I wish to inform the House that I have received a further resolution of sympathy in connection with the recent flood disaster from the West German Bundestag. I have replied to their President, expressing the thanks of the House for his message.
I beg to move,
That this House desires to record its deep sympathy with the Governments and peoples of the Netherlands and Belgium in the personal suffering and material loss inflicted on them by the unprecedented violence of the sea on the night of 31st January to 1st February, 1953, and its approval of the practical measures of assistance which have been extended by Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom; and further offers warm thanks on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom for the spontaneous generosity of friendly nations within and without the Commonwealth which has been freely proffered for the relief of the hardship and loss suffered by so many of Her Majesty's subjects on that occasion;
And that this House, deeply moved by the calamity which befell this country on the same night, records its sympathy with all those who suffered bereavement, injury or material loss by tempest or flood; takes note of the declared intention of Her Majesty's Government to treat the catastrophe on a national basis; welcomes the welfare measures to mitigate suffering and distress and the measures to repair the damaged sea defences which were put in hand; acknowledges with gratitude the unremitting labours, during and since the disaster, of local and statutory authorities, police forces, voluntary organisations, and civilian workers, including voluntary workers; pays tribute to the magnificent work done by members of Her Majesty's Forces and the Forces of her Allies; and pledges its support in seeking the solution to the problems left by the disaster, many of which are recognised to be of a long-term character.
The shock felt by the whole nation on hearing, for the first time, of the great storm which swept over the North Sea coasts during the night of 31st January has been followed, as the toll of tragedy and devastation has been counted, by a surge of deep concern and sympathy for all those who suffered. It is that sympathy and concern, especially for the relatives of those who died, which we wish to put on record today. We are resolved that the nation shall do everything within its power to make good the
distress which this sudden disaster has brought to so many thousands of our fellow countrymen. We cannot restore or repair everything that is lost, but we shall seek to combine the generosity of the individual and the resources of the State so as to replace as best we may the homes and the furnishings which the seas by their invasion have destroyed.
Great as our own afflictions have been, the thoughts of the British Empire turned throughout these days to our neighbours in the Low Countries, whose ordeal was far harder than our own. I am indeed glad that our Armed Forces were able to lend their help to the people of the Netherlands, whose courage and resolution have again proved worthy of their famous past. We and they, too, have been encouraged and sustained by the generous and spontaneous offers of help which have poured in upon us from overseas. They have not only come from countries in our own Commonwealth and Empire, which have never failed us in our hour of need, but from peoples and Governments of many other lands.
Finally, we remember with gratitude and admiration the many thousands who worked day and night to bring relief to those in danger and distress—the Armed Forces of the Crown, the police, the local authorities, the Red Cross and St. John, the Civil Defence organisations, mustering at once at the sound of the alarm, the Women's Voluntary Services, most effective and intimate, the Salvation Army and the Church Army, and all the magnificent voluntary organisations which we never called upon in vain.
Then there are a vast number of unknown, but not less honourable, individuals who have shown themselves willing to prove that they are good neighbours in the hour of need, and who will unite or are capable of uniting effectively in good planning to prevent a renewed disaster. All engaged in this showed once again in various ways the quality and strength of our civilisation.
I rise to support, on behalf of my friends on this side of the House, the Motion which has been so fittingly and eloquently moved by the Prime Minister. I think that, rightly, we give first place in this Motion to the sufferings of our friends in the Low Countries. They have been engaged for centuries in a battle with the sea, and they have suffered one of the greatest reverses in their history. As the Prime Minister has said, they have met it with that courage that they have always shown.
I recall very well that, in the last stages of the war, I visited the island of Walcheren, which we had to flood, and I talked to the people there. I recall the courage with which they faced their difficulties, and how they said to me then, "Our country has been flooded many times in the last thousand years, but we will be free, even if we are flooded." A few years later, I revisited that island for a ceremony of replanting trees, and I saw what had been done in restoration. It is a tragedy now that, once again, not only Walcheren and Buiveland but many other adjoining islands have suffered in this terrible disaster. I am sure that it is a satisfaction to us that we have been able to render some help to our friends.
Then there are the sufferings in our own country, and there again our people have displayed their characteristic courage. There have been very many moving stories of heroism on the part of men and women and of children, and this disaster has been met characteristically by the work of public authorities, private organisations and private individuals, and the only thing that one can see that comes out on the credit side, when we look at all this suffering, is that it does bring out the neighbourliness of people, not only in our own country but in other countries, in the wave of help that has been given unstintingly and the work done in rescue, not only by our own troops but by Americans over here, and really does unite us in our feelings of a common humanity.
Every hon. Member of the House, I am sure, desires to support this Motion as an expression of our own personal, sincere sympathy with all those in all three countries who have suffered bereavement, personal injury and much material loss, our gratitude to all those who have so readily and generously come to our aid in this hour of need and our admiration for the courage, gallantry and unstinted devotion of all those who worked unstintingly throughout this tragic disaster on behalf of their fellow men and women.
I need only add this: that we should certainly and at once take all measures necessary to restore our sea defences, replace the lost homes and repair the damaged property, and should see that our coast defences are not only put in order but kept under constant supervision.
The disaster which befell the country during the night of 31st January and 1st February is so much in the minds of us all that I need not go into great detail in describing it. The tragic loss of the steamer "Princess Victoria," the great storm damage in Scotland, and the terrible damage and loss of life in the Eastern Counties will, as the House has just indicated, remain in the memory of us all for a long time, but I think the House will wish me to begin by summarising very briefly the extent of the disaster and the immediate steps which were taken.
The main meteorological factor leading to the disaster was an exceptionally severe and widespread northerly gale in the North Sea which developed over Scotland and Northern England on the Saturday morning and later spread southwards to the Dutch coast. This gale not only caused a substantial rise in the sea level in the southern part of the North Sea, coinciding with the time of the spring tides, but also developed heavy seas which pounded the sea walls.
The tidal conditions that night were far worse than anything that previous experience could have led us to expect or provide against. After the flooding of Horsey, in Norfolk, and elsewhere, in 1938, new standards were set for sea defences; and when, in 1949, record tidal levels were reached and floods occurred in many places, still higher standards for sea defences were adopted. Yet the tides on the night of 31st January were nearly two feet above the record tides of 1949, and the sea defences were over-topped for a great part of their length. The scale of the disaster was increased by the fact of the water coming through the defences when it was dark, so that people were trapped in their homes.
I turn now to an assessment of the damage in England. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be speaking later about storm damage north of the Border. The number of dead is now reported to be 307, and this total includes 11 persons formerly reported as missing but now presumed to be dead; and the police, on the last information available to them, are not now aware of any persons unaccounted for. I should like to place on record our deep regret that 17 Americans lost their lives in the floods and that 67 American families in the flooded area lost their possessions.
Over 32,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, some 7,000 had to be looked after by public authorities for some days—some 2,000 are still in rest centres—and the others made their own arrangements for accommodation. The hardships caused by the flooding and the bad weather were increased by dangers due to damaged sewerage systems and to the presence of mines washed in from the sea. Twenty-three mines had to be dealt with by the Service authorities.
There were breaches in the sea wall from the East Riding of Yorkshire down to Kent varying from small cracks to gaps hundreds of yards in length. Over 1,200 breaches have been listed by the river boards. Some low-lying islands, such as Foulness, were almost completely submerged
The total area of agricultural land flooded on the night of 31st January was in the region of 150,000 to 175,000 acres, some 64,000 acres being arable land and some 79,000 acres being grassland. But this, fortunately, is not as bad as it sounds. Two-thirds of the flooded area was under water for only a short period, and only about one-third of the total area flooded will have been seriously affected by the salt water.
Thanks to excellent salvage work by the local farming community—and what work these words of mine connote—losses of stock were lighter than might have been expected; but, nevertheless, upwards of 1,000 cattle, 8,000 sheep, 1,500 pigs and about 20,000 poultry were lost.
The damage to private dwellings cannot yet be accurately stated, but preliminary surveys show that about 25,000 houses were flooded and that 350 to 450 were destroyed. In addition, 200 houses may be beyond repair. This, however, is no measure of the loss to individuals, for when the houses were flooded much furniture was destroyed or badly damaged. Many houses had inches or even feet of sand washed into them, and others were thick with evil-smelling mud.
Our sympathies must also go out to the relatives of the 38 members of the crews of the three trawlers who lost their lives when their vessels foundered with the loss of all hands in the storms of that fateful week-end. In addition, a number of small inshore fishermen in England and Scotland had their boats smashed or badly damaged and have been deprived, at least for a time, of their normal means of livelihood.
Let me turn for a moment to industrial establishments. Extensive damage was caused to business and industrial premises. Three oil refineries were affected. The one at Shellhaven was partly flooded, but the damage was slight and the refinery is in full operation. It may be two months before the new refinery at Coryton can be restarted. The date of commissioning of the refinery in the Isle of Grain, which is near completion, has probably been put back for about a month. The damage to these refineries does not mean that there is any imminent threat of a shortage of petrol in the United Kingdom.
A number of gas and electricity installations were affected, but for the most part. thanks to the efforts of local staffs. output is almost back to normal. Several factories were affected by flooding, the most seriously affected being a margarine factory at Purfleet. The factory will probably have to be re-wired, and most of the 500 tons of margarine in store will be useless for human consumption. About 2,000 tons of cereals have been damaged in various stores, but most of it will be fit for animal feeding.
The most serious loss of foodstuffs is of raw sugar. A considerable proportion of a stock of about 66,000 tons at Purfleet has been lost. A number of small busi- nesses and shops have been hard hit by the floods, and the efforts made by many shop keepers to maintain their service to the public are deserving of high praise.
The hospitals had to deal with a number—
Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman leaves the subject of industrial establishments, will he say whether he intends substantially to deal with the question of financial compensation to industrial concerns?
Certainly. I have kept the statement as short as possible so as not to interfere with the business of the House, but I thought it would be convenient if I first gave a general picture of the damage. I hope that the House will bear with me while I do so.
I was just saying a word about hospitals. They have had to deal with a number of cases of exposure, and their task was made heavier by the existence of an influenza epidemic in the area. But the epidemic did not appear to spread as a result of the flooding, and the health of those who had to leave their homes remained on the whole satisfactory.
Some serious damage was done to sewerage plant and pipes, but in nearly all areas a supply of clean drinking water was maintained—Roads in some of the areas, as hon. Members are well aware, were damaged by flooding; and damage has also been caused by the repair work on the coast defences, particularly in Lincolnshire, where large quantities of material have had to be moved. Some damage was caused to railway tracks. notably in Kent.
That is a blueprint picture of the damage. It must be remembered that this appalling disaster, happening, as it did, during the darkness of a winter night, might have been expected to cause widespread panic and confusion. But, as on so many occasions in the past, people remained admirably steady in the face of danger, and relief efforts, in accordance with the plans to meet emergencies, rapidly came into effect. In these efforts, as we have just taken note, the local authorities, the Services, voluntary organisations and others worked side by side.
I could spend a great deal of time—and I should very much like to do so—detailing the great efforts made by all concerned, but it must suffice if I state very briefly the part played by some of the various bodies; and if, in a quick review, I should fail to mention the good services of any particular organisation or service I ask their indulgence in advance.
The urgent task of rescuing those still in danger was, for the most part, carried out by the police assisted by the Services, Civil Defence workers, firemen and local volunteers. There was an immediate response by the public and the local authorities to give every assistance to all who had been forced to leave their homes: householders in the safer parts of the flooded region threw open their homes, and district councils made preparations to accommodate families who bad nowhere to go. The Government quickly instituted a system of lodging allowances to assist householders who gave shelter to the flood victims.
Rest centres were speedily set up near the affected areas. Many of them were in schools and church halls, but hotels, camps, caravans and an industrial hostel were also used. The voluntary organisations co-operated with the local authorities in running these centres. I had great pleasure, and I am sure many hon. Members had that pleasure too, in seeing how the headmaster of a school turned to and changed his activity from teaching to organising and running a rest centre. It was a most heartening sight.
Emergency feeding arrangements throughout worked very well and special attention was given to the needs of babies, the sick and the elderly. I hope that the House will agree with my mentioning that a heavy load was thrown on the organisation of the National Assistance Board since many of those evacuated in a hurry were without money. Local officials were given wide discretion to deal with cases, and relief was quickly provided.
I turn again for a brief moment to the Services. The Royal Navy produced working parties and craft which were of the greatest value in rescue and supply work, particularly in the Sheppey area. In addition, 83 pumps were made available for draining the flooded land. The Army co-ordinated the efforts of 18,500 men of all three Services who worked on the defences. Eleven thousand of these were soldiers, 5,500 airmen and 2,000 sailors and Royal Marines. These figures do not include the administrative troops who looked after the working parties. I am glad to say that the co-operation between the three Services went extremely smoothly.
The Army supplied 1,500 vehicles, over 50 amphibious vehicles and 65 heavy earth-moving machines. It also issued to the civilian authorities large stocks of blankets, sandbags and other stores. The Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, in addition to providing men and vehicles, made available aircraft for photographic survey and air supply work; and Royal Air Force Transport Command arranged a special airlift to bring in sandbags from other countries. The Royal Air Force also lent to local authorities 62 heaters for drying houses, which many of us here saw at work. Working side by side with our own Forces during the emergency were men of the United States Third Air Force who met all demands made on them for help.
The Civil Defence Corps were not organised as such, but many of their members were prominent in relief work, and the food flying squads, which are an integral part of the Corps, were quickly in action. I might add that the training and preparation in that field have paid immediate, if unexpected, dividends. Local fire brigades came quickly into action, and reinforcements were promptly supplied from other areas. I am glad to pay this tribute, because I do not think it has been mentioned in the House; the men responded with a wholly admirable spirit. The principal job falling to them was pumping out flooded premises, but they have also undertaken special tasks such as salvaging goods and stores from industrial premises.
The House has already paid tribute, and we are repeating it again, to the work done by the Red Cross Society, St. John Ambulance Brigade, Women's Voluntary Service and other voluntary bodies. I am sure that that tribute is richly deserved. But, as Home Secretary, perhaps I shall be forgiven if I remind the House of the very heavy load which was thrown upon the police. I am particularly glad to be able to report that they carried out their task in the calm and efficient manner which, by long experience, we have come to expect of them. They supervised much of the rescue work, opened report centres, kept the traffic moving and in many other ways helped in the work of re-habilitation.
They also assumed a specially heavy burden in accepting responsibility for the distribution of emergency flood warnings under arrangements which I announced to the House on 11th February. There is another aspect of police work to which I am pleased to refer. There were a few cases of looting, and prompt and effective action was taken to deal with them. I might add again that in general the standard of conduct observed by people under these trying circumstances was of the highest.
The task of making houses habitable as soon as the areas became safe was vigorously tackled. I have spoken of the drying apparatus lent by the Royal Air Force. Extra issues of coal were also made to people to dry their homes. Those who had lost rationed food were able to obtain emergency cards and, as I announced to the House, they were later able to purchase two weeks' extra rations.
Repairs to sea defences were a matter of great urgency because of the further spring tides on 14th February, and the river boards pressed on with repairs with the aid of the Services and of civilian contractors. Some repairs were of a temporary nature and in places it was thought advisable to build temporary defences some way back from the coast. This repair work formed, and still forms, a gigantic task. Twenty million sandbags were provided from military and Civil Defence stores. In view of the depletion of our resources we appealed for help to the Governments of other countries and that appeal met with the most helpful and generous response. We also took steps to increase our own output of sandbags. With that increased production and the sandbags obtained from abroad we had good stocks available to face a possible crisis during the high tides of last weekend.
I hope that the House will not mind my saying a word about organisation, because it is an important matter. In each of the three affected regions an emergency committee of Departmental representatives helped to co-ordinate action among the authorities dealing with relief and repair work. I think that it can be said that this flexible organisation proved its worth and gave purpose and direction to local effort. I have explained, and I will not repeat it now, about the Ministerial Committee; but I should like to say that it had the assistance of a committee of officials representing all relevant Departments, which met daily and was of great value to us.
This period of emergency measures and repairs was a time of anxiety and hard work for everyone in the flooded areas. I should like to emphasise once again the admirable spirit of co-operation shown by all concerned in these operations—central authorities, local authorities, Services, voluntary organisations, private firms and individuals. It was most noticeable to those who visited the areas. I am sure that the House would like me to place on record that during those hard days many would say that their greatest encouragement came from the visits of Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, whose concern and sympathy for those in distress was so obvious to all.
I should like now to go from the general picture into a closer view of the extent of the loss and of Government expenditure so far. It is still too early to attempt to reach any worthwhile estimate of the total financial loss which the country has suffered, but I shall do my best. The loss to agricultural interests is not less than £10 million and the loss in housing, amenities and other local authority responsibilitles covered by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is put at between £4 million and £5 million. Other known losses include £2 million worth of foodstocks, mainly Government stocks, and a similar sum in respect of Ministry of Supply and Admiralty establishments.
As regards the scale of effort already put out by the Government in bringing immediate relief to the affected areas, I have spoken already of the members of Her Majesty's Forces and of the sandbags. These items represent an expenditure of more than £2½ million. The provision of emergency feeding facilities, lodging allowances, and National Assistance grants may amount to a further £100,000.
The considerable industrial and trading losses cannot be measured, nor is any reliable information available as to the extent to which it may be covered by insurance. On such information as is now available, it does not seem unreasonable to think in terms of total cost to the country of the order of £40 million to £50 million. I want to impress on the House that I am not going further than "think in terms." The information is not available at the moment, and I am sure that the House will treat that with all reserve at the present time.
I must make it clear that this figure does not include the cost of permanent repairs to, or improvements in, the sea defences. It is not possible to make any estimate of that cost until we have decided what premium it would be right to pay to ensure against a recurrence of the combination of natural phenomena which gave rise to the present disaster. I will return to this point later.
I want now to turn to certain problems of recovery and restoration. The immediate need is to enable people to get back to their homes. Local authorities have been authorised to carry out firstaid repairs at the cost of the Exchequer, and the number of those who have been living away from their homes is steadily diminishing; but it will be some little time before all can go back. The Government have decided to extend for another two weeks after the end of this week the lodging allowances which are available to householders. The House may like to know that claims have been received so far from about 8,000 householders in respect of some 22,000 refugees. We may be really proud of the many spontaneous expressions of the spirit of neighbourliness demonstrated throughout the affected areas.
The response to the appeal for furniture has been extremely generous not only from this country but from abroad as well. The women's voluntary services are now organising a collection of suitable furniture and furnishings. People who need furniture should apply to the local authority in the area in which they live and the authority and the W.V.S, will do their best to meet their needs I again take this opportunity of saying that there is still a great need for carpets, linoleum, curtains, soft furnishings. household linen and bedding.
Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman leaves the question of housing accommodation, I should like to put a question to him. In my part of Norfolk many houses were demolished. Is it proposed to provide special facilities to local authorities to rehouse the people who are now homeless?
I have already dealt with the question of first-aid repair. which, as I have indicated, will be at Government expense. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will develop his point if he gets an opportunity; if not, perhaps he will have a word with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. My right hon. Friend will be very glad to deal with any particular problem that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.
I now come to the re-establishment of the sea defences. The river boards, as I have said, took immediate steps to deal with the disaster and they have exercised local control of the repair work ever since. The country owes an immense debt to the river board engineers in charge of the emergency works as well as to all workers employed by them, both military and civil, who have toiled unceasingly since the floods began. Starting from simple emergency arrangements, a labour force of 25,000 men has been built up and one very varied in its composition, as hon. Members know. Those in control of the repair operations set themselves what appeared to be an almost impossible main objective—to close at least two-thirds of about 1,200 breaches against the high spring tides which began last week-end.
This was achieved and, by last night. they had actually closed fully 90 per cent. Every effort is being made to close the remainder by the mid-March high spring tides. It is now possible to withdraw Service men from this work and release them to resume their normal training duty. Only 1,000 or so will be engaged after this week, but plans are being drawn up with the Service authorities to ensure that, if the call comes for emergency help as a result of the high tides between now and mid-March, it will be met from reserves kept in readiness for the purpose.
We are not able to say that all danger is past as the sea defences may be severely tested in the high tides in the next four weeks, but it is a cause of great relief that there have been no storms, particularly in the past few days, and that the defences have held firm against the high tides which we have been experiencing. The last few days have been periods of anxiety and we must be grateful that the country came through them safely.
I now turn to land and agriculture. The magnitude of the disaster to agriculture in the Eastern and South-Eastern counties cannot be completely and reliably assessed for some time yet. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is having urgently examined the problem of restoring salt-impregnated land to fertility, and use is being made of the experience of other countries. I was deeply touched, during my short visit to Holland, on Saturday, by the immediate and ready offer to place at our disposal the results of their experience. As the House will expect, that offer has been accepted and we are very grateful for it.
The pooling of the best expert advice will be secured through a conference called for Tuesday next by the Chief Scientific and Agricultural Adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture. Advice will be given to farmers as soon as possible thereafter. In the meantime, they have been recommended to do nothing by way of cultivation; otherwise, still more damage might be caused. Rehabilitation must be carried out in an orderly manner. It will tax the skill and ingenuity of the scientists and is bound to make great demands on the patience of the farmers.
The first thing to do is to get the main and subsidiary watercourses clear of silt and, as soon as the land is fit to enter, the soil should be sampled and analysed. The farmer will then be advised what is the best course to take. The Ministry of Agriculture Soil Analytical Service has been organised to deal with this matter and a start has already been made in some counties. Under certain conditions ground gypsum is the best agent to counteract the deep penetration of soil by salt water.
Steps have been taken to ensure that there is an adequate supply of gypsum and a scheme is being prepared to make it available to farmers on very favourable terms. To bring the land back into good heart will take time and will require proper organisation. The means to be adopted require further study, but I can say that we recognise as a principle that this will have to be a national responsibility, and I hope that that statement of mine will give encouragement and heart to the farmers who are affected.
This by no means exhausts the problems of restoration and recovery. Everybody is naturally anxious to know to whom they should look for help and everyone in the House wants to have the picture clear in his mind. I announced on 3rd February that the cost of work which could properly be regarded as emergency work would be met by the Exchequer. I should like the House to realise what this means. In accordance with this undertaking the cost of emergency feeding, cash payments to those in need, emergency repairs to the sea defences, the clearing of silt from ditches and drains, and first-aid repairs to houses is to be met in full by the Exchequer.
There are other losses, suffered in a wide variety of differing circumstances, which require a more selective treatment, based on the circumstances of each class of case. Over a large field the expenditure will fall on public funds, whether central or local. This includes such items as the expenditure of river boards in the long-term work of rebuilding the sea defences, the expenditure of local authorities in clearing streets of shingle and silt, and the restoration of amenities in the the holiday resorts. The precise balance of the incidence of expenditure between central and local funds varies and will be a matter of representation and consideration.
The right hon. Gentleman has left out one very important member of the category responsible for coast protection—the coast protection authority. I assume that they will have the same help as the river boards.
Certainly. That is included in the sphere of collective responsibility. As I said, it is not possible for one to cover every field of grant at the moment because there may be some differences, as the hon. Gentleman will admit. I wanted to make clear that this is part of the field of collective responsibility, although there may be some matters on which there will be representation and consideration because there are differences in each field in which collective responsibility applies.
Then there are losses in the private sector which have fallen on individual people, firms and trading companies. Among those which the House has had very much in mind, as I know, are not only the householders who have lost all the belongings that make up a home, but the small traders who have lost their stocks. Here, speed is of the essence of real help. Some part of the cost of making good losses will be met by insurance payments, and in this connection the Chairmen of the British Insurance Association and of Lloyds have informed me that the disaster has produced a multitude of claims under insurance policies issued by the British insurance market. Some time must necessarily elapse before insurers can obtain any general indication of the extent to which they are involved, and it is not yet possible for them to make any statement as to their position in the matter.
I was going to deal with part of that point. I think I shall cover the right hon. Gentleman's question.
I understand that under comprehensive policies the contents of private houses are covered against storm, tempest and flood, but that insurance on the building of private houses does not cover flood damage.
The insurance market is aware that in many cases there will be unavoidable delay in submitting claims. Hon. Members are aware that there are often stringent conditions as to the time of making claims, and I am glad to tell the House that in this case delays will not prejudice the insured persons.
I am assured that the insurers will press forward with their investigations as quickly as possible and that they will deal with claims under their contracts in accord with their traditional fair and considerate record. I do not think I can go further to help the right hon. Gentleman at the moment, because the full amount of the claims has not yet been ascertained and it is difficult for the insurers generally to make a further statement.
I was not seeking to trap the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but to find out whether, in the opinion of the Government, this disaster was the result of tempest or of flood.
I think that nice argument on that matter of construction will require still further attention and will also require consideration of the terms in which the insurance is propounded. Apart from that, it is clear that there remains a considerable amount of private loss which will not be covered by insurance or qualify for direct Government assistance under any of the arrangements I have outlined.
Here we must look to the Lord Mayor's National Flood and Tempest Distress Fund. I am authorised by the Lord Mayor to say that the total of the contributions received up to yesterday was £770,000. It will be seen from what I have said that the demands which will fall on the fund will require a much larger sum than this, and I have no doubt that the traditional generosity of the public will not be found wanting. The Government are most anxious that the fund should be able to play its full part in the relief of private loss and accordingly, in addition to the considerable sums for which they have accepted responsibility as a direct or indirect charge on the Exchequer, they have decided to subscribe to the Fund on the basis of £1 for every £1 subscribed by other contributors, other than payments made by other Governments for a specific purpose.
I want to make that quite clear. I do not want any misunderstanding about it. If there is an ordinary payment to the fund it will come under the £1 for £1 scheme; but if other Governments want their money directed to a specific piece of work outside the fund it will not. That is the only occasion on which the £1 for £1 scheme will not apply. A contribution on this scale is a clear indication of the importance which the Government attach to the objectives of the fund. The old proverb can be slightly shortened, because now anyone who gives, gives twice; but I hope, none the less, that he or she will give quickly as well.
Last week the Lord Mayor made certain emergency disbursements to lords lieutenant of the counties on the East Coast of England. These have been used in the relief of urgent cases. He also convened last week the inaugural meeting of a broad-based advisory council to assist him in the administration of the fund. On the recommendation of the council he appointed two working committees to supervise respectively the collection and the distribution of funds.
In all this work the Lord Mayor counts himself fortunate to have the advice and experience of our old colleague, Sir Bracewell Smith, who presided over the National Flood Distress Fund of 1947. The Lord Mayor proposes himself to preside over the former committee, and he has been fortunate enough to get Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve to preside over the latter committee, which held its first meeting yesterday. I do not think that I need to remind the House and certainly not the members of my own profession, of the ability and great experience of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve.
At that meeting it was decided that funds should be distributed through local relief committees, as was done in the case of the National Flood Distress Fund of 1947. Details of this scheme, together with general rules for the guidance of local committees, will be issued by the Lord Mayor as soon as possible to local authorities and others concerned. Separate arrangements will be made for the handling of claims for agricultural losses.
The Lord Mayor intends that administration should be as simple as possible. The criterion will be evidence of distress or hardship. The committee has already authorised payments of up to £25 for a family in a case of real and urgent hardship, and a circular on this point will be sent to local relief committees at once. This is intended only as a temporary measure. Local committees will be invited to submit suggestions for wider measures of relief which can be considered as soon as the funds available and the extent of the need can be estimated more accurately.
I should like to turn for a moment to quite a different topic, the question of warning people of approaching danger from floods. As the House will know, a temporary system was devised and put into effect on 12th February in the threatened areas, and I am sure that the House will agree that it was effective in allaying fears that another catastrophe might occur during the recent high tides. Now that the immediate danger appears to be past the Government have decided to discontinue those emergency warning arrangements, and the arrangements will cease to operate from this afternoon. We will review them and devise a suitable system to operate during danger periods within the next few weeks; but we shall not be able to leave the question of warnings there. We have had a sharp lesson, and we shall have only ourselves to blame if we fail to profit from it.
The long-term question of warnings against floods is only one of several problems thrown into relief by this catastrophe. The combination of wind and tide on the night of 31st January was quite exceptional and there is no reason to believe that there is a serious risk of such conditions arising with any frequency. At the same time, after this recent experience, the Government think that it would be right to put in train a full inquiry into the causes of the happenings of 31st January and the lessons to be learned from the disaster. They propose to set up a strong Departmental committee to carry out such an inquiry, which would include an investigation into possible warning systems.
I am very sorry that I should have kept the House for so long, but before I conclude I should like to touch upon a number of miscellaneous matters, because hon. Gentlemen have been very good in bringing them to my notice during the past three weeks. A point has arisen concerning parties of voluntary workers from industrial or other firms who go to work on sea defences. Doubt has been expressed whether a volunteer injured in such work would qualify for industrial injury benefit. I can say that if any such injury were adjudged to be outside the seope of the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Acts, the Government would consider sympathetically making an ex gratia payment similar to the industrial injury benefit which would have been payable under that Act.
I should like to clear up a point which was raised on 13th February by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) about sales of Government surplus stocks at auctions arranged by the Ministry of Works. I understand that the arrangements for these sales were in hand well before the floods occurred and that immediate action was taken to withdraw from sale all beds, bedding and other useful items of household furniture.
Now that the immediate crisis is over, the temporary measures under which food was supplied free of charge under emergency feeding arrangements have been reviewed and, after Saturday, 21st February, a charge will be made for meals; but we are anxious that those charges should not cause hardship. People in rest centres are being reminded that any such charges would, on application, be taken into account by the local officers of the National Assistance Board in determining what, if any, assistance can be given. It has been agreed that the additional expenditure on rest centre services themselves will for the time being be borne in full by the Government.
Fourthly, local district councils have been asked to take on the responsibility of stating when it is safe for residents to return to the various areas affected by the floods.
If the House would permit me, I would say a further word about the help we have had from overseas. The Prime Minister has already referred, as have other right hon. Gentlemen, to the generous help from countries within and without the Commonwealth. I myself have referred to the ready help we have got over sandbags. I think the House would like to know that we have had gifts in kind from Denmark, Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland. Gifts of many kinds have been made by citizens of the United States, and there have been offers from France, Greece, Italy and Portugal to find homes for children and families. Generous cash donations have been made by the Governments of Switzerland and Yugoslavia; and other Governments, including the German Federal Republic, Lebanese Thai, Yugoslav and Soviet Governments, have inquired what help they could give.
The free nations of the Commonwealth have, in their various ways, offered help. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India have opened funds or made contributions to relief in kind. British Columbia has offered help, especially with timber, for repair work; and among Colonial Territories the names of Bermuda, Malaya, Jamaica and Northern Rhodesia, have been prominent. For this world-wide display of generous readiness to help we must all be profoundly grateful.
Perhaps I may repeat how sorry I am to have detained the House for so long, but it is a complex and in many respects a heartening story that I have had to tell. The thanks of all of us are due to the many organisations and individuals, named and unnamed, who have played their part in meeting the challenge of these events. We have recovered from the first shock, and have taken the emergency action which the situation called for. We pass now to the less dramatic phase of rebuilding and restoration. To this we shall devote ourselves with no less energy and no less determination. It is our faith that misfortune should be not an occasion for lamentation but a stimulus to greater endeavour. In the words of the poet,
One must not doubt that somehow Good Shall come of Water and of Mud.
I feel sure that everybody will agree that the purpose of this debate is not a party political one in any way at all. That is not the purpose either on this side or that; but the role of the Opposition today—and, I take it, of hon. Gentlemen on the other side, too—is rather to speak from our own experience and contribute to the general pool of information which is necessary for Ministers no less than for the people who administer in the stricken localities if we are to get over these great difficulties. There is no party political profit in this, and there should not be, because we are in the presence now of the dead, and amid the destruction, which particularly affects the womenfolk, of all those sorts of things that make what we call home.
But we really must keep a sense of proportion in this matter. It is not enough for us to say that this thing has happened, and, as some say, that the like of it has not happened since 1703—though I was reminded by someone privately on the Front Bench the other night that the relevant date is 1350. I do not know, but I have looked up the debates on the events of 1703, and I notice that a Resolution passed by another place at that time not only condoled with all those people who had lost anything at all but promised immediate Votes of all the credits necessary at that time.
In those days—I do not want to delay over them very much they did not have to rely on a fund of the Lord Mayor of London and, of course, it was the loss of ships at sea that was the real difficulty at that time. I would quote some other words used in this place,
We want to be at peace with our kith and kin, turning all our forces to meet a common foe.
It seems to me that the Government must be judged—and that we all must be judged, because this is a common responsibility—by what the Prime Minister said on 2nd February, and that he reinforced in other words today. He said then:
It is rot yet possible to measure the magnitude of the loss either in life or in material, but it is clear that the catastrophe is one which will require to be treated upon a national basis and, broadly, as a national responsibility."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1483.]
I want to suggest to the House that it is in that way, with the Government facing up to that responsibility fully today as a national disaster, to be nationally borne, to be broadlly met, that, it seems to me, is the criterion by which the Government should be judged.
I want to suggest respectfully to the House that there are in this problem certain internal difficulties, particularly in the delegation of powers to local authorities and the financial relationships, which will not help us achieve that end. We have to bear in mind, too, of course, that this is not the last of the high tides. We can only hope that next month things will not be as bad as, possibly, we envisage they may be and that, as certain people have suggested, those tides will not rise another two feet on 17th March next.
It seems to me that this problem is a double one. First, it is a short-term one, which means the rehabilitation of the sufferers, and, not least of all in importance, the manner in which we do it, and temporary measures to stop the breaches in our defences and to win time against the tides until the better weather. I would remind the House that, of course, often
temporary repairs are more expensive than permanent repairs. I quote from the Annual Report of the Kent River Board, in which these words appear:
Unfortunately storm damage usually occurs when it is most difficult and expensive to undertake works and as these cannot be neglected but have to he tackled immediately the damage occurs, much money has therefore to be expended without any real improvement works being achieved but only the reinstatement of existing works to a reasonable standard.
The moral of this is that if we proceed deliberately and calmly to a long-term policy it may very well be the cheapest in the end.
Secondly, of course, we have to consider that long-term programme which is a complete overhaul of our coast defences and a more scientific assessment of the problems of coast erosion, and, in short, to see, as far as we can possibly ensure it, that this calamity does not fall upon us again. I think it well to remind ourselves at this time that if we engage in this battle on the scale we should it means the diversion of public funds to that end.
It is, however, a war against a natural enemy. This House votes large sums for national armaments; but here we face a different sort of enemy; but, at least, we can say that in going into this battle there will not be a single conscientious objector, because there is not a penny we shall use on this in any way that will ever harm a living soul: this is a battle not to destroy, but to build; not to kill, but to save.
I think we ought to recall—but I have not too much time for the subject today, because many hon. Members want to deploy constituency matters the history of what has taken place in the Fens since 1937. It seems to me always to follow the same sort of pattern—a degree of alarm, a fund set up, and then a slipping back almost into indolence, so that our policies turn out to be only alleviations in the end and do not secure any long-term solution of the difficulties.
We ought to ponder whether our present form of delegation of powers to local authorities results in humanity, speed and efficiency in crisis. Here I must say very hastily, as one who has taken part in local authority work for so many years, that I hope nothing I say will be taken as any reflection upon those people who have served in the matter. However, in the light of this grim experience I am just wondering whether responsibility for coastal defence should be the care—or the caprice, as the case may be—of a county council or a river board, and depend upon the unpredictability of a policy of having a 1d. rate.
I do not want to go much farther into this matter, but I would refer hon. and right hon. Members to the debate on the Coast Protection Bill on 8th April, 1949, and particularly to the remarkable speech that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), the report of which all right hon. and hon. Members could read with great profit and education for themselves. My hon. Friend will deal with that subject because he knows it better, and will speak today, not so much as an exponent of his particular point of view, but certainly, in the light of that debate and of these recent events, as a true prophet.
I am wondering whether this responsibility should not be a national care, whether our coast towns are not a part responsibility of the inland cities, like the one in whose representation here I share, whose populations go out to those coast towns for sun and pleasure, especially in summer, decanting their own populations into them and swelling their populations, and so having those links with them. I am wondering whether this is not a case for a tax rather than a rate. The Coast Protection Act of 1949 was a notable advance, but I doubt whether it went far enough.
I turn to the consideration of rest centres, because these are for the poor people—in the main, the folk who have suffered. During the war, under blitz conditions, the rest centres were the places where people were taken immediately after disaster. They came under the control of the county districts. They were taken away from the counties and given to the local authorities by order of Mr. Henry Willink when he was Special Commissioner for the homeless in the London region. I well remember sitting under his chairmanship at that time, when he announced his intention to do this. He thought that the authorities on the spot were the people to deal with this problem.
One has only to take the county of Kent which has to administer up to the Thames side towns on the border of London. Although the county officials had to travel up there from Maidstone they were on the job almost as soon as the local people. But there is no question that by the very nature of the work there was duplication, and the county officials, when they came on the job, had to rely on the local people to do their job. A county meals service was begun and was taken over by the local authority. In that connection, I would ask the Minister to look again at the question of charging for the meals this week-end. I understand that the decision to charge meals on the rest centres falls on the 21st. I will refer later to the public relations work which I think ought to be done.
Before the Minister takes any irretrievable steps, I suggest that he might discuss this matter with the local authorities. The care of the homeless rests on the county council as the welfare authority, but there have been complications, and I am wondering whether, in the light of this experience, we should not envisage for the future the powers of the county council in this matter being delegated to the district council in times of crisis. I am well aware that there are other places where the reverse is true—where, in fact, districts have been completely over-run by the tides, and if they had been left to their own resources, without the help of the county council, they would have been in a very bad spot. I am only pleading for general flexibility.
With regard to the rest centres, it seems to me, from observations of this emergency, that the same psychological pattern has followed as was followed in the war days. After the first 48 hours, people in rest centres always say, "Thank God we are safe and that we are together again." After that, they say, "How is the old place looking?" and after about 96 hours, they say, "I want to go back." The principle which we have to follow in this matter is that people who have been flooded out should not be treated worse than the people who were bombed out.
There is another thing which I feel that the Minister, inadvertently, has not mentioned—that it so happened that many of these places which felt the worst impact of the floods were the places that felt the worst impact of the blitz. They have been hit twice. I have based a comparison on what happened in other days. I am quite sure that the Minister would not want his administration of this crisis to fall lower than the administration which we knew in London during the war.
I come to another point in which I am quite sure I shall have all hon. Members in agreement with me. That is, that these people want a clear comprehensive statement and all the know how about their future. I think the Minister might. with the help of the Central Office of Information, bring together all the information of the different Departments, so that one person can say, "Well, here is the information," and not have to refer people to different Departments and different circulars. The local authorities, in the days of the blitz, did provide this information. This is a solitary occasion and we do not envisage it as something which will go on and on, and it seems to me that the small expenditure involved in giving clear and accurate information would be a great help to these people in time of trouble.
There are one or two questions which I should like to put, which relate to a variety of Departments. First, with regard to the Ministry of Labour. There has, of course, been considerable loss of wages by unemployment and by underemployment. Will it be possible for these people to claim for loss of employment or even for loss of wages? I think that that is a matter of major principle which will have to be decided. With regard to the Ministry of Works, I am glad that the matter of furniture has been cleared up.
As to the Ministry of Health, there is a matter which I mentioned to the Minister the other day, and which, I think, comes within public relations. It will be known that people have lost many sets of dentures, spectacles and, may be, surgical boots in the floods. There does not seem to be clear knowledge in the districts as to whether there will be completely free replacement. I do not know whether that applies to prescription charges arising out of illness, but I think that the Minister should consider these matters and, whatever his decision, it should be put in clear language in pamphlet form by the Central Office of Information.
If I may make one criticism of the Government, I do not think that the public relations policy, at the lowest level, has been quite up to standard. I hope that someone will say, before this debate finishes, something about the story circulated last week concerning the sandbag muddle in the London area, in which it was alleged that there was chaos between the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Home Office, and the Ministry of Food, concerning sandbags which came to both London Airports and which were stopped for a period, because no one seemed to have a clear idea—after we had sent out an international appeal—of what should happen to them. If that story is true we want an explanation. If it is false it should be denied, because it is the sort of thing which would receive a dusty answer from those people who charitably sent the sandbags to us.
I want to deal with one other matter in which, it seems to me the Government do not quite live up to the suggestion that this is a national responsibility. Some local authorities will have charges falling on their rates simply because they are unfortunately placed. In fact, it is a principle for which this side fought for a long time, that the poor cannot keep the poor. As a result, we got the National Assistance Board, and many notable figures on our side went to prison to get it.
If this matter is to be treated as a national disaster, there must be consideration of how much will fall on the rate fund. What are the expenses that will have to be borne by these people? There will be damage to roads, sewerage systems, pumping stations and council plant in the flooded areas. There will be contributions towards additional expenses falling on the county councils as a result of opening rest centres and on their residential service departments generally, and they may be called upon to make additional contributions for such purposes as river boards.
No one is clear at present, even after the Minister's statement, how far these expenses are to be met by Government Departments and in what manner. I submit—and I hope that I shall carry the House with me—that these costs should be borne nationally and not by our borough or county councils, to whom the flooded areas eventually have to contribute. It seems to me that if we are to deal with this on a national basis, we cannot allow this burden to fall on local authorities who have been unfortunate enough to come within the flooded areas.
The worst thing that could happen would be for the Government to give the impression that they are trying to run a national disaster on the cheap. There should be 100 per cent. compensation of the local authorities and smaller grants towards the extensive cost of protection work which must come. I am asking for reconsideration based on the 1948 Act. I am glad to know that there has been great latitude allowed to individuals by the National Assistance Board. One thing the Minister did not make clear. The position, I understand, is that private householders are not insured if it is held to be flood which has caused the damage, but only if it is held to be tempest. What becomes of the uninsured person? Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman would like to think that over.
I made it clear that the contents of the structure were insured against flood, tempest and storm, but that the house itself might not be insured against flood.
I think I understand that, but it is obviously too early to pursue the matter. Undoubtedly, the Minister will come back with a further statement some other time.
We understand that the Government will contribute pound for pound with the Lord Mayor's Fund. I do not know that that gives me as much satisfaction as the fact that Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve is to be the Chairman of the Fund. Apart from his being an outstanding lawyer, he is an outstanding public personality with an extraordinarily acute mind and his experience as Chairman of the War Damage Commission will be very valuable to him in dealing with this problem.
I suggest that the local disbursement of the Lord Mayor's Fund should be the responsibility of committees appointed by the minor local authorities in the affected areas, with council treasurers in charge, who will be given a lead by and through the Lord Mayor. The committees need not necessarily consist of mem- bers of local authorities, but they should be given the status of a committee of a local authority. An important consideration is that we do not want the sort of charity that "vaunteth itself or is unseemly"; we want the wider definition "that suffereth long and is kind and is not easily provoked." If we have on the committees representatives of local authorities we shall have people with a sense of public responsibility and officials who are used to dealing with the public, and this will make a better type of committee than the ordinary type of voluntary committee against which all sorts of objections can be brought. There will be the advantage that the local authorities will be brought actively into the business.
Above all other things, it must be remembered by those who administer the fund that the subscribers meant the money to be spent and not saved, and to be spent quickly on behalf of those in need. One of the reasons why I suggest local authority participation is that no one wants any "smart Alecs" cheating the fund. There will be a greater sense of responsibility in the administration of the fund if an obligation is laid upon the local authorities themselves, for they have a great knowledge of local needs.
One of the contributions to the fund impressed me very much. The workers of a Halifax factory worked a full day at double time and gave their earnings to the fund. People who contribute in that spirit give more than money. I would remind hon. Members that Mark Twain described professional charity not as the milk of human kindness but as the sterilised milk of human kindness; we do not want anything like that.
Some civic heads have made local appeals in connection with the flood disaster and contributions are being received which are earmarked for local relief of distress, while other contributors are leaving the allocation between the local fund and the Lord Mayor's Fund to the local Mayor or chairman. Some general guidance is needed here. We want a single effort. It is not a matter for private enterprise and rivalry between towns.
I am not satisfied that the proposals for valuation in respect of claims for loss of property achieve all that we want. As Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve has been mentioned, I wonder whether this is not a task which calls for the resuscitation of the War Damage Commission. I do not know how much staff remains with the Commission, or whether the present staff could be expanded and could get to work on a new directive. Neither the Lord Mayor's Fund nor any Government Department has the right organisation to carry out such a valuation. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will consult Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve about this.
What I said about information is reinforced by the words of a town clerk who wrote to me the other day. He said that no clear line could be obtained as to the extent to which the Government were prepared to compensate the victims for loss. The only instructions received were that the houses were to be cleaned at the Government's expense and that local authorities were to deal with structural damage but not damage to furnishings or decoration, and the tendency seemed to be to throw all claims of that nature on the Lord Mayor's Fund. The letter referred to the suggestion that the National Assistance Board should meet the cost of the cleaning of carpets. It is also being suggested that floor coverings are a matter coming within the purview of the Lord Mayor's Fund; I do not know whether that is so, but it raises all sorts of difficulties.
Last Friday, I saw the Queen after she had spent a long time visiting people in the Thames Estuary. I suppose that even such a sensible young woman as the Queen must have been impressed—nobody could have failed to be touched—by the degree of heartbreak and bravery which she must have seen during her tour. Her Majesty did not represent the Government or the Opposition in that tour; she represented us all. She represented that better side of us which does not say, "Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost," but wants to sympathise and succour; the side which says, rather humbly, "It might have been me"; the side which says, "We are common people in one country. This is a national disaster, and we will face up to it." It is the Government's responsibility to see that we do not fall short of the brave words used by the Prime Minister, not even in administration.
The visits by Ministers have enabled our suffering fellow citizens to realise that they are not forgotten. I hope other Ministers in high places will also pay visits, for this will convey to the sufferers that the people at the top level are worrying about them and it will be a promise of action.
In opening the debate from this side I have tried to do so as one who has not a constituency interest in the matter; I have tried to deploy certain national considerations arising from my experience in dealing with a considerable amount of civil distress during the war. I have tried to speak on behalf of the Labour Party in the general spirit of our having a common issue. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will join in calling for continuing reports on the efforts which are taken by the Government. There must be a firm and stern resolve that this land must never be invaded on such a scale again. If all parties decide to get together, we shall be able to prevent that happening.
I ask the Government to determine not to leave the matter as it is but to be eternally vigilant, to study the history of what has happened in the Fens, and never to fall below the purpose set in the impeccable oratory that we have heard, but to translate sympathy into practical effort.
The whole House will have appreciated the objective, practical and kindly way in which the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) addressed himself to this subject. If I speak primarily of Canvey Island, which is in my constituency, it is not because I am unmindful of the tragic loss which has been sustained elsewhere, but because with so many others here whose constituencies have been affected it would be unseemly of me to do more than talk about what I saw myself, the lessons which emerged from our experience, and some of the problems which loom ahead.
I should like to crave the indulgence of the House to say something of a personal nature. On the afternoon before the floods swept over Canvey I was present at the opening of a memorial hall on the island dedicated to the memory of the 57 local men who lost their lives in the war. I was called upon, as the Member usually is on these occasions, to say a few words, and I remember saying that the hall would not have come into existence but for the devoted and unselfish work of people of all political persuasions and of all religious faiths on the island, illustrating that in all the worth-while things of life our people instinctively act as one, and that the sacrifice the building commemorated would serve to remind us that our people are never so great as in adversity.
It was by cruel fate that in a matter of hours those words of mine were put to the test. In the very early hours of the morning a great tidal surge struck Canvey with intense ferocity. The waters rose; the gale lashing them into a fury. People were cut off from their homes. They were trapped. Some were drowned. Every one of the 11,500 people on the island knew that there was only one ramshackle little bridge connecting it with the mainland.
In those circumstances there was every possible excuse for panic. It was an English poet who said:
Calamity is man's true touchstone.
There was no panic, there were no tears, no hysteria. Everyone did his duty. Neighbour helped neighbour. The young helped the old. People, even children, risked their lives to rescue their pets. Those who got away from their homes did so without fuss or bother.
I saw them streaming off the island calm and philosophic. I saw one old lady who was well over 80 years of age. I asked her how she was and she tried to crack a joke with me. She said, "Old Hitler could not get me off that island. To think that a drop of water has done it really goes against the grain." I mention these things because they have left an unforgettable impression. I have never felt more pride in my countrymen, never felt more proud of my constituency, than I did on that fateful Sunday morning. As the day lengthened I marvelled not only at their guts but at their resourcefulness.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary referred to a schoolmaster. One headmaster in my constituency was warned at 7 o'clock in the morning to prepare his school for 1,000 evacuees. He opened his school. Helped by a lady councillor he called together a skeleton staff. He scoured the district for food and called for blankets from the Army. By 9 o'clock he was ready to serve 500 meals before the main stream of refugees had arrived. It was this inspiring devotion to duty by the people on the spot—the police, firemen, St. John Ambulance personnel, schoolteachers and a whole host of volunteers which met the first impact of the disaster.
As the situation developed it was quite clear to us who were still wondering what had happened—that the Civil Defence organisation in our part of Essex was swinging into action. Transport was organised. More schools were opened up. Billeting arrangements were made. The Ministry of Food emergency feeding service came into operation. Indeed, the arrival in Benfleet of the blue vans of the Ministry of Food flying squad, manned by the W.V.S., whose quiet efficiency impressed us all so very much, did more to raise our spirits than anything else. It gave us the knowledge that a great organisation of relief was swinging into action. The effect on morale was terrific.
I have told this story because I feel that it shows that, faced with an unexpected situation, our emergency services stood up to the test. None can deny that the system worked. It worked largely because our Civil Defence organisation was linked with local authorities and because the Essex County Council had confidence in the capacity of those authorities to tackle the immediate tasks of relief and rehabilitation. It also shows that, broadly speaking, our Civil Defence arrangements have been on the right lines. But if the system worked this time, it does not follow that it would work in a future emergency. Certain lessons emerged.
It was not clear, for example, what would have happened if the Canvey Island Urban District Council had been wiped out. That did not happen, but it might have done. There is nothing laid down in advance as to what would happen in an emergency if a local authority is wiped out. Secondly, the warning system was totally inadequate, and improvised arrangements had to be made later in the week.
I agree that in this respect we must have a sense of proportion. The Home Secretary referred to the fact that the storm which descended upon us was quite phenomenal. It is not likely that that combination of circumstances will occur again, but we cannot be sure. Nevertheless it is odd that we did not get earlier warning, for as the tide beat down the East Coast it breached the defences of Lincolnshire and Norfolk many hours before it delivered its assault in the Thames estuary. I do not wish to indulge in recriminations. They would only serve to deflect us from our main task. There may well be difficulties in giving warning. In the case of man-made disasters there can be no warning, but I suggest that methods of transmitting aid and allocating responsibilities in advance are surely not beyond the wit of man to devise.
I am very glad indeed to hear that there is to be a Departmental inquiry. I suggest that in addition, conferences on what exactly happened should be held very soon at county level while memories are still fresh. I submit too that greater discretion ought to be given to local authorities, when called upon to act in an emergency. Circular 7/53, which appeared shortly after the disaster, calls upon the local authorities to make plans now for the billeting of people who have lost their homes in time of war or when war is imminent.
In our emergency billeting became necessary right from the start, and it was carried out by the local authorities without any instructions. They did it on their own initiative because it seemed to them that the situation required it. They are housing authorities anyway, and therefore have a moral responsibility, and they were flooded out with offers from householders to billet people. The chance was taken. In the first few days an awkward situation arose. Admittedly, it was quickly resolved by Government decision, but I suggest that the position should be clarified and that discretion should be given to local authorities who, after all. can be relied upon not to abuse their responsibility.
There is another problem which requires investigation. There appeared to be a very serious lack of co-ordination between the Essex Rivers Board and the local authority. As it happened, the board moved with admirable speed in the work of filling the breaches, but the task of the local authority was not made easier by their lack of knowledge of what was being done. That lack of coordination persisted after the flooding had taken place.
Two things required to be done: first, the breaches had to be filled in order to prevent further flooding, and, secondly, the flood waters already within the defences had to be removed in order to facilitate the movement of men and machines engaged in the work of repair, in order to minimise the effect of salt water on agricultural land and property and in order to prevent the development of a threat to public health.
Clearly, the first task was of great importance. Indeed, until last week-end it was of paramount importance. Nevertheless, the second requirement was also important because of long-term considerations. I am advised by the local authority that for the first 10 days after the disaster had occurred the Rivers Board ignored a request for pumps to be brought in and that until yesterday no pumps were working on the island. I mention this in no spirit of criticism. The Rivers Board had their duty to do they did it magnificently. But I mention it in order to show the kind of difficulty which arises through lack of coordination.
If I were to put my finger on the root cause of this difficulty, I should say it was the present arrangement under which the responsibility for coast defences in this country is divided between two Ministries—the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries who are responsible for the river boards, and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who are responsible for sea coast protection. I submit that that arrangement is unsatisfactory. Indeed, in this year of grace 1953, I find it difficult to understand why that division exists at all. The elements are no respecters of man-made boundaries. It is well known that the building of elaborate coastal defences in one part of the country may so change the behaviour of the sea that coastal defences only a few miles away are undermined.
Is not the point met by the establishment, under the Coast Protection Act, of joint authorities, including the river boards? Is it not rather the negligence of the authorities to avail themselves of the facilities provided by statute? I am sorry to interrupt, but that is an important point.
I take the point, but the fact remains that the ultimate responsibility is still vested in two Ministries. The lesson from our experience is that, if effective measures are to be taken in future to secure adequate protection against floods, the ultimate responsibility must be vested in a single Ministry—and what better Ministry can there be than that of Housing and Local Government. I say that for two reasons: first, it is responsible for local government throughout the country and, secondly, it is responsible for the control of land use.
But that is a long-term matter and for my part, at any rate, I feel that there are more pressing problems which should engage our attention, problems which are compelling, urgent and human. First, there is the problem of how to help the local authorities in the afflicted areas. Second, there is the problem, which concerns us all, of how to help people to re-establish their homes. I can say without any doubt whatsoever that Canvey Island Urban District Council will face grave financial difficulties. They do not expect to receive much income from rates for many months ahead. Nor do they expect to receive any council house rents for at least a month. I urge that, if it has not already been done, consideration should be given to the granting of a loan or to the extension of the period of overdraft at the bank in order to ensure that the local authorities can meet their immediate needs.
Even so, that is only a beginning. Later there will be need for grant aid. I think the Home Secretary's statement this afternoon covers the point; he said that each case would be considered according to its merits. At any rate there is a precedent for grant aid to Canvey Island. During the war it was an evacuation area, and in 1940 its rates income dwindled to nothing. The council approached the Government, and they received a grant of £12,000.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will not pursue too far the question of what local authorities received during the war because local authorities received that sort of grant on very onerous terms, having to sink all their balances. The hon. Gentleman and I surely want something better than that.
I am merely advancing the argument that a precedent exists, and I am sure that when he made his statement this afternoon my right hon. and learned Friend had in mind assistance of some kind being given. Obviously the amount cannot be assessed until we know the extent of the deficit.
There is another cause for anxiety. As I understand it, the Government have very generously said that they will meet the cost of the repairs to sea defences, the cost of first-aid repairs to houses and the cost of clearing away the mud and silt. In Canvey, there has been considerable damage to roads and sewers, as well, and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who is to reply to the debate, will give some indication of whether that kind of damage is likely to be covered by the Government's undertaking. I suggest that an early decision is imperative if confidence in the future of the afflicted districts is not to be shaken.
Make no mistake: Canvey Island will rise again. The people there are tough and optimistic. But they need to be helped and to be helped soon—and I say "soon" for a very good reason. For the moment, all attention in the country is focused on the floods and the flood victims. The immensity of the tragedy has captured the public imagination. People have been deeply moved; they have responded magnificently to the call for aid. But that mood will pass—as inevitably as night follows day. The floods will be forgotten except by those who experienced them.
But we who represent flooded areas already know very well that the problems will remain long after the rest of the country has forgotten them. We shall have to live with people who will fear the recurrence of flooding. We shall have to live with people who have seen the fertility of their land, which they have tended for many years, destroyed by salt water. We shall have to live with people, the pattern of whose lives has been completely altered. What is even more important, the full extent of the damage, not only to property but to health, may not be seen for many months to come.
I ask, therefore, that what is done now, while we have the sympathy of the nation and the ear of the Government, to compensate for loss and to rebuild our shattered communities, shall be done on sound and just lines. On the question of compensation I have not the slightest doubt that where industry and agriculture are concerned there will be substantial relief. The Home Secretary said it was not known to what extent the loss sustained by industry would be covered by insurance.
Only this morning I was told that the loss of the Newsprint Supply Company at Purfleet is estimated by the underwriters to be in the region of £850,000£1 million. The company asked the underwriters for a substantial payment in advance last Friday and yesterday they received a cheque for £500,000. Such a response is not only a tremendous tribute to British insurance but it is an indication that the great losses of industry may well be covered by insurance.
I am concerned about the little people in my constituency. There the story is very different. Considering the type of property affected—flimsy wooden bungalows, little holiday chalets—I doubt if any of them are covered by insurance. I doubt if more than 5 per cent. of the owners have comprehensive cover for the contents. Who are the people mostly affected? I took some trouble to find out. Most are small owner-occupiers whose homes represent their life savings. Others bought their bungalows in the days of high prices after the war and have heavy mortgage repayments hanging round their necks. It is no use saying, as someone said to me a few days ago, that they should not be living there. The answer is that the housing shortage after the war forced people to live there. A large number of these people are elderly pensioners. All have slender means.
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) has said. Certainly, as a general principle the compensation in money and kind should be sufficient to enable homes to be re-established. That should be priority number one. The problem is not merely one of distributing charity. I urge the Government to consider first the giving of early guidance as to the way in which claims should be made; second, I ask them to make arrangements for the proper assessing of damage; and. third, I ask them to set up local machinery whereby the money is paid out.
I am told that sanitary inspectors are going round assessing the damage to properties and their contents. But they are not the right people for the job. The job of assessing loss of this kind is one for skilled assessors and valuers. Would it not be possible to enlist the services of the insurance companies, of the furniture world and of the approved professional bodies? I do not quarrel with the principle that compensation should be paid out of the Lord Mayor's Fund, augmented by a Government contribution, but the payments made locally should be made by a panel—on which the local authority should be represented—known to be scrupulously fair and seen to be scrupulously fair.
I apologise for talking far too long but these are problems which those of us who come from the afflicted areas have lived with these past few weeks. I recognise that this disaster poses an administrative problem of great complexity. So far—and I say this with all the feeling at my command—the Government have acted with commendable speed. All of us who come from flooded areas are grateful to Ministers, especially to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, for their understanding, their accessibility and their readiness to attend to the smallest detail.
The first phase of sealing the breaches and of providing temporary shelter for the flood victims has gone well—in fact, it has gone far better than any of us thought possible a fortnight ago—but I beg the Government to remember that in tackling the second, and infinitely more difficult phase of rebuilding our shattered communities and of reclaiming our lost acres, the nation as a whole and my constituents in particular expect them to respond to the need with the utmost speed.
May I first associate myself with the moving Motion which occupied our attention earlier in the day and which was so eloquently and admirably moved by the Prime Minister, and seconded by my right hon. Friend? It is a message which, going out to my constituents, will give them comfort and courage to face the disabilities under which they are now labouring. Later I shall address a few
remarks to the last phrase in that Motion where the House—
pledges its support in seeking the solution to the problems left by the disaster, many of which are recognised to be of a long-term character.
The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine), who spoke for Canvey Island made, quite appropriately, a strong constituency speech and I daresay it will be the pattern of many other speeches tonight. With a great deal of what he said I cordially and fully agree, but there is one small point of difference to which I wish to call his attention. The hon. Member suggested that the coast protection authority ought to be vested in the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Yet at the time of the Coast Protection Bill, 1949, hon. Members of the party opposite, led by a distinguished Conservative who is now adorning another place, fought strongly for the responsibility to be laid on the Minister of Agriculture. At that time the responsible Minister was the Minister of Health.
A great deal of what I wanted to say I have said on previous occasions, so I shall address myself more to the long-term policy arising out of the Question I put to the Prime Minister on 2nd February. It is the duty of all of us who represent constituencies hit by this great catastrophe to put our points of view before the House and the country. It is the hope that we shall learn something from this disaster that animates the attitude of most of us today. I have not the slightest desire to make polemical points. I shall dive into history but not because of any spirit of controversy.
I want to relate what I have to say to three Questions which I put down to the Prime Minister, when I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he would undertake a serious survey of sea defences. The Prime Minister thought that that was a consideration that ought to be gone into very carefully. The other Questions related to compensation, and I was very glad to hear the re-affirmation of the Prime Minister's general statement, when he spoke to us immediately after the flood, confirmed not only by the right hon. Gentleman himself, but by the Home Secretary. It has given us the hope that this promise will be implemented.
It will be our duty on these benches, particularly those of us who are interested in the constituency problem, to see that those promises are put into effect and are not simply the result of an emotional reaction which animates us all and soon subsides. The hon. Member for Billericay was quite right when he said how soon this kind of disaster fades from our memory. People are apt to say, "Oh, that was a long time ago. Let us hope that it was not as bad as that." We have to capitalise the feeling of public horror and anxiety that pervades the whole community today, and we must induce the Government to take such action as is possible to ensure that as far as lies within human power the suffering shall be completely alleviated and a recurrence of this dreadful disaster shall not come upon us again.
I was glad to hear the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary say that the Government will support the proposal for personal relief. It has been said already that big organisations such as agriculture, industry in its broadest sense, and local authorities have the power to make themselves felt and can demand from the Govment the consideration that is not open to the smaller man. Those of us who live in the smaller towns on the sea coast know what an important part the small tradesman plays in the economy of those places; and his loss has been catastrophic.
I had a case in my constituency the other day of a printer who had ordered a stock of £2,000 worth of paper. No sooner had it been delivered than the stockroom was inundated with water, and all the paper went to pulp. Incidentally, the bank which looks at my overdraft every now and again had bundles of £5 notes in its cellar. These, too, were saturated, but the bank were able to discover the serial numbers from other records.
I hope very much that when we come to the distribution of public funds and those raised by our colleague in the House, the Lord Mayor, whom we know to be a person of great drive, with his marked approach to problems—I am quite sure that if he has his way there will be no niggardliness in the application of those funds—we shall not have to do too much explaining. I hope that our reaction to the Lord Mayor will be that "Here is a man who wants something. Let us see that he gets it." I feel quite sure that we shall be able to make representations to him.
We do not want a too rigid interpretation of claims. There are so many border-line cases. I had in my constituency an instance of two poor old people, one of them an old warrant officer aged over 70 and the other an old retired missionary, who had to be dragged out of their house because it was going into the cliffs. It would take a good deal of explaining to say that that was in itself flood damage. It was certainly tempest damage. It is in cases like that that I want the Government and the administrators of the Lord Mayor's Fund to take a human view and to say that these people have been reduced to absolute ruin through this catastrophe, whether from flood, gale, tempest or any other cause associated with that most terrible of happenings.
The Prime Minister referred to the loss of trawlers. A trawler from my constituency port of Lowestoft was lost with all hands in the gale nothing more has been seen of her. Will those who have suffered through this loss be eligible for some form of compensation? I sincerely hope so. It was a result of the tempest, and I hope that we are to have a wide approach to the administration of these funds. I should be the last to countenance any chicanery or "smart Alec" tactics, and I hope that the black market will be kept right out of this, but I hope that we do not take too rigid a line and that these people will get what they need.
Again, I follow the lead of the right hon. Gentleman in referring to seaside resorts. I hope that no Member of the House will think that I am raising this issue out of proportion to the general level of the disaster. We on the East Coast, however, have had a long history of suffering from calamities of various kinds. During the war we were wiped out completely as a trading community and holiday centre. Hon. Members from East Anglia know very well that we were not only evacuated areas, but were restricted areas, and that we had the mortification of seeing places far away from the war zone prospering.
Now, again, we are hit by the calamity, a calamity of Nature. As the economy of these small towns—some of them only villages or even hamlets—depends so much on the holiday traffic industry, I hope that the Government will give them every consideration and help to get going before the coming season, when we are hoping to have an influx of visitors from all over the world. This is a vital point, and I have had a great deal of communication with my local authority on the matter. They had provided amenities which have been washed away from the promenade.
There are masses of wreckage, and it will cost, I should imagine, £120,000 to £150,000 even to restore the local authority amenities which are necessary to attract visitors. And that is quite apart from private losses. Unless we can get the people to come to these holiday centres, not only will the towns and villages themselves suffer, but the small hotel and lodging house keepers, the small tradesmen and the caterers, all of whom make a tremendous contribution to the economy of seaside resorts, and even the men who sweep the sand off the promenade, will all suffer.
I should like to turn to the longer-term issues deriving from the disaster and to talk about coast protection. I put down a Question to the Prime Minister very soon after the blow hit us. No one, I believe, could have foreseen the disaster, although some of us might, perhaps, have foreseen the conjunction of circumstances which necessarily led to it, that is, a series of north-westerly and northeasterly gales culminating in a violent storm at the same time as exceptionally high tides.
I believe that our consciences should be clear on this, I do not think that anything we could have done in the past could have stopped this disaster. We can take some little comfort, if there is any, from the fact that nothing that Holland, with its tradition of sea defence and long history of national responsibility in that respect, and with some of the finest maritime engineers in the world at its disposal, could not guard against such a catastrophe. But that is no excuse for us to be complacent.
As has been said this afternoon on more than one occasion, this flood has been the worst since the 18th century. Someone contradicted that and said that it was the worst since 1350, or some such date. I do not know about that, but I know that it has now occurred and that it may occur in another couple of centuries. On the other hand. it may occur in a fortnight if we get that conjunction of conditions which made this disaster possible. I suggest that we must not delay in preparing.
This question of flooding and erosion is no new problem. It has been with us ever since our history was written. Now is the time when we can bring pressure on the authorities, the central Government, the county councils and other local authorities, as everyone is keyed up to do something and now is the time to do it. I am sorry that our history in respect of coast protection is not good. It has been sporadic, it has been niggardly.
The greatest deterrent to effective coast protection, without any doubt, is its appalling cost. In some cases, where highly specialised work is necessary, the cost is about £20 a foot, but in other places, where there is more natural defence, expenditure on the cultivation of coarse grasses and so on can be very effective. In highly concentrated inhabited areas coast protection is often very costly, as in my constituency. There the North Sea wall was built at a cost of £200,000, and the rate in Lowestoft was 6s. in the pound in respect of coast protection alone. Yet the pre-vision of the authority in building that wall, with the promise of the Government of the time that grants would be available, was proved worthwhile. I shudder to think what the consequences would have been had they not built the wall. No doubt that wall, which stood up to the storm, saved hundreds of lives and the money was well spent.
Apart from grants to catchment boards in respect of agricultural land and assistance by the Admiralty in regard to estuarial waters, there was no direct responsibility until the Coast Protection Act, 1949. There were grants available in respect of work undertaken since VJ day. Governments, possibly rightly and certainly understandably, sheltered behind the recommendation of the Royal Commission of 1911 which, with one dissentient, came out against national responsibility for coast protection. They made certain recommendations, but then there was the First World War, followed by a long period, when a great deal could have been done, and the Second World War.
For all those years the sea was eating away the land and breaking down defences, and it was left to the maritime local authorities to fight the battle with their own resources. This they did in a haphazard way according to the resources they had available. Since then the situation has altered. During the First World War, and particularly during the second, local authorities who themselves had maintained defences were denied facilities to protect those defences. They were denied access to the foreshore and the beaches. There were masses of tangled barbed wire on the beaches. I well remember one of the most laconic notices I have ever seen being displayed in my constituency in red lettering. It said: "Death, keep out."
The result was that during those periods the groynes disappeared and the concrete foundations of the ramparts against the sea were undermined and collapsed. We had a very difficult situation following the war because of lack of capital, of labour and materials, and local authorities were left to battle on. I hope that the Government will face in a fighting spirit this question of building up our sea defences. When my hon. Friends were in office they felt they could not go very much further than to make a little concession on this matter. I would recommend the Government to consider the tremendous cost of maintenance.
I believe that coast protection authorities ought to have substantial grants. I am not in favour of the 100 per cent. grant because some local authorities make a tremendous income out of the amenities a sea wall provides by way of promenades and gardens—and good luck to them. I do not think they should attract the 100 per cent. grant whilst poor local authorities have to go, cap in hand, for 80 per cent. In one case a 1d. rate produces only £92, yet that authority is faced with the costs of sea erosion. It suffered terribly in the last episode to the extent of nearly £60,000. It is true that they will get substantial grants—
Is the hon. Member suggesting that, quite irrespective of this present disaster, the charge for new coast protection works should fall substantially upon the Exchequer and only to a much smaller degree on the local authority?
I am asked, "Why not?" It is because the party opposite, in the debates of 1949 always resisted what we were trying to urge—that there should he a much more substantial grant from the Exchequer for such work.
I was hoping that no one on the benches opposite would bring up that very controversial point. I will not go into it because the answer is devastating. I do not propose to proceed with that argument.
It is essential that the Government should bring in legislation now to make the sea defences much more comprehensive than they are today. I would remind them that the Coast Protection Act gives benefit only in respect of coast erosion, whereas most of the trouble which arose recently was not coast erosion at all but because containing walls along low-lying land were overtopped by the tide. I doubt whether the Coast Protection Act would cover that contingency. I hope that it is the intention of the Government—I think we have had a promise to that effect today—that this subject will be thoroughly examined; that we shall set up a competent body to investigate it in order to preserve as much as possible of our land.
We pride ourselves on being a maritime nation. We go to sea and use the sea for trading. We sing, "Rule Britannia," and this year we shall sing it more than ever before. It is no use adjuring Britannia to rule the waves unless we give her the tools and weapons to do the job, but unless the old lady gets down to the job pretty soon there will be little left from which Britannia may rule.
We always listen with great interest to the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), especially when he is talking about the problems of the East Coast and its protection against the sea. Not very long ago I had the privilege of making my maiden speech before he spoke and on that occasion he made some polite remarks about me. Had I the time I would like to do the same thing, but my speech tonight will have one merit, that of being commendably short.
I wish to raise three points. Mercifully, the East Riding of Yorkshire suffered, comparatively, much less than the constituency of the hon. Member for Lowestoft and those of some of my hon. Friends. There was no loss of life. Many of the problems which it is facing have already been discussed, and many others will certainly be discussed tonight by hon. Members representing people who have suffered more severely than people in Yorkshire, and who will, therefore, be able to speak with greater authority than I.
My first point has already been mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. It is the urgent need to put into operation as quickly as possible the earning capacity of small firms and industries. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine), whose constituency includes Canvey Island, said that priority must be given to the task of getting homes back into order. Obviously that is the first priority. But when the sea walls, and the homes, and drainage and water have been looked after I believe that there will remain an urgent need to put into operation the earning capacity particularly of small people.
My second point concerns the damage to agricultural land caused by flooding. I was delighted to hear my right hon. and learned Friend say that one-third of the land which had been flooded was not seriously damaged. I hope that the House may be informed as quickly as possible of the findings of the meeting we were told was to take place on Tuesday, particularly regarding the prospects for cropping this year. The prospects for the long-term rehabilitation of the land—
I am grateful to hear that. It is much better than I thought and I must have mis-heard my right hon. and learned Friend.
I wish to add to what has been said by the hon. Member for Lowestoft about the defences against a recurrence of the disaster of a week or two ago. It was a horrifying one, but we are reassured by the fact that there has been a certain amount of argument about how long it is since such a disaster last overtook us. The hon. Member for Leeds (Mr. Pannell) said it was 250 years. Other people have said it is 600 years, but in any case it is quite a long time. The point which was made by the hon. Member for Lowes-toft, and which I wish to reinforce, is that along the coast of this country there is a constant battle against the sea, whether we have such disasters or not.
In the nature of things it is a losing battle, because the cost of protecting every inch of our coast is quite prohibitive. We have been losing this battle against the sea for a long time. I do not think it is practicable or desirable for the whole responsibility for coast protection to rest on the Government. But I am a little disturbed that the Exchequer is making grants for coast protection on the principle of taking into consideration the level of rates of local authorities. One of the effects of that will be to penalise local authorities who have deliberately tried to keep the rates as low as possible and I hope that that may be reconsidered.
If any good at all can ever come out of such a horrible, miserable disaster as we have suffered, I think it is the added certainty we now feel—and which has been expressed several times today—that there is no real substitution for the good neighbour. I think we all agree that the efforts of the Government, prompt and efficient as they were, would have been of no avail had not it been for the ready help and co-operation of thousands of people whose only thought and effort was to do something to try to lessen the magnitude of this appalling tragedy.
I join with the Home Secretary and other hon. Members in expressing sympathy with the people bereaved by the floods with whom, of course, the whole nation mourns. I should like, also—and this has not been stressed so much—to say how we sympathise with the many householders, particularly in my own town, who lost all their household possessions or very nearly all of them. May I add to the concluding sentences of the hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) that nowhere in England, I am sure, was there a greater example of good neighbourliness than in that part of the East Coast in which I am interested.
I would pay a tribute to all that was done by the local authorities, the police and the fire brigades and that vast army of volunteers whom, generically, we call by an odd name. They seemed to turn up from nowhere to provide help in that appalling situation. Above all, I would pay a tribute to the stout-hearted way in which people behaved. I was unaware that anything had happened until about 8 o'clock in the morning, and then, when I went to where the works I look after are situated, I found that houses were flooded almost up to the mantelshelves. There was a bitter north-easterly wind blowing, and everybody's cooking utensils and means of light and heat had gone. But people were still managing to be cheerful and the local authority did a good job in getting things on the move.
Before telling the story of what happened in our part of the country I wish to refer to something I said to the Home Secretary while he was speaking—the question of whether this was tempest or flood. It seems to me that it is an important thing to decide. I am, in a way, interested, but, unfortunately, even though I prove this was a tempest it does not affect my position, because I am told that I am not covered. I contend that this was tempest and not flood. My first reason is that from what is recorded and from what has been told to me I understand that for the previous 48 to 72 hours there had been a north-east gale blowing in the Orkneys and Shetlands at as much as 120 miles an hour. That, coupled with excessive spring tides which were excessively large on this occasion because the sun, moon and earth were dead in line and, therefore, the attraction was greater than normal, led to the piling up of water in the North Sea, with the consequent disaster.
It is evident from the records that people think that there was something in the nature of a tidal wave. I have not got all the evidence, but I know that the Cork lightship off the coast of Felix-stowe suddenly shot up about eight feet and then disappeared aItogether behind a wall of water and was not seen for quite a time. The people on the lightship at the time told that story.
At Ipswich, the tide was just about on the ebb when the disaster happened. It is a recorded fact that the tide up in the middle of the town was 7 ft. 5½ in. above what was anticipated. It came slap over the top as a result of the piling up of the water in the North Sea which. I submit, was due to gales in the northern part of the island. Therefore, the consequent losses to everybody should come under the heading of tempest and not flood.
I am not in a position to say. A great number of people, through no fault of their own, have lost if not everything at least very considerably. Unless somebody puts on record what the argument is then ordinary folk whom it is our job to represent will not know how to set about looking after themselves. I do not suppose for a moment that the insurance companies will not be terrifically generous, especially after what I have said, in admitting that it was tempest and not flood.
But I could not get the Home Secretary to decide what it was. He may decide later. I tried to get him to decide, but he is a good enough lawyer not to commit himself. He merely edged round the Box and then sat down again. I suppose that the courts will decide ultimately. But if further evidence is wanted, I want to read from the local paper of yesterday what the Felixstowe Council engineer said during an inquest. He said:
My theory is that this 'tidal surge,' such as is referred to in the Admiralty tide tables, met the ebbing tide in the Rivers Orwell and Stour and that the meeting took place at what would he right in front of the breach in the river wall.
Note that he said "ebbing tide." He claimed in further observations, as I have claimed, that that was very largely due to the gale raging up north.
What I cannot understand is why there was not a better warning. I realise that all this is to be inquired into. We got literally only half an hour's warning, though I understand that it was known miles up the coast six hours earlier that there was danger. I assure the Home Secretary that any person responsible for industrial premises, let alone for ordinary folk and their household goods, given four or five hours' warning, could have prevented much of the loss which took place.
Having dealt with that matter, I want to back up something which I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) to say about our setting up again something like the War Damage Commission with a new directive to assess damage. I am thinking not only of the large businesses who may or who may not have been covered, but especially of the small men. The small industries simply cannot carry on. I know of cases where the small man simply has not got enough resources to continue to pay the wages of the men whom he employs. While the bigger firms—thank God, in my case, it was possible—may be able to carry on doing that, it is desperately hard not only for the small man but for the people whom he employs. I hope that something can be done about that.
Three engineering firms in Ipswich suffered considerable damage. I suppose that my own firm suffered most. The point I want to emphasise is that it is not merely the immediate loss of profit that will count. What will count is that unless something is done about it the whole of the development programme for the next three or four years will go by the board and the increased output which has been asked for simply will not be there. That is the big danger.
I was delighted when I heard the Home Secretary say that the farmers' losses would be treated as a national disaster. Being a farmer myself I sympathise very much with that point of view. But I should also like to know what is to be done about the small as well as the big industrialist. When it was suggested to me the other day that the Lord Mayor's Fund would deal with them, I thought that that was absolute rubbish. Generous though contributions to the Lord Mayor's Fund may be, on the Home Secretary's own figures that simply is not possible. I think he said that the Lord Mayor's Fund had now reached £770.000, and he seemed to assess the known damage at £71 million already without taking into account repairs to walls or sea defences.
I come to my town of Ipswich. We had much more damage than people realise. We had 700 houses swamped; 589 industrial and commercial activities were put out of action to a greater or lesser extent; and 263 acres of the town were completely flooded. The Town Clerk told me that he had not the slightest idea what the damage will amount to; but he did say that it had proved that the emergency feeding organisation worked very well. The arrangements were very quickly got into action for those poor folk who, in a bitter wind, were left without heat, light or cooking facilities. They were speedily brought food or sent to a centre where it could be provided.
It was emphasised, however, that the civic head cannot provide immediate relief unless there are funds on which he can lay hands immediately. That seems to be a fault in the organisation which ought to be dealt with. Also, with the extent of the damage unknown, it is impossible for the local authority to deal with any but hard cases until they know what they will get, first, from the Lord Mayor and, secondly, from the Treasury direct or by way of the Lord Mayor's Fund. I hope that a speedy decision will be taken so that the local authorities will know how much they can disburse. I know that there have been some disbursements but, generous though they are, they are quite inadequate to meet the situation. The Home Secretary said that those who give quickly give twice. I hope that he gives twice very quickly.
Having said that, I pass on to the events as they concern my part of industry—the engineering trade in Ipswich. I make no apology for recounting our experiences because probably they were typical of what happened in many other works. It is a great tribute to the way in which people tackled very difficult situations, and I think that the House would like to hear it if I do not take too long in telling the story.
Between 1 a.m. and 1.30 a.m. we were suddenly immersed in water to a depth of 3 ft. 6 in. to 4 ft. 2 in, all over the works. Every machine tool was put out of action, though, of course, nothing was running because it was Sunday. The watch keeper took refuge on the top of the mantelpiece where he perched until the water began to go down. I cannot imagine what he looked like, but somehow or other he managed to stay there. The pumps were got to work as the water subsided.
Suffice it to say that everybody agreed to act as housemaid, which they all did, and all the men came in on Monday and set to work. In the foundry, which had contained 3 ft. 6 in. of water on Sunday afternoon, incidentally we caught a fish, although it was about 250 yards from the bank. The first result was that the foundry cast 10 tons of iron castings by Wednesday, which was a pretty good performance on the part of the foundry-men and a tribute to their adaptability.
The right hon. Gentleman said that about 500 engineering firms had been affected by the floods. Could he say how much loss of production or loss of wages was involved?
I will come to that point in a moment, although, of course, I do not know. Although I am the Member for the borough, I have been rather heavily engaged in getting my own 1,700 men back to work, and it was quite a job. Every machine-tool had to be set down, every motor had to be sent for repair; they were all carried out of the place by Wednesday morning and some of them were back on Thursday afternoon.
We had something like 600 engines which had to go back to the maker's works to be reconditioned, disinfected, and so on, and we lost between 35,000 and 40,000 man-hours, which the men have said that they will make up by working overtime and long week-ends. We had some 400 pieces of electrical equipment which had to be sent away, and thousands of stillages of partly-produced goods which had to be emptied and cleaned. There were also many hundreds of lockers which had to be treated likewise. I spent my time there, and all the men agreed to act as housemaid. In fact, by closing time yesterday, we had something like 850 men, with their ancillaries—another 350—engaged in normal production with something like 150 machine-tools running again.
This is my story, and I tell it for this reason. It could not have taken place unless all the people in the works, whether office staff, workshops, stores—and, after all, these were completely flooded, and the paper in the office was like mush; I was tempted to wish that it was Somerset House—had pulled together. The whole place was in a frightful mess, and it was undoubtedly due to the way in which everybody got to work that recovery has been so quick. I commend the whole organisation for what they did; I did nothing but pipe around and be cheerful—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Well, it is quite an important factor. I should also like to pay tribute to the small army of electricians, who tackled the job and worked splendidly in order to get the equipment back to working condition in minimum time.
Believing, as I do, that this story is typical of what probably took place in other engineering works, I thought it worth while to put it on record as a tribute to the staff and men.
Representing as I do a Scottish division which suffered perhaps as severely as any in Scotland, I should like to express sympathy with the people in the south of these islands who suffered grievous loss and say that we in Scotland sympathise with them very much in their plight. The ordeal which was suffered in North-East of Scotland was completely and rightly overshadowed by what occurred in the English counties, and, indeed, by the great disaster of the "Princess Victoria." We in North-East Scotland suffered a very great deal, but there was no loss of life.
On the coast of East Aberdeen and the whole of the coast of Banff, the people suffered more through the storm than in any other part of Scotland. There is no parallel in recorded history for a storm of that magnitude, and, indeed, the terrible combination of stream tide and onshore hurricane is something that has to be seen to be fully realised. It is true that in Scotland very little is known of the disaster which overtook the North-Eastern counties, and I am sure that the House will bear with me while I give some details of that tragedy.
The Scottish people themselves know very little about what happened in that terrible storm of 31st January, and I think that the B.B.C. have been very much at fault in this respect. They have not conveyed to the Scottish people a true appreciation of what took place round our northern coasts, and I would suggest to my right hon. Friend that he might induce the Scottish Region of the B.B.C. to institute a round-table discussion on this tragedy, and that it might be conducted by eye witnesses of the disaster, with perhaps a few experts, in order that the Scottish people themselves may be given a true appreciation of what befell us.
This shore of the Moray Firth, facing due north, has no land between it and the Polar regions, and the gale was a northerly gale. Ordinarily, a gale from the north on that coast causes the sea to be built up a very long way hack, so that it pounds the coast with enormous waves. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) mentioned some of the preliminaries to the disaster in the South, because those preliminaries were very present with us in the North. On the night of 30th January, a strong northerly gale was blowing, and at high tide, about 11 p.m., heavy waves were pounding the coasts. It was a spring tide, severe but not outstandingly so. All through the night, the wind was increasing in force, and when day came there was the phenomenon of a large body of broken water close inshore where there should have been an ebb.
The strong northerly wind had built up the raging sea so much that it completely discounted the ebb tide. At 8 o'clock in the morning, the highest marks of our spring tides had been passed, and water was coming in increasing quantities through the coast defences. At that time, the wind had reached a velocity of more than 100 miles an hour, and it was quite evident that the great storms of fact and legend were going to be entirely surpassed and that the most serious consequences would ensue.
It was also clearly evident that the coastal defences were bound to give way, and in fact the only ones that survived were those that were submerged. When the storm was at its highest at 11 o'clock, the water came up seven feet higher than the previous highest tides, and any defences that had to face the combined strength of that vast volume of water, with a terrific high wind behind it, were swept aside like blotting paper.
The fishing villages on this part of the coast are built on shelves, as near to the sea as experience over centuries has considered fairly safe. The houses built nearest to the sea are inhabited by perhaps the poorest class of our fisherfolk, and these people have suffered particularly severe losses. All these villages were completely inundated by this sea, with the most disastrous effects. Some houses were completely destroyed and many were badly damaged, but in every instance there was a deposit of seaweed, stone and sand, together with other noxious things. resulting in those houses being more or less ruined.
It was a mercy that this blow struck the coast of East Aberdeenshire and Banffshire in daylight. Had it come at night the people would have forced their way out of their houses and into the welter of breaking sea and spume, from which many could not have escaped, with the result that there would have been a very heavy death roll. Virtually a new coastline has been formed all along the coast. Certain areas have disappeared into the sea and with them the business premises that stood on them.
Along the 40 miles of the Banffshire coast, from the little village of Crovie in the east to Port Gordon in the west. about 13 communities have suffered wholesale disaster. Crovie itself, a little old-world village, will probably have to be written off altogether and its inhabitants housed elsewhere. Those people would already have been re-housed had the necessary accommodation been available, but the old folk of that village, like those in other communities which have suffered disaster, cling to their houses through thick and thin. Indeed, as soon as the tide went down they returned and started to clear their houses of the mud and slime that had accumulated in them.
Some of the villages affected will have to be re-sited, and that is another problem to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will have to give consideration. Houses have been destroyed or damaged, furniture ruined, sheds and stores in which the fishermen kept their nets and lines swept away, businesses and the ground on which they stood have disappeared, fishing boats have been driven ashore, some smashed and sunk in harbour, public utilities have been interfered with, sea defences have been shattered and retail stocks in low lying places have been destroyed.
There are many matters affecting several villages which might well be dealt with at a round-table conference of the B.B.C. such as I have suggested. Our harbours have suffered damage and the foundations of many of them may have been affected. Quite a number show signs of damage on the surface. Some of the coastal roads have disappeared, and all of them have suffered damage.
Our women's organisations, the W.R.I. and the W.V.S., have done yeoman service in bringing succour to those who needed it most. Our provosts, magistrates, county councillors and the county clerk of Banffshire have all done magnificent work in rendering first-aid. This area was singled out by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade last October as one which should receive special treatment for industrial development in view of its hard core of unemployment. No new businesses have come to it since that time, and some of its existing industries have disappeared into the sea. We hope that these businesses will rise again as indeed they must.
For some time we have been doing our utmost to attract tourists to the North-East of Scotland. Many of our swimming pools and other amenities have been washed away. As the House probably knows, 26 drifters, most of them from the north-east were stranded at Loch Broom, but I am glad to say that 16 of them have been refloated. The thanks of the Banffshire fishermen are due to the Admiralty and the Army for the magnificent service they rendered in getting these drifters back into their natural element. Our policemen in this affected area have been absolutely magnificent. Under Chief Constable Strath they have done a magnificent job.
On the landward side, farm buildings have suffered very extensive damage. I cannot at this moment give the House any idea of the extent of that damage, but I hope to submit figures to my right hon. Friend in the relatively near future. Our forestry has also suffered very badly. In Banffshire and in that part of East Aberdeenshire which faces the Moray Firth there are very important timber growing areas. Most of the trees in those areas are flat and their owners, both large and small, have suffered a very heavy blow because timber is an integral part of their agricultural economy.
The landlord looks to the sale of his timber to help in the proper economic running of his estate. Many of these owners are faced with forced sales of timber, because the timber on the ground will deteriorate very rapidly. I appeal to my right hon. Friend, to do all in his power to prevent such a contingency arising. I hope he will step in and say that the timber shall be bought as it lies, and that a reasonable price shall be paid for it.
What of the future in regard to coastal defence? I was interested in what the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) and the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) had to say. I am certain that we must entirely recast our ideas about coast protection. That is not only evidenced by what has occurred in our own constituencies, but by what has occurred in Holland, where there are, perhaps, the finest coast protection experts in the world. This disaster was something entirely new to them. Even if the Coast Erosion Act had been implemented tenfold, it would not have kept back one cupful of the water which inundated Banffshire.
This storm may be only the beginning of a new age of oceanic movement. I in common with a number of other people, believe that the sea level is rising. We are experiencing milder conditions in the Northern Hemisphere. It may well be that Polar ice is melting at a greater rate than hitherto. We know that this devastation came from the north, and we shall have to watch with particular care similar meteorological conditions in future.
These are problems for the experts. who should pay particular attention to them in the immediate future. Our duty is to see that those who suffered are adequately looked after
I hope that the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) is wrong when he suggests that the level of the sea is rising because some parts of my constituency are not very much above it as it is. I am sure the whole House sympathises with him in the appalling disaster that overtook North-East Scotland, as it does with those affected by the storm damage along the whole East Coast of England.
My constituency, fortunately, did not suffer anything like so drastically as some other districts, but, as the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) said, this storm, like many others, came from the direction of Orkney and Shetland. We had a very sharp blow. We do not know the strength of the wind because I am afraid that our winds are regularly of a strength above limits registered by the gauges of the Ministry of Civil Aviation or the Air Ministry. Incidentally, for our own interest, we should like to have installed new gauges capable of registering a higher level. We should then know what hits us.
While we did not suffer as much as other districts, I ask the House to bear in mind that some parts of my constituency are isolated areas with very small resources, and the inhabitants are people to whom even a small loss means a great deal. Take Foula, for instance. The winds there are normally so strong that it is said that when two men meet they sit down to have a conversation. The place is very exposed, the winter winds blow and week after week the mail boats fail to reach it.
In this last gale some stacks were carried away and damage was done to croft houses. The damage was small when compared with what happened in the eastern counties, but to these people who are living on the edge of the world it is not very easy to make up that kind of damage. I hope that it will rank within the emergency measures of which the Home Secretary spoke. I am glad to say that there was no great loss of life in Shetland, but two brothers were lost in their fishing boats.
In Whalsay, which is a fishing community, the only jetty, a wooden one, was swept away. It is perhaps unbelievable that that island, the main industry of which is fishing, should have still been dependent on one very inadequate wooden jetty, but at least before the storm there was somewhere where the fishing boats could land. Now there is not even that. I hope that its reconstruction will rank as emergency work. I hope that assistance will be forthcoming on a generous scale and quickly for fishermen who have lost much of their fishing gear and suffered damage to their boats, which are their only means of livelihood.
In Orkney the storm this year did not do nearly so much damage as last year's storm, when we suffered damage of the order of £500,000. We had a Government grant then, amounting to about one-twentieth, and through the generosity of the people of Britain we had very considerable help. Nevertheless, something like nine-tenths of the burden fell upon the people of Orkney. They, too, are not very well off and have no great resources with which to repair this damage.
The North Isles of Orkney were covered in places by sea and spray this year, and I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will consider the effect that that will have on grassland and farms in general. The spray blew right over some parts of these low-lying islands. A feature of the storm this year as against last year's storm was the damage done by the sea and this almost tidal wave of which other hon. Members have spoken.
The little boat which goes out from Kirkwall to these islands, carrying the men and women to do their shopping and marketing, went out in the early morning and ran into this gale. Its steam steering broke and it had to turn before the wind and run before the gale to Aberdeen, a distance of well over 100 miles. It was a considerable feat of seamanship on the part of the skipper that he brought the boat, with its damaged steering, into Aberdeen in that wind and that no one was the worse for the experience. There was some difficulty because the boat had on board two bulls bought at Perth bull sale; and when the boat arrived at Aberdeen it was found that there was a standstill order because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Otherwise, all was well.
The island of Sanday was almost cut in half. Part of the shore where the mail-boat from North Ronaldshay arrives, has changed its character completely, and some of the crofting farms have been inundated with spray. In Kirkwall the Ayre road was pulverised by the tide, paving stones were thrown up on the roads round the harbour and the pier surface was ripped up. Damage to the extent of perhaps £40,000 to £50,000 may have been done. I take it from what has been said today that the repair of damage will rank for national aid, and that as the Ayre road was originally a crofter county scheme the restoration of the road will be eligible for 100 per cent. grant. The local authorities are very much concerned about this damage. This road is the main road out of Kirkwall and the authorities naturally want it put into shape as soon as possible.
We are conscious that compared with other areas we have been lucky this time, but we live to a certain extent in a continuing state of struggle with wind and sea, and coming on top of what happened last year many families will undoubtedly have suffered and will find it difficult to make good the damage done.
No one not actually present in North-East Scotland on 31st January, or who has not subsequently seen the extent of the devastation, could possibly realise the extent of the blow which has fallen upon us.
If any hon. Members would wish to see for themselves, I would recommend them to make the journey to the Reference Library of the House of Commons and look at a copy of the "Aberdeen Press and Journal" for 9th February. Throughout the period following the storm the "Press and Journal" has performed a remarkable feat of graphic reporting, and I know that many copies, including the issue of 9th February, which, to my mind, is quite outstanding, have gone all over the world. They tell a remarkable story. As one of the reporters said, the miracle was that although the great forests had gone no man had gone with them, for which we are indeed thankful.
It is estimated by the Forestry Commission that something like 35 million cubic feet of timber were blown down in a few hours. Although I cannot possibly make an assessment, I believe that might well be an under-estimate, because there are so many parts which it has still not been possible to visit. The telephone lines are still down and some of these areas are still out of touch. The fact that so many of the woods have been so severely blown means that the few remaining trees will be blown down in the next gale that comes along. The woods which have been opened up by great funnels of blown timber will suffer severely in future gales.
I want to address myself to one or two practical suggestions. The immediate problem is to clear the timber which is lying on the ground. That has to be done quickly, because the bulk of it is softwood which, as in the case of Scots firs, is likely to soften in nine to 12 months if it is not dealt with properly and quickly. The immediate problem is to get foresters into the area from other parts of the British Isles or even further afield.
We want foresters, saw mills, and cutting equipment from other districts because it is totally beyond our own capacity to deal with this problem. Unskilled labour is not much good. It is possible to absorb a few unskilled men to keep the bonfires going, to make the tea and drive the tractors, but we must have men who know how to use the cutting equipment, who know how to saw and use an axe.
I have a suggestion which I should like the Secretary of State to consider. There are in this country a great many Central Europeans of various kinds. There are many BaIts, people from Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Poland, who are skilled foresters. The land from which they come is largely covered with forests, and they know how to use these tools. I made it my business to inquire, through sources which are open to me, about the possibility of getting Polish forestry labour, and I am told that there are in this country up to about 1,000 Poles, single men, with forestry experience, whose services might be secured.
I do not know about other countries, but I dare say there are nationals of other Central European countries who might be approached. I am told that there are thousands of former Polish foresters in Western Germany who would be prepared to come over if accommodation could be made available for their families. They are in Western Germany and have their families with them, and if arrangements could be made for their families to come with them they would live in camps and would help with this gigantic problem which we have to face.
I hope that the small woodland owners will not be left to the last in this opera- tion. I was lunching last Saturday, after I had been over his ground, with a constituent of mine who lost about 80 acres of timber out of a total of 240 acres. There are a great many small woodland owners of that type in Scotland who are dependent upon occasional farm labour in the off times to do planting, and so on. I fear lest these men may be left to the last. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that that is not the case, because they have no means of helping themselves.
I have another suggestion to make on that point. The great bulk of this damage has been done in the Eastern Conservancy of the Forestry Commission. About 32 million cubic feet of the total of 35 million cubic feet blown in Scotland is in the Eastern Conservancy. We have only two technical officers of the Forestry Commission in the Eastern Conservancy. They are working day and night, of course. We should like some more technical officers to be drafted from the other conservancies to the Eastern Conservancy because they would be of the greatest possible help, particularly to the small woodland owners who want the kind of advice which they could give.
I have been delighted, as all of us in the North-East have been, to learn that the Secretary of State is in consultation with the National Coal Board about the possibility of using much of our softwood for pit props. It would be the greatest possible help. What we shall need, however, is organised transport. I should like the Government to send special trains from Aberdeen right the way through to the mining areas, carrying mining timber; or, if they cannot organise special trains, at least the transport should be subsidised, because it is the cost of transport which has been the problem in the past.
Let me say a word about prices. I am glad that we have had the assurance that timber merchants intend to maintain fair prices. They have the difficulty of extraction. It always costs more to extract blown timber than to deal with cleanfelled wood. I hope that if the laudable intention of the trade's leading spokesman to maintain fair prices is not found to be supported in fact, the Government will be ready to step in with a guaranteed minimum price for trees as they lie, if there appears to be a likelihood of a severe fall in the price. I do not say that they should do it now. I am against controlled prices if they can be avoided, but I hope that the Government will have their plans ready in case it is necessary to introduce a guaranteed minimum price.
If they do so, it must be for the trees as they lie. It is no good helping further along the production line; the problem is, what is to be done with the trees as they lie on the ground. There would appear to be great justification for a deficiency payment from the Government. Woodland owners have been holding the nation's standing reserves of timber. Those reserves are now on the ground. Unless owners can secure a fair price, they will lose confidence in the future of timber growing and they will have neither the will nor the means to replant.
Colonel Lilburn of Coull, a friend and former constituent of mine, who was a former President of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, is reported as having said recently:
Unless some assistance is given to hard-pressed landowners, it will be the death knell of private forestry in North-East Scotland.
I should like to have the opportunity of intervening for a short period, but I do not want to repeat what my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said today when dealing with the financial arrangements for the emergency work in connection with the flood and storm damage or with regard to the Lord Mayor's Fund. All I need say on those two points is that their application to Scotland will be the same as to England, because, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced some days ago, the disaster will be treated as a national emergency.
I have made two statements and I do not want to repeat what I have already said. I have not a great deal to add to the information which I have given previously to the House, but I should like to give a brief survey. As hon. Members know, the damage was widespread but, in the main, the worst damage was in the North-East and perhaps in the counties of Aberdeen and Banffshire in particular. Leaving aside for the moment the very serious timber losses, because I should like to refer to them a little later when I will deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, North and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley), I should say that the biggest single incident was the Kirkwall incident, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) referred. I notice that there was some difference between the estimate which I have and the figure which he mentioned. However, we can get a more definite estimate in due course.
I was giving a round figure of what I imagined the total damage in Kirkwall would be. It was only my estimate. I appreciate that the damage to the Ayre road was considerably less.
We will consider this matter as soon as we have the details. The other places where the main damage to the sea walls and sea defences occurred was on the Banffshire coast to which my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) has referred, and in particular Buckie, Portsoy, Banff, Macduff, Gardenstown and Port Gordon. In mentioning them I do not want to omit very serious housing damage at Crovie and the damage to Port Gordon, which was the first place I visited after leaving Lossie-mouth.
I was about to do so. I was mentioning the places as I moved round the coast. If it comforts my hon. Friend I may say that I finished at Pennan, where I inspected the damage. I agree that damage to housing there is considerable, as is the damage to the pier.
I gather from hon. Members and from what I saw myself that the repair work is being tackled with the greatest energy by the county councils and burgh councils affected. Nothing will be allowed to interfere with this emergency work, because it is of vital importance to build up these sea defences. In some cases it is essential in order to protect houses as well as roads to stop further sea incursions. The authorities concerned are putting great drive into the work and the defences should be back to the pre-disaster height very shortly.
That is the immediate target and thereafter, as in England, the long-term policy must be considered. At the time of the disaster I was in Edinburgh and, like the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), I was unaware that this terrible damage was being done. Edinburgh and the surrounding part of Scotland was fortunate. But it must have been a terrifying experience, and we all agree with the words of sympathy expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) and other hon. Members towards those who went through the terrible experience of having the sea literally battering down their front doors and windows and flooding their living rooms.
In one house I saw the marks of the water going two or three feet up the wall and in another about eight feet up the stairs going to the upper rooms. The loss of personal belongings and furniture is a very serious matter, with which the whole House will sympathise. I only hope that with the aid of the fund it will be possible to do a great deal to help these unfortunate people. Clothing, as in England, is coming in in abundance and furniture is also being offered. By one means and another we shall do all we can to help.
A few of these houses have been damaged beyond repair, but I am glad to say that there are not a great many in Scotland. Great efforts have been put into the repair work on roofs and windows by the owner-occupiers and the housing authorities. They have also made habitable a considerable number of the damaged houses, with the result that the majority of people are back in their own homes, temporary housing accommodation having been provided where necessary for the others. The main incident was at Huntly, in Aberdeenshire; but the families there are being housed for the time being in a camp belonging to the Department of Agriculture.
Serious damage was done to the fishing industry, but not to life. Two lives were lost in the Shetland boat to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred, and I have already announced the sad loss of the Fraserburgh lifeboat with all but one of the crew. Another boat which was lost at sea and to which I have previously referred was the "Caronia," of Lossiemouth; but fortunately, by a magnificent feat of seaman- ship, the crew were taken off by the Aberdeen trawler "Loch Awe."
But in harbour or on shore there has been serious damage to approximately 10 boats and lesser damage to about 117. I announced that 28 boats had been driven ashore at Ullapool and my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson Stewart) went up and saw the work of dealing with this. I am glad to report that the figures given to me are better than those which were announced just now by the hon. Member for Banff. My latest information is that 24 of the 28 boats have been refloated and it is hoped to refloat two more by tomorrow evening, but I fear that one of the remaining two must be regarded as a total loss.
My hon. Friend reported to me that he found a scene of great activity and co-operation. The Royal Navy offered help at once and their tug has been, and still is, giving very valuable assistance. The War Office, through Scottish Command, also co-operated and a detachment of Royal Engineers from the Pinefield Camp at Elgin have been giving most valuable help. My hon. Friend assures me that everybody was helping each other and providing accommodation. I do not wish to mention the names of individuals, because it would take too long and I might leave out some very deserving ones. I am sure we all join in expressing our thanks to all who have cooperated so magnificently in this work. I shall not attempt to give an estimate of the full damage to the boats until they have been properly surveyed.
Damage has been reported to 13 fishery harbours and the cost of the immediate repairs is estimated at about £14,000. The Whalsay pier, to which reference has been made. will probably cost about £2,000 to repair
In agriculture, we have been fortunate in that we have not suffered really serious damage. It has not been greater than what we might call normal gale damage. There has been a small loss of livestock, particularly poultry; some shelter belts have been blown down, and damage has been done to roofs and stacks, but it is not of a very serious character.
With regard to public utility damage, the cost to the Banff gas works is estimated at about £10,000. A very fine job was done there by the manager and his staff in getting the supply of gas restored in 10 days. They have been working steadily and energetically and they have certainly done a very fine piece of work. The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board estimate their damage at between £5,000 and £10,000. Many consumers were disconnected, but the majority have now had their service restored. The General Post Office had about 120 exchanges isolated and 8,000 subscribers disconnected. The service to the exchanges was restored in 10 days and that to the subscribers is hoped to be completely restored by the end of the present month. The Army have been helping the General Post Office. No time was lost by the Post Office engineers in getting on with this work, and they also have been doing a very fine job. Equipment and vans for the repair work were rushed up from England and the South.
I said I would say something about the timber damage, which is very serious and which I do not wish to minimise in the least. But it is important that we should regard the figures in their proper perspective. I hope that owners, particularly small owners, will not rush in too hurriedly to sell and try to get any price they can. I know that the Forestry Commission have issued advice, and advice on this subject has already been issued through the Press, but it is of such importance that it should be repeated, because we hope by orderly marketing and planning to get this timber cleared and marketed in such a fashion as to see that fair prices are provided to the owners.
As has been stated, the estimated loss in Scotland due to the storm is 35 million cubic feet. Of this, the Forestry Commission's loss is about 3¼ million cubic feet; that is to say, about 32 million is private woodlands. The Forestry Commission's plantations are not fully matured, and the younger timber did not suffer so much. This blown timber consists of about 12.4 million cubic feet of pitwood timber, 17.2 million cubic feet of sawn softwood timber, and 5.4 million cubic feet of hardwoods, making 35 million cubic feet altogether.
I said that it was important to view these figures in their proper perspective. What I meant was that in Scotland the annual consumption of pitwood is about 12 million cubic feet, and in England and Wales about 68 million cubic feet—a total of 80 million cubic feet in Great Britain. About 12 million cubic feet have been blown down, so there is a market if it can be got to our home market. I will say more about that in a moment. In 1952, of our supplies of pitwood 57 per cent. used in Scotland came from home-grown timber, but only 20 per cent. of that used in England and Wales, so there is a market which could absorb this timber. For sawn softwoods the figure of blown timber is 17.2 million cubic feet. Our annual consumption is approximately 200 million cubic feet. In 1952, only about 5 per cent. of that consumption was home-grown timber, so there again there is a market.
It is a question of organising and clearing in a proper manner. In 1952, four million cubic feet of sawn hardwoods in Scotland were licensed for felling, and in Great Britain 27 million cubic feet were licensed for felling. Of this timber. 5.4 million cubic feet was blown in Scotland; in other words, 1.4 million more than was licensed for felling in 1952. There should not be a vast problem there, although I admit that this timber is lying some distance away from the normal consuming centres.
As for the handling of this, a series of meetings has been taking place, and there has been very good feeling and cooperation between the owners, merchants and the Forestry Commission. I have a meeting with them myself tomorrow in Scotland, and I hope that we shall be able to work out plans. The target is set for clearing this within two years. I know that hon. Members are nervous about the deterioration which will set in, but I am assured by experts that the blueing of this timber does not reduce its serviceability. It is merely its appearance.
A great deal of this timber is blown up by the roots, and I was assured by a very large owner only yesterday that some years ago it took him six years to clear one of these windfalls, and at the end of it most of the timber he was clearing was in no worse condition than the earlier timber. At any rate, I assure hon. Members that I am most anxious to see it done as rapidly as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus, North and Mearns referred to equipment far this work. Since the war, owing to the limited felling which has been licensed, merchants have had to restrict their felling. They are, therefore, able to step up the amount of timber they handle. In addition to that, there will be a restriction on felling in other areas so that the plant available in the country can be concentrated on the areas which we now have to clear. As to the labour required, I should like a little time to consider that further, because there are a number of unemployed in Scotland and I do not want to do anything with regard to importation unless that should prove to be necessary. I will consider that, of course.
The National Coal Board have been very helpful and co-operative in considering this matter and trying to help. They have already curtailed their import programme with a view to absorbing this available pitwood timber in Scotland. I am assured only today that negotiations are in train between the N.C.B. and the trade which should result in this pitwood being taken up as it becomes available. I should like to offer my thanks and those of the Government for their ready cooperation.
Here I should like to read a statement which I have received today from the Railway Executive, which says:
British Railways will be glad to help in any possible way with the movement of Scottish windblown timber, and their Scottish officers, with whom the initiative will lie, are ready to discuss the matter with the Forestry Commission representative at any time. It is obvious that until information is available of the nature, volume and distribution of the traffic, it is not possible to deal with the charges to be applied.
The Road Haulage Executive will also give any assistance in haulage that they can.
The Railways will buy all the home-grown timber available that is suitable for railway purposes, subject to price and specification, and they are already in touch with the leading timber merchants in Scotland.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Materials has authorised me to say further with reference to the disposal of this blown timber that, as regards the timber which can best be sold as sawn softwood, arrangements will be made, under the consumption licensing scheme, for licences to be issued where and as needed to consumers at the appropriate time, valid only for the use of home-
grown softwood. In addition, my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Materials is prepared to consider, if and as this proves desirable, some purchases of home timber for the stockpile, though only suitable timber could be acquired. However, we hope to provide him with quite a lot of suitable timber. We will do our best.
I hope that I have covered most of the points which were put to me. Any other points will certainly be looked into. I am very grateful to all those concerned with the timber trade for their help and co-operation and to the Forestry Commission for all the assistance which they gave at once. That reminds me of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, North and Mearns as regards the Eastern Conservancy. The drafting of advisers is already in hand. They will, I am sure, be of assistance in advising particularly the small owners on how to handle this blown-down crop. I trust, in conclusion, that with good sense and the co-operation which at present exists it will be possible to handle this very serious loss to our standing timber reserves, and to clear and market the timber in a fair and orderly manner.
No one will expect me to continue the debate on the lines adopted by the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is not about Scotland that I am competent to speak, but about the floods in Essex. I will make my speech very brief, first, because much of what I intended to say has already been said, and I hate needless repetition, and, secondly, because I want to give as great an opportunity as possible to other hon. Members whose constituencies have been visited by this calamity and who wish to express their views.
Most of my speech will concern my own constituency. I hope I need not apologise to the House for that; I am not in the habit of making what are called constituency speeches, but this is an exceptional case. My people have suffered grievously and their needs are very great. Hon. Members may form some idea of the extent of the disaster when they hear that in the constituency of Thurrock 6,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, the great majority from the small town of Tilbury.
I have done my best to acquaint myself with all the details. As was my duty, I visited the flooded areas several times, visited the rest centres, had long consultations with the chairman of the council and the chief local officers, and, as recently as this morning, in the company of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, visited too the two establishments at Purfleet which were mentioned by the Home Secretary this afternoon—namely, the large margarine works and the wharves where so many thousand tons of sugar are stored.
As a result of these visits and conversations, I am overwhelmed, first of all, with admiration for the fortitude of the stricken people. Everywhere I saw calmness, cheerfulness and courage. These unfortunate people have had many questions to ask, because, obviously, many problems agitate their minds, but nowhere have I heard a word of complaint. They were, indeed, wonderful.
I was deeply impressed, too, by the speed and efficiency of the emergency measures. For example, the first messages about the floods at Tilbury were received in the early hours of Sunday morning. Later, similar messages came from Purfleet, Grays and Coryton. But by 8.30 that morning, the first rest centre was opened and was fully staffed by volunteers and by members of the St. John Ambulance and British Red Cross Services Within 24 hours 10 centres had been opened, and by the Monday afternoon more than 2,500 people were being accommodated in these rest centres and another 2,000 had found refuge in private billets. Most of the rest centres were in schools, and I was glad that in his speech the Home Secretary went out of his way to pay a tribute to the splendid work which was done by the teaching staffs.
The catering arrangements were exceedingly satisfactory. In the beginning, they were in the hands of private caterers, who worked very well indeed, and then they were placed under the control of the local authority, who worked extremely efficiently, too. The most elaborate hygienic precautions were taken. Tap water was sampled several times a day. Taps which had been under flood water level were cleansed. A general medical practitioner and a State registered nurse were attached to each rest centre. Nurseries were opened. Infant feeding was supervised. The ambulance services were working well. Health visitors had the arduous task of visiting homes in the flooded areas. It ought to be put on record that all this was a wonderful illustration of all branches of the National Health Service working together as a co-ordinated team.
But not only was the spirit of cooperation visible and admirable among the branches of the National Health Service. It was noticeable everywhere. The Armed Forces, the N.F.S. and all the other bodies whose names have been mentioned today, as well as this great army of volunteers, worked exceedingly well together. My people are also very deeply appreciative of the visit which Her Majesty the Queen paid to Purfleet and Tilbury. It gave us all much comfort and much encouragement.
There are two problems which I should like to place before the Government. They might seem minor problems to the House, but they are of very great import to the people concerned. The first is that the coal situation is causing us some disquiet. First of all, there are some delays in deliveries but, also, I have been told this afternoon that the reserves of coal are down to less than about a week's supply. Next, we are in need of more drying machines, which, I believe, are obtainable chiefly from the R.A.F. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) knows more about that than I do, but I am requested to ask for more of these drying machines and more coal—and speedily—so that the people may return more quickly and more safely to their own homes.
On the long-term programme, I can add nothing to what has been said so admirably op both sides of the House. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) that the Exchequer should bear a much greater financial proportion of the cost of coast defences. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell), who opened the debate for the Opposition—and I make no apology for repeating it—in view of the fact that this is a national disaster, it should be treated as a national liability. It is monstrous that those who have suffered so grievously should be asked to bear the cost of their own rehabilitation.
This should be a national undertaking. One could make a very powerful case in this national undertaking for relieving those people in the stricken areas of their share of whatever tax is levied, but I certainly hope that the burden will be borne nationally. We can never recompense these people for all the suffering and anguish which they have endured, and whatever we can do for their rehabilitation and their comfort it is the bounden duty of all of us to do.
I listened with great sympathy to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy). I think that throughout the debate every hon. Member who has intervened has stressed the wonderful spirit which has been abroad in England during the last few weeks. Whether it was in Scotland or on the East Coast or in Essex, that spirit of good neighbourliness has been the keynote surrounding actions in connection with the flood disaster.
I feel, too, that other hon. Members will have shared my experience: when I saw people who had suffered the loss of all their household effects or people who had lost their relatives, inevitably the reaction of those people was, "We are lucky; a lot of people have been less lucky." Indeed, I have a feeling that during the Sunday and the Monday, after the floods of the Saturday and Sunday morning, even in areas where people had been killed, the knowledge that an even greater disaster was happening in Holland was present at places like Canvey Island and Felixstowe, where heavy losses had occurred. It has been that sense of brotherly feeling that, I think, has inspired the immense efforts that have been made since the damage was done to put things right.
People have talked with justice of the wonderful work done at the rest centres by the voluntary bodies in manning those centres, and of the great work of the local authorities. People have paid tribute to the troops. I see the Secretary of State for War is on the Treasury Bench at the moment. I think a special word is deserved to be given once again to those young men who, for a solid fortnight, in appalling conditions, certainly in my part of the world, amid snow, sleet, rain, up to the knees in mud and slime, struggled on filling those sandbags, plugging the gaps. It was a wonderful achievement, timed so that literally, in a matter of hours before the high tides of last weekend were to be faced, the gaps had been reduced in some places to possibly not more than a foot or 18 inches, in some places even less. It was a great achievement of that army of Service men and volunteers who manned the gaps in our coast defences.
A special word of praise should be given to the local people, also, and to the farm workers who came from areas outside those affected. I was astounded to find that, certainly in my constituency, some had come from 15 or 20 miles away, from Framlingham, from Thetford and Lakenheath, to man the breaches at places like Bawdsey and Ramsholt. I would, therefore, say that in all these weeks between the disaster and now we have seen Britain at her best.
I am, however, somewhat disturbed by the Home Secretary's statement about the future. He has not been able to give us today the information which is urgently needed, by the local authorities in particular, by individuals, and by those who have had to play their part during the initial stages. I had hoped that a far clearer definition of what the Government were intending to do to face the immediate future would have been given. Speaker after speaker has emphasised the fact that the emotions which have been aroused during the last few weeks may die down. Bills have now to be paid. They are far less interesting things to deal with than the immediate onset of the tragedy, which aroused instinctive emotional reaction.
I should therefore like to ask my right hon. Friend who is to wind up the debate one or two questions—questions which, first of all, affect his own Department. Let us take the local authorities. As he knows full well, there is considerable anxiety among the local authorities as to what future intentions are. The statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend today has not got us very much farther. We heard him say the disaster would be national responsibility, divided between the Exchequer and the local authorities for certain measures affecting the restoration of damage, but we have been given no definition of what the division of that responsibility is to be. There have been urgent pleas for certain authorities that they are bound to lose enormous sums of money in rateable value in the immediate future.
I would add that there has been no definition affecting the more permanent side of house repair in any of the speeches we have heard today. We know that the Government are giving first-aid repair costs to the local authorities, but we do not know what the policy is concerning repairs that go beyond first-aid. I am talking about cases where foundations have been badly shattered, where new drainage systems have to be put in—matters of that sort—which do not affect only local authorities but also affect, of course, private property owners as well.
I would remind my right hon. Friend that many of those properties in those particular areas are rent restricted, and that there will be a great deal of difficulty to be borne by landlords, at any rate where the properties are not owner-occupied, in getting necessary repairs done unless some financial aid for this purpose is forthcoming, because, quite frankly, many of those landlords have not the money with which to pay for the work.
I should also like to ask my right hon. Friend a particular constituency question. Most of the loss of life in Felixstowe took place on an estate of small prefabricated houses. Those houses, technically, belong to the Ministry of Works. They are not the property of the local authority. I am told that it will require £500 per house for those to be reconditioned on the sites on which they were originally. The Felixstowe Council have, I think, no intention of putting them back on those particular sites, for obvious reasons. I am told it would cost £900 per house to put them on any other site. It would be useful if I could be given, not necessarily in this debate, but afterwards, an indication of what the Government's policy is regarding those prefabricated houses which are not owned by the local authority but which, in fact, are the property of the Ministry of Works.
I should like to say one or two things on the agricultural side, because I think that here we have been given, perhaps, rather more of a lead than we have in matters affecting local authorities and others. We have been told—I listened with appreciation to the Home Secretary on this—that the Government are prepared to make some assistance, not defined, to those who are responsible for rehabilitating land which has been flooded, but I would point out that one of the difficulties which have to be overcome is that nobody will incur cost on that job of rehabilitating land unless he is certain adequate measures will be taken to put the sea defences and the river defences upon a permanent basis of safety
Again, I was disappointed, although as far as rehabilitation is concerned some promise of assistance has been given, that it is not yet possible to give some indication of what the long-term plans for permanent repairs and maintenance of sea walls and river walls will be—what form that maintenance and those permanent repairs will take, and who is to be responsible for it, and who is to pay for it.
I think, also, that the agricultural community would have liked to hear rather more from the Home Secretary about how the Lord Mayor's Fund is to deal with claims for present losses of stock and crops. The Home Secretary said that that is to be treated by special arrangements by those responsible for the fund, but he did not give very much indication of what that special machinery is likely to be, and I do think we do want, both from the agricultural side and from the side of those who have suffered losses in the towns, more details as quickly as possible as to the form of claims and as to the form of machinery for compensation. We want to know how the ordinary sufferer is to set about the job of staking his claim.
I should also like to say how very delighted—and I do not think this has been commented upon in this debate—I was to hear that we are to take full advantage of the great experience which the Dutch have gained about this question of land reclamation. I think that the House would like me to say how much we associate ourselves with the gesture of the Home Secretary in himself going to Holland in the midst of the hundred and one extra duties which have been imposed upon him by his taking over the responsibility of our own disaster.
I am quite sure that the information from the Dutch, if made proper use of, will considerably help us in our own troubles here. I have been very disturbed, but perhaps not surprised, by the number of different opinions as to what should be done which we have had published and announced by our own experts.
I think also that we must hear something fairly soon about how the machinery which is to be forged by the Lord Mayor's Fund is to be linked to the individual. That is absolutely vital. The sooner an announcement is made as to how this link between the human being and the machine, so to speak, is to be created, and how soon it will take to get it into operation, the better. I hope that my right hon. Friend, who is winding up the debate, may in fact be able to give us some information on this matter.
I do hope that we shall not have any of the niggardly-mindedness which sometimes goes with too rigid administration. I have a typical example of the sort of thing which, unfortunately, has happened. It is a letter from a constituent of mine, saying that an old man, aged 90, and a pensioner, who lived in a bungalow in Beach Road, Felixstowe, which was seriously flooded during the night of 31st January-1st February, and who, fortunately, escaped with his life, lost his tobacco relief coupons, and got this absolutely idiotic reply from the National Assistance Board, in Manchester:
In reply to your letter, it is requested that Tobacco Duty Relief Token Books which are lost, stolen or accidentally totally destroyed cannot he replaced.
That is an example of pettiness which I know that my right hon. Friend would like to take up, and I hope that action will be taken to stop any repetition of that sort of thing.
I end by saying that I hope that the intentions—and I repeat what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House—of the Government, as heard today, will be carried out when the final story is told. I sympathise with the difficulties of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and of my right hon. Friend who is to reply to this debate. They are, of course, very much bound by what the Treasury is prepared to allow them to spend. I hope in this case that we. on all sides of the House. when the story is ended, can say that this country has treated this as a national disaster and has not stinted in giving what should be given to recompense the families of those who have lost their lives or suffered from loss of property.
My speech will be somewhat the shorter because of the excellent speech to which we have just listened, with almost every word of which I agree. Brief as I want to be, and although I know that repetitious tributes are an inconvenience to the House as a whole, it does seem difficult—indeed, ungracious—when speaking in a debate of this kind, not to echo, however briefly, the words already uttered in praise of all those who have done such magnificent work during this emergency.
I shall not detail them again, but may I add two rather unglamorous but not unimportant services which have not been mentioned so far: the men of the electricity board and the engineers and operators of the telephone service, who—certainly in my part of the country—have worked extraordinarily well throughout these difficult weeks. Most of all, of course, we all pay tribute to the troops—the Household Cavalry, the Scots Guards, the Royal Air Force, and many others: I hope very much that the Secretaries of State for War and for Air will see that those who have been on this job get a day or two extra leave, even if station commanders or commanding officers are quite naturally anxious to get them back as quickly as possible to the duties which they might have been doing all this time. We must also not forget to pay tribute to the Americans who have helped in so many areas, with their wonderful mechanical resourcefulness.
As for the volunteers who came in such wonderful numbers—hospital students and all the others who came down to do week-end sandbagging—my only regret is if all that great spontaneous effusion of good will should now have to come to an end. I wish the Government could tell us whether it is possible—when there is still such an enormous amount of work to be done on the sea walls for some months at least to come—to make more use of this great reserve of good will and energy among young people in London and many other places from which they have come during these weeks.
By the way, on the question of troops, gather that they are now all or mostly being withdrawn, having done the immediate task.
The Secretary of State for War nods his head in assent. I can certainly confirm that as regards my own constituency: they are probably not now needed there much more. But I would beg him not to take them all away, because just outside my own constituency, on the other side of the Crouch, there is a terrible breach in the sea wall at a place called Norpits, where the sea is still flooding in over thousands of acres: I feel sure that the River Board people will still want some troops very urgently for work on that breach. I hope that if they ask for them they can have them.
Having said all that by way of tribute, I must echo what the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) said, and add that I am sure that the Home Secretary himself realises that his speech this afternoon was very much an interim speech: he gave the House a great deal of information of a narrative character and some mainly secondary points of policy but he did not, and no doubt cannot yet, give us any definite information on a number of issues of major policy, such as the agricultural prospect and, for that matter, the actual extent to which it is proposed to build up our sea defences and sea walls.
I take it that these issues will be the subject of statements and possibly of debates in the quite near future. On the agricultural—although far be it from me to suggest that there should be any more Front Bench speeches during this debate—I am a little sorry that we have not had a speech from the Minister of Agriculture. He will very soon have to explain in a great deal more detail how the Home Secretary's statement about the national liability is to be interpreted in regard to agriculture.
After all, a farmer, nine-tenths of whose land has been flooded, with the water, in many cases, still standing on it, is in a very difficult position now. He does not know what to look forward to in the future. Many such men are still paying out weekly wages—perhaps £100 a week going in wages—to their workers now temporarily working on the sea walls for the river boards and not doing any work directly on the farms. No doubt they can claim that back afterwards from the river boards—though there is also, I gather, some difficulty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) and the agricultural workers' unions will have to help sort out, about the actual rates that are to be paid.
What are the farmers to look forward to? How is their land to be rehabilitated? Is any of it going to be written off altogether? Is it considered economic to use vast quantities of gypsum? Have we learnt a lot from the Dutch about gypsum? How applicable is it to different kinds of soil in this country?
There is also the matter of spartina grass. It was stated, in an apparently well-informed article in "The Times" a few days ago, that:
There seems little doubt that if more widespread planting of Spartina had been carried out along the bases of the sea walls of the Essex and Suffolk estuaries during the last 15 years there would be fewer breaches to repair now.
Is that true, or is it an exaggeration? On all these aspects of the agricultural problem we require more discussion and information, and farmers and farm workers want information very soon. If it is to take, as some say, years to get these lands into good working condition, we cannot expect farmers to go on working with nothing to live on. There has obviously to be some form of national help for them. What form is it to take?
Similarly, farm workers want to know what and where their jobs will be. Some may be content for a few months to continue in the temporary work for the river boards on sea-walls near their homes, but during the three or four years which it may take to get the farms into condition again, we do not want these farm workers to drift away from the land, as so many have done in the past.
In Essex alone there are 300 miles of sea wall to maintain. The regular labour force of the Essex River Board is only 500 men. Where is the extra labour to come from? That is another reason for enlisting, if possible, the enthusiasm of voluntary workers to help the regular workers and the contractors' men who are now coming in.
There are all sorts of possibilities and problems of this kind that we have not been able to discuss fully today because the Home Secretary could only give us a rather preliminary and sketchy statement. He apologised for its length. I thought it extremely interesting and did not consider that it was too long at all. I know he told us all he could, but I beg the Government to realise the urgency of these problems as they affect all those who have suffered so tragically in places like Canvey Island and Lowestoft, and also agriculture, for this vitally affects future food production for the whole nation.
I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman who is to wind up the debate will clarify a minor announcement made by the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary said something about a charge from next Saturday for meals. Is that only in the rest centres, or does it apply to the hot meals being served out on the sea wall to the people working there, river board men, volunteers, troops or whoever they may be? I take it that it applies only to rest centres, but that might be clarified.
There are innumerable minor issues of compensation about which we shall no doubt get detailed replies in due course: not only the major and obvious kinds of compensation for lost homes and flooded farms but also arising from the little incidentals of this emergency operation. Mention has been made of roads and sewers being broken up. There are village halls, for instance, in which troops have been billeted, and all the usual activities at the halls have had to be cancelled. That is a minor matter, but it is just an example of many thousands of points which will have to be dealt with.
The most important point of all is one which has become a cliché of this debate—that the disaster, and our sea defences generally, are to be a national liability. The Home Secretary did not expound in detail how the Government propose to interpret the cliché in practice. Is it proposed—we cannot go into this on the Adjournment—to set up some National Sea Defence Board to oversee the river boards and the other organisations, or what?
We have often said in the past that this matter should be treated as a national liability, but of course, it has not been. Take an example from Burnham-on-Crouch, in my constituency. The householders on one side of a street have for many years had to pay an extra sea-defence rate to the river board or the catchment board, as it used to be. The other side of the street is a few inches higher and the householders there have not had to pay this substantial extra rate. However, it was the unfortunate ones who were paying the extra rate who got flooded out, while the others did not; they are naturally rather bitter about it, and feel that the liability should be spread a little wider. [Interruption.]
An hon. Friend tells me that I have been speaking for 15 minutes. I am sorry I had intended to speak for only 12. I end, therefore, by saying, rather platitudinously, that a disaster is always an opportunity but that we have to seize the opportunity if we are to avoid future disasters.
It is inevitable, and very proper, that on an occasion like this we should make speeches about our constituencies. After all, when they are suffering a disaster such as the present one, if we cannot speak for them now, then there never will be an opportunity.
I live in my constituency, which has Mablethorpe and Sutton, which have been so badly damaged, Ingoldmells, Chapel St. Leonards, Anderby and Skegness. We have lost 37 people, and 5,000 have been evacuated. We have 6,000 acres of land flooded, 20 main breaches, including the largest in the country, and 2½ miles of breaches or very seriously damaged walls. To give an idea of the expense involved while we are doing first-aid, we have 13 main contractors and 150 major mechanical tools; we have 2,000 men working; we have already moved 650,000 tons of rock and sand; and we have brought from other parts of the country 250,000 tons of material in lorries in approximately 80,000 trips. I give these details simply because they furnish some idea of the enormous cost which the country has to bear.
I welcome the debate, because I believe we have come to the end of a phase. The first part is over. Speaking for my own constituency and the coast of Lincolnshire, I believe that everything that has been done has been necessary for the simple reason that it would have cost far more if we had allowed the sea in. But now is the psychological moment. From now on we must try to get things on a more orderly and economical basis; the pouring out of money at the moment is so immense, as it had to be.
We ought to bring this magnificent ad hoc-ery to an end as soon as possible, because from now on costly mistakes can be made. For that reason I urge the Government to send to us now the best consultant engineers they can possibly obtain to advise us about the sea walls. It is now that those people are wanted. It is now that we must consider the future to ensure that anything we now do will not have to be destroyed before we finally complete the work that we plan. Only by doing this can we hope to wring some possible advantage out of the disaster which has happened to us.
I now want to speak for a few moments on a subject on which almost very hon. Member has spoken. That is, the long-term policy of the Government in regard to the defence of the coast against the sea. It is absolutely necessary that the Government should consider this matter now. Always when there has been any question of a national charge, the difficulty has been that the inlanders were not prepared for it; and in this House we have more Members of Parliament who represent the inland districts than the coastal districts. Very largely, that is why we have never been able to have protection against the sea regarded as a national charge.
If the Government really wish to consider this matter—and it is a very complicated one, which has to be most carefully examined, and one which it is only too easy to over-simplify—they must consider it at once, and must take such action—on the Adjournment I must not suggest the introduction of legislation—as they think fit while the mood of the country is as it is at present.
I want to speak briefly on the question of compensation. I was very pleased to hear the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I do not see that he could have gone into greater detail than he did today. He covered a very great number of points and gave immensely strong pledges. If I might consider first what are the responsibilities of the Government and those of the local authority, I should particularly stress our anxiety in regard to rateable value.
Let me give an example. I am talking now about the small local authority. Few of. the local authorities in my constituency can cope with this problem, because they have been completely inundated. What is to be done about their rateable value? One rural district council has in it Butlin's Camp. I want to see Butlin's going again, because it gives happiness and pleasure to perhaps 80,000 people every year and provides great economic advantages to my constituency. Besides that, Butlin's Camp provides a high percentage of the rateable value in that rather poor rural district. How are they to cope with the situation? I think that they should be told about these things as soon as possible.
Then there are the roads. At the beginning of my speech I referred to the 80,000 trips for the lorries, because I wanted to emphasise that on these small country roads, many of which are no more than lanes, great damage has been done; and the local authorities—the county councils—want to know as soon as possible where they are. It is essential that these matters should be tackled, if necessary, one by one, but as soon as possible.
Before I leave that point, there is the particular case of the river boards. They will quite shortly be precepting again for rates. It would be the last straw if people who have been paying very high rates to protect themselves against damage by the sea are asked to contribute; and yet the loan charges still go on. Many of them have paid for sea defences which have been broken and seriously damaged, but the loan charges and other charges are still a burden. What are they to do about it? They should know as soon as possible. The moment is close when they will have to seal a rate, and they must know. Then there is the question of agricuIture. I was very pleased by what my right hon. and learned Friend said in regard to agricuIture, and I sincerely believe that that part of it will go well.
Now, I want to discuss the other side of compensation: individual compensation. I believe that the whole country and the Government want to see 100 per cent. compensation to the people who have suffered grievous losses. I should like to give a brief illustration of what I believe the people think. There were soldiers working on sandbags in my constituency in filthy conditions. While they were working, there came a pay day. Soldiers are not very rich, but there was not one single soldier who did not give more than 2s. of his pay to the relief fund. That is something of which we should be proud—something which indicates the spirit of this people. But it will be forgotten very soon unless action is taken. We have to act now, quickly, if we are to raise the money that we should.
I wonder how many people in this country know that by yesterday the comparatively small country of Sweden had raised £1,100,000 for the Dutch. The Dutch themselves have contributed to their stricken countrymen at the rate of 10s. a head. We have contributed, so far, £740,000. If we take off the amount which has been contributed by Dominions and Colonies, it works out at just over 3d. per head of the population.
I leave those facts—and I have checked them—as they are, to be considered by people. I am quite certain that, now that this fund is going ahead, we shall get a reaction which is up to the standard of our national tradition; but we must do better than we have done, because the need is very great.
I have always been very proud of having the honour to represent my constituency, but I have never been so proud as in the last few weeks. So many tributes have been paid that this is not, perhaps, the time to say more, but I hope that those people will be remembered later. They have done wonderfully well, and I should like to take this opportunity, on behalf of my constituents, to thank those people, particularly in the Midlands, who come to us in the summer for their recreation, for their sympathy and for the many gifts and help which they have sent us. I should like to ask them one more thing: if they will come to see us in the summer, we shall be ready for them. We shall give them our gratitude and be very glad to see them.
I venture to address the House for a short time mainly on the subject of coast erosion. The House will, I am sure, forgive me if I confine most of what I have to say to the conditions which obtain in my own constituency. Included in the constituency which I have the honour to represent here are many miles of Norfolk coastline, where terrific damage and distress resulted from the storms and floods.
Perhaps I may be allowed to add that domestic tragedy in my home prevente me from being as active as I wanted t be in the stricken parts of my constituency. On the Sunday following the disaster, however, I travelled many mile through the badly-hit part of the North Norfolk constituency, and all I can say about what I saw that day is that the scenes were almost indescribable. I add my word to those who have spoken from this side of the House in saying that it is not my intention to approach this matter from a party standpoint. In North Norfolk we are one people in desiring to see the damage repaired and steps taken to prevent a recurrence of the disaster if humanly possible.
I listened with great interest to the statement by the Home Secretary. I admire very much the fine way in which he set to work to deal with this immense problem. The statement that he made was a record of disaster, but at the same time it was a record of very fine effort; and I want to add my tribute to those already paid to Ministers and Departments who were called upon to deal with the unexpected. There was no stinting, of effort on their part. The previous serious flooding on the North Norfolk coast was as nothing compared with this occasion.
I want to express personal sympathy with the families of the bereaved an with the many hundreds, some homeless who suffered heavy losses. Helpers were legion, and to my knowledge American and Canadian Service men played their part in company with our own Service men and civilians. They all put up a very fine job on that tragic night, and since The Home Secretary referred to the people who were homeless. I am glad that the Minister of Housing and Local Government is present because I am sure he will give thought to this matter.
A large number of people in North Norfolk are homeless. In many cases the houses have gone, and in others it will take a long time to make their houses habitable again. If the right hon. Gentleman can give additional facilities to local authorities to rehouse these homeless people as speedily as that can be done, I am sure he will be doing something for people in that part of the country and elsewhere which they will very much appreciate.
On that night there were many cases of heroism in the North Norfolk towns and villages. I had specially brought to my notice the bravery of three officers of the St. John Ambulance Brigade in Norfolk. We can never repay those gallant men and others who engaged in rescue work and did such fine work on that night under terrible conditions. I pass on the suggestion to the Home Secretary that a list of acts of gallantry should be compiled with a view at a later stage to suitable awards being made in recognition of those acts. In that connection I shall be very glad to hand to him particulars of a number of cases which have been brought to my notice.
On the North Norfolk coastline there are a number of delightful seaside towns and villages. As has been said in regard to other divisions on the coast, the people there were looking forward to a very successful summer season. I have in mind two towns which are well known, Cromer and Sheringham, which cannot recover without substantial State aid. The town of Wells, a little further along towards King's Lynn, suffered badly.
In this case I have a mild criticism to make, as the Government Department with which that town communicated gave no directive to the urban authority as to how to proceed to deal with the immense problem with which it was faced. It is a small town and really faces ruin. Only large-hearted service and practical help from Government sources can enable this little town of Wells to face the future with any degree of confidence.
I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture is in his place because I wish to refer, as other hon. Members have done, to the effect which flooding will have on agricultural output. I am afraid that the effect of the flooding in many parts of Norfolk will prevent that county making what it hoped would be a very full contribution towards the success of the food production campaign. Farm workers were preparing to make a really fine contribution, but in many areas now this will not be possible. There is the effect on the soil, particularly on heavy soils, of salt water which, we are told, can be very serious.
Many farmers have to face the problem of reclaiming land now flooded by the sea. I am not an expert in dealing with a problem of this kind, but the right hon. Gentleman will have plenty of advice from the scientific standpoint as to how it should be dealt with. I am told that hurried cultivation may do more harm than good. There have been heavy losses in stock and farm buildings have suffered. I have no doubt that the Minister of Agriculture has these matters very much in mind. The emergency arrangements developed by the Ministry of Agriculture since the 1947 floods worked very well, and as far as I know river boards helped very considerably. The breaches have been sealed, the land is being cleared but the many homeless remain to be catered for.
As to the future, I think the State must ensure that coast protection schemes are not only adequate but not left to the initiative of the local authority. I welcomed the action of the 1945 Government in deciding that a Ministry should have the oversight of coast protection and that substantial grants should be forthcoming for approved schemes. Much help was given in that way and it was very welcome. The protection of the shores of Britain, to an increasing degree, must become the responsibility of Britain. When war threatens the whole country is mobilised to keep out the enemy. The sea has now become the invader. I suggest that national resources should be employed to keep out this invader also.
The point has been made already that local authorities have not the financial resources to carry out such large schemes. I suggest that future schemes of coast protection should be a charge on the whole community. I make the suggestion that as a first step local authorities should be called into consultation with the appropriate Government Department and the situation should be fully explored. I welcome very much indeed the declared intention of Her Majesty's Government to treat this disaster on a national basis. I also welcome the welfare measures to mitigate suffering and distress and measures to repair the damaged sea defences.
All important is the proposal to seek a solution to the problem left by this disaster. We have to do some very hard thinking and, possibly, many preconceived notions must go. In this connection I have in mind a village in my Parliamentary Division which has figured very much in the news. That is the village of Salthouse on the North Norfolk coast. There many humble homes were destroyed. The village had been inundated before. The river board, thanks to the direction given by the Minister of Agriculture, attempted to do something to keep out the sea, but all they did was to erect a bank of faggots and shingles, and such a bank does not keep the sea from the marshes and the villages of Salthouse and Cley. Something more substantial is required.
It has now been suggested that old Salthouse should be left to its fate and a new Salthouse built on higher land. I think that is an admission that the sea is our master. While we reclaim land in other parts of the country I do not approve of the policy of allowing big parts of land to be regarded as having been mastered by the sea.
In this connection I take up the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) in his closing remarks. I should make it clear that although the seaside towns in my constituency have been badly hit they intend to make every effort to be ready to cater for the hundreds of visitors they are preparing to welcome again this year. In other words, visitors will be welcome as usual. I think that, with Government assistance, the work of repairing the damage can be accelerated.
It is helpful to Ministers to know what is in the minds of authorities in the areas badly affected. The two main urban districts have already sent resolutions to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I quote from a letter which has gone from Cromer Urban District Council, which says:
Having regard to the very limited financial resources of Cromer, and feeling that the repair of the damage should be a national charge, my Council have directed me to seek financial assistance from the Government and to ask whether the Minister would be good enough to give an assurance that such assistance will be forthcoming before the Council incurs any considerable expense in making good such damage.
Sheringham Urban Council also passed a resolution in similar terms, which was sent to the right hon. Gentleman's
Department. The problem of the little town of Wells stands apart, for the town needs advice, direction and financial assistance.
We have had the calamity and now we must face the future. I think it would help Ministers if I gave the text of a resolution which the Norfolk County Council will be called on to pass on Saturday this week. The resolution is in these terms:
That, whilst fully appreciative of the action of Her Majesty's Government in undertaking financial responsibility for emergency repairs to coast and river defences necessitated by the recent disastrous floods. this council views with alarm the very serious danger arising from sea erosion round the Norfolk coast, and urges the Government to grant to local authorities responsible for coastal protection the greatest possible measure of financial aid from national funds.
The State has done a great deal in helping to clear up the difficulties arising from the disaster. The State can do a great deal more, and I hope that what has been said will be followed by very practical measures so that we may allay fears about the future.
Representing, as I do, a rural constituency with 25 miles of coast line, it was with a great feeling of thankfulness, I think I may even add of humility, that we were able to count heads after the storm and find that no one was missing. But a price always has to be paid. Only this last week, when we were able to approach the biggest breach in one of our river banks, unfortunately, and through nobody's fault, two boats collided, owing to the excessive current. One capsised, and one of our fishermen who had taken part in many rescues, paid the full price. The lesson surely is that the battle with the sea is continuous.
I would pay my tribute to those who rose so magnificently to the occasion. In particular, I refer to a large number of housewives, themselves with a lot to do and being members of no recognised association, who were the first to enter many flooded houses. After some 10 days they found one of the oiliest and dirtiest lots of mud ever left on our shores. It is not pleasant to open a larder door where the water had been after 10 days.
On the subject of a warning system, naturally there is concern. But I do not believe it is the wish of the people of this country that a very elaborate, perhaps bureaucratic system, should be set up. All that is necessary is that a local man with great knowledge should be responsible for deciding whether there is likely to be a bad tide. Two farmers told me that they knew a bad storm was coming. The man responsible, either a farmer or a fisherman, could be in touch with his neighbours north and south, and could warn the Civil Defence authorities or the police. I consider that that is all that is required. It could be run on practically a voluntary basis, similar to our Observer Corps.
I have in my constituency an example of what is happening. After the 1949 storm the small borough of Aldeburgh spent a lot of money and employed an efficient engineer to erect a first-class sea wall which was 99 per cent. successful in keeping out the sea. This was done in 18 months. Next to them is a catchment area where the story is far different. There was delay. The old catchment board was taken over by the river board, and a whole new plan was conceived, because the river board engineer did not like the plan of the former catchment board engineer. Nothing was done, and that is where a lot of sea water came in to flood the houses of the people in Aldeburgh, who had made their own sea wall efficient.
It would seem that there is a case for the establishment of an overriding authority operating through one Ministry. I would like to see an engineer appointed who would pay attention to the views of local people who know these seas, and who know where a bit must be given and where a bit can be taken. I am in sympathy with all that has been said in this debate and I conclude now, not because I do not wish to say more, but because I know that there are hon. Members representing constituencies which were badly affected who desire to speak.
Practically all the important points concerning this grave matter have been dealt with already, but as my constituency includes the Isle of Sheppey, which has suffered badly, I feel I am justified in detaining the House for a few moments.
I wish to express my pleasure that this debate has taken place in a purely nonparty spirit, the same spirit that was so evident when the calamity fell upon us. I wish to add my tribute to those paid to the various services who did such wonderful work during this period of danger and disaster. I know that the Home Secretary will forgive me if I include one section of people who have not yet been mentioned, the prisoners from the open prison at Eastchurch who worked so well and effectively during long hours and in very inclement weather to repair the breaches and to help in other work which required to be done.
I am sorry that there is no representative of the Ministry of Food in the Chamber, because I should like to do something which is rather exceptional, coming from this side of the House, that is, to pay to the Minister a compliment because of the assistance I received from his Department on the morning of Sunday, 1st February. At Milton Regis. in my constituency, I found that a number of people had lost either the whole or part of their rations. Within 15 minutes, during which time there was a trunk call to the Ministry of Food, I had received permission to tell the local authority that if shopkeepers would open they could replace the rations which had been lost. That was quick work for a Sunday morning.
Two important requirements have been stressed in this debate. The first is to examine the means of preventing a similar disaster in future. The second is to ensure that those who have suffered loss should receive all possible assistance quickly. Before I entered this House I was for many years a member of the Kent Rivers Catchment Board. From the experience I gained I know only too well that whatever work had been done previously, we should have had some flooding on this occasion. I also know that had sufficient material and money been provided and work undertaken in the past, much valuable land, especially valuable agricultural land, which was inundated in my constituency might not have been so seriously flooded.
We did not lack the knowledge or the skill with which to perform the work. I should imagine that the river board engineers are among some of the most proficient but, unfortunately, most frus- trated professional men in the country. Year after year the engineer goes before the board with a programme which he knows to be essential, only to have it cut down. We have seen the result in the number of breaches in our sea walls. There were over 300 in Kent alone. These were inevitable because of very high tides which coincided with a high wind blowing, from our point of view, in the wrong direction.
I do not blame the lay members of the board or the ratepayers who influence the board to cut down expenditure. The cost of this work is colossal. I add my plea to those already made. This should be a national responsibility not only during the period of calamity but in normal times. In the town of Sitting-bourne, in which I live, flooding, not to the extent which we had on this occasion but to a considerable extent, has been a problem for over 30 years. The local authority knows what should be done, but it cannot afford the necessary expenditure. In Sheerness, there is a difficult problem. There are no fewer than four bodies concerned with sea defences—the War Office, the Admiralty, the Catchment Board and the local authority. All have to agree before any work can be done. Several serious breaches have occurred there.
I stress the necessity for an assurance about the liabilities which local authorities will be expected to meet. I hope that something will be done immediately for the farmers especially the small farmers, who have suffered in this disaster. They have in some cases lost their all, and they are at their wits' end to know what to do. I believe that, from the statement we have received this afternoon, from the attitude of the Home Secretary and those who have spoken from the benches opposite, a satisfactory arrangement will be made, but, in any case, it would be as well if the Home Secretary realised that our eyes will be upon him, and that, although other people may forget, those of us who represent stricken constituencies will certainly not do so.
I am grateful for the opportunity of intervening for a few moments, but they will be brief because there are so many other hon. Members who wish to speak. It may come as a surprise to many hon. Members to know that my constituency is not merely a seaside resort but also embraces a considerable country agricultural area and a number of islands—Foulness, Wallasea, Potton and others—which have been very seriously affected by the recent disturbances. I want to draw attention to the problems which confront these two different types of areas, and to say that they are very real and grave ones.
I take the agricultural areas first. I should like to pay tribute, as others have done, to the work of the Armed Forces, and add my praise for the great help which they have rendered in rapidly sealing the breaches, but I was surprised to hear this morning, on being called into my constituency, that the troops were being withdrawn at 11 o'clock today, when, had they remained for even a couple of days longer, they would have been most useful to us in helping to seal the breach at Nore Pits. I most earnestly hope that the most rapid steps will be taken to rectify what I believe is an error.
May I now draw attention to a very real and pressing problem? I think that the majority of those who have been stricken by disaster as a result of these floods will not be very happy as a result of the debate we have had today. I regret to say that, but I am sure that my constituents honestly felt that they were going to get far more detailed information on what was to happen than has been the case so far. I well understand the Home Secretary's difficulties, and nobody is more full of praise than I am for the courteous and efficient way in which he does his job, and, indeed, for the admirable way in which he does far more than his own job.
Nevertheless, I should like to urge upon him that it is important that he should try to get the different Ministries to work together and hammer out as rapidly as possible a solution to some of the problems that are worrying people at the present time. What is to happen, for instance, about the loss of considerable sums of money in duty and Purchase Tax on stocks which have been washed away or damaged? Will those concerned receive either duty-free or tax-free goods as replacements? What are we to do about the shopkeepers of Southend who have had their stocks washed away or ruined by the flood waters? What are they to do, and how are they to prepare claims; or must the shopkeepers wait some time until somebody makes up his mind as to what is to be done?
It is vitally urgent that my right hon. and learned Friend should give some information to the people that will bring comfort to them, so that they may feel that we are getting on with the job. I would urge upon my right hon. and learned Friend that he should take action on these lines.
When I arrived at the House this morning, I had very much in my mind the fears of many of my constituents. I had hoped that a statement would be made today as a result of which many of those fears would disappear, but I am sorry to say that that statement has not been made.
I should like to pay my compliment to all the people who have helped, although I have not the time to go into all the niceties. But I should like to mention that, in my constituency of Dartford, along the river bank, at Abbey Wood, Belvedere and Erith, there is one of the greatest concentrations of industry to be found in this country, with large firms alongside small firms. Among them are firms like Callender's Cables, which suffered a tremendous loss, but the most important aspect about which I want to speak concerns the position of the small businessman with an overdraft of £3,000, £4,000 or even £5,000, and the nurserymen with mortgages of up to £3,000.
When I raised some of these cases with the Home Secretary, the fantastic information came back to me that they would have to wait until an announcement was made about the Lord Mayor's Fund, and then make application to that fund. The problem in Erith is so urgent that tomorrow morning businessmen are meeting in the Erith Town Council Chamber because another week or two of this will put up the shutters for some of the businesses in the Erith district unless much-needed help is forthcoming.
Reference has been made today to the fact that the soldiers working in these flood areas are contributing 2s. a week to the fund. I am sure that if they knew that businessmen with overdrafts of £5,000 had to go to the Lord Mayor's Fund for relief it would be a great shock to them. Is not too much being asked of the fund? Why have not the Treasury relented? I have heard of firms who considered subscribing £5,000, but there has to be 5,000 times 9s. 6d. paid to the Treasury. The answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) is that they cannot excuse it, because the Treasury will be playing a part.
We heard today the figures of the fund and that the Government are going to pay £1 for every £1 subscribed. But tens of millions of pounds will be required. What a short-sighted policy. Would not it be better to get 11s. 6d. than nothing at all? I appeal to the Government to recognise the urgent problem of the small business men, and, in that connection, many of their workpeople are wondering whether their jobs will be continued or not.
I have suffered from long speeches today, and I realise how some of my hon. Friends are feeling at this juncture. But before I sit down to allow others to speak I must say that I hope notice will be taken of the remarks that have been made about the small business men. On the front page of the "Star" tonight there is the following headline:
Churchill: All Aid for the Flood Victims
They believe that the disaster is a national responsibility, but I am afraid that the Government are not tackling the problem as a national responsibility. I ask that they do so before it is too late.
I am afraid we are still very near to the events which gave rise to this debate, and that all the facts and figures are by no means yet known. I believe that what the Government have so far done is a sufficient earnest of their intention and determination to do what is required to meet the demands made. The purpose of this debate is to enable Members of the House to place before the Government further facts and considerations. When that is done in the spirit and manner displayed by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) one may rest assured that they will not be overlooked.
It might have been better if this debate had been divided into two parts, one dealing with the short-term problems and the other with the long-term problems. Most of the time today has been taken up, quite rightly, by the short-term considerations, and perhaps I may be forgiven if I digress into the long-term aspects of this great problem. Before doing so, however, I will mention war damage because it provides a precedent which may be of some help in considering the damage caused by the floods.
I hope that not only the Government, but all the property owners and other agencies concerned, will see to it that liability and the right to receive compensation are quickly established. We are still dealing with war damage claims in regard to events that happened 10 years ago. We do not want that to happen in regard to the floods. Let us hope that all will co-operate to clear up the position in I his respect in a matter of weeks or months.
I was glad to hear of my right hon. and learned Friend's intention to set up a committee to study this problem. The Royal Commission set up after the Great Flood of 1897 recommended as a matter of great urgency in 1911 that such a committee should be set up to examine the causes of coast erosion. Forty-two years have passed and still nothing has been done. It is at least welcome that the Government have now decided to set up a committee of that kind. I would urge them to make it a permanent committee because even on the question of warning it is not possible to have an effective warning system unless the causes which bring about such disasters are known.
We know that the North Sea has special' features. There are surges resulting from depressions between Iceland and Scotland and there are sandbanks which play a material part in the set of the tides; because it is not the direct action of the tides against the coast but the scouring action along the coast behind the sandbanks which often does the greatest damage. I hope that the Government will make the Committee to which I have referred a permanent body, that they will give it real meaning and will bring to its deliberations every sort of information and expert knowledge that can be brought.
There is a lesson to be learned here with regard to Civil Defence. Recruiting for Civil Defence might be enormously increased if the title of the organisation were changed to Civil Emergency and its duties and responsibilities extended not merely to the possibility of future enemy action but to emergencies which may come upon us day by day. Out of this great tribulation has come this wonderful demonstration of good will and neighbourliness. Let us see that machinery and arrangements for the future are so provided that we can turn this good will to the best advantage.
I am sure that we are all very satisfied with the reiteration by the Government spokesman of the principle that the burden of the recent flood disaster should be borne by the nation as a whole, and indeed it would be a rough island story if it were otherwise. We shall wait with impatience evidence of the implementation of this principle in practice, and I am sure that the ringing words of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) are still buzzing in the ears of Members of the Front Bench opposite.
In the short time that is available I should like to deal with one or two immediate problems in my constituency of West Ham, whose sufferings have not been greatly heralded. Over 1,000 houses were flooded up to a depth of three to four feet and the receding flood left behind it an unpleasant aftermath of sewage and mud. There has been undoubted suffering to many poor people some of whom only very recently, sadly enough. have been rehoused after the blitz. They have suffered considerable personal loss and I entreat that some steps be taken forthwith so that immediate interim payments can be made to enable them to deal with urgent necessities.
The first necessity is to dry their homes. I put a Question to the Minister of Fuel and Power today about the provision of adequate supplies of good quality fuel locally. But there is also need for money to buy the fuel. I hope that immediate effect will be given to the suggestion of an interim payment of sums up to £25, because I am sure that £25 now will be more valuable in many ways than £50 in the summer months.
There is a second factor which I am sure the Minister of Housing and Local Government will not feel surprised at my mentioning. This is to be a national charge. The Home Secretary spoke in very general terms, however, of the extent to which expenditure will be visited upon local funds and the extent to which it will be visited upon national funds. I hope that the principle which he had in mind was that the authorities least able to pay should be required to pay the least. I hope that that principle will be applied particularly in the case of a blitzed area like West Ham, which is only now recovering from the ravages of war.
The last matter which I wish to emphasise is the urgent need to review the flood defences of the Thames. How much longer will the people living near the Thames have to wait before action is taken? The last time there was a serious flood in the Thames Valley was in 1928, and there was appointed by the Ministry of Health a committee which in due course reported It was a committee appointed
to review the situation and to settle what action can and should be taken to obviate any recurrence of such loss of life and widespread damage as resulted from the recent disaster.
I wish there was time to read much of the report. It starts engagingly by announcing the fact that
floods … due to the overflowing of the River Thames have a recorded history extending over many centuries,
and there is a quotation from Samuel Pepys' Diary relating to the floods of 1666, as follows:
Up betimes, and, it being a frosty morning, walked on foot to White Hall…. At White Hall I hear and find that there was the last night the greatest tide that ever was remembered in England to have been in this river: all White Hall having been drowned, of which there was great discourse.
There was indeed great discourse, and I have no doubt that a committee was appointed to inquire into the matter, as the Home Secretary announced is to be done this time. There was a commission appointed in 1928. Some action was taken in the County of London area but nothing was done in the lower reaches, and in 1931 another commission was appointed. It reported in 1933 and it recommended the setting up of a standing joint committee of the counties affected by the floods. Specific lines of action
were recommended which might have save life in recent days.
It is a reproach to us in this House of Commons—and there is no party point here because, goodness knows, we all share responsibility for it—that we have been content to let this problem rest and hope for the best. The phenomenon has developed that the tides are rising and that tidal surges seem to be getting higher. The 1928 record level in the Thames has been equalled twice since 1928 and the tide levels at the end of January this year were six inches above that record. This phenomenon of nature has got to be faced by this island people, and we cannot afford the luxury of ignoring it or the risk of taking no action, in case nature attacks us once again.
The space of a few minutes is no time in which to deal with the very complicated problems which have arisen out of the recent disaster, and I wish to mention only one or two points very shortly in connection with my own constituency problems, which are those of the River Great Ouse—a river concerning which there have been more inquiries and Acts of Parliament than in respect of any other river in the country.
I wish to use my time economically, and first I should like to add my tribute to those which have already been paid. I wish to add a tribute to the men of Cambridge University who came down there in numbers and did magnificent work on the breaches.
I should like to know whether the Minister has taken into account the position of the internal drainage boards, which ought to be clarified as soon as possible. In my area—I do not know whether other hon. Members will have anything to compare with this—there are drainage rates which are running as high as £2 an acre. Assessments are £4 and the rates are 10s. in the £. In some cases those drainage areas are largely flooded and the collection of the rates may not be so easy. The position of these boards will certainly need special attention.
I hope that action will be taken on the long-term problems affecting the River Ouse. As early as 1940 flood protection schemes were set up in that area. After the war the matter was revived, and in 1949 the Ouse Flood Protection Act was passed. I would not say that there is universal agreement that that Act provided the best scheme for flood protection, but it was at that time to have cost £6½ million; goodness knows what the cost would be now—probably £9 million or £10 million. That scheme may require some modification in the light of recent experience. Perhaps it would not cover a tide such as we experienced recently.
All I ask is that the Minister of Agriculture will exert the greatest possible pressure to get something done about this river, which has been a great problem for years. The point round Denver Sluice is known to be the focal point of the whole Fen area. and if we value this extremely fertile food-producing land as we ought I sincerely hope that we shall have more than Acts of Parliament and inquiries and that something will be done about the banks.
I am aware that this debate has been initiated in the interests of our stricken people on the East Coast, but I would ask the House to cross over for a few minutes from the East to the West coast. In North Wales we know from experience what these people are suffering today and Wales has expressed her sympathy for these people in a very practical manner.
I represent a constituency which has suffered for many years from the ravages and the fury of the ocean. Along the coast of Merionethshire there are small townships which have been financially crippled in their conflict with the ocean. I have newspaper cuttings here and if I were to show hon. Members the photographs contained in them they would think they were looking at recent photographs taken of the unfortunate scenes on the East Coast.
A few years ago the town of Towyn could boast of a promenade. In recent years this delightful promenade has been demolished and the tragedy of it is that the same seas are still pounding away at the unprotected land behind the ruins of that promenade. In that part of the country the sea is advancing at the rate of three feet per year. There are owners of houses at Towyn who know now, in 1953, that in 10 years' time the sea will have so advanced that their houses will have been demolished. What a terrible state of affairs this is.
Yet the local council are helpless. No wonder; during the past 16 years they have been involved in an expenditure of £45,000 in resisting the might of the ocean. That £45,000 does not include the inevitable expenditure on repairs and maintenance. The product of a penny rate in Towyn is £74. It is all very well to say that they have Government and county council grants, but the rate burden for this expenditure alone is 1s. 2d. in the £.
I have here a letter which I received the other day from the town clerk, when I asked for facts and figures which I had hoped to present in full earlier this evening. I shall read only one sentence from the letter. He says:
The council has on more than one occasion, when dealing with sea defence problems, expressed the earnest hope that no further erosion will take place, otherwise they will have no alternative but to allow the sea to take its course, because they cannot hope to deal with it with their small resources.
I should also like to say a word about the town of Barmouth. This is a small town which had the courage to embark upon a scheme of sea defence works to the tune of £174,000. It is interesting to note that the original estimate was £137,000. What accounted for the difference? Here, again, is a tale of woe. On 10th November, 1931, a storm breached the new wall, then in course of construction, and swept away the whole work of 16 months. They then had to meet this new expenditure. Today, they are crippled with the loan charges on this particular job of work.
The Barmouth Council have levied their rates to the very maximum of the town's capacity. I emphasise that—to the very maximum of the town's capacity. The council's loan debt per head of the population is £103. This year, out of a rate of 31s. in the £, the county council require 14s., leaving a balance to the local authority of 17s. Of this latter sum, 8s. 6d. is to meet loan charges on sea defence expenditure alone. May I repeat that? A sum of 8s. 6d. on sea defence expenditure alone.
It is worth repeating, and I do not see why there should be any hilarity on a question of this kind.
Are we to allow towns like that to be at the mercy of this enemy, with which no armistice terms can be reached and the resistance to which depends entirely on the ingenuity of man? I listened this afternoon to the moving speech of the Prime Minister, and I recall another speech which he made during the war when he appealed to America to provide the tools so that we could finish the job. I also say, provide us with the tools—that is, the grants—and we will complete the job.
I should like to put five questions in three minutes. I understand from my local authority that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government have issued a circular to local authorities which says to them, "Get on with all the necessary repairs and in all probability the Government will refund the whole of the amount." May I ask the Minister to tell us what he means by "necessary," and will he please delete the words "in all probability"? If the work is to be done, he must remove the uncertainty.
Secondly, would the Minister of Agriculture tell farmers how long it is likely to be before the land which has been flooded with sea water can be worked? I have read in newspapers, as have my constituents, that it may take seven years. That figure has frightened them. Can my right hon. Friend obtain information and advice from Holland? If farmers are told that it will be such a long time it will take the heart out of them.
Thirdly, can he tell me about the position of gypsum for the farmers in my constituency and the rest of the country? I was in my constituency last week and I learned that a lagoon, as they call it, has been found containing between 50,000 and 100,000 tons of gypsum. Samples have been sent to the Board of Trade—they were sent on 13th February from Immingham—to see whether they could be used in reclaiming the land. Have these samples been dealt with by the Board of Trade if not, why not; and can they be dealt with quickly? If this great deposit of gypsum can be used, can the farmers of Lincolnshire, living near this lagoon, have the first cut at it?
Fourthly, along the north reaches—and I have about 50 miles of coastline, not in Wales, but in Lincolnshire—people are very grateful for the temporary work which has been done, for the sandbagging which will keep out the floods until we have the big autumn storm. In the meantime, however, the sandbagging repairs will deteriorate, and people in North Lincolnshire want to know what is the permanent policy for putting the sea defences right. It is no good merely sandbagging the defences and leaving it at that. Can they be given an assurance that something permanent will be done during the summer so that they may sleep comfortably in the winter?
My last question is to the Home Secretary. Will he please see that the great insurance companies make a statement as soon as possible to their policy holders saying that, as far as is possible within their resources, they will treat their liabilities generously and liberally? I know that they cannot be as liberal as they were for Lynmouth, but the folk who have insured their houses and contents are very anxious to know what those policies will cover. If the Home Secretary can persuade the insurance companies to say that they will be generous and liberal in the interpretation of their liabilities, he will do a lot of good.
Great Yarmouth had to move 11,500 people during the flood disaster, so it was not a small problem. There were many things I wanted to talk about arising from it, but time is so short now that I cannot, and I certainly shall not hold up a Front Bench speaker.
Mention has been made of old-age pensioners' tobacco tokens. Two days ago I took this up with the National Assistance Board. I took it from there to the Treasury, and not yet has there been an announcement made, so far as I know. What is being done by the Treasury? When will they come to a decision? Why must they muck the people about like this? I am sure it is not necessary. A decision could have been made, but it is a simple case of their having got a piece of paper in front of them with rules and regulations on it, from which the Treasury cannot deviate. We should have a decision that old-age pensioners who lost their tobacco tokens during the flood should have them replaced.
I should like to know why the Treasury will not even consider the question of post-war credits. Why is it the Treasury takes all our money, but that when it comes to anybody's putting up the money—
If that requires legislation I am not allowed to talk about it, but it does make one a little cross that one cannot get these things sympathetically considered.
The last point I wish to make is this. We have heard some criticism of the size of the Lord Mayor's Fund. There was a time when most of what we made we kept. There was a time when it was reasonable to suppose that neighbourliness could overcome even a difficulty of this magnitude, to a very large extent. Today, it is not so. Most of our money is taken in taxation, and we cannot expect a necessity of this nature to be solved unless it is solved by that central organisation that takes our money. Therefore, I do hope that the Government will, in fact, do what it appears they are to do in all these respects.
For instance, the mayor of my town finds his business under two feet of water, and it has been for a fortnight. There are little people, little traders, whose business is out on the streets because all their stock is damaged and wet, and who cannot replace that stock. What is to happen to them? We all want to know the answers to questions like this. I hope that all the questions that have been asked during the debate by various hon. Members will be answered by the Government before the end of the debate. The best tribute to the selfless work that has been done by all those people in Great Yarmouth and all the other places would be for the Government to do what it appears they are going to do, that is, recognise that this great disaster is one to be dealt with nationally.
We have had a long succession of speakers who have been speaking at first hand of this great disaster. All of them have paid tribute to the marvellous co-operation that there has been in all the work that has been done in the flooded areas. I should say that we have had a great example of co-operation even in the last hour here, because I can remember no time in the House of Commons when it was so well arranged that every hon. Member who wanted to speak was able to make his voice heard. That hon. Members have coordinated so well is, I think, a matter of great credit to everyone who has taken part in the debate.
The House of Commons is at its greatest when it is dealing with some great human problem. Its reaction in the case of injustice and suffering rises to flood level and sweeps away party differences and niggling technicalities. In such matters the House has a willing and enthusiastic collaborator in the Prime Minister. His so-called impetuosity and disregard of the rules at other times, which are such an embarrassment to his colleagues, in a matter of this kind become an expression of our minds and become his supreme virtue.
The headline which has just been read out from "The Star"
All Aid for the Flood Victims
in one sentence expresses what has been the feeling of every Member who has spoken in this House today. It is not only at home that our heart governs our actions in these matters. Suffering and also, fortunately, sympathy have no national frontiers. The news of these disasters on both sides of the Channel have burst national bonds and united the peoples of Europe.
It has even penetrated, as announced today by Mr. Speaker, the Iron Curtain and made a true brotherhood of defence in time of adversity. If we could only create that spirit in the minds of all Governments there would be no more war, and people would be fighting the natural enemy which we have to fight instead of manufacturing emnities amongst themselves. As our national poet has said:
The heart aye's the part aye
That makes us richt or wrang.
I am quite sure that everyone in this House appreciates the regularity of the visits of so many Ministers to the flooded areas. I should also like to congratulate the Government on the fact that so many Ministers have paid such close attention to this debate, and I am quite sure that what they have heard will bring results.
I turn first to what is really a minor matter—timber—which is perhaps mainly a Scottish matter, and in relation to the disaster in the South almost a triviality. After all, timber is material which can eventually be replaced, but human life cannot and human suffering cannot be expunged. The destruction and damage to the forests in Scotland is a setback to some of our areas, but I am glad that the Secretary of State for Scotland today, in his statement, presented it with a sense of proportion.
To the people involved, it is as great a disaster as any other disaster, but they must feel that in relation to what has happened elsewhere they have, on the whole, been lucky. I understand that 90 per cent. of the damage to the timber was done to private woodlands and only 10 per cent. to the Forestry Commission's forests. That has, curiously enough raised a great many problems.
A great deal of our forestry is now being done on a national basis. Before the nation undertook that job it was, as it were, farmed out to private individuals, and those private individuals had been encouraged, even by the Government of which I was a member, to dedicate their land to forestry and so, in a way, became agents of the Government and agents of the nation in contributing to the building of our forests.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer in his wisdom has made certain financial arrangements with these people who are undertaking the forestry work. Certain inducements have been given by way of not assessing their death duties at the time death takes place and of assessing death duty at a certain rate later on. By this and various other arrangements with regard to taxation the State has given an inducement to people to dedicate their land to forestry.
In passing, I hope that, while discussions are proceeding on the many other problems involved in the hardships which are being suffered—although it may seem strange for a Socialist to be saying anything in favour of landlords—from the point of view of forestry in Scotland and the future of dedication schemes, the Treasury will, if those schemes are to continue, give attention to the hardships which may be suffered by landowners through their woodlands being devastated and not growing to maturity. There is the fact that the trees are down, and the first thing to do is to see that the timber is not lost.
The Secretary of State gave us encouraging information. There has been commendable alacrity on the part of all concerned in getting down to the problem. My information is that even from Dumfries in the south of Scotland the timber merchants have already got machinery into the area and have already started on the job. I understand that from 500 to 1,000 workers may be needed.
I agree with the Secretary of State that in looking for workers we had better start with the unemployed in the north of Scotland and only after that go elsewhere for workers. Timber felling is dangerous work to anyone who is not skilled, and I hope that we shall ensure that a sufficiently large number of skilled foresters are employed so that unnecessary deaths do not occur through the use of unskilled workers.
I want hon. Members in all parts of the House to notice, in regard to my recitation of the quick measures which were taken, the value of having one organisation like the National Coal Board, like British Railways and like the Road Haulage Executive to deal with. If the disaster had taken place next year, we should, unfortunately, not have had that advantage.
The Forestry Commission ought to be asked to provide hostels for the workers in the area, for I am sure they have plenty. We ought not to lose the use of the timber because it is left lying. I am told that the markets can absorb the timber if red tape is cut and the all-clear is given to the trade as to the directions in which that timber can be used. If the Secretary of State has any difficulty in finding a market for it, he might allow some of it to be used for floors in Scotland, for that will provide a big outlet for softwood.
We are, of course, mainly concerned with human suffering. It has been immense. I should imagine that it is not much different from what it would have been if an atom bomb had been dropped on the area. I question whether an atom bomb would have done any more damage in that type of area than the flood has done. The needs of the victims should not be less generously dealt with in a civil disaster than they would have been dealt with if the disaster had occurred during a war.
The whole country's heart goes out to those who have lost their dear ones, their homes, their businesses and their property. They have suffered discomfort, distress and misery of all kinds. We cannot avoid that; as the Prime Minister said, it has happened as an act of nature. What we can do, however, is to share their losses, for these will fall less heavily if some way can be found of spreading the cost over 50 million of the population instead of over the 50,000 who have suffered them. I am sure it is the will of the country that people who have gone through this hardship should not also go on suffering economically if we can take the burden off their shoulders.
There has been a very generous response from the people and from other countries to the Lord Mayor's Fund. I should be the last to chill that warm flow of human sympathy which takes such a practical form, but it has been quite obvious from what has been said today that the amount of money subscribed to the Lord Mayor's Fund can do no more than replace the incidentals of the damage that has been done. I suggest that the Lord Mayor's Fund should not be used for major compensation, but could be used for the sort of things that cannot be reduced to any principle of compensation. That would bring the scope of the Lord Mayor's Fund within its capacity, but if it is to be used in compensation of £5,000 damage here and £20,000 damage there, it will not do any more than touch the fringe of the problem.
A fact which has emerged in the debate, and which has struck us all, is the large number of Departments and interests that must be consulted before these matters can be handled. I am not casting any reproach upon the Government. Looking back, with my memory of previous disasters, I agree that the Government have done as much as, if not more than, has been done on any previous occasion; they have not stinted in any way, according to the methods and rules of Government. But we must look at this matter from rather a different point of view, and I suggest—I am talking only from recollection, although I have made some meteorological inquiries—that our weather is entering into a state of violent convulsions that have not been normal in the past.
If we cast our minds back over the last six years, we can remember the types of headlines in the Press. There have been the worst floods for 80 years, or the worst snows, the hottest August, the worst drought and the greatest gales for 80 years, and now we have the worst tides, probably, in history. The Home Secretary said that one house which had been standing for 300 years had been overwhelmed by the sea on this occasion. That is fairly good evidence that that kind of flood has not occurred for 300 years. If our weather has entered on a change such as I have suggested, and we have these disasters in which homes, livestock, crops, poultry and land are overwhelmed, we must start to consider this situation from a different point of view than that of dealing with these things on an ad hoc basis.
Our memories remind us that in recent times border floods have swept away bridges which have stood for 100 years. The Orkneys were devastated by a gale the like of which was never remembered. Lynmouth was overwhelmed by its river. A few years ago a tornado—a new name in our meteorological discussions—practically blew away a little village, Linslade, in Buckinghamshire; and flooding caused a tremendous colliery disaster in Ayrshire that brought serious loss of life.
If the Departmental committee which is proposed is appointed, I suggest that it should be appointed for consideration of a wider issue than that of merely dealing with this particular disaster. It has got to deal with the question of what is to happen in this country when these disasters overwhelm people, no matter in which part of the country they occur. This is a big disaster—it strikes at public imagination but—if there is disaster in a little place like Linslade, it is just as serious a disaster for those who are affected there as it is to the numbers who are affected in any other place.
We should have some principle upon which we deal with these disasters, and I suggest that we ought to enlarge our conception of Civil Defence. Civil Defence, which has been designed for a war, has proved its efficacy in this type of defence against nature. We have got to have defence not only against a war that may come, but defence against the sea, floods, disasters, winds and snows and loss to farmers, whether in the North of Scotland or in the Fen district.
In these disasters that come year after year, people get a little help at the beginning when everybody feels generous, and then sometimes they seem to be left high and dry to face their ruin. I do not think that we ought as a nation to agree to that, because these people in farming—on the Fens or in the Highlands—or who go into the pits and do the work of the nation, ought to be guaranteed that if they suffer in doing the work of the nation, we shall see that they do not lose any more and that the nation will bear its share of the cost.
I had some part in the initiation of the war damage seheme. I suggested to Sir Kingsley Wood, much against the advice from his experts, that the war damage scheme should be brought in. On the day I had put the Question down, just to raise the matter, the Prime Minister had gone down to Dover and I was asked to wait until he made a statement. The Prime Minister did as he did today and said he was bringing in an Act of war damage indemnity.
Quite clearly the same sort of principle should apply to this disaster. If people lose their houses, their homes and their furniture, we should say to them, "We will guarantee that you will get your home back and a minimum of, say, £120 to start up your home again." That is the basic necessity of which this country cannot afford to deprive these people. That cannot be left to voluntary gifts but should be organised in a scheme of national insurance, and we should all be prepared to bear our share of the burden.
Should we not also study the possibility of assuring people in any part of the country that if they suffer from what the insurance people call an "act of God" the nation will stand by them? Why should their relief depend on whether the law interprets it as a tempest or a flood? It is just as silly as a man getting compensation if he trips when inside the works gates but no compensation if he trips outside the works gates.
I have never been able to understand these fine distinctions which mean that if a man is injured on one side of the works gates he gets one kind of compensation but if it happens on the other side of the gates he gets a different kind. Perhaps our legal luminaries can explain these things so that they can be understood by a humble layman like myself. I hope that the matter will be looked into from the point of view of seeing whether we cannot have something comparable with the War Damage Act, which seems to fit in with what the Prime Minister wants to do.
I welcome the declaration of the Home Secretary that the Government will accept public responsibility, but he said, for example, that even then farmers concerned would have to pay for the gypsum, a transaction which he hoped would be settled on easy terms. What does that mean? If these farmers have had their land devastated by salt water, why should they have to pay for the gypsum? Surely it is as necessary to make them a present of the gypsum as of lime to bring back heart to the land. These seem to me little, niggling, qualifications which do not matter very much.
A very important question was asked today—who is advising the people what they are to do? They ought to know where they are to go and not have to go floundering about from one person to another. With all the different Departments concerned the position in this respect is really chaotic. I suggest that citizens' advice bureaux should be set up in the affected areas to advise these people about insurances, hire purchase payments, valuation services and so on. Someone should go to these people to give them advice about what to do in all their troubles.
In any case that is the first important step. The next important step is to get the information but, as the hon. Member will agree, until the Government have made up their minds what to do the citizens' advice bureaux can hardly advise the people. But there are a great many ways in which they can help.
One practical difficulty has been put to me, and I hope that the Home Secretary will not mind my mentioning it, because it is a practical problem. That is the question of charging for meals after Monday. That brings to the local authorities a practical difficulty. If the people in these centres cannot afford to pay for meals, does this mean that they are not to get the food? If they have to depend on National Assistance it takes time for investigation to take place. There may be a hiatus between the giving of free meals and the coming down of the guillotine. The Government are very fond of using the Guillotine but this guillotine will be coming down rather too suddenly on Monday, and I think it should be postponed until such time as we are sure that there is a smooth flow from one arrangement to the other.
There is a saying that the Scots are mean. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not think so. We understand the saying but it is mistaken; we are only careful. That is the real distinction the Government must observe in their handling of this issue. We agree that the Government must be careful but they must not he mean, because if meanness is detected in this matter it would be unforgivable. The people in the parts of the country concerned would never forget it.
The difficulty is that Departments have to depend on their budgets. They must think about the estimates and those considerations. If this problem is approached in that fashion we shall get nowhere. If this event had been a war, and if the war had continued for one day more, it would have added £100 million to the National Debt. Would not it be a sensible thing to regard this as an act of war by the sea and, if necessary, add £100 million to the National Debt and stop all these Departments having to fiddle about with budgets and so on? Let us give, as the Prime Minister said, all aid for the victims. Let us restore the position so far as possible. That would be the sensible thing to do, instead of trying to deal with all these little incidents through Departments and insurance companies and so on. That would save a lot of unnecessary suffering, and a great deal of unnecessary worry in Government Departments.
Let us say, "Very well, let us call it a day, let us write it off as part of the war." That would be better than trying to save £1 here and £2 there in order to be economical just in case someone gets a little more than they ought to get. That is not the way to treat a disaster such as this. Even if someone receives a better jacket than the one they lost, what does it matter?
The Prime Minister can command universal support when he cuts through red tape to do a big, generous thing. Could he not consider taking this disaster out of the realm of the national Budget and write it off as a loss, and, so far as possible, restore their homes to the people. Let us as a nation treat everyone of the people who suffered from this disaster as we would wish to he treated ourselves were we in their place.
I hope the House will not think it impertinent on my part were I to say that I feel that, both in tone and in temper, this debate has been worthy of the occasion and of the House itself. I should like to pay a special tribute for that to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell), who opened this debate on behalf of the Opposition. In his admirable speech he set the tone which was followed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary gave a very comprehensive picture of the past, of what was going on now and of the plans for the future. I am sure that the House will not expect me to add any further detail to what he said. He has paid all the tributes which should be paid to the great number of organisations and individuals for the work they have done. It is right and proper that the Government should express to this House, and that this House should have the opportunity of echoing, that sense of gratitude for what has been done by such a great variety of people and organisations.
If I may be allowed to repair an omission—I am sure the House will not mind—I would pay a tribute which my right hon. and learned Friend could not pay, that is, to the Home Secretary himself. As the leader of the Ministers concerned with this great problem he has given us wonderful leadership and guidance in rather difficult times. I would also like to say a word about what is sometimes forgotten that is, the tremendous work done by the Civil Service, not only locally but centrally. It is a fashion sometimes to denigrate the work of these officers, but in my experience, and certainly on this occasion, they have done a very fine job.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, West for giving me the opportunity to refer to a story—of course, one always gets about on these occasions—about muddle over sandbags. He read it in one of our more imaginative newspapers. As a matter of fact, the sandbag story is rather interesting. The military resources were used up with alarming speed and, therefore, orders were placed for immediate production in Dundee, Liverpool and other centres.
Within a fortnight nearly 4,500,000 additional sandbags had been produced and delivered. In addition, we asked for them from our friends abroad who offered them. They were flown in. It was not always easy for the supply organisation to deal with them, because sometimes they were only told what the weight would be and sometimes the normal procedure was not followed.
It is alleged in this case, to which I am glad the hon. Gentleman called attention, that instead of being sent immediately to the front, there was a long delay in delivery of some sandbags. In point of fact, the delay was for the very simple reason that this consignment was not sufficient to till a lorry. It seemed better to wait until the next consignment came and to send off a complete lot. Had they been for operational purposes the half lorry-load would have gone, but as they were to go to a reserve centre, to be drawn on later, this seemed the best thing to do.
It is worthy of note that something like 7 million sandbags have been moved from civil airports, Ministry of Supply reserves and from air service stores also. This allows me to pay tribute to the Ser- vices for the work they have done throughout this trouble. They have done absolutely splendid work. Many of us have seen them. They have been a great help.
I wish to refer to a point raised by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden) about the precise position as to the further use of the military. Of course, arrangements have been made for them to be in reserve in case of a fresh sudden emergency. But, broadly speaking, the kind of matters which have to be dealt with are best dealt with, so the experts tell us, by the ordinary contractors' organisations and the large plant which is available for the purpose. This is not just a question of putting up sandbags, but of dealing with more technical problems. That is what is being done.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he is advised by experts. Can he say whether the Essex River Board take that view? If the Essex River Board decide that they need the troops, in the view of their experts, will the troops be available?
That is what I mean by their being in reserve, just as they might be a brigade or divisional reserve ready to be called to the front line when necessary.
The problems which we have dealt with today fall into two main divisions. There are the physical and material problems and there are the human ones. I am sure that the House will agree that the second are the most urgent although perhaps the first are the most difficult. The most urgent job is to look after the people and to see that everything that can be done is done in the spirit of the undertaking which the Prime Minister gave on the very first day on which the House met after the disaster.
Meanwhile, I will reply to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Leeds, West, because they were valuable. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of information. I am glad he made that point, and we will take it up, because it is very important that we should see that information is made available on all these various matters in one single form. We will look at that tomorrow, and see whether it can be improved. It will certainly deal with some of the questions that have been put to me, such as farmers being asked to pay for gypsum. They are not; they are to get it free. They may be asked to send a cart for it, but that does not seem to be an unreasonable request.
The hon. Gentleman also asked a question about the Ministry of Works selling its surplus bedding, but that question had been cleared up before. There was also the question of the loss of wages and earnings and whether anything would be done about that. I do not want to lay down exactly what might be done, but I think it would apply in appropriate cases. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Ministry of Health treatment of patients, and I must be careful not to commit my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health by any indiscretion or make him liable to a surcharge. I do not know whether Ministers can be surcharged, or whether that is only for aldermen and councillors.
I think it can be said that, in the emergency period, my right hon. Friend has used the Nelson technique and turned a blind eye to the giving of prescriptions without charge, and the supplying of artificial teeth or spectacles, perhaps without authority. Without pressing it too far, I think it would be wise to leave the matter there.
I accept that in a, broad spirit of generosity.
I should like to repeat, in case there is any misunderstanding, what is the position about lodging allowances and rest centres. The lodging allowances will be paid to householders for the next two weeks from this Saturday, and, thereafter, such people as are still unable to return to their homes must make their own arrangements. The Assistance Board will help where necessary. The rest centre service will be continued for a further two weeks, and, if necessary, for three weeks, but the people there will be expected to pay for their meals from Saturday next.
I want now to deal with the point concerning the fear of a hiatus, I do not think there will be one, because in most cases, the National Assistance Board officers are actually operating in the rest centres. At any rate, the people will get a meal all right, and I think the machinery details can be tied up satisfactorily.
I have heard criticism that the rest centres ought to have been cleared or closed more rapidly, but, when the House remembers that it was only on Monday night that we felt secure against a possible repetition of the disaster, I think it would have been very foolish to close them. I want to refer now to the figures, because this is something of which the country can be proud. There were about 32,000 people homeless in the first few days. Even then, there were never more than 7,000 people in the rest centres, and there are now only 2,000.
What does all that mean? It means that, quite apart from the fact that people now know that they can get an allowance, which we only announced on Friday—and I was glad it was on a Friday, because that is an important day for working people—and people receiving guests would know that their guests would be able to contribute something, it is rather remarkable that only 2,000 out of this large number are left, and that was due to the neighbourliness and friendship, as much as anything else, of people who invited refugees into their homes, in some cases, not very far from the scene of action itself.
There are one or two other points which were raised in an eloquent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine), and by several other hon. Members, on the human problems which are raised and the questions of personal help and relief. I shall come to those in detail in a moment.
Perhaps I may mention a point which the hon. Member for Billericay raised as to the alleged lack of co-ordination between the river board and the local council with regard to the draining of Canvey Island. I think he was under some misapprehension. I saw this myself in the only tour I was able to make before I was temporarily ill. This was the sort of dilemma. In many cases the sea walls were repaired and then the water was on the wrong side of them. Until the sea walls were mended the water came in again, and it was a great problem to get it out. The quickest way is to use the natural drainage, to clear the sluices and the ditches from the silt and sand, and I am informed that, in the opinion of the experts, the procedure followed was correct.
Before I come to the personal side, I wish to say something, as Minister of Housing, of the effect of this disaster on housing which I think is something the House would like to know. It is important to get the actual loss of houses into perspective. Something like 21,000 houses have had a greater or a lesser degree of flooding. Many of these are rapidly becoming fit for occupation again. They are being re-occupied, as the House knows, when the local authority decide that it is right and proper for the people to go back to them, but they are going back fairly quickly. The local authorities have been authorised to do the first-aid repairs necessary to make the houses habitable.
In answer to the first question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne)—the other four were delivered in machine gun style—it is quite true that we sent out a circular on the first morning to say, "Get on with the job. I think it will be all right. The Treasury will probably pay." I think that was a sensible thing to do. As soon as I got the official authority, we sent out the next circular and said, "The Treasury will pay 100 per cent. on all work necessary to make the houses habitable." That is the answer. Of course. that will be reimbursed in full, but it is quite true that there may be repairs difficult to define exactly. For instance, what is the first-aid repair that is necessary to make the houses habitable? I think it better not to define it too closely, but to take rather a generous view of it.
Of course, after the first-aid repairs, even on the broadest interpretation, there must be re-decoration and things like that necessary in many of the houses. Some of these will be covered by insurance and will be done as the insurance is paid. Others which are not covered by insurance would properly draw upon the Lord Major's Fund, which is exactly the procedure we carried out with some success in a sort of miniature test of this operation in the Lynmouth disaster last year, where. I think, the whole working of the fund has been very satisfactory.
I say that some will be covered by insurance and others by the Lord Mayor's Fund. I am told that at the end of the story it may be found that there are about 500 houses destroyed. There may be another 200 or 300 which, because they are coming to the end of their life, are not worth repairing. Therefore, purely from the housing point of view, sad as it is to lose that many houses, it is not a great loss when we remember that we are building at the rate of 20,000 houses a month, and I think we have to be grateful for that. Indeed, from the housing point of view much more serious is the possible diversion of materials to other needs—these long-term needs—and, of course, some loss of productivity through the work of some of the great cement factories being temporarily stopped.
I was giving the national figure. I am trying to say that to the nation as a whole it is not as serious as might be the loss of materials diverted to other needs.
We come to the question of how we are to deal with these displaced persons. It will be, of course, the responsibility of the housing authorities. I have no doubt that they will place these people immediately on the housing list and will do their best to find them houses in their areas. I do not believe that it will be beyond the capacity of the authorities. In some cases owner-occupiers may wish to make arrangements for rebuilding and, of course, they have the free right to do so under the system of licensing. And if they want to build larger houses than of 1,000 square feet to replace their houses I am sure that the local authorities will give permission.
On the question of tenants of ordinary council houses, I should like to refer to
the statement which I made on Wednesday, 4th February, on the possibility of requisitioning if necessary. I said then:
If for this purpose, in any individual cases, feel that it is necessary to authorise the requisitioning of any empty houses that may be going, I shall, of course, do so; but in that case the authority concerned will be the housing authority, that is, the county boroughs, district councils …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1853.]
I stand by that declaration, and if in any area it is quite beyond the capacity of the housing authority to rehouse these families within a reasonable time. I will certainly give consideration to the requisitioning of any empty houses that may be available.
In trying to reduce requisitioning as far as possible, I am not thinking of the financial considerations but of the fact that the requisitioning of empty houses, which are sometimes empty between two tenancies or because an owner has gone abroad and is coming back, often make as many hardships as they cure. That is one of the troubles from which we are still suffering as a result of the war. I should like therefore to use this machinery as sparingly as possible.
I am not expert enough on sea defences to answer questions put by many expert hon. Members. I think that the right thing to do is to try to find out what we ought to do, and to have a really good inquiry to ensure that we have the right machinery and the right organisation and that we do the right thing. We must bear in mind—and I do not want to sound complacent—that it is possible to over-insure against risk and that one could pour all the materials in the world into sea defence and leave oneself in a hopeless position. One must try to find out what is the right balance and the right action to take. There is the question of the varying organisations which have grown over the years and were last regulated by the 1948 Act. There is the question whether they ought to be reconsidered and a new system introduced.
I should like to refer again to a question of another kind to which the hon. Member for Leeds, West referred. He questioned whether the county councils would be necessarily the proper bodies to function in these emergencies. There are two sides to the question, as he has frankly admitted; because in some cases the small rural areas or small urban district councils would have been quite overwhelmed by the task if they had not had the backing of the great county councils. As the hon. Member said of his experience in the war, it is a question of having a good system of delegation when delegation is the right course to follow.
I should like to answer one or two more questions purely on the human loss side of this problem. Before I come to that, and because this, too, is a very human question, I have to say that I understand that the Chancellor wishes to meet the problem of tobacco supplies for old-age pensioners and that details are now being worked out by the Treasury. The Prime Minister announced:
… it is clear that the catastrophe is one which will require to be treated upon a national basis and, broadly, as a national responsibility." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1483.]
We stand absolutely by that, and I understand it to mean that every authority and every individual should play their proper role in the work.
The Home Secretary has already explained what immediate things are going to be done by the Exchequer. These are, as I explained, emergency work on sea defences, first-aid repair of houses and the like. Then there will be a second category of things which will be done collectively, partly by the Central Government and partly by local government. Many hon. Members in all quarters of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Hare), were anxious about this. They were anxious lest a disproportionate burden might fall upon the rates in respect of all kinds of losses, some of them very difficult to estimate, losses not necessarily of an actual physical asset but of earning power, and so forth.
Local authorities will certainly have to face considerable losses or cuts in the repair of services, sea fronts and roads. There may be loss of income at some of these resorts—income from rents, rates and holiday trade. As I say, we are dealing with all the urgent things at once and we are paying for them by a full 100 per cent. Exchequer grant, but I think it would be unwise of me now to try to set out a complete formula.
It would be much to the advantage of local authorities if they would do as I am asking them—consider their position, see how they stand, and get into touch with my officers at my Ministry so that we can then see how best we can deal with their problems. They are very varying problems in differing conditions; there are different types of claims, and it would be much more to their advantage if they were deal with individually. There are not so many as all that, and I can assure the House that we shall deal with them sympathetically with a view to meeting their needs as much as we possibly can.
Yes. That is why I want to set about the work and reach a precise decision as to what can be done when we get a picture of what these places would like to be done. But the first thing is the emergency work; that is the most important thing of all. We have not quite got on to the next stage of rebuilding the gardens and the esplanades. All this class of expenditure will be carried collectively, either by the central Exchequer or by the local authorities, helped with grants of varying percentages.
Then there comes the question of the personal loss of individuals. I think it has been argued that the National Exchequer ought to meet all losses of all kinds incurred by individuals or corporations as a result of the flood. I think the right hon. Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) made that plea. On consideration, I do not think it is a tenable proposition. In general, insurable risks ought to be, and are largely, carried on the insurance market. The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could say whether this was a tempest or a flood. By nature I am an impulsive person, but I am not so impulsive as to answer that question. If he were to ask me to give an objective opinion with no binding authority, I would be bound to say that it looks to me as if it was both a tempest and a flood.
If it is to be put as a legal problem it will have to be settled by the arbitrators or the court in accordance with the terms of the policies themselves. Fortunately, in the normal comprehensive policy for the contents of private houses, I am informed that there is cover against tempest and flood and that that question will, therefore, be met. It would be possible to have a scheme such as the war damage scheme to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Studholme.]