§ 11.0 P.M.
§ Sir A. GRIFFITH-BOSCAWEN
I desire to raise the question of the attitude of the Government towards rural housing, and I do so in consequence of a most unsatisfactory answer given by the President of the Local Government Hoard this afternoon. We find ourselves in a most extraordinary position on this question. For three years in succession Members on this side of the House have brought in Bills for the purpose of dealing with this urgent problem, and those Bills have been blocked and obstructed by the Government. The Government then announced last autumn that they had a rival policy, which was themselves, by means of a central department, to build cottages where they were wanted; they told us that the question was urgent, and that they intended to deal with it at once. What do we find to-day? That nothing has been done, that nothing is going to be done in the immediate future, that what is to be done will depend on legislation, and that the Government are not prepared to say when they intend to introduce that legislation. I want to remind the President of the Local Government Board that his colleagues in the Cabinet—I do not say he himself—distinctly told the country last winter that they were going to deal with the question at once. I will quote short passages from two speeches made by his colleagues. First of all, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking at Swindon, on 22nd October last—that is seven months ago—said:—Now I come to housing. There is a great deficiency in the number of houses. You are 120,000 houses short 2093 in rural areas. We hare decided, therefore, not only that it ought to be dealt with, but that it ought to be dealt with as an urgent problem. I will tell you what I mean by that. There are two ways of dealing with it. One is leaving it to local authorities. [Much laughter], I see you have settled that: I do not mind telling you that, I agree with you. We agree that if there was plenty of time and no particular hurry, the local authorities might do it more economically. But there is not plenty of time, certainly not in the rural districts. We have, therefore, come to the conclusion that, the central Government have got to do it. We propose, therefore, to get a schedule of those districts, to find out what the shortage is what houses are required, and we propose to build them ourselves. [A voice: 'Noble hero'!].Where is the "noble hero" now? Where are the cottages that the "noble hero" was going to build? It is all put off. He was merely deceiving the country and this House. The "noble hero's" cottages have not been built; they have to wait for legislation, and the right hon. Gentleman's colleague is not ready even to introduce legislation. Now I will take another colleague, the President of the Board of Agriculture.
§ Sir A. GRIFFITH-BOSCAWEN
I am not dealing with the hon. Member for Pontefract. I know full well that the hon. Gentleman was one of the chief obstructionists in the House to our Bill. No doubt he will continue to aid the Government in obstruction. Speaking at Huntington on 5th November the President of the Board of Agriculture said:—If they were to have the best labourers, they must house their workmen well. This must be undertaken by a central authority, and the Government were going to make a start with 10,000 cottages, and to finance the scheme with £1,500,000.They were going to make a start at once. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said it was an urgent problem. They obstructed our plan, which was to do the work by means of aid to the local authorities. After all this talk seven or eight months ago, we do not even hear that they are doing anything. In reply to my question this afternoon the right hon. Gentleman did not even answer the point: whether housing is still the policy of the Government. I very much doubt whether it is still the policy of the Government. I do not believe they have got any policy. They simply want to keep it till the next election. They talk a lot about clearing the slums, getting rid of unsanitary areas, building cottages for the people, and providing them with decent homes; but they have firmly made up their minds that they will not do it in the present Parliament.
2094 All this talk about starting with 10,000 cottages, and building 120,000 cottages for the people in the country districts is merely to deceive those who believe that there is a policy, while, as a matter of fact, they have got no policy at all. I want to ask the President of the Board of Trade what is the Government policy? He did not answer my question whether building by the Central Authority was still the policy. All he said was that legislation would be necessary. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in that "noble hero" speech never suggested that legislation was necessary. If legislation were necessary, why has it not been introduced and at an early part of the Session? When is it going to be introduced?
We have been told that the question is urgent, and the Government are doing absolutely nothing to redeem the pledge given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer I I raise this question merely as an inquiry. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Yes, because our policy was obstructed by the Government. They said they had an alternative. They indicated to the country what that alternative was. They have never brought forward anything in this House. In a few weeks time, probably directly after Whitsuntide, the Unionist Housing Bill, which has three times passed Second Beading, will be before the Committee. If the Government are really prepared with a practical policy we are quite willing to withdraw our Bill and make way for their proposals. So long as they have got no policy, and merely talk to the country in the way they have been doing, we shall persist in our policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Wilton to-day asked a question, supplementary to mine, as to whether it was the fact that in consequence of the announcement of the Government that building operations had been stopped all over the country? I know myself of district councils who are holding their hands because they are expecting the Government to do something. So long as the Government do nothing the result is that they are making the housing-difficulty greater than it was before. They are themselves doing nothing, and they are preventing others from taking steps. The question is urgent, and not a matter really of party politics. It is a great national question, and ought to be dealt with honestly and squarely. At all events, we ought to know whether or not the Government intend to redeem the 2095 pledges given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Agriculture.
§ The PRESIDENT Of the LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. Herbert Samuel)
I recognise from the concluding words of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which was couched in very different tones from his earlier remarks, that this question of housing need not be, and ought not to be, a party question. I recognise further that the hon Gentleman himself has for some years shown considerable zeal in the cause of housing improvement. Still the fact remains that his speech this evening, made on the Motion for Adjournment, when we have but little Parliamentary time, was a very bitter partisan attack, and I have been led to the conclusion that his zeal for housing reform for its own sake, which I am quite sure is sincere and genuine, is accompanied by very considerable zeal for housing reform as a possibly useful cry for his own party—
§ Sir A. GRIFFITH-BOSCAWEN
I have said over and over again in this House, and repeated it to-night, that, as far as the Unionist Housing Bill is concerned, we are quite willing to accept any Amendment from any side of the House that will improve the Bill. I do not want to make it a party question.
§ Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL
I am quite well aware that the hon. Member made that offer, but at the same time the whole tone and character of his speech to-night was unquestionably such as to leave the impression, at all events, on this side of the House, that he brought up this topic for the purpose of making an attack upon the Government, rather than for the purpose of securing an effective result in housing reform, and we cannot but remember that while hon. Members opposite were in power for ten years, with an unchallengeable superiority in this House, and a Second Chamber always at their command, they never lifted a single finger to pass any legislation to deal in any effective fashion with this problem. Unquestionably during that time there were in many districts a shortage of cottages. The reasons why we do not support the hon. Member's Bill are because we consider it is framed upon bad lines. It is not necessary, because you admit that there is an evil, and that the evil calls for remedy, that therefore you should accept any remedy. 2096 Of course, any remedy should be accepted from any quarter of the House if it be on sound and satisfactory lines, but there is no reason why you should accept any remedy merely because it is considered by some Members as going far to solve the housing problem. Our objection to the hon. Member's Bill is that it will subsidise low wages and refuse help where good wages are paid, and labourers are able to pay economic rents and subsidise the very districts in which the lowest wages are paid. We think that is approaching the question at the wrong end. You ought not to lower rents at the expense of the rates and taxes to meet low wages in order that a man should be in a position to pay for the cottage what it cost to provide it. The hon. and gallant Member said that to his knowledge rural district councils had held their hands on account of the intimation given that the Government would themselves erect houses. If that is so, it is a most astounding fact, for the Government have publicly declared, in a letter written to Mr. Hobhouse, chairman of the Somerset County Council, that when the Government themselves erect houses they will be quite prepared to take over any liability incurred by rural district councils in this direction. That was a distinct pledge given by ray predecessor at the Local Government Board, with the authority of the Prime Minister and the Members of the Cabinet. Therefore, if any rural district councils are now holding their hands in this policy of not carrying into execution their work, I venture to say they are acting quite unnecessarily, for the introduction of the Government's housing policy will not in any way interfere with any action they may now take. With respect to quotations the hon. Member has made from speeches by my colleagues, he quoted one from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he declared that the first and essential step was to say precisely where it was necessary for these houses to be built. He said the first step was to take a survey of the housing conditions and ascertain in what localities the new cottages ought to be built. That survey is now in full process of being taken. Local authorities some time ago were asked to supply particulars of the number of houses they required in their localities, how many are not fit for habitation, and how many fit for habitation are still seriously defective. The survey is being rapidly completed. On two occasions, if not more, the Chancellor 2097 of the Exchequer distinctly declared that the first step in the Government's policy was to take this housing survey and get a thoroughly scientific knowledge of the requirements of the people. Unquestionably, legislation is needed. The hon. Member did not dispute that the Government would be going beyond its power if it attempted to deal with this question without legislation. The other night I was attacked for a supposed infringement of propriety for measures I took with regard to the classification of roads without statutory authority. It was totally unnecessary in that case, but if either my Department or any other Department had set to work to spend public money in building houses without Parliamentary authority hon. Members opposite will be the first to complain. The President of the Board of Agriculture in two speeches during the winter campaign declared thatthe Board will have no power to erect cottages until Parliament has given them the requisite power to do so. In the present state of the law the Board have no power to acquire land to build cottages.
§ Sir A. GRIFFITH-BOSCAWEN
We have been told that the Government intended to proceed under the Crown Lands Act to put up some cottages as a first instalment of a great land scheme. Why do you not proceed under the Crown Lands Act?
§ Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL
That can only be done where the Crown own land, and, in this case, they have built a number of cottages. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the Forest of Dean?"] With respect to Rosyth, schemes are being actively organised and a complete town planning arrangement is on foot there. The question of Farnborough is engaging the active attention of the War Office and the Local Government Board in order to see that proper accommodation should be provided for Government employés. I said to-day that I was not in a position to say when legislation will be introduced. The hon. Member is pressing the Government to introduce housing legislation. We certainly propose to introduce legislation, but at this moment, with the great problems before us of Irish Government and the Finance Bill, the present moment before Whitsuntide is not the time such legislation can be proceeded with. The question is engaging the very active attention of the Government, and I trust before long that I shall have the opportunity of inviting the hon. Member who has spoken 2098 to-night to lend me all his assistance to pass an effective Housing Bill which will enable us to acquire land on fair and reasonable terms.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the action of his predecessor in giving notice to the local authorities that they might proceed with schemes which the Government would take up, and he added that he had the backing of the Government for that purpose. What right had he to make that announcement, and how can he bind the hands of the Government? Is it any security to any local authority? If he had brought in a short Bill or a Resolution in this House that would be the case, and he could boast of it; but, as a matter of fact, that declaration of his predecessor is of no more worth than the paper on which it is written. It is merely the promise of an individual, backed up by a number of individuals, and if the Government changes its mind it is worth nothing whatever. No local authority can spend a single farthing on that declaration, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it perfectly well.
§ Mr. ROYDS
I said the Unionist Government. They passed that Act, and the whole of the building by the local authorities is based upon that Act at the present time. While the Unionist Government were in office up to 1906 the number of houses built in this country averaged 135,000. Last year the number of houses built was 56,000, and the average number since you have been in office has been only 81,000, and 61,000 since the "People's Budget" was passed.
§ Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL
Does the hon. Gentleman wish the House to draw the conclusion that there was no housing problem during the years prior to 1906?
§ Mr. ROYDS
I never said anything of the sort; but I do say that this Government have made the problem acute. Just at the time it was getting acute, they came down with the People's Budget and destroyed private enterprise that was 2099 supplying the houses of the country. The ex-President of the Local Government Board has always said that in the past private enterprise has housed the people, and that we must look to private enterprise in the future. The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend has been introduced to supplement private enterprise. It is because private enterprise has failed that it has been necessary to introduce the Bill, to supplement it, and to give assistance to the local authorities, but the proposal of the Government, as I understand it, is still further to destroy, not only private enterprise, but also the building by the local authorities. There is not the slightest doubt that not only are private persons holding their hands and doing little or no building, but the local authorities are looking at what the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Agriculture stated in their speeches in the autumn, and they are waiting to see what the Government are going to do, with the result that instead of 56,000 houses being built this 2100 year, it is very doubtful whether there will be 30,000 built. It is stated, on the most reliable authority, that in the big towns in this country, at the end of this year, there will not be a vacant house. The young couples cannot get married because they cannot get houses. Exactly the same thing applies in the rural districts, and yet the right hon. Gentleman this evening gives not the slightest hint or suggestion as to when the Government are going to introduce legislation to supply this most urgent and pressing need. I do hope that when the Bill of my hon. Friend comes on for discussion the Government will there and then show their hand, and will either state what they are going to do, and do it instantly, or support the Bill introduced from this side, which will, at any rate—
It being Half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.