HC Deb 21 February 1924 vol 169 cc2102-14

Again considered in Committee.

[Mr. BOBERT YOUNG in the Chair.]

Question again proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of. payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1924, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Scottish Board of Health, including Grants and other Expenses in connection with Housing, Grants to Local Authorities, etc., sundry Contributions and Grants in respect of Benefits and Expenses of Administration under the National Health Insurance Acts, 1911 to 1922, certain Grants-in-Aid, and certain Special Services arising out of the War.


I was saying I hoped we, should get this Supplementary Estimate with less discussion than we had on the last. I do not grumble at it, but there was a considerable amount of irrelevant discussion. Irrelevant discussion provides a temptation for a reply, but I am going to refrain as I am too anxious to get my Estimate through.


The Secretary for Scotland has made a very short statement and I do not think he has made it quite clear that this is the first occasion on which we are asked to vote Supply for the housing scheme of 1923. I am very much disappointed at the small sum the right hon. Gentleman is asking. It means that although housing conditions in Scotland are very much worse than in England, there is less being done in Scotland to remedy the evil. I listened yesterday to the speech of the Minister of Health for England with feelings of envy because be stated that they had to-day under this Act 22,600 houses under construction and 4,600 houses completed. What does the Secretary for Scotland tell us the progress has been in that country? He says there are 641 houses under construction and 18 houses completed.


I hope the hon. Member will remember who is responsible.


It is a confession that the Act of 1923 has been a complete failure in Scotland. My right hon. Friend, I think, ought to tell us what is the reason for this failure of the Act in Scotland, even compared with what is being done in England. I should like him to tell us whether it is due to the inadequate financial provisions of the Act or to the shortage of labour. I believe the financial provisions are quite inadequate, so far, at least, as Scotland is concerned. The reason for that is that it is an Act dealing with England, Wales and Scotland, and that Scotland was treated merely as an English province without any regard to the merits of the case or to her needs, so much so that this grant of £6 per house was pointed out at the time to be quite inadequate, and the then Secretary for Scotland pressed for a larger sum for Scotland because of the higher cost of building. The Cabinet threw over the Secretary for Scotland, and there is no doubt that, with the present grant of £6 per house, building in Scotland cannot proceed, and it is very disappointing when we are told that we only require £600 for expenditure on housing under this Act which was passed in June last. The Royal Commission for Housing, in its Report, stated that 235,000 houses were required for Scotland if the standard was raised, and that the minimum required was 114,000. When the local authorities were asked to state the needs of their several localities in 1917, they gave the need as 115,000. Here we are told that under the Act, since June, 1923, only 18 houses have been built, and 641 are under construction. It is a travesty of housing policy, and I ask the Secretary for Scotland to consider whether, pending the submission of the Government's scheme for housing, which we have been promised, something cannot be done to accelerate the building of houses in Scotland. Under the Act of 1919, which was a Scottish Act, we provided for one-fourth of the needs as stated by the local authorities, and we would have done more had it not been for the financial provisions of that Act, which broke down under the strain. Notwithstanding that, we provided for one-fourth of the houses stated to be needed. I would ask the Secretary for Scotland whether he can get a supplementary grant from the Exchequer to make good the difference between the cost of building in Scotland as compared with England. Unless he can do that, we are at a deadlock in Scotland in regard to house building, as he must realise.

I would like him also to tell us how far the failure of this Act in Scotland is due to the shortage of labour. I received a return at Question Time to-day, showing the number of men in the building trade employed in Scotland at the present time. In 1913 there were 120,000 men in the building trades employed in Scotland; to-day there are 65,000. In 1913, when money was cheap, labour abundant and materials cheap, the largest number of houses of this class that were built in Scotland in any one year was 12,000 odd, when we had that great reservoir of building labour, and to-day we have employed under the local authority housing schemes of the Act of 1923, only 345 men, and 34 apprentices. That is the figure given in the official return which I have obtained from the Scottish Office. What is the Secretary for Scotland going to do in this matter? In January, 1922, there were employed on local authority housing schemes in Scotland 11,000 men and apprentices. For the month of January this year, according to the returns supplied by the Scottish Office, including the houses still being built under the Act of 1919, the total number of workmen employed on housing schemes in Scotland was 4,000 odd. Therefore. 7,000 fewer men are engaged in house building in Scotland today than in January, 1922 I commend that fact to the right hon. Gentleman, and I ask him what provision is being made by his Department to accelerate house building by getting a larger number of the 65,000 men on to his housing schemes. There are only 4,000 of the 65,000 at present employed on the housing schemes of the Government.

When my right hon. Friend considers the housing schemes of the Government, I would ask him to insist that Scotland should have a separate Housing Act of its own, conforming to the conditions obtaining in that country, financial and otherwise. I would also like to assure him that this is not a party question. The three parties, I think. are equally sincere in desiring to do everything they can to get rid of this great scandal, and I can assure him that as far as Scottish Members are concerned he will find them supporting him on every possible occasion. I want to utter one word of warning, and that is, that nothing is to be gained by making speeches in the country and holding up impossible millions of money and impossible millions of houses before the eyes of those people who are suffering all the horrors of overcrowding. We must have a practical scheme and if the right hon. Gentleman and the Government will bring forward a scheme on reasonable lines, however bold, they will have the support of the House.


I agree with the hon. Member who has just sat down, that, at first sight, this Estimate appears rather disappointing, though from another point of view I admit that, coming here as a new Member weighed down with the sense of responsibility in having to vote on Estimates that may amount to millions of public money, it is something of a relief to be asked to pass an Estimate that does not exceed a sum of £10. Otherwise, it is a little disappointing, at first sight, to find that the sum that has been spent under this Act is not greater than the amount mentioned in the Estimate. But I believe that local authorities in Scotland did not receive notice of their powers under the provisions of the Act until the autumn of last year was well advanced. I do not think the circular reached the local authority in my county until just before the recent General Election. We have had a winter of considerable severity, and, knowing the weather that has prevailed in Scotland during the last few months, I am pleased that any houses have been completed, or may be regarded as likely to be completed, by the 31st March of this year. I look upon this only as an instalment of what I feel sure will come.

One hundred houses completed is a very small number, but one satisfactory feature is that they have been built by private enterprise. I have heard it stated in debate here, that the houses built by private enterprise are not very much use in solving the problem of working-class houses, because they are houses that are meant to be sold. However, I know that there are many people in addition to the people who may be described as wage earners, who are very much in need of houses, and who are doing important public service, such as educational work. Many of these people can be helped by the houses provided by private enterprise. I know of cases of headmasters, for instance, who, where there has been housing shortage, have been prepared to buy houses, and have done so, and I hope that other people will be prepared to take advantage of the houses that are built by private enterprise. The last speaker mentioned that the grants were inadequate under the Act. If there be any complaint on that score as to the inadequacy of the grants, I think it must be more on account of the grants for houses built by private enterprise, than in regard to the grants to local authorities. Therefore, I consider it is satisfactory that, in a short space of time, and in spite of unfavourable weather conditions, 100 houses have been built by private enterprise, and one can only regard this as a very small instalment of what one hopes is going to come.

I wish to make it clear that, though I have not the first hand knowledge of urban housing that is possessed by hon. Members who sit for urban constituencies, I know from my own experience in the rural districts what need there is there for more houses. Though I know that houses are needed by all sections of the community. I specially realise the shortage of suitable houses in rural districts for district nurses and teachers. In the last few years I have felt sometimes rather desperate on account of the scarcity of suitable houses for these valuable classes of persons. Very often it seemed as if it was hopeless to start a district nursing association, because no suitable house could be found for the district nurse, or even suitable lodgings. Very frequently I have felt as though education in the rural districts of Scotland was mainly dependent on the question whether suitable lodgings could be found, not for the head teacher, because usually a house is provided for the head teacher, but for the young assistant teacher. Therefore, I hope that the provision we are asked to make to-day is but a very small instalment of what the House will be asked to pass later on under the Act of 1923.

This housing question is fundamental and vital, and affects all classes in the community. I recognise that in Scotland we labour under rather special difficulties, because prices appear to be many parts of Scotland than in districts further South. My mouth has often been made to water by what I have read as to the prices at which houses can be erected in England, or even in the Lowlands or more central parts of Scotland. In the county with which I am connected we do not seem to be able to compete with the prices which are recognised as standard prices by the Board of Health. I think it is a matter of common knowledge that there is a great shortage of labour. I believe that everywhere there has been a great decrease in the number of persons admitted into the building trades. I believe that that has been the case in provincial towns, and no doubt it is the case of most of the Scottish towns. I hope that the Secretary of Scotland will be able to remedy this defect and arrive at an agreement with the building trades by which boys can be apprenticed to these trades, which are so essential to the well-being of the community.


I wish to congratulate the Noble Lady on her eloquent speech. I would also suggest that the hardship which she has described as existing among the teaching profession is in the hands of the education authorities themselves, and if they wish to do so they can remove it. The Noble Lady stated that headmasters could get a house, but that there was difficulty in the case of an assistant teacher.


I said that a house was usually provided for the headmaster but was not provided for assistant teachers.


I accept that statement, but the education authority can make provision if they so desire; but I wish to agree with the Noble Lady and the hon. Member for Stirling Burghs (Sir G. McCrae) that the 1923 Act, about which we heard so much from the last Government, has been a failure. The Conservative mountain in labour has brought forth a mouse. Prior to the dissolution, both the Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade, I think, boasted about 100,000 houses that had been provided last year. Now we have complaint from hon. Members on the other side about the work of this Government. My hon. Friends have been in office about a month, and are finishing up the inheritance left them by the Conservative Government. We expect something more in the way of housing from them than a paltry £10 to assist our programme.

The remarks which I am going to make relate mainly to the hon. Member for Stirling Burghs. I remember that under the Addison scheme we had a big programme of houses, and we tried to get through with it as well as we could in Scotland. It is true, as the hon. Member says, that we were 135,000 houses short, according to the Royal Commission. Schemes were put forward for a large number of houses. I think we got 14,000 houses out of the total put forward. Ultimately it will be about 24,000. If there is one man in Scotland mainly responsible for our failure, it is the hon. Member for Stirling Burghs. He was Chairman of the Scottish Board of Health, and he put all possible difficulties in the way of us who were anxious to get on with building. In one case they objected to a site because we were paying too little for it. In another case they objected to a building site because we were paying too much for it. In another case we sent up the plans, and they lay there for a month, and the Board then sent back word that the height of the houses exceeded the standard. We sent the plans back again, and after another delay they discovered that the door was not in the right place. For deliberate obstruction there is nothing to compare with this Scottish Board of Health under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Stirling Burghs.

Then the hon. Member has referred to the scarcity of material and labour. We have that scarcity. Scotland is a stone country, and the buildings are mainly of stone, but the Government insisted that we should build with brick, and we had to get the brick from England. If we in Scotland had been treated under the last Government is a province of England, we should have been much better off than during the hon. Gentleman's tenure of office. Then, because we could not get the bricks, some public authorities wanted brickworks. I was a member of the Lanark County Council at the time, and I know the difficulties which we had when we wanted to buy brickworks, and how we were obstructed by this Scottish Board of Health. The same thing applied to the City of Glasgow. There were two public authorities, really anxious to do something, who were held back. Hon. Members on the other side know that, when you apply the Education grant, Scotland gets eleven- eightieths of the total, and this principle should be equally good with regard to housing.

Our needs for houses are greater than England and Wales. Through the action of the Scottish Board of Health, Scotland is in a worse condition as regards houses than any other part of the Empire. We lost £1,100,000 of our proportion as compared with England and Wales mainly because of the action of the hon. Member for Stirling Burghs, and then when he comes to the House of Commons he wants to find fault with the Labour Government which is taking over the heritage left them by the Government Supported by Her Grace of Atholl. We have heard the statement that every section of the community has a housing problem. There is one section which has no housing problem. Its problem is to know which houses to live in. Its members have more houses and more rooms than they have children. Then there is another section, the middle classes, who are to be provided for by private enterprise. We do not object to that, but private enterprise will only produce what they complain about, a hundred houses under last year's scheme. I have a great amount of sympathy with the long-suffering middle classes. They have been too respectable to become attached to labour, and I hope that they will add to that sympathy and support which we are getting from Her Grace of Atholl. Then we have the great working classes. Her Grace referred to—


I must remind the hon. Member that it is the habit of hon. Members to use the expression, "the Noble Lady," or "the hon. Member for Kinross."


I am sure, that the Noble Lady will agree that I had no intention of slighting her, because I have much hope of lady Members who come to this House. I think that they will be more helpful on these important questions than the men have proved to be in the past, even supposing that they sit on that side of the House. I think that they deal with those questions in a different way. But our great community that produce the wealth anti build the houses have a housing problem. You have them herded together, sometimes having three families in one house. I have heard of one ease of a house occupied by three families, and the only division was a chalk mark on the floor. That sort of thing still exists in Mid-Lanark, and when we tried to remedy it as a public authority we were kept back by the Scottish Board of Health. Unless we can get an improved body—and I wish to congratulate the Secretary for Scotland (Mr. Adamson) on being in charge —then I as a Scottish Member will ask this House to abolish that body altogether, for we should have got on much better by coming here to the English House of Commons, and pleading our wants than we got on with the men who managed the Scottish Board of Health. I. hope that the House will pass this Vote and live in hope that when the Labour party put forward their policy there will be no complaint, at any rate, as to the amount of money which we want to provide houses for the people.


The hon. Member who has just sat down said truly that it would be unfair to judge the Government from its term of office which amounts to no more than a few days, but it cannot be described as fair to judge an Act of Parliament which has not had time to fructify and become effective. The hon. Member for Stirling Burghs expressed the view that the Act of 1923 had been a failure, but he knows as well as I do that the building resources of Scotland are still engaged in carrying out the 1919 programme.


And in England also.


If that be so it is idle to call an Act which passed so recently in these conditions a failure. I agree thoroughly wit h what has been said that this is not a party question. All three parties are united in the desire to do what they can to remedy the existing situation. We admit the evil, but it is no good when you are up against hard concrete facts, as to the difficulties of labour and material, to brush them aside and to demand the impossible. Though conditions are very bad, Scotland, according to my information, has a larger amount of work proceeding than in England under the slum clearing provisions of the 1923 Act. As my hon. Friend knows, most of the large local authorities in Scotland are full up with Addison schemes, and I can only point out that an extension of a year was granted for the completion of the Addi- son scheme, and this too helped to keep the 1923 applications low.

The hon. Member for Stirling Burghs gave us some figures as to what was the available labour in the building trade in Scotland in 1913 and what it is to-day. It is to-day about half of what it was then. That is a difficulty which up to the present has not been swept away. He also pointed out that, at that time when labour was abundant and materials were cheap and abundant, what was provided was some 12,000 houses in one year. We are now faced with a situation in which we have only half the labour available, and we have great difficulty with material, as the hon. Member knows from practical experience in filling a very difficult post. The hon. Member for Mid-Lanark (Mr. Sullivan) criticised the Scottish Board of Health, but the Board of Health had to deal with a very difficult situation. Criticism is always easier than constructive action. That is noticeably so when you are up against a great popular demand like this. No one can deny that everybody is anxious to do what they can to improve housing conditions in Scotland. Anyone who has any patriotic feeling must strongly hold to that view, and do what he can to help towards that end, but the criticism that neglects difficulties and fails to face them is not helpful. My hon. Friend (Sir G. McCrae) had experience of the difficulties of the years after 1919. He was then one of the permanent officials at the Board of Health, and he knows very well what the difficulties are that have to be faced. No one can say that up to date a large number of houses have been constructed under the Act, but I think, giving the House the best information, that I, as a private Member, can obtain, there are very good reasons for the small number that have been forthcoming up to date. We hope there will be a great acceleration in the future, and I earnestly trust that means may be found of solving the labour difficulty and getting into the building trades in Scotland a number of people adequate to deal with the problem. Though the number of houses built is small it is quite unfair to describe the Act as a failure. I think one could have expected a more charitable criticism on questions of housing difficulties from one who was so closely associated with this problem during critical years.

8.0 P.M.

It often appears to the public that a Department is slow in moving, and sometimes it may be so. But he knows that there are sometimes very good grounds for the Department's action. I would have expected more charitable criticism of an Act which has been such a short time on the Statute Book and which is helping so considerably to the solution of this problem. Any Government that attempts to solve this problem will always be sure of the support of all parties in this House. This is a problem that besets both towns and rural districts. It is peculiarly acute and has most distressing results in the larger cities of Scotland. There is also a problem in the rural districts, to which the Noble Lady the Member of West Perthshire (Duchess of Atholl) has just alluded. I only rose to speak in this Debate because I think the Act of the Government of which I was a member has been attacked on insufficient information and without any very great knowledge of the circumstances, and I think, if the facts are looked at, it will be found that such criticism of this Act after it has been such a short time in existence is very futile and not very helpful.


Before the Minister replies, may I ask him what is being done at the present time and what is going to be done until we have a new housing Act coming into operation? That is what we are really most concerned about. When we come to deal with the Housing Act, we will have a great deal to say of its failures in the past, and as to its bearing on the future. I agree that it is a very poor Act, and I and others said so throughout the whole of the discussion on the Bill. I would like to know what is the programme in regard to houses that are to be built and contracted for. Do you mean to lose the summer season which is of vital consequence for building purposes?


In answer to the hon. Member for Forfarshire (Mr. Falconer), as to what the Government is doing. I will point out that the Government has not had an opportunity of doing very much yet. I would say to him that under the 1923 Act 941 houses have had their plans approved, 641 are in course of erection, and 18 have been erected and are finished at the moment. We anticipate that by the end of March, 100 will have been dealt with under private enterprise, but under the 1923 Act 1,500 houses have had their plans approved and are to be carried out by public authorities. We cannot at the moment accelerate them more than we are doing. So far as the Board of Health is concerned, we will consider and deal with schemes as rapidly as that can be done. While I consider that in the past the Government have been criminally responsible for the small number of houses built, it is not the Scottish Board of Health that is to blame. The greater men behind them sheltered themselves behind the Board of Health and put it forward as an excuse for themselves, while protesting that they were carrying on to the best of their ability. Of course, we knew these men were telling what is not true. My hon. Friend the Member for the Division of Lanarkshire (Mr. Sullivan) has made that quite apparent. May I say, in reply to the Noble Lady (Duchess of Atholl), that I am rather surprised to learn that the Act of 1923, which became law in July, was not brought to the notice of any local authority in the rural districts until the later part of the autumn. Surely there is someone to blame for that.


May I suggest that the authorities do not hold meetings in the early autumn.


That explains it, and therefore it was not the fault of the Board of Health, but the slackness of the local authorities. But all this is a matter of the past. We are proceeding with housing under this Act as rapidly and as well as we can. There is dissatisfaction all over the country with the Act. It has not stimulated the local authorities to go on with schemes. It has not provided houses for the working classes or members of the lower grade professions, such as school teachers. The houses built by private enterprise under this Act are built by the speculative builder, not to let, but to sell. As this Vote that we are asking is for a very small amount, I am sure the House will willingly agree to it. I can promise that when we come along with our scheme of houses, we shall make proposals which will commend themselves to every Member of the House, proposals which will solve the question, and which will redound to the credit of this country, in dealing with one of the greatest problems it has ever had to deal with.

Question put, and agreed to.

Forward to