HC Deb 11 March 1919 vol 113 cc1133-59

The Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act, 1915 (hereinafter referred to as the "principal Act"), and the enactments amending that Act, shall continue in force until the expiration of one year from the termination of the present War, but during the period (hereinafter referred to as "the extended period") between the time when but for this Act the principal Act would have expired and the expiration of the said period of one year the principal Act shall have effect subject to the modifications contained in the two next succeeding Sections.


I beg to move, to leave out the words "one year" ["until the expiration of one year"], and to insert instead thereof the words "two years."

This is an Amendment to which I and those who are acting with me attach a good deal of importance. It is to be regretted that the Government have been compelled to bring in this amending Bill in something of a, hurry and that they have not therefore been able to consult all the interests involved. The principal Act dealt only with the houses of the working classes below £35 per year, and the Government are bringing in this Bill because of the pressure brought to bear by the middle classes. I wish by an Order in Council or some other means they could have proclaimed something in the nature of a moratorium, at any rate for a couple of months, to enable them to consult all the interests involved. The interests of the mortgagee, of the landlord, and of the tenant. As a matter of fact, a comparatively few days ago the Report of what is known as the Hunter Committee, one of the various Committees appointed by the Ministry of Reconstruction, was published. It is most unfortunate that the Committee did not take any evidence at all from the owners or tenants of middle-class houses. The Committee say that the evidence that they took was from representatives of organised labour. Therefore, an enormous mass of valuable information which they could have obtained if they had approached the middle classes, the middle-class man and the owner of middle-class houses, does not appear in the Report, and as this Bill has been introduced and is being rushed through, the Committee will see that those who like myself are concerned with the hardships of the middle-class man have not really had time to present our case. We feel that if we had time the Government would see that the limit of one year is far too short.

Of course, I am not in the Government secrets, and I certainly cannot tell what the Housing Bill is going to be. Is it going to be a Bill for the better housing of the working classes, or for the better housing of the people? If it is merely going to be a Bill for the better housing of the working classes, a Bill to provide standard cottages for standard wage earners, then the conditions of housing so far as the middle classes are concerned will be worse at the end of the year than they are to-day. I do not suppose that there would be many houses built for the working classes, standardised or otherwise, and it is perfectly certain that there will be no houses built for the middle classes. All the available material will be taken over by the Government and will be utilised for the building of working-class houses, presuming, of course, that the Bill is going to be one for the housing of the working classes. The private builder who is prepared to lay out a certain amount of capital and to build houses renting at £55, £65, or £100 per year will not be able to get any material at all and, therefore, will not be able to start work. Consequently, so far as the working classes are concerned, their position a year from now will be worse than it is to-day. They will have no houses to which to go, they will be under notice to quit their present houses, and their position will be almost desperate. Probably the Government will say that they will then be prepared to reconsider the whole position and, perhaps, to introduce fresh legislation. It is perfectly certain that the trouble will be more acute than it is at present. Is it worth while for this Government or the then Government to waste further time bringing in another Bill dealing with this subject? Is it not better to save time and to extend the one year to two years? The recommendation of the Hunter Committee on this subject is valuable. The Committee consisted of men like Mr. Edwin Evans and Mr. Gibbs, who are admitted experts on the question of housing, and it had the advantage of having amongst its members no less than two judges. It was, in fact, a very strong Committee. It took evidence from April last and reported at the end of last year. The Committee recommended that the present Act should be continued with modifications for three years from the termination of the War. In other words, it recommended that the Act should be extended for a period of two and a half years. The Committee, I admit, dealt with working-class houses. It did not bring within its purview at all the middle-class house. If it is necessary, however, that the principal Act should be extended not for one year but for two and a-half years, so far as working-class houses are concerned, how much more necessary is it now that this amending Bill is brought in to protect the middle-class man that it should be extended from one to two years?


I support the Amendment, because until the Government scheme of housing is in operation and private enterprise is released the deficiency in houses will continue, and as long as the shortage of houses continues this emergency legislation, however undesirable it may be, will be necessary. Is there anybody who imagines that the position in regard to houses will be appreciably different in a year's time from what it is to-day?

4.0 P.M.

The Government, as my hon. and gallant Friend has pointed out, may, and I have no doubt will, say, "If that be so in a year, we can easily extend the operation of this measure. It can be renewed if the economic condition of the country requires it," and they may also ask us to remember that the landlords are justified in asking that control should not be prolonged a day more than is necessary and that they have rights which ought to be respected as well as the tenants. I agree that the aim should be to return to economic conditions as soon as possible, and this cannot take place until restrictions on rent are finally removed. But there is no possibility of the conditions which have produced this Bill being altered materially for two or three years. In fact, the Hunter Committee, which most carefully considered this matter, thought that the restrictions should last until the shortage had been met and more or less normal conditions had been reached, and this they thought, after an exhaustive examination of all the evidence, could not be achieved in anything under three years from the termination of the War. That view the Government may think too cautious, but it seems to me a little reckless to rush to the other extreme and to say that one year will suffice to see us through all our housing trouble. Any suggestion of that kind is surely against all the knowledge we have, all the proofs we have, of the condition of the building trade all over the country. It is not, in my view, sufficient to say, as the Government may say, "Well, if it is so, in a year's time we can then extend the Bill." It seems to me in the national interests that we should now stabilise the conditions as between landlord and the tenant. Let them know exactly how they stand towards each other until the circumstances which have brought about these abnormal conditions have passed away. We do not want this present disturbance which has produced this Bill renewed in nine or twelve months. We do not want more agitation and new grievances and the time of the House to be wasted in nine or ten months' time with fresh legislation extending the provisions of this Act. Let us do what is desirable and needed at this moment and likely to carry us through to the period when the need for legislation of this character is likely to be unnecessary.


I rise to a point of Order. If the Motion of one year is taken the voting will be that one year stand part of the Clause. If that is decided will it then be in order to move three years in substitution for one year?


The procedure is this: The Question I am putting now to the Committee is whether or not one year shall stand part of the Clause. If the Committee decide that one year shall stand part, that is an end of the question. If the Committee, on the other hand, de- cide that one year shall not stand part, then I put the Question to insert two years; to that an Amendment can be moved to leave out the words, "two years," in order to insert "three years," and then that becomes the substantive Question before the Committee.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Gordon Hewart)

I rise because I desire at the earliest possible moment to make an appeal to hon. Members on both sides. There is a good deal of great importance in what has been said by hon. Members on one side and the other, and I am sure the House appreciates the point which is at present under consideration. The question is not how long in the last resort this Act may be required to operate. The question is, what is the period to which it shall be decided now that in any event the Act shall operate? What is being amended now is the last Clause of the principal Act, which provides that the Act shall continue in force during the continuance of the present War and for a period of six months thereafter; and what hon. Members are now considering is what is the period which we are prepared to say is the period for which in any event this principal Act, subject to the Amendments of the Amending Bill, shall continue to operate. The particular Amendment which is proposed is a substitution, as I understand, of a period of two years for the period of one year. It is impossible to-day to say that the period of two years would be the right period. It may well be that it would be too long. If the view of my hon. Friend who spoke last is correct, it might be too short, but whether it is too long or too short it is quite clear that if we adopt a period like two years it might give rise to great inconvenience. Members will observe how the Act would read. It would provide that the principal Act should continue in force during the continuance of the present War and for a period of two years afterwards. Who can say at what period of the year these two years would end? They might end at a most inconvenient date.


Does not that apply the same to one year?


It does. My hon. Friend has anticipated what I was about to say. I was going to make an appeal and an offer, to the House. There are two suggestions I desire to make. In the first place I do not think that at the present time one should venture to predict the date at which this Act will cease to be necessary. Much may be done in a year. We have had the opportunity of conferring this very day with builders who are concerned in the housing question. Depend upon it, much may be done in a year. But I do not propose to adhere to the expression "one year" which is in this Bill. I am prepared to go a little further. We cannot do two things at once, but let us have a more convenient date. Let us not have a date which might occur in the middle of a quarter, and might occur some months after Parliament has risen. I make this suggestion, and I hope not in vain, to hon. Members whose object is the object of the Government, which is to secure the best practical results with the minimum of inconvenience. The suggestion I would make is this, that if this Amendment were withdrawn we would propose to insert, instead of the period named in the Clause, the fixed date of Michaelmas, 1920, that is, Michaelmas of next year. The House will observe that this is not done without deliberation, and that it has two advantages. In the first place it is a fixed date, as distinguished from an uncertain date. In the second place it gives us the whole of the next Parliamentary Session to consider the matter, and as we are now engaged in discussing not how long this Act shall last, but what is the minimum period for which it, shall in any event last, I seriously suggest that if we put in Michaelmas, 1920, it will meet the difficulty. Upon these representations I would ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his Amendment. If that be done I will move the necessary consequential Amendment.


Speaking for those for whom I act, as far as we are concerned we are willing to agree to what the right hon. Gentleman suggested, and I will withdraw my Amendment in favour of the one he proposes.


On what date will Michaelmas fall? [Several Hon. Members: "29th September!"] I would strongly suggest Martinmas being substituted in the case of Scotland.


Martinmas is in November, but the flitting term in Scotland is May.


Is it intended to be old Michaelmas or new Michaelmas? New Michaelmas means 29th September, and old Michaelmas 11th October.


What was in our minds was what is usually called the September Quarter day. If it is a serious difficulty we shall have to define it more clearly.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


In these circumstances I beg to move, in redemption of my promise—


On a point of Order. I wish to ask whether this rules out my Amendment to extend the Bill to five years?


I do not know what the Government Amendment is. Presumably the other words to be inserted will be capable of further amendment when they become the substantive Amendment. The hon. Member can then move an Amendment extending it for a longer period.

Sir A. YEO

On a point of Order. Do we understand that, if the Government Amendment be accepted, our Amendment for three years then automatically slips out?


When the Government insertion becomes the substantive Amendment before the Committee it will be capable of amendment.


May I say at once that nothing is further from our wish than to exclude discussion, but may I add this observation, that I do very much desire to get through the Committee stage of this Bill to-day, and I am quite sure it would be in accordance with the wish of my hon. Friends that the speeches on this matter shall be short.

In redemption of my promise, I desire to move to leave out the words until the expiration of one year, for the termination of the present war, and to insert instead thereof the words, "Michaelmas, 1920." With regard to the question raised as to Scotland, I confess that I am ignorant of the methods of Scotland in this matter; but I am sure that my hon. Friends are aware of the remaining provisions of the Bill, and when we come to the provision of the principal Act, which has reference to Scotland, when we come to the appropriate Clause, we will put in what is thought would be the suitable expression to provide that Scotland and England and Wales are dealt with on the same plan in this matter.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and negatived.

Question proposed, "That 'Michaelmas, 1920,' be there inserted."—[Sir G. Hewart.]


I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out "1920," and to insert instead thereof "1924."

I do so because I feel very strongly that the extenson of time that has been agreed to by the Attorney-General does not meet the necessities of the case. I believe that very little building will be done between now and Michaelmas, 1920, that the housing difficulty will be almost as bad then as it is now, and that unless we have inserted in this Bill a fairly substantial increase in the time proposed we are not going to get rid of our difficulties. I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be prepared to give further consideration to this very important matter. At the moment those who profess to have firsthand knowledge of the number of houses of which we are short in this country assert that we are at least 600,000 or 700,000 short. If that is the problem which faces us, an extension of the life of this Act to Michaelmas, 1920, will not get us out of our difficulties. Now we are discussing and examining this matter we should give it close and careful attention, and I make an appeal to the right hon. and learned Gentleman to further consider it, with a view to agreeing to a more substantial increase in the lifetime of this Act.


In the speech which was made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman in which he agreed to extend the Government proposal from twelve to eighteen months, two years was spoken of as being too long a period over which to prolong the operation of this Act. I know, speaking for certain of the Scottish Members, we are receiving almost every day communications from constituents in Scotland, particularly from those who live in the higher rented houses, who are being faced with a very drastic problem. The problem which is submitted to them by house proprietors and house factors takes the form of an ultimatum that they must cither buy their houses or quit. No matter how many builders the Government may have interviewed within recent days, I am convinced that it will be totally impossible to erect in the time mentioned a sufficiently large number of houses throughout the country to ease the clamant necessity there is for accommodating people. As a matter of fact, the very first houses, I am certain, the Government will require the builders to put their workers upon will be houses which will meet the needs of the working classes, who are at present so inadequately provided for that, in working-class districts and in every large city, they are overcrowded to an extraordinary extent. Consequently, that other section of the community which we on these benches are supposed not to represent or even to speak for—I refer to the middle-class section of the community—will not be provided for at all within the period the Government propose this Act shall operate. We on these benches are surely sufficiently fair-minded to see that an Act which docs not give other sections of the community the same scope, the same facility, and the same treatment as it gives to one section is an Act which is going to create injustice to a particular section, and consequently, in order that that particular section may not be compelled to purchase houses, as they are being asked to do, at very much inflated values, some of them £300, £400, and £500 above pre-war value—in order that that class shall not be practically held by the throat by house landlords, we propose that the Government shall give to the operation of this Bill a much more extended period than the right hon. and learned Gentleman has suggested. We intend, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has pointed out by moving this Amendment, to press it to a Division unless the Government are prepared to accept a very much longer period than has been indicated by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.


Broadly speaking, I sympathise with the grounds on which this Amendment is moved. Personally, I do not think we are going to overtake the housing difficulty in a period of eighteen months or two years sufficiently to remove the need for the protection of this Act. At the same time, I feel considerable difficulty through not knowing quite the framework of the Government's new housing scheme. If the Government, in that scheme, contemplate overwhelming subsidies to municipal and private enterprise for the purpose of dealing with the dearth of houses, then I think something substantial may be done by the end of eighteen months or two years to get over it. If, on the other hand, that is not contemplated, then what I fear is this—that, with the very best intentions possible by extending the period of the Act and restricting the action of the landlords or builders, we may be discouraging this mass of individual enterprise to which we are very largely looking for overtaking the difficulty. It is because of that difficulty that, while sympathising with the grounds upon which this Amendment is proposed; I am going to make a dual appeal. I am going to appeal to the Attorney-General on the one side and to the Leader of the Labour party on the other. If the Attorney General will give a definite undertaking that he will, on behalf of the Government, in the event that by Michaelmas, 1920, the difficulties with regard to housing have not been overcome, introduce an amending Bill prolonging the period of operation of this measure—if, I say, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will give an undertaking to that effect, then I hope the Leader of the Labour party will withdraw his Amendment.


With the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment, that by Michaelmas next year the housing difficulty will not have been removed, I am in absolute agreement. I am sure it will not have been removed, but still I am bound to oppose this Amendment, and for this reason. Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that this Bill is going to solve the housing question? It does nothing of the kind; it docs not provide a single extra house in the country, and those people who cannot now get, housing accommodation will not be able to get it under this Bill, whether it comes to an end either in one year or in five years. All that this Bill does is to make a selection. It makes a selection among a certain number of people who are competing for houses. For reasons which I am not in the least disposed to dispute—I dare say there are good reasons for the present emergencies—it says that people who happen to be at the; present moment, through the chance of circumstances, in possession as tenants of houses shall be selected for privileged treatment and shall be given security in their tenure of those houses. That is all that the Bill does.

The right hon. Gentleman opposite also said that there will be very little building in the next eighteen months. This Bill, so far as it operates at all in that direction, will discourage building. It will not tend to increase building. If the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment were carried, the only effect would be that you would have very much less building for the next five years than you might possibly get otherwise. [Hon. Members: "No!"] We are always paying for the mistakes which we have made in the past with the best of intentions. The present shortage of houses in this country, although it is intensified, no doubt, by war conditions, is very largely due to the financial legislation of 1911. Speaking on the Second Heading of this Bill, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Spen Valley Division (Sir T. Whittaker)—who is quite disinterested in this matter—attributed the shortage of houses, not, as I have done, to the financial legislation of that time, but to the language which was used at that time. With all respect to my right hon. friend, I do not think that a great movement like a stoppage in the building trade is so likely to be produced by language, by however eminent a person it may be spoken, as by the actual effect of the legislation itself. There is not very much doubt that it is largely due to that legislation, and that it would have that effect was, of course, predicted at the time. The right hon. Gentleman opposite—I am quite certain with the best of intentions—is just going to do the same thing again. He wants to prolong this measure, the result of which will be that there will be absolutely no encouragement to building in this country. Everybody concerned in the building trade will say, "How can we possibly build houses, with the present Act in force, and with the probability that at the end of two or five years, as the case may be, Parliament will be induced again to prolong it?" Of course you cannot absolutely remove at one time the whole of the housing difficulty. So long as there is any remnant of it remaining, the right hon. Gentleman opposite will come down here and, with his usual persuasive eloquence, persuade the Government and the House of Commons of the day that it is very necessary to give the protection of this Bill to the tenants of that time and to prolong it. So you go from one thing to another. Instead of solving the housing difficulty and encouraging building you pass legislation which has exactly the opposite effect. How can it fail to have that effect?

After all, this is all one great economic process. It begins with the cost of building materials, and the cost of building the houses. The cost of building materials is immensely high. The whole cost of putting up houses, both from the cost of materials and the standard of wages, is enormously high, yet Parliament is now stepping in, not to attempt to make labour cheaper, not to make materials cheaper, not in any way to control the cost of the production of the houses, but to say, when you have with very costly materials and costly labour produced a house, that the person who has produced it shall not get a reasonable remuneration for his output. That is what it comes to. You are restricting the rent, you are restricting the rate of interest on mortgages, therefore you are making it extremely difficult to finance building operations. You are doing that for the sake of overcoming an emergency, which I admit exists at the present time for a very select, limited, and privileged class of tenants, yet you are proposing this legislation which will have very widespread effects in increasing the very evils you are trying to overcome. While I quite recognise that for the moment we have no choice but to pass a Bill of this sort, I certainly hope that the Government will not accede to the request of the right hon. Gentleman opposite. In view of the far-reaching economic results, which none of us can fully foresee, I hope that they will certainly limit the operation of this Bill to as short a period as possible, recognising, as we all do, that it may be necessary at the end of that, period to prolong it, although I hope it will not be necessary. I hope that the Attorney-General will refuse to accept this Amendment, and that the Committee will be content to accept the Bill in the terms which the Attorney-General has suggested.


Although I am not going to support the Amendment to extend the Bill for five years, yet I differ absolutely from the last speaker as to its perpetuating the mischief. In the interval, whatever time is given for the operation of the Bill, it is in that time that building operations might be expected and ought to go on. I cannot see that the mere non-provision of houses is going to make any difference to the provisions of this Bill, which deal with the conditions of letting. A great many persons will want houses at the expiration of five years; probably it will be a much greater number than now. My Constituents warn me that this evil will be just as bad at the expiration of one year as it is at the present moment. Although I understand that the Government are prepared to substitute Michaelmas, 1920, for the period named in the Bill, I submit that a period of three years is necessary for the purpose. This is a matter in which I have taken the greatest personal interest. I helped to mould the first Bill and also the amending Bill, which was framed to meet the artful manæuvres of that class which tried to avoid the first Bill. Anxious as I am to preserve the greatest freedom possible, yet events have justified this measure, and if it is to be of any real use it must certainly be extended to Michaelmas, 1920. I hope the Government will see that to postpone a measure of this sort will create a position of uncertainty and is tantamount to encouraging the trouble which exists now to continue. I hope they will give sufficient time—I do not think their proposal is a sufficient time—and then let it be clearly understood that at the end of that time the restrictions will be removed and that in the meantime they will do everything they can to facilitate the building of houses.


I feel quite convinced that the Amendment proposed from the Labour Benches is entirely against the interests of the working classes. I say that from the point of view that there are a great many working men at the present time who have to travel sixteen, even twenty, and sometimes twenty-five miles to their work. They cannot get houses near their work because there are other tenants in those houses, which are not particularly convenient to them. It is distinctly against the interests of the working classes that the operation of this Bill should be continued one month longer than is necessary. I speak from my own experience of houses in my own possession, which I bought specially for my own workmen to go into, but which they cannot go into because there are other tenants in them who do not want to occupy those houses. These workmen travel sixteen to twenty miles at great expense and inconvenience. Obviously if there are houses available for the working classes by Michaelmas, 1920, we can at that time settle the question, but I am perfectly certain that in their interests alone we should do everything possible not to extend the operation of this Bill longer than is necessary.


While the Attorney-General has tried to meet the demand, which is very strong in all parts of the committee, with regard to the duration of this Bill, I feel that he has hardly gone far enough to meet the legitimate requirements. He has suggested that the Bill should continue until September, 1920. The Act of 1915 is to exist for six months after the War. The offer the right hon. Gentleman makes is really less than an extension of twelve months beyond the duration of the Act of 1915. While I quite realise that we do not want to push this temporary legislation too far ahead, and while I think that five years is too much, yet a three years' extension would have met the case much more thoroughly. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he cannot extend the period a little longer than he has proposed. I would suggest to him that he might possibly meet the case by offering the Committee, instead of Michaelmas, 1920, Lady Day, 1921. We are now nearly at the end of a quarter. Taking the six months' period, supposing the War ended on the 25th of this month, that would take us up to September. We are thus only asking for fifteen months beyond the duration of the Act of 1915. It is important that we should have a time when people will know exactly where they are under the existing measure. A strong argument can be urged for a slightly extended period, because we should know then what is being clone with regard to the building of houses. However rapidly the building of houses may go on, we cannot expect to see a very large supply in less than twelve months from the present time. One of the cases for this measure is not the houses of the working classes but the houses of a larger character, but we have not had from the Government up to the present any intimation that they are going to facilitate in any way the building of those larger houses. That concerns a mass of tenants whom we wish to meet by this measure. It has been said that they are only a limited number, but I have been astounded by the correspondence I have received from all parts of the country, including Scotland and Wales, which shows that the number of the smaller and larger middle class affected by this measure is very great indeed. I would, therefore, earnestly ask the Attorney-General whether he could not see his way to agree to some slight extension of the offer he has made in order to meet the argument of the Leader of the Labour party.


I hope the Attorney-General will accept the Amendment proposed by the Leader of the Labour party. If we ask the Attorney-General or any other representative of the Government whether they would build houses within the period named by him, or provide facilities for the building of houses in that period, they would at once say they could not do it. The conditions in certain parts of the country are simply awful, and you cannot build houses, and you will not attempt to build houses to satisfy the needs of the people within twelve months. I do not believe you will make an attempt to start the work of building houses within twelve months, and what we are anxious to secure is not only that the Government shall be induced to assist local authorities in endeavouring to get houses provided for the people, but that they will prevent the owners of the present houses from increasing rents until the houses are provided. It would be in the interest of the well-being of the country as a whole that they should agree to the Amendment of the Labour party.

I am afraid the hon. Member who suggested that he was speaking more in the interest of the working classes than we do was speaking rather as the owner of a house than as the representative of any working-class section in the community. I represent a mining constituency and you have any number of Blue Books published as to the conditions of housing so far as the mining population is concerned. Private owners have had the opportunity for many years of solving the housing conditions of the mining and working classes generally and they have failed to do it. We have now got the Government to take action in the matter and we want the Government to be prepared to carry its action to its logical conclusion. We want them to build houses, or to provide facilities for the local authorities to build houses, and if they are not willing to do that we want them to prevent house owners from increasing rents. I am going to advise tenants in my Constituency not to pay any increased rent and not to go out of the houses they are occupying. There is no hon. Member representing an industrial constituency in England, Scotland or Ireland who would be prepared to advocate the proposals which are contained in the Government Bill. You did not promise that you would either in- crease rents or talk about putting an early period to the operation of the Rent Restriction Act when you were before the electors in December last. Contentment and satisfaction amongst the working classes is one of the best means of securing good will and good conditions generally in the government of the country, and the overcrowding that exists has a very material effect in creating ill feeling between workmen and employers, between tenants and landlords, and generally throughout the whole community. It does not work to the advantage of the community, and the Government cannot build houses in sufficient numbers to meet the points that they are anxious to secure and that hon. Members want to make the outside public believe that they are also anxious to secure. You cannot deal with the question within two or three years, and I hope the Attorney-General will be prepared to meet us in a somewhat more reasonable way. Otherwise I hope the Labour party will press their Amendment to a Division, and we shall then discover whether the individuals who are representing the industrial constituencies are representing the workers in those constituencies or the owners of houses.

Sir A. YEO

I want to see the Bill got rid of, and the next Order of the Day taken. [Interruption.] That is a matter of opinion. Whatever you do in this House, you will never please everyone. If we try to bring in a Bill that is likely to please all sections in the House, we are bound to make mistakes. I believe this Bill is necessary. Correspondence is pouring in upon Members from all parts of the country, from as far North as Aberdeen, from the South and West of England, and even Ireland. They cannot manage to keep pace with it. I know the right hon. Gentleman has a difficult task to steer the Bill through the House. I desire to help him as far as I can. I cannot go the length of a five years Bill, but I think if he would concede three years—September, 1922—we should be able to come to a quick decision, and remove a lot of these difficulties out of the way and the Bill would make progress in Committee. It is all very well to say that certain Members only represent certain classes. I think that is the great curse of the House of Commons. We come here merely to represent a class. We are here to represent the people. The people are composed of all classes, and we represent. all interests of the community for the common good. When hon. Members assume to themselves all the rights and virtues of a particular class, I am going to say I represent that class as much as they do and I have as much right to speak for it as they have, and I intend to use my voice for the common good of the community and the nation. Until we recognise that we are here to represent the people as a whole, we shall not make much progress.


I suggest to hon. Members that we completed the Second Reading of the Bill last Friday. We have a great number of Amendments in front of us. Let us keep strictly to the point of each Amendment. The question now is the date 1920 or 1924.

Sir A. YEO

I apologise to you, Sir, and to the Committee, but in these days one cannot help taking up a, challenge when it is thrown down. I do not intend to sit down under anything hon. Members say to me. It might save the time of the House and the country if the right hon. Gentleman will accept the suggestion of September, 1922, as a middle course. It will meet the case as far as the Committee generally is concerned, and I believe we shall be able to come to a decision without a Division.

Lieutenant-Colonel WHITE

I am fully in favour of the extension of the Rents Restriction Act, but I think the Attorney-General is quite wise in fixing a definite period with the opportunity of renewing it. I think it will have to be renewed and I shall probably support its renewal, but I wish to point out to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Adamson) that there is something to be said on the other side. I will quote the case of a house, a shop, and a yard which are all combined. They belong to a widow of very small means. At the time of the Finance Act it was only necessary to mention the word "widow" and the supporters of the Government used to go into roars of laughter. During the War this widow wished to let her property, but she could not let it as a whole; she could not let the shop and she could not let the yard, but rather than have it unlet she let it not so many months ago to a tenant under the limit for the house alone. Since then she has received an offer from a would-be tenant who wants to start a small brush-making establishment which would employ six people, font he will not take the premises unless he is entitled to take the house as well. There is a case of undoubted hardship, and the Government would be well advised to extend the term to Michaelmas, 1920, so that cases like that would be reviewed and hardship mitigated when it comes to renewal of the Act. I hope the Committee will accept the very sensible via media proposed by the Attorney-General.

Major WOOD

I only intervene to correct what might be an unfortunate discretion which may have been given by some remarks of an hon. Member opposite who suggested that there is a difference of opinion on the main issue before the Committee between that side of the House and this. One thing above all others that has emerged in this discussion is that this Bill affects and is affected by the whole housing policy the State is to adopt. A perfectly sound point was made by the hon. Member opposite, and from another point of view by my hon. Friend (Mr. R. McNeill). The only difference between us who support the Government and hon. Members opposite who want five years is a question of time. There is no difference of opinion. We are all agreed to approach, this question with open minds. If we agree upon the compromise the Government suggest we do so with the full knowledge that when the time comes we may very well be driven to go further. I would therefore appeal to hon. Members opposite not to invent differences of opinion where such do not exist, and to believe us when we say we are prepared to review this question from time to time with open minds. It is because we believe that this whole question trenches so closely upon housing policy that we are not prepared to take the risk of a step that might prejudice that policy, while we shall be prepared to review it if necessity is shown.

5.0. P.M.


I cannot go the whole way with my right hon. Friend opposite. He proposes to insert in this Bill the date 1924. The House is now being invited to prophesy. It is being invited to predict that this amending Act will certainly, at all events, be required for the period for which the extension is to be made. Somebody anticipated me in saying that prophesy is the most gratuitous form of error. I hope my right hon. Friend was wrong in his guess—it is no more than a guess, it does not profess to be founded upon fact—that this Act will be necessary until the year 1924. So far it is impossi- ble for us to go. With a great deal of what has been said I need not say that we are entirely in agreement. There is nothing which we more desire than to promote contentment. There is nothing which we more desire to resist than the view that Members of this House do not represent the whole community, but represent some particular class. We hear of representatives of the working classes. The country consists of all classes of individuals and we represent, everyone of us represents, as far as we can, the whole community. Let us get rid, therefore, of immaterial difficulties. The practical question is, to what date are we now in March, 1919, going to say that this Act must for certain continue? Much has been said upon one date and upon the other, and I may say in reply to my hon. Friend below the Gangway that I gladly give the kind of undertaking which he desires—an undertaking that whatever date is inserted in this Bill the Government will, if circumstances require it, consider a further extension of the Act after it is passed. That we will certainly do.

I am impressed by two classes of observation, the observation of the hon. Member for the Dartford Division (Mr. Rowlands) and the observations of two of my hon. Friends from Scotland, and I would venture to make a further suggestion, beyond which I fear I cannot go. I hope I am not going too far. It was said on the one hand that there was a difficulty in reconciling the date of Michaelmas with the date which is usual in Scotland, the usual date there being some time in May. It was said further that the extension of the date in the Bill to Michaelmas, 1920, was really no extension at all, inasmuch as it is not to be supposed that the formalities on the ratification of peace will take place much before Michaelmas, 1919. It seems to me that there is force in both of these observations, and I am prepared to make a suggestion which I think will have the advantage of meeting my hon. Friend's point, and of making it more easy to reconcile the Scottish difficulty with the difficulty in England and Wales. It would also have the advantage of carrying tenants over the winter. I propose if the Amendment now before the House is withdrawn to substitute for the fixed date of Michaelmas, 1920, Lady Day, 1921. I hope the Committee will agree to take it in that form. I am sure the Committee will observe that this is not the final decision, but that we decide now the date until which this Act shall in any event run. If circumstances require it, the matter can hereafter be considered. In the circumstances I would invite my right hon. Friend to withdraw the Amendment, and if that is done, I will, by leave of the House, take the proper steps to substitute the date of Lady Day, 1921.


Again the Attorney-General is running counter to the Scottish position. I understand that 28th May is our date in Scotland.


I am not suggesting that Lady Day, 1921, will exactly meet the Scottish difficulty, but what I do say is that that date will come much nearer to the Scottish date, which is some date in May.


The extension that the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to agree to carries us to within two months of the spring term in Scotland. If there is going to be any likelihood of agreement, I would suggest to him that he should extend the date for two months further than he is already prepared to do. By doing that he will not only meet the position in England, but he will at the same time meet the position in Scotland.


The right hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. I am not withdrawing the remark I made some time ago that we would endeavour to introduce words into the Bill to meet the special case of Scotland. That still remains. The effect of this suggestion, if it were adopted, would be to make the normal date Lady Day, 1921, with a subsequent Amendment in relation to Scotland, bringing it up to some date, I understand, in May.


I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman cannot go further than he has done. There will be very few houses built during the next twelve months, and I should like him to extend the term further. I should be prepared to agree to the withdrawal of the Amendment if he will make the date May, 1921. In some of the northern counties of England, where the tenants hold their houses on yearly tenancy, they want it to expire on the 12th May, as they move from one house to another then. There would be nothing lost in conceding that point. If we have contentment among these small houses, that will be some compensation to the Government and to the landlords as well as to the tenants. If the right hon. Gentleman could meet this point by extending the time for a couple of months, we could get on with the Committee.


May I again appeal to the Attorney-General? Evidently it is not only the position of Scotland which is affected so far as May is concerned, but in the northern parts of England they are affected. There the yearly term seems to be the 12th of May; with us it is the 28th May. I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he has come very near to the point where we could accept and withdraw our Amendment. I am certain, by the spirit in which he has met us up to this point, the Attorney-General is anxious to have some point of common agreement, and I suggest that he should meet the point now raised, and I will withdraw the Amendment.


The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that I am most anxious to come to a common agreement in this matter. He says the difference between us is very slight. If it is very slight, and I believe it is, what is the purpose in pressing that slight difference after the concessions that have been made? Let us see how the matter stands. We are prepared, so far as the Bill in its general terms is concerned, to substitute the term Lady Day, 1921. That, we believe, meets practically all the cases except Scotland. With regard to Scotland, it may be that the right date is the 15th May or the 28th May. Whatever be the right date, I will undertake that we will provide in the Bill before it goes to another place that that position shall be met. Are we really going to say in our united desire for common agreement that my proposal cannot be accepted because the difference in regard to persons outside Scotland is between Lady Day and the 12th of May?


I was hopeful that the right hon. Gentleman would give the further extension suggested by my hon. Friend (Mr. Tyson Wilson) in the interests of that section of people in England who are affected. However, if he gives the undertaking that he will consider the point I have raised before this Bill goes to another place, I will withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment to proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg to move, to leave out the words "the expiration of one year from the termination of the present War," and to insert instead thereof the words "Lady Day, 1921."

Amendment agreed to.


I beg to move, to leave out the words, but during the period (hereinafter referred to as 'the extended period') between the time when but for this Act the principal Act would have expired and the expiration of the said period of one year the principal Act shall have effect subject to the modifications contained in the two next succeeding Sections The effect of this Amendment is to prevent the increase of rents. This Amendment ought in view of what happened at the General Election, to be accepted by the Government. During the election one of the Prime Minister's numerous messages to catch votes was circulated, particularly in Glasgow. This was called "Lloyd George's Message to the Official Coalition Candidates." Paragraph I was as follows: Rent Restrictions Act.—The subject is being dealt with by a Committee which has not yet reported, but it is certain—and the word 'certain' was in big block type—that the Government will not allow the Act to lapse. What was the impression which that statement made on the mind of the ordinary voter, the plain man who does not understand or go in for verbal refinement? It was that the Rent Restriction Act would be continued and that the standard rents would not be increased. Clause 2 allows standard rents to be increased by 10 per cent., and this Amendment really seeks to ensure that the Prime Minister's promise made during the election shall be carried out. In effect, I submit that the principal Act is being allowed to lapse because it is being modified, and that under this new Bill the poorer classes are placed in a considerably worse condition. The principal Act was passed at a time of rising wages and full employment, and when food prices were very much lower than at the present time. It was held at that time, and in my opinion rightly held, that standard rents should not be increased. Unless the Government accept this Amendment standard rents will be increased.

Then the general conditions are much harder for the poorer classes now than they were when the principal Act was passed. At the present time there is not full employment. There is a great deal of unemployment, so much so that un- employment—and I think quite rightly—is subsidised by the Government. There is a great deal of short time in the country, particularly in Lancashire. Food prices generally are now very much higher than when the principal Act was passed. Many of the poorer classes already are having a hard struggle to make both ends meet. No one who knows the conditions under which they live will deny that labour will have an additional burden if this Bill is passed with Clause 2 in it. The simple truth is that because of the high food prices many of the poorer classes are now below the level of subsistence, particularly old age pensioners, and also I am sorry to say widows and orphans of soldiers who have lost their lives in the War. The 10 per cent. increase of rent will hit all these people very hard indeed. It will diminish the small and quite inadequate sum which they have for buying food and the necessaries of life. All this is going far from what ought to be the post-war policy of the Government—that is the building up of the strength and physique of the people which have been so much impaired owing to the strain and restrictions of the last four years. It is most important that nothing should be done to reduce the small pickings which the poorer classes have for buying nutritious food. Particularly is that true in view of the health conditions of the country, with these repeated epidemics of influenza. But this 10 per cent. increase in Clause 2 of the Bill takes away money from those who already in many cases have not got sufficient. I hope very much therefore that this Amendment will be accepted by the Government, and I press it on the Government as strongly as I can.

Brigadier-General CROFT

From what we have just heard the hon. Member (Mr. Arnold) seems to think that there is no second side to this question. I am an enthusiastic supporter of this Bill. I was a supporter of this policy in the past, and am delighted to see the Government extending the principle by this new measure. But what we are out against, as I understand, is profiteering at the expense of those who dwell in small houses in this country. Every member of this Committee is anxious to see everything done to prevent such profiteering, but we should defeat our own ends if we imagined for one moment that the same conditions do not apply to owners of property as have been explained so emphatically by the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. House property is owned in a very large number of cases by people of very moderate means. In many cases it is their sole livelihood, and you cannot logically or fairly say that those people are not suffering from increased taxation and increased cost of living, and all these other things. Therefore I do hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his point. What we want to get at is the property profiteer, but let us not mar our action by preventing just and fair treatment to those owners who come under the new proposals in this Bill, so that we may extend this principle, and while widening the Bill have all classes in the community treated fairly.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Mr. Herbert Fisher)

I hope the hon. Member who moved the Amendment will respond to the invitation which, has just been given, and will, on further consideration, withdraw the Amendment. It is one which the Government feel it impossible to accept. This is a Bill which seeks to do justice not only to the tenant, with whose grievance every member of the Committee sympathises, but also to owners of property and mortgagees on the other side. Is it seriously contended while the cost of living has been raised, while taxes and food prices have gone up and the cost of repairs has been doubled, that rents are to be stereotyped, and that owners of property who, as the hon. Member has observed, are also persons of very humble means, should be placed in an artificial position of embarrassment by reason of legislation by the House of Commons? I cannot believe that such a solution as that will commend itself to our sense of justice. The increase of rent which is proposed in the Bill is a very moderate one, and only takes place during the extended period, and I have had representations from many quarters that it is insufficient to meet the necessary charges which fall on the owner. Nobody seeks to minimise the grievances of tenants who have been in correspondence with hon. Members, but I have also had letters from the other side, and if time allowed I could give hon. Members opposite many cases of very great hardship which occur in the case of small owners who find their source of income seriously abridged by the operation of this Act. I trust therefore, in view of these considerations, that the hon. Member will not press his Amendment.


I have not been in for the first portion of the speech of my hon. Friend (Mr. Arnold), but this Amendment was put down by myself and my object was that we should get rid of the extended period altogether. The right hon. Gentleman's speech, while no doubt an excellent argument in reply to a large part of the speech which I have not heard, was no answer to the case which I desired to put forward. My Amendment is one trying to help the landlord. What I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman is this. There is really no more reason for allowing this 10 per cent. increase to be granted to the landlord when the extended period begins than there is for granting it now. The reason for granting it now exists. In many cases the rent is below the real need for spending money on the property. The cost of repairs has gone up from one-sixth to one-third of the rent. Therefore it is not just to the landlord to leave him at the old rent, while subject to the expense of keeping the property repaired. That is why I want to get rid of the extended period and want all those new terms to apply now forthwith. The right hon. Gentleman having refused the Amendment on the interpretation of my hon. Friend, I want to ask him to make another speech now accepting it on the interpretation which I have given.


Rising to speak for the first time in this House, I ask for the usual courtesy. Some of the hon. Gentlemen who spoke on Friday described this Bill as an emergency Bill based on sound economics, but I agree with the hon. Member who has described it as a landlords' Bill. The right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) the Member for the City of London stated that the working classes have got great increases in their wages and yet objected to pay higher rents. I have some experience of what the working classes are earning. I am a working man myself, and I say to this Committee that previous to the War I was in a much better position than I am in to-day. I could have saved a little money then, but I have saved nothing during the War. I know the high cost of living, and I know what it is for a working man like myself, with a family, to keep that family up in boots, clothing, etc. But these boots and clothing are not even of the quality that they were previous to the War. They are of an inferior quality.

Then with regard to Clause 2, Subsection (a), that the standard rent of the house is substantially less than the standard rent of similar houses in the same locality, that means really that in the city to which I belong, the city of Belfast, there is scarcely a street in which, when a tenant went out during the War from any house, the new tenant had not to pay an increase of from 10 to 15 per cent. This Clause will be interpreted in this way, that immediately this Bill is passed all the other houses in those streets will be levelled up to the new rents. It occurred in my own case. I went into a house last May, and my rent was increased by exactly 10 per cent. Under this Bill am I going to suffer another increase of 10 per cent.? Certainly not. I may say that in the city of Belfast about 80 per cent. of the houses which are occupied by the working classes will come under this Bill, and this increase will mean £2 per year in the yearly rent of those houses. I am fully aware that something must be done to meet the case. We were told by the right hon. Gentleman on Friday that, faulty as the Bill might be in normal circumstances, it might be commended to the House as embodying as large a share of social justice as we are likely in this connection to be able to secure, and he also said that the tenant was protected against eviction and profiteering rents. I am not quite so sure about that. The people of Belfast do not object to pay higher rents provided that they have decent houses to live in, but that is not the case Are you aware that in 50 per cent. of the houses in Belfast the working classes have no bathrooms, and are you going to increase the rent of those houses by 10 per cent.? I think a reduction would be a more likely thing. Even if this Bill had suggested an increase of 5 per cent. it would not be so bad, because that would have meant an average increase on the working classes of £1on the yearly rent. My experience, and I have watched the building of houses for the past twenty-five years in Belfast, is that those houses are put up one against the other by jerry-builders to keep them from falling down. Are you going to increase the rent of houses like that by 10 per cent.? We have been told that the increase will enable the landlords to repair the houses. My experience is that during the War we had no repairs done, and we were compelled to keep the houses in repair ourselves. I may state in this matter the landlords are not so bad, but when you go to the agent, say, to get a house papered, he will tell you that they are prepared to meet you, but will give you pre-war rates, so that in the end it appears that you might as well do the job yourself. In Belfast and the vicinity there is a great outcry about the scarcity of houses. In the vicinity of watering places there are a great many people who occupy houses in a watering place and also in the city of Belfast, and I think something should be done whereby those people could not keep the two houses. They occupy the house at the watering place for two or three months in the summer time, and then they let it for a few months, so that they are profiteering. I think there should be some provision to make them give up one of the houses, since there is such a scarcity.


I am sure that the House will wish to join with me in congratulating the hon. Member for the Victoria Division of Belfast (Mr. Donald) upon his successful maiden speech. The House is always very glad to hear the speech of a new Member who expresses, as the hon. Member has done, first-hand experience which is germane to the subject under discussion. An hon. Member complained that the Bill precludes the landlord from raising the rent to the extent of 10 per cent. until after the conclusion of the period specified by the expiry of the original Act. The reason why the Government came to the conclusion that the rent could only be raised during the extended period was that any other course would be in opposition to the expectations which had been built upon the Act of 1915, and would be to some extent a breach of faith, because the Act of 1915 solemnly stated that the rents of the protected dwellings could not be raised during the time specified, and we could not now ask the House to come to the conclusion that rents should be raised during that time.

Amendment negatived.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.