HC Deb 28 March 1923 vol 162 cc673-94

I desire to direct attention to a subject of a very different character from, but of no less importance than, the subject with which we have just been dealing. It is of great consequence that; we should have the agricultural question settled and agriculture proceeding along normal lines, but it is of no less importance, and if one regards the country as a whole it is even more important, that we should have the question of housing as speedily gone into, and the difficulties that stand in the way of giving us houses overcome as steadily and as quickly as they can be overcome. The difficulty that immediately confronts us in regard to housing, as we all know, is the question of prices. The prices of material are intimately connected with the question of the control of material, and it is a long-established fact that in this country to-day we have a series of close and very well-organised combines, or trusts, or rings controlling the prices of material. What we desire to press upon the Government is the need for taking every step which is within their power to control these rings which thus artificially keep up the price of building material, and thereby make it possible for building to go on, so that the clamant need for houses shall be met as soon as it possibly may be in this country we have had for a considerable number of years practically no house-building at all, and before the War house-building fluctuated very much indeed between a, figure that represented 36,000 houses built in 1910 to the highest point of 140,000 houses built in 1899. Since then we have had the War unquestionably increasing the real prices of materials. But what has been far more important, as far as the price of material is concerned, has been the definite formation and organisation of these rings.

Before making a few suggestions, which I want to lay before the Department, I will draw attention to some of the facts brought out by a Parliamentary Com- mittee which inquired into the whole question of profiteering, and especially to that part of its Report which deals with housing material. Take the Report issued in 1921 of that Committee in regard to the National Light Castings Association. The Report of that Committee shows that that association did not merely control, but deliberately laid down the price of 95 per cent. of all the material they produced for the purposes of house-building, and in laying down the price of 95 per cent. they thereby controlled the remaining 5 per cent. It was formed in 1911 for purposes of robbery, as I shall show in a minute. Between the years 1905 and 1911 the materials which this association produced were at their lowest price, but in 1911 the association was formed. I will give from the Parliamentary Committee's Report the declaration of this association's purposes in its own words: First, The, object the Association has in view is that of raising and keeping up the prices to the buyer of goods and articles made and supplied to its members. Secondly, This shall he done by means of pooling arrangements, so controlling production that prices will rise naturally and inevitably as they always do when supply is brought into equilibrium with, or, as soon as may be, a little below demand. So that we have the declaration of this association—an association which controls, to a very large extent, the materials used in building houses—that its first purpose shall be to keep prices high. We are constantly being reminded in this House that a system of Government control, or of Government ownership, will increase prices. Here we have the declaration of an intention on the part of an important section of the private enterprise of this country that they were robbing the people by keeping up the prices of their commodities to the very highest possible level, and that they do that by pooling arrangements that reduces the output and keeps that output, if possible, at a little below the demand. I have heard a member of this association expatiating in very eloquent and very forceful language against the supposed trade union policy of "Ca'canny." Inevitably we find on inquiry that that "ca'canny" policy, the restriction of output, springs from the manufacturers of material. There is one point that I want the Government, through its Departments, to take into account, and that is the strength of these rings and combinations. What about the protection of the people— of the community, and those who are clamant for houses to-day —and how clamant every one of us who knows the conditions of our towns and cities know. It is no use to talk of sympathy when children are to-day being born in houses not fit for pig-sties, and being compelled to live there, and opposed to them are these great rich housing combines controlling almost every kind of material and preventing the people having the benefit of increased production and lowered prices, so that the children of this country may be given an opportunity of securing that health and strength, and the possibilities of a full life that they ought to have. Surely it is an important matter that the Government, through its Departments, should take such steps as it possibly can take to ensure that these rings and combines are restricted as much as possible, and, indeed, that they shall be compelled to cease functioning so far as this robbery of the public is concerned.

There is another point in relation to this Light Castings Association. I can remember how grievously nearly everybody objected to the suggestion that there should be anything in the nature of a pool in the mining industry. But these people laid it down that there should be a pool so far as the production of materials necessary for house building is concerned. They take the output of firms in pre-Association times, and they fixed a standard, and the firm which had produced a certain quantity over that was to be penalised to the extent of 7½ per cent. of its additional trade—not of its profits while the lazy, slow, non-progressive and inefficient firm, which did not produce up to this pre-War level, was at liberty to draw from that pool 7½ per cent. of the total value of what it had previously produced. What did an ex-member of this association, a witness before the Parliamentary Committee which inquired into this matter, declare? He said: The Association, by this process of pooling, penalises progress and encourages laziness. We are of opinion, said the Committee, That the powers of an association which wields such control over an industry are so open to abuse as to make it a menace to the well-being of the community. In matters of this kind I think attention is properly drawn to the powers of an association and the necessity of the Government making an inquiry and taking steps which I shall suggest in a moment. The association, immediately it was formed, sent out a circular throughout the country adding 10 per cent. to the prices which had been in existence and upon which a profit had been made. Within four months an additional 10 per cent. was added to the cost of light castings connected with house building throughout the country; while in another three months an additional five per cent. was added. In seven months, therefore, on the authority of this Parliamentary Committee, this great building trade production industry had added to the users to the cost of its productions no less than 25 per cent. The result was that in the years from 1914 to 1920, in addition to the 25 per cent. already added, this same National Light Castings Association added to the cost of these materials between 400 and 500 per cent. I could quote figures for individual products, but it is not worth while to do so. Before I finish with that and come to the proposals which I want to put forward, let me say that, in addition to this increase in prices—and here is one of the insidious features of these rings—in addition to laying down its own prices, and declaring that these commodities must not be sold below that minimum, it controls all the channels through which such commodities, its own and others, reach the user. It controls all wholesalers and retailers, and declares, not only that they shall sell these commodities at these prices, but that these wholesalers and retailers are not to be permitted to handle the commodities of any other manufacturer. We have heard to-night considerable discussion in regard to the cotton and lace trades, and in regard to whether the Safeguarding of Industries Act should be extended by means of Departmental Orders to cover those trades: but here is an association—and all house-building associations are on the same lines—which has its own Safeguarding of Industries Act, which lays down prices, and closes all the channels through which competing materials can come to consumers, either from this country or from outside.

Let me give one instance, which was brought before this committee of inquiry, and represents what we shall be faced with in the years immediately to follow. One large London builder objected to the operations of this ring, and sought to bring in baths from Germany at a lower price than that at which he could get them on the British market. Every avenue was closed to him, and finally he had to charter a steamer and bring in a cargo of 5,000 baths from Germany. These baths came in, and, after all charges had been paid, they were put into houses at 38s. per bath, the price of the National Light Castings Association at that time being 70s. They were operating a Safeguarding of Industries Act along their own lines. This same committee declares that: The National Light Castings Association is in secure possession of an effective monopoly in the home market. It fixes the minimum price of 95 per cent. of the light castings sold in this country, and in doing so sets the price of the remaining five per cent., for all the evidence goes to show that non-associated makers adopt the Association's prices. The castings industry is a controlled industry, but the control is exorcised, not by the State in the interests of the community, but by the Association in the interests of the manufacturers. What we want is an extension of something of the nature of control over the production of these materials in the interests of the community, and we suggest that one of the things the Government ought to do is to produce these materials as they produced guns and munitions during the War; but, as that is not the wish of the Government, I am in the meantime compelled to make suggestions which they might adopt, and I suggest that they continue the system which the Government initiated during the War—a system of stringent costing with regard to materials of this kind. A stringent system of costing was instituted with regard to the production of what was necessary for the purposes of the War, and it was found that a great many manufacturers had never done anything of that kind. I know the inside of many manufacturing works, and a more hopeless state of muddle than many of them are in it is impossible to conceive. They have not had anything in the nature of a real costings scheme. The Government ought to institute a severe and stringent, system of costings. They ought to publish what the cost of these materials should be, and take definite steps to compel the manufacturers to come within the prices they publish, and penalise those who will not conform to them. If the Government was doing its duty towards the homeless people, and was really making an effort to carry out its promises to provide homes for heroes and other people, it would commandeer all building material and see it rationed out to the various sections of the community at reasonable prices. What I have said in regard to the Light Castings Association is equally true of every section of house building. The results of inquiry by committees show that shameless profiteering was and is going on in cement, drain pipes, glazed tiles, bricks, slates and practically every material that is required in house building, and unless there is stringent and careful observation and control that profiteering will not only go on but will increase. The moment local authorities begin to speed up house building these jackals of industry are going to swoop down upon the booty. Where the body is the vultures will be gathered together, and instead of houses we shall have more disappointments and explanations why houses are not being built, because the brick makers are only putting down 599 when they should be putting clown 600 bricks a day, or some other useless explanation of that kind, instead of the real explanation, that the manufacturers and controllers of material are not concerned about producing houses for the people, but about increasing their profits.

In suggesting that the Government should control the prices of these materials I am not suggesting anything new. A very large portion of our history was built up on the control of prices by the State and those in authority. It was only under the divine condition of things which has created the millionaires, defended by the right hon. Baronet the Member far West Swansea (Sir A. Mond), that full opportunity was given to the profiteer to charge what he did. For hundreds of years there was a steady determination on the part of Government to see to it that those who had commodities to sell must sell them at prices that, were reasonable to them and to those who purchased them. We know how untrue that is to-day. I noticed very recently, in going over some old historical documents, that in the reign of James VI it was laid down quite clearly that there should be "provers" for pricing commodities coming into the market and that those "provers" and others appointed by the Government and local authorities should determine the prices, and it was distinctly laid down that "no bringer of iron, timber or other goods shall be a settler of prices with regard to the same." So that we are only suggesting that the common sense of the whole is greater than the greed and desire for increased profit of the few. We do not suggest that those who control commodities to-day are naturally worse than those of us who desire the commodities. We believe If self the wavering balance shake, It's rarely richt adjusted. And we suggest that in place of a greed that stands between the community and houses we should have an increasing control, and particularly along the lines I have suggested, which would prevent the abuses that exist to-day and would give us an opportunity of having our people housed as they ought to be, instead of having them crowded in shameless and unwholesome houses. I trust the Government, in facing up to this question of housebuilding, will remember that its most important step is to control the cost of the commodities which enter into the production of houses, and will also carry out some of its long made and, to a great extent, forgotten promises.


In dealing with the question of high prices of materials, I do not want to go into the general housing question. I want to take items, one by one, beginning with cement. Cement enters into nearly every part of building construction, with the exception of what is called the iron shed. In reading the Press, and in listening to speeches in this House, I notice that some people seem to think that cement prices only began to rise seriously in 1914. That is not true. Cement used to be bought in this country for 25s. per ton. The reason that cement began to get firmer and firmer from 1900, was due to the fact that just as ferroconcrete began to be approved of in this country, and just as a system of manufacturing cement blocks for house building began to be approved, the demand for cement increased. In contradiction to all the principles held by Conservatives, that the greater production should tend to reduce the cost, I am going to prove that with your system of combinations, you not only tend to increase the price upon an increased demand, but that by your increased price you have broken your market, and that you take your dividends out of the smalls that you sell in the market that you have broken.

During the War, the price of cement went up to an average of £7. Some people say it went up to £14. During the Great War the men who were doing the nation in in the price of cement were the John Bull flag-waving patriots. They were out to kill Jerry, but in the process they robbed every Department so far as building was concerned. Even in the building of sheds to hold the great airships this detestable type of person, who appeared under the name of patriot, and whose real name was robber, was the same type that makes the great difficulty to-day in the building of houses. Take the cement combine and its returns for 1921–22. The profits for 1921 were £479.762, and for 1922, £451,222. One would have thought that, as there was a falling off between 1921 and 1922, the dividends on the sums carried forward would have been affected.

The figures prove my former statement that, even when the demand decreased, by their stupid methods of running and selling cement, the price was increased, so that in those years the cement combine still kept their level of 10 per cent. In 1921, they carried forward £106,628, and in 1922, £188,144, yet they kept on paying 10 per cent. A building is now being erected along the Embankment. It is a ferro-concrete building, into which thousands of tons of cement are being poured to build it. The contractor is sometimes blamed for the high prices, but here you have a builder absolutely at the mercy of the cement combine. If he tries to be a free man—in the words often used by the Conservatives, when talking about the Trade Unionists—he is told that unless he obtains his supply along with others he will get no cement. The men who want to be the real patriots and who do not want to buy the material are placed in that position, and I should like to have contradiction, based upon fact, of the statements I have made.

I come to the question of bricks, which has been before the public lately. At the conference of the Amalgamated Building Trade Workers, in Manchester, it was pointed out that the price of bricks in 1914 was £1 16s. per thousand. In 1921, it was £5 1s. 6d. The current price is down to £4 2s. That means an increase of 180 per cent. over 1914, while the worker's wage is 60 per cent. above 1914. Since increases in wages never preceded increases in the cost of living, the natural procedure ought to be that costs should cone down in the relation that they went up. During 1922, in the building trades, wages dropped 18 per cent. on the average, but building materials only fell 9 per cent. Yet the cry is always being repeated that wages, wages, wages are the whole cause of the trouble so far as the increased prices of building materials are concerned.

One has only to look at the wages returns each week and each month, and they can be found in the libraries, and to follow them closely and intelligently, to see the contrast between wages and the increased price of materials. It is no use going into details about glass. I expect everyone sees through that by this time. I do not think there is any need to discuss lead. That subject would prove too heavy for the Conservatives. The cost of production of every material that goes toward building can quite easily be brought to light. There is no need for any committee to adopt any other line than the direct one of getting the invoice of the material at the source. Once you have that invoice you can tell exactly what is taking place. I would like the Committee that is being appointed on this matter to take a very wide view, and I would like the Government to give the Committee full powers. The whole of the existing system of private enterprise is based on the word profit." Every time you suggest a subsidy the profiteer begins hardening his prices. Every time there is a slackening of the demand there is a little easing off in price. As soon as the suggestion is made that as things are cheaper now we ought to begin building houses, then up go the prices. The "Manchester Guardian" on Monday reports a conference held in Manchester on this subject, and gives the name of a contractor who had fixed to do a contract, and when he went to place orders for the grades that were required, was told that they had advanced £2 each. As soon as these people see a demand, up go the prices. If the Committee comes into existence, and is to be of any use, it must have power to prevent that form of swindling that is going on. When the Committee come to investigate the question of the profits paid upon capital, they should take pains to distinguish between real capital and watered capital, because as soon as this Committee is set up you will have the watering of stock going on so as to make it appear that there is a reduction in profits. This Committee should have the fullest possible powers, so as to provide decent homes for those who have to live in this country, which boasts so much of its beautiful homes. Let us not forget the immorality that exists to-day in business with its swindling, with its system of articles for housing which come from abroad changing hands several times, with an increase of cost to the consumer on every change, and if Conservative Members claim that they have been brought up in schools that give a higher and nobler standard of life, and would like to show that they have a higher standard than others, they will show it in their business relations by dealing honestly and fairly by the men and women who require houses.

11.0 P.M.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Neville Chamberlain)

I would like to bring the Debate back from the airy realms of fancy, into which the last speaker carried us, to something nearer the real facts of the case. I think that there will be general agreement that we are all anxious to prevent any repetition of that great rise in prices which accompanied what was known as the Addison scheme of housing. I need hardly say that there is no one who is more vitally interested in the matter than myself, because the inevitable result, if such a rise in prices took place, would be the slowing down, if not the wrecking, of the housing programme for which I shall be responsible. On the other hand, I do not want the public to be unnecessarily alarmed. It is quite a mistake to suppose that a combination must necessarily be a combination of swindlers.


Only when they swindle.


It is not necessary to suppose that a trade combination means always an increase in prices. The proper objects of a trade combination are to prevent what is known as cutthroat competition, which is not good either for employers or employed, but wastes and dissipates the resources of firms, and prevents them from spending the money that they ought to spend in keeping their plant and equipment up to date, and generally means a deterioration of the industry and the lowering of the wages of those employed in it. It is quite possible for a combination, if it has a real hold on the trade, to abuse its position and to raise prices unduly. I think it is very necessary that we should have correct information as to what is going on, so that the public may have some authoritative pronouncement as to what, exactly, prices me. I have noticed a number of statements in the Press and elsewhere, and I have just listened to some statements about prices, which are not altogether accurate, and in some respects are misleading to the public, though not intentionally, of course. That shows the necessity for an authoritative pronouncement on the subject. Take the case of cement. An hon. Member spoke as though there had been the wildest profiteering in cement during the War. The Committee under the Profiteering Act, which investigated the subject, reported that the cement industry in this country had generally not been financially prosperous, but improved organisation and plant, together with the increased price recently obtained for exported cement, had improved the financial position of the industry, without, however, increasing the price of cement in this country to an unreasonable extent. That was the Committee's Report.


Negotiations are at present, being entered into by American building companies, in view of the probable boom in building in America during the coming summer, in order to obtain a controlling interest in the largest cement combine in this country. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of that fact.? It may have a curious effect on the prices of cement for building in this country.


That has nothing to do with what I was saying. Let us consider what is the case to-day, and whether it is a fact that shameless profiteering is going on to-day with the very materials with which we are concerned. I do not think, as far as I have been able to ascertain the facts, that it can be said that a shameless profiteering is going on. At the meeting to which the hon. Member referred, the price of cement was stated to be 130 per cent. above what it was before the War. There was a statement the other day by another authority in the Press, that to-day the price of cement was 57 per cent. above what it was before the War. Which are we to take?


I am not taking statements in the Press.


I am taking the statement in the "Daily Herald." In this case it happens to be correct. It may be quite true to say, as the hon. Member says, that the price of certain bricks is 127 per cent. above what it was before the War, but those are not the bricks which are used in the construction of the houses of the type we are considering. The bricks which are used in the houses which we are considering are only 62 per cent. above pre-war prices. Again, the hon. Member compared these prices—which, I pointed out, are not correct—with the increase in the wages of the operatives in the building trade, but again, he was not correct in his statement there. He left out of account the fact that the hours of the men have been reduced. If you take the hourly wage of the men, and compare that with their pre-War wages, it is not 68 per cent. but it is 97 per cent. increase. The average increase in the price of building materials, such as are used in building these small cottages, is to-day, as far as I can make out, about 70 per cent. more than it was before the War; and, whatever measure you take, whether you compare that with the prices of other commodities in general use, whether you compare it with the cost of living, whether you compare it with wages being paid in the building trade, I cannot think it can he said that those prices show anything in the nature of shameless profiteering. I say that because I think it is so necessary really to establish the facts.

The Committee I am proposing to set up has, its first function, constantly to survey prices, and to keep the Government and the public informed exactly as to what the course of those prices is. It has been frequently said, and I think very truly said, that there is nothing which is so potent as public opinion in its effect upon the action of industry. Every time there is a trade dispute, public opinion as the rights or wrongs of the case immediately influences those who are engaged in it.


Not a syndicate.


You will find even the most powerful syndicates and combinations are subject to this potent influence of public opinion, and I believe that that alone will have a great effect upon getting down prices to a reasonable level.


It did not do it during the War.


If it does not, then we shall have to consider what further steps are necessary. We are not prepared to allow this money, which the Government is going to give towards the erection of these houses, to be diverted from its proper purpose in order to make profits for rings. That we are quite determined about. As to preparing a list of what we consider fair prices, I would not like to commit myself to that course to-day. It would obviously have its dangers. If you make a mistake, and fixed the price too high, you might he doing exactly the opposite to what you wanted to do. I would not like to commit myself to such a course as that. I repeat the statement I have made, that we mean to see to-day that we are not robbed in this matter, and I think hon. Members will do well to be content with that statement and see what this Committee will do for them.


I intervene in this Debate only because in the constituency I represent the housing problem is a very deplorable one and because of the lesson I learned about the uselessness of locking the stable door after the horse is stolen. It seems to me that the appointment of this Committee will only lead to a position in which, after damage has been done and after our people have been denied the houses they ought to have, only then the Government will be able to deal with the situation. I am quite confident that the Committee the right hon. Gentleman has referred to will only be useful if it has power to interfere with the operation of the trusts. He suggested that public opinion would be sufficiently strong and would operate in so powerful a manner that these people in the trusts will be afraid to pursue their policy. He spoke somewhat bitterly, I think, about the suggestions of the hon. Member who spoke about the shameless profiteering of those people in the past. He suggested there was no shameless profiteering, but, in a few sentences before that, he himself referred to the tremendous rise in prices in the past and said that a similar rise in prices would have the effect of spoiling his scheme altogether. I suggest that it is obvious from the past that unless the Government are prepared to do something more than set up this Committee that we are going to have this housing scheme absolutely spoiled, and for those of us on these benches it will be a very sorry matter if this new housing scheme is to meet with a similar measure of failure which befell the last scheme.

It is all very well to say that some time after we have seen the operations of these trusts, after we have seen the housing scheme practically destroyed by these rings that you will consider then the course of action you will pursue—but it will mean another long spell during which practically no houses will be built. That will involve ever so much suffering among our people; it will involve loss of life among the children of the working class. Hon. Members know that housing conditions to-day are such that until a specific improvement is brought about the lives of children of the working class are being destroyed as a result of those conditions. If the housing scheme which is to he launched by the right hon. Gentleman does not meet with success because of a tremendous "drive" in prices such as happened formerly it means that the children of our class are going to suffer. We are anxious to impress this fact on the Minister in the hope that the will see to it that adequate powers are provided in connection with this scheme to deal with any system of trusts.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests that public opinion will be a sufficient factor in the matter. I am not so sure about the influence of public opinion. There was a public opinion in this country which do Oared that every facility must be given for the production of munitions in order that the soldiers should have every chance on the battlefield. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear."] That public opinion, however, did not mean that the munition factories of this country produced the material at prices at which they should have produced it, and the National Factories had to he called into being to deal with the situation. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Trade Unions."] I do not hear any applause from hon. Gentlemen opposite with regard to the second part of my statement. When the nation was in peril, when there was a tremendous crisis in the fortunes of our country, then the rings were ready to seize their opportunity and we had to call into being a national organisation to deal with the situation. I suggest that to the great mass of the people concerned, to those men who were responsible for winning the War—[An HON. MEMBER: No class won the War "]—to the men of the working class, this is a crisis just as important as the great World War when the Germans were supposed to be the enemies of the human race. [HON. MEMBERS: "So they were."] I do not wish to enter into a discussion as to whether the Germans were the enemies of the human race or not, in view of the possibilities of the future when, I have no doubt, many hon. Gentlemen opposite will be telling us about their good qualities if they become allies of ours. I wish to impress upon the House that this crisis in connection with housing is a crisis of great importance to those men of the working class who fought the country's battles in the trenches and because it is such an important problem for them, I am not prepared to see another housing scheme come to futility as the last scheme did, because no provision was shown by the Ministry. Public opinion cannot do a great deal and when public opinion is manufactured in a Press subsidised in the interests of these rings, then that public opinion is one in which I have not great faith. It is the business of the Government to see that this time there is going to be no mistake made. The Minister himself has said that this tremendous drive in prices took place in the past. An hon. Member on this side called it shameless profiteering. I will not quarrel about the name, but the fact is that it was there. There was the public opinion then, and it was not successful in stopping the drive in prices, and you have got as a Government to take the powers to see that there will he no drive again, that the scheme will not be wrecked at the beginning, and that the money will really go to provide houses for the people. I believe that, just as the former prices called into being great national factories, factories which produced the shells at a price which showed how exorbitant the former prices were, so in this crisis, which affects the lives of working men and women, it is no less necessary for the Government to call into being national factories to deal with the situation.

We have had our experience during the War, and I do not think there is any hon. Member of this House who will call in question the fact that uniforms were provided for our soldiers during the War at a price at which they could not have been provided under the ordinary operations of private enterprise, but which were possible only because of the Government control of the wool. This matter of houses is just as important as providing uniforms for soldiers. It is providing for houses for the soldiers who are now home after having fought their battles, and it is not good enough simply to tell us that some time in the future this Committee may make a Report, and tell the public that those people who drove so furiously in the matter of prices in the past are driving furiously again. We have got to get those houses this time, and we on these benches are determined that we are going to spare no effort in compelling the Government to deal with this question in a satisfactory way. I am confident that if those national factories were called into being they would smash the power of these rings, and they would smash the possibility of shameless driving by these rings, and it would be possible to save a great amount of money which might be spent in providing better houses, so that even a working man might get a parlour in his house. I was surprised to-day at. Question time at what was said about the kind of houses that were to be built, and I wondered if the Minister of Health, when he was speaking on this matter, had not, a parlour in his own house. What is good enough for him is not too good for any of my constituents in Camlachie. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear! "] I am quite confident that the general approval with which that statement has been met will be considered by the right hon. Gentleman and may result in those parlours being provided in connection with these housing schemes. Anyhow, we have to get the control of those people who made this rise in prices in the past. We have got to have the powers right from the beginning of this housing scheme for dealing with these people, and I believe the only satisfactory method is that of providing great national factories. There are all those factories that were used during the War for the provision of munitions. Those factories, in many cases—


I must point out to the hon. Member that he has said the same thing four times.


I am sorry, but I feel very deeply on this matter. Because of the character of the constituency I represent, because every week children in that Constituency are dying owing to the wretched housing conditions, I have been trying to impress it upon the Minister so that there may be no mistake this time. Those lives are valuable lives, and, in view of past history, and the strong representations that have been made to the Minister will surely reconsider this whole question. I would point out to him that in America there were great trusts, and the Americans tried to deal with those trusts by force of a great public opinion, but legislation was necessary to deal with the operations of the trusts in America, and I do not believe that our American brothers are so much worse, morally and spiritually, than ourselves, that legislation should be necessary in their case and not necessary in our own case. It was said by an American statesman that if you do not control the trusts, the trusts will control you; that if you do not strangle the trusts, the trusts will strangle you. If we do not control the building trust, that trust will strangle the Ministry of Health, and will also add to the misery and ill-health of many of my people. Therefore, I make my protest to-night against this feckless Committee being allowed to be set up and I would ask the Minister to give us a real Committee with powers to deal with the whole situation.


I only rise in order to put one question to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, and that is to ask him as to his attitude with regard to the recent manifesto issued by the Federation of British Industries, which, I think, recommended that it should be laid down that local authorities in buying materials should confine themselves to materials which are produced in this country, because I do feel that if the recommendation is going to receive the countenance of the Government, it will inevitably lead to the strengthening of these great trusts to which hon. Members on my right have referred. I do think it should he taken into consideration by the Government, that in connection with all supplies of building material or any supplies needed by local authorities, there should be no restriction or recommendation of That kind laid down upon the local authorities in this country.


I must say that I am grievously disappointed at the policy laid down by the Minister on this important and urgent matter. His policy is to wait until the evil has developed itself before he proposes to take any steps to deal with it. On three occasions to-day we have had Ministers explaining that the general theory of the Government in dealing with any problem that contains a little difficulty is to postpone the grappling with it until it is too late seriously to get hold of it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Ministers of Agriculture and Health have told us that the moment will arrive when they may usefully intervene in relation to their respective problems. This may be something, but it is not statesmanship. It is not government. It is what is called in the case of the private individual shiftlessness — refusing to shoulder your responsibility. A man in ordinary social life who does not tackle in a manly sort of way the problems of life is not regarded as of any account by his friends. If that be so in ordinary life, can the Ministry of Health expect us, who are not its friends, to approve their policy of shiftlessness?

The right hon. Gentleman told us—and I was interested in this—that the objection to publishing a standard list of prices was that the Ministry or Department might make a mistake. That is a valuable admission for us, because up to date, whatever objection we have lodged against them, we have never yet suggested that it was possible for them to make a mistake! To make a list of prices is one of the commonplace tasks of the business man. The smallest shopkeeper does it. The shopkeeper selling sweets to small children has to calculate the prices and profits, and sell accordingly. We are asking you as business men to put down the price of the materials required in the building of a house, and the Minister expects us to accept as a good reason for not doing it the suggestion that his Department might make a mistake! Surely we have got sufficient experts in the service of the nation to be able to fix the price of bricks, cement, slates, and the various other articles that enter into the construction of a house? All of us on this side—I am saying this publicly, although, perhaps, it is injudicious—really expected that, when the present occupant of the office was appointed Minister of Health, it would mean something more effective, so far as that could be expected having regard to his associates. [Interruption.] Some of my colleagues assure me that they expected nothing, but I know that some others believed that the appointment of the right hon. Gentleman, with his family traditions and experience of one kind and another, and his intimate knowledge of a town which has its fair share of slums—we hoped that the combination of all these circumstances would lead to something really effective being clone in the matter of housing; and now he tells us he is afraid to publish a price-list. He is going to wait for the moment, and he does not know, any more than the Minister of Agriculture knows, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer knows, when that moment will arrive, or if it will ever arrive. They are all Wilkins Micawbers waiting for something to turn up. Probably nothing will turn up, and I have the idea that they are hoping nothing will turn up, and that they will be allowed to postpone the clay of doing anything effective until, perhaps. they are swept out of office altogether, and someone else will shoulder the responsibility. This problem has been waiting in the City of Glasgow for 100 years, and presumably it will be the policy of the Government to let it wait another 100 years.


We shall all be dead before then.


We shall. That is what you are hoping for. You are hoping that the grave will release you from your responsibilities.


Why do not they do it themselves in Glasgow?


In the serious attempt we have made, we have been handicapped by regulations laid down in this House, and in the City of Glasgow we are handicapped by the fact of the, land being privately owned by a gang of robbers. That is why we come here. If we could have solved our problems in Glasgow, we need never have left it. These local problems can only be tackled if you have sufficient power behind you. We have been waiting in Glasgow for 100 years. [Interruption.] I think it is not in order for hon. Members to interject interruptions that I cannot hear. I think it is a small measure of courtesy for the House to extend to us that every interruption should be audible. The large proportion of my constituents live in houses of one and two apartments, in which they have to live their lives, in which the children are born, and the old people die. They live their lives there; they die there. [A laugh.] If you think that is a subject for jest, God help you! It is only the rules of the House that keep me from saying something more.


You could not raise dogs in the houses our people have to live in.


These people are as good people in every way as hon. Members on the other side or on this side. They are the same type of human beings as we are, many of them with greater abilities than some of us who are here, and many of them more truly Nature's gentlemen than some of us who are here; and yet they are being kept under conditions which destroy all the possibilities of a good and a happy life. You are sent here by some constituencies, God knows where, to contribute your quota to the management of this nation. You can only sit like a fool in the face of the discussion of this problem and make interruptions which only require the intelligence of a parrot. To have a problem of this sort pushed aside by the trivial excuse of the Minister is, to me, a maddening thing. It indicates to us that there is no real genuine earnestness on the other side of the House. Taking into account all they have said about sympathy, there is no real genuine intention of tackling this great big problem which one would think was not only demanded by rational considerations, but one would think the meanest commercial considerations. You would imagine that even a petty consideration such as the desire to get a body of working men and women who would be physically and mentally fit to play their part in the commercial and industrial life of the nation would be sufficient to compel earnest effort.

We are told there is to be no earnest effort and no application of the organised intelligence of the Government until such time as the evils have arisen. With the publication of a list in advance every man who is going to build a house would know when he started out exactly what it was going to cost. That is one of the things that prevent houses being built just now by private enterprise. A man may say to himself, "I will build a house if it costs me £600, but by the time I have my plans drawn and have taken over my fen, as we do in Scotland, by the time I have, planned out what I am going to do the commercial rings, seeing that I and others are anxious to build houses, jump the prices of the commodities required and cannot possibly build at that price." If you can let them know in advance and tell the people who are anxious to build that over a certain period of time the prices will prevail and will not be allowed to be increased on any consideration you will create a feeling of security amongst the prospective builders that during the time of their operations they will not be subjected to unfair profiteering. I suggest that in the interest of your own reputations, if that is a consideration—it is not?—in the interest of the reputation of the Government of which you are a Member, might I say even in the interest of the political party to which I think you belong, and, above all, in the interests of the country, you should make a special effort to solve this problem. One would imagine that the meanest commercial considerations, apart from humanitarian considerations, would be sufficient to compel an earnest effort by the Government to deal with the question.