HC Deb 01 August 1919 vol 118 cc2479-90

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a second time. This Bill is in persuance of a promise given by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary in the course of the proceedings in Committee upon the Housing (Ireland) Bill. It is a Bill to amend the Labourers (Ireland) Acts, owing to the altered conditions which exist at the present time. The House is aware that at various times most generous measures have been passed by it for the improvement of the conditions of labourers in rural districts. The result has been that very large numbers of labourers' cottages with small holdings attached to them have been erected in Ireland, to the extent almost of 50,000. They are extremely comfortable dwellings, and the result has been most satisfactory from many points of view. The definition of a labourer under those Acts in force up to the present time has been any person other than a domestic or menial servant working for hire in a rural district whose average; wages are under half-a-crown per day. By that provision a person whose wages are under 17s. 6d. per week is the only person eligible for one of those cottages, and as the minimum rate of wages has been raised in some instances considerably over that sum, the result would be to deprive those receiving the increased wages of any right to have a cottage. What we propose to do by this Bill is to extend the definition contained in the Irish Land Act of 1903 so as to include any person working for hire in a rural district other than a domestic or menial servant, and to remove the restriction of half-a-crown and put in no restriction as to the wage. That is the principal Amendment, and I submit that it is a reasonable and just Amendment.


Is it necessary to use the word menial?


I considered that point and the word has been adopted from the earlier Acts. From the legal point of view there is practically no distinction between "domestic" and "menial," and the word, taken as it is from an earlier Act, does not in any way convey any derogatory imputation. It really means concerned in the actual work of a house and living in the house. The other alteration we propose to make is to extend the Act to any person not working for lure, but working in a rural district at some trade or handicraft without employing another person except a member of his own family. This is intended to apply to persons who are really labourers and who are working as carpenters or at some handicraft, and, in order to prevent anyone in a larger way reaping the benefit of the Bill, we propose to limit it to a person who employs no other person except that he may receive assistance from a member of his own family. We also restrict both these provisions to persons who are already not in occupation of more than a, quarter of an acre of land.


I welcome the promptitude with which the Government have realised their promise on this question, and I think the Bill on the whole is a very good Bill. The change in the rate of wages has of course made it necessary. The only provision of the Bill upon which I have some little doubt is that as to the half-acre of land. I do not profess to be acquainted with the conditions in Ireland as well as some of my hon. Friends both on this and the opposite sides, but I fear that this provision may exclude a good many people who are really worthy recipients of this measure for improving housing in Ireland. I do not know that I could fairly ask at this stage to delay the Bill because of this provision, but I would be glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that he is prepared to seriously and favourably consider an Amendment of this proposal, and if such an Amendment were accepted it could be inserted in another place. With that assurance, I do not see why the Bill should not go through all its stages to-day.


This Bill is, in my opinion, of greater importance than might appear at first instance from merely reading its terms. It does deal with a very large and far-reaching grievance which many of us felt was left open when the Housing Bill for Ireland was being discussed in this House. As I understand it, the effect of the Amendment here, enlarging the scope of the definition of a labourer, is that it enables a large number of people, both in the country districts and more particularly, and I think with greater justification perhaps, in the larger villages and smaller towns, to be provided with houses whose circumstances were not covered by the Housing-Bill, which applied only to the larger towns. That was one of the points which I raised myself on the Second Reading of the Housing Bill, that it did not provide for the building of houses in these larger villages in Ireland, which, of course, as all hon. Members who are familiar with Ireland know, exist throughout the whole country in a way in which they do not exist in England. In Ireland we get villages of from 500 to 1,000 inhabitants, not large enough to have their own town commissioners, but, I am sorry to say, amply large enough to contain within their limits some of the worst housing conditions which it would be possible to see in any part of the United Kingdom. I would like to ask my right hon. Friend whether this definition of Sub-clause (a) of Clause I, "working for hire," includes a man who is working in a mine or in a mill, or does it merely include a man who has been engaged at a hiring fair as an agricultural labourer? Some of the very worst housing conditions in Ireland are in these larger villages, where you not only get agricultural labourers, but you also get people employed in the industries of the district, whether they be linen mills, as in my part of the country, or whether they be men working at their own work, or possibly men employed in mines, and I do not see why those people employed in these other vocations as working men should not get the benefits of the Labourers Acts as regards their houses. I hope very much that this definition of working for hire will include people such as that.

There are some terrible examples in Ireland of bad housing conditions in towns of this character. Personally, I know many. I can recall at this moment one row of houses in one of these smaller towns which I am sorry to say I have known unaltered and unchanged throughout the whole period of my life. That is a row of houses which lies some 6 ft. below the level of the road. It is open to all the discharge of the gutter of the road which passes beside it when there is a big shower of rain, and not only that, but behind it, and upon a level well above the level of the ground, there runs a mill race right against the very walls, and here you have human people living down in the depths of this pit with the water from the road on one side and the damp from the mill race upon the other, and I am sorry to say the condition of the people who live there must be one of extreme discomfort, and in wet weather they must be constantly subject to the perpetual drip, drip of water, whether from the front or from behind. I hope this Bill is going to make it impossible for conditions such as that to continue to exist in those smaller towns in Ireland. I do not know what the machinery is exactly, but I hope that there will be, if there is not now, power to condemn in the smaller towns, more drastically and more ruthlessly than has been the case in the past, conditions of living such as those which I have just described. We know how quickly epidemics of illness spread in Ireland. The influenza epidemic last year committed great ravages all over the world, but Ireland certainly had its share, and so long as these conditions in the smaller towns which I have outlined continue to exist, so long as you have houses built in these insanitary and unsuitable conditions and inhabited by human beings, so long will there be epidemics of typhoid and of other diseases throughout the country, such as we all know has been constantly the case in Ireland in the past. Though I feel that the Housing Bill which we discussed a few weeks ago was of great importance and of great benefit to the people in Ireland, and particularly in the larger towns. I feel that this Bill, if it really carries out the objects which I understand it is intended to carry out, will be a Bill which will have an even greater benefit upon a, country which is, after all, primarily an agricultural country and not a country of great towns, than the Housing Bill, which, I hope, will soon become law. Most heartily do I welcome this Bill, and most earnestly do I hope that the results which it will achieve will be results which will redound to the credit of the country and will improve the conditions of the life of the people in Ireland.

Captain C. CRAIG

Until my hon. Friend beside me spoke I had no doubt in my mind as to the meaning of Subsection (a) of Clause 1, but I hope the Attorney-General will make it absolutely clear that that Sub-section does not exclude the large number of miscellaneous persons who are hired in various trades and occupations in small towns in Ireland. I was thinking, for instance, of a small saddler in a village, who employs one assistant, and I take it that that man is included within this Bill. A black- smith or a blacksmith's assistant, I take it, is also entitled to a holding under this Clause, but I would like the Attorney-General to make that perfectly clear to us before we come to a vote on the Bill. With regard to the proviso at the end of Clause 1, I quite agree with the hon. members opposite that that quarter of an acre ought to be increased to at least half an acre, if not to some greater quantity of land, as the minimum. Just as the Bill has been found to be necessary because of the increase in the price of everything, so I think this limit of a quarter of an acre requires to be raised too. If my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General could give us some sort of assurance that he will endeavour to put this matter right before the Bill becomes law, I need not say that my colleagues and myself will support the Bill. I might also say, as a matter of fact, that we will support the Bill whether he does that or whether he does not.

3.0 P.M.


I desire to associate myself with my hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. O'Connor) in congratulating the Attorney-General on the prompt fulfilment of his pledge. Perhaps I may be permitted at the same time to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Mid Antrim (Major O'Neill) upon his sympathetic and well-informed speech to-day. I sincerely hope the suggestions he has made will have the careful consideration of the Attorney-General. The housing conditions in many of the small towns in Ireland are most deplorable, and the instance mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Mid-Antrim is not the only one. There are many towns where similar circumstances exist. There are several points in connection with the Bill to which I should like to call the Attorney-General's attention. In the first place, the funds available for the working of this Bill will be utterly inadequate for dealing with this question on anything like the scale which will be absolutely necessary, and I should like to have an assurance from the Attorney-General that when the present funds are exhausted, as I should think they very soon will be, he will be prepared to bring the strongest possible pressure upon the Treasury to supply further funds for this scheme. The second point which I desire to raise is with reference to the proviso that the Bill shall not apply to any person who is in occupation of more than a quarter of an acre. Undoubtedly that is going to have the effect of shutting out a great many people from the benefit of the Act—people who, all parties in Ireland think, should have the benefit. I hope, therefore, the Attorney-General will see his way at some later stage of this Bill to substitute a half for a quarter of an acre. Then I am not quite clear as to the meaning of the words "in occupation." That is, of coarse, a phrase which would be construed by a Court of law, and it might be construed as meaning a weekly tenant or an allotment-holder. I notice the Attorney-General shakes his head, but he is not on the Bench yet, and will not have the construing of this. There are a great many worse people there. We should have more confidence in the construction of the words if the right hon. and learned Gentleman were in a position to construe it with authority. He can only give an expression of opinion; and is he quite certain himself that the words "in occupation" would not include a weekly tenant or an allotment-holder? If a man holds on a weekly tenancy, is he not "in occupation" of that house or land according to law; and, if so, would not the effect be to cut out every allotment-holder or smallholder who happened to have more than a quarter of an acre? Then there is the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member opposite as to the meaning of the-words "working for hire." Of course, we understand in Ireland, speaking colloquially, what working for hire" means. It generally means a man or woman engaged at a hiring fair, but this may be construed by a Court of law to mean any-one who had entered, say, for three months' service. Finally, I would like to hear the Attorney-General's view upon the question of the domestic servant residing in a house. Does this apply only to a domestic servant residing in a house? I confess I am not clear as to how the previous Acts have worked on that point, but, if there is any doubt or ambiguity, I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman should avail himself of this opportunity to clear it up, and to bring within the compass of this Bill every deserving person who can reasonably be brought within its sphere.


I support this Bill with all my heart, but I would like to say that we all thought when the principal Act, as I may call it—the Housing Act—was going through, that that was pri- marily an Act for the purpose of bettering the health of the people. That was a very important Act, but I agree with my, hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid-Antrim (Major O'Neill) that this is an even more important measure. This will apply to a very large section of the rural community. In my own county and the surrounding counties, where there arc small industrial communities, I know from my own knowledge of several villages, varying from 300 to 700 inhabitants, where there are mill workers who are harboured in houses which are not fit for human habitation. I would like a definition from the Attorney-General as to what is meant by a worker for hire. If a worker for hire does not include a mill worker, then, so far as the small industrial communities in the North of Ireland are concerned, this Bill will be a dead letter. As I said, this is primarily a health Bill. In my county, where I happen to be a member of the county council, we have expended very large sums of money in building a sanatorium and staffing it with a most elaborate staff of doctors and nurses, and all that sort of thing. All that money is lost, in my opinion, and, in the opinion of medical men, unless every worker, whether he works in a mill or on a farm, is in a suitable dwelling.

Unfortunately, our country has a preeminence in the disease known as the white scourge, and in the very district in which I live there is one of these small industrial communities where the workers are living in houses not fit for human habitation, and in that particular district we have the unenviable record of having the highest percentage of the disease known as tuberculosis in all Ireland. In my opinion it is to remedy an evil like that that this Bill is required. As I said, I would like to get a definition of what "working for hire" means. With regard to the proviso if the words "in occupation of more than a quarter of an acre" are allowed to stand, there is no doubt whatever that thousands of men throughout Ireland who are at present living in unsuitable dwellings will be shut out. I am speaking now principally of small farm labourers who are living in a house or hovel, and the owner of the land lets out to these men, say, a plot for potatoes. In the great bulk of cases the plot will be over a quarter of an acre, so that this Section will shut that out. I hope, therefore, before this Bill is allowed to go through, we shall have a definition given of what really "working for hire" means. If this Bill passes through this House, as I think it will, without any shadow of a shade of doubt upon the face of it as to what working for hire means, I believe, with my hon. Friends on the other side, that one of the most beneficent pieces of legislation ever passed for our country will have been accomplished.


I join in the general chorus of gratification at the fact that the Chief Secretary has thus early redeemed the pledge made to us in Committee on the Irish Housing Bill. I rise also to remind my hon. and learned Friend as to what was the intention of the Committee when that pledge was given. We pointed out to him that the Bill we were then considering covered all the members of a given class of the community who lived in towns, and that the Agricultural Labourers' Act, until the period of the War, covered all the agricultural labourers, but that there was a large and no less deserving body of the public who occupied a position between these two extremes. We specially desired that these people, who have as much right as either the agricultural labourer or the industrial artisan, should be furnished with the same means of betterment. I am not sufficient of a lawyer— indeed, I am not a lawyer, and perhaps that is some further reason for gratification—but I should desire a distinct assurance from my hon. and learned Friend that what was the clear intention in Committee, and the clear undertaking of the Chief Secretary, is given the fullest effect to in this Bill. I wish also to associate myself with the request for more light in respect of two matters of supreme importance in definition. What is meant by "working for hire"? The ordinary lay mind in Ireland takes this to mean the agricultural labourer who, every three or four months, it may be, comes into an. open hiring market. But this may have one meaning in our mind and quite a different meaning in the mind of the hon. and learned Gentleman. We do not desire that these workers should be left high and dry as between the popular opinion on one side and the strictly legal meaning on the other. The point also has been raised with respect to the restriction imposed as to the quarter of an acre of land; it is one of very great moment. Enormous use has been made in Ireland of the allotment system. A great many people are actually in occupation to-day of labourers' cottages who hold one or more of these plots. I know scores of cases where three such plots are held by one man. In any such case of that kind that might arise in the future, if this text is to be rigidly interpreted, it must preclude from the benefits many people who are raising food supplies for their own wants in the cheapest possible way. I do not conceive that the hon. and learned Gentleman could have any sympathy with a piece of legislation which would impose restrictions of this kind upon these people.


I desire to associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman for Mid-Antrim. This is a Bill which is much more important than it appears when one sees what is contained in its twenty lines. We must remember, when discussing this particular measure, that it applies to between 2,000 and 3,000 small villages and towns in Ireland which have hitherto been untouched in housing legislation. So far the agricultural labourer pure and simple has been fairly dealt with. Recently there has passed through this House a Housing Bill which we all hope to see deal reasonably with the urban workers. But, so far as this Bill is concerned, I fear that the sum of money at our command will not enable us to deal in that effectual way with the labourers and workmen of the smaller towns and villages of Ireland. I suggest to the Attorney-General that he might by agreement accept an Amendment in Subsection (1), paragraph (a), where it states "any person (other than a domestic or menial servant) working for hire in a rural district shall.…

In Ireland there is a custom where manual workers come to the house of their employer and work there during the day, and then reside at their own homes at night. The suggestion I make to the right hon. Gentleman is that he should add other than a domestic or menial servant residing on the premises of his employer. I think if the right hon. and learned Gentleman could see his way to accept that Amendment he would satisfy a considerable number of workers who are really manual workers but who do not reside on the premises of the employer. The right hon. Gentleman is doubtless aware that hunt servants have been found to be legal servants, and so have carpenters. I trust the Amendment will be drafted to paragraph (b), where the words are another person except a member of his own family, I would suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman that instead of these words the words should be any person except of his own family. May I take it the right hon. Gentleman will agree to that?




I also wish to support the suggestion made by the hon. Member on the other side as well as my colleagues that the question of an acre should certainly go. It will work an injustice if the Bill stands as at the present (time in respect to many residents in the small villages of Ireland who have inferior houses and cottage houses to which are attached a plot of ground of more than a rood. I put it to the hon. and learned Gentleman that if he agrees to that suggestion, coming as it does from all parts of the House, that the Bill will be of more benefit. I, however, have no doubt in my own mind that until we have much larger funds at our disposal the housing problem in the small towns and villages of Ireland will remove a pressing and urgent problem.


I entirely agree with what has been said by hon. Members in regard to this measure. The hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) was the distinguished Irishman who presided over the Committee which considered this Bill, and he acquitted himself with such success that there was not a single Division, and he steered his barque so skilfully that we got through this Bill without having a Division upon it. I rise to assure the House that on this question, at any rate, we have a united Ireland. This measure is really a complement to the Housing Bill. I consider that owing to the inadequacy of the financial provisions of the Housing Bill this measure is wanted as a complements to it, and if the Attorney-General will meet the points which have been raised in this Debate I am sure this Bill will be a very successful Bill. There are many cases to which the Housing Bill will not be applicable, and having regard to those districts, in many of which the earnings of the poor are very small, it would not be possible, without great loss, for the local authorities to apply the Housing Bill, whereas under this Bill powder is given to the people to purchase their dwellings. I have very great pleasure in supporting the remarks which have been made complimenting the Attorney-General, the Chief Secretary, and the Lord Lieutenant upon having introduced the Bill, which is very much indeed.


I desire to thank hon. Members for the reception which they have given to this Bill, and I promise to give sympathetic consideration to the points which have been raised in this Debate. The principle criticism has been in respect of the limitation that the Bill shall not apply to any person who is in occupation of more than a quarter of an acre of land. I cannot pledge myself at the present moment to alter that limitation, because I have not the statistics of the holdings affected before me, but I think it would be disastrous to put persons who already hold half an acre in the same position as the landless. The benefits of this Bill are intended for the man who has nothing, and I think we ought to hesitate before we let loose upon the attenuated funds now available a large number of people who are already provided for to a certain extent. What I will promise to do is to put the matter before the Local Government Board and other authorities to ascertain exactly what is the position as regards the numbers included by the suggested Amendment, and if this is at all reasonable we will consider the point favourably in another place. I hope hon. Members will accept that statement as regards the other criticisms of the Bill, and they may rest satisfied that the words "working for hire in a rural district" are as wide as they can be.

Originally those words were limited to the Labourers Acts and to agricultural labourers, and the meaning was then extended to include hand-loom weavers, and now it is extended in the widest possible way, and it includes "any person (other than a domestic or menial servant)working for hire." I do not think there will be the slightest difficulty in giving full effect to those words. The point was raised of allowing persons who are in domestic service not residing in their house to come in. I do not apprehend there will be very much difficulty in regard to that point, because the domestic servant in Ireland is nearly always a single woman, and if she is married she has all the benefits which go to her husband, and if she is single I do not see why she would require a cottage and half an acre. The number of men in domestic service in Ireland is extremely small, and such men as gardeners are generally provided with accommodation by their masters. It is difficult to alter these words without letting in a large number of persons who should not come within the provisions of the Bill. I hope that upon the substantial questions which have been raised that what I have said will satisfy hon. Members; and so far as the other matters are concerned, my only reason for not replying is that I have not before me sufficient information, and I cannot give an undertaking without further consultation.


Will the right hon. Gentleman say what is meant by "holding"? Could the weekly tenant hold this land, because there are a number of people who have already more than an acre?


I think the hon. Member will agree that a. man who is a weekly tenant and desires to get a labourer's cottage would not have much trouble about it, and he would lose nothing by getting: rid of his weekly tenancy. The real difficulty would be that of people in the position of yearly tenants, and I would not be averse to considering the case of those who are now in occupation as yearly tenants.


What about the money?


The hon. Member always keeps the best part until the last. So far as that is concerned there is available under the provisions of this Bill £1,600,000 to meet the expenditure provided under Votes of this House. As regards that point it is not a good thing to ask for a second helping of pudding until you have disposed of the first, but when the amount I have stated is disposed of, the Government will do their best, if it is essential for the proper housing of the working classes, to provide further funds for that purpose.

Bill accordingly read a second time.

Resolved, That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."—[Mr. Henry.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee.

[Sir E. CORNWALL in the Chair.]