§ Considered in Committee.
§ [Sir EDWIN CORNWALL in the Chair.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to amend the enactments relating to the Housing of the Working Classes and the Acquisition of Small Dwellings in Ireland, it is expedient to authorise the payment, out of moneys to be provided by Parliament, of expenses incurred by any Government Department—
§ Sir F. BANBURY
No doubt this is a most interesting Resolution, and it seems to me that the less hon. Members know about these proposals the more they vote blindly for them. The Attorney-General had a good intention in his mind, because I saw him rise with the idea of explaining the Motion, and then after you, Mr. Deputy-Chairman, had put the Question 494 the good intention of the Attorney-General seemed to evaporate and he trusted to the old tradition that if he said nothing no one would got up and interfere, and the Resolution would be carried. That, however, is not always so. There are sometimes certain persons who desire to know what they are doing. Many hon. Members come in and vote blindly in whichever Lobby the Government may happen to be I hope we shall not be put to the necessity of voting against the Government, which is very painful to us, and I trust my right hon. and learned Friend will give us some reason on this occasion why we should support the Government.
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL for IRELAND (Mr. A. W. Samuels)
May I explain that there has been published a White Paper which sets out fully the financial provisions with regard to the Irish Housing Bill?
§ Mr. SAMUELS
The explanation is that there is a certain difference in regard to the financial assistance to be given by the Government in the case of Ireland to that of Scotland and England. In England a penny rate is supposed to be struck by all the municipal or local authorities, and the Government come to the rescue by contributing the difference between the 495 economic rent and the rent at which the new houses can possibly be expected to be let having regard to the very abnormal conditions existing. In Ireland there are two factors which have to be taken into account which do not render that system applicable, and we have to see what will encourage local authorities to build to meet the appalling conditions of housing, and what will secure the State from extravagance on their part. The valuation in England varies from year to year, and a penny rate, therefore, bears a certain relation to the existing value. The system of valuation in Ireland is altogether different. It was struck in a great many instances as far back as 1852 by Statute, and it has not been varied except in the case of new buildings. The result is that you have not the same solid basis on which to work. In the second place, in a large number of cases where the conditions are worst and where it is most necessary to build, you would not get any substantial contribution from the community by a penny rate, and practically the whole of the cost would fall upon the State. Under these circumstances, it is rather a difficult problem to meet. It has been arranged that the Government shall come to the rescue by contributing £1 for every £1 of rent charged and collected.
§ Mr. SAMUELS
No, up to a maximum of £1 to cover the loss. If the community builds houses to be rented at something like 7s. 6d. per week when the actual economical rent would be 15s., then the Government, supposing 7s. 6d. is collected, meets the other 7s. 6d. to make up the difference.
§ Mr. SAMUELS
Not necessarily. If they do not collect the rent they lose not only their own rent but also the Government subsidy. If they do not pay the rent the loss falls on the rates. They have in fact to pay the money out of their own pocket in the shape of rates. It will be for the Local Government Board to see that the rents are charged and properly collected, and if that is done I do not think that there will be a larger burden on the Exchequer in the case of Ireland than it is expected there will be in the case of England. The general effect of the scheme is fully explained in the White Paper. If we take it that the houses to 496 be built will cost £500 each, and if we build ten thousand houses in the first year, the State will have to provide something like £50,000.
§ Mr. SAMUELS
If the houses cost about £500, £5,000,000 will have to be set aside in the first year. If they cost £600 the amount will be £6,000,000, and if they cost £700, £7,000,000 will have to be raised probably. But the loss to the State will only be up to a maximum of £1 of rent charged.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I am very much obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his explanation. But he has not told us what the actual amount will be. I think he said that in all probability in the first year it will be £50,000 and that it might be more in following years. In the old days when Resolutions of this nature were brought forward I always suggested a limiting Amendment so that we should not give a blank cheque to the Government, but should know to what we are committing ourselves when we sanction the expenditure. I do not propose to move a limiting Amendment on this occasion because I think the gentlemen from Ireland will do it for me. I am not referring to hon. Members, but to their constituents—the patriots. The hon. and learned Gentleman has told us that if they do not pay the rent there will be no liability to the State, and I think it is a thousand to one chance that they will not pay the rent, and consequently there will be no liability to the Slate. Under these circumstances I have no objection to the Resolution.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill before we vote this money or commit ourselves to this expenditure what is the future of Ireland going to be?
May I ask a financial question? Who is going to fix the rents? How is it going to be done? It seems to me almost possible that rents might be fixed at a very low figure so as to impose a greater charge upon the State.
§ Colonel GRETTON
I have been examining this White Paper, and the statement it contains of the expenditure contemplated is extraordinarily loose and vague. On page 3 it says: 497The capital expenditure on, say, 50,000 houses may be estimated as follows: If the houses are to be erected at a capital cost of £500 per house, £25,000,000; if at £600 per house, £30,000,000; and if at £700 per house, £35,000,000.That is a very pleasant and easy exercise in arithmetic, but it is hardly a serious statement on behalf of the Government of what they really intend to authorise in the way of expenditure in connection with housing in Ireland. I submit that the Government ought to tell us whether they intend to put up 50,000, 100,000, or 25,000 houses, and whether they seriously estimate the expenditure to be £500, £600, or £700 per house. Then the Committee would have some reasonable estimate of the expenditure they are to authorise. When the Government come down with a Paper which was issued as long ago as 16th May, and apparently has never received any further attention or correction and ask the Committee to authorise expenditure of millions of money on a schoolboy exercise in arithmetic, without-submitting any serious estimate, the Committee ought to ask for further information. I ask the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Resolution whether he can answer two simple questions: What number of houses the Government intend to authorise under this Bill, and what is the serious estimate which they submit to the Committee as the proper capital expenditure per house they intend to erect? This Resolution has been treated to-night in a most casual and haphazard manner. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman treated the Committee in a serious spirit in the statement which he made. In these days the country outside and certainly the House are not-prepared to authorise the unlimited expenditure of millions unless they know there is a serious policy behind the proposals put forward by the Government, and that a serious estimate has been made of the expenditure which the House is asked to sanction. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to answer these inquiries.
§ Mr. MOLES
Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, perhaps he will consider another point which will help to elucidate some of the mystery which appears to surround the Bill. He told the Committee that it was the intention to provide pound for pound of the rent collected. Have the Government contemplated that from 498 time to time numbers of these houses will be vacant. There may, in fact, be quite a number—a floating number—of houses vacant. Consequently, if the local authority is only to receive pound for pound in respect of rent collected, obviously there will be considerable sums not returnable as rent at all from unoccupied houses. The local authority will therefore, as I apprehend it, lose at once the rent and the corresponding sum that it would have received from the Government if the house had been occupied. How is it proposed to meet that loss?
§ Sir M. DOCKRELL
The Government has an object-lesson in the Land Purchase Act, the sums payable under which have been honourably paid. This is a very much smaller sum than is involved in land purchase, and I for one have no doubt that the sums which would be provided by the House will be forthcoming from Ireland in payment of interest on these loans, and it is perfectly plain that if no rent is recovered there will be no demand upon this House. If, on the other hand, rent is recovered, the House will be asked simply to supplement the rent pound for pound. I do not wish to have my country lie under the imputation of being a country which will repudiate its debts.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The White Paper to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred is really an extraordinary document. It begins:The capital expenditure involved will depend (a) upon the number of houses to be built; (b) upon the date at which they are built; and (c) upon the type of houses and the accommodation provided.It was hardly necessary to issue a White Paper to inform the House of those facts, and as we hope to be in a somewhat economical mood might I suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman that it would save paper and printing if the White Paper was confined to facts which the House of Commons does not know instead of telling us facts which any board school child would know of his own knowledge? The Paper goes on:The net annual expenditure will depend not only upon the amount of the capital expenditure and the rate of interest payable thereon, but also upon the rents charged for the new houses, the rates and the cost of insurance.That, again, is an extraordinary amount of information imparted gratuitously, except for the cost of printing and paper, to an ignorant House of Commons. I do not think it shows that the Government have any very high opinion of the intelligence 499 of Members of this House if it is necessary to issue a White Paper containing those two paragraphs. Then it says:The financial assistance to be granted from public funds for housing schemes will take the form of a subsidy, the amount of which Parliament will be asked to vote annuallyI think we know that also. It goes on to say:The actual expenditure on 50,000 houses may be estimated as followsIn the old days we always looked to the Treasury and the various Departments to give a fairly accurate estimate of what the expenditure might be, and if the estimate was given for a million and the expenditure was really £1,300,000 there were a great number of Members who would get up and say that that was not an accurate estimate. The first thing that the Government should be taught was to give accurate estimates. Here we have an estimate by the hon. and learned Gentleman. It varies from £25,000,000 to £35,000,000, which is a pretty vague and wide estimate. If you were going to employ a builder and he said that the cost would be something between £25,000,000 and £35,000,000, you would hesitate before you employed him and you would go to someone who could give you a little more accurate information. There are three columns set out very nicely, showing the capital expenditure for 1919–20 on 50,000 houses. The first column says that if the capital cost per house is £500, the total cost will be £5,000,000. If the capital cost per house is £600, the total cost will be £6,000,000; and if the capital cost per house is £700 the total cost will be £7,000,000. Then we come to 1920–21. In the first column it states that if the capital cost per house is £500, the cost up to 1921 will be £10,000,000; if the capital cost per house is £600, £12,000,000; and if the capital cost per house is £700, £14,000,000. These figures are repeated for 1921–22. This is all very simple, if all these millions were going to be picked out of the air and nobody was responsible for them, but my experience, after twenty-seven years in this House, is that the eventual cost falls upon the English taxpayer.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
That is the exception. There have been so many Acts dealing with Ireland that it is impossible to 500 remember all of them, and I committed the error of saying that the Land Purchase Act was not borne in Ireland.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
In the main! Yes, but there is a good deal in the main, and in the long run. The White Paper then goes on to give the total expenditure under the three heads as £25,000,000, £30,000,000, and £35,000,000. Then we are told that the capital sums advanced by the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland will be ultimately repaid either by way of annuity or by half-yearly instalments of principal, with interest on outstanding balances. I do not know in what other way it would be repaid. This Estimate seems to me to be so extremely vague that I think we ought to put a limit upon the Resolution. Since reading the White Paper, I beg to move, to insert at the end of the Resolution, the wordsbut such sum shall not exceed the sum of £10,000,000.I think that is a very generous amount to give to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He only wants £7,000,000 in 1919–20, even supposing the houses cost£700 each, and if we give him £10,000,000 that will be a considerable amount to go on with.
§ Lieut.-Colonel MEYSEY-THOMPSON
I rise to second the Amendment of the right hon. Baronet. We are asked to vote an indefinite sum varying to such an extent that I think we ought for the first year to limit the expenditure to £10,000,000, and after that we can see how it works out. We ought not to permit the control of expenditure to pass out of the hands of the House of Commons in the way in which it has been doing during the last few years. During the War, no doubt, it was necessary to allow the Government great latitude with regard to expenditure, but now that we are getting back to peace we ought to resume our control.
§ Lieut.-Colonel MEYSEY-THOMPSON
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Government ought to have uncontrolled expenditure? H that is to be done, why not have a Committee to decide what the expenditure of the country is to be, and give them full responsibility for the expenditure, and not as at present, when they take powers to spend anything they like and throw the responsibility on to 501 the House of Commons? Let us either have a Committee that will spend whatever money they like on whatever subject they like and accept the responsibility, or let us have the House of Commons responsible, as they always were, for the expenditure of this country, and let them have control over the ways in which the money is spent. The proposal of the right hon. Baronet is absolutely sound. The sum which he suggests is amply sufficient for the purposes for which we are asked to expend our money. If the Motion comes to a Division any honest Member of this House who values the power of the House of Commons over expenditure will go into the Lobby with the right hon. Baronet and myself.
I trust that the right hon. Baronet will not press this Amendment for this reason, if for no other, that in the corresponding Bill dealing with housing of the working classes in England no limit has been imposed on the amount to be spent The right hon. Baronet will say it is never too late to mend, but in a very small matter like the providing of a few houses for a few poor Irishmen it is hardly worth while beginning to mend these. It has been estimated, I believe with approximate accuracy, that it will be necessary to build something like 70,000 houses to meet the wants of the working classes in Ireland. Putting the cost of a House at the lowest price contemplated, namely, £500—I am sure that the great mind of the right hon. Baronet could not possibly contemplate building a house for less than £500; he could not do it under present circumstances—if you take £500 as a reasonable price, you provide only 20,000 houses for the sum named in the Amendment. I suggest that it would be a most unfair and very calamitous tiling if this House seriously tied the Irish Government down to that sum and defeated the end which I think the whole House has in view, namely, to meet this great crisis which exists now in the matter of housing all over the Kingdom. I base my hope that the House will pay scant attention to the Amendment on the fact that you have imposed no such limitation on the cost of housing that you are going to apply to your own people in England and Scotland, and, therefore, it would be grossly unfair to apply any such limitation to Ireland.
§ Mr. SAMUELS
May I ask hon. Members to allow this to pass. It would be 502 impossible to frame this in more particular terms. It would be a most disastrous thing if we were to lose this Bill for Ireland. I am sure the right hon. Baronet himself would be the last willingly to increase the very serious difficulty that exists.
§ Mr. MARRIOTT
We have listened to a very moving appeal from the Attorney-General for Ireland. What the Amendment does is to give power to the Government to spend £3,000,000 more than they are asking for for the first year. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The terms of the right hon. Baronet's Amendment are to give the Government at once power, as I understand it, of spending£10,000,000. What is the estimate they put before us in this White Paper? They ask for 1919–20 £5,000,000 on one assumption, £6,000,000 on another assumption and £7,000,000 on the third assumption. What does the right hon. Baronet propose He proposes to give £10,000,000. They can come next year and get another £10,000,000. We are not denying in the least this money to Ireland. We are only asking that the House of Commons shall retain its control over expenditure. We do not desire to deny the housing scheme to Ireland that has been already voted to England. If he has erred at all, the right hon. Baronet has erred on the side of generosity in giving the Government £3,000,000 more than they asked for. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide, divide!"] I have not addressed the Committee on this subject before—
§ It being Eleven of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.