HC Deb 14 March 1899 vol 68 cc785-90

In asking leave to introduce "a Bill to empower local authorities to advance money for enabling persons to acquire the ownership of small houses in which they reside," I should perhaps take notice of an observation made in my absence by the Leader of the Opposition, who, in stating that this Bill was one of the most important in the programme of the Government, maintained that we did not give the House what is called an opportunity for a full-dress Debate at this stage of our proceedings. I think the right honourable Gentleman could not have made that observation if he had followed the course of proceedings in this matter, and had been aware of the nature of the Bill I propose to introduce. The subject of the Bill, and, generally speaking, its provisions, have been again and again before the House, they have been discussed and approved in the House of Commons, and the Measure certainly cannot be called one of Party controversy. In 1893 a Bill similar in its object was introduced to the House of Commons by Mr. Wright-son, then Member for Stockton-on-Tees. On that occasion the principle of the Bill was approved by the colleague of the right honourable Gentleman opposite—-the right honourable Member for East Wolverhampton, and the Second Reading was carried by a very large majority. In 1896, and again in 1898, similar Bills were introduced to this House by my honourable Friends the Members for Central Sheffield and West Wolverhampton; and on these occasions also—altogether three times—the principle of the Bill has received the assent of the House of Commons. In the House of Lords a similar Bill has been introduced by Lord Londonderry, and there it passed through all its stages, including a reference to a Standing Committee, both in 1896 and 1898, and on these occasions the Bill was warmly approved by Lord Rosebery and Lord Kimberley. Under such circumstances, it can hardly be expected we should think it necessary to trouble the House with a special discussion at this early and formal stage of the proceedings. Now the present Bill has exactly the same objects as those Bills to which I have referred. It is intended to extend to the occupiers of small houses the same facility to become the owners of their houses that has already been extended by legislation to the owners of small farms in Ireland and to small holders of tenancies in this country; and we believe that legislation of this kind is equally applicable to the towns and to the occupation of houses as it is to the country and to the occupation of land, and that to assist occupiers to become owners will have a tendency to make them better citizens, to give them a larger stake in the country, and to provide for them a popular and favourite form of thrift, and will,. in addition, do, perhaps, more than any other legislation, if it is largely availed of, to secure healthy and comfortable homes, because it is perfectly clear that the working classes and people who live in these houses cannot be expected to take a great interest in their condition or expend money or give time and labour to improve them as long as they are working only for the benefit of their landlords, and because the class of persons who now own these small properties are not men from whom you can expect any lavish expenditure in improving the houses. We believe this result will follow, that if this Bill is taken advantage of to any considerable extent the occupiers of small dwellings will become the owners of them. The provisions are substantially the same as those of the Bills to which I have referred. The Bill is a voluntary one. It is voluntary upon the working man whether he will offer to become the owner of his house, it is voluntary upon the present landlord r owner of the house whether he will sell, and it is voluntary upon the local authority whether or not they will advance the money. But, subject to those assents, which we believe it will not be difficult to obtain in a great number of cases, the operation of the Bill will proceed upon the lines of the Bills to which I have already referred. In the Debates which took place on those Bills certain practical objections were made to the details. I do not think there was much objection taken in any quarter of the House to the principle of the Measures, but certain objections were made to points of detail, and those objections we have endeavoured to meet. In the first place it was said the Bills had too limited an application, and only a very email section of the population would be able to take advantage of the facilities. We have endeavoured to extend very largely the operation of the Bill by certain changes. In the first place, we have altered the definition of the persons to be benefited. In the previous Bills it was intended that the operation of the Measures should be extended chiefly to artisans. We do not define those who are to take advantage of this Measure by any reference to their class or employment; the fact of them occupying a house below a certain value will bring them within the purview of the Bill whatever be their occupation or position in life. We have increased the value of the house, which is to be a qualifying condition, from £200 to £300, and thereby we hope to include practically the working classes and others who occupy small houses of the kind we desire to deal with in the suburbs of London and other large towns.

*MR. WEIR (Ross and Cromarty)



Certainly; it applies exactly to Scotland as to England. Then we have also increased the limit of advance which may be made by the local authority from three-fourths to four-fifths, so that the maximum amount which may be advanced will be £240 upon a house of the value of £300; and, lastly, with the same object, we have made a change in the limit which has hitherto been placed upon the operations of the local authorities. Personally, I think it is unnecessary in cases where the action of the local authority is voluntary to put any limit at all on their discretion. I think they would be perfectly well able to take care of themselves and their constituents. At the same time, as there is always a fear that legislation of this kind will add largely to the rates, the Government have come to the conclusion that some limitation should be imposed. The limitation proposed in Mr. Wrightson's Bill was one-eighth of the rateable value, and it was pointed out that in many cases that would only allow a very small number of applicants to be provided for in particular localities. We have thought that the proper limit is the limit of expense and not of rateable value. It does not matter how much money is advanced provided no cost is put in the rates, and the limit we propose on that whenever the expense under the Bill rises to above a rate of 1d. in the pound the operation of the Bill shall cease until such time as the expense sinks below that limit. In my opinion that will leave a wide field for the operation of the Bill, because we do not anticipate that any expense, or any but the most trivial expense, will be thrown on the local authorities, as we believe the terms on which they lend and the securities they will hold will be quite sufficient to ensure them from loss. There is another point to which we have directed attention in the hope of improving the character of the Bill. It was said that the Bill would interfere with what is called the mobility of labour. My belief is that the mobility of labour has been considerably exaggerated by those who have spoken on the subject. My experience of a large manufacturing town is that a large number—indeed, probably by far the larger proportion—of the working classes are not more mobile than other classes. On the other hand, it is perfectly true there are certain trades which change in their situation, and the workmen have to follow them. Although, as I say, the difficulty is exaggerated, we feel that it is desirable that a workman who becomes the owner of his house should be able to transfer his holding with the greatest possible ease and facility, and we have done what we can to make it more possible for him to do so. In the first place, we propose that ownerships of this kind should be specially registered by the local authority, and that transfer shall be freely made upon payment of a fee which in no case shall exceed 10s. The owner of a dwelling will have full power to transfer, and we have provided that, in cases in which an owner of a property ceases to reside in it, as he may in consequence of change of situation, and where he is himself unable to transfer, the local authority may take over the dwelling at a price to be fixed by arbitration, the abitration to be carried out by the county court judge or by on arbitrator appointed by him. Of course, in cases in which the other statutory conditions are violated—that is to say, the condition that a man shall pay his instalments regularly, that he shall keep the house insured, and keep it in proper condition—if those conditions are violated, then the local authority has power to at once enter upon possession of the house and to sell it, paying to the workman anything that may accrue from the sale over and above the debt. But he have thought a forced sale entailing possibly some sacrifice would be too hard a condition in cases in which the workman has only given up residence, and, therefore, in these cases we have made it much easier for him to obtain the value of his house by an arrangement which will give him the appreciation in value of the house, if it has appreciated in the course of his occupancy, while the local authority will be secured from loss by paying only fair value if it happens that the house has depreciated. I have only to add that there are provisions in the Bill for applying it to Ireland and to Scotland, and I hope that when it comes before the House on a Second Reading it may receive, at all events, as favourable a reception from all sides of the House as has been given to those other Measures to which I have referred.

*MR. MCKENNA (Monmouth, N.)

The right honourable Gentleman must be congratulated on having assumed responsibility for this Measure, of which he has given us a lucid explanation, but I think he cannot have been aware of the facts when he says that previous Bills of this character had not been objected to. I think the moment is most inopportune for the introduction of this Bill, seeing that the Royal Commission on Local Taxation is now sitting, and has had before it a vast body of evidence dealing with the question of the taxation of ground values. If it should report in favour of such taxation the prospects of this Bill would be seriously affected, and it would lose the charm it now possesses for possible purchasers. A fatal objection to the Bill is that the local rates, which press so hardly upon the poorest of the poor and the struggling tradesmen, are to be used for the purpose of creating freeholds for the benefit of particular classes who have already shown themselves fully capable through building societies of providing for their own needs. If the freehold increases in value, the gain will go to the individual; if it declines, the loss will fall upon the ratepayers. The Bill will only affect a small and limited class, and the burden will largely fall on the very poorest of the community. For these reasons, which I think go to the principle of the Bill—because it is inopportune and partial—I hope it will not be given a First Reading.

Leave was then given to bring in the Bill, and it was read a first time; to be read a second time upon Monday next, and to be printed. (Bill 125.)