HC Deb 02 November 1909 vol 12 cc1771-85

Order read for consideration of Lords Amendments.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Lords Amendments be now considered."

Mr. G. N. BARNES moved, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."

I move this Amendment now because I think it will save time ultimately. I am against the Lords Amendments wholly and in part. We are now going to have the same experience, so far as I can see, with regard to this Bill as Scotland has had in regard to nearly all the Bills which have been dealt with since I came here. We have had several Bills of considerable importance—the Smallholders Bill and the Land Values Bill—which have passed this House after exhaustive treatment upstairs, and they have been mutilated to such an extent by the other House that they have been made worthless and have, as a matter of fact, been dropped. With the exception of the Children Bill, Scotland has got barely anything out of this Parliament for that reason, and I think it is about time we made a stand. I for my part am going to make a stand, and that is one of the reasons I am proposing this Resolution. We are asked by the Government to believe they are anxious to mend or end this remnant of feudalism, and, if that is so, this is a strangely inappropriate time to get on the knee to the House of Lords. It will be in the recollection of everybody that this Bill was exhaustively discussed, not only here but also upstairs. Everyone in Scotland who had any interest in it had ample time to put forward their views, and, so far as I can judge, the house factor, the house owner, the corporations, the assessing authorities, and everybody who had any interest in the Bill did avail themselves to the full of the opportunity of putting their views before the Committee upstairs, and I venture to say they received full and ample consideration. Many of these people came here again and put their view a second time before a body which does not represent Scotch opinion in the best sense of the word. We are now asked to accept a part of the Bill. I am opposed to that. After all, the Bill as it left us was a compromise, and I am not disposed to compromise upon a compromise. It did not by any means give all Scotch working men asked for in regard to this matter. They asked for the removal of a longstanding injustice arising from a condition imposed upon them by Scotch landlords.

The Scotch workman is tied to his house under what is known as the missive system for periods of about 15 or 16 months. A man has not only to undertake the occupation of the house as from May one year till May in the next year, but the undertaking really commences as from the January or February, and therefore he is tied up for 16 months or thereabouts. That prevents a workman from rapidly moving with his work as is possible in England. The Scottish workman simply asks that the conditions imposed on him by the Scottish landlord shall be removed and that he shall have practically the same conditions as obtain in England, where short lets are available. He asks for the abolition of the system which requires from him three or four months' notice of his intention to occupy a house, and he asks for a definite term of let a good deal shorter than he now has to submit to. He further asks that a rent limit shall be placed in the Bill. Nobody desires that the measure shall apply to the better-to-do classes, who are well able to look after their own interests, but the Scotch workman does ask that the rent limit should be sufficiently high to cover the cases of all workmen. The Bill as it left this House was a compromise because it did not provide for the abolition of the missive system. It simply reduced that system to two months. I am reminded that it was reduced to one month originally, but on the Report stage the term of two months was adopted. Moreover, the Bill does not provide a specific time for the let. It did provide that the workman should be in a position to leave his house on giving notice, varying according to the character or duration of the tenancy—the maximum being 40 days. As the Bill left us, so far from the workman of Scotland being put in the position enjoyed by English workmen, he was still tied to the house for a period of two months plus the 40 days' notice.

Then with regard to the rent limit, the Committee upstairs, after exhaustive enquiry, and after hearing those interested in the matter, decided that the limit should be on a certain scale, which, as applied to Glasgow, Govan, Edinburgh and other places with over 50,000 inhabitants, would be from £26 a year downwards. But in the House of Lords certain alterations have been made which, from a workman's point of view, have cut into the usefulness of this Bill, and, for my part, I would take the whole responsibility of risking the loss of the Bill and go to the country with a good grievance rather than with a bad Bill. What do I find in regard to the first point—the missive as it left this House—the Bill provided that any agreement for the let of the house made two months or more before the date of entry should be illegal. The other House has, however, inserted an Amendment here to substitute the words "commencement of the let" for "the date of entry into such house." In the first place I do not know what these words mean. What is the commencement of the let? It may be the date when the agreement was drawn up. It may mean anything. At all events the Bill, as it left this House, clearly laid down the principle that the two months should be the two months previous to the date of entry or occupation of the house. That was stated in plain terms, and for my part I think we ought to stick to it. Then, in regard to the second point, it did not, I say, give a definite short renewal, and I think the Bill, instead of being altered and worsened in that respect, might have been, and I think ought to have been, distinctly improved. I moved an Amendment upstairs that there should be a maximum of not more than three months, and I am sorry that was not passed. Take the third point as to the rent maximum. The £26 has been reduced to a maximum of £20, and my point in regard to that is that the reduction to the £20, and also the reduction at the lower end of the scale as well as on the higher, will shut out a large number of workmen from the operation of this Bill. I have a letter here from the Glasgow Corporation which came to me only to-day. I applied to them for the purpose of getting to know exactly how many houses there were to let in Glasgow of £26 a year. My question appears to have been misunderstood, and I am given a number of houses up to £25 a year. The figures from £4 to £7 are 37,825; up to £10, 58,259; up to £15, 35,144; up to £20, 21,252; and above £20 and up to £25, there are still 7,250 houses. I am only speaking from memory, but I think I am right in saying there are in Glasgow 181,000 houses, and consequently there must be a large number over the £25 limit or £26 limit. I do not propose to interfere with those, but I do say we are being false to the very people who have made the agitation for this Bill if we leave outside of its operations these 7,250 tenants that I have mentioned, because those are the very tenants who expected to benefit by the Bill. A large number of those tenants on the lower end of the scale will not be affected by this Bill, because they are now weekly or monthly tenants, and we are doing a hard thing to these skilled better-paid mechanics in Glasgow and elsewhere who have made the agitation for this Bill by the Amendments of the House of Lords bringing the maximum down to £20. These will be excluded, and even if we accept the Amendment of the Lord Advocate raising the maximum under the scale to £21 there will still be a very large number of these workmen left outside the scope of the Bill.

Not only are a large number of workmen in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and other places possibly, paying more than £20, but rents are increasing all the time, and we are not likely to get a Bill of this sort passed every year. Probably if this Bill passes now it will be a long number of years before it is possible to get any Amendment. Three years ago we passed a Compensation for Accidents Act, and when we wanted to make insurance compulsory on the part of small employers of labour, we were told that would be attended to, we were given to understand the following year, but there is yet no compulsory assurance for small employers. I want this Bill to be passed in a form which will be satisfactory to the Scotch workmen who agitated for it. The Scottish workmen ask that this Bill should be made mandatory, and I think it ought to be, at all events so far as the large cities are concerned. Another matter incidental to the passing of the Bill is the alteration in the collection of the rates. It was pointed out by the assessment authorities that if we had the short missive system it followed that we must have some different arrangement for a collection of rates which was only taken up at long periods of time; and the Bill provided, when it left here, for the compounding of rates, and that the landlord should collect the rates, a provision being made at the same time that the tenant should always know how much he was to pay in rent and how much in rates, and that the landlord was to receive a commission, fixed, as to amount, by the Sheriff. This, we believe, was absolutely necessary as the consequence of a Bill of this sort. We find, however, that the other place has mutilated this provision and has actually knocked out the parish councils from the definition of an assessment authority altogether, with the object, we believe, of again knocking out from the electoral roll a large number of workmen who were brought in as a consequence of the collection of rates; that is to say, while the Bill did not make any alteration of the law, which lays it down that a man not paying his parish rates shall be debarred from voting, it made it easier for him to pay his rates, and therefore the incidental effect of the Bill was to bring in a very large number of workmen and enable them to vote, as they have a right to vote.

The effect of the Lords Amendments in the modification of these provisions as to compounding is to again deprive a large number of workmen in Scotland, who happen by poverty or unemployment or by the stress of other circumstances not to have paid their rates by a certain day in the year, of their vote. I think we ought to insist upon the provision, as the Bill left us, being reinserted, and practically that the Bill should be restored to its original character and passed once more. No doubt it will be said that, bad as the Bill now is, the workmen will want it because it is an improvement on existing conditions. I have a letter from the Glasgow and District Tenants' Association asking me to vote for the Bill even as it now stands because of the clamant necessity for the abolition of the missive and for shorter lets. The Bill did not give us the abolition of the missive but the reduction of the time limit of the missive system to two months. That is still too long. For my part I am not going to have it modified by these words that the Lords have put in, so far as my vote is concerned, and I ask the House to insist with us that this Bill shall be restored to the form in which it left this House, and that we disagree with the Lords Amendments.


I beg to second the Amendment. I remember some years ago the late Leader of the Conservative Party (Lord Salisbury), when discussing the Shop Hours Bill, stated that none of the Members who were dealing with it had any practical experience of the matter. To-day, in this House, we are in a somewhat different position. I have been a victim of the missive system, and I know all the difficulties connected with it. We object to the Lords Amendments because, as my hon. Friend has stated, the Bill, when it left this House, was a compromise. The Lords have actually changed the name of the Measure from the "House-letting and Bating (Scotland) Bill" to the "Small Dwelling-houses in Burghs, Letting and Rating (Scotland) Bill." We object to the change in the name because it is a limitation. The demand of the Scottish workers for thirty or forty years has been that they should have the same privilege as that which is enjoyed in England, where there is no such limitation in this matter. We fail to see why we should not have the same privilege in Scotland as in England. It has been my fortune or misfortune more than once to voice the grievances of Scotland, and especially the grievances of Scottish workers. Although there are several Members of the Government from that quarter, we do not seem to have anything like the consideration from this House which is given to hon. Members from Ireland.

I hope that, in future, Scottish Members will change their policy and be able to secure advantages for Scotland as readily as Members from Ireland secure benefits for their country. Our demand has been to get rid of the system which requires a person to sign a missive at the end of January or the beginning of February that he will take a house from the following May till May of the next year. When the Bill left this House the provision as to the amount of rental was the result of compromise, but the Lords have altered that. There is no amount of rental in this matter in England at all. An Amendment has been made by the Lords whereby different conditions will apply in towns with under and over 500,000 inhabitants. The effect of that, if carried out, would be that tenants in Glasgow would be subject to different conditions in the matter of house letting from tenants in Govan and Partick. A great deal has been made of the question as to the payment of rates. When we asked for this years ago there was always the difficulty raised by the public authorities as to the payment of rates as well as opposition by the representatives of property. I am of opinion that there has been too much made of the great number that this Bill as it left this House would have put upon the roll. In the first place, if the poor rates are not paid the name does not appear on the roll at all either for Parliamentary or Municipal purposes. This only applies to people who are rated at £10 and under. As to those above that it is immaterial whether they pay or not. They are still upon the roll. I contend that instead of perpetuating that anomaly even the other place ought to have been willing to assist in removing it. I think we have proved that people, even if compelled to live in places rented at £10 and under, have been able through the beneficence of this House in passing a free Education Act to take their share in the work of the parish councils as well as of the government of the country in this House. With respect to the provision as to the parish councils struck out by the House of Lords, which I understand the Government intend to replace, all we desire is to save trouble to the municipality and secure a better return, which would happen if it was done through the parish council. I fail to see why so much difficulty has been put in our way in securing this object. No matter what may be the phraseology, we desire that there shall be no ambiguity in the Bill when passed. We do not want, when we believe we are getting the substance, to find when we come to work matters out that we have only got the shadow. Therefore, I hope that the House House will take care that the phraseology of the Bill is so framed that we shall have a substantial short let.


I think that my hon. Friend (Mr. Wilkie) has taken an unduly gloomy view of the effect produced on this Bill by the Lords Amendments. With certain changes I think we shall have both a good and useful measure and one which will fully remedy the grievances that we desire to meet. There are three classes of boroughs affected. The first are boroughs with a population of 500,000 and upwards. There, in the City of Glasgow, the rent is £20. The second class embraces the large boroughs up to 500,000, and there the limit proposed is £15, and for boroughs of 20,000 and under the limit is £10. We propose to restore the 50,000 limit of population for the first-class boroughs, and for all boroughs of 50,000 and upwards we have fixed the rental at £21. I am satisfied that that rental will really embrace all the class and type of houses that we intend to include in this Bill. It must be remembered that the Bill is really designed to meet a grievance felt by certain workmen whose employment requires them at frequent intervals to change their residence, and I am satisfied that the rental of £21, even in Glasgow, will meet all the cases intended to be met by the Bill. Hon. Members from Scotland know very well that in other boroughs the limit of rental to £21 will really exhaust all the cases that are to be met. We propose in the second class of boroughs of between 20,000 and 60,000 to retain the £15 rental, and in boroughs of 10,000 and upwards the £10 rental. These rentals meet the grievance which is intended to be met by the Bill.

The other class of Amendments provide for an easy and convenient collection of the rates. The House will notice that the object of the Bill is to ensure short lets in the case of workmen's dwellings. There are frequent collections of rents and rates. In reference to what my hon. Friend has said with regard to the Lords Amendments, I like the Bill very much better as it left the Commons. At the same time, I think by the Amendments which will be made we shall substantially restore the Bill so as to secure not merely the shadow, as the hon. Member remarked, but the substance. What the Lords propose to do is to limit the convenient method of collecting the rates to the assessing authorities in Scotland, excluding the parish councils. We propose to give this convenient method to all boroughs of 50,000 and upwards, and we cannot agree to exclude the parish councils. The parish councils collect 30 per cent. of the rates of Scotland, and they have a right of recovery against the landlord whose name is on the valuation roll. If a man has vanished there is considerable difficulty on the part of the parish council in tracing him. On the other hand, if a man is only a short time in occupation of his house it does seem hard upon him to be compelled to pay rates for the whole year. We do not think the parish council should be excluded from the convenient method of collection of the rates which is provided. We propose, therefore, to restore the parish councils. If the poor rates and other rates are paid by the owners, that will not necessarily involve the retention of the franchise by the occupier. That practically does not mean any change in the existing law.

There will be an enormously larger collection of rates, and I, myself, believe that there will be a small percentage of loss in the future as compared with the large percentage we have experienced in the past. We propose that the assessing authorities should have the right to collect the rates from the owners. The owner collects the rate from the occupier and pays it, and then the occupier has his franchise. On the other hand, in the extremely unusual case of the owner not paying the rates, we provide that the occupier shall have notice in due time that the rate has not been paid, so that the occupier may have the opportunity of paying himself and retaining his franchise, and then to have the right to recover against the owner. Substantially that is the alteration I shall propose by Amendments to the. Lords Amendments. There is a Lords Amendment as to the remuneration to be provided for the owner who has now to undertake the duty of collecting the rates from the occupier. The Lords have provided what I think the House will agree is a very modest scale indeed. I propose to amend that scale. With those Amendments I think my hon. Friends will find that we shall have a very useful measure and one which will put an end to the grievances which this Bill is designed to meet.


I do hope that my hon. Friends will not press this matter to a Division. I venture so far as any assurance of mine can go to say that we are really getting the substance and not the shadow. The hon. Member for Blackfriars (Mr. Barnes) is technically correct in saying that the missive system is not abolished. We have not prevented the landlord from issuing a document, but we have made that document of no account. The landlord may present whatever missives he pleases, but those missives, if this Bill passes, will be of no value, because the tenant under the Bill will be able to determine the lease whenever he pleases to do so. The business habits of Scotch landlords as well as Scotch tenants will very soon terminate a system which can have no legal effect and which can be nullified by both parties on such short notice as is provided in the Bill. It is becoming more obvious in consequence of the shorter periods which will be selected for the payment of rents that it will be possible for the tenant to pay his most easily, and for the landlord to collect his rent most effectually. We have gained three substantial points. We have got the length of having the Bill declared by its opponents to be non-controversial; we have got rid of the missive system in effect; and we have secured the abolition of a system under which a landlord was permitted to seize the tools of a working man. Surely that is an immense stride forward. I should like to point out what has been the issue of this controversy. We have had an inquiry, before which 107 witnesses were examined, sitting in three or four parts of Scotland. We have had this Bill examined before a Committee for five or six days. We have had representations from everybody except some persons whose only excuse is that they were on holiday. We have had the intrusion of a body called the "Convention of Royal Burghs." Who advises them or who they are I do not know. I understand that they have some sort of historical origin, but they have no title to express an opinion for anybody but themselves. Yet they are quoted in another place as persons whose views should be considered before those of representatives of the great municipalities or of Members who, against a hard contest, have the honour to represent constituencies here.

I do not speak for the other House, but we at any rate are responsible lawgivers, and as such, with the exception of the hon. Member for Central Glasgow (Mr. Scott Dickson), and, I think, another Member, came to the conclusion that we could not possibly pass a measure enabling short lets without at the same time providing some machinery for the collection of rates. We know that large sums are presently being lost in rates. I am interested in a concern called "The Workmen's Dwellings Company," who have twelve or fourteen blocks. They tried compounding, with the result that in ten blocks they had to abandon the idea. The people said they would leave rather than pay. They had never paid rates in their lives, and they were not going to do so. The neighbouring blocks did not pay rates, and they would not. We had to give in. That system of demoralisation would be enormously increased if you tell a man that under the Act he can give notice to take advantage of the Act in relation to his rates, and if that is not sufficient we will give him other means of evading them. I could give other examples to show how the effect of not collecting the rates in the way in which the workmen can pay their rates is demoralising to a large extent the opinions of the working classes with regard to the payment of their rates. What has happened is this: that Noble Lords in another place have come to the same conclusions that we have; that it is impossible to pass a measure enacting short lets without providing some means by which the rates can be collected under these circumstances. They fall back upon the Act of 1892. But that is not compounding. It is compounding in this sense: that compounding in their idea consists of a method by which the landlord has to pay but has the means of charging the tenant. Under the Act of 1892 the authorities are only entitled to ask the payment of rates from the landlords after the tenant has failed to pay. Anything more absurd and preposterous than to imagine that the landlords are going to submit to a state of affairs than that can hardly be conceived. What they are saying is that if the enactment passes they must have some means of dealing with their tenants before they leave.

Here I come to the crux of the question. I do not know the explanation of the hon. Member for the Central Division of Glasgow (Mr. Scott Dickson). I understand that he has been assisting to advise the Noble Lords—or at all events the newspapers have said that certain hon. Gentlemen have been advising the Lords. They say that they cannot pass a short letting Bill without providing that municipalities shall have some means of collecting the rates. They know there are other rates—38 per cent. of the rates—that are collected by other authorities, namely parish councils. On what principle do they allow municipalities to have facilities for collecting their rates that they deny to other tax collecting authorities, the parish councils? They make a great point of the hardship that lies upon the poor man who, under the municipalities, is compelled to pay the rates for his house for the whole of the year and he only occupies it for a couple of months. They relieve that poor man and they allow the authorities to be protected in these rates. The House of Lords has dealt fairly and equitably with the one grievance. But it does not seem to be seen that a man in regard to the parish rate is in the same difficulties and suffering from the same hardships. Is there any difference between the two rates? The fact is that if one is to be dealt with the other must be. There is no escape from the position that the two authorities are both rate-collecting authorities. Both should be dealt with similarly. Of course, we know the payment of parish council rates is a necessary condition to the obtaining of the franchise. This Bill does not touch the franchise. What this Bill does is to make it easy for a few people who cannot pay by the year to pay at short intervals. Is it wise or proper or even decent to deny facilities necessary under a certain condition of affairs to classes of the community to do that which the law says they ought to do. Are we to understand that the other Chamber desires that facilities to obey the law shall be denied, and that rating authorities shall have their affairs passing into confusion. I think it must be perfectly clear that if you admit the tendency which undoubtedly exists to evade the payment of rates, and if this Act enables a man to shift on a month's notice on a quarterly tenancy, you will put an immense premium on the evasion of rates, and there certainly will be greater evasion. We cannot as reasonable men say to the collecting authorities we will allow compounding on one sort of rating, but with the other sort of rating we have no concern.


The speech of the hon. Member is not, I think, calculated to stop discussion. I do not, however, intend to follow him, as I am much more anxious to get the Bill than to make a speech for the hustings, and, therefore, I trust it will be understood why I do not respond to the challenge which he has made. It is not that I have not a perfectly good answer when the time for the hustings comes, and I think the hon. Gentleman will then find I am able to take care of myself. In another place, as I read the Bill, a great many representations were made from boroughs interested in this matter, and the Lords found it their duty to take them into consideration. I think it will more likely conduce to a satisfactory conclusion if we get to business as soon as possible.


I have no election speech to make, not being a Member for a Scottish Constituency, but knowing the facts of this case I want to correct one erroneous impression which the speech of the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. A. Cross) is apt to have left upon the House. He gave the impression that under this Bill the missive system is practically abolished. Under the Bill as it left the House, and as it still remains, the missives have to be signed two months before the 28th of May, but the mischief of this system is that it enables the landlord to impose conditions upon the tenant which are obnoxious. It may be that the landlords of Glasgow will see to it that no missive will be allowed to be signed for a shorter tenancy than three months; that being so. 40 days' notice must be given to quit the house. I will assume the case of a working man who signs the missive in March, and a day or two after that he is dismissed. Perhaps he finds a situation in Greenock, which necessitates his removal from Glasgow. He is still settled under this Bill for a full period of three months before he can get rid of the house. That is not abolishing the missive system, and it is not remedying the grievances which this Bill was intended to meet; and for a man who has posed all these years as the chief promoter of this reform to tell the House that it does not matter is to deceive the people in whose interests he professes to speak. This is more a Bill for the collection of rates than for the remedying of the grievances which was the object of its introduction. If my hon. Friend presses the matter to a division, I shall certainly vote with them, not only on account of the unsatisfactory nature of the Bill, but because of the fact that at a time when we are supposed to be entering upon a conflict of a grave constitutional character, first in regard to the Town Planning Bill, and next in regard to this Bill, we are by the acceptance of the Lords Amendments admitting that their wisdom is greater than ours, and thus justifying the continuance of a Second Chamber in the form in which it now exists. I hope my hon. Friend will go to a division.


I think the Bill as it left the Scotch Grand Committee was one which was generally accepted. There were, however, one or two defects. I think it is a great pity we did not insert the percentage which was to be allowed to the landlord for the collection of the rates. That is the only part I approve of in regard to the Amendments made by the Lords. I am sorry the Lord Advocate is going to raise this percentage, but at the same time I should be sorry to see the Bill lost because, after all, as amended, it will to some extent mitigate the very great grievances which the working people suffer from. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil has referred to the grievances of a man having to take a house two months in advance. I know a Government employé thinking he was practically employed for life, took a house and within one week of taking it he lost his employment, not from any fault of his own, but because the Government were making changes in his particular department. That man had to pay £5 to get rid of his house. Imagine a man losing his situation and being out of employment and having to pay £5 to get out of his house. Another case was brought to my notice in which an employé of a railway company had three houses for the rent of which he was responsible. I would like to ask whether, in the event of accepting these Amendments, the Government is going to stick to them and not agree to any further modifications by the Lords, because, unless we have that assurance, I would rather vote for the motion of the hon. Member for the Blackfriars Division of Glasgow (Mr. Barnes) for the rejection of the Bill. I should be very sorry to do that, because, whilst it is ineffective, still it will be some improvement.


I for one shall most unhesitatingly vote in favour of the Amendment if my hon. Friend goes to a division, because I think there is nothing worse and more wrong than to promise people a thing and then to pass a Bill which will be found to be nothing less than a sham and a fraud. Even supposing the Amendments of the Lord Advocate be accepted, the Bill will still be found in working not to be the remedy we have led people to think it would be. We shall

Lords Amendments considered.

Lords Amendment: In the title, after "Dwelling-Houses," insert "in Burghs."

House agreed with Lords Amendment.