HC Deb 08 December 1920 vol 135 cc2215-26

(1) For the purpose of providing houses any authority, being a local authority within the meaning of Part III of the Housing of Working Classes Act, 1890, shall have power to hire compulsorily any house of a rateable value not exceeding in the metropolitan police district, including the City of London, thirty-five pounds, and else where twenty-six pounds, which is suitable without reconstruction and has not been in the bonâ fide occupation of any occupier at any time during a period of at least three months immediately preceding the date on which the local authority make the Order authorising the compulsory hiring:

Provided that—

  1. (a) this Section shall not apply to any house erected after or in the course of erection on the second day of April, nineteen hundred and nineteen, or to any house acquired for the public service or for the purpose of the statutory duties or powers of a statutory undertaking, and reasonably required for those purposes; and
  2. (b) the term for which a house may be hired under this Section shall be from the date of the hiring until the twenty-fourth day of June, nineteen hundred and twenty-three.

(2) The provisions set out in the First Schedule to this Act shall have effect with respect to the compulsory hiring of houses under this Section.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted; and 40 Members being found present


I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), to leave out the words "of a rateable value not exceeding in the Metropolitan Police District, including the City of London, thirty-five pounds, and elsewhere twenty-six pounds."

The purpose of this Amendment is to restore the Clause to the form in which it was originally proposed to the House on the Second Reading. At that time I assume it represented the considered judgment of the Government on this question, and it could only have been in a moment of great weakness that the right hon. Gentleman agreed to mutilate and destroy the effect of the Clause by limiting its operation to houses not exceeding a rateable value of £35 in London and £26 in the Provinces. If the Clause is to be of any value at all, and if the principle it embodies is sound, it should apply to all classes of houses that can be made use of at this particular time. Surely this is a war problem. The Government did not hesitate to commandeer the manhood of the nation in the nation's extremity, and with the aftermath of the War now upon us, when we have this extraordinary shortage of house accommodation, it would be equally fair to commandeer the nation's property, which cannot be considered more sacred, when it is a question of the life and health of the nation. Anyone who has any intimate knowledge of the housing conditions of the country, particularly in industrial areas, must be convinced that at the present time it is nothing less than a crime to withhold from the public service and public use houses which might be utilised in this crisis. The hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. Jones) referred just now to the overcrowding in his own constituency, and spoke of families of six, eight or nine people living in one room. Go where you will—in Lancashire, in the North of England, or anywhere—you will find the same state of things—seven, eight, and even a dozen people being crowded in one room, and much such families living in one house. We are all agreed as to the necessity for improved housing, and it is not unreasonable to say that any houses that can be used under the terms of this Clause—houses, as was originally proposed, that could, without material reconstruction, be adapted for housing men who have come back from overseas—should be utilised for that purpose. I hope, therefore, the Minister will see his way to revert to the form in which the Clause originally was presented to the House.

If it is sound to take a cottage it must be equally sound to take a mansion. Are you going in this matter to have one law for the rich and another for the poor? It would be a most unjust and foolish thing to do with the present state of unrest in the country. I am satisfied that if one thing more than another aggravates the feeling of unrest and discontent it is the appalling conditions under which so many of our people are housed. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to accept this Amendment. I would quote the words he himself used when resisting one of the proposed new Clauses. He asked, "Why not trust the local authorities?" I ask him on this Clause to trust the local authorities, and to leave it to their discretion to take such houses as may be necessary and as would come within the four corners of the Bill as originally drafted. If it is a good principle to trust the local authorities in order to carry out various other Clauses of this Bill, I appeal to him that the same advice is equally applicable to this particular Clause, and that he should leave it to the local authorities and trust them to carry this out in the best interests of the locality which they serve, and of the requirements of which they themselves are the best judges. If the Minister in charge of the Bill cannot accept this Amendment in full I hope that at any rate, in view of the tremendous shortage of houses, and realising that this is, after all, but a temporary measure, he will agree to raise the limit so that more houses may be brought within the scope of this Clause. Finally, I will appeal to the economists in this House. This should meet with their approval, because if houses can be utilised in this way, they will be supplying a need which otherwise will have to be met by putting up new-houses, and that means an extra burden on the ratepayer and the taxpayer. Therefore, in the narrower interests of real economy, I suggest it is better to utilise the houses we have rather than build new houses which would only mean a further increase in the rates.

Lieut.-Colonel HURST

This is one Amendment which I do certainly commend to the Minister in charge of the Bill. What is so remarkable about the way in which this Clause has been handled by the Standing Committee is this, that the principle of the compulsory hiring of houses was accepted by the House on the Second Reading. The same principle has been accepted by the Standing Committee. All that the Standing Committee has done is to keep the principle, but to minimise its application. If the principle is worth having, and if this Clause is worth inserting in any Act of Parliament, the principle is worth following, so that it can be applied in a practical way in those areas where the need for this type of legislation is greatest. By reducing the rateable value of the premises affected by this measure to £35 in London and £26 elsewhere, you are really depriving those areas where there has been the greatest demand for legislation of this sort of the benefit and protection which it confers. If this Clause is passed in its present form, we shall have an admirable example of window dressing If anybody claims that houses are empty in areas where there is great congestion of population, the Government or Parliament can answer: "We passed legislation with regard to the compulsory hiring of these empty houses; it is there on the Statute Book." But, of course, its application is nonexistent from the point of view of those districts. Our object in urging the Ministry to frame a Clause of this type at all was not to dress windows but to occupy houses, and I submit that that object is certainly not achieved in the whittling-down process which has been adopted with regard to Clause 1, because particularly owing to the re-assessment which is taking place in very many of our large cities, these rateable values are unduly low, so that it may be almost impossible to find any house that comes within the category of this Clause. Many Members think there will be a very great danger of unsuitable houses being taken owing to these compulsory powers, and that there will be no real ground for taking houses which are not in working-class areas, and therefore the extension of the principles of the Clause has got to be opposed. But this Bill provides most adequate safeguards, first of all in the case of large houses where caretakers are in occupation. Houses of that sort will not come within the purview of the Clause, because they will be legally in the occupation of the present owner. Nor does this Clause apply to new houses, nor to houses which will require a certain amount of reconstruction before they are occupiable, and moreover the Minister has to be satisfied, after hearing evidence, that the occupation of the House is reasonable; and after all these circumstances have been attended to, the rent to be paid has to be a fair rent. Therefore I think the House can be perfectly clear about this that all reasonable precautions are set forth in the Bill against any abuse of the power which this Section seeks to confer upon local authorities. I want to support my hon. Friend with regard to the two great reasons why this extension should take place in the provisions of the Clause. First of all, there is at the present time a very genuine feeling of grievance in a great many urban districts. In the district which I have the honour to represent in Parliament this grievance became acute early in the year, and I believe it was upon that grievance that the idea of this legislation was in fact founded. There you have a district of what I might call lower middle class residential streets, where every house is not only occupied, but over occupied. Three, four or five families inhabit a house originally intended for one family. People are slow to marry, and when they do marry they hesitate before they take upon themselves the responsibility of having children, and that is, of course, a deplorable state of affairs. In this district a considerable number of houses were found which were held up from occupation with a view not to getting higher rents, but with the object of selling at the then monopoly value of the premises. I do not say that the desire to obtain the full economic value of these houses was an immoral or unscrupulous one on the part of the property owners. Far from it. But I do say that in the present congestion of the population there, in view of the tremendous shortage of houses, and the great social evils which result from overcrowding, it was a sin against society to leave houses in those areas unoccupied at this time; and this is a type of house which the Amendment framed by the Standing Committee excludes from the purview of the Bill, and this is the very type of house we want to bring within the ambit of this legislation. If you accept the Amendment of my hon. Friend you will remove that grievance, but you will do something more: you will be providing a palliative against the present shortage of houses. Of course, it does not go to the roots of the housing difficulty—I am not suggesting that for a moment; but it is, at all events, bringing into the market a number of houses which at the present time are unreasonably withheld, and that seems to me to be a most potent ground for arguing that this Clause ought to be made as wide as possible, instead of being restricted as much as it could possibly be. The real reason why the Standing Committee practically turned down this Clause was that they were frightened of it being socialistic. If they passed the Bill in its original form, they were told, they would be supporting a wasteful, socialistic Minister, and would be inflicting socialism upon society. All I can say is that politics in this country have been too long enslaved by catchwords and phrases—do not let them be enslaved by mere labels now. It is so easy when dealing with an important reform to say, "This is sheer socialism, and we cannot tolerate the idea for a moment." This House will do well to look behind the label. Let me draw a little illustration or parable from Gallipoli. We were always wondering out there why it was that all our supplies were being preyed upon at the base, while one officer always managed to get through from home some very fine liqueur brandy. We could not understand how it was till he said "I will explain." He showed us the bottle, a medicine bottle, labelled, "The Embrocation—for external use only." Here we get this excellent proposal, as originally drafted by the Minister of Health, a prescription made up by himself, and containing very excellent properties which would undoubtedly help the social evils from which we are suffering. But the Standing Committee choose to tie on a label, and call it "poisonous" and "socialism," and that is the end of it. It is not socialistic at all, because it is not depriving people of their property against their will and without compensation. It is giving them the full, fair market value of their premises, and it only compulsorily hires the premises from them in such cases where upon full consideration of all the circumstances, the Minister, after hearing all the evidence, considers that taking over will be just and reasonable. This seems to me to be a very good ground for accepting the Amendment of my hon. Friend. I feel more than ever confirmed in that opinion by the fact that the House and the Committee have accepted the principle. Why not carry the principle to its logical conclusion, so that it may be of real value and service to the community?


This Amendment is one of several Amendments dealing with the same point, and I think it would save time if on this Amendment I could deal with the following three Amendments on the Paper. My hon. Friends who have spoken on this point have said that if the Bill only came down to the House in the form in which it appeared in Committee they would be satisfied, but I want to remind the House it was owing to an Amendment moved in Committee that the Bill is not in the same form in which it went upstairs. The Bill originally dealt with houses "suitable for the working classes." There was an Amendment moved by my hon. Friends opposite to omit the words "suitable for the working classes," and while opposing that Amendment in the first place, I did so because my right hon. Friend and I foresaw some of the difficulties we should be met with later on in this Clause. I, personally, dislike the definition "working classes." It savours of class distinction, and it is a quite indefinable term. I should be very sorry to define it myself. But it made it absolutely essential at a later stage to define the class of house which should be compulsorily acquired under this particular Clause. These Amendments of which I am speaking, and which deal with this particular point, propose either to leave out the limit altogether or to double or treble it. As hon. Members know, it is only intended to enable local authorities to deal with those houses which are suitable for the particular purpose required, and our object is not so much to define the class of people who shall occupy the house as it is to define the type of house which is required. The limits which are put into the Bill upstairs are £26 and £35, and my hon. Friend who spoke last said that by those limits we were depriving areas where the demand is greatest. He also said that keeping these limits in the Bill meant that this Clause was only a window-dressing Clause. My right hon. Friend in the Committee stage said he would carefully examine these figures, and he has carefully examined these particular figures, and reports have been received from some of the largest centres, which I think the House will be glad to hear— from Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Southampton. They are all agreed that the limit of £26 is adequate.


From whom do these reports come?

Colonel WILSON

They come, as a matter of fact, from the town clerks.


There are no houses with that value empty.

8.0 P.M.

Colonel WILSON

The number of houses in Liverpool in 1919 was 172,777. Of these 135,450 were under £22 10s. rateable value. With regard to the rateable value of £35 fixed for London, the scale laid down by assessment authorities shows that that rateable value covers houses up to a rental, inclusive of rates, of 27s. a week where the rates are 12s. in the £1, and houses of 29s. 6d. where the rates are 15s. and more in the £1. There are cases in which it would be desirable that the rateable value should be increased in this Bill, but the difficulty in which I find myself is this. There was a definite pledge given by the Lord Privy Seal on the Second Reading that he would not ask the House to reverse any decision which came from the Committee. At the same time, I freely acknowledge that the Minister of Health in Committee said before we went to a Division on this point, "I will again examine the figure, and if we can arrive at some friendly arrangement which will modify that figure on Report, I shall be glad to see if we can do so." If I put forward any suggestion it can only be accepted by the Government if it is-accepted by the whole House. I cannot go back on those pledges. In order to avoid the danger of any houses being shut out from the working of the Clause, I should like to see a higher rateable value, and if I can come to an agreement with the House, I will make a definite proposal that the rateable value shall be £50 and £40, and the Government will be quite prepared to accept it. But I cannot go against the decision of the Committee unless the whole House is agreeable to it and is willing to accept the proposal which I have made now. That is the position, and I feel sure hon. Members will agree that I cannot force it on the House unless there is a definite agreement amongst the Members of the House.


These figures were inserted because they dealt with the class of house that was likely to be hired, and the Clause says, "which is suitable without reconstruction." When the Bill left the House it was for twelve months. Who could imagine a local authority spending money on houses for twelve months? We then added to it in Committee that it is to terminate at the same time as the Kent Restriction Act, and that gave 2½ years. The figure does not represent the rent by any means. You are dealing here with a house denuded of its rates, entirely denuded of the repairs—one-sixth—and therefore in the metropolitan area it would be £42, and £31 outside the metropolitan area, for houses denuded of their rates. But if the rates were in addition it is a much higher rental than could be suggested here. But the moment you enlarge this scope you allow the local authorities to spend money which they cannot have the slightest chance of getting back. That is the difficulty. They cannot get it back in the time unless they charge an inordinately large rent for the premises they are going to hire compulsorily, and therefore there is a good deal to be said for keeping it at a reasonable figure. With regard to £50 and £40, I do not know that I should raise any question about it, but you could not adapt houses for the class of people it is intended to house without considerable alteration if you go to £50 a year rateable value. A rateable value of £50 means £60. Many local authorities are letting their houses to-day at something like £1 a week inclusive of rates in many cases, and therefore the figure here is really an economic figure, and there could be no expenditure on the part of the local authorities beyond what is a reasonable expenditure to get the house into a cleanly and sanitary state of repair. It is all covered by those words, "suitable without reconstruction." If you are going to reconstruct your house and take a house at £100 a year or £105, or leave it without limit, the result would be that the local authorities will waste a great deal of money, which they will have no chance whatever of recouping, because the time is so short.

I understand there is a suggestion that by agreement with the owners the compulsory powers may be for a period of five years, but the moment you start compulsory hiring you really must consider what the feelings of those people are who feel that their places are going to be compulsorily taken from them, and they will not be inclined to come to an agreement, as they otherwise would be if you took things by agreement. Here, I think, I should not oppose £50, although I quite realise that the expenditure of doing up a house of £60 rental is a great deal more than doing up a house of £42 rental, and therefore I certainly feel that the line taken by the Government is the right line. But I think they should have been a little stronger. It was thoroughly discussed in Committee, and it was thought that it would probably add greatly to the expenditure of the local authorities, without any chance of recoupment. If you get it down at £42 and £31, you must not run away with the idea that it is £35 and £26 rental. It is £42 and therefore it makes a considerable difference, and the houses which would be suitable for taking you will cover by the rateable value. That takes up the very large majority of houses.

Lieut.-Colonel FREMANTLE

I only want to make one point, which is suggested by my Amendment with regard to the proposal which has been put forward by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. He suggested a raising of the limit. He suggested it, as far as I can see, on no very definite grounds. The original figure was come to in Committee as being the figure of the increase of Kent Mortgage Restriction Act, but it was the Act of 1915. That Act has since then been repealed, and I take it that the spirit of the Committee should be the use of the sum that is arrived at in the Act as amended up to date, because that is the real figure that is meant to correspond with the phrase "housing of the working classes," and therefore I appeal to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that it is in keeping with the spirit of the discussion in Committee and with the whole idea of the science of housing that he should keep the same figure in the Bill as in the Rent Restriction Act, not of 1915, but of 1920.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I have not yet gathered whether there is general consent to this very generous suggestion of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. If there is I will not in any way oppose it further, but I hope our acceptation of this will not in any way prejudice us against a discussion of the Amendments lower down to leave out the words "suitable without reconstruction." If it will not affect that, and if there is general agreement, I am delighted that this small concession has been made. I think the hon. Member (Mr. Lorden) really underrates the importance of the matter. The events going on in certain parts of London to-day surely help to make us realise the gravity of the problem, and the spectacle of large empty houses standing in different parts of London is bound to give rise to very strong feeling and to the sort of incidents we have been having lately, and I hope the Government is going to impress on local authorities the great importance of getting on with this matter and taking over these empty houses as soon as possible without any undue delay, and I hope they are not going to countenance any obstructive tactics on the part of owners of property in preventing one means of meeting the urgent needs of the present moment.


We do not exactly oppose the Amendments dealing with this question, but in the view of myself and those with whom I am associated we would have infinitely preferred that the whole matter had been left to the discretion of the local authorities without being hampered by restrictions. I think the suggestion of the Minister, however, has considerably improved the situation from our point of view.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: In Sub-section (1), leave out the word "thirty-five" ["including the City of London thirty-five pounds"] and insert instead thereof the word "fifty."

Leave out the words "twenty-six" ["and elsewhere twenty-six pounds"], and insert instead thereof the word "forty."—[Colonel Wilson.]

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), to leave out the words "is suitable without reconstruction and".

These words seem to some of us unduly hampering. What is meant by reconstruction? The putting in of extra stoves or an extra lighting system? I do not really know. I took over a house in London recently and without altering any of the rooms I had to practically rebuild the house to put in decent lighting and cooking arrangements. Is that reconstruction? Apart from that we are afraid these words will limit and hamper the working of the Clause, and we are bound to press the Amendment unless the Minister in charge of the Bill can give us some more suitable meaning of the words in the Clause.

It being a Quarter past Eight of the Clock, and leave having been given to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 10, further Proceeding was postponed, without Question put.