I beg to move,
That this House accepts the principle enunciated by the Prime Minister that the damage inflicted on various parts of the United Kingdom by flood and tempest on 31st January and 1st February, 1953, requires to be treated on a national basis, and owing to the magnitude of the catastrophe expects that principle to be fully implemented by Her Majesty's Government.
No one, I think, can take exception to the terms of the Motion. It is factual where it refers to the statement of the Prime Minister, and it reflects the opinion of the House and, indeed, of the whole country when it says that it accepts the principle that in this calamity the damage and compensation should be treated on a national basis. It is, of course, entirely non-partisan, and we make no apology for placing it on the Order Paper and for asking the House to accept it.
Our sole aim is to ensure that the Government fulfil the undertaking given by the Prime Minister and by the Home Secretary. If I and other hon. Members appear to be pressing this matter of sea defence and national responsibility, it is because we believe that it is only by bringing it to the attention of Governments—and I say "Governments" advisedly—that this great problem of sea defence, the incursion of the sea and the damage caused by flood and tempest can be fully appreciated both by the House and the public and because we feel that remedial measures should be taken on a national basis.
At a time when public reaction is so warm and strong, as evidenced by the response to the appeal for money, goods, sympathy and for service—one of the most important elements in all this relief work—we here should play our part in showing our generosity and sympathy towards those who have suffered. We hope that the discussion on this Motion will clear up some of the anomalies that still persist and which still cause a great deal of anxiety among those who have been so badly hit by this great catastrophe.
Let us look at the statements made and on which this Motion is based. On 2nd February, the day after the waters broke through, the Prime Minister spoke in this House about the disaster that had befallen us. As so often in the past, he was obviously moved by deep emotion in dealing with this terrible catastrophe and he translated for us the feeling of the people. In the course of a description of the measures being taken to alleviate distress, he said:
It is not 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.]
Everyone present supported that point of view.
Again, on 19th February, in moving a very eloquent and touching Motion which we debated the whole of that day, the Prime Minister read out the words:
Takes note of the declared intention of Her Majesty's Government to treat the catastrophe on a national basis."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1953; Vol. 511, c. 1462.]
It is on those words and on our interpretation of them that the whole crux of this debate depends. We are here to satisfy ourselves about what the Prime Minister, speaking for the Government, and the Home Secretary who later so strongly reinforced what he said, meant by national responsibility.
I submit that those words mean what the Prime Minister intended at that time that they should mean—compensation, the cost of which would be borne by the Government where it was not met by voluntary subscriptions. I ought to make no apology for saying—and I think that many of my hon. Friends would agree— that the attitude of the Government in their approach to this great problem has been timely and decent and perhaps not ungenerous. Action taken has been rapid in spite of the appalling difficulties, and, in its association with other bodies and particularly in its interlocking of responsibilities with the Lord Mayor's Fund, reasonably effective.
It seems to me, however, that there are a number of matters, varying in relative importance, which require further elucidation and, in some cases, a much more sympathetic approach in keeping with the spirit that animates the desire of the nation that this problem shall be treated generously and sympathetically and that we shall not have too fine a classification of claims or too fine an appraisement of those claims. The feeling of all with whom I have been in contact, a feeling which has been reflected both in this House and in the Press, is that these people should be treated generously and sympathetically. It is for those reasons that we have asked for a debate on this Motion and that I hope we shall be able to clear up a large number of anomalies, some of which are of great importance, and that this debate will be very fruitful.
We have had several discussions on this topic and I find it difficult to understand the introduction so late in our discussions of that ominous word "negotiation" in relation to certain costs. We believe that that fails to accord with the statements made by the Prime Minister, and certainly with the spirit of them—that there was not to be a great deal of what he called on another occasion the "higgling of the market." It may well be that negotiation is the correct approach in certain circumstances. But we all know very well, and particularly those who have served on local authorities and town councils for a long period, that negotiations between a powerful body like the Government and smaller people means that the heavy power of the giant is bound to take charge of the whole proceedings in the end and that there is very little negotiation in the long run. It is generally a case of "take it or leave it."
When I raised this matter last week it was not particularly helpful that the Home Secretary, who is generally so courteous and so ready to explain matters and does a great deal to make the attitude of the Government clear, should have worked himself up to such a pitch of synthetic indignation about a perfectly innocent question which I put to him on a point of view with which he may not have been in agreement. We shall expect that the Home Secretary, or whoever replies to the debate, will go a little further into an explanation of what the Government mean by "negotiation." It may well be that the Home Secretary will be able to satisfy us that this problem will be tackled in the spirit of real negotiation. It may mean that both sides will be able to play their hand and to put their case so that there may be an acceptable agreement in the long run.
It is a difficult task to correlate the responsibilities of different Departments, local authorities and voluntary agencies in this matter of relief and compensation. I should like to discuss three categories of cases, and no doubt hon. Members in all parts of the House will have a number of special cases to which they will wish to draw the attention of the Government. There is always the difficult case which does not fall into any category. That case often causes more trouble in administration than any number of larger cases, because it is one which does not fit into any group at all.
I repeat the hope which I expressed on 19th February and I urge that the greatest sympathy be shown for these difficult borderline cases. Up and down the East Coast, though not peculiar to that area, there are a large number of bungalows, hutments, caravans and nondescript dwellings which are used occasionally for visits at holiday time and at week-ends. A number of them are let out for hire by people who do not belong to the monied class. They are people who have invested a little or perhaps even all of their savings in these little hutments.
These hutments have been severely damaged. Hundreds of them are wrecks. They will never be inhabited again. Because they were not permanently inhabited they are not domiciles in the sense that the owners live there all the time and I understand that they are to be excluded from the benefit of compensation under the Lord Mayor's Fund. I have had a considerable correspondence on this subject. Some of these owners are old age pensioners who have invested in these bungalows and who let them out annually, particularly in the summer, to visitors from our towns and cities. I hope that there will be an inquiry into their claims and that they will be treated sympathetically.
Another very special case is that of a number of people who, by choice, have their homes afloat. In my part of the country, Norfolk and Suffolk, there are the famous wherries which are moored some little distance inland on tidal rivers. Families live in them. The flood has made it impossible for them to live in them now. The wherries have been torn from their moorings and deposited a few miles further down river. Many wherries have had their backs broken and the owners are anxious to know whether they come into the category of damaged houses or residences. I urge that the problem should be examined.
Another matter of great importance to these people is towage back to their moorings. Some friends of mine have been asked to pay as much as £17 for tug assistance to take a wherry back to its original mooring. That is a lot of money, especially when there is added to it the prospect of having to pay for rehabilitating a vessel which may possibly have very serious leaks. I hope that something will be done for these people.
There is also the problem of those cases, which have occurred up and down the coast from the North to Kent, of people who were forcibly evacuated from their domiciles because of impending danger. They lived in bungalows and houses on the edge of cliffs. There was intense weathering of the friable cliffs by the gales and these houses might have fallen into the sea with loss of life. The occupiers were removed on the advice of or by order of the police.
I should like to know whether they are to receive assistance, if not from the Lord Mayor's Fund, then from the Government for rehabilitation purposes, or to transfer their houses a little further inland where land may be available. I admit that these are difficult cases; but these people are the victims of flood and tempest, and that was what the Government and the Lord Mayor's Fund set out to compensate. I urge that these cases be examined. The tenants of some of these houses are in very poor financial straits and certainly do not have money to spare.
We were very grateful when the Home Secretary the other day gave an assurance that the trawler crews would be compensated. I am very glad to know that that is so. In my own port of Lowes-toft we lost a vessel with all hands, and no trace of it has been discovered. Others lost their lives in the floods— nearly 400 altogether, I believe. I should like to ask on what basis the compensation is to be paid. I should like to know whether the compensation is to be a lump sum payment or is to be based on the number of dependants? What is the sum likely to be? Is it proposed, particularly for children, that compensation payments shall be spread over several years to provide for their education and placing them in industry or the professions?
I am sure that those who have subscribed to the Fund will be satisfied if they are assured that the first aim is to compensate those who have been bereaved in this disaster. I have received several inquiries on this score, and I urge the Home Secretary to indicate whether this is so. These people keep worrying about what they are going to get, how they are going to get it, and when. It will be a great relief to them to know precisely how they are to be provided for in the future.
I do not know whether my hon. Friends will agree with me when I make this suggestion, but there are certain firms whose losses exceed £5,000 and we understand that compensation will be paid to family businesses whose losses exceed that amount if hardship can be proved. I submit that there is a case for giving some sort of compensation to those firms who have also been hard hit, who do not fall quite into that category but who have had the decency to retain their staffs and pay them when they could quite easily have been laid off. I offer that as a suggestion which might be examined.
The Government propose to assist agriculture in general and, subject to some reservations, reasonably generously. There is, however, further consideration needed in respect of certain areas and certain categories of agricultural workers, namely, smallholders, market gardeners, and so on. There is in particular a big problem in my own area and in others where grazing marshes have been inundated for a long time owing to the blocking of the culverts leading to the drainage canals. I am sure it will take many years to bring this land into grazing again. I saw two of these farmers only last week, and they told me that they are selling their herds.
I see that the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) is here, and he will confirm that from the marshes around the north end of my area 1,000 gallons of milk a day went into Yarmouth. It will be many years before those marshes are put to work again. What is to happen to the graziers? What will happen to the small market gardener whose land is so heavily sedimented with salt that it will not be available for three or four years, with the cumulative loss for several years to come?
This raises the vital question of loss of earnings. In the past we have never been able to make a formula for this question, but unless we do something for these men and for the smaller businesses there will be a great deal of suffering and anxiety. I hope that this principle, which has never been accepted before, will be examined for the benefit of the small man who has this liability. I know that grants for rehabilitation of the land are available, but I should be glad to have an explanation from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. So far as I know, there is compensation in respect of deterioration of land, but there is none for loss of earnings, and these men who will have to work on that land have not got the resources to help them over this trying period in the next few years,
I should like to say a few words about the local authorities. One of our major anxieties on the East Coast is what will happen to the local authorities. We on the East Coast are no strangers to flooding, erosion and tempests. We have always had to battle with them, and we always shall. The effects of erosion are as formidable and spectacular along the East Coast as in any part of Britain and, I imgine, in any part of the world. One only has to look in the Sunday newspapers at the pictures of the erosion at Corton, where great masses of cliffs are tumbling down.
The difficulty of the East Anglian local authorities is that they are already burdened with a rating requirement in respect of sea defence and coast protection which is quite intolerable. Their available resources are continually deflected into that channel at the expense of the development of other amenities and necessities. The Government can do no greater service than to consider this question of compensation for local authorities. They should consider it from a new angle—from the point of view of the necessity not only to keep the areas free from the encroachment of the sea but to ensure that the authorities have a fair deal so that they can get on with their other duties. There is an accumulation of local debt with corresponding rate shortages out of all proportion to the capacity of these authorities to bear it.
As I have said, the resources of these local authorities are deflected to meeting protection charges when they ought to be spent in other ways. It is proposed to enable these authorities to rebuild their damaged defences to the standard prevailing on 31st January. But that standard has been proved by all this inundation to be inadequate. This standard does not reach the requirements. It is essential that the standard of coast protection should be raised, particularly in those parts which were most subjected to flooding.
I see that there is to be a grant of 100 per cent. in respect of certain works completed by 30th September. I do not know the virtue of 30th September, unless it is that the equinoctial gales occur at about that time. I suppose that that was in the mind of the Government when they proposed that date. I consider that a great deal of time is wasted on this question of sea defence, in the protracted negotiations between the local authorities, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Claims have to be prepared and submitted, and that costs a great deal. In some oases it costs more than a 2d. rate to prepare a scheme and submit it to the Minister. Towns with a rateable value of £80 or £90— or, as in the case of some of those in my area, just under £200—could spend most of that money in preparing a scheme and submitting it to the Minister.
I want to know why the Minister is not able to bring some pressure to bear on local authorities to submit schemes for protecting the coast. The Minister has default powers, though I have never yet heard that he has used them and I hope he will not have to. I hope the local authorities will hurry up with these schemes after the terrible experience they have had in the recent floods, but there has been a constant holding back by local authorities because they are afraid that they will not get sufficient grant to enable them to carry on these very costly sea defence works.
There is also the case of local authorities who started defence schemes before 31st January, from which date grants are operative. In some cases those newly started defence works have been completely washed away and all the work has gone for nothing. To restore the defences to the extent planned in the original scheme will cost six or seven times the amount of the original estimate. In these cases towns on the East Coast have been hit very hardly, and a very sympathetic approach is required on behalf of the Government. They can be a tremendous help in enabling these coast protection areas to perform the work in respect of which they have statutory duties.
We know that this work can be satisfactorily maintained only by co-ordination of effort among local authorities and coast protection authorities. Last week I put a Question to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, asking how many coast protection authorities had been set up, and the answer I received was that there were only three. What encouragement do the Government give to these local authorities to co-ordinate their work? Are they left to their own devices? Have one of the more progressive authorities to canvass their neighbours in order that they shall get together to protect their own shores, or is any direction received from the central Government?
I commend to the Government the consideration that it would be advisable for them to take the initiative and see what they can do to get these authorities to work together in the building of these defences. The amount of money spent on coast protection during the past five years has been, on an average, a little over £500,000 a year. That is a very small sum. We could spend half a million pounds in my own area. Five hundred thousand pounds is the amount of the Government grant. It averages between 60 per cent. and 70 per cent. The amount of work done is not at all commensurate with the need and I hope the Government will consider this matter.
I want to raise the very important point of the seaside resorts. To a very great extent their economy depends on seaside holiday traffic. We, on the East Coast, hope to attract visitors from all over the country and we particularly want to live down the impression which has been created in the public mind that we are out of business. We are not out of business; we are willing and eager to do business and we want to get the visitors to our area. Grateful as we are to the B.B.C. for the warnings they gave us during the recent floods, I hope that they will cease their rather gloomy prognostications and their constant harping on the flood damage on the East Coast and tell the people that we are getting together.
We shall not get together, however, unless we receive substantial help. I have mentioned the fact that we are overloaded with debt with regard to sea defences. In addition, most seaside holiday resorts maintained a large range of attractions. They had bathing huts, chalets, kiosks, cafes, bathing pools, children's playgrounds and bandstands, and in many cases these have been very badly damaged, if not destroyed. When the Government consider the payment of compensation to local authorities I hope they will be able to get together with them immediately, so that we can plan our summer season at once.
The East Coast has already had one long and bitter experience. During the war we were evacuated and cut off from everyone, and we saw our rivals in the West and the North flourishing. That could not be helped. But there is intense competition for holiday trade and we want to be able to play our part and get our share of it. I hope the Government will look at that question and see what they can do to help.
In initiating this debate we have no desire to be querulous or fractious. We wish to co-operate with the Government in seeking to alleviate suffering and distress, and to help them to assess proper compensation and relief. We should, however, be failing in our duty if we did not raise matters of difficulty, delay and lack of consideration, and equally failing in our duty if we did anything to hinder rehabilitation by fractious discussion.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to second the Motion which has been so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), but I must make it clear at the beginning that I am not so satisfied as he is about the conduct of the Government since these floods occurred. It is the attitude of the Government which has largely determined that this debate should take place this afternoon, and unless much more is done to correct those things which have not been done properly there will be many more of these debates.
I want to pay a tribute to the Lord Mayor of London, and I only wish that I could hear his uncensored remarks about the attitude of the Government. I also pay tribute to Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve. But the activities of these people are governed by their terms of reference. The real "nigger in the woodpile" is the Government. Since the Prime Minister's speech they have not lived up to his fine words.
That fact began to be apparent within a few hours of the floods, on the question of requisitioning houses at Erith. I hope that will be a lesson to the Government and that in any future disasters of this sort they will have more confidence in the people on the spot. It might be said that I am rather harsh in saying that the Government have been the "nigger in the woodpile," but although at first, up to 10th February, the Home Secretary gave us progress reports almost every day and then we had a debate on 19th February, there was then an almost complete blackout until 10th March, when the Financial Secretary to the Treasury began to make people alarmed at what was happening. The Prime Minister rose to assist him, but did not remove a great deal of the concern which was felt.
To support me in this contention I refer to the supplementary questions asked by the hon. Member for Sudbury and Wood-bridge (Mr. Hare) and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), which indicated that there was much doubt about the position of the flood victims. We had a subsequent statement and the feeling now seems to have spread abroad that all is well.
From practical experience, and particularly from what I have heard during the week-end, I can say that, as a result of what is now becoming apparent to flood victims, there will be many harsh words said in the very near future. On 27th February, about a month from the date of the flood, Memorandum of Guidance No. 2 was issued by the Lord Mayor's National Flood and Tempest Distress
Fund and in paragraph (b), dealing with entitlement to grants, mention is made of
damage to or loss of furniture or clothing up to £150 per household.
The Memorandum says:
Grants will be either in kind or in cash or both.
There were some unfortunate experiences when attempts were made to pass secondhand clothing to some of the flood victims and it was soon found that that was not a very happy decision. Paragraph (c) of the Memorandum deals with
damage to or loss of stock-in-trade of a personal business
and damage to the buildings; this applies to buildings in which the business is carried on, and the amount stated is up to £2,500.
Page 3 of the Memorandum says:
in the first instance a grant would be limited to a maximum of £2,500
If the Fund proves to be capable of making larger payments, announcements will be made later.
I submit that that was not in the spirit of the Prime Minister's speech and undertaking of 2nd February, which was accepted by the Press and by the people as a statement of national responsibility for the losses which had been incurred. It was not right, one month after that date, to make it clear that more money would be paid only if the public made greater contributions to the Fund.
Let us come to the latest Memorandum, of 13th March, Memorandum of Guidance No. 3, which made it clear to private individuals and householders that it was not necessary to include the value of gifts in the £150. The Memorandum goes on to mention that the gifts to businesses, where they were personal and family businesses, would be raised to £5,000. On page 2 the point is made that
In cases where the loss exceeds £5,000 the Lord Mayor will consider an additional grant.
In my constituency I have a firm who have lost many times £5,000. Undertakings have been given that they will be all right; those are all oral undertakings, and provided that they are kept, no more need be said about it.
On page 2 the word "trader" is stated to have a wide definition:
It will include the fisherman, farmer, smallholder, boarding-house-keeper, boat builder or
hirer, shop-keeper, poultry keeper, nurseryman ….
It goes on to say that the claims of such nurserymen would be looked after by the local agricultural committee. In my constituency that means that the claims of nurserymen, smallholders and pig breeders have to go to the county agricultural committee at Maidstone, and that has been found to be very unsatisfactory. The machinery of the agricultural committee is totally inadequate. For over a week forms have been lying at an office in Sevenoaks before being sent on to Maidstone.
Constant requests have been made by telephone to Mr. Goff, the secretary, in Maidstone, and only after a threat that the matter would be brought to the notice of the Member of Parliament was a small donation sent on Friday morning to a nurseryman who is in a position that the rebuilding of his nurseries had to be stopped because the builders were asking for money which he did not possess. It seems, from instructions which have been issued, that nurserymen and pig breeders, in particular, are having a very bad deal.
On 18th March the Home Secretary explained what was being done for such people as farmers and smallholders, but it must be remembered that a direction has been given to the county agricultural relief committees which says:
Indirect losses. Broadly, these comprise the loss of profits and earnings. On current indications, it seems unlikely that there will be any compensation specifically for such losses.
That is the only information one can obtain from the Memorandum, and it has caused a great deal of alarm among smallholders, pig breeders and nurserymen. I have received letters from nurserymen who see ruin facing them because they had very little capital with which to work before the flood occurred. One letter says:
I wish to bring to your notice that I have lodged a claim … to the extent of approximately £1,800, and I hope that my request for an immediate payment of £500 will be made without further delay so that the urgent repairs to plant and machinery can be made to prevent further damage. In addition to the foregoing, I have now been advised that, owing to deposits of chemicals from adjoining factories and salt from the river, it will not be possible to use the land for at least another year…. I feel that it is not possible as yet to say that even then the soil will again be in a fit condition for growing…. I have made extensive preparations for the coming season
and confidently expected to double my turnover, based on orders expected, instead of which the nursery has been at a standstill since the flooding and, in the meantime, my overhead expenses of approximately £450 continue…. In the circumstances I ask that, apart from the reimbursement for the damage already done, the Government see their way to arrange for an immediate payment of £2,000 or there will be no future business, and I shall be completely ruined and my livelihood taken away.
It seems, in my constituency, that what has been done for the small business man is reasonable. Some have been out of business for only one, two or three weeks. For those such as nurserymen— and there are a number of them—who are losing what are called their profits or earnings and who are faced with problems for a long time ahead, the position is not so satisfactory. Even if they get their greenhouses replaced and the damage to their personal possessions repaired, many will be ruined if the statement contained in the Memorandum of Guidance to the agricultural committees is carried out.
I pass to another class—pig breeders— who are in exactly the same position. They can claim in respect of their personal possessions, for damage to their home and to the styes, and they can have buildings replaced, but they are still in difficulties, as I will illustrate. In one case a man had 140 pigs before the flood occurred. During the flood his land was under four or five feet of water. Some of the pigs were drowned—and, of course, he will get money for that. As he points out, some of the pigs were very small and some were being used for breeding. He moved some to a garage and then, because of illness himself—he was ill because of heavy exposure—he had to send the remainder of the pigs to market in a dirty condition and not properly fed, with the result that they made a very poor price.
As I have learned in talks this weekend, pig breeding is a very extensive process. If breeding is interrupted for three or four weeks it can mean ruination for a man who previously had a balance of £150 in the bank. Then, other pig breeders have had to transfer stock five, six or seven miles away, and the travelling backwards and forwards has gravely interrupted the system of pig breeding. Nurserymen, too, suffer loss by having to remove their produce.
The sums of money involved are, perhaps, not very great, but the conditions under which assistance is given can make a tremendous difference to the circumstances of those to whom it is given, and the conditions which have so far operated have made a tremendous difference to hard-working men and women, many of whom have been in the business for many years and doing an excellent job of work.
When the Home Secretary last week explained the compensation that could be given he said he could not see any gap in it. The official information available from nurserymen and pig breeders shows that there is a tremendous gap in loss on profits, and loss entailed until their stock or their goods are marketable again. It is not good enough only to replace dwellings and personal belongings. It is necessary also to take into consideration the amount of money these people lose over a particularly long period.
I have been asked to bring to the notice of the Home Secretary the hardship that is entailed through the withdrawal of the lodging allowance. There are people in my constituency who cannot go back home until the floorboards are replaced in the ground floors of their homes. People who have found themselves in great difficulties have made application to the local committee for money because of the costs of extra transport, and so on, and lodging payments have been given of £10. That £10 will be withdrawn, or deducted from the £150, or whatever is the eventual payment. These are matters which are of the greatest importance to humble little people, and they are the sort of people whom the contributors to the Lord Mayor's Fund had in mind when they made their gifts, and it was hoped they would not be out of pocket because of this disaster.
The Home Secretary last week mentioned that there had been an extension to cover churches, church halls, and halls used for social work. They can be covered to a certain degree, and money was being set aside for that purpose, he said. A question arises from this that has not been raised before, and I ask that it should be considered. If church halls and halls used for social purposes are considered to be covered by this fund I do ask that such institutions as the Erith and Belvedere Football Club should be covered also. That club is an amateur club, which has set out to buy its own ground. It is up to the neck in debt. I am sure that many people will agree that it is an amenity of the locality. Its premises were under water for five or six weeks, and that event makes it difficult for the club to continue. I understand that its total loss will be anything from £400 to £500.
The Lord Mayor has mentioned that the local committees should have in mind, in making their allocations, what it was the people desired who paid into the fund, and that that did not stop at paying money to individuals only. So I hope that the case of this club will be considered. I cannot at this moment make any complaint about the matter because it has not been raised before, but I was asked this morning to raise it in the House.
I must come to a conclusion. I have had to sit through long debates before, and I know what it is to want to take part and not have time, and I know that other hon. Members want to speak. However, on the last occasion we debated this matter I did make my speech in a very few minutes, so in seconding this Motion I hope I may be allowed a little more time before coming, at the end, to some very important matters.
People are feeling a great deal of frustration and disappointment. Here is a copy of the "Erith Observer" of Friday last. On the front page is this heading, "Protests by Flood Victims." It says:
Residents were told that chits could be obtained for cooking utensils, but when they applied they were told that there was none left. On protesting, they were sent chits by post to obtain pots and pans at a local shop. They were instructed that these must not be carried openly through the streets in case others applied. There was no official announcement that this grant was available. Residents knew only by word of mouth.
I must say that from the information I have had from different districts it appears that the people who matter most, the flood victims, have little or no information to guide them. I may say that there is another protest meeting tonight at which people are to ventilate their difficulties further.
About four hours ago I got an S.O.S. from the Borough Treasurer of Erith asking me at the earliest moment to put this matter forward. The Memorandum says that a household will be able to get up to £150, but it is possible for the local council to give vouchers up to £50 for pots and pans and carpets. Like a lot of other things, on paper it looks wonderful. It is in practice that the trouble starts. The Borough Treasurer now says that all the cheaper pots and pans have left the shops in the district. Whether they have been all bought or whether they have gone under the counter nobody knows, but the goods that are now offered at the shops for the vouchers are at a very much higher price than people would like to pay.
It should be known that not everybody shops at the Co-op., but it would be better if the hon. Gentleman would restrain himself, because he will be able to make his speech the sooner, for what I have said is only the preamble to the real complaint.
What happens is this. A person who has suffered the loss of linoleum or curtains or furniture can go to the local council and ask, "How do I get these replaced?" He is then asked to go back home and measure his rooms and then go to a merchant who has, say, linoleum, and if that merchant can supply it, the application can come back to the council with a note saying that the merchant can supply it and how much it will cost. Then the matter is considered once again. If the application is approved the applicant goes back to the shop with a voucher and starts to get his linoleum.
All this requires a number of interviews for each person, and there are many persons, and the local council has other jobs to do, and has only limited resources, so it all means that there are big queues of people waiting at the offices of the Borough Treasurer.
If the hon. Gentleman would only restrain himself he would hear that I have a couple of proposals. The Borough Treasurer is the man on the spot, and not some of the Members here,. who think they know all about it—
—and he has made two proposals. One is that in the case of claims up to £50 there should be some elasticity, so that the local council can decide whether to meet them in cash or by vouchers, and that people should be enabled to go farther afield, to get far greater value for their money, than they can by the process of vouchers. It is said that this has been done, but the point is that there is need for more information to help the applicants and to help the people who are doing the job.
The second proposal brings me to the "News Chronicle" of Saturday, where an account is given of a family at Whitstable, the Shepherds, who have been married 24 years and have three children and who reckon that they have suffered £700 worth of damage. Mrs. Shepherd is reported to have said:
You wouldn't mind so much if you had anything behind you, but we put our life's savings into our home, which we own.
The newspaper says:
Since 31st January the Shepherds have been given £5 by the local council, £5 by a friendly society, £3 by the local church.
I get many representations on these lines, and it seems that the people who have really suffered are not getting the attention which it is suggested by the Memoranda which go out that they should get.
I compliment the Lord Mayor's Fund on the Memorandum which has just been issued to householders and tenants whose property has been flooded, but, once again, it is difficult to understand. I compliment them on the Memorandum as far as it goes, but at the end, it says:
Claims will be assessed on an insurance basis. That is, articles destroyed will be valued according to their condition just before the flood.
People would like to know how an article which has been destroyed can be assessed according to its condition before the flood. I hope that the explanatory notes to the circulars issued will be written in English which can be understood by ordinary men and women. I refer, in particular, to notices such as Memorandum (No. 3), dealing with grants up to £150, showing what people are entitled to. At
this time more attention should be paid to ordinary men and women who have had a very bad deal and who are now holding protest meetings.
In my opinion, there is widespread dissatisfaction over the payment from the Lord Mayor's Fund of sums up to £5,000, and probably more. This was reflected in a letter in the "News Chronicle," which says:
Moreover, folk who have contributed generously to the Lord Mayor's Fund probably believed it was intended for no more than ' first aid' assistance mainly to private citizens, and that larger losses would be treated as a national responsibility.
What has happened on this occasion will be harmful should we be so unfortunate as to have another similar disaster. The Government were wholly wrong in not leaving the relief of personal distress, such as that to householders, as the job of the Lord Mayor's Fund. There should be a separate fund to deal with business people.
Because of these things it has been necessary to put down this Motion, to show that all is not well in dealing with this problem, although we started off with the Prime Minister using such fine words.
Yes. What I am saying is that fine statements were made, but when it comes to practical reality, pig breeders and nurserymen, particularly, are not getting the deal it was intended they should get. That is the point covered by the Motion.
Last week I asked what the Government would do to raise the money if sufficient was not contributed to the Lord Mayor's Fund, and I was told that that would be dealt with by the Home Secretary when he made his statement. However, it was not dealt with in the statement made by the Home Secretary, so I repeat my question. It is being said that the damage is nothing like what was first estimated, and that possibly the Lord Mayor's Fund will more than cover all the losses which could be called personal losses. If that is so, more generous treatment should be given to pig breeders, nurserymen, football clubs and individuals.
I think the whole House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) for the moving way in which he brought us back to the spirit in which we had approached this problem on 2nd February. I am glad he referred to what the Prime Minister said, and I should like to repeat the quotation:
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 am glad to look back with him at the spirit shown throughout the House then. For example—a small point which appeals to us in our position as Members—there was an immediate suspension of the rigours of party discipline, so that those who felt, as well they might, that their duty lay with their constituents, were enabled to go to their constituencies. That was the spirit of that day, and that is the spirit in which I want to interpret what has been done. I do not want to approach this matter in a niggardly way. I want to keep that spirit. If there have been any sharp exchanges, I am sure they can be forgotten, with many others. I hope we shall maintain that non-party and universal outlook on this national problem.
I claim that every step and every decision which we have taken subsequently is in faithful implementation of the spirit I have just mentioned, and I want to examine it in that way. I shall try to deal with one or two of the points raised by the hon. Member for Dart-ford (Mr. Dodds). As he very frankly said, some of them are new points, which he put before me as matters of inquiry. The House will be grateful to him also for stressing the importance of information reaching the people concerned, and I shall certainly do everything I can to stress and underwrite that.
First I should like to say a few general words, and then try to approach the Motion and its contents from the point of view of those who are affected rather than from the point of view of the Government who are paying out; that is, to take the different categories and examine them. The other day I dealt with the matter from the point of view of the Government. Today, I should like to look at the various categories, I hope objectively and fairly.
I want to indicate at once the reaction of the Government to the Motion and I can tell the House in three words. We endorse it. We believe that it correctly expresses the feelings of the country and of the House about the catastrophe, and we should welcome an endorsement by the House of the measures so far taken and those to be taken in the coming months to treat the catastrophe, as the Motion says, "on a national basis." I do say that there never has been any pledge —I do not believe that there could have been—that the total cost of any loss suffered by any person, authority or business should be reimbursed in full by the Exchequer. I want to examine how that fits in with the action which has been taken and with the phrase "on a national basis."
When I made my statement last Wednesday I was criticised for saying that the arrangements I had outlined would go a long way towards mitigating the losses which so many of our fellow-citizens had had to endure; and it was suggested that by using those words I admitted that our action or prospective action fell short of the Prime Minister's promise. But I point out, as restrainedly as I can, that there is nothing that the Government or anyone else could do to restore life to those who were killed, to restore immediately the health of those who were injured, to remove completely the inconvenience caused to those who have lost their homes, or to expunge the memory of terror and distress which the victims of the flood endured on that night.
We cannot make good losses and sufferings of that kind, but what I said the other day made it clear that the most detailed arrangements had been made to cover practically all losses which were capable of being made good by financial payment, and that genuine hardship would be relieved at once in so far as it had not already been, and that other losses would be dealt with in a reasonable and systematic manner which combined humanity with some regard to the merits of the case. I appreciate that it will always be possible in the case of any scheme to give individual instances in which its working has fallen short of the standard of perfection. All one can do is to examine cases to try to find what are the difficulties which have caused special disappointments, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Lowestoft.
One must remember, however, because human nature remains fairly constant in this respect, that it is the minority of cases in which the thing has not worked so well that get the most publicity and naturally receive the most attention. I think that it is fair to say—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree— that for those cases which he has pointed out in which there have been difficulties, there are a vast number of cases in respect of which the machinery has worked smoothly. One must always be open-minded and ready to look at difficulties as they arise.
I repeat that treating the catastrophe on a national basis has never been understood by the Government—nor, I think, has any reasonable person in this House so understood it—as implying that the national Exchequer was a substitute for universal insurance cover or was available to everyone. In these matters the Government have a responsibility to the taxpayer as well as to the victims of the flood, and one must also bear in mind the ordinary workings of insurance and commerce in our land.
There is one other preliminary matter in which I want to join issue, although not in the least violently, with the hon. Member for Dartford. He has deprecated the use of the Lord Mayor's Fund. I do not think that he went so far, but there have sometimes been suggestions that it is wrong in principle for private gifts to be used to meet private losses. That is a view which the Government reject. We have in this country a long and healthy tradition in these matters. We know that when such terrible events as these come upon us the needs of the case are best met, so far as private persons are concerned, by a system which does not suffer from some of the inevitable checks of State organisations applying comparatively rigid formulae under statutory regulations.
It is because we believe that a more workable approach is demanded, and that the administration of a fund in the hands of experienced public-spirited persons can do the job better, more successfully and more acceptably than State machinery, that we believe it to be a good method of dealing with such a case as this. Whether the House agrees with that or not, I am sure that the House and the country are indebted to the Lord Mayor of London, who, true to the great traditions of his office, and with the able assistance of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve and members of the central and local committees of the Fund, has shouldered this burden and discharged this heavy task with zeal, humanity and dispatch.
I was interested to note that the hon. Member for Dartford raised a point which had occurred to me, and that is, that even in this House there are those who may not fully appreciate the degree of detail in which advice and guidance have been made available to the local committees of the Fund. The hon. Member referred to the memoranda—and several hon. Members have, like myself, been given copies of the memoranda—issued on behalf of the Fund. I have, for the convenience of other hon. Members, arranged for copies of these documents to be placed in the Library, and they show how every class of case within the Fund's ambit is being catered for.
I want to make the general point that the fact that this task of compensation and rehabilitation has been delegated to the Fund does not in the least detract from the concept of treating the results of the disaster on a national basis. We believe that the Fund with £6 million or more in it, including £3 million or more already contributed by the Government, and with, I hope, a substantial amount still to come, will have the resources necessary for the task.
I said that I was not going to traverse the ground I had already covered with regard to the question of the total cost. I did include in my statement of 18th March figures of the cost to, and the assistance given by, the Government under various heads, and I will not weary the House by repeating the list in the same form. I will only repeat that there are foreseeable charges on the Exchequer of between £25¾ million and £30½ million; and. on top of this, there is the £3 million, the present total of subscriptions to the Lord Mayor's Fund by individuals, organisations, municipalities and other countries, as well as payments so far by the insurance interests, under the terms of their policies, of about £6½ million.
So taking for the moment the top figures, there is £30½ million for which the Government are committed either in loss or expenditure, £3 million subscribed by the public and others, giving the figure of £33½ million which I quoted before, and another £6½ million of insurance payments to date, which makes a figure of £40 million. In addition to that £40 million, there are two items which I mentioned on the last occasion—losses falling on big businesses, which they are covering themselves, and the cost of clearing timber in Scotland. The House will see that there is no significant gap between the total of the funds available from one source or another and our first appraisal of the cost to the country, which was in terms of a loss of about £40 million to £50 million.
I turn now to the way this provision is working out in practice from the point of view of the individuals concerned. I take first the farmer. During the emergency much help was given entirely at Government expense. Water was often carried to livestock over long distances, requiring special equipment. Animals were in some cases transported and found pasturage in areas away from the flooded district, and emergency feeding for this purpose was provided. The farmer knows that the repairs to the sea defences are being carried out without cost to him; that is, emergency repairs amounting to £2½ million and repairs during this year which are estimated to amount to £8 million to £10 million.
Then, as we have heard, the farmer has free gypsum where the land needs it, and flood-borne débris is being removed from his drains and ditches at Government expense. The beneficial results of this work will contribute not only to the rehabilitation of the land in the flooded areas but also to the condition of land in areas beyond. The reasonable cost of replacement and repair of hedges and fences and, where practicable, the removal of large accumulations of sand and débris from land, are accepted as a Government responsibility. That is one aspect of it.
Another aspect is that the farmer can look to the Lord Mayor's Fund to meet the cost of repairs to buildings and losses of machinery, stacks, feedingstuffs and fertilisers awaiting use—anything which can be regarded as stock-in-trade—up to the limit of £5,000, which may be exceeded in special circumstances, and as well as that, the farmer may look for the value of any livestock loss.
The third aspect, which is quite apart from what I have mentioned, is that of the rehabilitation of the land and the making of acreage payments in connection with the Government scheme for this purpose.
So far as I can see, electrical equipment will be one of the matters coming within the scope of the Lord Mayor's Fund. I gather that that course has been pursued. If the hon. Member has in mind the carrying of the electricity across the land, I should like to look at that matter in greater detail. So far as I can see, there is no question about recompense being made in that case, and I want to make that clear. I have been asked about it and I have considered it.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government reminds me that I may put it that, broadly, the Government will do the big work and the rest will be matters for the Fund. I think that covers the point which the hon. Gentleman had in mind, but I should not like to be committed to any point of division. The Minister of Agriculture will soon be introducing a Bill dealing with the rehabilitation of the land and the restoration of the sea defences, and, therefore, it is probably better that I should not enlarge on that aspect of making good flood damage. I content myself by saying that on the agricultural side it is manifest that the pledge to treat the problem on a national basis is being most fully implemented.
The hon. Member for Dartford said that the agricultural committees are at present clogged by relief claims. I shall ask my right hon. Friend to look into that matter at once. In regard to the specific points mentioned by the hon. Member about the nurseryman and so on, I should like him to wait until he sees the scheme under the Bill, which will be in a very short time now, and he can then see whether those points are covered in the long-term proposals. It is rather difficult to make any general statement as to the valuation of livestock, but perhaps he would leave that as a point which might be looked into to ensure that, as he put it, a sympathetic approach is made and that it is remembered that the state of the animals which are left is also something which may have been affected by the flood.
I appreciate what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said, but I should be happier if I knew that someone would go to, say, the Erith district and discuss the problems with the local people. That would be the best way of ensuring that sympathy goes in the right direction.
Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to note that and consider it. Our reason for adopting the Fund procedure was to get sympathetic administration, and I am sure that that is everyone's desire. I will certainly look into the matter to see that that is done.
I now turn to the matter of the business man. I am glad that the hon. Member for Dartford expressed his general satisfaction with the way in which that aspect of the problem had been dealt with. I feel that the House is in general agreement that the losses of the big business companies can be said to be covered by insurance in that either the premiums will have been paid to insurers or a deliberate decision to save premiums and carry losses on the firm's own resources will have been taken. I have not so far heard of any criticism of the acceptance of that position as the basis of our approach.
The House may be interested to know that the claims that have been paid or that are in course of payment under the terms of insurance policies covering industrial trade risks and business premises total about £2 million; and admitted claims on marine policies, hull and cargo, total £1¾ million. In this matter of the losses by business interests, there is no evidence that those interests themselves take the view that the Government have failed to implement my right hon. Friend's pledge so far as industry is concerned; and I do not think—I say it in all good temper—the Opposition would like to be ahead of the Federation of British Industries on that point. I leave the large businesses in that way.
I turn now to the small business man. As has been noted, in the case of a personal business or a small private company, loss up to £5,000 is covered by the Lord Mayor's Fund. I said on 18th March that the Lord Mayor would authorise a grant above that figure on evidence that unusual and immediate hardship and distress would result if the grant were limited to £5,000. I am not sure whether the House appreciated it, but I also said that the Government were prepared to look at other cases of small public companies where hardship was involved and the claim did not come within the scope of the Lord Mayor's.; Fund.
So there we have cases up to £5,000 covered, and the Lord Mayor's Fund will consider cases of hardship above £5,000. That covers the field of private businesses or small private companies. If there is what is in form a public company but which in fact is a small business, the Government are prepared to look at cases where hardship exists. I hope that the House appreciates the sort of thing I have in mind. There may be what is in form a public company with one shareholder owning 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of the shares, and where the hardship is a private hardship, outside the scope of the Lord Mayor's Fund. That is a case we are prepared to look at. On such information as I have, the number of cases in which that kind of fresh consideration would be needed is very small. It is a rare type of case and I think it is covered.
There was some concern on the part of the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) about whether the catastrophe should be described as due to storm and tempest or to flood. As I have indicated, it is clear at least that insurers have accepted liability in many cases, and I still think it would be rather too much to ask for an opinion from me as to whether on any policy and in any imaginable circumstance a certain line would be followed.
Before the right hon. Gentleman interrupts, I should remind him of the old legal adage that an opinion given for nothing is always worth exactly the price paid for it.
Presumably this will finally be a matter for settlement by the courts, if there is a dispute. I have no doubt that the advisers of those who go into court, if any, will not go in for nothing.
I quite agree. It is a matter which probably would be settled under the arbitration clauses of a policy, and, if necessary, in a court of law if it raised a question of law. The Government have no reason to doubt that in this situation the insurance interests have acted and will act in accordance with the high tradition and reputation which they have in these matters. That is the position so far as businesses are concerned, and I ask the House to agree on a matter on which the right hon. Gentleman and I generally agree; that, broadly, there is no ground of complaint there.
I return to the position of the householder. The responsibility for first-aid repairs to private houses has been accepted by the Government. The Lord Mayor's Fund is making grants for the final repair of damaged houses and the replacement of furniture, clothing and other personal property. In some cases, where the number of houses flooded was large, the whole operation of first-aid and final repairs will be done under one contract, and arrangements will be made for an apportionment of the cost as between the Government and the Lord Mayor's Fund. Apart from those cases, the amount due to householders from insurance companies in respect of claims up to the end of February was, I am informed, about £1½ million, and a further £1¼ million was admitted as due on claims under motor-car and caravan policies.
Fortunately, the number of houses destroyed was small. I quote the statement of the Lord Mayor:
part of my Fund will be reserved for those whose homes were lost or damaged beyond repair.
There may be people who cannot or do not want to rebuild their own houses. These have already been helped and will
be helped by the local housing authorities. In some cases it has been possible to put these families into new houses as they have been finished. In other cases that has not been practicable and local authorities are making arrangements for temporary accommodation, normally by using caravans, in which the families can stay until permanent homes are ready for them.
I am very glad to be able to say that we shall be helped in rehousing by the generous gift of 1,500 standards of timber from the Canadian and British Columbian Governments. People who are repairing or rebuilding their own houses should ask their local authorities for this free timber; and the ordinary restrictions in the amount of timber that may be used will not apply. I am also glad to be able to say that 50 timber houses have been given by the Norwegian Government.
I turn to the question of the wage earner, as I am sure hon. Members have been asking themselves what has been done to help the wage earner as such. I am happy to say that, in general, unemployment as a result of the floods is negligible. Indeed, in some places the flood situation has created employment, and the numbers of unemployed art below what they were in those areas at this time last year.
I turn to the problem of possible loss of earnings in the flooded areas. It has been said that some proprietors of boarding house establishments in seaside towns will lose custom during the summer, and there has been some feeling in that connection that a scheme on the lines of the war damage scheme would have provided more comprehensive benefits than the arrangements now in force. As I understood the scheme, it was never the case that war damage payments covered problematical losses of income of this kind.
But much more important—as the hon. Member for Lowestoft had in mind, and I entirely agree with him—in some places representatives of the hotel and boarding house trade felt it necessary, in their own interests, to issue denials of reports in the Press that cancellation of summer bookings had been made in large numbers. There is no reason to suppose that the effect of the floods will be seriously to diminish the capacity of seaside resorts to offer the customary hospitality during the coming season. I join with the hon. Member for Lowestoft in hoping that note will be taken of this fact, as it should be widely known in the interests of the people who live in these areas.
I turn from individual cases to the question of local authorities, and begin again by saying what a magnificent job the local authorities have done, not only during the emergency itself, but in the ensuing weeks. Not all local authorities have been burdened with large expenses in relation to their resources. Some, however, would be in a difficult position without special Government assistance. I need only say that the Government are ready to help when they know the extent of the damage—which at present they do not, and which, indeed, some local authorities themselves do not know with great precision.
Therefore, local authorities will be asked to submit claims showing the expenditure incurred and the losses suffered, and a general settlement will be made in the case of each local authority in relation to the burden on the rates. The amount of Government assistance will depend upon the size of the local authority and the weight of the financial burden. This procedure was adopted in regard to the North Devon floods of last year, and it will, it is thought, be generally recognised by local authorities as the most practical method.
May I ask that the Government will see that there is not repeated what took place during the war, when local authorities who suffered from enemy attack had to use all their balances before being given any relief. That would be quite unfair, and alien to the purpose of the relief.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred to the North Devon floods. I would refer to a point I made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer when I asked a Question the other day. The North Devon floods occurred at the end of the summer season. We are anxious to know what the Government will do at the beginning of the season to rehabilitate the amenities, so that seaside resorts can attract visitors.
If I do not cover that point completely, may I point out that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will wind up the debate. If there is any other specific point perhaps the hon. Gentleman will make it clear to him.
May I remind the House of what I have said on this point? Reimbursement has been promised to all local authorities for the cost of restoring coast protection works to the pre-flood position, of clearing mud and silt from roads and paths and of carrying out first-aid repair to private houses. This is coming close to the point raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell). Local authorities in immediate need of money should apply at once to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for an advance, giving a brief statement of expenditure incurred and their financial position.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government will soon be sending out a circular telling local authorities how to make their claims; but there is no need for local authorities to wait for that if they need money at once. I hope that that answer will in part cover the point. I will remember what the hon. Gentleman said. In regard to the point which the hon. Member for Lowestoft had in mind, I say specifically that no local authority need have any fear that they are in for a prolonged process of bargaining. My right hon. Friend promises sympathetic consideration in each case.
Returning to the point to which the hon. Member for Lowestoft referred a moment or two ago, the treatment of damage to seaside amenities such as cafes, pavilions, bathing huts and ornamental gardens, is a special problem. The Government will not normally pay for the reinstatement of such properties, which are not in the same category as essential services, and many of which are sources of income and, in some cases, of substantial profit for the local authorities. But local authorities will be entitled to put forward this expenditure and their losses on these things as items for consideration in connection with the general settlement.
I want to say a word about the Government themselves. I mentioned last Wednesday that the one class of loss about which we have naturally heard little since the disaster took place is the losses of the central Government. The two chief losses were those in the Admiralty and Ministry of Supply establishments.
Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman leaves the point about the local authorities, may I ask whether the Government have given any consideration to losses that may have been sustained by local education authorities, for instance, in the case of school equipment and things like that? I was with members of a very important local education authority on the East Coast on Saturday last, and they assured me that they had sustained substantial losses in terms of £ s. d. I have not heard that point mentioned. How does that rank in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's scheme?
I assumed that it would be one of the items which could be advanced in the claim for a general settlement. Curiously enough, the point has not been raised up till now. I will ask my right hon. Friend to be more specific in this matter. That was my view on the matter.
I was saying that the two chief items of Government loss were in Admiralty and Ministry of Supply establishments, and they amounted to about £2 million, while there are losses borne by the Ministry of Food in respect of Government food stocks. As regards the latter, some 66,000 tons of sugar were at risk at Purfleet, and strenuous salvage efforts have been going on to save as much as possible. The total value of the stocks was a little under £3 million. I am informed that it is reasonable to hope that losses will be confined to about 25 per cent. of that total. I am sure that the House will be glad to hear that. I will not say more except that that loss must be borne by the taxpayer, and will not be passed on to any other fund. I ask the House to remember that fact in connection with the other expenditure that I have mentioned on earlier occasions.
May I now say a word about the Committee? I informed the House in the debate on 19th February of the Government's decision to set up a Departmental Committee to carry out an inquiry into the causes of the happenings of 31st January and the lessons to be learned from the disaster. The House will be aware from the announcement of 5th March that Her Majesty's Government have been fortunate enough to secure the services of Lord Waverley to act as Chairman of the Committee. I am not yet able to give the House the full list of members, as two or three names are stilling outstanding, but it would, I think, be the wish of the House to learn the names of those who have already been good enough to accept the Government's invitation to give their services for this important work.
May I suggest that the Committee would be very much strengthened if it had on it a working engineer who has had experience of coast protection—I could give the right hon. and learned Gentleman five or six names-—a man who has had to fight the sea himself, knows its currents, the friability of the soil and all the practical considerations?
Certainly, it is a general problem, and it is one for the whole country. Indeed I was interested to discover how intractable a problem it was in Holland as well when I discussed it with the Ministers and officials during my visit there.
During the previous debate I suggested, from our experience of previous disasters, that this Committee should be entitled also to consider steps which can be taken to deal with rivers which have not been properly protected. Will the Committee be entitled to do that?
I think that the terms of reference are as wide as they can be because the first one is to examine the causes of the recent floods and the possibilities of a recurrence in Great Britain, and the last one is to review the lessons to be learned from the disaster. My own view is that it would not be possible to do that without taking into consideration the point which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
Will the Committee be considering the administrative lessons as well as geographical, scientific, food and other lessons, and will the boundaries of local government be included? Should we not have the benefit of one or two practical representatives in that field on the Committee?
That point is very much in mind because the last paragraph of the terms of reference is
to review the lessons to be learned from the disaster, and the administrative and financial responsibilities of the various bodies concerned …
I have mentioned already that there is on the Committee Sir John Wrigley who was the late Joint Deputy-Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and Sir Donald Fergusson, who has had so much experience. I will certainly consider the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.
I am glad to be able to tell the House that the Committee is starting its work with the vigour that the circumstances demand, and that there has been a preliminary informal meeting of the members so far appointed. I think we may take this as indicative of the drive and energy with which the task committed to the Committee will be tackled. Broadly, what has been sought in its membership is not to have representatives of particular interests but to find people of great eminence and experience who will be able to consider not only the very intricate scientific problems but the other problems that have just been mentioned. I hope the House will agree that this is the right conception, because I hope that bodies such as the local authorities, the river boards, the Government Departments and the agricultural interests will give both written and oral evidence before the Committee and that we shall have the advantage of the Committee's consideration of their points.
Now may I make two points which may be useful to have on record? The Joint Secretaries to the Committee have been appointed from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Those who wish to get into touch with the committee should communicate with the Joint Secretaries at the offices of the Port of London Authority, Trinity Square, E.C.3.
I apologise for taking up so much of the time of the House, but this is an important matter and I have been asked to try to cover the ground. There is one point which may have been in the minds of hon. Members: the warning system, which is one of the points within the terms of reference of the Waverley Committee. We hope that there will not be any need between now and next autumn to give a flood warning in any area, but it would be imprudent to depend on that, especially in view of the weakened condition of many of the defences. We shall be devising some interim arrangements to operate during the next few months, but they will not include provision for using wireless broadcasts. We do not think that the general situation justifies any longer the use of that method.
Therefore, I hope that the House will join with me in taking this opportunity of expressing publicly our appreciation of the ready help which the B.B.C. volunteered in the period of crisis following the disaster. They made special arrangements to keep a transmitter available all night, and over three series of high tides since the disaster they have been broadcasting hourly information. We are all very grateful to them.
Yes, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, I include the Post Office engineers in these thanks.
I have not dealt specifically with the Scottish problems because the Secretary of State for Scotland has already given the House a great deal of information. As I have already informed the House, a large amount of timber was blown down in North-East Scotland and, therefore, has to be cleared quickly, certainly within two years, to prevent its loss or deterioration. We are all agreed on that. The Government have decided, therefore, to help financially with arrangements designed to ensure that the timber is cleared before its deteriorates. The details of these arrangements are being worked out, and I hope they will enable this important national reserve of timber to be utilised to the full.
I should also like to tell the House on behalf of my right hon. Friend that the Board of Inland Revenue have stated that it is not the practice to charge Estate Duty on the proceeds of sale of casual windfalls of timber, and that the proceeds of any timber brought low by the recent storm will be treated as falling within the scope of this practice and so be not taxable. As a Scot I think I am allowed to say, and the right hon. Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) will join with me, that this will be greeted without disapproval in our native land.
Since I understand that the Secretary of State for Scotland will not be intervening in this debate and saying any more on the subject of Scotland, there is one point I want to make. It is quite true that steps are being taken to deal with the clearance of the fallen timber but, after all, the falling of this timber is only part of the disaster. The fact is that the timber will no longer be growing there.
Have the Government considered whether they will take any steps to speed up the planting of timber in the Highlands in order to try to make good this loss? I think that the concession that has just been announced, so far as it covers the absence of death duty, may help to make it possible for private individuals to plant timber, but the forests are likely to be out of effective use for, say, seven years because there may be a gap of five years after they are cleared before they can be replanted. Will steps be taken, on ground now ready for planting, to see that extra planting is done to make up the leeway?
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that, apart from the period of clearance, there is then a period of at least four years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland authorises me to say that he will encourage the planting to be done as soon as possible. He has that point very much in mind.
Will there be a special investigation, and an announcement made, as to the plans in this respect, because it is so serious a matter that it can hardly be left to chance?
May I ask one question about the death duty point? Surely, the effect of a heavy fall of timber on an estate must be to reduce the aggregate value of the estate. This blown timber will not fetch the price that it would have done had it grown to maturity. I do not quite see how an owner who has a lot of blown timber will benefit to such a great extent by the remission of death duty, and I should like my right hon. and learned Friend to explain this.
That would depend on the schedule of death duties applicable. I hope that my hon. Friend is not blowing upon the beneficial effect, because the concession means that this timber is brought within the practice of not charging Estate Duty on the proceeds of sale of casual windfalls of timber; and it must be a benefit not to have Estate Duty charged on the results of the windfall. I cannot at the moment go into the details of the applicable schedule, but I assure my hon. Friend that what I have announced is a benefit.
Is not the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) mistaken in not realising that this is a big and satisfactory concession to the people involved? Death duties would have been paid when the estate passed into its present hands at the time of the death of the previous owner; and there is an entire relief from what would have been a very big liability had death duties been payable on this timber.
Can my right hon. and learned Friend be a little more specific as to the precise help that is to be given? Does the financial help include something in the form of a flat rate or of a transport grant that will have the effect of reducing freight charges?
The method of giving the assistance is being worked out, and within a short time my right hon. Friend will be able to make a statement about it. I said last Wednesday that the matter was under consideration, and I have today confirmed that financial help will be given.
One point which was raised by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), concerned compensation for chalets and bungalows which were not occupied as permanent residences, and the question was raised again by the hon. Member for Lowestoft today. That kind of property is in the field for compensation from the Lord Mayor's Fund, and I believe that when the ultimate results of the Fund are seen, together with the Government's addition, the Fund will be able to cover that point.
I have surveyed the whole complex field over which decisions have to be taken and action initiated. I apologise again for the time I have taken, but whatever my shortcomings, I have tried to be entirely frank with the House since the beginning of the floods, and to give Members what information was in my possession. I know that hon. Members are bound to find rubs and incidents where measures take time to get into smooth operation; but I make the claim that we have done our utmost to fulfil in the spirit and in the letter the undertaking which was given by my right hon. Friend. Certainly it has been the privilege of my colleagues who have been working with me specially on this business, and of myself, to spend our days and nights in the succeeding weeks in securing that the pledge was implemented to the full. I hope—
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way, but he has not touched upon the basis of the compensation awards to the relatives of those who have lost their lives.
I am sorry. I should have said that, as I understand it, the plan to be followed will be lump sum payments. In various places there are local charitable institutions which are accustomed to working out certain charitable assistance to those who go to sea and the like. These institutions will be consulted and used.
We have worked as hard as we could to try to implement the pledge, and I hope the House will feel that the record of the Government shows that we are trying to carry out the terms of the Motion. Therefore, we accept the Motion in the full confidence that we shall go on as we have begun and see this job through.
I agree with very much of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said. He has endeavoured to be practical and has resolved some, if not all, of the doubts in our minds. I am glad he referred to the great salvage work that has been done on the sugar stocks at Purfleet. Some time ago, in the company of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, I visited the area, and it seems to me almost a miracle that 75 per cent. of those stocks were saved when, at that time, I should have been very much surprised to hear a forecast that even 25 per cent. would be saved.
If there is one sentiment more than all others in which I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, it is his feeling that we should not be too complacent about all the relief work. The whole House agrees that very much good has been done, but the House must realise that among the flood victims there is great resentment and disappointment. Many of them feel that, after the first widespread manifestation of sympathy and generosity, they are now being forgotten and neglected.
Hon. Members might think that the flood victims are wrong in that attitude or are being impatient or ungrateful or unreasonable, but we must realise the circumstances in which these people are still living. It is now seven weeks since the arrival of the floods. For a considerable period these people were living either in reception centres or in private billets —at all events, in very abnormal circumstances. They have now returned to their homes and most of them are living in deplorable conditions.
In many of their houses the floorboards are rotted, their furniture is destroyed, and many of the rooms, one might say, reek of dampness and decay. There is also a substantial incidence of sickness in these houses. In all these conditions, therefore, it is not to be wondered at that no matter what efforts have been made on their behalf so far, these people are suffering and are feeling disappointed at the slowness of the remedies which are being brought to their relief.
Along with the rest of us, however, those people are very grateful indeed for the efforts which have been made by the Lord Mayor of London. I am personally grateful to him for his courtesy and generosity in visiting my constituency at very short notice. When he was there he confessed himself appalled at the magnitude of the disaster to the private houses of the people. We are very grateful to him for his efforts. I understand that a final appeal for the Lord Mayor's Fund will be made in the first or second week of April, and it would be a good idea if the B.B.C. invited the Lord Mayor of London to launch this final appeal. It would have a very good effect.
As I have said, the right hon. and learned Gentleman cleared up many doubts, but one or two still remain. Down in my constituency nearly 3,000 houses have suffered from the floods, I think rather more houses in my constituency than in any other. Some of these dwellings are civically owned and some privately owned. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was speaking about compensation being made to local authorities, he said nothing about whether compensation would be given to local authorities for municipally owned houses. He said nothing about the damage done to roads. It would be perfectly monstrous if the local authorities in the stricken areas were now asked to pay for the damage done to their own property and to the roads in their area. Perhaps we may get an answer from the Secretary of State for Scotland.
In addition, there are large numbers of private houses which have been damaged, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that provision had been-made to repair them. There are some houses, however, which are in a very special category. There are houses in my constituency—and I dare say in constituencies represented by other hon. Members—which even before the floods were already condemned as insanitary. In fact, they were hovels which ought to have been pulled down years ago. If they were bad before the 31st January, they are 50 times worse now.
The best solution would be to pull down all those hovels and replace them at once by new houses, but in the meantime the unfortunate people have to live there. In many of these places there are no floorboards left. The doors are not even hanging on their hinges. How people live there and are still in good health—many of them, of course, are not—is a mystery to all of us. Some private landlords are endeavouring to get on with the job even in this insanitary property, but a number of others are slow to undertake repairs, and I hope that a reminder will be sent to those people to get on with the work at once.
I do not want to detain the House much longer as several hon. Members want to speak, but I should like to add that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds), I addressed a meeting of flood victims some days ago, and very angry people they were. They were angry with the Government, with the local committees and even with me. But chiefly they were angry with the Government. They really understood that this catastrophe, being a national disaster, would be treated on a national level. I agree that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has gone a long way towards answering the charges, but nevertheless we are not perfectly satisfied. He will not blame us if we are not perfectly satisfied, particularly those of us who represent these suffering people.
I hope an answer will be given to one question put by my hon. Friend. He asked the Government to give an absolute guarantee that they would make good anything that was lacking if the Lord Mayor's Fund was not enough. Tomorrow night I am speaking again to the flood victims, and I have better news to give to them. I hope, however, before I go to that meeting that that question will be answered, and that I can give them even better news. I can assure the House how courageously these people will stand up to their difficulties if they are assured about what is being done and given a guarantee that the damage will be made good. Under those circumstances they will behave as courageously as they did at the height of the floods.
I want to address the House for a short time upon the specific subject of the fallen timber in the North-East of Scotland, because it is of vital importance to my part of the world. Almost every other aspect of the flood and gale damage has already been very effectively dealt with. Mercifully, there was no loss of life in the north of Scotland, and I think that detracted from the general public attention which it would otherwise have obtained when the catastrophe hit us in the north of Scotland. Where there is no loss of life, and there is heavy loss of life elsewhere, it is inevitable that public attention should be concentrated where the real, human tragedy has occurred.
We have had a great physical tragedy in the North-East of Scotland. In fact, we sustained in the gale the greatest physical damage that has ever befallen that area. I do not think it is any exaggeration to say that. The full extent of it is not yet known, and I should like to ask the Government whether they can make an estimate now. The Secretary of State for Scotland said in the House some time ago that he could not make an estimate of the full extent of the damage to the woodlands of North-East Scotland. I am wondering whether he is in a position to make an estimate now, because it would be of great interest; and I am sure that when it comes it will be a great shock to the House and to the country.
A few days after the gale we had a meeting upstairs in a Committee room at which the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Materials were present, as well as most of the Members of Parliament directly concerned and some of the woodland experts, including the Duke of Buccleuch. I made a note of a number of points that were raised at that meeting. First of all, there was the question of the time factor. Everybody stressed, and the Minister agreed, that two years would be about the limit during which this timber must be cleared before it began to deteriorate so badly that it would rapidly become valueless.
The second point raised was the question of equipment for clearing the timber, especially heavy modern equipment. It was suggested that something might be obtained from Canada for this purpose, because the forests are in a frightful mess, the trees having fallen down at all angles. It is not like an ordinary clearance of a forest, and it is both complicated and difficult.
The third question was that of labour, which to some extent will have to be skilled labour, because unskilled labourers could not be let loose in the forests as they might cause damage. Whether we could get some skilled labour under expert direction from abroad, either from Europe or from Canada, where they have great experience of forests, is something which was also discussed at the meeting.
The fourth question that arose was that of Government purchases, particularly the purchase of timber by the National Coal Board, and by the Transport Commission for railway sleepers, and so forth; and, if necessary, by the Ministry of Materials. After some hesitation the Minister of Materials was, I think, prepared to give a reluctant assent to buy some timber on behalf of his Department if the requirements of the Coal Board and the Transport Commission did not prove sufficient to meet the case.
Then there was the question of licences; whether special licences could be granted for the emergency for the clearance of the blown timber, and possibly some other licences for felling timber held up, so that this timber could be cleared quickly. Finally, there was the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Spence) and in some respects the most important of all, the question of a flat transport rate for the removal of this timber to the saw mills in the South of Scotland.
Urgent consideration was promised by the Ministers to all these matters; and I feel I must point out that this was over six weeks ago. Since then we have not heard anything concrete until this afternoon, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary did say something upon the subject of death duties. I should like to deal with that for one moment. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) got up and said categorically that this was a very good thing, I became a bit uneasy, because I have so frequently heard him say in the House that something was good; and, with all due respect to him, it did not turn out to be so good after all.
The right hon. Gentleman is not invariably right, and when, on the spur of the moment, he gives a categorical opinion one way or another, that opinion has often been wrong. So when he says that this is good for the woodland owners I am not so sure. I think it may be, provided the timber has not already been valued in full. I believe that in some cases timber is not assessed for death duties until it is felled, when deferred death duties are paid. In those circumstances, this would be a valuable concession; but I do not see how it will benefit the owners whose timber was fully valued at the time the estate passed.
I do not imagine that the blown timber will obtain the prices the trees would have obtained had they been felled deliberately and properly in the normal course of events. It also depends on whether the owner was on an income or a capital basis. I shall be glad if these questions can be cleared up by the Government, because it would appear that in some cases a definite benefit will accrue, and in other cases it will not.
It will clearly be of benefit, because this severe and terrible fall is being treated in the way that ordinary windblown timber is treated in normal times, and no death duty will be payable.
I am sure it will be of benefit to those who have not already paid Estate Duty on it, but some people may have already been assessed. I cannot see how it will be of benefit to those who have already paid duty in full, or to their successors.
Apart from the concession regarding death duties, we have not yet been told anything specific about what is to be done with this blown timber. We have been told that negotiations are going on, but between whom? I have been told that the Forestry Commission is negotiating direct with the Transport Commission. I do not think that is very satisfactory, because the Forestry Commission cannot carry the full weight of the Government, and obviously the Transport Commission has an axe to grind and would not mind making some money if they could. I think the Government are wrong if they are leaving these delicate and important negotiations to the Forestry Commission or to any other quasi-independent organisation. The Government should be doing it themselves. We have also been advised that there should be no panic selling—
I would inform my hon. Friend that the Government are in the negotiations with the Transport Executive. We are dealing with it on the basis of reduced freight charges in order to clear the timber.
I am pleased to hear that the Government are directly concerned in the negotiations. There has, in fact, been no panic selling, but I would like to know what is the price of good quality Scottish fir today, compared with the price last January. I have a feeling that though there may not have been panic selling, there has been a substantial fall in prices, and I would like to know what is the difference.
One of the Joint Under-Secretaries of State for Scotland who surveyed these stricken forests committed himself to the pregnant sentence, "This is terrible!" Well, it is terrible. But the problem will not be solved by calling it terrible, any more than trees will be put back in the ground by looking at them. It will be solved only by an efficient and urgent salvage operation. I believe it can be solved. When we relate the amount of blown timber to the total amount of timber consumed in this country, the percentage is comparatively small, although this has been a terrific disaster to North-East Scotland. Therefore, I repeat this is a soluble problem, and the whole situation can be retrieved by an efficient and urgent salvage operation.
There has as yet—I emphasise "as yet"—been no sign of this. It is urgent, because although it is sometimes said that blue trees are still capable of service, they lose their value when they go blue. These trees will begin to go blue from a year's time onwards. There is the further danger of infestation by beetles, and deterioration of the whole countryside. We must surely all agree that the quicker the salvage operations are carried out the better.
On behalf of successive Governments the planting and felling of timber has been controlled by the Forestry Commission for many years. It is out of the hands of private owners. When a catastrophe such as this occurs private owners therefore feel, I think rightly, that they are entitled to look to the Government for effective action. If they do not obtain it—the whole activity of planting and felling being under the control of the Commission—many owners may say, "The game is not worth it." They may stop planting, and the whole private planting of woodlands will be in danger. That from a national point of view, would be disastrous.
In these circumstances, I beg the Government to give some specific information on the points I have mentioned— about labour; about transport, a flat transport rate; and whether licences are now being granted freely for blown timber of narrow width. I was told that the other day a licence was refused for the sale of blown timber, and granted for the importation of timber of the same width and quality. These things may happen during a period of transition, but they cannot be allowed to continue. We must also know what the National Coal Board and the Railway Executive propose to do, and what the Government are doing regarding the provision of equipment and saw-mills.
We have listened in this debate to an interesting survey by people with firsthand knowledge. It struck me that in England effective action has been taken along the whole length of the coast. The Home Secretary had a remarkable tale to tell. Only the woodlands in North-East Scotland wait, and I say that they will not wait indefinitely.
I hope that the points raised by the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) will be borne in mind, because if the timber remains on the ground it will not be fit for use underground in the coal mines of Scotland.
I am afraid that this debate is bound to alternate a little inconveniently between Scotland and England—but perhaps for once that is no bad thing. Usually the Scottish debates are rigidly segregated and Members representing English constituencies never dare put their noses inside the Chamber at all. On this occasion I think I can say that we in England, having at first, naturally, concentrated on our own terrible flood disaster, are only now beginning to appreciate how very seriously Scotland suffered.
I certainly support everything said by the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby), in his plea for rapid and effective action to deal with the Scottish aspect of the problem, one point being as an hon. Friend reminds me, that apart from the mature trees there is the potential value of the trees which have been destroyed when they were only half-mature, and the extra loss that that must involve for the owners.
I am sure that I shall be forgiven if I now return to the east coast of England. Before I make the few brief points of a specific nature that I wish to make, I should like to congratulate the Home Secretary on the extraordinarily comprehensive survey that he gave us today. It very rarely happens that when a Minister is speaking at an early stage in a debate a back-bencher can go through the notes he has already made and shorten his speech appreciably by crossing out three or four points because the Minister has dealt with them, and, on the whole, quite satisfactorily; but that certainly happened to-day. Moreover, the Home Secretary dealt most patiently and courteously with a quite exceptionally large number of exceptionally long interruptions.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government usually chooses his words very well, but I think that he chose some words rather ill in his winding-up speech at the end of our last debate on the floods. It was his choice of words that caused, or enhanced, the anxiety which some of us on the back benches were beginning to feel that the Government were, in a sense, running away from the original undertaking that this disaster would be treated on a national basis. I must say that what the Home Secretary has said today has gone—if I may borrow the phrase that he used the other day— a "long way towards mitigating" that anxiety. I do not say that it is entirely removed. There are still some disturbing delays and hitches, but, on the whole, I think that the Home Secretary made a pretty substantial case this afternoon.
He made a very ingenious case, both today and still more in his statement last Wednesday, about the insurance business, by pointing out, particularly to us on this side of the House, how wicked it would be for the Government to come to the rescue of big business that did not know how to look after its own affairs. I thought that an ingenious ploy, and I also thought that nobody would be more relieved to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman resort to it than such great institutions and such very big businesses as the Prudential and the Pearl.
One specific major point I should like to ask about is this: will the Committee which is being set up, the membership of which was partly announced this afternoon, be in a position to review, among other problems of the future, labour problems—the problems of manning the sea defences of the country? I hope that I can take it from what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about the Committee's terms of reference that it will not confine itself purely to technical problems, important as those are.
I hope that it will emerge from this Committee's deliberations that we must not any longer scamp our sea-defences, our sea-walls, our protection against erosion and whatever it may be—but, if these defences are to be adequately maintained and built up, it is evident that we shall need a great deal more manpower than has been available in the last year or two at any rate.
On the coast of Essex the Essex River Board has 300 miles of sea-wall to maintain. Its ordinary labour force is only about 500 — 500 labourers for 300 miles of sea-wall. Of course, when this flood emergency happened the number went up, overnight almost, from 500 to 20,000 or 30,000. It says a great deal for the ability of the River Board and their skeleton organisation that they were able to organise and use that vast increase of manpower effectively, as they did.
Also, there should be a word of tribute from the Government to their predecessors for having, I think in 1947, initiated the arrangements for calling in the troops at a moment's notice in that operation which was perhaps rather unfortunately named "Operation King Canute." That was laid down as a result of a directive sent out by the Minister of Agriculture in 1947. That is why the Royal Air Force and the Army were able to come in literally overnight. the first R.A.F. liaison officer was installed in the river board office at Chelmsford quite early on the Sunday morning, which was very quick going indeed. The airmen actually arrived and started work on the sea wall on the Monday morning.
That was because a good skeleton organisation had been worked out in advance. But if, as seems likely, hundreds or thousands of extra workers arc needed for some substantial period ahead, it will be difficult and expensive if we rely entirely on the contractors and their teams of imported Irish workers and others, good and essential as no doubt they are.
I want to ask the Government whether it is at all possible still to make some use, on a semi-permanent or long-term basis, of the enormous enthusiasm that was shown during the emergency itself by hundreds and thousands of voluntary workers of various kinds. There were, of course, the troops. That is different. I do not know whether National Service men could be used for this purpose or not, but it was remarkable to see how many hospital students, foreign students in London, and all sorts of people came down and put in a hard weekend's work —two days' work at a time—in teams or gangs on the sea-wall. After all, this is not a very highly skilled job. Some of it is quite unskilled.
I should have thought that such assistance was most valuable both for its own sake and also—even more, in one way—because it gave them the sense that they were contributing something of value to a constructive job for the nation. That, broadening the argument very much, is part of the answer to juvenile delinquency and a lot of other social problems of the day. If we can get hundreds or thousands of young people working on some constructive job which uses up their energies and excites their interest and enthusiasm, that will be a very good thing. I may be straying a little too widely, but I should like the Government to tell us, if possible, whether there is any likelihood that voluntary labour can still be used in future on the sea defences.
One small point arises out of the debate on 19th February. Again, the Minister of Housing and Local Government was not quite accurately informed. I raised a point about a particularly bad breach in the sea wall where troops were still needed, as I understood, although they had been withdrawn. The Minister, in his reply, although saying that the troops would still be held in reserve, rather suggested that the situation had now passed the stage at which mere sandbagging was any good, and said that it was now a matter of heavy machinery.
As I subsequently verified, this was quite incorrect of the particular area to which I was referring, and it required quite an effort on the part of the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden)—because it was in his constituency—and myself to get the War Office to send 500 troops back there again; I am glad to say that they did so, and the river board were very grateful for their help. The river board's expert on the spot had been asking for these troops, and his request had been turned down. It should not have been necessary for the river board to call in the Members of Parliament: river boards, themselves, surely, know whether they need that help.
Another quite minor point on compensation, which is of some importance to some of my constituents and some elsewhere, concerns a bungalow-owner at Jaywick—someone who does not live there all the year round, but owns a bungalow there. He has received a note from the Clacton Urban District Council, dated 14th March, in response to a request for information about compensation. The Clerk to the Council says:
I may say that I have as yet had no instructions as to whether claims in respect of holiday bungalows will be admitted.
The constituent concerned sends this letter on, and writes:
This is the first time that our bungalow has been described as a holiday bungalow. We pay the full rates for it, and a special sea-defence rate to the Essex River Board.
It seems to me that he is entitled to know fairly soon, if not already, how he stands.
My final point is again about a matter of misinformation. It is in itself quite a secondary point, but it is a little disturbing in that it suggests bad co-ordination between the Departments concerned. Some weeks ago, I wrote to the Home Secretary asking for information about a particular aspect of compensation on which there has been no public announcement. The Government did announce quite early on—I think in the first week of the emergency—what the arrangements were for billeting-fees for householders billeting evacuees, people who had lost their homes; but there has been no announcement about arrangements for billeting-fees or compensation for householders or other private persons or bodies, such as those controlling village halls, in respect of troops billeted when they were rushed to the district to work on the sea walls.
I wrote to the Home Secretary some weeks ago, and the other day I had a reply from him, dated 16th March, saying that claims of this kind should be sent
to Eastern Command Headquarters. Then the letter adds:
I should, however, mention that the Service Departments do not know of any cases in which members of the Services have been billeted on private householders or in halls.
That seemed to me to be a most astonishing reply. Indeed, I wrote back immediately to the Home Secretary to say that I myself had had the pleasure of showing the Under-Secretary for Air round the Village Hall at Bradwell on a day on which about 130 airmen were billeted in it, as they were for a whole fortnight. I went on to give a number of specific instances of private houses and halls in which airmen and troops had been billeted, and I have no doubt that there were many others in other areas.
I was careful to add, and I emphasise this, that there is no complaint whatever about the billeting itself. No serious difficulty arose, and we were only too glad and grateful to have the Service men there, doing the magnificent job that they did do. Moreover, I have ascertained from the chairman of the committee of the Village Hall which I have mentioned that the R.A.F. left it perfectly clean and tidy and did no damage whatever, and that the claim that is being put in to cover the two weeks' billeting—overheads, loss of bookings, etc.—will probably not amount to more than £20.
It is a comparatively small thing in itself—but it does seem to me to be extremely odd that I could quote to the Home Secretary all these specific cases of something of which the Service Departments, who were directly responsible for sending troops there, profess to be completely unaware. It is wrong that the Home Secretary should have been misinformed in that way, and that he should have given wrong information to hon. Members of the House.
I hope that that particular point may be looked into, and that, in the general spirit of our debate today, these various anomalies, delays and hitches, which are to some extent inevitable, will be tidied up as soon as possible.
I think the most important phrase in the Motion we are debating today is: "treated on a national basis." I must admit that, when I first saw the Motion, I was doubtful about the way in which the Opposition were going to handle it, because there has been in the past, and I daresay there will be in the future, considerable difference of opinion on the word "national.'" I am very glad to hear from the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) and from all other hon. Gentlemen who have spoken from the other side, that, to them, "a national basis" and "a national effort" are really the same thing.
To my mind, this tremendous effort that has been made by the people of this country in dealing with the floods has been quite magnificent. It has been truly national. We have had the Government, voluntary services and the local authorities all working together in partnership, and that is my idea of what is meant by a "national basis." I fully endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who remarked on what a magnificent thing it was to see people from all walks of life, Government Departments and local authorities working together for the national good. I think it has been a magnificent example of what this country can do.
In fact, so much is Governmental help and the Lord Mayor's Fund mixed up in people's minds that, when my wife was in the flooded area a fortnight ago, she was not surprised when somebody said: "You know, this job is being done very well; this fellow Sir David Malcolm Trustram Fyfe seems a very good chap." That indicates the feeling of partnership which has existed between the local authorities and voluntary organisations, which has made this operation of fighting this tragedy and disaster such a success.
Of course, this debate has become, as it most usefully could become, an opportunity for hon. Members to bring to the attention of the Ministers concerned and of the House various small points of detail, important though they are, to which attention should be directed, and there are one or two such points which I should like to bring to the attention of the Government. First of all, in regard to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, I hope that when their memoranda are issued during crises such as this, they will try to make their language absolutely clear. I hope that, when a local authority is in difficulty, they will treat the matter as an emergency and will give a quick answer.
The little village of Anderby Creek was practically inundated by the floods. The sea washed two farmyards into the village, which only consists of a few houses. In the backyards were piled debris, manure heaps and dead cattle. The local authorities were in some doubt as to whether they were entitled to remove that mess and whether the cost of its removal would be paid for. They have now managed to get authority to do it, but it took them a long time. During the whole of that period the district suffered some damage to health.
It is important that these matters should be dealt with quickly. In the circular to which I have referred there is one doubtful point to which I hope the Minister will give a little attention. No power is given to local authorities to spend money on clearing up mess on waste land. This is probably the right attitude but when mess and muck on wasteland is endangering health, or is a considerable public inconvenience, then I think local authorities should have financial help in removing it.
I now wish to turn to the question of agriculture. It is important that we should realise what a devastating report has been made on these flooded areas. It was in all the newspapers at the week-end. Even the Dutch are astonished at the amount of salt in our heavy clay soil, and they cannot suggest how to get rid of it. Some of the land will be croppable this year, but I believe there are over 100,000 acres which may be in an uncroppable condition for several years. That creates a national problem. What is to be done with this land if it remains out of cultivation for two or three years? I hope the Government will make a further statement concerning their attitude towards this long-term agricultural problem and that it will be embodied in the Bill which is shortly to come before the House.
With regard to work on the sea wall, I was very glad to hear that the Government were prepared to give a 100 per cent. grant in respect of work completed before 30th September, but I am a little doubtful whether we are going to get value for money. Is it not hurrying things a little too much? Though we must have safety and security, it is important that we should try to do this very important job in the best possible way, and we must try to derive some advantage from the floods. It would be disastrous if through hurrying too much the opportunity to make reasonable improvements was wasted.
I hope that when any suggested improvements are put up to the Ministry they will not be considered an impediment to a grant. It is quite clear that local authorities of seaside resorts, such as those about which the hon. Member for Lowestoft spoke, will wish to improve their amenities if that is possible. While I agree that national money must not be used at this time on such amenities, it may well be that some amenities can be worked into the scheme. Therefore, the slowing down of the tempo might be advisable from this point of view. The extension of the date, for instance, might result in greater economies and a better final result. I hope the Government will consider that point.
It seems to me that the scheme which the Departmental Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Waverley may eventually evolve for the security and safety of our coast will not work unless it is paid for in a fair manner. In the past, the burden of rates for sea defence has militated against the efficiency of that defence. It is very difficult for inland Members to realise the tremendous problem facing farmers and people with small houses who are assessed at 10s. and 12s. in the £ on their rateable value. That is really a serious burden, and unless it can be borne fairly, and appear to be borne fairly, no scheme, however well designed and planned, will work.
I hope that on that Committee will be men who thoroughly understand the feelings of the people who have to pay those rates, and particular attention will be paid to spreading the expenses. On these occasions one is apt to think only of new work and capital expenditure, but it is the maintenance cost which bears so heavily on these people. Unless we can find a solution to that problem and spread the burden fairly the plan which is evolved, however efficient, will fall down.
Finally, I wish to take this opportunity of paying on behalf of my constituents a tribute of gratitude to the great city of Birmingham. Mablethorpe and Sutton is a very small urban district council, which has borne its burdens magnificently. But its officers are pretty well out on their feet. The great municipal organisation of Birmingham have come to their rescue and have installed senior officers in the district to help them in their work. The whole machinery of the Birmingham Corporation has been placed at their disposal and all secretarial work is being sent to Birmingham to be dealt with. No help could be more useful, and no local authority could have made a more helpful gesture. I take this opportunity to thank the corporation, the Lord Mayor and the people of Birmingham for their generous gesture to us in Lincolnshire.
I largely agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) in what he said about national responsibility. Broadly speaking, I think we can now feel much happier about that phrase, and in view of what the Home Secretary said last Wednesday and again today I, at any rate, feel that the matter is being dealt with as a national disaster and that people can now find out exactly how, if eligible for it, they can get help and can be reasonably sure that it will come quickly. Before last Wednesday I thought there was some danger of confusion—there had been so many statements—but on the point of national responsibility I now feel more content.
I should like to say a word of welcome to the appointment of Sir Basil Neven-Spence. Certainly, as far as my constituency is concerned, the Government could not have found anyone with greater knowledge of our difficulties. We owe him a particular debt of gratitude for his readiness to take up this new duty comparatively soon after a rather serious personal disaster. At the same time, I rather regret the self-denying ordinance of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am one of those who rather welcome his long cool silences and his short interjections, but I feel that on this occasion he may be carrying virtue rather too far.
These events in Scotland take rather a different outline from the events in England and we have certain special problems. There is the big problem of blown timber and narrower problems such as that of the inshore fisherman or the crofter who has lost his boat and the small farmer who has lost his hens and the damage to village halls and church property. These losses may perhaps take a rather different aspect in Scotland than they would do in England and are relatively more important in the North than what, I admit, is more serious damage in the South.
I should also welcome further information about the powers of the Waverky Committee in Scotland. I understand that in England the duties of the Committee are concerned with the prevention of flood, but I should be interested to know how they are going to tackle the wind, which is our chief enemy in Scotland. Perhaps, on a future occasion, we may have further information about that.
What I very much welcome in the Home Secretary's speech was, first, the full information which he gave, because it is very important that people should be told quite simply how to set about obtaining relief, and, secondly the stress which he laid on the fact that he has not tried to draw the rules too rigidly, because it is obvious that in a disaster of this nature one cannot have rigid rules. The whole thing is outside the scope of classification.
I should like to take two examples from my own constituency. We had a market at Stromness which was completely demolished. It belonged to an agricultural co-operative and was not a privately-owned business or a limited company. I hoped that a point would be stretched in connection with this case, and I have now received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to say that it probably will be stretched and the severe loss to the community may be made good. I trust that it will.
Then the pier at Whalsay was swept away. There was a complication: the pier was privately owned, although no charges were made for the use of it. But I understand that the county council will take it over and that the Government will assist with its repair. It is in that kind of spirit that we want this emergency tackled. We want aid to go quickly and adequately to those who obviously need it.
Those who distribute the aid have a very heavy duty and not at all an easy one. We should pay tribute to all those who are taking part in that work. I suppose that it must be done on the basis of applications, but those who apply first and loudest are not always those who need most help. I am glad to say that those who are concerned with distributing this aid are taking the trouble to visit places to try to find the people who have not made a great song and dance about it but whom, nevertheless, the House wants to assist.
I feel personally that any Government are put in a rather invidious position when a disaster like this takes place. The Government have to make up their minds what they are going to do by way of assistance. On looking up previous occasions I found that there is considerable discrepancy between what has been done on one occasion and another. There was the danger of our getting rather heated and getting a very unpleasant division of opinion over this matter.
That has been avoided by today's debate, but there is always that danger. Difficult though it may be, I wonder whether the Government should try to establish some principle of aid on occasions of national disaster. It might be an insurance scheme or something of that kind. If the Government are not prepared to do that, and I fully see the reasons against it, they might at any rate consider making plain the principles on which aid will be given.
Last year, my constituency was struck by a hurricane. The Government gave us aid which I think amounted to, roughly, one-tenth of the damage. There was a grant of £20,000 against a total damage of nearly £500,000 and there was also direct aid of various kinds. On this occasion the Government appear to be going to give aid which will amount to something between half and three-quarters of the cost of the damage. I am not complaining about this in the least from the point of view of my constituents, although they are a small and poor community who merit assistance. I give these figures only to show that there can be great discrepancies in these matters at times when the House would like to feel that people are treated on a fair and equal basis.
I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), particularly in the reference which he has made to the appointment of Sir Basil Neven-Spence, his predecessor in the House, to the Departmental Committee which has been set up. I am sure that we on this side of the House feel, as does the hon. Member, that no more suitable man could have been chosen to represent the Scottish point of view on that Committee.
While I was listening today to the Home Secretary I began to wonder, as time went on, when the subject matter of his speech would turn to the problems of Scotland, because for at least nine-tenths of the time he dealt entirely with England. I do not complain of that, because the damage in England was so severe and the loss of life so tragic. But when my right hon. and learned Friend came to deal with Scotland we had something less than detail. We had a very general statement that money was available for dealing with our timber damage but that was all.
The extent of that damage is not appreciated by the nation. I have been in touch with the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, timber merchants, sawmills and the Scottish Co-operative Forestry Society and last week-end I travelled about the damaged areas. The latest reports indicate that the damage amounts to approximately 40 million cubic feet of timber blown, to the value of about £3,500,000. That is the magnitude of the disaster which we have suffered.
I believe that it is common ground in this debate that what we want done is to have the timber saved and marketed at prices reasonable to those who grew it. It was with great pleasure that we heard from the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland that grants are to be given to deal with the marketing of the timber. So far, arrangements have been made to log and to transport to the sawmills about two-thirds of the blown timber, but no arrangements have yet been made for more than 13 million cubic feet. I suggest that the solution to the whole problem is a flat rate transport charge for the conveyance of timber to the sawmills in the South, for in that way we could get the timber into the markets at a reasonable price. The sawmills in the North of Scotland have already more timber coming in than they can possibly saw, whilst supplies to the sawmills in the South are restricted by licences.
Yes. I had envisaged the carriage of the timber to the mills in the South of Scotland, and if necessary in England and Wales. It may interest the House to know that a firm in Hull is going to deal with some of the timber, and, therefore, there is no question that English as well as Scottish mills can assist in this work. We hope our timber will be disposed of to the South.
Dealing with the need for speed of action, my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) referred to the question of deterioration. He also referred to the hope which has been expressed that some of this timber would be used by the National Coal Board. To those who have had experience of the practical side of mining it will be clear that speed is the essence of the contract, because the miner does not like to use timber which is older than six months. He likes timber that is not too hard or dry, and it is essential if the miners are to use the timber that it should be quickly cleared from the North.
As well as a flat rate for transporting timber, which, as I have said, is the linch pin of the operation, the stockpiling by various Government Departments is another necessary part of keeping the price stable. At the moment the operation is in danger of getting bogged down. There is a sense of complete depression. There is a feeling that something should have been done before this, because over two-thirds of the timber has been sold on open price contracts, and if a firm price is wanted the price of this timber today is about half the value it was before the wind blew it down. I ask the Secretary of State to make his statement on transport charges as soon as possible. Apart from this, the operation is going forward well. The Forestry Commission have done a splendid job in co-ordinating the different interests—the timber merchants, those who grow the wood and so on—so that the timber can be economically worked by the sawyers and timber merchants.
When we assess the loss that has been suffered in Scotland we have not only to think of the actual loss on the timber which has fallen but we have to remember also that most of the timber would have had another 20 or 30 years natural life. In good silviculture income depends on the increment of the timber. Those who have lost timber in the disaster will have lost their income for the next 20 or 30 years. That is a point which must be borne in mind when we deal with the question of reafforestation.
My information on equipment is that we are short of heavy tractors fitted with winches which are needed to pull out timber in these conditions. I do not know whether we can obtain such equipment from Canada, for example, but I hope that the Secretary of State will examine this point carefully and will ensure that if we are short of equipment it will be obtained.
I believe all the demands for labour made by the firms who have moved into the North-East have been met. I am informed that in Aberdeen nearly 200 vacancies have been filled, although, naturally, they are not all skilled men. I believe that with the necessary equipment and perhaps by diluting the skilled labour, we can do the job ourselves. The magnitude of the disaster has to be seen to be appreciated. We must get this timber moved if this precious material is to be saved. There must be a flat rate for transport. We must see in actual operation the stockpiling and buying of timber at a reasonable price by the Government Departments. I ask nothing more than that. If that is done, Scotland will be able to do her job and shoulder whatever burdens may come upon her.
I ask the Secretary of State, from the long-term point of view, to consider the question of replanting. I will not labour that point tonight, but I would point out that it will be very costly and almost impossible for some of the estates to carry out. That is a matter which we may have to discuss, perhaps in a forestry debate. I believe that so far as the immediate future is concerned, the announcement that is to be made by the Home Secretary, I hope very shortly, will set the wheels turning and that we shall see the clearance of this timber in a reasonable time.
I hope the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Spence) will excuse me if I do not follow him into the Highlands of Scotland —not because I do not recognise the importance of saving timber that has been blown down, but because I think he and his colleagues this afternoon have made out a sufficiently strong case to ensure that the difficulty which exists in their part of the country will be tackled effectively.
I should like to join with those other Members who have paid tribute to the manner in which the Home Secretary intervened in this debate. It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) said, that he has certainly shortened a number of speeches which otherwise would have been inflicted upon the House this afternoon, including my own.
The manner in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman put over the Government case this afternoon was extremely reassuring. I am wondering whether he will think that I am dense if I refer once more to the position of local authorities. I do so because I have been approached by members of one urban district council in my constituency which suffered considerably as a result of flooding. I refer to the Sheerness Urban District Council. There is some concern about the reference made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his statement to the House on 18th March when he referred to local authorities. He then said:
It will not be possible to deal with each claim individually, and at a later date there will have to be a general settlement between the Government and the local authorities which are in a position of special difficulty through having to incur expenditure on repairing flood damage. In that settlement the Government will be prepared to assist those authorities which have unavoidably incurred burdens which are unreasonably heavy in relation to their resources."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1953; Vol. 513, c. 34–35.]
I have been asked what will be considered to be "special difficulties" and "unreasonably heavy burdens in relation to their resources." The Sheerness Urban District Council lost shelters, amongst other things; they had their wells contaminated by sea water; their pavilion and pier were badly damaged; and the consequent expense of this local authority will be pretty serious. When it is realised that the product of a 1d. rate amounts to something like £400, one appreciates how heavy a burden has been thrust upon them.
Some feeling was shown in the local council as a result of the report of the chairman of the finance committee when he presented his estimates for the coming year. He said that, because of uncertainty as to the assistance that would be given, he had been bound to include an extra 3d. on the rates to meet the possible cost with which they would be confronted and for which they would not be reimbursed. One councillor—not of my political persuasion—got rather heated and said, "We have had a belly full of the flood and we do not expect to have to pay for it." I hope the Minister will be able to give us a little more information in regard to what is intended in that direction.
Another point concerns allotments. On the Isle of Sheppey is the largest allotment association in my constituency. Hundreds of allotments there were flooded for several days, and it is quite apparent that it will not be possible to bring them into cultivation again for a year, or possibly two or three. Standing crops, bush fruit and other fruit have been lost and the allotment holders would like to know what assistance will be available to them, other than advice from the National Agricultural Advisory Service officers. Will they be helped in exactly the same way as farmers are being helped? Will they get free gypsum? They are very anxious on this point and, as this is a very important source of food supply, I hope we shall have an answer today.
On the question of farming, the constituency which I represent suffered very seriously. I was pleased to learn from the Home Secretary, in reply to my intervention, that the only gap which some of us could see in the question of dealing with the agricultural position appears to have been closed. That is in reference to the services which were lost with the flood, as well as the crops and some of the stock. If we can be given some satisfaction upon those points I feel that this debate will have served a very useful purpose.
I shall detain the House only for a few moments because we have had a very agreeable debate on this matter and I am very delighted at the spirit in which the whole question has been discussed, largely as a result of the very clear way in which the Government's proposals were put over by my right hon. Friend.
I want to ask only two questions. The first is about the acreage payment for the rehabilitation of farm land. I understand that we shall not have details of this until the Bill is introduced shortly, but the question whether or not a solution of the agricultural side of the problem is met very clearly depends a great deal on the form of those payments. I have in mind particularly the smallholders in the areas of my constituency which have been flooded. I am still not quite able to see how an acreage payment is going to cover their case absolutely, because it will be most difficult for them to carry on their businesses, particularly where the whole of their land has been flooded.
It may seem that this farming problem is being completely met and that I am raising a rather small point, but the position of these smallholders is a very grave one, particularly at this time of the year, when others are tearing about on their land with tractors and getting in their crops. These smallholders are left with land which is covered with this rather terrible white rime of salt over the surface, which is preventing them from doing anything. When the acreage payment question is clarified I hope that there will be particular reference to the extremely difficult position of those men.
My second question concerns the position of the internal drainage boards. I have referred to this question previously, and I believe it is a fact that the emergency expenditure of these boards, as of the river boards, is to be met in regard to what they do to repair their drains and other works between now and the end of September. But a rather special position arises with these internal drainage boards, which is perhaps analogous to the position of local authorities with regard to the raising of their rates. These boards have their ordinary overhead expenses to bear and some of them are to have a great deal of land in respect of which I cannot imagine it will be possible to raise the rate this year. When the general position of local authorities is being considered I hope that the position of these boards will also have the fullest consideration.
I was very pleased to read in the local Press very recently that the Minister of Agriculture had given approval for the River Great Ouse Catchment Board to go ahead with their vast flood protection scheme. We are to have a proper inquiry into what is to be done about flood protection generally, but this is a scheme which has been very carefully worked out over a period of many years and was practically ready to be put into operation, and I was most pleased to hear that it is being supported by the Minister of Agriculture and that some work is to be done. I hope it will be done very soon because that area covers a great deal of very productive land.
I want to follow up what my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) said about the acreage payment. It is extremely important that the details of this grant should be made known very soon. I understand that the public will be informed as to the Government's intentions, but I do not know whether the House or anybody else has been given a deadline when that information will be made available.
It is of extreme importance that that information should be made clear before we depart for the Easter Recess, particularly in regard to the farmers who welcome the decision to give compensation for crops growing in the ground as well as the loss of crops on arable land which had not been spring sown. I hope that the Minister can tell us when it is hoped that the Minister of Agriculture can give the farming community this particular information.
In the last debate, I was one of those who expressed some concern about what I felt to be a delay in giving guidance on various vital matters affecting the flood victims. I make no apologies for having done so. Having listened to the Home Secretary's announcement last Wednesday, I am convinced that the Government are treating the victims of the emergency in a way which hon. Members on all sides of the House can appreciate and in which they can feel confident. I am satisfied that the Government are doing what is fair and just. They are accustomed to criticism, and I do not see why we should not use this occasion to give them a word of thanks, especially to those Cabinet Ministers who have been responsible and to those of their advisers in the Departments who have worked extremely hard to cope with the emergency.
May I put to the Home Secretary a point which I put to him in a supplementary question the other day and which the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) raised today? It concerns the lack of knowledge among those who are in a position to benefit from the machinery set up. Would it not be possible for the Home Secretary or the Minister of Housing and Local Government or the Minister of Agriculture—one of the principal members of the Cabinet Committee—to broadcast on the subject? I think that would go a long way to meet the criticism which has been made by a number of hon. Members.
I wish to say, "Thank you." I should like to add to the tributes which have been paid to the Lord Mayor and to Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, who have proved sound partners. The public are in their debt. Finally, I think we can now cease to criticise the Government. Our jobs, as hon. Members from the flooded areas, is to try to see that the local committees are working as efficiently as possible. The framework at the top level has been provided, and I am sure that anything we can do to assist the local committees on the ground is probably our most useful contribution.
I want to say a few words about the Committee which has been set up under Lord Waverley, and I want to express a doubt about whether it is the sort of Committee we want for this problem. I shall not deal with the various constituency points which hon. Members have raised, although my interest is that I have lived under and been a member of, a local authority whose area has been subject to considerable flooding—an area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds).
Local authorities have had a considerable burden to bear. Hon. Members who know local authority work will also know that this is the end of the financial year; it is the time when local authorities prepare their rate statements and when finance committee and full council meetings are held. This is certainly not the best time—at the end of the financial year—to have thrust upon them all the additional administrative problems which they have recently had to face, although they have stood up to them extraordinarily well.
But I want to talk principally about the Waverley Committee. I do not think that it was set up in the happiest way. Indeed, I did not think that the Home Secretary treated my right hon. Friend's protest sufficiently seriously when he explained the situation by saying that a noble Lord in another place took an opportunity at the end of a debate to announce the terms of reference. It seems to me that we should have had some announcement at the beginning in the House, with the normal questions and answers, and it also seems to me that the Government made up their minds without advantage of the assistance of the Opposition.
As I understand it, we are to have an inter-Departmental Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Waverley, which will consider, among other things,
the causes of the recent floods and the possibilities of a recurrence in Great Britain;
to consider what margin of safety for sea defences would be reasonable and practicable having regard on the one hand to the estimated risks involved and on the other to the cost of protective measures;
to consider whether any further measures should be taken by a system of warning or otherwise to lessen the risk of loss of life and serious damage to property;
to review the lessons to be learned from the disaster and the administrative and financial responsibilities of the various bodies concerned in providing and maintaining the sea defences and replacing them in the event of damage;
and to make recommendations.
In my opinion, the Committee should go further than that. I have great respect for the interests represented on the Committee, but I suggest that it is not quite the right sort of Committee for the job. In the main, those on the Committee are officials. I could not take down all the names, but the interests represented are science, someone with considerable experience at the Ministry of Food, Sir Basil Neven-Spence—Lord Lieutenant of Zetland—a gentleman who is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a representative of civil engineering, the Lord Lieutenant of Huntingdonshire—and I should not have thought that was the best county to be represented on such a committee if we are considering the problem from the aspect of civil government—a gentleman learned in geography and somebody who has been a civil servant at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
It is the local authority upon which much of the responsibility falls at this time. I suggest, therefore, that this Committee is not earthy enough. We want to see on it somebody from the front rank of borough treasurers as well as working members and working officials of local authorities. We should not consider this question with the nice degree of objectivity which the personalities on the Committee seem to indicate to be in Lord Waverley's mind.
May I, with great respect, say a few words about the Chairman? He is a distinguished civil servant. We knew him in the House, but he always struck me as one of those people who are not quite as other men are. Somebody suggests that that is an understatement, but I think it is largely true. In his whole background, he was in the House of Commons but not of it; he was rather more a civil servant than he was a working politician. In the main he represented a university seat, never much subject to electoral pressure.
I do not think that that is so at all. One could imagine, on this side of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) or, on the other side of the House, the Home Secretary or the Minister of Housing and Local Government, making better chairmen. I will say that quite frankly. What is this Committee to do? It will be run from the Port of London Authority's premises, where Lord Waverley is the guiding controller, and it will be run by a high-powered crowd of scientific gentlemen.
We ought to give local government some confidence in this Committee. As one who has had long experience in local government, I do not think that the Committee will engender that degree of confidence. There ought to be one or two people on the Committee who speak the language of local authorities and who know their problems. After all, we are considering such matters as the rates, which must affect hon. Members all over the country, and the impact upon the rates of all the measures which we seek to lay upon local authorities. I am not making any political point, in spite of the speech which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) made in the country the other week, when I say that, broadly speaking, the rates of local authorities spring from the burdens this House lays on them. It is all very well to set up these high powered committees; but then the local authorities are left to foot the bill.
This Committee would be improved by having on it someone representing the local authorities' financial point of view, and, say, a borough surveyor or county surveyor of one of the counties affected. That would meet the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), who talked about having working engineers on the Committee. He spoke about "working engineers" in the broadest way.
I do not think it would be a bad thing if we had one or two Members of Parliament on the Committee, either. After all, that was done in the case of the B.B.C. Committee. On other occasions when we have set up committees of this sort this House has been kept in contact with them by having on them a small number of Members. What we want is balanced representation on the Committee. The sort of people so far nominated for the Committee will not "ring the bell" with local government as they should do.
What are the sort of problems which we have had in mind? We have had in mind, of course, welfare authorities and services as under the 1948 Act. I know, from a fairly long experience of local government, and from war-time experience in Kent—and it is well known —that in moments of dire distress county authorities should have power to delegate functions of the county districts. What happened during the war in the case of the meals services of the authority of the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford? The county decided to take over, and their meals services organiser came down to the borough of Erith, and the whole thing broke down. The borough had its own catering department and took over the county services there, but there was unnecessary duplication.
I appreciate the point made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland), who said that in his area the local authority was so much distressed that it had had to rely on the county authority. I can appreciate that, but under the 1948 Act there should be power to delegate functions to the county districts themselves.
It is all very well to consider this matter from Whitehall. On a larger scale, it is the same thing as looking at all the problems of all the local authorities of Kent from the county council offices at Maid-stone. Everybody who has been concerned with local government knows that the burden of problems of this sort falls on the local authorities themselves and on their rates. We know from our war-time experience of the meals services, for instance, that if 2,000 people in a small town had to be fed the burden fell on the local authority of that town. It seems to me that it is that sort of local interest that ought to be represented on this Committee.
I should have thought that we ought to have paid more attention to the question of how far the cost of these things will fall upon local rates. As I understand the Home Secretary, he is suggesting that cases should be put to the Government, who will then decide them on their merits. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) has gone out now, but he was Chairman of the Finance Committee of the L.C.C. during the war when a delegation from the L.C.C, with the support of all parties on the L.C.C, went to see the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the late Sir Kingsley Wood. They saw him for about four hours. Whether he was physically exhausted or not I do not know, but the assistance given to the L.C.C. was more generous than that that was given to any other local authority in the country.
The general formula governing the giving of assistance from the Exchequer was, however, that the local authorities had first to realise all their own resources. We do not want that sort of thing in this case. The cost of these measures was about a 10d. rate, and a 1d. rate represents £40,000 in Kent. All these things should be considered, and the point of view of the local authorities should be represented in the Committee. I feel fairly sure that the hon. Member for Billericay will agree with me when I say that there must be someone on Canvey Island who can make a contribution to the work of this Committee that not a single man at present nominated for the Committee can make. I see the hon. Gentleman nods his head in assent. I think that that is fair enough.
After all, what is it with which we are concerned? The sufferings of individuals. It is not only a question of coping with this disaster efficiently. That is not the first consideration. It is whether we deal with it humanely, and whether, in the last resort, we satisfy the people affected that we understand their problems. I do not think that a Committee of this composition can satisfy them about that.
It is all very well to speak about what happens in Holland, and to talk about a scientific inquiry, but we have to mould our administrative processes to the extent that we satisfy the people, in times of emergency, that we understand their problems. Some delay may, in an emergency of this magnitude, be, perhaps unavoidable, but if people 40 miles or 50 miles away from a scene of disaster have to be consulted about what is to be done on the spot, there must be something lacking in the administrative set-up.
I hope that the Government will consider this matter of the Waverley Committee very seriously indeed. What will the Committee do? Possibly produce a learned report which will be a guide and a help to the Government of the day, but what we also want is to give the people in the districts affected confidence that their problems are known and understood. I rather tend to dislike—I hope I carry the House with me in this—this idea that those who put themselves before the suffrages of the people must be considered less efficient, and that people who do not have to stand the public test are more efficient, persons. We who are elected by the people to represent them are subject to public attack, public criticism, public accountability, and that gives us a sense of responsibility which is denied to those other people, such as civil servants.
Accordingly, I hope that we are to have working politicians on this Committee, and I hope that it will be representative in the broadest sense of local government, and possibly also of the working officials of local government. There are many questions that will come before this Committee that can be settled by such types of people. I have the gravest doubts whether a committee constituted as is this one is really suitable for the task it has to do; and with its present Chairman, I have great reservations about this Committee.
I always listen to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) with pleasure and interest, and I admire his good horse sense. However, I do not quite share his views as to the Departmental Committee. I must say that when I heard the Home Secretary announce the membership of the Committee in the House today I was very deeply impressed. I thought it was a very strong Committee indeed.
I am seized of some of the arguments of the hon. Gentleman, however, because in talk I have had with local government representatives, elected and official, it has been borne in upon me in the last few days that local government feels that it has a specific contribution to make to the work of the Committee. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that score and I hope that some attention will be given to his suggestion.
This has been a most interesting debate for me, representing, as I do, a constituency which was sorely afflicted. It has disposed once and for all of the suggestion that in some way, never clearly defined, the Government were falling short of the Prime Minister's forthright and generous promise made directly after the disaster. During the debate many points have been made which have shortened my speech considerably. However, there are two problems still clamouring for attention in our part of Essex.
The first is the rehousing of families unable to return to their own homes, for a variety of reasons. Their homes may have been completely destroyed. Or the family may be a large one, with a number of small children, whom it is not possible to take back to a home which has been badly damaged and is still damp and musty. Or, again, it may be that the family has been split up; the wife, possibly not in the best of health having had a great shock, says to her husband, "On no account will I ever go back," and the poor chap is faced with the possibility of a separated family. These are human considerations which cannot be easily swept aside.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will remember that I wrote to him at the outset pointing out that I thought these problems would arise. On 18th February I wrote and suggested that the new town of Basildon, which is being built in my constituency, and which has a reserve of housing on the doorstep of Canvey Island, might be asked to provide accommodation for families unable to return to their homes. My right hon. Friend wrote to me last week saying that, if the Canvey Island Urban District Council wrote to the Basildon Corporation, he had no doubt that something would be done. I am grateful to him.
Yet within a few days of the disaster certain public-spirited local authorities were not waiting for any directions to be given but were making accommodation available. Two authorities, one in Essex and one in Hertfordshire, placed accommodation at the disposal of the Benfleet Council—an area in which a large number of families had been billeted. On 3rd February there was a special meeting of the Hatfield Council setting up a flood disaster sub-committee, which met at 11.30 at night and drew up plans to make accommodation available for my distressed constituents and flood victims from other places in East Anglia.
That kind of spontaneous generosity met a most urgent need. I pay a tribute to those local authorities which, at the first opportunity, provided accommodation for my distressed constituents, but seven weeks after the disaster the Canvey Island Urban District Council has had no firm indication that the new town of Basildon, building houses on their doorstep, have made or are likely to make any accommodation available. I hope that no red tape, no narrow consideration of what is the purpose of a new town, and matters of that kind, will be allowed to stand in the way of providing accommodation for those families still unable to return to Canvey Island.
What is to happen to farmers and smallholders who are unable to look forward to any earnings or livelihood from their land in the next few years? The problem is more acute in Essex than in any other part of the country because of the heavy clay soil, the structure of which is more adversely affected by salt water than that of soils elsewhere. There is still some doubt about these acreage payments, and I join with my hon. Friends in asking that more specific information be given on that score. It is not only a question of the farmer himself being faced with the prospect of a loss of crops for the next two or three years. It is a matter closely affecting his farm workers: these people want to know how they stand. At the moment, there is some doubt in their minds.
This debate has served a most useful purpose, because it has cleared away some of the doubts and misgivings that existed in people's minds. However, although it is seven weeks since the disaster, there are still people living away from their homes, or who are only just returning to their homes. They read something in the newspaper, they hear an occasional reference to the problem, but they do not know what is happening. Some of them have been in sick beds for weeks. These people are drifting back; there is dire need for more information, and I hope that the good services of the B.B.C. will be used to ensure that everybody in these areas knows what is happening.
We are about to embark upon a great work of land reclamation. There is to be a massive programme of sea defence works. It is the most remarkable thing that in the next six months the Govern- ment will spend a vast sum on sea defences—a greater sum than has ever been spent before in our history. I hope that while carrying out this work of land reclamation and of strengthening our sea defences, possibly extending them in certain places, we shall not lose sight of the great opportunity we have been given to reclaim more land from the sea and from the estuaries so that out of disaster we shall ensure victory over the sea.
I apologise to the House for coming into the debate at this late stage, but I have been travelling and have only just arrived. I want to speak about one small aspect of this great subject, namely, the large supplies of timber which nature has suddenly provided in relation to one comparatively important industry of our country, the boxmaking industry.
I have already pointed out to the Government in the course of Questions I have asked that there is grave danger of this vast quantity of timber not being properly utilised unless it is promptly transported to factories and other sources of production. The experts say that that process is called "turning blue"; the timber actually turns blue and becomes useless for productive purpose unless it is used at once. I have at present on the Order Paper some more Questions to the Minister of Materials and the Secretary of State for Scotland on relevant topics, but they have not yet been answered. I make no complaint about that, because the appropriate Ministers have not yet had the opportunity to answer them.
I want to put very briefly my point about the use of timber for boxmaking because it is a very important matter. At present, we import enormous quantities of timber. I suggest to the Government that a change should be made in the hard-and-fast licensing rules which now exist, and which provide that the imports of timber will not be altered in any way. One of the great advantages of the British system of government and administration is its elasticity and power to adapt and co-ordinate its working to exigencies and to the circumstances as they arise.
Here is a very unexpected windfall in the actual and literal sense of the word. Great supplies of timber are vouchsafed to the nation, and they will never be adequately and appropriately utilised unless there is a change in the licensing system. This is not being done, and my request to the Government is that the present system of licensing should be relaxed for the purpose of adapting this timber to the needs of the nation.
I am not relying upon my own observations, though I have been in Scotland recently looking at the devastation there. Rather, in this matter on which I am not an expert, I wish to rely upon the experts. I have in my hand a letter from the Aberdeen and District Packing Case Manufacturers' Association, the words of which I commend to the Government. In this letter, which is dated as recently as 13th March, they say:
The Home-grown Timber Merchants' Association have made approaches to our members in an effort to dispose of the smaller dimension timber not suitable for either British Railways or the National Coal Board. It was pointed out that until licensing controls are relaxed or abandoned, there appears to be little hope of the boxmakers giving substantial help. As it happened, a member had marked on a recent licence 'Ex-blown timber.' but the licensing authorities refused permission and the firm had to use imported timber, for which the licence had been originally granted.
The letter goes on to point out what is the opinion of the members, and says:
… if licences are abolished, then the Aberdeen Boxmaking Industry would be in a position to use 75 per cent. of this small dimension blown timber. I may add that the members, whose firms are all specially equipped for the conversion of round wood, would be prepared to restrict their purchases of imported timber, which would have the dual effect of conserving foreign currency as well as helping in the disposal of the blown timber, …
That is the one and only point which I wish to make.
I ask the Government to display a little elasticity in their administration of the system of licensing so as to exclude, if possible, foreign timber in order to use more fully the timber which nature has so suddenly placed in our hands by the great storm.
I feel sure that the whole House will be grateful that any bitterness there may have been in the minds of those who put down this Motion has not been reflected in the debate. That was possibly due to the calm and
measured manner in which the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) made his speech and, in particular, to the reply of my right hon. and learned Friend. I think that the lack of bitterness evinced in this debate has been largely due to the fact that the Government have set about the job of tackling this national disaser in exactly the way which the Prime Minister's statement and this Motion suggest. The Motion states that:
The damage … requires to be treated on a national basis, …
That is exactly what my right hon. Friend has done.
Those of us who remember the early days of the flood and the daily statements which were made by the Home Secretary to the House will recall that from the start the Government set about this business in a manner reminiscent of a staff college during the war. If it does not come as an impertinence from one so junior as myself, speaking from these benches, may I congratulate hon. and right hon. Members on the Front Bench for their constant attendance while these matters were being debated?
In the course of this afternoon's debate I heard the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) complaining from the benches opposite of the indignation felt by his constituents at what was, in their view, not being done. It is natural that they should feel indignation when overwhelmed by such a disaster as this, and natural that they should look round for someone to blame. They cannot blame with much satisfaction the tempest and flood, so they naturally turn to the Government, which we were all accustomed before we got into the House to call "they." I am sure that if his constituents could have seen the well-filled Front Benches during the discussions of this disaster they would want to thank the Government for the attention given o this problem.
It seems to me that the logical consequence of this Motion is that the Opposition should accept the argument which I am about to put forward—that coast protection charges should be made mainly a national charge and to far less extent than at present a charge upon individuals and upon local authorities. I do not think that they would particularly disagree with this thesis, and I hope that we may hear from the Minister of Housing and Local Government, when he comes to reply, whether he agrees with it. May I put to my right hon. Friend one or two arguments in support of it?
We are mainly discussing the low-lying land which was subject to these recent floods. But we are also in this country constantly brought up against the problem of coast erosion, which is less dramatic but certainly more constant and continuous. It is an unceasing danger to life and property. The struggle is always with us. In my own division, if I may take one local example, the coast is being worn away at the rate of seven feet a year. People's lives are in danger; their houses may tumble into the sea at any moment.
When we look at this problem of coast protection, whether on low-lying land or on cliff-girt sections, we see that the heavy costs which are inevitably incurred for coast protection work are borne by three groups—first, the Treasury; second, the coast protection board or local authority; and third, the individual house or property owner whose property is said to benefit particularly by the carrying out of that work. The latter group are known as the contributory owners. The huge costs, in many cases involving £100,000 or more, have to be distributed among those three groups, according to the provisions of the Coast Protection Act, 1949. It is my contention that at the moment the distribution is being made unfairly, and that it ought to be reviewed by the Committee which has been set up under the chairmanship of Lord Waverley.
I take first the burden which falls upon the local authorities. In this country we are never very far away from the sea coast. I believe there is one spot near Coventry where it is possible to be 70 miles from salt water, but no further. Yet we impose the charge for coast protection works only upon maritime counties and, in some cases, county boroughs which lie by the sea. That is wrong. We all share in the benefits which the sea confers, benefits to trade, to defence and to leisure. Why should we not also share in the penalties which it exacts?
I put it to my right hon. Friend that, without in any way altering the Coast Protection Act, because its present provisions are exactly in line with what I am suggesting, the Treasury should take a larger share of the cost of coast protection. A local authority should be obliged to pay the amount directly attributable to it in so far as it benefits from the works.
For instance, if it makes use of coast protection works to lay a promenade or to build a new bandstand, a pier or a bathing pool, let that not be a national charge, but in so far as the work contributes to the coast protection works it is of benefit to the State as well as to the local authority, and then the local authority should only pay a small part of the total cost. If it is a question, as it is in Bournemouth, of propping up miles of crumbling cliffland with houses very near the edge, it is unfair to ask the town, which many people wrongly think a rich one, to bear virtually the whole cost.
Now I propose to look at the effect on the individual, and to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the case, again in my Division, of 10 houses which were erected about 30 years ago.
I had hardly embarked on that section of my speech. It will not be long before I am able to answer the hon. Member's question. The owners of the land bought their houses when the sea coast was some distance from their doorsteps, but now, with the passing of the years and the constant attacks by the sea, the cliff edge has come so close to their doorsteps that the houses are in danger of toppling over.
The Coast Protection Act says that individuals will in such cases be charged the difference between the value of their houses before and after the works were carried out. The value of one of those houses before the work was carried out was virtually nil, because nobody dared live in it, and the value of the house after the work has been carried out to make it secure, is the value of the house; therefore, to all intents and purposes, these people are obliged to buy their houses back all over again.
Meanwhile, a neighbour across the road, who would have found himself in the front line if protection against erosion had not been carried out, gets off scot free, and the whole burden falls on the owners of the few houses which stand at the cliff edge. In one case the Charge demanded by the local authority was £2,650. The man bought the house for £2,900 when the value of houses was very much less than it is today. He has no recourse but to appeal to my right hon. Friend, which, in company with his fellows, he is doing.
I am glad to have this opportunity of speaking to my right hon. Friend both personally and publicly and making this appeal to him. First, will he ask Lord Waverley's Committee to examine the points which I have made and make it their business to report upon the present incidence of coast protection charges and, if they think they are unfair, make recommendations for improvement? Second, will he accept the principle that the charge for coast protection should fall mainly upon the Treasury and to a much smaller degree upon the local authorities?
Finally, will he delay the execution of the demand which has been made upon my constituents who inhabit these coastal houses until Lord Waverley's Committee has reported and their recommendations, if any, have been put into effect by legislation? It would be a tragedy if the people were to pay the huge sums demanded, which in some cases would render them bankrupt in the process, only to find a few months later that my right hon. Friend and the House had seen the justice of my plea and had reversed the position by Act of Parliament, making them liable for a smaller payment.
I suppose that the tenth man in must always expect to bat before a very thin field, but I should hate my constituents to feel that the interest in their problems is as small as is indicated by the fact that there are present only two back benchers opposite and six back benchers on this side of the House. It is rather a shame, and I am sure that if they realised it my constituents would be rather shocked that apparently so little interest is taken by the House in what are, to them, very pressing problems.
In our last debate on the floods I was asked to speak for only three minutes. When he replied, my right hon. Friend said that I had put my questions to him like gunfire and that he was unable to answer them. I hope on this occasion to put my questions more slowly because I am not confined to three minutes, and I hope to get answers to some of them. I put my questions in confidence because in the Lindsey area 22,000 acres of good agricultural land were flooded, a fair proportion being in my constituency, and it is on behalf of the people who get their living from the 22,000 acres that I pose my questions.
So that my questions might be practical, last Friday night I met about 20 of my farmers from the flooded areas. I had taken the precaution of carrying with me 20 copies of last Wednesday's HANSARD, and we went through the Home Secretary's speech paragraph by paragraph like boys at Sunday school. Two points arise out of the Home Secretary's speech. Dealing with the rehabilitation of agricultural land, he said:
… we cannot afford to lose for many years and possibly for ever the productivity of thousands of acres of farm land.
My farmers had not even envisaged that they would lose the productivity for many years, and none of them had envisaged the possibility of their losing it for ever. It was a terrifying thought to them. Can we be told on what data that very gloomy statement was made? Are these men likely to lose their livelihood for many years and some for ever? If so, can we be told why that possibility was not envisaged earlier?
The second point in the Home Secretary's statement last Wednesday that upset farmers in my constituency was when my right hon. and learned Friend, after dealing with the position of the farm industry, said:
The necessary statutory powers will be included in the Bill to which I have referred." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1953; Vol. 513, c. 33–4.]
To all their questions as to what would be likely to happen to them I had to keep going back on the phrase that it would be in the Bill. I would ask my right hon. and learned Friend two points on that. Can we have the Bill as soon as possible, because these men are frightened about their livelihood and I should like their fears allayed? Secondly, can he give an undertaking that with the new Bill there will be ample explanatory notes, because
a Bill is difficult even for lawyers to understand and I am sure that farmers would not know what was meant by it? I hope that there will be explanatory notes which even the ordinary man can understand.
Contrary to what was said by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds), constituents who attended my meeting last Friday night were grateful for what had been done. If they came to that meeting with a good many doubts, when we had gone through the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend paragraph by paragraph they all expressed themselves as very grateful to the Home Secretary, and they felt that they were being properly looked after.
The hon. Gentleman had a long innings and if he will have patience to listen to me I will answer his question.
As a result of the discussion which took place at that meeting I was asked to put three questions to the Government. The first was this. The Home Secretary's statement said that acreage payments would be made for land that was flooded and which was not to be cultivated because of the salt. The farmers at the meeting pointed out to me that in places the salt water came up the dykes and was forced through the drainage pipes, lying probably a foot or six inches under the ground. The flood water did not appear on the surface, but that land in 12 months' time may be as affected as land that was actually covered with water.
What they want to know is: will that damage which, today, does not show quite as quickly as land that was submerged by water, rank for claim for acreage payments even though the claim cannot be made for another 12 months? They were quite convinced from their experience of drainage that a lot more land will be effected by the salt than at present appears. If my right hon. Friend can say that farmers with land like that will be treated as sympathetically as the farmers whose land was actually under water, I should be greatly obliged. I am sure, too, that it would greatly reduce their fears.
Then they ask me to put this question. Will any compensation be paid to farmers for what they call the loss of fertility or "good heart" in the land? For example, one man, who has not got a first-class farm, has worked it very hard since he came out of the Royal Air Force, in 1946. He was putting a great deal more into the land than he was taking out. He had been improving the land and putting heart into it. He wants to know whether he will get compensation to cover the loss of fertility which he had put into the land, and which he fears will be lost because it will take him a good many years to get the land back in good heart as it was before the floods came.
Thirdly, I want to put a question on behalf of the horticulturists who are in my constituency. Generally, the horticulturist is a man with fewer than 10 acres, probably something over three or five acres. For the past two or three years these men have been having a very difficult time. They have not very much money. They tell me that by comparison with the bigger farmers they are not proportionately well off, and they have not got the same financial resources. They want to know whether the payments due to them will be made as quickly as possible. They want to start trading again. They live from year to year by the fresh crops. They have not a lot left over from one year to another, and their financial position is much more difficult than that of the bigger farmer. The help that they want they want now in order that they can start work now and earn their living in the coming season.
The last question I was asked to put was: on what basis is compensation to be computed to the man whose ground has got to lie fallow for many years? Will he get compensation on his earnings during the past three or five years? What have the Government in mind for these men and on what basis will they be compensated? They have heard of the memorandum from the Lord Mayor's office, and they have been concerned about paragraph (c) which says:
Indirect loss. Broadly, this comprises a loss of profits and earnings. On current
indications it seems unlikely that there will be any compensation specifically for such losses.
That is the sort of thing which rather takes away their faith, and I should very much like a statement to be made on that.
From some of the remarks that have been made today, I can think there is nothing but misery in Dartford.
What my people want to know is whether, when the expenditure from the Lord Mayor's Fund stops, the Treasury will step in and continue the help? I should like my right hon. Friend to say something about that.
There are two other types apart from those at the meeting on Friday night for whom I should like to put questions. First, with regard to compensation for loss of houses, I have here a letter from a constituent who tells me that his house cost him £6,000 three years ago. It represents his life savings and he has a mortgage of £3,000 on it. His garden has gone as well as a good deal of his furniture. What is the position of this man and those like him? He has the £3,000 mortgage still on his house. What sort of aid is he likely to get from the Lord Mayor's Fund and the Treasury?
In his letter he says this:
This money, and the money I have spent since, represents the savings of a lifetime. The property was the pride and joy of myself, wife and family, and we have gone without many things, including summer holidays, so that we might enjoy the pleasures to be gained from our home and garden.
The loss of the house and garden to a man of that type is a tragedy and I should like to know what can be done for him. Furthermore, he adds this—and this, in a different way, is one of the five questions I put to my right hon. and learned Friend during our last debate which, unfortunately, were not answered:
My furniture was insured and for this I shall receive compensation. My property was
insured for 'storm and tempest,' but the great insurance companies of this country say that this was neither, and they will not accept any responsibility.
Will the Government use their influence with the insurance companies to persuade them to treat cases like this as generously and liberally as possible? If this type of policy does not cover the losses which a man thought it covered then his plight is terribly sad—
Is the hon. Gentleman advocating Government interference with private enterprise? That surely is a unique policy for the hon. Gentleman, who is always most eloquent about the virtues of private enterprise. It is most astonishing. It is shattering to me.
I should have thought that even the hon. Member would have heard the name of Lord Shaftesbury, and known that ever since the industrial age there has been a mixed economy, with responsibility on the Government and on private enterprise. I see nothing wrong in my asking the Government to use their influence with the great insurance companies to see that these claims are treated as liberally as possible.
My final point to my right hon. Friend follows the Question I put last week to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In another part of my constituency are people who ran an amusement arcade. Unfortunately for them their arcade was on a sea side of the promenade, and, in consequence, was not insurable under the normal terms. There are about three or four families coupled together in a small private company. The total involved, so I am told, is about £40,000. The whole has been lost. It was washed away; it just disappeared. A total of £5,000 from the Lord Mayor's Fund will not enable those families to start again with anything like the amount of equipment they had before. What will be done for such people?
The Lord Mayor said in his statement that cases where the need was over £5,000 could be counted on the fingers of both hands. I do not believe that. In my constituency alone I have two cases, and I think there will be many more than 10 people who will need aid amounting to over £5,000. I should like to know to what extent the Treasury will step in to help these people where the Lord Mayor's Fund is unable to meet their requirements.
I hope I have put my questions reasonably. I can assure my right hon. Friend that they are all based on solid fact, and I can give him the whole details if he requires them. May I say again that, unlike those of the hon. Member for Dartford, my constituents, having gone through the statement paragraph by paragraph, were grateful for all that has been promised—
We have had a very useful debate. There have been no great flights of oratory, but there has been revealed a determination to get to the heart of the problem and to find a way in which we can explain to the many people affected exactly what is their position and how their difficulties are to be met.
I agree with the Home Secretary that we are dealing with things which may be assessed in pounds, shillings and pence. But other things which have happened as a result of this freak of nature, which cannot be assessed in that way, will for many years leave painful sores in the hearts of good citizens. Particularly is that true about the loss of homes; and especially in the effect that will have on the womenfolk. For the woman is the person to whom the home is most sacred.
When I lived at Mitcham my house was burgled seven times. It was always a matter of great amusement to me that professional criminals should think that in my house they would find enough to make worth while the risks they ran. To my wife, however, it was a very different matter. The fact that uninvited people had been in and interfered with the trivial things so dear to us was to her a matter of sacrilege. There are many women who will look forward to the future with a feeling of acute depression, because the home, built on mutual sacrifices and much hard work, has been destroyed in a manner so unexpected.
If we learn anything from today's debate it is that a number of quite humble people are following the developments that take place under Government and local auspices with a keenness which should make us all feel that here we have a real chance of proving to them that democracy is something which works; is something which has a heart and is not merely a machine. The hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) has met his constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) have met their constituents. They told us of those meetings, and they all told the same story about the acute interest felt by those people and their concern to discover for themselves exactly what this distant Government machine is grinding out for them. I hope that the effect of those and similar speeches will not be lost on the Government.
I hope that every effort will be made to explain exactly what the situation is, and that that will be done in the districts themselves face to face with the people affected by people representing the various funds and Government Departments. I do not, in this connection, put much trust in the B.B.C., because one cannot heckle the B.B.C. When we come down to the particular small things that bulk largely in the mind of the individual, it is astonishing how difficult it is for him to find among the general statements that must be made in a B.B.C. broadcast the exact point that he wishes to have cleared up in his mind. Therefore, I hope that the information will be conveyed in a closer, more personal way than a B.B.C. broadcast can ever do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) opened the debate in a speech which set the tone of the debate. In view of what I have said about the debate, I hope that he will feel that that remark is intended as a very great compliment indeed. He put certain questions to the Home Secretary, most of which were answered in detail. I have no doubt that the others which may not have been completely answered will receive the attention of the Government. He did well to point out emphatically, and I am sure that the whole House endorses the view, that for the businesses that the seaside towns on the East Coast conduct, the East Coast is not out of business.
I noticed a letter in "The Times" this morning from Mr. Butlin. For some reason or other, Mr. Butlin's name is not generally received with great enthusiasm. I can never understand why, because he certainly provides a very great deal of happiness for a very great number of people. It is not my kind of happiness, but it is a sad heart that never rejoices, and if other people can obtain pleasure with Mr. Butlin it leaves me all the more opportunity to obtain pleasure where I like to take it. I think that the country would be well advised, on this occasion, to take Mr. Butlin's views as quite authoritative on this matter.
I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft and with others on both sides of the House in the belief that the East Coast, the bracing air of which gives so much satisfaction and health to large numbers of people, will not suffer during the later months of this year as a result of these unfortunate experiences for which it was certainly not responsible. After all, this trouble spread a long way up the East Coast, and even the mouths of the Tyne and Tees were not without their problems arising from it.
I represent a great seaside resort— South Shields, the seaside resort for the Tyneside with the best free pier in the whole country. [HON. MEMBERS: "No advertising."] Other people have done plenty of advertising today. We have a promenade which was swept over by the enormous onrush of water, and even in the Tyne itself, although the tide did not overflow, it gave cause for great anxiety. My hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) told me the other day of the effect on some of the permanent works in the harbours of Hartlepool and West Hartlepool that indicated how powerful the current was up there.
But lower down the coast, in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, we begin a tract of devastation that has not been known in this country certainly for hundreds of years. We need to be a bit cautious because of that. I doubt if this country could expect to build on any economic basis sea defences that would make people entirely free if a freak of nature of the same kind occurred again.
Let me give another example. In 1928, Westminster Hall was flooded, and, as a result, the parapet on the Terrace was raised 14 inches. I hope that hon. Members will inquire how far from the top of the parapet the water was on this occasion, because it will enable them to understand the immensity of the onrush of water that occurred on the East Coast. On the last occasion, part of the problem was caused by a great flow of water over Teddington Weir because the Thames higher up had been in flood for some days. On this occasion, no such outflow of water met the water that was swept up by this wind.
There is another consideration that we ought to bear in mind. If there is one nation in the world that has been skilled in dealing with this matter it is our friends the Netherlanders, and the fact that they were overwhelmed in this way indicates how tremendous was this particular freak of nature. It may be that, in a few weeks, the same thing may be repeated; it may not happen again for hundreds of years. When one is dealing with insurance, one has to ask oneself on occasion what is the legitimate maximum that one can spend on insurance. That is one of the problems which the Waverley Committee will have to consider in any advice which these distinguished scientists and others give to the country.
Therefore, I hope that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) will be borne in mind in filling up the remaining places on the Committee. One sometimes dreads having a Committee composed entirely of experts, who then have to have their findings implemented by the people who have the task of raising rates and taxes on the rest of the community. The presence of some people intimately associated with the ordinary problems of local and national government will give some reassurance to the people who may be called upon to foot the bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford asked some questions regarding nurserymen, smallholders and pig breeders. They are exactly the class of people who have been overwhelmed by this disaster, as the hon. Member for Louth confirmed from his experience in a different part of the country. One has to face up to the fact that these self-employed men had achieved a position of some independence, and had looked forward to a steady growth of the businesses to which they have given great personal attention. Then suddenly, in one night, they saw the whole concern disappear, leaving them faced with the ruin of many years of work and skill and a lifetime of attention. I hope most sincerely that the Government will bear that problem in mind.
I must say to the Home Secretary that he made the kind of speech that we have come to expect from him, a speech in which he sought to find out what was in the minds of hon. Members and to deal with specific points that were troubling them. We are grateful to him, and we are quite certain that, if he will continue to give general supervision to this matter in the spirit evinced today, he will give great reassurance, not merely to this House, but to those in the country who view the immediate future with very considerable anxiety.
We and the Government are very lucky in having a Lord Mayor whom we all know and whose fitness for this particular task I am sure we all feel could not be greater. When the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) said that in his constituency they talked about Sir Malcolm Trustram Fyfe, I wondered what Rupert had done do be left out, because the Lord Mayor dashed into this matter in a way which proved that his parents had chosen a very appropriate name for him at his baptism. I congratulate his godparents on the choice they made. He has also the great advantage of having associated with him in this matter Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, whose ability to state things clearly and to know what is in the mind of the other man meeting him in perplexity must be of the very greatest assistance to all those engaged in this work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. P. Wells) raised one question during the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman which I hope will receive the special attention of those responsible for dealing with it. It is the problem of the overhead electricity supply line to an isolated farm where that line has been washed away by the flood. In most cases, the farmer has had to pay a capital sum to secure connection with the main, because an electricity undertaker is not obliged to supply consumers who live more than a certain distance from the main.
I know from my own experience with the electricity supply industry how large on occasion can be the cost of such a connection, and to have to pay it again represents a very considerable charge on the consumer, whether he be a farmer or anyone else. I sincerely hope that that subject will receive sympathetic consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock raised the difficult point about houses previously condemned and awaiting demolition, and which have certainly been very considerably worsened by the experiences of the night of 31st January, but which, in the particular situation of a community, still have to be occupied. I hope that there, again, the Government will be able to do something that will enable my hon. Friend's constituents and people similarly placed in other areas to have the opportunity of again making a home and living within reasonable distance of their work.
One of the things we have gained from this debate is a fresh revelation of the extent to which ordinary people and organisations have, without being asked, stepped in to help their fellow citizens in distress. What the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle said about Birmingham and the hon. Member for BUlericay (Mr. Braine) said about Hatfield indicates the way in which we are continually finding out how in these emergencies there is a fellow-feeling between the various communities in the country which enables them to come to one another's assistance and to give something more than mere actual help, namely a feeling to the distressed people that human sympathies are with them and anxious to show themselves.
It would ill become me to say anything about the issues that have been raised with regard to Scotland. Those I can safely leave to the Scottish Members. Inasmuch as the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Spence) saw no objection to Scottish timber coming south of the Tweed if that was the best place to deal with it, I think we can avoid any national antipathies on this occasion.
Last autumn, I accepted an engagement to go to one of the Eastern counties on Saturday last to address a conference on local government. When I got there I found, in view of what had happened, that the main interest was in this problem of flood damage. I want to say to the Government that there are still grave anxieties among various local government authorities as to what will be the final charge which they will have to bear. In some cases they have lost substantial sums in rateable value. Properties will be empty for a considerable time, and in any event the product of the rates will be lowered while these properties are vacant.
In other places—and I think that this was mentioned by the Government spokesman on 18th March—the new sea defences will be built in such a position that some of the old rateable value in the form of houses will be on the seaward side of the defences. I imagine it to be unlikely that that rateable value will be of any great use to the finances of the local authorities in the future. I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) that when we talk about a "national basis" and a "national responsibility" for this matter those words must also apply to the future when we come to deal with sea defences.
I cannot think it right that so large a share of the cost of coast protection should fall on those districts immediately adjoining the sea. I do not accept the view that that is one of the things that are part of the penalty of living next to the sea. I hold the view, as expressed by the hon. Member, though I am sorry that he attempted to make a party point of it, that to protect the country against what is somewhat blasphemously called an "act of God" is entirely on a footing with taking steps to protect the country against an act of the Queen's enemies. I hope that something more generous will be done than has been done previously in this respect.
The local government bodies themselves have incurred very severe losses in many cases—not merely the urban and rural district councils confronting the sea but the county councils. In the county to which I went on Saturday I was told that there had been substantial losses in schools and losses on fire brigade equipment in places where the sudden inrush of the sea had made it quite impossible to salvage anything that was in the inundated areas. I hope that all these matters will be borne in mind and sympathetically considered by the Government.
I want to mention one matter in connection with the question of insurance. I would not advise any Government to approach an insurance company with the suggestion that they should be sympathetic and generous in the matter of insurances because, after all, insurance companies are only respectable bookmakers. A person makes a bet with them that he will pay them less in premiums on his policy than they will pay out to him if a certain event occurs. They make a bet with him that they will get more from him in the way of premiums than they pay out. May I say, as a native of Epsom: never expect a bookmaker to pay more than Tattersalls will expect him to pay, for it is astonishing how well he knows the rules and how strictly he sticks to them.
I want to draw attention to a case that has been brought to my notice, because it may be symptomatic of some of the troubles that the Government will have to meet in the long run. I have a friend who is a Tory alderman of a county borough council. He is an accountant; he is also a fellow of the Statistical Society, so that in mathematical matters he ought to be regarded as above all suspicion. [An HON. MEMBER: "A bookmaker?"] No, he has not gone in for that. He is also the chairman of a brick company. He wrote the following letter to me:
On the 1st March, 1949. there was a partial flooding of these works caused by an exceptionally high tide and strong wind of a similar nature, but not so fierce, as the recent events and representations were immediately made to the local authority with regard to the strengthening of the … Bank to avoid a similar type of disaster and from that time onwards, various representations were made to the local authority on the question of strengthening the defences at this point and, as recently as 1st December last year, the attention of the … River Board was drawn to the fact that no increased protection had been given at the point of which complaint had been made and that, owing to the transporting of materials for work higher up, the banks had in fact been reduced.
On the night of the recent disaster, this bank while not actually breached was almost washed away and the works completely inundated with material damage to buildings and to breaks and tiles already made but not burnt and, but for the fact that the claypit covering some 11 acres was completely inundated, the flooding of the surrounding area might have been very much more serious even though it was material.
I notice that the Home Secretary argues that such a risk could be insured against but, in view of the fact that the River Board had done nothing whatever to improve the protection, it is doubtful if any insurance company would cover the risk, or, if they did, that the premium would be a prohibitive one.
I rather think that that applies to some of the cases that we have heard of today. I imagine that the case of the amusement arcade which was mentioned falls into that category, because probably when the insurance company looked at it they said, like the bookmaker, "We do not make a book on certs." They knew they would have to pay out.
The letter continues:
The River Board informed us that their duties are permissive and it is entirely within the discretion of the Board as to the amount and type of work which they do. In other words, the people who pay the drainage and river board rates have no say whatever in the way in which this money is expended. There are undoubtedly many companies which must be affected in the same way but the attitude of the local River Board is ' that they could not care less' although every effort is made to meet the national requirements of the products which are manufactured at these works.
I suggest that some consideration should be given as to the extent to which, in default by a river board, there should be power to execute the works demanded by the nature of their neighbourhood; and, secondly, if similar cases have to be considered with regard to insurance, the Government should take a sympathetic view of the matter.
Speaking for my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself, I can say that we are very thankful to the Government for the way in which they have accepted this Motion. I did not imagine for a moment that they would resist it. But I want to point out that while it does not include what Mr. Gladstone called "the fatal word ' regrets'" it does include the far more optimistic word "expects," and I am quite sure that both sides of the House and the whole country will expect the Government to live up to the professions which have been made.
In the hope that that will be their determination, I have much pleasure in supporting the Motion and thanking the Government for the account they have given us of their stewardship. We wish them every success in carrying on in the spirit of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has ended the debate on the same agreeable note on which it has proceeded all through. I have very little to do except to try my best to answer some of the questions which the Home Secretary was not able to answer in detail in his very comprehensive account.
The right hon. Gentleman dealt, as he always does, with the human aspect of the problem and he very happily reminded us that it is the home and the loss of the home which is the most poignant and acute suffering.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) mentioned, as well as keeping the Government up to par, hon. Members in the districts affected could give very much help to local committees in their work, because now that we have set up the main structure the manner in which the work proceeds effectively depends to a certain extent on the work of the committees themselves and how much they are able to carry on effectively and earn the good will and confidence of those whom they are trying to help.
I was asked a particular question which I should like to answer at once while it is in my mind—the repair of electric installations. I had already replied to this question in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine). Broadly speaking, all the repair for the refixing and replacing of electric light services as far as the mains, which is normally the liability of the tenant or owner, including all internal carcassing in contact with flood water which is likely to be permanently affected, will be carried by the Government. If there are some losses inside the house— some extra payment for some attachment belonging to the proprietor—that would be the subject of a claim on the Lord Mayor's Fund, but that would be of a very minor character compared with the other losses.
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman was quite so happy in his references to the British insurance system. We live very largely on its earnings all over the world—not only on the probity, but also on the generosity of the British insurance system. It is a remarkable fact that in so vast a territory as the United States the British insurance system, because of its reputation in disasters like these and the San Francisco earthquake, is enabled to keep its immense profitable revenue, earned as a result of its long reputation. I think it is right to say that. Perhaps I may also say that in my smaller experiences of disasters, I have found the greatest possible assistance and help from the insurance interests in this country.
The debate was opened by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) in a very moderate speech which set the tone. The Motion was seconded by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) in a speech which I am bound to say was quite friendly for him. He said that the Lord Mayor was fine and that Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve was fine, but that the Ministers were not so good and were, in fact, the "niggers in the woodpile"; and that is quite reasonable for him. If he continues in that way he will earn quite a reputation for moderation.
As the Home Secretary said, the problem to be studied falls under four main headings—the agricultural problem, the personal problem, the industrial and commercial problem and the local authority problem. Before I come to give answers in detail, I want to reinforce what my right hon. and learned Friend said about why we have depended on two methods of relief—the things which the Government will do and the things which we have asked the Lord Mayor's Fund to do. The reason is not to save the Government's money. After all, the Government have to pay £1 for every £1 which is subscribed by the charitable folk of the country. It might even have been argued that we could have got away at a cheaper rate without the Fund.
When we discussed this matter on the very first morning of the disaster, we felt that when it comes to trying to help people the elasticity of a fund which is operated on a charitable basis is far better for them when they have to make their claims—sometimes without very much evidence in support—than a method which involves going before the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee. That was the main reason we decided that to deal with the human side of the problem we should get a fund and double it with Government contributions. I hope there will still be large subscriptions earning still more Government support—and I say that despite the presence of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) asked me whether we would guarantee the Fund. I was not quite sure what he meant. We are doubling every contribution to it, and I think that is the thing to do. If we were to say that we should guarantee it in the sense which he meant, we should dry up the very sources of charity upon which we rely. He reminded me of a famous exclamation of an Irish Member in the House many years ago, when he said, "Is there a spark of charity among you? Water it, my friends, water it!"
The hon. Gentleman went on to refer to the problem of the condemned houses —houses in bad condition. That is a special problem, as it has been during other losses and as it was during the war. There are many houses in bad condition. I hope we shall be able to give special attention to this area as well as to others and that, as we go on with the production of houses, we shall begin to make a real impact upon the slum clearance problem of the country, whether in the flooded areas or anywhere else.
Turning to the agricultural problem, I hope I may be able to use the Prime Minister's expression, which is not quoted accurately in the rather ingenious Motion on the Order Paper. I think I might say that the House is broadly satisfied with what we are doing for agriculture. There are a number of detailed points on which I ask hon. Members to await the Bill which it is hoped to publish next week. Even then I must ask hon. Members to be patient, because it will necessarily take the form of an enabling Bill—
—to allow schemes to be made, because there is such an enormous number of details, which have to be dealt with; but if we try to tie each one into a short Bill of this kind I think we shall lose time and tie the hands of Ministers and make them less generous than the House would wish them to be. I think that that is right as regards the long-term. As regards the short-term, the Home Secretary really covered all the points which were raised as to the various forms of compensation; but as regards the long-term, the main problems of which are the acreage grants, I think this will be dealt with best under the schemes brought in under the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) seemed a little concerned at the Home Secretary's having used the expression that land might be out of use for many years if not for ever. What, I think, my right hon. and learned Friend meant by that was that if wrong things were done, if foolish things were done, if things were done which might seem to ordinary men quite sensible things to do but the proved experience of other countries shows to be foolish to do, there might be a very heavy loss. So we have to introduce a scheme which agriculturists accept as in their own long-term interests, because they must refrain from doing things which may have a permanently injurious effect upon the land.
In regard to the special points of nurserymen and pig breeders and others who fall into the category of agriculturists in one sense, though not, perhaps, in the normal sense, we will see whether the machinery set up with the county agricultural committees is the best one for dealing with that part of the work which the Government expect to be done. I should have thought that it was not wrong, perhaps, to treat them as agriculturists, for so they are, but if some further delegation, in view of distances, is required, all that will be gone into by my right hon. Friend.
Meanwhile, I think I may say broadly that they will be covered in the same way as the rest, by the dual operation of what the Government will do in certain categories of things, and what the Fund will do in a rather wider category, not, perhaps, suitable for the close control of Government methods.
Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the explanatory note sent to the agricultural committees says:
No undertaking is given that payment will be made in respect of every or all of the loss, or that the full loss suffered will be compensated. Disbursements will depend on the total amount available to be distributed.
That is giving them a good deal of worry.
That is, of course, true as far as the Fund is concerned. That was distribution under the Fund, not under the Government. That is why it is still important that the Fund should be able to meet all its liabilities, but I have every reason to hope that it will be found that it will, but I still say that the method of distribution will treat those people better than if we were to fix a Governmental scheme subject to the strict control with which Government money must, with propriety, be managed.
I think that that is where the main division runs. For the rest, there have been some points that we will certainly look into, although I do not think the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) was on a very strong point about the method of distributing assistance for new curtains, new linoleum, and other things of that kind. He said that people were given orders upon the shops, chits with which to go to the shops, instead of being given up to £50 in cash.
I am not sure that if my wife were given £50 she would get new linoleum. There are some advantages in paying by bill in this way, rather than by paying out of money in the way the hon. Gentleman suggested. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was on a very strong point. One has to bear in mind, in the operation of this scheme, that so long as the system of giving credit operates successfully, in many cases it may be much the best for everybody concerned.
That is certainly a point we shall examine.
Those were the major points made by the hon. Gentleman. I can only say that we will look into the details. However, compared with the character and tone of his attacks upon us ever since this matter started, I think the Government have reason to take some credit for the fact that he is in so mild a mood tonight. He complained that claims were to be assessed on an insurance basis. According to him people were sent a message which was unintelligible because it said that claims would be assessed upon an insurance basis.
I think that was a not unreasonable way of dealing with it upon the part of the people managing the Fund. Here were people who had not insured their property, and the message goes out to them that they will be treated as if they had insured their property. That was really the meaning of the passage the hon. Gentleman read; that they will be treated as if they were insured and assessed upon the well-known insurance basis.
The question of industrial loss has been well covered in our discussion. At one time I thought there was a tendency on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite to range themselves behind big business. It would be an intolerable situation if the Government had to meet these very large claims for people like Anglo-Iranian or Unilevers, who could perfectly well either pay insurance premiums themselves or carry the matter, as many great industries do, upon their reserves. There is always the marginal case, the concern which is not quite a big business, and yet not quite in the category of a small personal business, but which may yet be a public company. I think my right hon. and learned Friend's statement will enable us to meet the marginal cases as they come along.
I come now to the local authorities and one or two matters with which they are very much concerned. They have had losses under various heads. Some of their houses have been damaged or destroyed; some of their public services have been put out of action; some of their municipal property, such as piers, have been damaged, and some of their coast protection works have been damaged.
I agree very much with what was said by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), and repeated by the right hon. Member for South Shields, that we must get out of the minds of the public the idea that these places are not ready to receive visitors, because their damage will be much increased if the notion gets about that they are not able and ready to receive all the visitors who can go to them next summer. I am sure that is the way to help them to get back as quickly as possible to their earning capacity, and that we shall try to do.
I have not a precise figure of the loss of municipal houses, but we think that the total loss of houses is likely to be not more than 450, and that there may be, in addition, about 1,400 seriously damaged but still repairable. But that is the total. I do not think the loss of municipal houses will amount to a serious figure, but they will come into the general calculation when we discuss the position of each authority.
I should like, in passing, to pay my tribute to what has already been done by the local authorities. They have done a lot of things outside their normal functions, and done them remarkably well. The way in which local authorities set about jobs, large and small, has been, on the whole, quite remarkable. I was asked what a little village should do. I have found that usually the rural district or county has been able to tell them what they are to do, and they have got on with it without bothering an officer of mine or contacting headquarters. On the whole that has worked very well, though there have been occasional breakdowns.
Broadly speaking, all the services are back to work—water, sewerage, and all the rest of it. Where there is still work to do, I am sure it would be injurious to these local authorities if the opinion got about the rest of the country that one ought to keep away. The more people who can go either to these places or to neighbouring places, the more money there will be flowing into these localities next summer. They have done very good work, and we shall do everything we can to help them.
First of all, there will be full reimbursement for certain undertakings—100 per cent. reimbursement—concerned with coast protection restoration, the clearing of mud and silt, and for the rest centres and all the emergency measures of that kind. All that will be paid by the Government and they will be fully reimbursed.
There was a point raised, I think, by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) as to whether it would be a mistake to press forward too quickly with the restoration and coast protection by September of this year and whether it would be better to wait a little. I think that the great thing is to get on as quickly as possible with the necessary protective work. That must come first. Actually, most of the responsibility for defences will fall on the river boards. The important thing is to do the first work first, otherwise we should look very foolish if, at the end of this year, we had failed to make the protection which we could do by rapid work.
Then—and I think that this is the answer to points raised by several hon. Members—there is the long-term problem, which is a very complicated one. I know the views held by the hon. Member for Lowestoft on the last legislation on this subject, but, roughly speaking, the long-term problem is, first, to find out what ought to be done, secondly, who is to do it, and, thirdly, who is to pay for it. That is, broadly, what the terms of reference to the Waverley Committee mean, although put in more formal language, and I think that they are very wide terms of reference. What ought to be done? That takes up the point very properly made by the right hon. Member for South Shields, that we cannot over-insure against something that may happen once in every 400 or 500 years. We could waste the whole substance of this country in fantastic defences, but we have to strike a balance. First, we have to assess what we ought to do; secondly, who is to do it—the administrative responsibility; and, thirdly, who is to pay for it, and, if I may continue in the proper language, that is the financial responsibility
. I think that is what the Committee will try and find out. While I am speaking of the Waverley Committee, I do not quite understand the point of the hon. Member for Lowestoft, who said that I ought to bring pressure on the local authorities to do more coast protection work. It is they who ought to bring pressure upon me, and if there are local authorities who are not liable for that duty we shall, of course, try to see that that is tied up.
The point I was making was the disinclination of the coast protection authorities to make a joint working authority under which the relationship and the responsibilities along the area of the sea board were interdependent. That is a very vital point.
The first thing to do during the next six months of good weather is immediate protective work. I think that this point comes under the terms of reference of the Waverley Committee as to who is to do it. By what administrative machinery is this job in future to be done?
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell), who always makes an interesting speech on matters affecting local government, with which he is very familiar, suggested that in the appointments to be made to the Committee, not yet filled, we should consider introducing special representatives or persons skilled in local government and local government finance. That, I am sure, the Home Secretary will consider in the future appointments which he has to make. I think that the hon. Member made a rather peevish attack upon Lord Waverley. For my part, I can only say that I think the Government have been very fortunate to have obtained his services.
I have had the honour of serving under Lord Waverley, and I regard him as not only one of the most efficient public servants but also the most loyal and, in my lifetime, the most courageous, without whose services we should not have overcome some of the disasters which threatened us during the war. We could not have found a more suitable public figure. He has exactly the type of mind; he himself is not expert in these matters, but he has the power of guiding and directing experts. I hope that, if we are able to fill the gaps and add to the people who are serving and helping him, the public, and perhaps even the hon. Member, will feel that we have done well in asking him to take the lead.
I think the word "peevish" was rather unfortunate. I did nothing to denigrate Lord Waverley. What I suggested was that, with such a chairman, with all his gifts and limitations, it was an inadequate Committee for the job, and I still feel so.
If the hon. Member withdraws his attack I withdraw my defence, but not the spirit of it, because I should not be happy if I did not defend Lord Waverley from what I thought was an attack on him.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) went rather further and suggested that the Committee should consider not merely floods but also tempests, and should deal not only with the waters in England but also the winds in Scotland. Lord Waverley has a very high reputation, but, even now, I do not think I could ask him to play the role of Prospero.
A great number of expenses of all kinds will fall upon the local authorities, such as repairs to council houses and other properties, and there will also be the cost of temporary housing, which we shall make every effort to get going. I was glad about the suggestion of help from the new town of Basildon. Some money will have to be spent on temporary housing, caravans, and so on. There will be repairs to services and the clearance of debris, and, perhaps even more important, if we cannot get premises quickly to work, earning again, losses in rates and rents in the towns themselves. All that is difficult to ascertain at this moment.
A short time after the disaster I wrote personally to each mayor and chairman saying that our officers, both regionally and at the centre, were absolutely at their service. I said that we wanted them, first of all, to do the job—I thought it the best thing to concentrate on for the first three weeks—of clearing the ditches and roads and then to put their claims to us, and I told them that we would try to get the most generous settlement that we could. I do not think they need be afraid, because I am sure there will be a universal feeling in the House that this matter should be treated broadly on a national basis.
I should like to make some reference to the Scottish questions which have been raised—
Allotments come under agriculture and will be treated in the same way as agriculture.
There was also a question of fact raised by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg). He had some complaint about Army billeting.
I have not been able to ascertain the cause in this instance. It might have been that the word "billet" was not used because, at present, there are no billeting rights in England. There might have been some confusion about that.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland regretted the silence of the Secretary of State for Scotland. So do I, because he would have been winding up the debate instead of me. My experience is that when he speaks he generally speaks very briefly and very much to the point and achieves what he wants, for which I envy him. The problem in Scotland is that it is a great timber loss. I should like to say at once that the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) that we should shut down on timber licences and importation in order to get all this sold on the English market is not practicable, first, because the total amount of 40 million cubic feet is what would be called marginal in the total use and import of timber. If it could all be got in in three months it would not meet 7 or 8 per cent. of our total needs. Therefore, that would not be a helpful suggestion.
There is a good side to this, the fact that the amount is so small compared with the total market that its effect on the market is very small, too. Had it been 50 or 60 per cent. of the market amount it might have broken the market. It will, however, have a negligible effect. I understand that something like two-thirds has already been arranged for logging and transport. In view of the immense problem involved in dealing with it, I should have thought that that was not a bad result for the period of time taken. It represents well over a year's work. Therefore, that major job is going ahead. It would probably be to the public interest generally to let it rest there until a further statement can be made by the Secretary of State.
Applications for additional labour have been filled locally by the Ministry of Labour and that is very advisable. The Secretary of State has not thought it necessary to bring in labour from outside. We would not have hesitated had it been necessary, but it is obviously better to use local labour. He said that negotiations have been satisfactorily concluded with the Railway Executive as to the price and quantity of softwood timber and wagon timber for the next two years. Negotiations with the National Coal Board are going on, but my right hon. Friend agrees that the solution of the freight problem is a very important one. Something like a year's work has been arranged, and I hope that Members, who, not unnaturally, are very anxious to know the details, will await a little longer until a further statement is made on this and some outstanding points.
Generally, we readily accept this Motion, taking the Prime Minister's words that the damage requires to be treated upon a national basis. We also accept the spirit of the debate, and I think we may say without exaggeration that broadly we have the approval of the House of Commons. I feel myself that since this debate started, there have been opposite me a number of Balaams. They came to curse, but they stayed to bless. On that Biblical note—[Interruption.]—I stated earlier that I might even get a blessing from the hon. Member for Dart-ford before I had finished.
There was a reference to the small attendance at this debate. I do not think that that is fair to my hon. Friends behind me, because, naturally, in a debate like this Members who represent the constituencies concerned and who have special points to put like to put them, and we try to look at them all. The debate will be useful, because we will look at every point made and see whether we can get some further guidance from it. The temper and tone of the debate shows that the Government have and deserve the confidence of the House of Commons and the country in their broad treatment of this national disaster.
That this House accepts the principle enunciated by the Prime Minister that the damage inflicted on various parts of the United Kingdom by flood and tempest on 31st January and 1st February, 1953, requires to be treated on a national basis, and owing to the magnitude of the catastrophe expects that principle to be fully implemented by Her Majesty's Government.