HC Deb 30 April 1902 vol 107 cc336-47


Order for Second Reading read.

(12.15.) MR. MACARTNEY (Antrim, S.)

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, I have to inform the House that it contains no new principle to which the assent of Parliament has not hitherto been given, nor, indeed, do the provisions or powers embodied in it present any new form of procedure which has not been authorised by Parliament and made applicable to Ireland. It might, therefore, be asked—Where is the necessity for the Bill in its present form? I will shortly explain that to the House. Its provisions, in the main, are identical with the Act which was passed in 1899 to enable occupiers of small houses to acquire the ownership of those houses. The Act was drafted, in the main, for England; but it was applied to Scotland and to Ireland by special clauses, which, so far as Scotland and Ireland are concerned, brought the Bill into operation by substituting certain authorities and modifying certain powers. With regard to Ireland, the modifications introduced by the empowering clause are no less than fourteen in number. In this class of legislation experience proves that if it is desired to amend the main Act it is almost impossible, where the Act has been applied in this way to one particular country, to do so in an intelligible, clear, or concise manner. Those who desire to take advantage of the amending Act which receives the sanction of Parliament, or those who have to put it into operation, have to go through the process of consulting various Acts of Parliament—a process which is neither salutary to the object which Parliament desires to bring into operation, or, indeed, to those who desire to take advantage of the legislation which has been assented to by Parliament. I have, therefore, for the purpose of amending the Act of 1899 as regards rural sanitary districts in Ireland, introduced this Bill, most of the provisions of which have already been assented to by Parliament, while the others are modifications to which the House will, I trust, have no difficulty in giving its assent. My object in doing so is to bring, as concisely and as shortly and as clearly as possible, before those who are interested in obtaining the benefit of this legislation, and before those who are empowered to carry it out, the machinery which Parliament has provided and the benefits which Parliament desires to confer upon them.

In the first place, the Bill differs from the Act of 1899 in that it only applies to rural sanitary authorities in Ireland. I have confined myself to the case of the rural districts because I understand that the Act of 1899 has already been put in force in some two or three instances in urban districts in Ireland. I myself have no personal experience of how it has worked, but I do not wish to complicate this particular measure with any alteration or Amendment of the machinery which operates in urban districts. But so far as rural districts in Ireland are concerned my experience is that hardly anybody representing the class on whom Parliament desired to confer the benefits of the Act of 1899 is aware that such an Act exists or indeed applies to Ireland; and it is for the purpose of bringing within the reach of that class of the population the benefits which that Act is designed to confer upon them, that I ask the House to assent to this Bill, which will place shortly and clearly before the rural sanitary authorities what are the powers which they can exercise, and which will enable any occupier of a house within the area of their authority to see what are the advantages which he can hope to obtain, and what is the method and machinery which he has to attempt to make use of.

The second difference is that this Bill in no way includes the County Councils in Ireland. Under the Act of 1899 they were one of the local authorities who were to put the measure in force. That may be very applicable to England as well as to Scotland, but the County Councils in Ireland are not the authority for bringing into operation machinery of this class. So far as the Labourers' Acts are concerned the County Councils have absolutely nothing to do. The authority which deals with them in Ireland is the the local sanitary authority, i.e., the District Council, and it seems to me that for the purposes of the main Act of 1899 this Bill had better be confined to those who are accustomed to deal with this matter in relation to the labouring population and the machinery of the Labourers' Acts. I have, therefore, omitted all reference in this measure to the County Councils. Another minor difference is that the total amount which I propose shall be advanced by the District Council is reduced in this Bill by £40. Hon. Members acquainted with Ireland will agree that £200, the total amount which may be advanced is amply sufficient in ninty-nine times out of a hundred to cover all the cases that may come under the operation of the Bill. The Local Government Board is constituted the authority for determining the conditions, rate of interest, and the period at which instalments of the loan shall be repaid to the District Council. That is a slight difference from the Act of 1899, but I think it will be more elastic, and will tend to easier administration if the Local Government Board in Ireland is left to settle, as I presume it will be, in consultation with the various District Councils the rate of interest, the period at which different instalments ought to be paid, and, what is more, the various conditions of the repayment of the advance which will make it easiest for the District Council to carry out and administer the Bill. I propose also to substitute Sub-section B, Clause 2 in the Bill, for the provisions in the main Act which apply to the conditions as to which the local authorities in England have to satisfy themselves, viz., as to the value of the ownership, the title, the sanitary conditions, and the state of repair of the house on which it is proposed to make the advance. It is quite easy to imagine a case in which the local authority might satisfy itself in relation to all those special points which are specified in the Act of 1899, and yet in which the house upon which it is proposed to make the advance is not altogether a desirable acquisition, or one which it would advisable in the interest of the ratepayer to make an advance upon, I have, therefore, substituted for the various conditions specified in the main Act the following provision— That the advance, having regard to all the circumstances of the ease, is one which an ordinary mortgagee would be willing to make. I think this provision will amply cover the interests of the ratepayers, and will be sufficient to enable the District Council to come to a conclusion as to whether or not the application for an advance is one which ought to be admitted to the benefits of the Bill.

I have further modified the procedure in relation to the occasion when default is made in compliance with the statutory conditions. I propose to abolish the distinction which exists in the main Act between a breach of the statutory conditions of residence and the statutory condition for payment and other statutory conditions. The Act of 1899 confers upon the local authority, in reference to any breach by the proprietor of the statutory conditions—say regard to residence or unpunctuality in payment of instalments—more stringent powers than it does with respect to some other statutory conditions. It does not seem to me desirable to make that distinction. Those who are acquainted with the feeling in Ireland, and especially in the north—and I daresay the same feeling exists in many other portions of Ireland—are well aware of the reluctance which the local sanitary authorities have in applying the machinery which Parliament has invested in them in carrying out many of the conditions of the Public Health Act, which involves any increase on the rates or any burden on the ratepayer. I am extremely anxious, as I suppose every hon. Member who represents Ireland is, to see the benefits of this special class of legislation taken advantage of as largely as possible by the humbler members of the rural community, where, of course, it can be safely done and without imprudence, at the expense of the ratepayers. Therefore I am disposed to think that District Councils will be more inclined to embark upon the extension and benefits conferred by the Act of 1899, if they feel that there is not the opening which is afforded in that Act for a distinction between breaches of the statutory conditions. I have said I cannot see why a person to whom an advance has been given under the Bill should be treated in a different manner because he has committed a breach of one statutory condition to that in which he would be treated for the breach of another statutory condition. If he fails to keep the house in repair and to keep up the insurance, it seems to me that the local authority should have the same powers given to it in dealing with him as though he had failed in the punctual payment of the instalment or in the condition that he alone shall occupy the house.

I have slightly altered the powers conferred upon the local authorities where possession has been obtained, and I wish to draw the attention of the House to a somewhat important modification of the Act now on the Statute-book, viz., the provision as to how and where the local authority has taken possession of a house, and, where it has, under the Act, to pay the proprietor a certain sum which is to be agreed upon, the value of his interest in the house is to be determined. Under the Act of 1899 this value is to be determined by the machinery provided under Sections 6 to 20 of that Act by common law procedure, by arbitration, or by reference to a County Court judge. Those who are acquainted with the procedure know that it involves the parties to the dispute in a certain amount of expenditure which I think is unnecessary, and ought if possible to be avoided. I have, therefore, provided that the amount shall be determined by the Inspector of the Local Government Board. From what I have seen of the administration of the Labourers' Acts in the North of Ireland, and the manner in which these inspectors carry out their inquiries, I am satisfied that the interests of both parties to a dispute of this sort may be safely intrusted to them; they will do the work expeditiously, and with economy, in the interests of the ratepayers.

These are practically the differences in procedure and in machinery which exist between the Bill of which I am now moving, the Second Reading and the Act of 1899, as made applicable to Ireland. The result comes to this, that some eight or nine sections of the Act of 1899 are got rid of, and that every local authority in Ireland, or those who are anxious to avail themselves of the powers which Parliament has already conferred on them, will have before them, without the difficulty of the reference to various Acts already in existence, the procedure which is necessary to be followed, and the means to be adopted in order to gain the advantages and benefits which in 1899 Parliament designed to confer on the rural population of Ireland as well as of England. I do not present this Bill to the House as a great effort of legislation, but I do say this, that it is desirable that what Parliament has attempted to do for any class of the community should be presented to them in as simple a manner as possible. I am bound to say I do not think that any labourer in Ireland, or any of those who live in the rural districts of Ulster, who may contribute largely to their own support by some of the industries that exist in rural districts, can easily find out how they are to take advantage of the Act of 1899, nor indeed, do I think that the local authorities themselves would find on perusal of the Act, anything which clearly and distinctly conveyed to them what are the powers which they ought to exercise. I submit that the modifications contained in the Bill embody nothing that either the Government or the House should take objection to. They do not in the least relax any of the protection of the ratepayers; but the proposals of the Bill do present in a clearer and more precise form both to the sanitary authorities and the population the benefits which Parliament designed to confer on them in 1899. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Motion made and Question proposed "That the Bill be now read a second time."

(12.35.) Attention called to the fact that forty Members were not present. House counted, and, forty Members not being present, the sitting was suspended.

(2.0.) MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

said he was entirely in favour of the Bill, and desired to see it passed, but inasmuch as it repealed parts of a statute passed by the Government three years ago they ought to have some statement from the Government with regard to the measure. He remembered the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Monmouthshire declaring once that we were all Socialists. This certainly was a measure socialistic in its character, but he did not object to it on that ground. Still he would like to hear from the Chief Secretary for Ireland whether the Bill had the approval of the Government. The whole position of the housing of the working classes, North, South, East, and West, was in a most unsatisfactory condition, and he was in favour of almost anything that would tend to remove the evil. The present Act had been a complete failure, both as regarded England and Ireland, and he doubted whether in England a dozen houses had been bought or built under it. He did not know of a single case in Ireland during the three years the Act had been in operation. The Act had, in fact, been a complete dead letter, and he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Antrim that it was impossible for the labourer or anybody else to understand it. Certainly this Bill made the position clearer, and if it would have the effect of persuading the local authorities in Ireland to act, he would gladly support the Second Reading. But let the House understand what it was doing. This was not a new proposal brought forward by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Antrim. What he proposed to effect could already be done under the law. The only difference between his Bill and the Act of 1899 was that the Rural Councils in Ireland could not, under the law as it now stood, act without the sanction of the County Council. The Bill removed that difficulty, and the District Councils would, under it, be able to act of their own accord. He was entirely in favour of the principle of the Bill, but he desired to hear what the Government had to say on it.


I do not intend to detain the House at very great length. I think the appeal made to me is a reasonable one, and that I ought early in the debate to state the views of the Government on this measure. I endorse what has fallen from the hon. Member for South Tyrone, that this Bill does not contain any new principle; it is, if I may say so, only an adaptation in respect of Ireland of legislation, the main principles of which are already applied to the United Kingdom. The chief provisions of this Bill are contained in the Act of 1899, which, in accordance with procedure usual in legislating for the United Kingdom, contained an adaptation clause for Ireland in order to make it suit the needs of that country. We now have the Bill, in so far as it is applicable to Ireland, drafted as one whole measure. I understand that my right hon. friend the Member for South Antrim, who has proposed the Second Reading of the Bill, attaches a great deal of importance to that. He holds that elected bodies who have to administer a complicated measure of this kind may quite easily lose their way in a large Act which applies to England, Scotland, and Ireland, the adaptation clauses fitting it for the two latter countries. The Government on that ground have no objection to the Second Reading of this Bill; they think it is a reasonable proposition, which the House might well entertain. But I cannot lead the House to believe that the Bill is necessarily to be passed in the shape in Which it is at present drawn. The right hon. Gentleman omits certain portions of the present Act, and, although I will not on the Second Reading pronounce a definite opinion on these omissions, I must distinctly say that they will have to be carefully considered. I ought to add that in respect of some of them, as at present advised, I hold it will be necessary to include in this measure some safeguards which were placed in the original Act. That Act, so far as it applies to the United Kingdom generally, only gives these powers to elected bodies representing a population of 10,000. The framers of that Act held that there was some danger in giving these large financial powers to persons representing very small populations. I must reserve the opinion of the Government on this point. A lower limit of 5,000 was introduced to meet the case of Ireland, and I think possibly that limit will have to be re-introduced, with some appeal in the case of districts with small populations. There is one other point on which, perhaps, I may say a word. In the original Act there was a direction to the local authorities to take account of the value of the ownership of the house and see whether it was sufficient, also whether it was in good sanitary condition. Unless strong arguments are adduced to convince me that this safeguard is unnecessary, I must own I attach some importance to it. This is a measure not for building houses, but for buying them; and I doubt very much whether public money ought to be expended and public credit utilised for houses in bad sanitary condition. If that were permitted, we should be acting counter to another set of Acts, which enables us to condemn insanitary houses. The third point is that in the original Act the amount to be paid to the owner was to be settled by the County Court judge or by arbitration. In the Bill of my right hon. friend the settlement is to be left to an inspector of the Local Government Board. Of course, an inspector of the Local Government Board could not act without the authority of the Board, and it will be necessary to substitute the Board in its corporate capacity for the County Court judge or the arbitrator. I welcome that change, because it is in the direction of economy, for all deplore the great expense of local government in Ireland. With these three reservations—for that is what they are—I think the Government may accept the principle of the Bill. The reservations are in the nature of re-introducing certain provisions which have been omitted, but re-introducing them in a better form; and if we have the chance of considering this Bill in Committee, I believe we may be able to make a positive addition to it. One of the greatest drawbacks to the working of the original Act has been the difficulty in establishing title, to find out to whom the house belongs from which a public body is hypothecating public credit; and if anybody can devise a provision which will simplify that, I shall be only too glad to introduce it into the Bill.

(2.15.) MR. JOHN REDMOND (Waterford)

I regard this Bill as such a small and insignificant measure that it is not worth while spending any time in discussing it. The right hon. Gentleman who introduced it acted most fairly; he did not pretend that he was introducing a great measure of reform, or a measure of enormous value to Munster or anywhere else. If he had taken that attitude, I should have been compelled to have taken up a few moments of the time of the House to show that it was not so. It is a measure which can do no harm, and I do not think it can do any good. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary that if the Second Reading of this Bill is passed it will be necessary to serutinise very carefully the details. There are some that the right hon. Gentleman will probably object to, and others to which we on this side of the House may probably object; therefore, in agreeing to the Second Beading, we must not be taken to agree to all the details. If that is understood, we take no objection to the Second Reading.

MR. HEMPHILL (Tyrone, N.)

I rise merely to say I am very glad the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary has consented to the Second Reading of this Bill, because those who know anything about Ireland know that the Small Dwellings Act is largely referential. I think it is desirable to get rid of referential legislation as applied to matters of this nature; and a short Act of Parliament could settle everything. I hope this Bill, when it is given its Second Reading, will be referred to the Standing Committee on Law, so that Amendments may be introduced, and the matter discussed justly and reasonably; and it may be turned out a good measure in the end. I recollect I was on the Standing Committee on Law when the last Act of this nature was passed, and I had then an Amendment to reduce the population limit of 5,000, which I thought was too high to make the Act applicable to Ireland, and my conviction proved to be right. I think this Bill will remedy a great evil, under which the labouring classes in every part of Ireland—north, south, east, and west—suffer. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary that it would be very desirable to simplify the procedure by which cottages purchased by the Rural District Council are to be obtained. And I think there is a clause in the Bill as it stands which meets one of the anticipated objections of the Chief Secretary, because there is a sub clause that the advance made would, having regard to ail the circumstances of the case, be one which an ordinary mortgagee would make, and we all know that an ordinary mortgagee would not lend money unless there was sufficient security to make his money safe. Under these circumstances, I have great pleasure in supporting the Second Reading.

MR. NANNETTI (Dublin, College Green)

I support the Second Reading of this Bill on the ground that I think it will do some good. Like the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary, I believe there will be some difficulty under this Bill with regard to title. In the questions of title that we have had to deal with, we have found that a title considered sufficient and good by a private individual was not one that would be accepted by the examiner or the person to whom the title was sent for consideration. One case came particularly under my observation, where a most desirable tenant desired to purchase his house. He entered into negotiations with the Corporation, the Corporation accepted him, and everything was settled. He was then sent to the examiner, who would not allow the matter to go through, because the ground landlord could not prove that he had had a forty years' title. In this Bill there is provision made that the purchaser should have a certain amount of purchase money before he should be allowed to negotiate for purchase; but if this Act was to be extended, something would have to be done to reduce the amount of money a man himself must be prepared to deposit before he can enter into negotiations, so that people will be able to take advantage of the Bill. I trust that this Bill will be allowed to go through its Second Reading, because I think it is a step in the right direction; and I trust such Amendments may be made in the Committee stage as will have the effect of bringing about a speedy amendment of the Act of 1898.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday, 12th May. (2.25.)