HC Deb 29 June 1904 vol 137 cc90-9

As amended, considered.


said he had three Amendments on the Paper, all of which really related to the same matter, namely, the provisions of Clause 20, which dealt with vermin-infested houses. He considered that the proposals in the Bill were far too drastic, though he did not wish to minimise in the least the inconvenience arising from the conditions indicated. There was a small insect which was known for its powers of springing and hopping, but it, he thought, was hardly within the purview of the Bill, because he could not imagine that any enactment of this House would really be of avail against that insect. There was another insect, of which he understood there was a considerable number in the county of London, and which he might term a round, flat insect. That was the insect with which this clause dealt. He pointed out that the borough councils, which were the local authorities, had already various powers with regard to nuisances which injured health. It had never been shown, and he apprehended that it could not be shown, that the existence of this class of vermin was injurious to health. [An Hon. Member: Oh!] If it were injurious to health, the existing Acts would undoubtedly apply, and there would be no occasion for any further provision in the present Bill. If it were merely proposed to treat houses infested with the nuisance in the same manner as nuisances which were injurious to health were treated by Sections 4 and 5 of the London Public Health Act, 1891, he should have no objection at all. It was not so much the question of penalty which he objected to. Section 20 of this Bill enabled, or rather almost compelled, a local authority, not upon its own initiative but upon the initiative of its medical officer, to do certain repairs in the house. It might be to repaper it, or to take down plaster work. These alterations might be very expensive; and the real point of his objection to the clause was that these alterations and repairs could be done without the local authority having first to obtain an order from a magistrate. The whole duty was cast by the Bill on the medical officer. It was true that the medical officer had to satisfy the sanitary authority that the house was infested with vermin, but that seemed to him to be almost compulsory on the mere production of a certificate by the medical officer. It did j not appear that any discretion was left to the local authority as to whether the work was required or not. The local authority was entitled to do any work required by the notice to be done and summarily to recover as a civil debt all reasonable costs and expenses incurred from the person making default. Under the Public Health Act of 1891, in respect of nuisances coming within the scope of Sections 4 and 5, the sanitary authority had to complain to the petty sessional court, which could issue any one of four orders. It could issue an abatement order, a prohibition order, a closing order, or a combination of such orders. It appeared to him that Section 5 of that Act applied to houses infested with vermin, and that if the court issued an order it would be an abatement order. The Act provided, "Moreover the local authority may enter the premises to which the nuisance relates and do whatever may be necessary to execute that order." He had not the slightest objection to that. It seemed to be the right and proper method of procedure, but that was not the provision of this Bill. By Section 20 if a person failed to comply with the notice given to him then and there, the sanitary authority had a right to do the work required by the notice, and to recover all reasonable costs. That appeared to him to be placing too large a power in the hands of the local authority. Some of the repairs ordered by the local authority must take the form of what was called decoration. He used the word "decoration" in a technical sense. That was a very serious matter, because every person who had had experience in building houses knew that the decoration was more costly than the bricks and mortar. He objected to the local authority having power to do that work without first obtaining an order from a magistrate.

Amendment proposed— In page 15, line 13, after the word 'require' to insert the words—'(2) If a person upon whom a notice has been served as aforesaid makes default in complying with any of the requisitions thereof within the time specified, the sanitary authority shall make a complaint under the ^Summary Jurisdiction Acts, and the petty sessional Court hearing the complaint may make on such person a summary order requiring each person to comply with all or any of the requisitions of the notice.'"— (Mr. Herbert Robertson.)

Question proposed. "That those words be there inserted."

MR. HEYWOOD JOHNSTONE (Sussex, Horsham),

as Chairman of the Committee which considered this Bill said there was no question before the Committee as to the necessity of a subsection of this character. He did not feel any doubt in his own mind as to the nature of the decision the Committee came to in this case. Evidence had been given before the Committee showing that in many cases there were eight or ten layers of wall-paper on the walls of many houses, within each layer of which vermin were breeding. It was also shown that 70 per cent, of the houses in some districts were verminous, and there was no dispute as to giving the local sanitary authorities power to enter and cleanse houses of this description. The sum and substance of it was that there could not be the slightest question as to the necessity for a clause of this nature, and the only question that remained was as to the machinery that was required to carry it out. They had two models before them, the London Public Health Act of 1891, and the Public Health Act of 1875, which applied to the rest of the country. As his hon. friend had mentioned, there was n the London Act a process by getting an order from the magistrate, but the Committee were told by the medical officers that they had not been able to take action in regard to this particular nuisance under that Act. The Committee therefore proceeded on the lines of the general Public Health Act of 1875. That was the precedent which had been followed in this Bill. The Committee had evidence before them that there were cases in which the owner had taken every possible precaution to hand over houses to incoming tenants in a clean and satisfactory condition, and that in a very short time they came to be infested with a large quantity of verminous insects. It would be quite unfair to make an order against the owner to be at the expense of cleansing a house the dirtiness of which was due to the incoming tenant. On the other hand they might have a case of an innocent tenant coming into a house which was apparently clean, having a fresh paper on the wall over a series of old papers. Vermin might break out there, and there was hardly any possibility of stating, without examination, whether the owner or the occupier was responsible for that until the work was actually done. Therefore, the Committee followed the precedent of the 1875 Act, and gave the authority power to proceed against either the owner or occupier as might seem to them good. They tried to hold the balance as fairly as possible, and they thought it was better that the work should be done by the borough councils, who were accustomed to work of this character. The only point at issue was the way in which machinery should be set up for carrying out a course the desirability of which was admitted on all hands.

MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)

said the peech of the hon. Member opposite practically rendered any further support of this clause unnecessary. He wished the House to understand that this clause was not the result of the London County Council's, action. The people who took the initiative were the London borough councils, which were the local sanitary authorities. The Committee were practically unanimous that such a measure as this was absolutely necessary in respect of verminous houses. The twenty-eight parish councils of London, the port sanitary authority, and the city Corporation were all in favour of it, and the County Council were, therefore, only the medium for carrying out the wishes of all these authorities. Under the existing Health Acts a verminous house was not a nuisance. The hon. Member for Hackney thought that the provisions in the Bill, declaring that the verminous building was a source of danger to the community, was too drastic a treatment for chasing bugs and pursuing fleas. In regard to factory inspection, if a factory inspector went into a workshop and I found mouse traps or flea powder about, j he could order that workshop to be whitewashed and kept sanitarily clean; and if the owner did not do it, the local j authority could intervene and do the work itself, and charge the cost to the owner. If that could be done in regard to a workshop, surely it ought to be done in overcrowded tenements. In some parts of London the condition of these tenements was horrible and a source of great irritation to men, women, and children. The hon. Member for Hackney thought that the repairs in a house should not be executed without receiving an order from a magistrate; but the London magistrates, who did their work exceedingly well, ought not to be overburdened, and compelled before they made an order in regard to cleanliness to make a visit to the house. The hon. Member for Hackney said he had never seen a bug in the East End of London, but Dr. Priestly mentioned a case of a room occupied by a doctor of divinity which had not been cleaned for nine years, and another officer stated that on one occasion he went to a house in Wood Green where he caught 118 fleas. He liked the London magistrates too well to subject them to the visitation of such houses.

MR. BOUSFIELD (Hackney, N.)

said that the drastic powers proposed in the clause might properly be given to local authorities with regard to infectious diseases. But in the case of vermin, which primarily were not dangerous to health, although they might be uncomfortable, no harm would be done by a delay of a couple of days in applying for a magistrate's order. There was no opportunity provided by the clause of having a case fairly heard and fairly determined.

MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)

said that the hon. Member for Hackney had declared he had not seen a bug in the East End, but if the hon. Member were to come down to where he lived he would show him that night people sitting on the doorsteps because vermin had taken possession of their houses, and where poor little children were scratching themselves until they made a sore on account of the vermin. He was pleading for poor people who were unable to do anything for themselves. He could assure the House that he had seen rooms with eight layers of paper on, and how was it possible to keep a place of that kind clean? He knew of a case, in the Ann Street area, where the death rate had run up to sixty per thousand. The magistrate was invited to visit the place, and was told that that was the only place where these people could go to, while the owner of the houses said he had made the rooms as comfortable as he could, and had put on a new paper! The local authorities had to apply to the magistrate four or five times before they could get a closing order, and then they had to pay compensation to the owner. Could anyone believe that these poor people could live in such houses in health I [An Hon. Member: Nobody disputes that.] Then why were they wasting time in opposing this clause? The House might have been on the beer long before this time. What the County Council wanted was to cleanse places that were filthy, and surely London was as much entitled to a clause of this kind as any provincial town. He hoped the House would at once pass the clause.

MR. J. W. WILSON (Worcestershire, N.)

said that the Clause dealt with the method of procedure in cleansing verminous places. No layman would advocate two processes at law when one would be sufficient to meet the case. He opposed the Amendment.

Question put, and negatived.

Dr. AMBROSE (Mayo, W.)

said he wished to move the omission of Clause 46 by which the County Council took power to supply food to the inmates of their lodging-houses. This was an objectionable example of municipal trading, and direct competition with small traders who catered for the poorer neighbourhoods. There had been a deputation from lodging-house keepers, who lived practically on the profits derived from the sale of food to the inmates of lodging-houses, to protest against this clause. He would withdraw his Amendment if assured that some limit would be placed on the number of municipal lodging-houses, and that the Council did not intend to erect more of them.

Amendment proposed to the Bill— In page 28, line 23, to leave out Clause 40."—(Dr. Ambrose.)

Question proposed, "That Clause 46 stand part of the Bill."


said that on the part of the London County Council he could give no such assurance as was asked for by the hon. Member for Mayo. If the hon. Member were to consult his poor compatriots in various parts of London, he would find that they were practically unanimous in favour of the clause. The London County Council only asked the power to cater for the tenants in their lodging-houses, the same as was possessed by any West End club, or by the House of Commons itself. The tenants would have cheaper and better food than at present. As to the small shopkeepers, there was really no ground for complaint, because two-thirds of the food which lodgers consumed was bought off the premises. The power asked for was to provide the lodgers with food when the small shops were closed on a Saturday night or Sunday, or when the shopkeepers were having a holiday. There were 514 lodging-houses In London, and of that number the London County Council had only built and owned two in the last sixteen years. Personally, he was opposed to the London County Council building more. He did not believe in celibate masses of men being crowded in lodging-houses, whether private or municipal; but so long as they had these masses to deal with, it was right to see that they were comfortably kept and obtained food under decent conditions. The London County Council found, just as the late Lord Rowton—who deserved the gratitude of every poor man in London— found with his lodging-houses, that when the catering was left to private enterprise, the food supplied was unsatisfactory, and that the lodgers got margarine instead of butter. It had been said that this was an extension of municipal trading, but Sir Richard Farrar, who was no municipal trader, came forward and begged the Committee to give the London County Council this power. He himself knew that in their two lodging-houses — one at Deptford, and the other near Covent Garden—poor chaps would come in with only a sixpence in their pocket, which allowed them but 2d. for breakfast. It was their duty to see that these poor chaps got value for their money. The Council did not intend to make a profit, nor would the ratepayers sustain a loss. If there was a slight profit at the end of the year, there was no reason why these poor men should not be given a Christmas dinner. He asked the House to endorse the unanimous decision of the Committee.


said he would ask hon. Members to consider how they would like to have to leave the House of Commons, purchase their own food, and then return and cook it. There was no question of municipal trading involved with the Clause. The Committee, fortified by the opinion of Sir Richard Farrant. who was managing director of the Artisans' Dwellings Company and Chairman of the Rowton houses—a gentleman of unique experience—unanimously came to the conclusion that it would be for the advantage of the administration of these houses and for the comfort of the lodgers that they should have an opportunity of getting what they required provided and cooked for them in the houses in which they lived. Mr. John Hunt, the town clerk of Westminster, gave similar evidence.

Captain JESSEL (St. Pancras, S.)

said that as the clause was now drawn there was no reason to fear that the Council would compete with the small shopkeeper. He therefore thought that the hon. Member would be well advised to withdraw his opposition. At the same time, he thought that the hon. Member for Battersea might make a concession in this matter by limiting the clause to these two particular lodging-houses. If the London County Council annexed a number of lodging-houses it would be a special danger in London, because, if men were housed so comfortably they would not get married, and that would be hard on the spinsters of the Metropolis.

MR. LAWRENCE (Liverpool, Abercromby)

said that as a London ratepayer he would protest against the I withdrawal of the Amendment. He had I never heard a case advanced with fewer or weaker arguments. His hon. friend compared the lodging-houses with the; House of Commons. But hon. Members I did not make this House their home; and he did not, therefore, see the analogy. The hon. Member for Battersea said that the London County Council initiated these lodging-houses as model dwellings; but that work had happily been carried out by Lord Rowton. The London County Council did not know how far it might be carried. To his mind it was undesirable that the Council should enter into competition with private enterprise in this matter. Neither did he think that it would add to the dignity of the Council; and he wished to protest against the extension of the principle.


said that after the explanation of the hon. Member for Battersea he would ask leave to withdraw his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill to be read the third time.