HC Deb 21 July 1924 vol 176 cc1043-8

The Minister of Health shall not make it a condition of granting or withholding the contributions to the expenses incurred by the local authorities in the building of houses authorised in Section two that these houses shall be built of any particular material, or by any particular persons or groups of persons, or that the material necessary for such building shall be in any way restricted from purchase in the cheapest market at home or abroad.—[Mr. Masterman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


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

After the dramatic scenes of this evening, I propose to be short and dull. The second is much easier than the first. There are two points in this Amendment. The first is a point which I think the Minister of Health has already accepted, carrying out the intention of the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for East Willesden (Mr. A. Johnstone) earlier in the Debate, that is to make sure that any Minister of Health in the future shall not make it a condition that a trust or combine shall be formed by shutting out foreign competition. The chief reason we consider this necessary is because the report of the Building Materials Committee, when it was submitted to the Ministry of Health, did very definitely advocate the shutting out of this competition, and we should rather prefer that what we desire should be in the Statute than that it should not be done; otherwise we see visions of such trusts and combines completely ruining the building industry.

The second object of the Amendment is to make it quite sure—and I think the Committee will agree with it, because there are Amendments on the Paper with the same object from all parties—that no handicap shall be offered to the provision of houses at any time with new, and perhaps cheaper, materials than those at present employed. To start with, I think it is exceedingly necessary in connection, especially with small country rural and city authorities—some of which I know well, but whose names I do not wish to bring out at this stage—[An HON. "Why not?"] I think it is quite likely you may have a vested interest created by the very members of those authorities for building a certain type or kind against any new kind of building which may be better. I am sure the House will not want such an occasion to arise. There are other Amendments practically desiring to carry out the same idea to be moved, I think, by the Noble Lady the Member for Perth and Kinross (Duchess of Atholl), and others. I believe the Minister of Health has a form of words which he is going to submit to the Committee. I think the Committee is unanimous in its desire to carry these two objects. Therefore I will await his reply, for I am not in the least concerned to the words of my Amendment if we can get suitable words from the right hon. Gentleman.


I propose to submit, at. the proper time and place, an alternative Clause, which I hope will cover the points raised in the new Clause now proposed, and also the main points in the new Clauses standing in the names of the Noble Lady the Member for Perth and Kinross (Duchess of Atholl) and the hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton). My proposal will be as follows:

  1. "(1) In approving proposals for the construction of houses under this Act the Minister shall not impose any condition which would prevent the materials required being purchased in the cheapest market at home or abroad or which would require the employment of any particular trade.
  2. "(2) If at any time it is shown to the satisfaction of the Minister that a local authority have, without reasonable cause, refused to adopt a new material or method of construction wit in his opinion would reduce the cost at the house without unduly affecting its durability, suitability or appearance, the Minister may make such deduction from the Amount of the contribution payable by him as in his opinion is reasonable having regard to the amount of the unnecessary expenditure so incurred by the local authority, but for the purpose of Paragraph (e) of Sub-section (1) of Section Three of this Act the expenses of the local authority shall be calculated as if no such deduction had been made."
The effect of these cords is that they ensure freedom to purchase in the cheapest market at home or abroad, to employ any trade or class of people whom they consider suitable for the erection of the houses, and if the Minister of Health be satisfied that the particular form of material will satisfy all the needs of house building, and he informs the local authority to that effect, and if the local authority insist on building by the older and more costly material, then the unnecessary expenditure incurred by the local authority will not rank for subsidy. That is the gist of the Clause I suggest, and I hope it will be accepted.


The proposed new Clause which the Minister has just read out deals with two points. The first has reference to the conditions which might limit the purchase of materials to those produced in this country. I hope that the materials used, as far as possible, will be produced in this country, but it would be going too far to make it a condition that they should be purchased in this country, because that would put the local authorities at the mercy of the trades in this country.

The second part of the Clause deals in some measure with a subject on which I moved an Amendment at an earlier stage of our proceedings. I also was concerned with the possibility that some new method of construction or some new material might be discovered which would enable us to get houses at a very much lower cost than anything we can see to-day. The Minister rejected my Amendment on the ground that it was unnecessary. It was one which would have enabled him to reduce the contribution from the Exchequer in such a case. Now he has got a curious Clause which enables him to reduce his contribution only in the event of the local authority refusing to adopt such a new method of construction or new material. What about the case where the authority does not refuse to accept, but where, on the contrary, the local authority—which is the first to gain by any such new method, because the first result would be to reduce its contribution of £4 10s. per year—what if the local authority come forward with such a proposal? Why in that case should the Exchequer continue to pay the sudsidy at what is an unnecessarily high rate? It seems to me to be a curious sort of idea that the Minister should only exercise this power when the local authority does not do what is in its own interest. While I do not want to delay the Committee by opposing this new Clause, I wish to reserve to myself the right to move an Amendment to it on Report, with a view to giving the Minister the power, which he does not take for himself, of reducing contributions where they prove to be entirely unnecessary.


I should like to be assured that the phrase "cheapest market at home or abroad" will not in any way prevent the usual Fair Wages and Conditions Clause from being included in municipal contracts. Such a clause is imported into the contracts of nine out of every ten municipalities, and it necessarily prevents a municipality from purchasing in the cheapest market. The cheapest market may be a sweated market, and that is precisely the reason why the Fair Wages and Conditions Clause is imported into such contracts. I think that the Committee ought to be assured that the phrase "cheapest market at home or abroad" is only used with the qualification that the Fair Wages Clause is duly observed, and I trust that the new Clause which the Minister is drafting for a further stage of this Bill will make it perfectly clear that the Fair Wages Clause is going to be preserved in municipal contracts, and that encouragement is not to be given to the purchase of sweated commodities either at home or abroad.


As I understand, the Minister is going to move his own Clause, in order that it may he before the House prior to the Report stage, I ask leave to withdraw mine.


The Clause has been rather carefully prepared to deal with the whole case. It is not before the Committee, so I must not argue the particular proposal, but we are now plunging into very deep water. The right hon. Gentleman has promised to introduce the Clause on the Report, stage. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] At any rate the Clause will be the subject of revision and criticism on Report. An hon. Member has put in certain reservations. He claims the Fair Wages Clause. The Fair Wages Clause applies to sheltered industries in this country, and does not apply to the purchase of material which may be in competition with material produced in this country. We are getting into very deep water. The right hon. Gentleman is going to protect the man who erects the building but not the man who produces the material of which the building is constructed. The proposal I suggest for the consideration of the Committee, and which I hope to raise on the Report stage, deals not so much with these controversies between various sections of the working people but deals with the question on much broader lines. Irrespective of any Fair Wages Clause or whether the materials are produced in this country or elsewhere, the Minister should employ the most economical method and construct the houses in the best way he can, having regard to the general convenience and suitability of the houses and to economy. I reserve to myself full liberty to examine and, if necessary, to criticise the Minister's words when we come to the Report stage.


In moving the Amendment, the right hon. Gentleman said certain things to which I take very great exception. He moved it with his usual brilliance and sagacity, but he inferred that other parties in the House seem out to establish trusts and combines. I think I should not be allowed—


Nothing was further from my intention. I said in the Building Materials Report there was a suggestion that there might be a combine by eliminating foreign competition.


I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his explanation, but I think others in his party say publicly that they are against trusts and combines, especially in building materials. I have vivid recollections of it quite recently. There are very few trusts and combines in existence when there are not prominent Members of the party below the gangway at the head of them. I am very pleased to find that some Members from the Clyde are at last coming round to the point of view that the workers who produce the goods for our use should be paid a fair wage. I quite agree that if materials are supplied from abroad the worker should be paid a fair wage, similar to the wage of the worker here. The fair wages Clause should certainly be inserted, especially in so far as foreign goods are concerned.


If this Amendment be. withdrawn, does it mean that the Amend merit in the name of the Noble Lady the. Member for Perth and Kinross (The Duchess of Atholl) is withdrawn also?

Duchess of ATHOLL

I was going to ask if I would be allowed to withdraw if the New Clause specifically covers the ground of my Amendment.


I was assuming that that would meet the general concurrence of the Committee.

Lieut.-Commander BURNEY

I do not think that the Clause that the Minister has read out goes far enough. If persons are considering erecting houses under a new system—


The Committee must realise that the New Clause will come up in its proper place.

Lieut.-Commander BURNEY

When the Clause comes forward I was going to suggest to the Minister that he should try to import into it—


Any Amendment to the Clause can be brought forward when the Clause comes up.

Captain Viscount CURZON

The Clause hinges on the question of whether we are to purchase in the cheapest market at home or abroad. It seems to me if we pass that Clause we are to set up a perfect paradise for profiteers overseas. There seems to me to be nothing in the Clause to prevent any unscrupulous individual who may wish to make large profits for himself and his fellow directors for organising the sources of supply abroad and retailing the material to the municipal authorities here. That is not a very good way of providing work for the British workman, and I am surprised at the attitude of hon. Members opposite on this question. So long as I have a chance of fighting to get work for the British workman, I shall make that fight.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.