HC Deb 10 August 1914 vol 65 cc2273-89

Order for second reading read.

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


I do not propose to detain the House more than a very short time in reference to this Bill, but it is impossible to let it pass sub silentio for two reasons. One is that we entertain to building in the proposed form many strong objections which have not been removed by the Amendments to be inserted. The other reason is that it is very very difficult to show that the Bill can be called a measure of such urgency as to pass through all its stages in one day. The Minister in charge of this Bill, the President of the Local Government Board, was good enough to consult us on this side, and, as I understand, he was prepared to make it perfectly clear that neither of the Departments concerned are to act themselves unless it is shown after local inquiry properly held after due notice that there is no other method by which the necessary housing accommodation can be provided. This is a condition which is inherent, because, if these Bills, and especially this Bill, are to be successful, it must be because they will receive, not merely the support of the Opposition in this House, but the support of all classes of people in the country afterwards. As far as I and those for whom I speak are concerned, we shall not only offer no opposition to the Bill, but, if it passes, we will do our best to make it a success. But its success is dependent upon the Government taking the necessary wise precautions in administering the powers of the Department, and it is essential that the Government should do this through the local authorities and public utility societies, where possible, and that only in the very last resource, when it is proved after inquiry that neither of these bodies would do the work, should the Government put in force the Clauses under which they have power to carry out these operations. You could not make those Clauses effective if you had not the support of the localities in which it was proposed to erect those cottages.

We had a definite statement from the right hon. Gentleman, now President of the Board of Trade, when he was President of the Board of Agriculture, that it is the intention of the Department to charge economic rents for these cottages. It is essential that that should be done. Otherwise you will be building cottages out of the public revenue or local rates in localities where the real need for them may be a question of doubt. I have nothing to say as to the urban part. That may be useful in all the conditions, but it is a very grave question whether it will be desirable, if we have distress, as I hope we may not have to a very great degree, to use the agricultural parts of this Bill which are applicable to agricultural districts. But I do not propose to offer any real opposition to the Bill. We have been consulted and, therefore, it is our duty to give our advice when asked and to express our opinions. The responsibility for all these measures of relief must rest with the Government themselves. They have full knowledge. They are in possession of the power. All we can do is to criticise if we think right and, having done that, to offer no opposition which may prevent the spending of money in certain parts of the country where a real need is proved, and where it can be advantageously spent. I am sure that the House will agree that it would be the worst form of procedure to spend money unwisely or to take large sums of money to spend without due care in agricultural or urban districts, and I would suggest that the Government in putting this Bill into force should have regard to the principles to which I have referred. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman in charge of this Bill to look at the Amendment in the name of my Noble Friend the Member for Hitchin, which brings into the first Clause the words "after consultation with the Development Commissioners." The wish of my Noble Friend was that it should be "after consultation with, and approved by, the Development Commissioners."




The hon. Gentleman must not contradict me. All I say is that the suggestion of my Noble Friend was as I have indicated. The Government have, as I understand, informed us that they have accepted my Noble Friend's Amendment. In those circumstances may I point out that they have only accepted part of it, and that the two words, to which he attaches considerable importance, are omitted, and I would like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman could not add them now. May I point out that without the addition of those words they have not really accepted the Amendment of my Noble Friend, which they told us they were doing.


I might ask the Government very seriously the question whether it is intended, in determining the economic rent to be paid for these cottages, that such rent should include a payment in satisfaction of the sinking fund? I would suggest that in the interpretation of that term they should not include such a payment in the rent, and should not cause the poor labourer actually to buy the house for the Government—for that is what it really would mean. The point is one of very great importance which I would like to argue at greater length, but for the peculiar circumstances in which we stand.


May I say that while I welcome this Bill for the agricultural districts, where there will be considerable scope for its operation, I do see some little difficulty in the allocation of the task as between the Local Government Board and the Board of Agriculture. The Board of Agriculture are authorised here to deal with the problem in what are called agricultural districts. It is very hard indeed to say what an agricultural district is. The Local Government Board are dealing with the problem in all urban districts. The worst cases of all are to be found in those districts in which an industrial population live in houses which otherwise would be occupied as houses in a rural district, and I hope that no difficulty between the two Departments is going to prevent the carrying out of what should be done in those cases which require most urgent treatment. I would ask whether, in the exceptional conditions upon which the whole of this Bill depends to a considerable extent, it will be possible for the Government to take in hand those cottages which are being allowed to fall into disrepair owing to their being closed or threatened to be demolished by orders of the local authorities under the Housing Acts? There is a great number of these houses, and if the Government or the approved societies are allowed to take them in hand, and restore them, they can be made perfectly fit for human habitation. I would ask that those words should be strengthened so as to enable the Government to ensure that the houses which would be most valuable should be converted into fit habitations.


I agree with my hon. Friend who has just spoken in approving of the principle of this Bill. I hope that the Government will consider the point which he indicated in reference to what I may call suburban districts, of which I take a rather wide view, including small towns and so on within twenty or thirty miles of great centres of population. As far as my experience goes those are the places where the great crowding, owing to lack of good houses, really takes place. I hope that there will not be any confusion in reference to these places, and that they will not, in other words, fall between two stools and be regarded by the Local Government Board as agricultural districts, and by the Board of Agriculture as "elsewhere"—to use the word of the Bill. I hope that the Government may be able to give us some assurance on this point. There are two other matters. My right hon. Friend was kind enough to mention the fact that the Government have agreed to insert the words "after consultation with the Development Commissioners," but I think that they will see that that scarcely meets the point which they were good enough to say that they would meet. The object was to give some guarantee that the Development Commissioners should have a real say in the expenditure of this money.



4.0 P.M.


Hon. Members on this side of the House were asked whether we would be able to do anything to facilitate the passing of this Bill. We then said that we had great objections to the policy of the Bill, and still have, but, in view of the special circumstances of the case, we would do what we could to meet them. One of the points most strongly raised was that there should be control by the Development Commissioners, an impartial body. I do not wish, however, to go into that on the present occasion. We agreed amicably, and I understood this to be a Parliamentary agreement on which we could rely absolutely. That was the agreement I understood, and I do not think the Government will disagree with me on that point. Thereupon we said that we would facilitate the Bill. The words I suggested were, "with the approval of the Development Commissioners," and those were the words used in the Act. If there is any objection to the particular words, then, so far as the substance of the matter is inserted, I should not quarrel with any other form of words. I regard this matter as of very great importance, but I do not want on this occasion to explain the reasons why I think it important. The only other point to which I desire to call attention is as to whether the Government can do anything, though I am afraid they cannot, in the direction of authorising individuals as well as societies. I should have thought that if the Government can authorise a society they could also authorise an individual under similar conditions. However, that is a matter which I cannot enter into at the present moment. It seems to me that if an individual can erect houses on the same terms, and in the same manner as an authorised society, he might receive some public assistance. I should like to hear what the Government have to say on this and other points.


I do not wish to raise any criticisms on this side of the House, for I am very anxious that the Bill should pass. I do hope, however, that the Government will hesitate before handing over the absolute disposal of everything done under this Bill to the Development Commissioners. The Development Commissioners are not represented in Parliament, and it would be absurd to place in their hands a power by which they could veto the action of the Board of Agriculture or the Local Government Board. In other words, a body of outside Commissioners, under the Bill, would have absolute control over two great Government Departments.


One of the greatest objections we on this side felt to the Housing Bill was that either the Local Government Board or the Board of Agriculture might become building departments, carrying on large building operations, and taking down into the country their own plans, their own machinery, and their own staff. I understand that the President of the Local Government Board has been kind enough to consult one or two of us to-day, and that he is quite willing to give an assurance that neither of those Departments will turn themselves into building departments until they have held a local inquiry as to the needs and necessities of any particular district for houses, and until they have assured themselves that neither the local authorities nor public utility societies can satisfactorily build houses. That removes one of our greatest objections. There is one other matter, namely, the question of an economic rent. It is quite impossible to dissociate this temporary housing policy from the more permanent Housing Bill, particularly in the matter of rent. It is quite possible that if the Government succeed under this Bill in providing something like 20,000 houses, and then let them at an uneconomic rent, and afterwards they erect 100,000 houses under the permanent Act, it would be difficult for them to charge an economic rent for the 100,000 houses, if, in a period "of distress, they had charged the people occupying the 20,000 houses 1s. 6d. or 2s. a week. The people would say that you could not charge them 4s. or 5s. when you had already charged 1s. 6d. or 2s. You must let at economic rents. The whole of this temporary policy does really dovetail into the more permanent policy, and cannot possibly be dissociated from it, particularly from the point of view of finance.

In ordinary circumstances the House of Commons would at once ask for four millions of money for building cottages to be let at an economic rent, and the question is at what rate are you likely to be able to borrow the money, because obviously it much depends on the rate at which you can borrow money what rent you can charge for the houses. On the second Reading of the Housing Bill an hon. Member opposite stated that an addition of 1 per cent. would mean another 10d. a week on the actual rent. It does work out very nearly at that figure, and therefore it is of importance that the House of Commons should know at about what rate the Government contemplate borrowing the £4,000,000. At any rate, I should like to have a renewed assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that there is no intention of letting these houses below their economic value, and that through favouritism certain people will not have allocated to them houses at 1s. 6d. or 2s. a week for which the economic rent of 4s. or 5s. a week ought to be charged, so that there may be no fear of any corruption, bribery, or anything of that kind in connection with those houses. Wherever these transactions can be carried out through local authorities or public utility societies those dangers would, to a large extent, almost wholly disappear. They might exist if the Government themselves became departments for not only building but for providing, maintaining, and letting houses to different people.


This is a Bill which would in ordinary circumstances give rise to considerable discussion, and we have no reason whatever to complain if hon. Members opposite, in giving their assent to its speedy passage, desire certain assurances on particular points in which they are specially interested. I rise in order to reply to specific questions put to me by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen. Certainly it is not our intention to build houses where we can get the necessary building undertaken either by the local authorities or by public utility societies. So far as the Local Government Board is concerned, we have not a staff available for the actual building of houses; we are not a building department; we have never built a house, and we do not want to build a house, and it is only in the last resort that we should establish an architects' department with a view to conducting the actual building operations. If houses are to be built in Manchester, Cardiff, Sheffield, or wherever it may be, I think it would be very much better that the local authorities should undertake to build them than that the Local Government Board should set architects to work, let contracts, or manage and maintain houses in those cities. Similarly we also give an assurance in regard to the Board of Agriculture, which will not step in unless it is clear that the local authorities or public utility society is not willing. To meet the view of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Strand Division (Mr. Long) and of the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Hayes Fisher), we are quite ready to take no action, unless, after full local inquiry the Local Government Board or the Board of Agriculture is satisfied that the houses will not be provided by other means than their own direct action. With respect to the rents to be charged it is our intention that the houses and cottages should be let at economic rents. We have made that quite clear when this matter of housing has been discussed. It may be necessary—and I should like to make this clear—to take special measures, in view of the fact that it will be difficult at this juncture to borrow money at the usual rates of interest; and, if the local authorities are to be pressed to undertake this work at once, we shall have to consider whether temporary measures are necessary with regard to the rate of interest. A Conference will take place this evening between the Treasury, the Public Works Loans Commissioners, and the Scottish Office and my Department on the subject with respect to the sinking fund and house rent and land; the house and the land really stand on a different footing. The land is a permanent asset, and, as my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Agriculture said when introducing his Bill some few weeks ago it is not his intention to charge the tenants with the cost of purchasing the land through the Sinking Fund; but the cottages and houses stand on a different footing, and as the Sinking Fund covers a period of sixty years, and as, at the end of that period, many of these houses will have an extremely small remaining value, I should myself have questioned whether it was proper to let them at rents which would not provide for their replacement when they are worn out.

I will give my attention to that matter. Then there is a further question. The Noble Lord the Member for Hitchin (Lord Robert Cecil) urges strongly that the Development Commissioners should have a voice in this matter. In order to meet the views of the Opposition, the Government have decided that words should be inserted in the Bill dealing with that point. For my own part, I cannot refrain from expressing the opinion that it appears to me that any reference to the Development Commissioners is really quite unnecessary. However, we are passing legislation under circumstances in which general agreement is essential, and, therefore, if the Noble Lord attaches importance to it, and does not accept the words, "after consultation with the Development Commissioners," he may perhaps accept the word "concurrence." [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] If the Noble Lord presses his words, I should find myself in great difficulty in resisting them. As to agricultural districts, they cannot really be defined, and it is a matter which must be left to friendly arrangement between the Board of Agriculture and the Local Government Board. The Board of Agriculture does not want to deal with semi-suburban districts, or with mining towns and villages, although both of these may come under what are technically known as rural districts. These will be matters rather for the Local Government Board, dealing with the local authorities than for the Board of Agriculture, which knows little about the conditions of mining towns. As to the question of the repairs of the houses, we should be empowered under this Bill to buy any cottage out of repair and put it in order. We shall not be empowered, and I think it was not suggested that we should be empowered, nor would it be right for us to do ordinary landlords' repairs for the benefit and profit of the landowner If a house is really out of repair, and if it has practically to be rebuilt, the course under the Bill would be to acquire it and repair it. The whole operation of the Bill is for one year, and the matter is to be subject to review by the House of Commons. It is hard to foresee what the economic condition of the country may be in a few weeks or months time. Our duty as a Government is to take every step within our power to enable us to provide work if a period of severe stress does arise. We may be confronted before long with very heavy tasks and very difficult duties, and I am sure that the House will give us all the legislative means that we require in order to strengthen our hands against the contingency which may face the nation.


I do not rise to offer the semblance of opposition to this Bill. In the circumstances in which we find ourselves placed to-day, that would be impossible, and I am anxious to avoid even the appearance of anything controversial on this question. At the same time, I am acquainted, perhaps as well as anybody in this House, with the conditions of the agricultural districts, and I desire to guard myself from it being supposed that I view this Bill with approval. There are numerous matters in which I should differ from the right hon. Gentleman, and with which I personally cannot agree. I do not think I am singular in holding the opinion on this side, but for the reasons I have given and because I desire to avoid even the appearance of being engaged in controversy now, I have risen only to say solely that I wish to guard myself against it being supposed that I support this measure in all its details.


I hope that my right hon. Friend will not press the point as to inserting words giving the power of concurrence to the Development Commissioners. After all, this Bill is only for an emergency, and to last one year. There is therefore no reason to set up any special machinery. The Development Commissioners are not controlled by this House. They have a large amount of money which they will have to spend in any case to deal with unemployment, and therefore their hands will be fully occupied. If the precedent is created in this Bill allowing the Development Commissioners the power to come in and give their concurrence to any scheme, it would be bound to meet with opposition on this side of the House. I hope the Noble Lord, therefore, will content himself with the words which are inserted in the Bill providing for consultation with the Development Commissioners. I think for a period of twelve months he might consent to leave it that way, and at the end of that time, if he likes, he can fight out the principle with us on this side. I want to assure my right hon. Friend that if ho yields on the question of concurrence a great many on this side will be bound to vote against the Second Reading of the Bill.


I desire to ask whether under this Bill the local authorities and the Board of Agriculture will be able to acquire land compulsorily other than under the Land Clauses Consolidation Act? I understand that the Bill has one object, namely, to provide work later on if it becomes necessary. In that case, I think it is highly desirable that the local authority should have power to acquire land immediaely.


May I ask how this money is to be allocated to the different districts? My constituency will want some and so will others. I should like also to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider the period of sixty years which is far too long for economic rents.


I can only speak again with leave of the House. I see an hon. Member sitting opposite who will bear out every word I say. There came to us hon. Members from the other side who said, we cannot get this Bill at all except with the consent of the Opposition. They asked several of us, and we all agreed that some such provision as the approval of the Development Commissioners was from our point of view necessary for reasons which I could make clear to the House, and which I do not wish to enter upon now. We regard it as an absolutely essential point. They accepted that, and I say that the Government would be false to their pledges if they did not stick to the bargain made in their behalf.


It is very strange if we on this side are to be bound by a hole-and-corner arrangement made on this extremely important point. I can understand the feelings of the Noble Lord in regard to the Development Commissioners, since in a sense he is the parent of that body, and of the proposal that they should be independent of Parliament. Had the Development Commissioners been a body responsible to this House, I should have had no objection, but in the circumstances as they are an independent body responsible to nobody, I decline to give them an absolute veto over all schemes to be undertaken under this Bill. I think that is a thoroughly unconstitutional practice, and one which I am surprised to find so much favoured on the opposite side. I am not only opposed to this on theory, but I have myself had the opportunity of observing certain dealings of the Development Commissioners, and it is in the light of those dealings of the Development Commissioners that I set my face firmly against that proposal. I know that the Noble Lord thinks that this will give security through the Development Commissioners against jobbery. That is not my experience, and I think you have far more chance of jobbery by bringing in an irresponsible body. So long as you have responsibility, you have less chance of jobbery. For those reasons we here offer a persistent and unrelenting opposition.


The hon. Gentleman seems to have failed to realise the position. The position is not whether the Development Commissioners are good or bad, but whether an agreement has been entered into with my Noble Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who by?"]—and with hon. Members opposite. Hon. Members opposite do not seem to understand that if there is no arrangement made this Bill cannot go through. Here we are met in the face of a great catastrophe to do our best to keep the nation in the position in which it was. We are here confronted with national danger, and, under those circumstances, we pass Bills which would be discussed and commented on under the ordinary course, and the only possible thing is to come to private arrangements, and, if such arrangements can be come to, then pass such Bill. If hon. Members persist in objecting, the Bill must be withdrawn. Either keep the arrangement or withdraw the Bill.


The Noble Lord has mentioned my name, and I want at once to say that I regret that my hon. Friends have pressed this point. I agree with them absolutely in what they have said on the merits of the case, but I think it is only just that the House should know that I consider the Noble Lord and many of his Friends met us extremely fairly in this matter. I am perfectly certain that we have to recognise that we cannot get all that we want as to this point, and if the Bill is going through, some of us have to give away something we desire. The Noble Lord and his Friends have done that on their side, and I hope that we shall be willing to do so also.


I desire to answer one or two supplementary points, and to deal with this question of the Development Commissioners. With respect to compulsory powers, there are under the Housing Act ample powers to local authorities to obtain land by compulsion. It is not, of course, desirable that a Government Department should be empowered by this Bill, or should endeavour by this Bill, to obtain powers to take land by compulsion, because that would at once make the Bill a controversial one, and its passage would have been impossible. With respect to the allocation of the money amongst various authorities, the course that will be taken will be to invite local authorities to submit schemes, and those schemes will be aided under this Bill according to the amount of distress or unemployment which prevails in their localities. If there is no unemployment the schemes will not be proceeded with, but where the unemployment is acute there preference will be given The question of the period of sixty years hardly arises under this Bill, but is one which affects the housing question generally. With respect to the Development Commissioners, perhaps it is as well that I should say precisely what has occurred.

Several hon. Members on this side were most anxious that a Bill of this sort should become law. They realised it could not become law without general assent. Before approaching the Government they approached hon. Members opposite in order to ascertain on what terms the Bill could be agreed to. They then came to the Government and assured us if certain terms were agreed to the Bill would be allowed to pass into law, even in this last hour of the Session. The Government, under the circumstances, thought it their duty to accept those conditions, and pass the Bill. Let it be remembered that this Bill, as applying to agricultural districts, was before the House previously in the Bill of my right hon. Friend who was then President of the Board of Agriculture. Clause 1 had to be dropped because it was found to be controversial, and this Bill must be dropped if it is found to be controversial. Consequently, as hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite attach importance to the concurrence of the Development Commissioners, and as it is a choice clearly between meeting their wishes or withdrawing the Bill as a controversial measure, the Government have no alternative, as right hon. Gentlemen opposite press the point, but will have to stand by the arrangement made and either withdraw the Bill or else insert the word "concurrence," as proposed by the Noble Lord.


Let me say one or two words with regard to the opposition which has been displayed in the last few speeches. Here we have been for the last week, Members on this side of the House, loyally supporting the Government and passing every sort of emergency Bill dealing with the situation that has arisen. In those Bills there have been numerous provisions which undoubtedly at any other time would have met with very severe criticism and opposition from this side. There has not been from first to last a note of opposition or controversy struck from this side of the House. With regard to this particular Bill, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wimbledon has said, in other circumstances hon. Members on this side might have taken strong objection to the Bills. My Noble Friend the Member for Hitchin made an arrangement with the promoters of the Bill and negotiated as to one particular point, on which I express no opinion, which is of decided interest to many who have come to the arrangement. The moment one single small point crops up which hon. Members on the other side are not fully satisfied with they are the first against their own Government and their own Leader to try to promote controversy, and to threaten to divide the House against their own Leaders.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a second time" put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."

Bill accordingly considered in Committee.

[Mr. WHITLEY in the Chair.]

  1. CLAUSE 1.—(Disposal of Land and Buildings Acquired tinder Act) 320 words
  2. cc2288-9
  3. CLAUSE 3.—(Interpretation, Application and Short Title.) 299 words