HC Deb 30 May 1921 vol 142 cc737-45

This Act in its application to Ireland shall have effect with the following modifications:—

(5) The Housing of the Working Classes (Ireland) Acts, 1890 to 1919 and this Act, so far as it amends those Acts, may be cited together as the Housing of the Working Classes (Ireland) Acts, 1890 to 1921.


I beg to move, at the end of the Clause, to add a new Sub-section— (6) For the purposes of Section six of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, this Act shall be deemed to be an Act passed before the appointed day. This Amendment is necessary in order to give the local Parliaments in Ireland full power to amend this Act or deal with it as they think fit. When the question of the application of the Housing Act to Ireland came up at the end of last year, all parties in Ireland were most anxious that an extension of the Housing (Additional Powers) Act, 1919, should immediately be granted to Ireland. Every party in the House was anxious that that should be done, and it was agreed to then. Of course, the local Parliaments will not be able to deal with the matter of housing for some considerable time. The Amendment will enable the housing subsidy to be granted for a period longer than that granted under the Housing (Additional Powers) Act. Under this Bill the subsidy can be granted to houses finished before October, 1922.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

This is a very interesting Amendment, and I congratulate the learned Solicitor-General for Ireland on the illusion which he scattered about the House in moving it. To hear him one would think this was a matter of no importance whatever; but it is a matter of very great importance, if for no other reason than that it commits us to a subsidy for all houses commenced in Ireland after June, 1922, and completed up to October. I object to our committing ourselves to an altogether indefinite sum for house building in Ireland.

Lieut.-Colonel ALLEN

It is limited.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I am glad to hear it is limited. The fact that the Irish Members are agreed upon it carries no weight with me. Hon. Members opposite representing the North of Ireland and those on this side, representing the remainder may disagree on every other point, but they immediately agree if it is a matter of taking money from the British Exchequer. In this case we are asked to pay money which we have not got, because further down on the Order Paper is an extraordinary proposal to sanction more borrowing by the Government to make ends meet. I do not want to enlarge on another aspect of the matter, but I may point out that the elections of the Paliaments in North and South of Ireland have been held. I dare say hon. Members representing the North of Ireland are patting themselves on the back at the result, although I cannot congratulate them. Why cannot they raise the money for their own houses? Why should they still come to us, even within a few days of the carrying out of the elections, which we are told by Government spokesmen have proved the success of the Government of Ireland Act?


The hon. Member is under a misapprehension Any subsidy made to Ireland for the houses comes out of Irish money—the Irish share of the reserved taxes. Not one penny of British money except money raised in Ireland will go to this subsidy, so the hon. and gallant Member is under a mistaken impression.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

Then I really cannot understand the necessity for this at all. The hon. and learned Gentleman's explanation meets one part of my objection, but it only strengthens another part. This grant is a matter for the Irish Parliaments, and we ought not to take any responsibility whatever, moral, material or otherwise for housing in Ireland. I have a final objection that it is perfectly ridiculous to talk about building houses in Ireland as soon as June, 1922. The hon. and learned Gentleman himself could hardly suppress a smile when he was explaining this to the House. We on this side admire his sangfroid in talking about house building in Ireland in the present conditions. When houses are being burned down daily over a very large area of the country; when the forces of the Crown by order and with the approval of the Cabinet, as we have been told, are burning down houses at the rate of forty a week or more, what is the good of asking for house-building legislation. It is absurd; it is the good old ostrich policy of putting our heads in the sand, and I for one will not be a party to such a farce on the part of the Mother of Parliaments. I shall vote against this ridiculous proposal, and I am sure that hon. and learned Gentlemen will be with me in spirit.


The proposed new Schedule—[Provisions as to the compulsory hiring of houses by local authorities]—is, as I have already indicated, out of order, inasmuch as it imposes a new charge on public funds.

Motion made and question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."—[Sir A. Mond.]


I wish briefly to express the regret which I am sure all hon. Members feel that the right hon. Gentleman has seen fit to emasculate and strangle one of the infants handed on to him by his predecessor. In the Bill as produced last year a Clause was inserted enabling local authorities to acquire houses withheld from occupation, and the Committee upstairs, by the casting vote of the Chairman, that Clause was struck out. I want now to draw attention to the reasons given by the right hon. Gentleman for the withdrawal of that Clause. The right hon. Gentleman declared that the present shortage of houses was being overcome. If that statement goes out through the Press uncontradicted it will have a really deplorable effect, because anyone who knows anything about large industrial centres are aware that it is the fact that the present need for houses is not being overcome. It may be that not so much is heard to-day of the shortage; it may be that ex-Service men in Manchester are not taking by force the houses such as they seized upon last year, but surely, it is hardly in keeping with the desire we have to avoid direct action if when people become law abiding and seek constitutional means for remedying the hardships and grievances under which they suffer the Government turn round on them and say there is no need now to provide more houses or rather that the existing need is being met. Go where one will, we know that the 45,000 houses which the right hon. Gentleman says have been built as against the 500,000 houses to be required at the time of the Armistice constitutes but a travesty of the situation. It is merely putting off the evil day. I hope the right hon. Gentleman, in his reply, if he speaks presently, will modify the impression created in Committee that there is no need now to explore for an avenue of progress to meet present needs.

Only last week in my constituency an ex-Service man came to me on this matter. It is a typical case. I have no doubt all hon. Members have had similar cases brought to their notice. This man fought for three and a half years overseas. In July, 1919, he put his name down for one of the municipal houses in course of erection. He has meantime been occupying a room in a four-roomed house in which there are three other families. When he asked the local authority when his turn for a new house would arrive he was told, "You are a long way down the list; you will have to wait much longer because there are more pressing cases than yours."I went to the Town Hall to investigate and make sure of the facts in this case. I was told it was perfectly true that the man lived in a four-roomed house with three other families, but because he had no family. There was only his wife and himself, his case was not sufficiently urgent, because there were so many other ex-service men with families, living under even worse conditions, whose cases must first be attended to. Now that case has occurred in a town which is not behind other towns in the matter of house building. It has already built over 200, and this compares very favourably with other towns. I have quoted only one case. There are hundreds of others. It will be very unfortunate if these men are to get the idea that the Government are in any way relaxing their efforts to provide houses. It will not make for content. It may be that the discontent is not so loudly expressed at the moment. The unfortunate thing is that the people are getting into a despairing mood and are not clamouring for houses, but are becoming accustomed to a chronic state of overcrowding. I therefore protest against this Clause being dropped. Although it may not have proved effective in providing many houses, it would certainly have opened out one other avenue for providing, at no great cost to the ratepayers, a number of houses at present being withheld for occupation. I hope the Minister will make up for having dropped this Clause by bringing pressure to bear on local authorities to expedite the building of houses which are still so urgently needed.


I want to draw the attention of the Minister to that part of this Bill about which there is a good deal of feeling among the various local authorities, particularly the London boroughs, that is Clause 8, which was Clause 9 before the Bill went to Committee, That seems to whittle away some of their powers under Section 41 of the Housing Act, 1919. They are very concerned about it. In Committee, I obtained from the Minister an Amendment to the Clause, but they are still very apprehensive that some of their powers are going to be whittled away, and I hope when the Minister replies he will give us some idea that it is not intended to take away from the borough councils that power which they very much value. There is one point with regard to subsidies to which. I would like to refer, and that is that while this is the cheapest form of subsidy, it does behove the Government, and the Minister particularly, to see where we are getting to with this cost for housing. The houses which are being erected are costing so much that those people for whom they are intended have not the means to occupy them on account of the high rates and other charges, and therefore it does behove the Minister to look into this question of housing to see whether some means cannot be found to reduce the cost, and to ensure a supply of houses at a reasonable figure, so that those people who should occupy them, can occupy them.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

When the Minister replies I want him to answer one or two questions, if he will be so kind. The first and most important, from my point of view, is, can he tell us anything with regard to building guilds? I saw by the Press that a deputation went to him last week. I was to have accompanied that deputation, but it was thought better that there should be no Members of Parliament present, and, as I was very busy, I was not sorry; but I have the disadvantage of not knowing what went on, nor have I been in communication with any of the leaders of the guild building movement. I am, however, intensely interested in it, as everyone who takes an interest in problems of industry and labour must be, and I am sure hon. Members must have viewed this experiment with the very greatest interest. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor bowed to certain pressure which was put upon his Department, and both he, and, I am sorry to say, the permanent officials, blocked and obstructed, and did their best to discourage the guild building scheme. I do not wish to say that this was done the whole time. In the first place, they encouraged it, and then they bowed to the pressure, and began to put difficulties in the way. Now the right hon. Gentleman has taken the onerous post of Minister of Health, and I would like him to reply to a definite question as to his position in this matter. Is it one of hostility held in common with the master builders of the country? Naturally they are hostile and cannot bear the idea of working men undertaking work at cheaper rates than they are prepared to accept. They do not like the arrangement under the guild building scheme of an insurance fund for pay during bad weather. I want to know if the Minister of Health shares these prejudices and want of sympathy with this most promising, as it is the most revolutionary, movement that is now taking place in this country, and it is a peaceful and constitutional revolution.

I only wish to just mention the great success of the scheme so far in Manchester and district, because there the bricklayers on the guild scheme are laying more bricks per day than those now working for private employers. The explanation of this is that the men are working for themselves and that is a direct incentive to do more work. Of course if we sympathise with the master builders we must sympathise sometimes with these men. The incentive to produce more is just the same in the case of allotment holder—


I am afraid that is a little beyond the subject which we are now discussing. It is rather a matter of administration, and would be more appropriate on the Vote for the Minister's salary.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

We are now proposing to continue the subsidy, and the whole difficulty has been the Objection of the Ministry to pay this subsidy to the Guild building schemes.


That is not the subsidy referred to in this Bill.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I do not wish to press my point. Up and down the country there is an impression amongst local authorities and many other people that the Government is quietly dropping this great housing scheme, and although it was stated that 500,000 houses were required there is an impression that the Government will be content with 200,000. I think the Minister of Health ought to take this opportunity of denying those statements. Local authorities are now declaring that they understand that any reduction of their schemes will not be looked upon unfavourably by the Ministry of Health. That is a state of things which I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to deny, and he should tell us if the Government intend to go through with their housing scheme in order to relieve the housing congestion of the country. There may be houses to let in the West End of London, but housing conditions in the North are still very bad. The other day I had a long conversation on this subject with the Town Clerk of Hull—


That is quite plainly an administrative act. The Minister will not be able to make his reply now, and he can only reply when the Vote for his salary is before the Committee.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I regret that there has not been some speeding up of the Clause in connection with the clearing of slum areas.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Alfred Mond)

I am afraid that I cannot reply to the points which have been raised by the hon. and gallant Member who spoke last with regard to general policy, but if he will do me the honour of reading what I said on this subject when it was brought before the House on a former occasion, he will see that it was dealt with by me. With regard to the new Clause amending the Act of 1919 relating to the London Metropolitan borough councils, in the Act of 1919 there was a defect in the Clause dealing with the question of the payment of housing expenses by a Metropolitan borough council. Any loss incurred by such a council came within the housing scheme to be repaid by the London County Council, and all questions of administration of that character fell on the London County Council. The object of the Clause in the present Bill is to remedy this defect. The intention is that Regulations should be issued applying to Metropolitan borough councils the same kind of provisions as are applied to all other local authorities by the Housing Assisted Schemes Regulations. It will be observed that by Sub-section (2) it is provided that the Regulations proposed to be made under this Clause are to be laid before Parliament so that the hon. Member (Mr. Lorden) and the Metropolitan borough councils will have an opportunity of challenging any Regulations so made. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough does not, I am sure, intend to misrepresent me. What I said in Committee, and one of the reasons I gave, and the only one, why I advocated the omission of this particular Clause, was that more and more the present needs of housing were being overcome. Towards that we had the assistance of about 47,000 houses which had been completed. I never said that was the complete housing programme, or that that would deal with all the over-crowding in the country. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do the number of these houses in the course of construction at the present time; therefore that they are coming daily more rapidly into operation. Glance at the position. It was thought that such a proposal as that of Clause I might have been of some assistance to the local authorities, I repeat my one object in dropping this Clause was that I saw that it was not necessary nor useful, and was only holding out illusory hopes. In confirmation of that I found that in August, 1919, investigation had been made by the Housing Commissioners among all the urban district councils of a population of more than 20,000, who were asked to return the vacant houses in their areas suitable for conversion into flats. Returns were received from a number of authorities. Fifty local authorities rendered no returns, but the number of houses stated in the returns to be convertible was 782, and of these only 187 could be regarded as suitable. That shows at that time the number was infinitesimal.


The right hon. Gentleman does not, I suppose, want to misrepresent me. What I intended to say was that this Bill does not deal with the conversion of flats or houses. It expressly excludes any houses which are to be reconstructed. My Clause merely deals with houses which without reconstruction are being kept empty or withheld from occupation.


What I was pointing out was that of the 782 houses only 187 would come under a Clause of this kind and become available for working-class houses throughout the whole country and that number is infinitesimal. I myself was astonished at the smallness of it. I pointed out in Committee that the local authorities have power, and it would be better business and sounder to acquire the houses now, because that would possibly be cheaper than building new ones. If they are available the compulsory powers of 1919 deal with that aspect. I say it would be a mistake to have a Clause in the Bill which would achieve nothing practicable.