HC Deb 08 December 1920 vol 135 cc2206-12

(1) It shall be the duty of every local authority for the purposes of Part II of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890, to cause their district to be inspected at least once in every year with a view to ascertaining—

  1. (a) whether any dwelling-house or part of any dwelling-house therein is in a state so dangerous or injurious to health as to be unfit for human habitation;
  2. (b) whether any dwelling-house or part of any dwelling-house therein occupied or intended to be occupied by a member of the working-classes is not in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation;
and for that purpose it shall be the duty of the local authority and of every officer of the local authority to comply with any Regulations made under this Section.

(2) The Minister of Health may make general or special Regulations for carrying this Section into effect and matters connected therewith and, without prejudice to this general power to make Regulations, such Regulations may prescribe—

  1. (a) the qualifications to be possessed by the person or persons making the inspection;
  2. (b) the particular matters to which regard is to be had in making the inspection;
  3. (c) the records of the inspection which are to be kept by the medical officer of health to the local authority;
  4. (d) the consideration by a local authority of representations or reports made to them in consequence of such inspection;
  5. (e) the reports which are to be made by a local authority or the medical officer of health to the Minister or the county council;

(3) The foregoing provisions of this Section shall be deemed to form part of Part II of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890, and without prejudice to any power of the Minister under Section ten of the Housing, Town Planning, &c., Act, 1909, any non-compliance by a local authority with any requirements of this Section or any Regulation made thereunder shall be a de fault which may be dealt with under Section eleven of the last cited Act, and the provitions of that Section shall extend accord ingly.—[Mr. Allen Parkinson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I do so with a view to instituting a serious house-to-house inspection every year. The Housing and Town Planning Act, 1909, definitely states, in Section 17, that local authorities may cause to be made from time to time inspections in their district. One of the objects of this new Clause is to fix a definite time within which inspections shall be made. We feel that the backward authorities will rot carry into effect the powers given to them in the Act of 1909, because those powers are not obligatory. This Clause will make it compulsory for all authorities to make their inspections once a year. Not only does it state that all dwelling-houses shall be inspected in order to see whether they are in a sanitary condition, but it also provides, where necessary, that "part of any dwelling-house" may be inspected. This makes the provision more comprehensive. If the houses were inspected once a year we should at least be laying the foundation for better conditions of life for our people. We should be compelling property owners to keep their houses in better sanitary condition. It may be said there is no reason for this proposal, but those who have served on local authorities know the difficulties of getting these inspections made and also of getting notices served on landlords who are not carrying out these inspections. Every house under a local authority-ought to be inspected and reported upon once a year. I have in mind a quite recent incident where a fairly large authority in a Lancashire town made an inspection of the whole of their area. The result spread a sort of horror throughout the people in that area.

I am not going to say it was any worse or any better than in other parts of the country, but the result of the inspection was such that it at least awakened the whole of the people in that particular borough to a sense of their responsibility. The inspection revealed that the average number of persons living in one house was 51. There were sixteen houses with one room only, 642 houses with one living room and one sleeping room, over 3,000 houses with one living room and two sleeping rooms, and nearly 800 houses with one living room and three sleeping rooms. That is the kind of thing we want exposed. There are a large number of these houses absolutely unfitted for habitation, and the report said that there were 1.375 without through ventilation and otherwise insanitary. By the adoption of this Clause we should be giving power to the local authorities and making it obligatory on them to carry out inspections. This measure has been too long delayed, and the phrase "may be" ought to be removed from every Act of Parliament relating to the housing of the people. The inspection must be compulsory or it will not be done at all. It will also take away the desire of many owners of slum property to become members of the local authority with a view to retarding the operations of the local medical officer of health and the sanitary inspector. These officials ought to be given all the confidence necessary, and people who possess houses ought to keep them in a condition reasonably fit for habitation.


I beg to second the Motion. I should like to express my surprise that the Minister of Health will accept none of these new Clauses. One would have thought that anything adding to the efficiency and usefulness of this Bill would have been welcomed. In the first place, this Clause proposes that in every district an inspection of the property shall take place not less than once a year. Together with the hon. Member who moved the Clause, I can, if necessary, give some experiences in regard to the inspection of houses in various localities. There was one, especially, where an inspection showed that hundreds of houses were both overcrowded and unfit for human habitation. This information is absolutely essential if the health of the people is to be safeguarded in the manner which I am perfectly sure the Minister of Health desires. In addition to that, it gives power to the right hon. Gentleman to see that those who make the inspection are properly qualified, so that the results of their inspection may be taken as fairly reliable data upon which the municipalities can act. It also pro poses to give him power to see that the reports of the inspectors are dealt with properly. It appears to me that all the powers which this new Clause would give would tend to the betterment of housing condition and would materially assist in improving the health of the people. I am surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman state that under no circumstances will any of these new Clauses be adopted. From a long experience, I am sure that this one would be very helpful, and I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to allow, at any rate, this new Clause to become part of the Bill, believing, as I do, that it would be beneficial to the people generally.


I agree that, if the provisions of this new Clause were part of our public health statutes, it would in due time have many of the effects which my hon. Friends contemplate. I recognise that they, and others who move new Clauses, must be disappointed at the decision which I have very reluctantly had to take in this matter. I think that several of the proposed new Clauses would be useful additions to our Public Health Acts, and I hope that before very long they may be embodied in them. At the same time, I have taken the course that I have taken because it is getting on in December, and I made a promise to the House to resist the casting of additional burdens on the Bill, because the House was unanimously of opinion that there were too many things in it already. I am sure that, in the circumstances, it would only burden the Bill if I were to accept this Clause. There are several others as well which contain quite good suggestions within the limits of the title of the Bill, but, in view of the fact that the Session is so far advanced, I would appeal to my hon. Friends not to press this Clause upon me. I am sure it is fair to the House of Commons, in view of the promise I have made, not to burden the Bill with additional Clauses.


To those of us who are members of local authorities which are not merely responsible for finding more houses for the people under the Housing Acts, but are also responsible for the conditions under which existing houses are occupied, the decision of the Minister in charge of the Bill appears to be a very unfortunate one. What is the position in most of our industrial centres to-day, apart altogether from the position in rural areas? In my own district, during the past 12 months, we have conducted, under the existing Public Health Acts, a house-to-house inspection, and what have we discovered? We have discovered overcrowding on a wholesale scale, insanitation, and conditions under which human beings ought not to be compelled to live. No less than 14,000 houses in our borough are registered as not reaching even the minimum requirements of the present Public Health Acts. We, as a local authority, are trying to do our best under existing circumstances, but we are cribbed, cabined, and confined by the technicalities of the existing law. We had hoped that, in the new era of reconstruction promised to us by the statesmen of to-day, we should be given, not the power to introduce a new heaven and a new earth, but such opportunities as would enable us to carry out the intentions even of the existing Public Health Acts. In my own constituency nearly every street has been visited, and we have found families of, sometimes, as many as eight people living in one room. We have power, under certain conditions, to visit houses and to inquire into the sanitary arrangements, and we have certain other powers under which, if the landlord does not do the things that he should do, we may be able to do those things ourselves. That, however, means a long process of law, with great technical and legal difficulties, and in the' meantime children are dying in that district, at the rate of 200 out of every 1,000 born, before they reach the age of five years. I have heard preachers in churches and chapels drawing tears from the eyes of their congregations when they described the massacre of the innocents by Herod and people of that type, but our modern Herods get elected on our local authorities and keep on murdering children, and nobody says them nay; and they can get Gentlemen here in the House of Commons to defend them in their depredations and in their massacre of the children of the people.

We ask in this Clause that we shall have power to deal with this position, and the right hon. Gentleman says that reluctantly he is compelled not to accept it. Why reluctantly? Is there a power behind the throne? Is there one set of statesmen who can get up and promise us a new heaven and a new earth, that the sun of prosperity will rise over the hilltops of poverty, and that we shall have an England fit for heroes to live in, and is there someone behind the scenes who decides that "So far shalt thou go and no farther." Are we going to be told that all the fine promises that were held out to the people in regard to these great problems of reconstruction are going to be blasted by private and vested interests? I know, as a member of a public authority, that the best sanitary inspector is the man who does not inspect at all; the man who takes his job easily and does not visit is looked upon as the best visitor, because the people who sit on the Public Health Committee are, in the main, owners of property, and do not want to see the inspector. In one district with which I am well acquainted, the chairman of the Public Health Committee was himself prosecuted five times for owning insanitary property. That is the kind of thing that we are up against—the interests of those who think that the only interest they have in the people is the interest they can make out of them. We are asking for this Clause because we want to give to the public authorities some power to see that the legislation which this House has passed shall be properly put into effect. As I have said, there are 14,000 houses in our borough to-day which are registered as being unfit under the Public Health Acts for occupation by the people. We cannot find further accommodation—there is no room; and yet we are told that we must not have a private inspection, but that we must wait—"Live, horse, and you will get grass"—and expect the Amendment of the Public Health Acts. This Clause would give the power now to the local authorities to do something effective. All that we ask is the right to put into operation the intentions of those who carried the original Public Health Act, and I am very sorry indeed to hear the Minister say that he cannot give us that.


If I might, with the permission of the House, answer a question which was put by the hon. Member, he is really under a misapprehension. Under the existing Housing Act, all the local authorities in the country have been required to make an inspection of all their houses within the last 12 months, and to report upon them to the Ministry of Health. We have had reports on examinations of houses now from practically every authority in the Kingdom, and, therefore, what my hon. Friends ask for in this Clause has actually been done during the last 12 months.


We are asking for the power to continue the operation of the Public Health Act as intended. That was only for a special purpose, and we are asking that we may have continued power to deal with public health in the matter of housing.


Probably the whole House will not dissent from the hon. Member if he says that the question of insanitary dwellings remains a very grave question, and will deserve the consideration of the House on a future occasion. My right hon. Friend did not give quite a sympathetic reception to this Clause, but I hardly think that its actual provisions would be wise. It proposes a compulsory inspection of all working-class houses every year, and the reasoning of my hon. Friends seemed to point to an addition to the duties of local authorities, in that they would be obliged every year to go through the process of inspection. I confess that I think that that is a very onerous duty, and would be found to be burdensome both to the local authority and to the citizens generally. My hon. Friend (Mr. Jones) does not trust local authorities. He says that some of them may be compared to Herod. But if that be so, how does it happen that they are elected? I should not have thought it possible in a working-class constituency. Even if it be true, will any compulsory provision make things much better? Will Herod's viceroy, inspecting once a year, find out abuses? I think that in the end you must trust the local authorities. We all know that such institutions do not always work perfectly, but you must trust the elected representatives of the people to do their duty, and the people must get other representatives if they fail. By putting a compulsory Clause into an Act of Parliament, obliging them to do this, that or the other, you will not get round the difficulty. If they are not trustworthy, and are really corrupt representatives, they will find a way out of any Clause. The only way is not to elect them another time. Therefore, I entreat the hon. Member to "trust the people."


I want to give them houses to live in.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.