HC Deb 03 August 1911 vol 29 cc681-97

Postponed proceeding resumed on consideration of Question, "That a sum, not exceeding £167,951, be granted to His Majesty to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1912, for the salaries and expenses of the Local Government Board." — [NOTE. —£110,000 has been voted on account.]

Question again proposed. Debate resumed.


Previously to the interruption of the discussion on the Estimates the President of the Local Government Board had made a statement which we had all listened to with great interest. But there are one or two other points to which I will venture to draw attention. In the first place, in the last Report of the Local Government Board I find these words:— We received several complaints during the year under Section 299 of the Public Health Act, 1875, of default by local authorities in the matter of providing these districts with sufficient sewers or proper supply of water. and then comes the unsatisfactory statement, that No orders were made by us under the Section. Probably during the drought a number of the local authorities which have made default in respect of the water supply in their districts have been feeling the effects of that default. I desire to draw the attention of the Local Government Board to the real necessity of doing something more in this matter. It is thirty years since a Select Committee of this House reported on certain clauses in the Public Health Act, 1875, under which these local authorities found it exceedingly difficult to remedy these defects. It is not really their own fault; it is very largely the fact that the expenses of getting Parliamentary sanction for their schemes are very heavy. We know the great efforts that are being made by the municipalities and town councils all up and down the country, to secure a proper supply of water, but when it comes to rural district councils, where there is really great need for a proper supply, we find that they are hampered by the great expense of Parliamentary procedure. I know the Local Government Board have done something to remedy this evil. As a matter of fact this Bill has not been pressed with any great vigour by the Local Government Board. It would, of course, be out of order to allude to it, but I believe it is a very admirable Bill, and I was interested in it, and it has been a long time in getting actually printed.


The hon. Member is now dealing with what he has said is out of order.


I was only dealing with what appears to me to be some default on the part of the Local Government Board in pressing on a particular Bill. I was not referring to the details of the Bill.


That is equally out of order, as referring to the details of the Bill.


It was merely a passing reference and I did not intend to pursue it. Anyhow, I hope, whether by legislation or administrative action, something more can be done to remedy what is a real grievance, which is very seriously felt in these districts. There is another point on a different aspect of the very multifarious duties of the Local Government Board. The President of the Local Government Board took credit, and it is deservedly due, for making efforts to take children out of the workhouse. We all want that, and we listened to what he had to say on that point with a great deal of interest. But there is one other class of person who ought to be taken out of the workhouse, and that is the insane. You get, no doubt, a class of harmless and sometimes incurably insane persons in the workhouses, but their presence there is very undesirable. They are kept there because the guardians think on the whole it is a more economic policy, but it is very undesirable, and if you could get, not merely the children, but these lunatics out of the workhouses I am sure it would be advantageous. Guardians are always paying visits to these workhouses and finding there people who ought to be certified but are not, and I think myself it is a bad policy on the part of boards of guardians, and I hope the Local Government Board, by a little extra pressure, will induce the boards of guardians to make this change.

Then the President of the Local Government Board told us that he could not go to-night into the working of the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909. I cannot but think it would be of great interest if he could tell us a little more of the work which is being done under that Act. The Act, of course, has not been very long in force, but he told us that he was going to issue a White Paper, and he was sure it would be interesting, and no doubt he will be able to give us many more statistics and facts which would interest us beyond what might be stated tonight. But I cannot help thinking that this would be a good opportunity to tell us, at all events, some points where action is being taken. In the first place under the Act of 1909 I think it was provided under Section 17 that there should be a systematic inspection of each district with a view to discovering how many insanitary houses there are. No doubt that must have been going on in most districts, but possibly the Local Government Board has some information which it could communicate. I think the authorities have to report to the Local Government Board on that matter, and I imagine that a great deal of light must have been thrown upon the number of houses which are really not fit for human habitation up and down the country.

I think we ought to have seen, as the result of the Act of 1909, evidence of much greater local activity in the work of demolishing insanitary houses. I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman could give us any particulars about that. Of course it is one thing to pass an interesting and important Act and another thing to see it administered, and what we want to know is how it is being administered. In the last Report of the Local Government Board of course we have absolutely nothing, except I think circulars which were being issued under the Act, but what we want now is to have a little statement as to the progress that is being made. We also want to know to what extent the local authorities have been stimulated in providing new schemes. Everyone Who followed the Bill when it was before the House remembers the way in which rural district councils in the past ten years absolutely failed to provide any extra accommodation in rural districts where that extra accommodation is seriously required. I trust that the President of the Local Government Board will be able to tell us that a considerable number of new loans have been taken out by local authorities with a view to providing this accommodation the lack of which is a crying scandal throughout large parts of rural England.

Turning to the other side of the Act, I think we should like to know something about the schemes of town planning, some of which have appeared in the papers. So far as I have been able to judge from the papers various local authorities have not been remarkably active or vigilant so far. But it takes a long time for local bodies to move, and I suppose many more schemes are being concocted or thought over, and the preliminary steps are being taken with a view to working out these schemes which we hope and trust the Act will lead up to. These are some of the points on which, if the President of the Local Government Board would give us information, I am sure it will interest the House and also the country. They are only small points in the very multifarious duties of the Local Government Board, but if he could throw some light upon them it would be of real interest to many Members of the House.


I am delighted that this Debate has been far different from some of the Debates when the Estimates for the Local Government Board have been under discussion, and just as on occasions the action of the President of the Local Government Board has called forth criticism from these benches I think it is only proper that I should offer a word or two of praise for at least a part of the administration that has been prominent during the past year. It is about three years ago since a friend of mine was fortunate enough in the ballot to be able to discuss the question of the housing of navvies upon public works, and also to discuss the question of hospital accommodation and the treatment of disease amongst those men who are collected together in waste places occasionally to perform works of great public utility. After the Debate had gone on for some time, the President of the Local Government Board promised that he would give his very best attention to this subject. He proceeded, I am delighted to say, to appoint a commission to inquire into the subject, or at least to send a medical officer of the Board to investigate the question in different parts of the country, and I must say that the report of Dr. Farrar, inspector of the Board, on the question of housing men engaged on public works was unquestionably one of the best, most useful, and exhaustive treatises on the subject which has ever come under my notice. It is rather remarkable that it was only during the last four or five years this House paid any attention to the matter, though it has been a pressing evil and difficulty for considerably over half-a-century. A Committee of the House, in 1847, reported as to the conditions under which these men lived at different public works in the country. A Select Committee was appointed, and for about eighteen months witnesses were collected from all over the country to describe the conditions under which these men were obliged to live. The Select Committee made a very important Report to the House, and I may say that it proposed very drastic reforms in relation to this question. It is strange, however, that from 1847 right down to 1906, so far as I have been able to ascertain from the records of the House, not a single effort has ever been made to rectify the grievances of which these men complain.

It is true that great public authorities like corporations and others, which occasionally perform large public works, did, on their own initiative, greatly improve the conditions of life as regards the housing of these men. I am bound to confess that the most important step forward was made in the case of the Birmingham Corporation, when it carried out its water scheme in Wales some years ago. But that work has always been left largely to the goodwill of the particular body that happened to be engaged in an enterprise of that nature. No definite laws or regulations of any description compelling such an observance were ever embodied in a public Act of Parliament until the Derwent Water Bill was brought forward. I must say that what was done there is an illustration of the way in which it is possible at a very low cost to supply decent housing and hospital accommodation for this class of men. I think one cannot get a better illustration than is to be found in connection with the Derwent Water scheme of the kind of dwellings which ought to be provided for the men engaged in such undertakings. You have there clean streets and decent houses, constructed with due regard to sanitation. Some of the homes of these men are unquestionably little palaces. That was a special case. Others have attempted to do something. With the assistance of the President of the Local Government Board, when the Bill for the Birkenhead Water scheme was recently passing through the House, a Clause was inserted insisting upon proper housing and hospital accommodation being secured to the men; and recently, on the initiative of the President of the Local Government Board, a medical officer went down and inspected the conditions provided for these men, and the report shows very satisfactory progress in this direction.

The President of the Local Government Board, I am delighted to say, has been able to put this business largely on a permanent basis. Previously one had to object spasmodically to Bills that came before the House, and the matter had to be investigated merely by moving Amendments to these Bills when they came on for consideration. Yesterday, I am pleased to say, without the slightest debate or discussion, a rule was passed putting this matter for the future on something like a satisfactory basis. I hope that the House understood what they were doing yesterday afternoon when the Speaker merely asked the House to consent to a proposition by my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board that a new rule to this effect should be embodied in the Standing Orders of the House. If hon. Members will look at the OFFICIAL REPORT they will see that it amounted to a great public Act of Parliament. For the future, in the case of any great public works to be executed in a rural district where there is not sufficient house accommodation for a large influx of the population to do the work, the Committee before whom the Bill comes must satisfy itself before it passes the Bill that proper provisions are made under the Clauses of the Bill to meet the requirements of the men who may be brought to the works by the contractors or the authorities executing the works not only to supply proper housing accommodation for the men and their families, but also hospital accommodation to deal with accidents that may occur and eases of infectious disease, and generally to look after the health of the men.

Unknown to the great majority of the House of Commons, I suggest that they did an act of justice to this class of man for which I certainly thank the President of the Local Government Board. I am often a critic of the President of the Local Government Board. I hope it is always friendly criticism. I am, therefore, the more disposed to be thankful for the effort that he must have put into this business, because I notice it is agreed that this should be a Standing Order of the House of Commons for the future with reference to Private Bill legislation. But the President of the Local Government Board has also persuaded their Lordships House to make the Standing Order at the other end of the building, so that we may hope, even if no housing reformers are returned at a future great election, that at least the influence of this Session, as far as the housing of these men is concerned, will be permanent. I hope that during the year the right hon. Gentleman will go a step further and ensure that public or private corporations, when executing large works, shall provide proper housing and hospital accommodation, with all the necessary appliances, in the interests of the workmen employed. Most certainly I hope that the Committees will see to this matter when they are called upon to consider these works promoted by public or private companies. There is still another class of works to whom this Standing Order should apply. For instance, the War Office and the Admiralty, or other Departments of the Government may undertake great public works, but they have not to go before a Committee with their projects; all they do is to put a sum on the Estimates and get the sanction of the House. I suggest that the President should go a little step further by making it a condition that where any Government Department has decided to execute public works it should come under the same regulations as are imposed upon other people. I am afraid that at present there are one or two Government works where the housing of the men is probably as bad as anything in the country in connection with the employment of men on various works. Now that this Standing Order has been sanctioned, I think it is only proper that the Government should keep up to the same standard as it imposes upon others. I thank the President of the Local Government Board for the kindly interest he has taken in the body of men with which I am associated, and of which I happen to be one, and for his having, not only obtained this Standing Order, but persuaded the other House also to adopt it. I have much pleasure in supporting the action of the right hon. Gentleman.


I should like to take this opportunity of asking the President of the Local Government Board what has happened in regard to his promised Milk and Dairies Bill. Two years ago we had a Milk and Dairies Bill containing very drastic provisions for the control of milk production in the country districts and the milk supply of the large urban centres. That Bill did not get beyond the stage of the Second Reading, and repeatedly since then the President of the Local Government Board himself has declared this to be an urgent matter, and that he intended to bring in again his Milk and Dairies Bill. Several times in the course of last Session——


That is a question of legislation with which we have nothing to do now.


I am bound to bring the matter forward, but I am prepared to do it in a different way. At the present time, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, that by administrative action the various local authorities are endeavouring to deal with this problem as an isolated problem which affects them, without reference to other local authorities. The result is that there is lack of uniformity in the matter, and there is an increasing tendency to differentiation in. the treatment of those who provide the large industrial centres with their supply of milk. Repeated efforts are being made to put milk clauses into various Bills emanating from different urban——


That is legislation.


The difficulty is this that we have seen how unequal and drastic are the administrative measures adopted by various local authorities under the powers they possess under the Public Health Act, and it is therefore absolutely essential to introduce legislation dealing with the milk problem.


That is entirely out of order. If the administration of the local authorities is a matter over which the President of the Local Government Board has control that administration can be criticised. Everything that the hon. Member has said leads up to the question of the necessity for legislation, and that does not arise.


I bow to your ruling. I think I am entitled to ask the President why it is that he has repeatedly announced in this House that he proposes to introduce legislation and why such legislation has not yet been forthcoming. I desire to deal with another matter which seems to me to be of great importance. About four months ago two reports were presented to the Local Government Board, by two of their most expert officials, one upon the presence of sulphate of lime in baking powder and self-raising flour, the other was bleaching of flour and so-called improvers of flour; and the chemical changes produced in flour by bleaching. The President admitted the importance and the seriousness of the subjects with which those reports dealt, and I should like to ask him what steps, if any, he proposed to take to act either in the way of administration or legislation upon the reports so presented. He has told us repeatedly in this House that there is yet another report which has been, or is about to be, presented to the Local Government Board upon the nutritive value of foods. I should like to ask whether that report has actu- ally been presented to his Department, and whether he proposes to take action upon that report, together with the other reports I have referred to, particularly in relation to the important question of the constituents of what is called the loaf of bread. I do not know whether I should be in order in mentioning it, but, as you must be aware, there has been a campaign carried on in the Press during the last few months on the subject of bread. It was hoped that the Local Government Board would show either their sympathy or their disapproval of this campaign, and show what was the view which was officially held by the medical officers of the Local Government Board in regard to this most important National subject. The Local Government Board has taken no action in the matter so far, in spite of the fact that these very important and rather damnatory reports have been issued upon this and similar subjects. I should like to ask the President whether he does regard the subject matter of these reports with the seriousness with which many members of the medical profession in London and elsewhere have regarded them, and what action he proposes to take in the matter? With regard to the bleaching of flour by nitrogen peroxide, the President may remember that in this report it is pointed out that other countries have taken drastic steps in the interests of the health of their populations to put a stop to the practice. That is particularly the case in regard to the Swiss Government, the United States Department of Agriculture and various Australian States. It is to my mind a most important matter, and one upon which the great public health department of this country might be expected to give public opinion a lead. I sincerely regret that, owing to your ruling, I am unable to develop the subject with which I was most anxious to deal, but perhaps the President of the Local Government Board will be good enough to give a more precise answer on the question of milk than he has hitherto given, because there are so many persons, both members of the farming community and consumers in the big industrial centres, who are interested in this most important subject.


I should like to congratulate the President of the Local Government Board on the very satisfactory figures that he gave in regard to the removal of children from workhouses in London. He also expressed the hope that he might be justified in his anticipation that a great move forward in that direction will be made in the country unions during the coming year. There is one point in regard to children in workhouses upon which I should like further information. From time to time I receive information from different sources to the effect that workhouses are being used as remand homes for children who have been before magistrates. I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman could give some information as to the number of cases in which workhouses are being used for that purpose. It is very disadvantageous that workhouses should be so used. It can only be done with the right hon. Gentleman's consent. A considerable number of local authorities, who can well afford to provide either remand homes of their own or to make arrangements with boys' and girls' refuges or other institutions of that character, instead of doing so are inclined to make use of the workhouses. So long as the right hon. Gentleman gives his consent in these cases, so long these local authorities will not do their duty in providing proper remand homes. It may be that the evil has been exaggerated, but during the last two years a great many cases have been brought to my notice. Possibly the right hon. Gentleman has refused his consent, but we have no information on the point. It is impossible for us to know in how many cases consent has been given and in how many refused. It would be a satisfaction to many people who are keenly interested in child life if the right hon. Gentleman could give us some information as to the number of cases in which workhouses are being used for this purpose.


I willingly accede to the request of my hon. Friend that I should give some information as to the use of workhouses as places of detention for children under remand. He was good enough to praise the action of the Local Government Board in reference to the general treatment of children; he is therefore justified in asking what the Board are doing in co-operation with the Home Office in regard to this particular matter. My hon. Friend knows that under the Children Act, 1908, it was the duty of the police authorities to provide places of detention for persons under sixteen who were awaiting trial—remand homes that were neither workhouses nor prisons. The police were in a very great difficulty in carrying out this new Act—which I am very glad to say has received the general consent of the community—and to know what to do with the relatively large number of children whom they had to provide for. It was inadvisable that children under sixteen should be sent to prison, but some place had to be found, and the only place available was the children's wards of the workhouses, that were infinitely better than prison. The hon. Member will admit that these were in some cases better than some of the remand homes arranged where a small number of cases existed. The Local Government Board consulted with the Home Office, and the Board reluctantly gave their consent, under a particular section, as there were obvious objections to the workhouses being used for this particular purpose if a better place could be secured. On the other hand, the police said it would involve a tremendous expense if at once they were called upon to build all the remand homes that were necessary. As frequently the Local Government Board is the refuge of some of the Departments and a sanctuary for others, and as "Barkis was willin'," we reluctantly agreed to certain workhouses being used for the purpose of these children temporarily. We stipulated the conditions under which the children should be temporarily detained in these workhouses, that there was proper accommodation, that the children were kept apart from the other inmates, and that the guardians should undertake to provide proper supervision for them.

I am glad to say that the accommodation that the Local Government Board has, through the various guardians, been able to place at the disposal of the police for this particular purpose is as satisfactory as it can be, seeing that it is temporary, unobjectionable in character, is as pleasant as it possibly can be, and that the associations are in keeping with the environment—to which all children, whether good, bad, or indifferent, ought to be subject. We are grappling with the temporary difficulty in the best way with the means at our disposal. These are the figures the hon. Member has asked for:—"Consents" up to December, 1910, 158, but twenty-seven of these were withdrawn. Consents continued up to March, 1911, fifty-seven; to May, 1911, five; to March, 1912, nine; and without limits, seventeen. The refusals were ninety-nine. Refusals to continue consent be- yond 31st March, 1911, were also only twenty, so that the hon. Member will see, both by the "consents" and the "refusals," that we recognise this as a temporary difficulty. The hon. Member is aware of the facts that would support us in this particular work that we have been doing. I hope they are satisfactory to him. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Lincoln spoke very kindly about what had been done, and expected to be done, under the Housing and Town Planning Act. He amplified the suggestion made earlier in the day as to the issue of a White Paper giving facts with regard to housingmatters, and said that it was my duty to give some facts. Let me take closing orders, which, as a rule, are a test of the activity of the local authorities in dealing with houses unfit for human habitation. In 1908–9, before the Act came into operation, 1,840 local authorities closed 587 houses. In 1909–10 that number grew to 1,511; and in 1910–11, 1,046 local authorities issued closing orders with regard to 2,678 houses, as against 587 orders issued two years previously. That, I think, is very satisfactory. It justified what we expected the Act would do, and the speed with which the closing orders are carried out will be accelerated as the local authorities warm in their work and know the means by which they can be put into operation.

With regard to representations as to houses not being fit for human habitation, I find that in 1908–9 6,312 representations were made; in 1910–11—two years after the Act came into operation—the figure was 10,796. This increase was mostly in urban districts, but rural districts also showed a substantial improvement. There were 12,900 houses dealt with under Section 15, and 392 were closed by the landlords, and of the 12,400 notices served 4,540 were, in rural districts, which is a tremendous increase upon what happened before. The hon. Member also asked me about loans. Applications for loans for the erection of dwellings for the working classes for the six months ending June, 1910, in urban districts amounted to £47,000, and for the six months ending June, 1911, £132,000. That is very satisfactory progress. There were no applications from the, rural areas in the first six months of 1910, when the Act came into force, but I am glad to say in the six months ending June, 1911, there were applications for £9,625. That shows the rural authorities are beginning to keep pace with the urban both in the matter of closing orders and putting houses in a satisfactory condition, and, better still, in building new houses in those areas of the country that want them very badly. In twenty years, from the year 1890 to 1909, there were only eight loans for housing in rural areas; but I am pleased to say that since the Act of 1909 has been in operation there have been thirteen applications for loans, or more than in the whole of the previous twenty-years.

With regard to loans sanctioned to urban authorities, there were in the first six months of 1910 four amounting to £14,000, whereas in 1911 the amount was £20,000. Rural authorities also have had similar advances, and since I have had the honour of being President 178 loans for rehousing schemes have been sanctioned amounting to £1,200,000 in five years. That is more rapid progress than in any previous five years, but we do not rest content with that. We want to accelerate that progress, and I appeal to hon. Members who represent constituencies in mining counties like Durham and Northumberland and many parts of Wales to help me to stimulate local authorities to put the housing conditions in their districts into much better order than they are at the present time. It is not sufficient to make Closing Orders and Demolition Orders here and there, and declare a few houses unfit for habitation. All over the United Kingdom there are opportunities in small rural areas and urban districts for scores of thousands of decent cottages to be built not at charity rents but at a rent sufficient to cover the cost of erection, maintenance, and repair, and I know of no side of social activity that would do more good to mankind than that private persons should avail themselves of the advantages of this new Act.

Failing private enterprise doing this, I think the local authorities should step into the breach and do what private enterprise is indisposed to do. It is all very well to talk about the poor reforming themselves. I believe that when poverty comes in at the door love and the finer feelings often go out at the window; and when poverty comes into a one-roomed tenement in a crowded slum or dirty street in a mining village it induces on the part of women and children, and particularly on the part of the men, habits which are bad, physi- cally, morally, and mentally, and which better housing conditions would do away with altogether. I would suggest to those people who are in the habit of spending so much on libraries and similar things that if they would take my advice and wish to spend the money better than they are now doing, they should devote it to rural and urban housing or to the creation of small parks, gardens and open spaces of half an acre or an acre in many of the poorer districts in our large cities. That in many respects would do much more good than a library of beautiful fiction to be read by sentimental people.

I come from housing to town planning. Here, again, I have perhaps more hopeful and better news than I had in the case of housing. I never thought, even with that optimism I am accused of displaying almost to the extent of Mark Tapleyism, when I introduced the Housing and Town Planning Bill, that town planning would have made the progress it has made during the last two years. The preparation under the Act of four large schemes of town planning has been definitely sanctioned, and these schemes are now being prepared under the Town Planning Act. Birmingham, to its credit, has led the United Kingdom in this matter. One scheme at Harborne covers 2,320 acres, Aston is 1,442 acres; another at Bromsgrove is 554 acres. At Ruislip and Northwood there is a magnificent scheme for 5,906 acres, and the four schemes amount to over 10,222 acres. Applications have been received since the beginning of the working of the Act, a very short time, for authority to proceed at Rochdale and Oldbury, both combined being 2,000 acres. In ten other cases preliminary notices have been given, and in eleven other districts the local authorities have decided to proceed with schemes. In forty or fifty other cases a scheme is being considered by the local authority, and at this moment some seventy town planning schemes ar tbing prepared or are being considered under the new Act by the various local authorities.

May I say, in conclusion, and I am sure the House will allow me, that apart from the local authorities, who are moving in the right direction, and are receiving every support from the Local Government Board, I wish to thank most sincerely the Royal Institute of Architects for the magnificent conference they held at the Guildhall in October last. The Royal Academy must be most thankfully congratulated for giving the use of their magnificent building for the finest exhibition of town planning and garden city schemes that has ever been revealed in any city in the world, and I can assure the House, for I have seen them all, that I never thought that in so short a time any movement could produce such a bibliography, not only in books but magazines and pamphlets and various other forms of literature, as the town planning movement has produced during the last two years. I am additionally pleased to say this because I have been prominently identified with this movement for the last twenty-five years, and the progress made has exceeded my most sanguine expectations, and I hope every Member, both in town and country, whenever they have the opportunity to help this movement, will do so by every means in their power.