People and Problems
There is a strange air about Westminster during the recess. In some ways the place is still a hive of activity for all the “spring cleaning” and maintenance work is being done. Many of the familiar faces are seen about most of the time, for quite apart from M.P.s and members of the House of Lords, there are over 1,400 people on duty in the normal day. These consist of permanent officials; Ministry of Works staff; policemen and many secretaries. And there are always visitors and tourists looking round. The debating chamber itself is only open to the public for two or three days a week, but Westminster Hall can be seen every day. It is curious how many people mistake it for Westminster Abbey! When walking across the Hall I have often been stopped and asked, “Where are Poets' Corner and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior?” The explanation for the confusion may be that there are a number of plaques in the Hall marking the place where our Kings and Queens have lain in state, and this leads people to think this is the Abbey. The newest and most historic of the plaques, is to Sir Winston Churchill.
Many of the near-London Members, including myself, go to Parliament most days in the week throughout the recess to deal with correspondence, because the interesting and rewarding task of advising constituents on their problems continues all the time. [end p1] The “Members' Post Office” is one of the busiest places in the building, for we all collect our mail there. Incidentally, the easiest and shortest address for constituents to remember is to address me at The House of Commons, Westminster, S.W.1.
The following cases are but a few examples of the kind I have been tackling in the last month.
Pensions for Deserted Wives.
Most married women draw an ordinary retirement pension by virtue of the weekly national insurance stamps paid over the years by their husbands. Provided a wife is not herself working, she will get the pension when her husband retires or reaches the age of 70. The average case presents no difficulty, but there is a problem for deserted wives, some of whom have neither seen nor heard of their husbands for many years. The deserted wife is still covered by her husband's insurance, but so long as he is working and is under 70, she can't draw a pension. The moment he retires however, or alternatively passes his 70th birthday, she will be entitled to the wife's part of the pension (at present 50/- a week), unless she is still working. To find out where she stands she should make enquiries through the local National Insurance Office (10 Finchley Lane, N.W.4) giving details of her [end p2] husband's name, age, etc. This information will usually be enough to trace the insurance record, and although the office will not give away his present address or anything about him, they will put the pension into payment as soon as it becomes due. As no more than six months arrears are payable, it is essential to make enquiries at least at six monthly intervals.
Check your Rates before buying a House.
One recent plea about the burden of rates comes from a young couple who have recently bought a house and have now found that the rates were much higher than they bargained for. Unfortunately, they had not enquired in the right quarter and had consequently relied upon what turned out to be inaccurate information. There is only one way to make sure of the rateable value and that is to contact the Rating department of the Borough Treasurer's office and ask in writing for the Gross Rateable value, and the Net Rateable value, of the property in which you are interested, and the current rate poundage. There will be no difficulty whatever in getting this information promptly.
Crime—Petitions to the Home Secretary.
Unlike honesty and virtue, Crime is always news, and most Members receive a fairly regular flow of letters from people in prison who say they were wrongly convicted. Every case has to be followed up with the Home Office, for always there is the nagging thought that this might be the exceptional case where [end p3] a miscarriage of justice has occurred. The Home Secretary can recommend that a pardon be granted or that there should be a remission of sentence. It is not his job however, to act as another Court of Appeal or to rehear the case. He takes the view, and I believe wisely, that if no fresh evidence additional to that given in the trial or on appeal, has come to light, he could not justifiably take steps to reverse the Court's decision. The great majority of petitions advance no fresh evidence and are therefore unsuccessful.
Crime—Probation and the Police.
An interesting point about recruitment to the Metropolitan Police force has come to light. On two occasions I have heard from people who are most anxious to become policemen, but have been rejected because they served a short period on probation for a very minor offence at the age of 11 or 12. In spite of an excellent record ever since; first class references, and suitability in every way, their applications were not successful. These persons naturally felt aggrieved and that they were paying several times over for the same childish offence, but one can understand the reasons for this general rule, although it operates harshly in certain cases.
During August I came across a sad case of a person who had [end p4] paid good money for a car which turned out to be stolen. The story began when he saw an advertisement in an evening paper for a car of a foreign make. Eventually he bought it for £500, and was looking forward to spending his summer holiday touring the continent.
While making the necessary arrangements, the authorities discovered the car's true history. It had been stolen in Switzerland, and brought over here via Germany, by a temporary visitor. After two months it was licensed and registered here, and was then sold. Duty had be properly paid to the customs.
As soon as it was identified as stolen, it had to be returned to its rightful owner in Switzerland. For him, the story had a happy ending, but not for my constituent who had spent his life savings in buying the car, and had neither car nor money. His only redress was to sue the person who sold the car, but he could not be traced.
I took up the case with the Ministry of Transport to see if a check could be made here before foreign cars were allowed to be registered. They said that such a large number of vehicles are privately imported and then sold, that much as they sympathised, it would be quite impossible to check every one with the police authorities of many different countries. This is not an isolated case by any means, and perhaps it may act as a [end p5] timely warning to those about the embark on buying a car under similar circumstances.
I began by referring to Westminster during the recess. We were all shocked by the death of The Speaker, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, and distressed for Lady Hylton-Foster, who has supported him wonderfully. Hers is a long association with the House of Commons, for her father was also Speaker. Every day she sat in the special seat reserved for her in the Gallery, and listened to Question Time. That way she rapidly learned Members' names and their special interests and characteristics. When Sir Harry was elected as Speaker, he promised that it would be “not only his duty but his whole ambition in life to serve faithfully and well and to maintain in full vigour those traditions that have made this House at once the origin and the example of Parliamentary institutions throughout the world” .
In the arguments which have since taken place about his successor, I have often thought about those words. The new Speaker will almost certainly outlast the present Parliament and the choice should not be affected by the smallness of the Government majority. On merit and experience the position should go to the present Deputy Speaker, Dr. Horace King, and I sincerely hope that these considerations will prevail over all others.