw the Bill. If he does not give us that concession we shall be forced, in the interests of our constituents, to divide the House. I trust that we shall not be forced to do so, but if we are I trust also that we shall have the support of hon. Members from all sides of the House.
I beg to second the Motion.
I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley) has said with regard to the War Damage Commission. The Bill is not a vote of censure on the War Damage Commission. We fully realise that they have had an immense task to perform and we think that they have discharged their functions with ability and with public spirit in a general way. But to quote to us the number of claims with which the War Damage Commission have dealt successfully or to mention the amount of money which has passed through their hands will have no bearing on the case which we are putting, except to reinforce our argument because, if the work of the Commission has been so excellent in other regards why should they blot their copybook by refusing this somewhat minor concession for which we are asking?
Ours is the case of the little man who, when his property was blitzed, did not seek professional advice, did not even know, in many cases, that professional advice was available to him at no cost to himself, the little man who was misled not by statutes and regulations, but by events. Everyone of us who sits for a blitzed area would pay tribute to the meticulous care with which the War Damage Commission's officials have dealt with cases and have replied to the considerations that we have submitted. I admit at once that the method of the Bill is open to criticism and that it is by no means the best method by which the problem could be dealt with. I could criticise the Bill as devastatingly as my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will perhaps try to do at a later stage, but I would point out to the House that our course of action is not our choice. It has been forced upon us by successive refusals by the War Damage Commission, and by representatives of the Treasury in this House, to deal with grave injustices, and that should have been dealt with by more satisfactory means.
I want to spend the time at my disposal by discussing this matter in detail and by giving to the House some of the history and the background of this matter of late war damage claims. When the first bombs fell there was no War Damage Commission. Householders whose property was bombed had to report the matter to the district valuer. Right at this stage the local authorities came into the picture, in that they came to the help of their citizens in overcoming the problems which the falling of the bombs had imposed upon them. In 1941, the first War Damage Act was passed and in it the War Damage Commission was set up. Power was given to the Treasury under the Act to make regulations regarding the presentation of claims. Section 10 of that Act entrusted to the Commission the discretionary powers which the Bill seeks to transfer to the Treasury. That Act is generally recognised today as not a good one. I make no complaint about that. It was inevitable in the circumstances in which the Act came into being.
In 1943 the second War Damage Act was passed. It re-enacted the provisions of the 1941 Act in relation to the matter which we are discussing today, that of giving the War Damage Commission a discretion with regard to the acceptance of claims outside the statutory period. Meanwhile as this legislation was going forward, a great many things were happening in the country, particularly in the areas which were suffering from bomb damage, and it became inevitable in the nature of things that the bulk of the work in those days connected with war damage repairs had to fall on the local authorities in those areas. The difficulties the blitzed cities met could not have been faced in any other way but by stringent action on the part of the local authorities. The local authorities proceeded first of all to do first-aid repairs so that people could at any rate get cover in their houses, and when the first-aid repairs were largely accomplished, they went on to more permanent repairs. Pools of builders were established working under the control and direction of the local authorities, and they went along street after street doing the repairs in those streets which needed to be done without inquiring whether that damage had been reported to the War Damage Commission. That fact must be borne in mind in relation to this Bill.
From the earliest days of War Damage the people in our war devastated areas have been used to looking to the local authority and not to the Commission for their bomb damage repairs. It may seem strange to some hon. Members that people do not easily differentiate between the two bodies but I am sure that any of us who sit for devastated areas can go to many of our constituents and ask, "What is the difference between the local office of the War Damage Commission and the war damage department of the local authority?" and they will find that their constituents do not know. Perhaps they ought to know, but the plain fact is that they do not. Even today when some of my constituents come to see me, they say things like this, "Well, Mrs. Middleton, I got in touch with the Bomb Damage," or "I went and saw the War Damage people." I ask them who they went to see and I find that they have no clear idea who they saw. That point must be borne in mind. It ought to have been borne in mind by the War Damage Commission, and to them I would say, as the poet Burns did years ago:
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!
That situation continued until 1946 when there came a distinct change of policy for which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health was responsible. He was anxious for the local authorities to get on with their housing programmes, and he sent a directive to the local authorities in the blitzed areas suggesting that they should relinquish the work of war damage repairs and leave the repairs to the owners of the properties concerned in consultation with the office of the Commission and private builders, and concentrate all their attention on building
houses. I am not quarrelling about that. I believe that that decision by the Ministry of Health was the right decision, and our housing estates in Plymouth and other badly blitzed areas are a tribute to what has been made possible by that directive.
Unfortunately, two things did not happen which, looking at the matter in perspective, we can now see ought to have happened. First of all, no directive was given to the local authorities either by the Ministry of Health or the War Damage Commission as to the way in which they should make known to the people of their localities the change which had taken place. Secondly, there was no one specific date for the whole country for the transfer of functions to take place, and a period of eight months or even longer existed between the time when one local authority and another gave up the work of war damage repairs. Looking back, we can see that there would have been only one satisfactory method of dealing with the matter at that time and that would have been for local authorities to notify everyone in their areas personally that they were no longer responsible for that work and that if the owners had not contacted the War Damage Commission, contact must be made at once.
I have not done what I might have done today, bring down a drawerful of cases and go over them one by one detailing the misery, suffering and anxiety of the people concerned, but I want to mention one of my worst cases, that of a Mrs. Gamblen who lives in my constituency and her house was actually in the course of being repaired when the changeover took place. The workmen doing the repairs found they had not certain material which they needed to complete the work. They left Mrs. Gamblen's house on the Friday afternoon or the Saturday morning saying that they could take the job no further until they got the material but that they would come back as soon as they obtained it. In the meantime the changeover took place. When my constituent came to me she was still waiting for the local authority to do the work. She came to me to ask the local authority to come back and do the job and she had no idea until then that the responsibility had changed hands and that she herself must now negotiate with the builder and the War Damage Commission. When she submitted her claim to the Commission, it was turned down because it was too late.
In that kind of way, increasingly during the year 1947, hon. Members for blitzed areas have been faced with difficulties such as those outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley). So much so that those of us on this side of the House who are supporting the Bill took certain action ourselves to try to find a solution to the problem. By detailing the action we took I can probably best substantiate the case I have tried to make that if this is not the best method for dealing with this problem, it is not the fault of those of us on this side of the House who have been concerned with the matter. I find that it was on 4th March of last year, that finding more and more difficulty in regard to this matter, a group of hon. Members on this side of the House asked the Financial Secretary to the Treasury or the chairman of the War Damage Commission to meet us in order to discuss the problem. We met the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 15th April last. He was accompanied by one of the junior officials of the War Damage Commission. My right hon. Friend, after discussing the points with us, promised to raise them with the Chancellor and the Chairman of the War Damage Commission.
On 28th May, however, a letter was received from the Financial Secretary replying to the points we had raised with him in that discussion and turning down the main proposals we had made. On 8th June I asked a Question of the Financial Secretary in the House, submitting the suggestion that where damage had been notified by the local authority to the War Damage Commission, that fact should be accepted as evidence of damage of a prima facie case made out for that property to be inspected, even though the owner of the property had not notified the damage himself.
My question of 8th June was negatived. On 11th June my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Braddock) raised on the Adjournment the question of late notifications. There was a lively Friday afternoon Debate which all of us who were in the House then will remember. There was one hopeful result. In the closing passage of his speech that day—column 2778 of the OFFICIAL REPORT—my right hon. Friend, bowing to the views of the House, to the strong feeling here, and to the great sense of injustice that existed, seemed to make a concession to those of us who had been putting forward our case. That concession, as it seemed to be, was widely publicised throughout the country, particularly in the areas most intimately concerned with this problem. As a result, all of us who sit for war damaged areas had floods of letters asking us whether we could take up their cases and get them resubmitted.
Certainly. It is as follows:
Finally, the War Damage Commission are still willing to accept claims which can be shown quite genuinely to have been due to substantial war damage. They cannot accept claims of damage about which there is no record, and about which they have been told nothing for four or five years, and which cannot now in any shape or form be shown to have been war damage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th June, 1948; Vol. 451, c. 2778.]
I reiterate that not only we in this House, but the Press of the whole country, regarded this as a concession to the point of view adumbrated in the House that afternoon.
Then, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, judge of my surprise when on 15th June last year the hon. and gallant Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) had a Question on the Order Paper about this subject, and a letter which had been sent to me on 28th May was quoted to the hon. Gentleman in reply to his Question, and an assurance given to him that it would be published in the OFFICIAL REPORT of that date. I rose to a point of Order, but unfortunately, I could not catch Mr. Speaker's eye and was unable to make a statement. The plain fact was that in the opinion of all of us who are concerned, that letter which was quoted had already been made out of date by the statement of my right hon. Friend on the Adjournment Debate to which I have referred. So we got together, and decided that further action must be taken.
In July last we asked again to see either the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, or preferably, the Chairman of the War Damage Commission. A number of us were received by both gentlemen and we stated our case. We put forward concrete proposals by which we believe a settlement of these difficulties could be reached. Our proposals were turned down. We took into consideration the arguments made to us on that occasion—the House was just about to adjourn—and on the very next day, 22nd July, we again submitted alternative proposals, one of which was the actual statement made by my right hon. Friend in reply to the hon. Member for Mitcham. After a long delay those proposals were again turned down by the War Damage Commission and then, having failed by all those methods, we went through our own Party channels to try to get the leaders of our Party to raise the matter with the Treasury and, through them, with the War Damage Commission, submitting again further alternative proposals. Our leaders did what we asked them to do, they submitted our proposals to the Treasury. The Treasury submitted them to the War Damage Commission and, as late as 2nd March of this year, that final set of proposals was turned down by the War Damage Commission and, in consequence, by the Treasury.
I think I have said enough—some people may say too much—to have established the point I was making that this Bill is a last desperate expedient to get a settlement. It is not what any of us who are supporting it would have desired, but, because of the situation which has arisen, we felt that we must take the opportunity offered by Private Members' Bills to bring this matter to the notice of the House.
I have been asked by hon. Members on this side, and sometimes on the other, why I have not been prepared to accept defeat in this matter and to give up the struggle. Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that was not the way in which this great Party to which I have the honour to belong was built up; that is not the way in which we have been brought to the achievement of power. I might say that it is not the way which has brought me to membership of this House, nor is it the road that I intend to take in the interests of my constituents, because a faint heart never dragged a single concession out of the War Damage Commission.
So long as I remain here in this House I shall do all within my power to see that my constituents get justice, and I shall use every expedient that the Rules of the House provide in order that justice may be given to them.
I could have harassed the House today with many distressing details of cases I have handled, but I am not here to plead individual cases. We are here to plead for the little people, the people who are the victims of events over which they have had no control; victims of events brought about by the unpredictable circumstances of war; victims of events that have been brought about by the action of Government Departments—not one Government but two successive Governments—events that have bewildered them, that have left them uncertain, that have often left them either uninformed or, as my hon. Friend said, wrongly informed as to the course they should take. Because I know the case of those people, I regard it as an honour to stand here today in support of this Bill.
The hon. Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley) has done a great service to a large number of unfortunate people by bringing forward this Bill today. I knew his town very well before it was bombed and I have seen it since, and I can appreciate the problems with which he has had to deal. In Canterbury and the surrounding area we have had the same problems. Ten per cent. of the dwelling-houses in the city of Canterbury were completely destroyed and a large number of others were damaged. The surrounding rural district was under the heavy fire of the enemy almost continuously for four and a half years.
I wonder whether the War Damage Commission have ever realised what happened after a heavy air raid. They say to these people, "Oh, you have not filled in form CA." After a heavy air raid, those people were not worried very much about form C.1. They were more concerned about some shelter for the night, and about salvaging their property. In many cases they were evacuated completely away from the district, and were away from their damaged homes for months, or even for years. Many of them honestly and genuinely believed that notification to the local authority was the same thing as notifying the War Damage Commission and large numbers of them had been assured that that was all they need do.
The War Damage Commission have said they will reconsider genuine cases. I shall refer to just two cases where houses were damaged by enemy action in October, 1940, and June, 1942. The local authority carried out the repairs and stated categorically that it had notified the War Damage Commission, but form C.1 was not filled in by the owners of the houses. The local authority ceased to do repairs in Canterbury in December, 1946. In April, 1948, when men and materials were available, the owners of these houses wished to complete their repairs. They wrote to the War Damage Commission asking for the file number and claim forms. The War Damage Commission notified them that no notification had been made of this damage and that, therefore, the claim was not admissible. That was in spite of the local authority's assertion that it had notified this damage. To this day the War Damage Commission flatly refuse to reconsider either of those cases, which, in my opinion, come entirely within the category of genuine cases worthy of consideration.
Another point which has arisen is that people are only just beginning to discover now how expensive is the task of making good the damage to their homes. Where temporary repairs are at last being made good, people are finding out that the damage is far more extensive than ever they imagined. These people, however, have no opportunity now of making claims, and it is cases of this kind which provide a complete justification for the Bill. I have quoted only two cases, but from my experience in a district which suffered extensive enemy damage I could probably bring forward more than 100 cases which are being denied elementary justice. I welcome the Bill and I give it every possible support.
The House is probably aware that I have had some slight experience in local government. If I state that during the whole of the period when damage was being done and repairs were being executed, I held high office, both in civil defence and in local government service, hon. Members will realise, perhaps, that what I have to say is of some relevance on this issue of foreknowledge and methods of notification.
I shall be quite frank and make my own little confession. My Member of Parliament came to me on one or two occasions about this question. I thought he had a bee in his bonnet over something or other which I could not quite understand. Finally, to my complete horror, I found that what he was trying to convey to me was that if a person had had his house damaged and had reported it to the local authority, that was not accepted as notification by the War Damage Commission. I was flabbergasted. Never for a single moment had I imagined that such a thing could occur.
Those of us who were engaged during the war in looking after people through our local authorities and civil defence services, tried to make ourselves, if I may so express it, their fathers and mothers, to look after them in every possible way. We had to look after their safety, their feeding, their shelter; all sorts of things were in our care. It became second nature—the obvious and the inevitable—that everyone in the community naturally looked to the local authority as the agents of the Government to see that they, the people, were tended as best the Government could look after them. Not only did I find that, but I found that there were houses which had been left by the workmen in the middle of the war damage repairs which they had been doing for the local council; but the people to whom those houses belonged had no redress. Nothing more fantastic could be conceived.
I found, too, that in this district—which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. G. Wallace)—over 2,000 people were placed in those circumstances. Here was a district occupied mainly by people who had spent £650 to £750 through a building society to get a home of their own, whose budgets were of the most meager character; owner-occupiers, allowing themselves, as good citizens, to await their turn for the local council to come and repair their houses, as it was proceeding to do district by district. Then, without the slightest notification whatever, suddenly the work ceased, while they were patiently waiting for it to be done.
How can the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for one moment say in view of all this, that there is any relevance in the date? The relevant date is not four years ago when the last rocket, in this instance, dropped upon the areas concerned. It could conceivably be the date—which I would not accept—when the local council finished its repairs; but since it did not notify people that that was so, the date must be somewhat later than that. It might possibly be taken as the time when these people were made aware of these facts; only from that time onwards could it be said that there was any relevance. But even that is not totally relevant, because hundreds of those people have not notified, for they know it is useless to do so and that their claims will be rejected.
I pay tribute, although not in any party sense whatever, to the Member of Parliament for my Division, for his indefatigable efforts on behalf of those people. I admire and respect him for what he did, occupying, as he did, a minor office in this Government. To a large extent, through his efforts and the efforts of Members of the blitzed group committees and other organisations in this House, it was possible for about 1,500 of those 2,000 people to have their claims looked after.
Is it not also a fact that in very many cases damage did not show itself for some considerable time after it had originally occurred and that, therefore, in many cases it would have been impossible for any forms to have been filled up because it was not known what damage existed?
I quite agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I happen to have some technical knowledge as far as explosives are concerned, and I would say that the advent of the rocket presented tremendous problems in terms of constructional damage that were not present in other forms of attack. I happen to be a person intimately concerned and I naturally presumed that I was in order in regard to my own home. I found that in the midst of all other sorts of troubles I had notified a few of the many occasions on which my house was damaged and I was all right, but, because of that, I do not claim that the others were wrong. With all my knowledge and experience of local government and responsibility, I did not know, and so why should they have known? Hon. Members who have served in the Forces of the Crown know the loyalty they feel to those who served with them. I feel in those circumstances loyalty to the citizens of this country, who stood the damage of this war and I claim that it is entirely irrelevant what date their notification was made or what this business may cost. One does not say to a man who has a wound, "You can have a pension" If there is only a certain amount in the total sum to be divided, it should be divided equally. It is irrelevant whether £160 million or twice as much has been spent.
I wish to quote two cases from many and I cannot conceive the mentality of those who oppose them. There is the case of an old lady of more than 80 whose house was damaged and given first-aid repair by the local authority and whose claim is now refused. The war damage reference is M.13338. M.13325 is the case of a man who was away on Service during the war and was denied access to his property by the tenant. He had to go to a court of law in order to take any action. Because he did not notify by a certain date, he cannot receive any compensation from the War Damage Commission.
I know that what is at the bottom of this sort of thing is the conflict between legalism and human considerations. In some aspects legalism is of vital importance, but in some others it is humanism that really matters. It is what we want to do that matters and not how we set out to do it, and I hope the House will take that view on this Bill.
The hon. Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley), who moved the Second Reading of this Bill, and the hon. Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton), who supported it in a charming and convincing speech, have put the points so well that I do not wish to go over the same ground. Like most hon. Members, I get a very large correspondence and for the last two years or more a great proportion of that correspondence has been taken up by war damage claims. I wish to pay my tribute to Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve and his staff, because they have always treated me most courteously and have done their very best to help. But they arc only in a position to administer the law as it is and it is not their fault that the law is as it is.
So far as I can see, there is unanimity in this House on this matter and the Government will have to bow before this appeal from all sides. Tribute has been paid to the spirit of our people. I want this short story to go on record as typical, and I hope that it will be read abroad. A poor old lady in the South-East of London had her house blitzed and a friend of mine, an ambulance driver, was sent to that district to pick up the wounded. He found the old lady scrubbing the doorstep of her blitzed house and ventured to say, "It is not much good doing that today, mother, is it?" Her reply would be out of Order, I am afraid, but hon. Members will see what she meant. She said, "You mind your own——business. I want my cup of tea, and where is the——milkman." That is the spirit which won the war.
On the small village of Knockholt where I live a thousand high explosives were dropped during the war. I do not want to plead my own case, but my house was badly damaged and I happened to know a very competent builder, Messrs. Durtnells of Brasted. They took up the case and filled up forms for me, but it took nearly three years before the damage could be repaired. Owing to water coming in and damage not being put right at first, the condition of the house much deteriorated. I know of many poor people in my Division, who are not very literate, who were not able to get expert advice and have suffered very badly. Let the Government and the country realise that we were all compulsorily insured under a compulsory premium. Many of us think the premium was rather high. It might have been put to open competition among the different insurance companies—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes. This is a non-party day, but I beg the Government, under whatever details of red tape they may hide, to realise that here is a case of clear justice to the people which is being held up, as has been explained by several hon. Members, through no fault of their own.
I suggest that even if the Bill does not quite cover the ground, the Government should take this Measure and amend it in Committee, if necessary, in order to enable the people who have suffered through no fault of their own to appeal against a decision of the War Damage Commission. I suggest that the certificate of a builder, surveyor or architect of repute should be sufficient evidence at least to re-open a claim. It is part of the technique of this Government to push off responsibility to nationalised, or other bodies, and not to allow Questions in this House. if only we could get the responsibility on to the Treasury, we should be able to ask Questions about individual cases and bring complaints and difficulties of constituents to the notice of the Government. I hope hon. Members on all sides will press this Motion to a Division, if the Government do not accept it. I should like to add my appeal and to say that if the exact method of the Bill is not quite workable, I will cooperate in trying to make it workable; but justice must be done to people who were compulsorily insured and who suffered so much in the war.
I was glad when my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton), in supporting the Motion for the Second reading of this Bill, said that she and her hon. Friends would be prepared to accept a widening of the discretion of the War Damage Commission rather than the form provided in the Bill. It seems to me that to introduce a new Bill at this stage, with the setting up of new personnel and re-opening the whole matter on a large scale, would not only be a very costly and lengthy business, but would divert a considerable amount of manpower, which is urgently needed for other tasks. So many compliments have been paid to the War Damage Commission today that I wonder how anyone can think that that is necessary. I must confess
that while I listened to some of the compliments paid to the War Damage Commission, I was reminded of the words:
Perhaps you were right to dissemble your love,
But why did you kick me downstairs?
After all the War Damage Commission has done a first-class job. There is not the slightest doubt about that.
It is obvious from the speeches made by other hon. Members that the experience of some areas has been very different from that of London. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley) talked about minor officials in a blitzed area going to the scene of the incident and dealing with the situation. He stressed that that was done by minor officials. That is not what happened in the blitzed area of London. It is certainly not what happened in the blitzed area of Islington, part of which I have the honour to represent. We had senior officials going out at once there, and the Member of Parliament, who made a point of going to the scene of every incident immediately after it had occurred. We gave the people advice at the time, and we have not had the flood of complaints to which reference has been made, and which might be due to the fact that in such areas where the complaints are there were minor officials.
I do not find a large number of cases pouring in. I am as accessible to my constituents as any hon. Member, and in the last six months the number of letters of protest which I have had, personally and otherwise, about war damage claims not having been accepted is insignificant, not because they have been forgotten but because they have been notified and met.
Certainly. I will not particularise cases I have had because they are so few that it would be unfair to the people concerned, but they were not strong cases. In each case the War Damage Commission carefully considered the representations which I put forward and sent a carefully considered answer. When there has been in any case the possibility of the claim being allowed, the War Damage Commission have gone to the limit to allow it. They are not against people receiving war damage compensation; they are in favour of it. What they are against is getting claims which are not correct, claims which do not represent war damage.
If the House were to divide on this Bill, I should vote against the Bill. It is the wrong way to do this job. To set up a new organisation at this time would be costly and time-wasting, and would not help the people concerned. Would the Treasury be any better than the War Damage Commission to deal with? I do not know that the War Damage Commission are any worse than the Treasury. I should on the contrary be inclined to think——
But no case has been made against the War Damage Commission as such. They have not been accused of doing anything badly. On the contrary, their work has been eulogised. The whole point is that claims which have been put in after a certain time have been turned down. That has nothing to do with the War Damage Commission, who are governed by rules and regulations according to law. The hon. Member is barking up the wrong tree.
Far from it. The hon. and gallant Member says that the War Damage Commission have not been attacked. Here is a Bill which proposes to supersede them. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If anyone proposed to supersede me, I should assume that I was being attacked. Perhaps other hon. Members and myself have a different view of the situation. What everyone wants, irrespective of his views on this particular aspect, is to get justice for those who have suffered war damage. But we do not want claims to be put in at a period so long after the event that it is quite impossible to determine what is due to war damage and what is due to other reasons.
I state definitely, not only on the basis of my experience in Islington, an area which sustained as much war damage as many places, that I defy anyone to make an accurate distinction between war damage and damage by weather over a period of years. I instance the case of my own house in Essex which was seriously damaged and has since developed various defects which, in my view, are not due to war damage—which was repaired—but to subsequent damage by wind and weather. I am convinced that it is impossible, after a period of four, five or six years, to distinguish with great accuracy what is war damage and what is not.
I am not at all sure that it would be to the advantage of this country to supersede the War Damage Commission by a new body. How do we know that such a body would be any better or would provide any better arrangements'? I was surprised to hear from various hon. Members about the notification of claims not having been made. In Islington and elsewhere in London we had the same procedure of the local authorities doing first-aid repairs, but that did not prevent people from putting in their claims. They got information on the subject and put in their claims. Very few people did not put in their claims. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] In the London area there were very few people who did not put in their claims.
Has my hon. Friend been taking the burden of correspondence off my shoulders? I can only assume that if she had had letters from Islington, she would have passed them on to me, as I should have done if letters had come to me from my hon. Friend's Division in Plymouth, so I do not take that gibe seriously. I regard it as being due to the fact that she is in disagreement with the point of view I am putting forward.
I plead with the House not to run away with the idea that merely by setting up a new authority we can put this trouble right. I believe that the only way that can be done is by giving a little greater latitude to the War Damage Commission, as has already been suggested: I hope that when the Financial Secretary replies he will tell us the proportion of settled claims and the proportion of those still in doubt, if he has the figures. I hope it will be possible, by using the existing organisation and without creating a new organisation, to remedy the injustices which still remain, and which I think are scattered rather spottily all over the map and are not all in one place.
I trust that on this occasion I, as a Whip, will be excused for intervening in this Debate. I represent one of the most blitzed areas; my constituency in Hellfire Corner, next to Dover, suffered as much as any from a vast weight of V.1's which came over and from other attacks. Therefore, I am as interested as anyone in this matte.
I wish to congratulate the hon. Members opposite who have introduced this Bill. I was very surprised at the remarks of the hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest). My experience is quite different from what he stated and I have still a large number of outstanding cases. The point was well put by the mover of the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill that the fact that the local authority has been notified should be regarded as notification to the War Damage Commission. The hon. Member for North Islington did not cover that point. I believe I am right in saying that that is the point about which we feel so strongly. Together with my hon. Friends I have no fault to find with the courtesy which I have received from the Financial Secretary and Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve. We owe Sir Malcolm a great debt of gratitude for all the trouble which he has taken in this complicated matter.
What is happening now is that the policy of the Coalition Government is beginning to run down. I expect the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that the majority of cases have been settled. The hon. Member for North Islington gave me the impression, rightly or wrongly, that because the majority of cases had been dealt with this House need not worry about the minority.
I do not think there is any suggestion of that in the Bill. We are simply asking that we may be allowed to tackle the Minister on outstanding cases.
I hope that this Bill will get a Second Reading. I am not certain that the details of the Bill are right, but that can be rectified with Government assistance. We have to look at the matter from the point of view of the small people, and particularly the owner-occupiers of small houses. That covers my own area, where 1,000 V.1's were shot down within three-quarters of a mile of my own office. We have also to think of the larger concerns, including the trade unions and the Cooperative Movement—in fact all the property-owning people of this country who are involved. We cannot allow this matter to be closed.
I make no complaint about the way in which cases I have put up, and am still putting up, have been dealt with, but on the average nine cases out of every 10 have been turned down. I have no legal qualifications, but unless I can think up a good excuse why the form has not been filled up in time I know that the answer will be, "No." The objects of the Bill are good, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be sympathetic.
This is a difficult problem. None of us wants to open the sluice gates and see a great waste of public money. As the hon. Member for North Islington so rightly said, as the years go on it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between war damage and damage caused by weather and other causes; but where claims have been made through the local authority shortly after the time of the incident there can be no possible reason for this House turning them down. That would lead to an injustice. In the years to come we may need national unity more than ever before, and just as much as in 1940. I do not wish to see in areas like Plymouth, Southampton, Dover, Folkestone, Hythe and London which suffered so badly, small elements of people who think that Parliament has done them down. I believe that this House has a responsibility to those people and I hope that the Government will be sympathetic towards the Bill.
It is usual when speaking on a Bill to declare one's interest, especially when it is a monetary interest. I wish to stress my interest as the representative of a much damaged borough. Ilford received many bombs and more V.2'sthe most feared bomb—than any other area in the country. Out of 45,000 houses in Ilford, 40,000 were damaged. The purpose of this little Bill is to do justice to such victims among those 40,000 and others, who, for one reason or another, were late in putting in their claims for war damage compensation.
All that is being asked in this Bill is that the time limit for war damage claims shall be extended. What we are seeking to do is to see that those whose claims have been turned down because their application was too late shall have the opportunity of seeking redress through Parliament. As has been stated, a large number of claimants did not find out that they had to make claims until it was too late. Within the last year or so they have discovered that no proper claim was made on their behalf. Many of them were under the impression that the local authority, which had given first-aid repairs, had the whole matter in hand. The local authority officials did tell them that they were coming back to finish the job and that therefore there was no need for any separate claim. In fact, in many cases the local authorities advised these people not to bother, because the matter was in hand.
I know that the War Damage Commission refute this contention by pointing out that millions of people—I think it is 3,200,000did know what to do, and did fulfil their obligation by making application to the Commission, even if the local authority had carried out first-aid repairs, or even completed the repairs. But that is no consolation whatever to those who are now suffering because of the refusal to accept their claim. Apart from those people who remained in their homes and left the matter to the local authorities, there were a large number who went away from home for one reason or another. When they were able to return and regain possession of their homes, they discovered that their hurried claims fell far below that to which they were justly entitled. Or else they discovered that they had not carried out the procedure by making a claim when the damage occurred, due to ignorance of the damage or ignorance of the procedure.
There were other claimants who were sufficiently public-spirited to stand aside so that those whose repairs were most urgent should be attended to first. They did not worry the local authorities until they thought that the authorities would be free. The authorities appreciated that spirit because it allowed them to concentrate on the worst damage. Those people are now being penalised because they waited. They were not informed when the local authority ceased to carry out repairs, and when they came to have their repairs done they were told they were too late, and that they could not put in claims.
It was evident to various public-minded people and movements that there was a very great deal of ignorance about how to make these war damage claims. For instance, the Co-operative Movement fully recognised that numbers of people did not know how to proceed, despite the fact that the War Damage Commission claimed that sufficient information had been given. Thirty-four Co-operative societies in various parts of the country which had been badly damaged set up services to give advice. Those services were not confined to members of the societies. The advice was freely given to any member of the public, and 14,000 people were assisted in this way. But those services were not sufficient to reach every one of the people who had been backward in making claims.
We do not ask that all these claims shall be met. We ask that where there are genuine grounds for a claim as a result either of bombing or shelling incidents, the claim should be investigated. Even if, as the hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest) said, it is difficult at this late date to estimate the damage due to deterioration and that caused by an incident, we ask that the claims should be investigated. Often people whose property was damaged went to their local authority, who said they could not do the repairs. The authority issued a licence, gave advice as to the builder the people should get, and did not ask whether the people were covered in any way.
We ask that some sort of formula should be arrived at to give at least some measure of rough justice to these victims who have suffered in some way, whether through difficult or extenuating circumstances such as old age, sickness, evacuation or service away from home—whatever it might be, even including ignorance or carelessness. Surely, it is not beyond the wit of the War Damage Commission to devise a scheme. They have the services of skilled men who know what damage is likely to have been caused by war, especially when they have particulars of the incidents which have taken place. The number of claims is not so great that it would need a separate department to deal with them. The Commission have a sufficiently large staff to cope with all the extra claims for which we are pressing.
We are not pleading for dishonest people. We are asking for justice for ordinary, decent hard-working citizens. If an odd rogue escapes the net of this investigation that does not matter so very much. The important consideration is to do justice to all those who have suffered. Those who live in their homes at the time of the bombing suffered varying degrees of shock, and some suffered physical hurt. Everyone whose house was damaged suffered much inconvenience when the first-aid repairs were carried out and later when permanent repairs were made. As if that were not enough, it appears that the Commission must add to that suffering by refusing to pay the cost of the repairs which is a charge which most of the people for whom we are fighting could not possibly afford to pay.
We do not put forward the cases of wealthy concerns or wealthy landlords. The people to whom we refer are ordinary working-class folk, who in the main, live in their own houses. They pulled their full weight during the war and, for one reason or another, they were not able to put in the appropriate application at the proper time. We should not lose sight of the fact that when this procedure was introduced there was general agreement that, as far as possible, there should be equality of sacrifice between those who suffered damage and those who did not. While it would be extremely difficult to share the physical or mental suffering, at least we can share the material loss. That was the main purpose of the war damage contribution. The payment of this contribution by everyone who had property gave a sense of security to the people who felt that, if anything happened, they had no need to worry about it. It is right that that should have been so. If there is not sufficient money remaining in the pool, the required sum should be found by every one of us, through taxation or some other means.
I admit that extra amounts have already been put into the pool. The huge amount of £760 million was mentioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as having been used to meet war damage claims. It is apparent from the fact that applications are being refused that the pool needs replenishing. Whether the War Damage Commission do not wish to ask for more money or whether they are merely anxious to get this matter settled because they have another job which they want to do, I do not know. The Government should not allow injustice to be caused to these people who have suffered. These victims are people who are least able to bear the heavy expense involved. The principle of equal sacrifice has been pushed to one side, and I submit that there should be reconsideration. I should be very sorry indeed if the sympathy and humanity shown by this Government are lost in allowing these victims to continue to suffer injustice.
The case for this Bill has been so persuasively and convincingly put already that I am sure it is not necessary to detain hon. Members for very long. I understand that the Government are unsympathetic towards this Bill, but in view of the arguments advanced from all sides of the House, that this Measure will remove a very real injustice, I hope the Government will give way. It is said that it is only a man of character who is prepared to admit that he is wrong. Governments of all parties have often had to give way on hearing the strength of opinion expressed in this House. A strong Government loses nothing in stature by doing that.
The case has been put most eloquently by hon. Members who sit for boroughs in the South of England and London. I have the honour to represent a constituency on the outskirts of Birmingham. My constituents were fortunate. We did not have very much bomb damage, but even I have come across individual cases where gross injustice has been done because of this arbitrary time limit by which claims had to be entered. The time limit was so arbitrary that one could describe it as nothing less than red tape. I know that my colleagues, on both sides of the House, who represent constituencies in the centre of Birmingham have been convinced by the very large number of cases.
For people who were bombed out, life was very hard. They lost their homes, and very often could not find other homes in the same neighbourhood and had to move to different parts of the country many miles away. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady the Member for North Ilford (Mrs. Ridealgh) that sometimes these people were badly advised by local authorities about submitting their claims. There have been other cases in which bombed-out people went to their lawyers, architects and surveyors and so on, informed them of what had happened and asked for the matter to be handled entirely on their behalf. But these professional men were very few in number during the war; many had been called up and others had insufficient staff to cope with the technical details. One of my hon. Friends told me of a case of a constituent of his who reported the details to the architect so that the architect accepted full responsibility. All the formalities were completed and the claim was notified to the local authority, but because the achitect was so short of staff during the war he mislaid the papers and put the claim in one month late, with the result that the Commission were unable to entertain it.
These are real cases of genuine hardship and injustice. I think the whole House was very much moved by the letter read by the hon. Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley), who moved the Second Reading of this Bill—a letter from a man who was serving in Italy up to the time by which his claim should have been submitted and who, therefore, failed to submit it. We had a case in another field not very long ago whereby the principle of the extension of time was admitted. I refer to the £300 million which was set aside under the Town and Country Planning Act for people to claim when they have suflered some hardship as a result of the Act. An extension of six months has been granted in that case. Strong as the case may be for an extension of time for such applicants, I cannot believe it is anything like so strong as in the case of people who suffered bomb damage in the course of the war and who, because of the very difficult circumstances existing at that time, were unable to submit their claims. I, therefore, add my plea to all those so eloquently made from all parts of the House that the Financial Secretary should offer the Government's goodwill towards this Bill.
I do not think it is necessary at this late hour for me to intervene for very long. The case has been made out by the hon. Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley), who moved the Second Reading and who told us of a large number of cases; and by the history of the long struggle which many of us have put up, both in this House and outside, to obtain the greatest amount of justice possible for our constituents, which was put forward by the hon. Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton). They have mostly covered the ground and the speeches which have followed have included only one dissentient voice, and that a rather feeble one.
From all this I think there has emerged, and the House now has in its possession, a complete and clear picture of perhaps not a very large host, in comparison with the whole problem, but nevertheless of a sufficiently large number of honourable, honest citizens of this country, dazed and anxious men and women at the time, who did not really know what was the best or right thing to do; and of a large number of local authorities, harassed almost beyond their powers and very often with a large number of young and inexperienced people in their employment, who sometimes gave the wrong advice or no advice at all. I think that is the picture which the House has clearly before it. Those are the people for whom today we are asking justice. Those are the people who, even though they may be small in number, see people in the same street or the next street or the next village who have done some little thing they did not do and who have had the whole of their war damage claim met. That only makes even more bitter the case of the people for whom we are pleading. They paid their war damage money and they thought that gave them some kind of insurance.
I should be the very last to deny that there were some people, especially in the early stages, who rather spoiled the market. They were people who knew all the ropes, who could obtain all the expert advice they wanted and who got away with very good war damage payments indeed. I know that one of my own local authorities has made bitter complaints about people of that kind in the constituency and then has pointed out to me, equally bitterly, some other poor man who should have had justice and who has not received it. I have heard local authorities actually comparing the cases. I have in mind, in one village, a very well-to-do and very well-known person in my constituency who obtained almost a new house as a result of a rocket falling near to the old one. In the same village there is a poor man whose cottage was almost completely bombed to the ground, who thought because he saw children playing daily in the ruins of his cottage that it was dangerous, who could not wait too long and therefore pulled down the remainder of his very dangerous, shaky structure. He cannot get a cost of works payment, to which he has a right, but has to accept a miserable value payment, and in the last days of his life is denied a decent house in which to live. That is not a case which comes within the scope of this Bill, but the war damage situation is riddled with anomalies and we may expect our very sympathetic Financial Secretary at least to help us to deal with the particular anomaly covered by the Bill.
Returning to the cases with which we are dealing today. I think there are two classes of case which have not been sufficiently stressed. The first is the case of the person who probably has been advised by his Member of Parliament not to get his war damage repairs done, because, if he does, he "has had it." I have had the greatest courtesy from the War Damage Commission. My colleagues say I have had too much courtesy; they think the courtesies I have received have sometimes been given to me in order to divide those of us who have been working together in this great struggle. They should know me better than that. I have had a great deal of courtesy and help, but I have been told constantly, "Nobody need come to us for assistance in the case of a late application if they have had their war damage repaired." I have constantly had to put these people off, saying, "Do not get your damage repaired." But what happens is that where war damage is left open to the elements for a long time it becomes worse and worse. The result is that when the assessors come to look at it probably a great deal more has to be spent than need have been spent in the first case. I want the Financial Secretary to realise that, for the benefit of his own Government, he should get on with these cases and get on with them quickly. The longer they wait the greater will be the deterioration of the houses that are left open to the weather.
The other case I particularly want to stress is that of which examples were given by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ilford (Mrs. Ridealgh)—the case of the decent-minded citizen who waited because of the pressure of the local authority. There is a woman in my own constituency who could have had her house done up. Indeed, the work was about to be begun, when the local authority came and told her, "The people in the next house have someone extremely ill. Do you mind if we do not start on your house until next week, when it is hoped that the patient will be well?" She agreed. However, the policy was changed by the next week. It so happened that she had not sent in an application to the War Damage Commission, because she thought her house would be done up when all the others in the street were done up. Now she is one of those who are suffering, and whom we are asking the Financial Secretary to help. There are many instances of how the authority worked upon the houses street by street. People would say to themselves, "I wonder if next week it will be our turn?" There are many instances of how the policy was changed, and of people who, having expected their homes soon to be repaired, were disappointed. Many of those whose houses have been done had not sent notification, and had done no more about it than those for whom we are today pleading.
I am sure the Financial Secretary realises that these are real anomalies which we ought to bring to the notice of the House. I do not complain of the War Damage Commission. It has done a magnificent job. We are not concerned, however, with the many cases in which help has been given. We are concerned with the cases where help has not been given. I would remind the Financial Secretary that it is rather like the case of the Minister of Health, who told us of the many women who have had analgesia in childbirth. We are not concerned with those cases. We are concerned to help the women who do not get it. So, here, we are concerned, not with the people who have had satisfaction from the War Damage Commission, but with the people who have not had it, whether because of misfortune, or because they lived on the wrong side of a borough, or because they were in the Army, or because they were old, or because they were ill, or because they were too dazed to know what they ought to do. I do hope that my right hon. Friend will be reasonable today. I hope that even if he cannot accept the Bill he will accept the plea made to him, and give us such help that we shall feel we can withdraw the Bill.
I agree with every word that the hon. Lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) has said. I would say to the hon. Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton), that I think she apologised far too much for the Bill. In my view, this is an admirable way of dealing with this situation. I am convinced that the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest), who is the only one who has spoken against the Bill, has not read it. He kept on referring to the widening of the powers of the War Damage Commission. That is not the point at all. The Commission has ample powers already. It has complete, absolute discretion to do things which those who have had the energy and enterprise to bring in this Bill want done.
I think we are rather apt to funk censuring the War Damage Commission. No one wants to do anything of the sort. However, the position is that the Commission, having been given complete discretion, has to decide upon policy. That is inevitable. One realises that that is a heavy burden. However, the policy having been decided upon, we know it has upset a great number of Members of the House of Commons who, as I understand the excellent speeches from the other side of the House, have approached the Commission in the politest possible way to see if there could be a change made in the policy, but without any satisfactory result. So what is to happen? It seems to me that the only possible thing to do is to take the step which is now being taken, in order that it should be shown that the Commission has really slightly misjudged—it is a small point probably—the position, and should alter the formula.
I want to read to the House a letter of 5th March, 1949, from one of these officials touching this matter of the formula, for which it is possible, from the official point of view, to make out quite a good case. I want to read this letter because then the House will see what it is that we are fighting. It says:
The Commission have repeatedly reminded impending claimants of their obligation to notify them direct of the occurrence of damage, and have at all times emphasised that notification to the local authority is not sufficient to establish a claim on the Commission.
I pause there. As a great number of hon. Members have said, it is all very well to talk like that, but how are people to hear of that, or to read of that? People do not always do what they are told; they do not even know that there is something of which they should have heard or read. The letter goes on:
Despite all this publicity, they"—
that is, the Commission—
gave generous allowances to claimants during the war and for a long time afterwards, and accepted notifications given long outside the period laid down in the regulations.
I do not know why they should talk about its being generous. It seems to me that the length of time in which
persons who have been injured by the enemy should be enabled to be refunded should be very long indeed. I cannot conceive why one should say, "I really cannot give you more than 18 months, otherwise I shall not pay anything at all." That is an intolerable attitude. The letter goes on:
In July, 1946, the Commission issued another reminder.
One wonders where on earth one would have seen it. In some newspaper, I suppose? I cannot imagine that it would have been in the most likely place, where it was most likely to have been seen—on the racing page of the paper. It continues:
It received very wide publicity. The notice must be given only to them if it is desired to make an application. They added a warning that all belated notifications would have to be rejected.
Why should they be "belated"? Now, this is the formula I want the House to note. It is one of those useful formulae from the point of view of a Department:
Since then they have felt obliged to treat such cases with increasing stringency, and for some time now they have not been prepared to accept a new notification unless the circumstances are entirely exceptional.
Why should they have felt obliged to treat such cases with increasing stringency? And what sort of stringency? I beg to know. Why should they be so treated? If, in fact, someone has been a fool, why should he be treated with stringency. I should have thought that the most that would have been necessary would have been to fine him, to have given him a fiver less, or a tenner less, or something of that sort. I suppose that the real reason is that they thought the thing was a confounded nuisance. That is what it amounts to.
They felt obliged to treat such cases with increasing stringency, and for some time now they have not been prepared to accept a new notification unless the circumstances are entirely exceptional.
Exceptional to what? How does a man know that his case is exceptional? I must say here, with the hon. Member for North Islington, and at the risk of raising a laugh—as he did, against himself—that in my constituency we have not had a lot of these cases. I went through the files this morning for two hours with my secretary. I thought, perhaps, I should be able to come here with a large
number of these instances, and come with a flourish with all the papers. But I have not been able to do it. If it turns out that the numbers are not very large—suppose there are some hundreds all over the country and they do not exceed 5,000—then why on earth have they not been dealt with? I get no change at all out of the Financial Secretary. He sits there completely poker-faced, so we shall never know until the last minute, if, in fact, he does tell us, how many cases are involved; if he does not tell us, it will be most sinister.
We ought to know the extent of the refusals by the War Damage Commission and what are the real facts. Why should not the right hon. Gentleman be sensible and say, "We realise now that this country is governed by public opinion, and public opinion is that the policy should be slightly altered?" If he does not do that, I suppose that I must go back and say to my constituent, who seems to have been an ass by asking for his £l1 6s. 2d. a good deal too late, "Well, these people are very stern and you have been too late." That seems to be complete and absolute nonsense. I dare say it is right that there are many people who really thought it was not worth while applying. We do not know, and none of us will ever know, and even this Debate will not be widely read. If we do not get satisfaction, those of us who have managed, in a most miraculous way, in this Debate to show complete unanimity without any reference to Mr. Disraeli from this side or to someone else from the other, then we shall be very disappointed indeed.
I too hope that the House will give this Bill a Second Reading. There is no necessity for us to pretend that if we do give the Bill a Second Reading we are not criticising the War Damage Commission. The Bill confers no new powers on anyone. All it does is to take the discretion as to the time-limit in particular cases out of the hands of the Commission, and to put it into the hands of the Treasury in consultation with certain of the local authorities. The reason why we wish that or something similar to be done, is obviously because we are not satisfied with the way the Commission have so far carried out their discretionary powers. I do not for the life of me see why the Commission should not be criticised. There is no divine right protecting the Commission from the criticism of Members of this House. Indeed, if one goes into some of the correspondence received from the Commission it can be immediately seen that, although it has been couched in impeccable terms of politeness, its contents are a direct reflection on the constituent who feels that his word has not been accepted. If the Commission can, by implication, criticise constitutents and say that they do not think a claim is a proper one, there is no reason why we should not criticise the Commission in this House.
I can appreciate the difficulty of my hon. Friends in framing a Bill of this kind. The original intention behind the 1943 Act was to place the administration of this important part of our lives in the hands of a statutory Commission, so that it should be virtually immune from any kind of political control. That was obviously the reason for creating the Commission, as distinct from leaving the matter in the hands of a Government Department. I can see the difficulty of my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) in proceeding as she has done with her colleagues during these last two or three years. She did not wish to endeavour to take powers away from the Commission to whom those powers were properly given at the beginning. She and those with her have tried everything possible to get a relaxation of the Commission in relation to the re-opening of cases. But the time has now arrived—and I agree that we have not been able to obtain any kind of relaxation on the part of those responsible for administering this discretionary power—seriously to consider giving the powers elsewhere.
My right hon. Friend might reflect whether we are not paying him a compliment. We are not saying that the War Damage Commission have been invariably inhuman; indeed, many of us have quite rightly paid a great tribute to their administrative efficiency. We are merely saying that on balance we prefer the right hon. Gentleman's humanity to the humanity of the War Damage Commission. The House, if it gives this Bill a Second Reading, as I hope it will, will be deciding on that issue.
I think it has been most aptly put from both sides that the bulk of people who are affected by any change in the administration of discretionary powers are those living in comparatively humble circumstances. People that have large claims, people who have a lot of money, have long ago been able to engage professional advisers and have had their claims settled expeditiously at the time. There has been no confusion in the minds of the professional advisers as to the exact nature of the forms to be filled up, and the time of application, and there has been no difficulty in distinguishing whether the War Damage Commission or the local authority were responsible. The bulk of the people affected are the ordinary humble folk and there have been a number of extenuating circumstances in their case to which the Commission might have paid far more attention.
I am not saying that the Commission have rejected every case out of hand. Certainly they have not done that, but there have been cases for instance of the illness of a husband at the time when the claim should have been put in, an illness from which the husband subsequently died, the wife thinking that the claim had gone in when in fact it had not. In such cases some consideration should have been shown. There is no reason at all why a case of that kind should not be just as bona fide as a claim put in three years earlier with the aid of professional advice. There are other cases, too, of those who were on active service and received no report of any damage to their property, people who assumed that everything was all right but when they returned found that there was some damage that had not been notified. There are cases also of damage which at the time appeared to be very slight. Everyone in the country is not invariably "on the make." The bulk of the cases we get are of people who bring an ordinary problem and put it to us honestly. There are, of course, the occasional people who are "on the make" to get as much as they possibly can but Members will agree that the bulk of their constituents come to them with an ordinary human problem, honestly presented.
It does not lie in the mouth of the War Damage Commission to say that because a person waited, thinking that the damage was slight and not of any real consequence, and because at a later stage this incipient damage developed into something greater, therefore the man had some sinister motive in postponing his claim. There are some people who thought at the time that there was extreme pressure on the local authority and on our building supplies, and for that reason did not put in a claim, preferring to wait until the supply of building materials improved. I do not think that the Commission should be able to penalise these people.
Perhaps the worst cases of all—which have been dealt with effectively by my hon. Friends—are those people who have confused the war damage department of the local authority with the local office of the War Damage Commission. Not merely have they confused them, but they have done so in most extenuating circumstances, such as for example illness in the family at the time which contributed to certain mental distress, and there are many cases in which that confusion is attributable to age and infirmity. I have a case now, which I shall not quote in any detail, of an old lady aged 64, who is blind and ill, who confused the war damage department of the local authority with the local office of the War Damage Commission. Yet I get impeccably polite letters from the War Damage Commission in which they decline to do anything about cases of that kind.
I could go on citing these examples. All we are asking for is that the citizen should be given the benefit of any doubt. It is all very well for a Government Department to say, as I suppose it sometimes must, that it is afraid of extending things too widely because abuse may creep in. But I should have thought it would have been far better for five or six "skrimshankers" to get what they are not entitled to, if at the same time thousands of people get what they are entitled to. We should not so batten down our rules and make them so strict that only a minor proportion of those entitled to compensation do in fact get it. Even though my right hon. Friend may not agree with the precise wording of this Clause—and as I understand it. my hon. Friends have not insisted that he should so do—I do plead with hilt seriously to consider what has been said, and not to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, and so show that His Majesty's Government are prepared to give those people affected the benefit of the doubt.
This is a Private Member's day and it is not for the Government to interfere by occupying too much time in a Debate such as this. However, it has become the custom for a Government spokesmen to give an indication of how the Government view the Bill before the House. I do not intend to speak for very long, but I will give some indication of the attitude we consider the House should adopt towards this Measure.
Let me say first that I add my congratulations to those already showered on my hon. Friends the Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley) and the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) and others who have taken part in this Debate. In so far as they had a case—and from the reception of their speeches I gather that most hon. Members present today believe that there is a case—they put it extremely well, and with great fairness and restraint. As my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division said, the Act set up the War Damage Commission, one of whose functions was to consider, to accept, to amend, or to reject claims put in for compensation in respect of war damage. Section 31 of that Act provided that regulations should be made which, among other things, were to lay down the procedure to be followed when notifications submitting claims were put in. The regulations provided, as more than one hon. Member has reminded us today, for notification to be made within a period of 30 days of the incident. There was a proviso that the period could be extended in particular cases, at the discretion of the War Damage Commission.
This Bill, in a single and simple provision, seeks to take that discretion from the War Damage Commission and hand it to the Treasury. What are the Treasury to do with this new power, which is permissive? The Treasury may use it if they will, or may ignore it. That is how I read the intention of the Bill. If the Treasury use the new discretion, they must consult the War Damage Commission or the local authority in whose area the damaged property is. If the Treasury consult the Commission, obviously it is no good doing so unless they pay some regard to the point of view taken by the Commission on particular cases, and it is to that point of view that the promoters of the Bill object. For it is only in particular cases about which trouble has arisen that further discretion will be needed.
If the Treasury use that discretion, they have to go to the very people who have already made up their minds about the matter. [Interruption.] I am trying to be fair and I am putting the point of view from which we see the matter. I have to deal with the Bill which is before the House. Are the Treasury to set up the very expensive machinery referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest)—what he said was quite right—and to have regional machinery of their own? The Treasury would have to engage staff. I do not know what hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite would say about that. They are always urging us to reduce the Civil Service. That staff, to be of any value, would have to be expert staff, which is not easy to come by in that direction in these days. The War Damage Commission already have that kind of regional staff in existence and, according to hon. Members who have spoken today, it is a very good staff and hon. Members have little or no fault to find with it.
Is not my right hon. Friend misreading the Bill, which provides for consultation with the War Damage Commission or with the local authority in order to obviate the very difficulty which my right hon. Friend is putting to the House? The information regarding cases that come before the Treasury for decision will be either with the War Damage Commission, or with the local authority, or with both.
I do not want to make any statement which is incorrect. The last thing I want to do is to misrepresent my hon. Friend and others who have spoken and who, I can see, are very anxious that the Bill should be considered and agreed to. I am only putting what seem to me to be the plain facts surrounding the provision contained in the Clause, namely, that the Treasury would have to consult either the Commission or the local authority. In either case they would have to accept the advice tendered or set up machinery of their own to check for themselves what had been said. It would be unfair to the Treasury to put this discretion in their hands and then give them no machinery for coming to an independent judgment.
This is a Private Members' Bill, and it will take the usual route that Private Members' Bills take. They are talked out, sent to a Committee upstairs, or rejected. What will happen to this Bill at four o'clock I cannot say, and it is not for me at this juncture to say that, if certain words are dropped, that would, in itself, make it an acceptable Bill. If I had to hazard an opinion, I would say that it would not do so, in spite of the fact that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Exeter (Mr. Maude) thinks the Bill to be admirable in its present form. I have great admiration for his professional skill and legal knowledge, but I was surprised to hear him call this an admirable Bill. For I know why my hon. Friends have produced it. My hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division is under no illusion about the Bill. It does not mean anything. The only way a change can be brought about is by a change of policy. That is what hon. Members in all parts of the House are really asking for, but the Bill does not make a single change in the policy which has been pursued in the past and would continue to be pursued, supposing the Bill were accepted.
I did not want to prevent other hon. Members from speaking by being too long, but if I have time I will deal with that point. Suppose the House accepted the Bill, or that part of it which permits consultation with the local authorities. It is suggested that the local authorities kept records and know what happened when bomb damage occurred and would therefore be able to check whether it was or was not genuine bomb damage. However, it is nearly four years since the last bomb fell and nearly ten years since the first bomb fell. That is a considerable period of time. So long as the terms of the 1943 Act and the definition of war damage there set forth continue, the Commission or the Treasury, whichever it is, must think of the taxpayer and abide by the law. The damage must be war damage before it can be accepted and a claim acceded to.
The difficulty in regard to the local authorities is that many of them kept no records for reasons which hon. Member's have mentioned, such as the circumstances of the times or the shortage of staff, that some of those which did keep records kept them well, but that the vast majority were in too great a hurry to keep them well. The records which were kept were scanty, and unfortunately it is quite impossible at this date—I have examined many cases—to get any real indication of what the damage was in a particular street, whether it was structural or just a cracked window or perhaps a ceiling down in one room. Therefore, we cannot get any help from these records. I ask the House to remember that.
The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) asked me whether the Bill, if passed, would not mean that Treasury Ministers could be approached, cross-examined and questioned on these cases. Of course, if this Bill were passed, that would undoubtedly be one of the things that would flow from its passing. Hon. Members should ask themselves this question: would it really be wise for that to happen? We have to remember that when these Acts were passed during the war and Parliament decided to set up a semi-judicial, semi-independent body, such as the War Damage Commission is, it did so with its eyes open. It knew that there would be thousands of claims coming in as the years went on, and that, if Members of Parliament in their political capacity as representatives of various areas were put to the hazard of the political pressure which would undoubtedly fall upon them, it would be unfair to the Members and not administratively right.
Parliament in its wisdom decided that it was much better for a Commission of this kind to be set up which is independent of such political pressure. Not that I am saying that in certain circumstances political pressure by a constituent through his Member of Parliament is not legitimate and proper. Here we are dealing with claims which, in the aggregate, will run into something like £1,000 million or more, and I think that most hon. Members, on reflection, will agree it was a good thing that Parliament set up the War Damage Commission. After all, it takes an expert to know the truth of these matters. Members of Parliament cannot, in the nature of things, know whether a claim is genuine or not, and from every point of view I suggest to the House that it is much better to leave it to a Commission of this kind, independent of Parliament, composed of men who are above the battle, who have no axe to grind, and who have experts at their command.
They are rather different. [Interruption.] Yes, indeed, they are very different, but I cannot go into that now. What is plain is that, in 1943, Parliament came to the decision to put chattels under the Board of Trade. We must assume that, when Parliament came to that decision, it did it with its eyes open. I was present during the Debate. Again, it set up this Commission with its eyes open.
The real reason this Bill has been introduced is to try to get some change of policy so far as a very small minority of cases are concerned. Many of the speeches today were founded on a misconception of either what has been done or what is still possible. I cannot today go into the cases that have been quoted. They have, naturally, to go to the War Damage Commission, and the War Damage Commission has dealt, or will deal, with them, if hon. Members will forward them in the ordinary way. Not having the details of any one of the cases, it is quite impossible for me to say anything about them here today. What I think hon. Members who have referred to those claims are forgetting is the long years during which the Commission accepted notifications about almost any claim that a Member liked to bring forward.
It has been said that the War Damage Commission now invariably rejects late notifications. That is not true. The regulations lay down that 30 days should be allowed for the notifications to be made. During the whole of the war, when all these people were evacuated, when men were abroad soldiering, and when there were all the various reasons for delay which have been given today, no notification was rejected because it was out of time. The war came to an end, and still no limit was placed. Through 1945 and 1946, still no limit was being applied. Any notification sent in was accepted and examined and either allowed or disallowed by the Commission. But towards the end of 1946—because everything has to come to an end sometime, even war damage payments——
Towards the end of 1946 the Commission indicated to the public that the time would have to come when the acceptance of notifications would have to cease, and that it would have to become more stringent than it had been. In the Spring of 1947, it was still accepting any notification that came to it, but in 1947 it began to be more stringent in its attitude to notifications that were coming in, I think quite properly so.
This thing cannot go on for ever. The hon. and learned Member for Exeter asks why there should be a limit to the period. I think that, if he had a fire at his house tomorrow, and in three years' time he wrote to his insurance company about it, they would indicate to him very clearly that there must be a limit to these things.
The number which Members bring to the attention of the War Damage Commission is not very great. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I honestly do not know how many. It is not a large number. Anyway, the exact number makes very little difference to the argument. If a change of policy occurred, there would immediately be an enormous flood of applications from all sorts of people who would say, "Well, it will only cost us 2½d. Let us try it on." Surely, at this stage, four years after the last bomb fell, we have got to use our common sense in these matters and protect the War Damage Commission from a flood of that kind. The War Damage Commission has been very lenient in the way it has accepted late notifications: and where the reason is a good one, and where it can be shown that the war damage is substantial structural damage, it still does accept notifications. But they have had to be more stringent than formerly and, I think, very properly so, because this thing has to come to an end at some time.
A certain amount has been said today—and very properly, because it has been one of our difficulties—about cases where notification was made to the local authority, the local authority came in and did a certain amount of repair work, and then went away and never came back. The War Damage Commission have taken these areas into consideration—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I hesitate to say that what my hon. Friends are now saying is wrong, but I have discussed this point with the War Damage Commission and, quite obviously, there is a conflict of evidence between what they tell me and what is now being said.
Is not the confusion that where the local authority has been prepared to go in sackcloth and ashes and say, "We made a mistake, our procedure broke down," the War Damage Commission have been prepared to consider claims in that local area, but that most local authorities will not do that? Most local authorities know what ought to have been done and assume that it was done, but we know that owing to the inefficiency of many minor officials it was not done, and the War Damage Commission will not look at it.
That type of case has been mentioned during the Debate and I am sure the War Damage Commission will read what has been said and take note of the points made by hon. Members, including that now mentioned by the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers). I assure my hon. Friends that my information is that the stringency the War Damage Commission have felt bound to impose has been gradual and it has not been the same in all areas. In certain areas where the local authority, for example, finished war damage repair work earlier than in others, they got tough a little earlier with cases from that area than with cases from other areas. Where bomb damage repair work by the local authority has only recently been completed, cases have been accepted until quite recently.
All that goes to show that the War Damage Commission have done their best to treat this matter with the greatest sympathy and understanding. It is a difficult field to administer, but I think everyone will agree that they have done a good job. More than 3,500,000 notifications put in have been accepted and about £770 million of money has already been allocated. I do not know how many more claims there are to be met, but it is quite obvious that more money will have to be spent. As to the premiums which came in, of course they never even approximated by millions to the amount that will have to go out on the other side. I make no claim on that, although the hon. Member for Orpington thought it would have been a good thing to let private insurance companies take this job on. If they had done so, they would have lived to regret it.
The hon. and learned Member for Exeter asked me one or two questions, one of which he has put to me again. I can only repeat that I have not the numbers by me. If it is possible to get them, I will see that they are obtained and that he receives them. He also made the point that these claims should be acceded to because they are few in number—in his view perhaps no more than 5,000. The answer is that whether the numbers are large or small, it the claims are and can be shown to be war damage claims, quite obviously under the law they should be accepted. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."] Then I do not know what we are arguing about. The difficulty of the War Damage Commission is that it is now quite impossible, owing to the effluxion of time and often to the procrastination of individuals who should have known better, to say what is war damage and what is wear and tear. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."]
I ask hon. Members, do they agree that the War Damage Commission has to come to an end some time or do they, agree with the hon. and learned Member for Exeter, who thinks that claims should go on coming in indefinitely? If they agree, as I am sure they do, that the Commission has to wind up its job some time, I ask them how many years after the last bomb fell it would be considered to be right and proper for the last claim to come straggling in to be refused? If hon. Members will answer that question quite fairly, and if they will then also realise that the War Damage Commission have done a good job and done it well, within the four corners of the Act, and if they will look at this Bill and see what it suggests doing, they will have no difficulty in coming to a decision as to what attitude they should adopt towards it.
I am sure that hon. Members who have listened to every speech in this Debate as I have done, will, after listening to the right hon. Gentleman, share with me a bitter disappointment. From the very start it was apparent that the right hon. Gentleman had definitely made up his mind that the policy which the Commission were carrying out was the policy which he considered right and proper. The question with which we are concerned today is that hon. Members of this House have spoken in no uncertain terms, with the exception of the hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest), to the effect that they do not consider that policy to be right. These two views are in conflict with each other.
Another point was made which I fail to understand. At the conclusion of his speech the right hon. Gentleman nearly gave way by saying that he considered that if it could be shown that the damage was war damage, it should be met. But I listened to that point in despair. The whole argument of hon. Members has been that again and again actual cases have been put up to the Commission. I will quote one now—to which I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will listen, in order that I can make my point—in which the Commission does not disagree about the question of the damage done. It is a case of a widow whose husband was killed in their house. She wrote and asked for the necessary form, which she received, filled up, and handed, within the proper time, to the builder, who handed it to the architect. Unfortunately the architect left it in a drawer. He is willing to sign an affidavit, which the builder is also willing to sign, to the effect that the form was handed in at the appropriate time. The Commission is not disagreeing as to whether it is war damage or not. That is not the question. They disagree because the actual form had not reached the Commission by the required date, and so payment cannot be made.
I believe that at the beginning of this Debate hon. Members were rather gentle with the Commission. We all agree with regard to the courteous attitude of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve and his officials. But there is no reason to be gentle if one fundamentally disagrees with a policy and a principle, and it is a policy and principle that we are here disputing. Under the War Damage Act the Commission has the right of opinion as to whether or not they shall exercise their discretion over certain questions of payment should the claims be late. I will not weary the House by referring once more to it. But they have now decided in their wisdom, that after a certain date, if demands have not been made to them, these payments are not to be made. That is what is in dispute and what hon. Members do not think is right.
The hon. Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley) and the hon. Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) have introduced the Bill in order to try to set this matter right and to give the power to the right hon. Gentleman, a Minister of this House, so that at all times he can be questioned on the Floor of the House. That is the point of the Bill. I see the dilemma of the right hon. Gentleman. The Act of 1943 gives authority to the Commission and therefore the right hon. Gentleman, as a Member of the Government, does his best to try to defend what the Commission has done. But there is a conflict between the two policies. I am sure that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member who introduced this Bill did not do so in order to ventilate a grievance, but to achieve an object.
I believe there is only one way of achieving that object. If hon. Members of this House agree with me and disagree with the principle which the War Damage Commission is carrying out, although the Government at this moment can do nothing about it a registered protest by this House could achieve the object. If this House, as a whole, wishes to disagree with the principle that the Commission is carrying out, surely under the wealth and strength of our democracy there is nothing that the Commission could possibly do other than to accept the verdict of this House and alter their principle.
The Financial Secretary suggested it was an obvious duty of this House, and common sense, for us to protect the War Damage Commission. I quite understand a Minister of the Crown taking that view, but I suggest that that is not the most important thing which this House has to do. We represent the ordinary people of this country, and it is common sense and right that we should protect their interests before the interests of the War Damage Commission. I believe it is because that attitude has been adopted that this agitation for justice to these people has been carried on for so long by certain Members of this House.
I admit that we deeply regret having had to bring forward a Private Member's Bill on this matter. We have been hoping against hope during the whole of the period, that the Commission, helped perhaps by the Government, would have seen common sense and reason in this thing. We agree with the Financial Secretary that this is not the best way of dealing with the difficulty. The seconder of the Motion made that quite clear. We know that the War Damage Act has given the Commission the necessary powers to deal with this particular problem. The reason we have the Bill today is they have not dealt with that problem and because there still exist in the bomb-damaged constituencies people who are suffering grievous loss and worry owing to the neglect of this item by the War Damage Commission.
It is my duty—and I want to try to do it coolly and dispassionately—to sum up and to refute the objections which the Government have to this Bill. I think the objections can be summed up under three headings: one, the difficulty of accepting the records of local authorities; two, the failure of claimants to notify the War Damage Commission when the Ministry of Health stopped the councils from doing the work; and, three, the difficulty in deciding at a late date what is or is not war damage. If these objections on the part of the Commission and the Government can be met, we must give this Bill a Second Reading. If we do that, it will signify that there is deep disquiet in this House, as there is in the country, with the present position, and something will have to be done. Indeed, the Financial Secretary virtually admitted that when he said that he hoped that the War Damage Commission would take notice of what was being said here today.
Let us consider the suggestion that there is difficulty in accepting the records of local authorities. Nobody who is supporting this Bill is suggesting that those records should be taken as anything but an indication that war damage did occur. We should never dream of asking the Commission to accept a claim without reasonable and proper examination, but we say that the local authority knows, by the records that were kept, where war damage occurred and from where there was likely to be a claim. The cases we would deal with under this Bill are in no way different from those cases where claims have been accepted and repairs carried out. The records of the local authorities were the same in both types of case—the case where they themselves did the repairs and those where the Ministry of Health stopped them. The Commission are now rejecting applications for compensation though the records are exactly the same in both cases. Therefore, I suggest that the first objection does not hold water.
The second objection concerned the failure of claimants to notify the Commission when the Ministry of Health stopped the councils doing the work. This is the core of the dispute. It is admitted by the Commission that a refusal to recognise claims is based solely upon this consideration. They have said repeatedly that if they can be satisfied that there was good reason for failure to notify, they will admit the claim for examination. We contend that this qualification applies to all cases covered by this Bill. Let us consider what type of notification was given. First, it is said it was given by the Press and the radio. I say without fear of contradiction that that is not enough. There is no guarantee that a claimant would see the Press or hear the radio. It may be that we are starting on a new method of giving information to the public. It may be that the Government intend to use the Press and the radio for this purpose. I contend, however, that that is not enough. Due notice should have been given to our people that this was the new method the Government intended to use. They did not do so. Therefore, I contend—I am sorry to have to say this—that it is cruel stupidity to cause people to suffer because they did not give notification in this way. Moreover, I venture to say that most prospective claimants who knew that their claim had been lodged in the office of the local authority would have considered that everything which was necessary had been done and, therefore, would have discounted notices in the Press and over the radio.
Next, it is said that local authorities should have given notification. Let us look at what local authorities in fact did. I shall take my own constituency because I know that best, but it is typical of what happened elsewhere. There are two borough councils in my constituency—Mitcham and Wallington. In Mitcham the local authority consulted the Ministry of Health, took their advice and issued to inquirers only—not generally but to
people who came to the council offices and inquired—a Ministry of Health circular called F.R.S.1. In the Mitcham end of my constituency there was no general notification whatever by the local authority. How, therefore, was the claimant to know what the position was? The document which was issued gives the official mind and the official point of view on these matters. I quote from this circular:
Work still to be done. If the war damage repairs to your house have not been fully completed you may make a claim upon the War Damage Commission in the ordinary way. It must be appreciated that while you are entitled to have any outstanding work done it may not be possible for you to arrange for it for a substantial time because of the demands of other more urgent work, and because of the shortage of craftsmen.
I contend that this is an indication for patriotic citizens to postpone having this work done, and very great numbers of the people who are complaining tell us that it was precisely for this reason that they did not put their demand forward earlier. Let us look at the other end of my constituency—Wallington——
With reference to the cases in the circular which the hon. Member has just read, I have indicated in my speech that they are still covered. In spite of the fact that they did not have notification within 30 days, even now the War Damage Commission will accept such notifications if the damage is substantial, structural and unrepaired and the claimants can show that it was war damage.
I am sorry to say that that is not the case. Every one of us in the past years has had exactly this type of case turned down three times on individual application and two or three times following applications by Members of Parliament. The Financial Secretary and the Government really must find out what are the facts of this case, because it is obvious from what we have heard today that they do not know.
At the other end of my constituency, in Wallington, the only claimants who had any notification were those where repair was actually being carried on by the council—where the council workmen were in when the Ministry of Health instruction came down. When the workmen left, in those cases only did that council give any notice whatever to the claimant. Moreover, it was only in roads the names of which began with any of the letters A to K that any of this work was going on. The remainder of the roads, beginning with any of the letters L to Z, were totally disregarded.
Let us look at the sort of notice which was given to this limited extent. The hon. Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley), who moved the Second Reading of this Bill, mentioned one of them. Let me read the contents of another. It says:
This notice does not mean that the property owner is losing any of his rights under the War Damage Acts. … If a licence for war damage repairs is refused … it does not mean that the right of reinstatement is forfeited. It means that the situation with regard to labour and materials is such that consent to the work cannot be granted at the present time.
There is not a word in that circular advising the claimant to apply to the War Damage Commission. In view of the sketchy nature of this information, in view of the inaccurate information that was given, no claimant can be blamed for not having communicated immediately with the War Damage Commission. If any proof is required of that, I can read a letter of 22nd October last year from Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, the Chairman of the War Damage Commission, telling me that these notices are of an extremely misleading character. I suggest that if Government authorities, local government authorities, and the War Damage Commission do not consider the matter satisfactorily, it is wrong that individual claimants should be treated in the way in which they are being treated at present.
Then there is the question of the difficulty of deciding what is war damage and what is not. It is perfectly true that as time goes on it is more and more difficult to distinguish between war damage and damage that is not war damage. Is it, however, the fault of the individual claimant that this difficulty has arisen? I contend that the replies that we have made to the other two objections show that the claimant is not in any way to blame for what has occurred. Therefore, if there is any fault, we, as a community, should share the difficulty, and not inflict injustice on those people, whom the Financial Secretary admits are few. I have tried logically and reasonably to answer the detailed objections of the War Damage Commission and the Government. I suggest that the Government and the War Damage Commission, knowing what has been said in this House, must also know that there is a case for alteration of the policy in dealing with these matters.
In speaking of this particular Measure, I may put myself against a good many hon. Friends of mine on this side of the House, but having gone into the matter, and having listened to the arguments almost ad nauseam, not only today but on other occasions, I find it very difficult to understand why we should have all this sound and fury rising up to boiling point and signifying nothing. We have all had experience of the War Damage Commission. Many of us know the chairman. We know his impartial mind; we know his ability. We know that we have here an independent body set up to do justice between the subject and the Crown.
In my own personal experience, extending over a number of years, I cannot think of a single case that I have represented to the War Damage Commission in which I felt that injustice was done. I can think of many cases in which the Commission extended the time, even beyond what I myself might have thought proper. I can think of many a case in which it found some reason for thinking that, perhaps, as there was misunderstanding, and so forth, the time should be extended. Many hon. Members may have individual constituents who are disgruntled because they have not secured that extension of time which they thought proper, but the War Damage Commission must have certain principles to guide it
I shall stop in a moment, but I want to finish my speech. What does this Bill propose to do? It proposes to take away from this independent,
very impartial and capable body these matters, and hand them over to the Treasury. It proposes to do so in these words:
'the Treasury may after consultation with the Commission or the county borough or district council in whose area the property in question is situate in their discretion extend any limit of time in particular cases '.
In the first place, it makes the whole matter political in principle. Any member of the public may exercise influence over the Treasury to override the Commission, and county borough and district councils can override the decisions of this impartial Commission.
I say, very seriously and with due deliberation, that if this House gives a Second Reading to a Bill of this nature, and still more if it passes it, I do not see how the War Damage Commission can carry on. I do not see how we can expect anything other than the resignation of the Commission. In my view, no responsible body, such as the Commission, could possibly exercise its functions if it is to be limited at this late stage by a Measure of this nature.
I can only repeat what I have said before, that my experience and the experience of friends of mine in this House with whom I have discussed the matter is that the Commission has exercised its function with the greatest impartiality and judicial sense, under a chairman, not only trained in the law but eminent in the law, who is non-political and prepared on every occasion, however late in time, to consider the merits of a particular case. It is a reflection and a censure upon that Commission, for us, after all these years, to give countenance to a Bill of this kind. I am sorry to differ in opinion from friends of mine, but I feel that from my own knowledge of the way the Commission has done its work, it is right that these words should be said.