§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Neville Chamberlain)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I find myself this afternoon, for the second time, presenting a Rent Restrictions Bill to the House of Commons. With regard to the first Bill that was passed in 1923, I must admit that I had more kicks than halfpence about it. All the same, I am not ashamed of anything in that Bill, and I think when one considers the extraordinary difficulty of the problem with which it set out to deal, it must be admitted its working has been carried on with remarkable smoothness ever since. As to the second Bill, the one which I am asking the House to approve this afternoon, it, is a much more simple affair, but, unambitious as it is, I could hardly expect that hon. Members opposite would lose so good an opportunity of telling the tenants, who are also voters, how completely they are devoted to their interests, and how much more they are prepared to do for them now they are in Opposition than they were when they were in office. And so I am not surprised to find on the Order Paper a number of what are called reasoned Amendments.
I shall say something about those Amendments before I sit down, but, perhaps, it would be convenient if I were to begin by simply stating to the House what is the reason for the present Bill, and why it is cast in this particular form. There are many hon. Members in 'he House who were not here when the previous Rent Restrictions Acts were passed, and, perhaps, therefore, I ought to say that the law which now governs the rents of controlled houses is to be found in the Act of 1920, as amended by the subsequent Act of 1923. The Act of 1920 restricts the increase in rent which the landlord is permitted to charge to 40 per cent. over the standard rent, and restricts 1364 the interest upon mortgages to 1 per cent. over the standard rate of interest, those standards being, approximately, the levels which were in force before the War. The Act also restricts the right of the landlord to recover possession of his house, except under certain specified conditions, and it prevents foreclosure of the mortgage.
The Act of 1923 is divided into two Parts. The first Part prolongs the operation of the principal Act, with a few modifications which were based on the recommendations of the Onslow Committee. It prolonged it for a period of two years, namely, to the 24th June in this country and in Wales, and to the 28th May in Scotland. The second Part of that Act only comes into operation when the first Part expires, and it then provides for a second period of partial control of rents of houses which was to last for five years. Taking the two Parts together, there is provided in the Act of 1923 control of one kind or another lasting for a total period of seven years. I explained, when I was introducing that Bill, that my purpose was, if possible, to pass from a condition of control to a condition when the restrictions would be altogether abolished, so gradually that there would not be any great hardship inflicted upon individuals at the time when the final stages contemplated by the Bill were reached.
The present Bill is devised, in accordance with the pledge given by the Prime Minister at the General Election, to prolong the first part of the Act of 1923—that is to say, the provisions contained in the principal Act of 1920—for another 2½ years. Hon. Members who were in the House when we debated the Bill of 1923 will recollect that the opinion was expressed, in the course of our Debates then, and not in one quarter of the House only, that a period of full control lasting for two years would he insufficient, that the shortage of houses which then existed would not be remedied in so short a time as that, and that, therefore, it would be impossible to bring into operation Part II of the Bill when the first two years had expired. If anyone cares to look up the speech which I made on that occasion, they will find that I did not commit myself to any dogmatic expression of opinion on that point. I thought then, as I think now, that it is desirable that 1365 all these restrictions should be done away with and completely removed at the earliest possible moment, if that can be done without exposing the tenants to undue exploitation by unscrupulous landlords; but I thought then, as I think now, that it is absolutely impossible for anyone to prophesy with certainty when the moment will come at which that operation can safely be carried out. Therefore, I felt that the only practicable method of procedure was to go by short steps, because otherwise we should find ourselves in danger of carrying on these restrictions long after the necessity for them had passed away.
If hon. Members agree with the view I have expressed, namely, that these restrictions are undesirable in themselves and should not be preserved any longer than is absolutely necessary, then I think they will agree with me that that is the wisest course to adopt. Indeed, that is my policy to-day. When I read in the official Amendment that the Billtakes no cognisance of the length of time necessary to overcome the housing shortage,I say that there are no data available for estimating that length of time, and I go on to say that, while I hope that at the. end of the 2½ years contemplated in this Bill the housing conditions will have been so much mitigated that it will be possible to start upon the second five-year period of partial control, yet, if that be not so, this Bill is so drafted that it can be put into the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, and the situation can then be reviewed from year to year, without the necessity of any fresh special legislation. I claim that the method adopted in the original Act, and followed in this Bill, of proceeding by short periods at a time, is far more practical and more business-like than if we were to take an arbitrary period of 10, 15 or 20 years, which would project us so far into the future, and into conditions at which no man can really guess to-day.
As to the form which is taken by the present Bill, it will be seen that it is strictly limited—that it is, in fact, confined to a mere prolongation of the existing Act, without attempting in any respect or in any detail to alter or modify its provisions. That is a course which has not found favour on the benches opposite, and there are in the Amendments on the. Paper a number of suggestions for modification which in the opinion of hon. 1366 Members ought now to be made in the. Rent Restrictions Act. So far as the Amendment which stands in the name of the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) is concerned, which suggests that there should be incorporated in the Bill provisions for prohibiting the demolition of houses or their conversion to other purposes, and for the compulsory hiring of empty houses by local authorities, I would venture to put it to the hon. Member that provisions of that kind really have no place in a Rent Restrictions Bill. If, indeed, they were good suggestions in themselves, they might, I think, properly find a place in a Housing Bill—
Mr. TREVELYAN THOMSON
Then-why is the right hon. Gentleman blocking the Bill which has that for its object?
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
That is a different point. I was saying that if they were justified on their merits they might properly find a place in a Housing Bill, but I was going on to point out to the hon. Member why I did not think they were justified on their merits. I think the probability is that they would do more harm than good. If it really be a fact that some houses have been converted from their original purpose to be turned into offices, or garages, or clubs, there can be only a very small number of them, and I would venture to prophesy that, in the greater number of cases, those houses would not be found to be working-class houses at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, yes!"] I say the greater number of them would not be found to be working-class houses at all, because working-class houses are covered by the Rent Restrictions Acts, and I do not think there can be any cases where houses which are in the occupation of working people have been converted to other purposes, because that is exactly what the Rent Restrictions Act makes it impossible for people to do.
I know, myself, of many cases where manufacturers have bought small house property in the immediate neighbourhood of their works with a view to extension, and what has happened? They have been unable to get the tenants out, and, therefore, have been unable to make the extensions they contemplated, or to give the additional employment which might have been provided by those extensions. 1367 And, worse than that, knowing, as they do know, that in all probability they would convert those houses to the purpose for which they had bought them as soon as the Rent Restrictions Act expires, they have not been very anxious to spend a lot of money in putting those houses into better condition than they are in. In that way, I am afraid that the restrictions of the Act have certainly not benefited people living in houses of that character. Indeed, I know of one case, at any rate—there may be more—in which housing trusts have been prevented from erecting, on the site of now existing working-class houses. houses which would have given accommodation for more people than are now occupying the property in question. They, again, have not been able to carry out their operations on account of the Rent Restrictions Act. These are anomalies which are bound to occur when you introduce artificial conditions of this kind into your organisation, and to my mind they are merely a further reason for the abolition of those restrictions as soon as we can safely carry that out.
As for the suggestion that local authorities should hire empty houses by compulsion, I am bound to say that I see no evidence for the need of any such provision. Of course, at any one moment, there is always a number of houses which are empty as tenants change from house to house, but that does not mean that. they remain empty for long periods, and I would remind the hon. Member that local authorities have now the power of purchasing these houses, in which case, of course, they could let them and use them for the purpose which the hon. Member has in mind. I will ask the House to consider another aspect of this proposal. What is likely to he the effect on new building? There is quite a lot of new building going on now under this sort of arrangement: The builder gets a site, he borrows the money to enable him to erect houses on the site, which he develops, and he then proposes to sell the houses, as they are built, to intending occupiers. Is he likely to go on with a scheme of that character if he knows that, should he fail to sell his houses for three months after they have been completed, the local authority can come in and compulsorily take them from him in order to hire 1368 them? Of course, he could not even get his finance if such a provision as that were in the Bill. That is why, although I fully recognise the purpose which the bon. Member has in mind, and the desirability of making the best use of all the accommodation in the country, I do not think the proposals which he has put forward are really calculated to advance that end.
Now let me turn to the official Amendment. The first suggestion in that Amendment is what amounts to a suggestion that Section 2 of the Act of 1923 should be repealed, Section 2 being the Section which provides that, where the landlord comes into possession of his house, that house shall come out of control. The Amendment speaks of this provision as one under which, in an increasing number of cases, the protection of the tenant is withdrawn. That is not an accurate statement of the provision in question. It cannot come into operation unless the, landlord comes into possession of his house. if the landlord comes into possession of his house there is no tenant, and, therefore, there can be no one from whom protection is withdrawn. I see the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Shettleston (Mr. Wheatley) smiling at this, but I am making a very serious statement and I say that to my mind there is a very great difference between the case of the sitting tenant who might be at. the mercy of a landlord who told him that either he must pay a very much higher rent or get out of the house, and the case of the man who voluntarily comes to the owner of the house and makes the best arrangement he can.
I admit at once that there have been brought to my attention certain cases where the operation of this Section has been abused, either by the demanding of an exorbitant rent or by asking premiums or key money. I was so much concerned at the information which came to me about one or two cases of that kind, that I thought desirable to make careful inquiries generally throughout the country, to see whether the abuse of which I had heard was confined to a few cases, or whether it was in any way widespread or general. I have made inquiries in about a dozen large towns throughout the country, and I have obtained information from responsible persons, from town clerks, health officers, 1369 overseers, registrars of county courts and secretaries of Councils of Social Service, and I have got a great deal of information about what has actually taken place in the case of these decontrolled houses. Of course, the evidence in some towns, certainly in four of the towns in which I made inquiries, indicates that there appear to be no complaints at all. In places there undoubtedly have been some bad eases, but the general result of the inquiries I have made has been to bring me to the conclusion that the evil of which I am speaking is not general, is not widespread, red has not given rise to any particular agitation among the tenants generally, and that on the whole it is tending rather to decrease than to increase.
I think that that is due a good deal to the efforts of the better class of landlords and property owners to bring their weaker brethren to a better sense of their moral duty, and also to some sense of the injury which conduct of this kind is likely to do to the whole class. I find, for instance, that the President of the National Federation of Property Owners, speaking et their annual meeting on the 23rd January last, said:I would, however, offer a word of warning to owners generally against taking undue advantage in the event of decontrol happening to any of their houses under the existing Act. There is nothing which can so hinder general decontrol as making unreasonable demands for higher rents as soon as ever the possibility offers. Personally, I do not believe that decontrol, if it came to-morrow, would lea?. to general large increases of rent. Owners would have regard, as they always have had, to ability to pay, and, as builders in the pass have erected houses to let at rents within the means of prospective tenants, so would they build to-day,I want, if I may, just to remind the House of what was the original purpose of this provision. It was based upon one of the recommendations of the Onslow Committee, and it was designed to check, and if possible put a stop to, a practice which had been very much criticised by hon. Members opposite, namely, the practice of landlords, when they came into possession of their houses, not to let. them but to try to sell them. They found that, in order to sell them, it was necessary that they should give vacant possession, and, therefore, they would not let until they were able to sell; and the result was that you had throughout the 1370 country considerable numbers of houses standing empty. If those houses were allowed to come out of control, it would take away from the landlord that temptation to hold up his house in the hope of effecting a sale with vacant possession. He can let it for a short time if he chooses, and then he can sell it when he gets an offer. I have some evidence to show that that, in fact, has been the actual result of the working of this Section. I have here, for instance, a letter which was written to the. "Times" in February of last year by a surveyor, who says:It is puzzling to those who own property, and to these, like myself, whose business it is to manage town and country estates, to understand why the partial decontrol now allowed should be singled out for abolition, for it is an undoubted fact that this Section of the Act of 1923 has been instrumental in bringing a large number of houses into the market to be let.Here, again, is another letter written in March by a lady:Whatever may be said about rent restriction, it is earnestly to be hoped that the concession to justice and common sense by which an owner is permitted to resume possession of his property on the death or voluntary departure of a tenant may be continued. This concession, made last year, has had a wholly beneficial effect. Hundreds of cottages all over the country have at last been put into thorough repair, and in many cases improved and enlarged after years of compulsory decay.She goes on to give a case of her own, where she has been able, owing to this provision, to improve a cottage and make it into two dwellings, which could be occupied by two families. I hope I have shown the House that, whatever may he the hardships which have undoubtedly been suffered by certain individuals in consequence of the abuse of this provision by landlords, nevertheless, it is a question of the balance of advantages, and there is, at any rate, a good deal to he said in favour of the provision, and in favour of continuing it under the present Bill.
Two other points are raised by the Amendment of the Opposition. One of them concerns the simplication of existing legislation in order to reduce litigation, and the other deals with the question of rent. I shall be very much interested to hear what the Labour party mean by the simplification of legislation in order to reduce legislation. Does it mean a Consolidation Bill? If that is all that it means I do not say it would not be 1371 possible to consolidate the existing Rent Acts if it were thought to be desirable to take up such time of the House as would be necessary in order to consolidate Bills which are themselves only of a temporary character. But perhaps the right hon. Gentleman means that he could express in better language the provisions of the existing Rent Acts. If that be his idea, even if at starting there was a certain amount of doubt about the meaning of certain of these provisions, those doubts must have been pretty well removed by now because every one of them has been raised in the Courts and decided by case made law, and if you are now going to replace the words which have come to be decided in one particular sense by a set of fresh words, however well chosen by the right hon. Gentleman, the only result will he to introduce a fresh crop of litigation in order that a construction may be put in the Courts upon the fresh words that are used. The fact is that there is always a lot of talk by lazy people about the difficulty of understanding Acts of Parliament, but the real fact is that they do not want to take the trouble to apply their minds to what the Acts mean, and the fault is quite as frequently with them as with the draftsmen.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
The hon. Member may apply it to whom he likes.
Now I come to a question with regard to rent increase, which, in the words of the Amendment, is no longer justified by the circumstances of the Bill. I notice that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. Mardy Jones) has put his name to this Amendment, and I do him the justice to say that that has been his attitude about the permitted increase of rent from the earliest days. I remember when the 1923 Act was being debated he was one who protested vigorously against the 40 per cent. which was then permitted, and, indeed, I think there has only been one occasion when the voice of that great champion of the tenants was silent, and that was when his own party brought in a Rent Restrictions Bill, in which there was no mention of any alteration in rents. But I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman the Mem- 1372 ber for Shettleston and the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. A. Greenwood) should have put their names to it, because I should like to ask them why what was right in 1924 is wrong in 1925. If an increase of rent is not justified today, why was it justified last year? I would also ask the right hon. Gentleman to remember his own action when he was dealing with the local authorities and negotiating for his 1924 Housing Bill. As I am informed, the local authorities at that time told him that the amount of allowance given them for repairs and maintenance was insufficient and that he was so much impressed by their argument that instead of reducing the allowance he increased it by 5 per cent.
§ Mr. WHEATLEY
I cannot follow the right hon. Gentleman. To what deputation or conference does he refer?
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
I am referring to the negotiations the right hon. Gentleman carried on in connection with the Housing Bill of last year.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
I do not want to contradict the right hon. Gentleman, and I will not press the point.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
Perhaps I have been misinformed, but that was the information I got. At any rate, the right bon. Gentleman will admit that he did not press the local authorities for a reduction in the allowance for maintenance and repairs, and I suggest that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if it is fair and right that local authorities should continue to have the same allowance made in their case for repairs, there is no reason why you should mete out different treatment to private landlords merely because they are private landlords.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
That is another point which the hon. Member knows perfectly well was dealt with in the Act of 1923. We know that if the landlord will not carry out the repairs, the tenant can 1373 go to the local authority and get a certificate to that effect, and he does not have to pay the increase of rent [interruption.] He does in my part of the world. [An HON. MEMBER: "In Birmingham!"] I suggest that the hon. Member should follow the good example. It is very difficult to name the exact proportion which should be permitted to landlords to increase their rent in order to cover the actual cost of repairs. The cost varies in different parts of the country.
But I do not want to rest my case merely on a justification of the present system. I think we have to take much wider ground than that in considering whether this or any other Amendment should really be introduced into the existing Act at all. If we once begin to tinker with this legislation again, it would be very difficult to stop. I do not pretend for a moment that the Act is perfect as it stands. I do not contend that there are not cases of injustice and hardship, and not only on one side, under the Act. It is a curious fact, which seems to have escaped the attention of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that the worst injustices to-day are those which are being perpetrated by profiteering tenants at the expense of subtenants, a thing which is not touched in their Amendment at all. I have many letters on these matters. I have here one from a man who writes that he is married and has a wife and three children living in two rooms with a small scullery. He gives some account of his service during the War, beginning 18th March, 1915, and ending 28th March, 1919. He served in France, Salonika, Palestine, and in France again. He says:On 18th October, 1922, I bought a house with the hell) of a building society, burdening myself with a fifteen years' mortgage. I informed the tenant verbally that I wished possession and asked him if he saw a suitable place would he take it, which he agreed to do In September, 1924, two years afterwards, I saw a solicitor to see what steps I could take with regard to getting possession. He told me that if I had started proceedings when T first bought the house I could have obtained an order for possession, but now he is very doubtful because of the last Act that was passed.That is the Act of last year.In any case now I should have to provide equivalent accommodation. Being only a working man, I could not ask the solicitor to take this to Court. On 14th October I served a notice to raise the pre-war rent, 1374 which he had been paying when I took the house over and not wanting to be harsh to him I let stand, to the legal standard as allowed by the Act. I only did this as I wanted to keep the house in fair repair when I got it for my own use. It has taken me from then to now to get any increase, as they took up the attitude that as the rent was not raised as soon as the Act was passed it could not be raised now. It meant engaging a solicitor and going before the Registrar of the County Court. Surely it is not right that any man who served his country during the four best years of his life and left the Army physically inferior in health, and who was also a volunteer for active service before there was any talk of the Derby scheme—surely the Rent Act is not meant to deprive him of his own like this.I get a lot of letters like that, and I only quote it to show that the grievance is not all on one side. I do not think it possible to have legislation of this kind without making a great many hard cases. But if the Act was going to be amended at all, you would have to consider the case of all these people, and you would have to consider the case of mortgagees who, in many cases, not being able to foreclose the mortgage, cannot wind up the estates of deceased persons. But what I had to take into my consideration was what was going to be the effect upon the building of new houses, the only real remedy for this hardship, and the effect upon prospective builders and investors in property if we were going to rip up the whole of the settlement at which we had arrived, if we were going to spend weeks on argument and controversy upstairs about new provisions, throwing the whole country into doubt and uncertainty again. I came to the conclusion after very careful and long study that in the general interest the disadvantages of such a proceeding would far outweigh the advantages which might be received by particular individuals, and that the wisest course that this House could take would be a simple prolongation of the old Act as it stands.
§ Mr. SCRYMGEOUR
Before the right hon. Gentleman finishes, he took exception to the assertion from this side that houses were being transformed and being made suitable for shops and places of business. That is the situation in Dundee, and representations have been made to the right hon. Gentleman from the Dundee Town Council urging him to introduce legislation.
§ Mr. WHEATLEY
I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the wordsthis House cannot assent to the Second Reading of a Bill which, whilst purporting to continue for a limited period the protection of tenants of dwelling houses, does not amend the Law under which in an increasing number of cases this protection is withdrawn, continues legal sanction for increases in rent no longer justifiable, contains no provisions for simplifying existing legislation in order to reduce litigation, takes no cognisance of the length of time necessary to overcome the housing shortage, and is wholly inadequate to deal with the present situationI question very much whether even the warmest supporter of the right hon. Gentleman, even after listening to his apology, can congratulate him on the Measure he has just presented to the House. Anyone who reflects for even a very few moments on the original justification for rent restriction legislation will see through the hollowness of the case to which we have just listened. The original justification for legislation of this kind was the shortage of alternative accommodation and the feeling that the tenants of the country could not rely on the honesty of speculators and property owners to refrain from taking advantage of that shortage in houses. I think the case the right hon. Gentleman should have attempted to make was that there was less need for control to-day than there was when the present legislation was put on the Statute Book. He has access to all the existing information in the country and he. might have presented some data showing that the condition of housing in 1925 is a little better than it was in 1920, or even in 1923. We might at least have expected from him some attempt to justify the selection of the year 1927 as the one at which control should cease. He might have provided us with some optimistic forecast which would have encouraged us to believe that two years hence there would not be the same need for control. If he revealed all the facts that are within his knowledge, he would boldly tell the House that the shortage would probably be greater in 1927 than it is in 1925 and that in all likelihood there would be more need for control in 1927 than there is at the present moment. I think he is perfectly right when he tells us that the whole question turns on the 1376 provision of houses for the class of people whom we try to protect by this restrictive legislation. He is aware that, instead of the difficulties disappearing or being minimised, they are increasing almost day by day.
He knows that within the past fortnight one of the greatest difficulties towards solving this problem has been put in his way by the bankers of the City of London. He knows, as probably no one else in the House knows, that the raising of the Bank rate by 1 per cent. means an addition of something in the neighbourhood of £3 per annum to the annual rents of the small dwelling-houses which it is his business to provide, and that in fact by that stroke of the pen the financiers of the country have put a burden on new houses equal approximately to what would be placed on them if all the workers in the building industry had been granted a 50 per cent. increase in wages. So far as I know—and I regret that it is so—the right hon. Gentleman has not raised a single word of protest against this outrageous attack on one of the principal industries of the country. May I ask the House to imagine the howl that would have gone up from the quarter represented by the right hon. Gentleman if the building trade had demanded, and succeeded in obtaining, a 50 per cent. increase in wages? Should we not have had the troubles and tribulations of the poor painted to us in colours which could not be equalled by the most eloquent speakers on this side of the House? But when a difficulty is created by the financial classes at the expense of the very poorest of the poor, the right hon. Gentleman, with all his enthusiasm for housing and with all his consideration for the oppressed, has not a single word of protest to utter against the action of the people who benefit by this public robbery.
Why is it that the right hon. Gentleman has selected 1927 in his Bill? It is not because he has the slightest hope that in 1927 the shortage of housing accommodation, which is the justification for restrictive legislation, will cease to exist. It is for another reason altogether. He knows that under his Act of 1923 control is bleeding to death. He knows that the control of rent is in exactly the same position as a patient who is declining and requires only a given period in which to 1377 depart from this earthly existence. I think the Bill would have been more accurately described as a Decontrol Continuation Bill. The Act of 1923 removes from control every house that becomes vacant, with the exception of those houses of which the owners obtain possession through an action for arrears of rent. But even in that respect very little protection is given to the tenants. I know that in Scotland at any rate—I have no doubt the practice is universal—tenants who fall into arrears of rent are pursued by the owners as far as possible legally to the very point of ejection, and then they are terrorised into vacating the houses rather than actually and technically ejected from them. In that way the intention of a concession that was made under the 1923 Act is in many cases defeated. I have no doubt.
The right hon. Gentleman dealt with the effect of the 1923 Act in securing that certain houses, which would otherwise be held for sale, are continued for letting purposes. the owner having the privilege of increasing rents and the prospect of ejecting the tenant whenever it suits him and presumably whenever he can find a suitable purchaser. I would like to challenge the assertion made by the right hon. Gentleman. The most telling evidence I can produce is the fact that late in my period of office at the Ministry of Health I received a deputation from the local authority of Birmingham consisting of the Lord Mayor or his representative. probably the Town Clerk; at any rate, the most influential deputation that the City of Birmingham could send to the Ministry. That deputation nut to me a very strong plea for such an alteration of the 1923 Act as would enable them to deal with owners of houses which, when they became decontrolled, were withdrawn for letting purposes by the owners and held vacant for sale. They presented to me figures showing that hundreds of houses in the City of Birmingham were being held for sale and withdrawn from the category of houses to let. So that if the right hon. Gentleman wants a reply to his own case, he need only apply for it to the Town Clerk of the City that he represents.
I have no doubt that at the hack of the right hon. Gentleman's mind is a cynical feeling regarding the seriousness with which his assertions as to continuing the control of working-class houses have been 1378 accepted. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the very class of people with whom you arc dealing here, because of their insecurity of employment and their general poverty, are the people above all others in the community who are compelled to remove periodically from their houses. He knows that in every large industrial centre in the country there Is already a very large number of houses that are decontrolled. He may say, as he did say, that no great hardship has accrued from that procedure to the tenants who have become occupiers of those houses, because a generous house-owning class have unanimously decided that as far as they can possibly do so they will restrain the evil designs of the less angelic members.
But the right hon. Gentleman is not so simple as to be taken in by a Resolution like that. He knows that the real meaning of that Resolution is: "Don't show your hands immediately. Wait until we get further decontrol. If, as the result of a the removal of a certain amount of control you increase the rents substantially to the tenants, the result will be a general agitation in favour of a general resumption of control. Wait until we get a little more. Wait until 1925 passes. If possible control yourselves voluntarily until 1927 passes, and then, the poor defenceless tenant having been handed over to us for treatment. we will, as sound business men, be able to recoup ourselves in a very few years for the display of patience which we gave to the public during the short operation of this decontrol policy." I put to the right hon. Gentleman this: If I am not correct in that assumption of what. is in their minds, where comes the need for decontrol at all? If the property owners are, as he says, people who do not want to increase rents, but people who want to keep rents at their present reasonable level, there is nothing in the present legislation to prevent them keeping rents at the present level. If they want to reduce rents there is nothing here to prevent them reducing rents. All that is in this legislation is provision to prevent them increasing rents. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to prove that they do not want to increase rents. he. prove:; at the same time that there is no need at all for the removal of rent restriction legislation. It is not merely the corporation of Birmingham 1379 that is opposed to the legislation and the policy of the right hon. Gentleman. I have had a telegram put into my hand this afternoon from the Tenants' Association, Lozells, Birmingham, and it states:We support your Amendment to the Rent Bill. No more decontrolled houses, no more ejections without alternative accommodation.That does not appear to be the attitude of public mind which the right hon. Gentleman in his speech attempted to convey to the House. I have in my hand another statement, which comes from the City of Sheffield. Hon. Members will remember that the right lion. Gentleman was careful to impress upon us that no undue advantage was being taken of his legislation by property owners generally. He had been to a dozen towns, and it was quite true that here and there you might find an isolated case, one black sheep among a wonderfully innocent class, who had overstepped the bounds of prudence, perhaps of honesty, and taken advantage of the tenants who were at his mercy. But while the right hon. Gentleman was speaking, one of the Members for the City of Sheffield put into my hand a circular dealing with about half a down specific eases in that city alone. I wonder if this information reached the Ministry of Health as a result of the right hon. Gentleman's pursuit of the wicked when he was preparing the legislation now before the House? The circular states thatA Sheffield landlord find Justice of the Peace, who was caught overcharging rent to a Poor tenant, handed over a cheque for £S to save his name being entered into the Court.
§ Mr. WHEATLEY
This man is, at any rate, operating under legislation prepared by the right hon. Gentleman, passed by this House on his initiative, and maintained on the Statute Book, although within that legislation robbery of this kind is possible in the City of Sheffield. Our complaint against the right hon. Gentleman is that with this knowledge in his possession, or, at any rate, available, he allows the continuance of legislation which makes this robbery possible. The circular says further:An estate agent who was caught overcharging a poor tenant 9d. per week, 1380 handed over a cheque for £10 6s. 6d. and reduced the rent, to save his name being catered into the Court.
§ Mr. WHEATLEY
This is an uncontrolled scoundrel, who owns a house in Sheffield. My reply to the right hon. Gentleman is that the people who would do this, even within legislation, will do 10 times more when you remove the legislation. The circular continues:A Sheffield landlord had to refund a sum of £21 14s. for rater; collected from three poor tenants. A Sheffield estate agent, after distraining a poor tenant's home for £11, arrears of rent, had to return the furniture, pay £18 3s. 4d. rates for the tenant, refund £14 14s. in cash, pay costs, and give the tenant a clear rent book. A Sheffield landlord handed over the sum of £23 8s. 3½d. to four tenants for overcharging rents and rates alleged to he unpaid, after being threatened with Court proceedings. The sum of £748 13s. has been recovered from all sources For the members of this particular Association during the past 15 months.I submit that with that statement of facts before him, with that knowledge of the disposition of the people with whom we are dealing here, it is most unfair, I might almost go the length of saying cruel, for the right hon. Gentleman to pursue a policy which is destined to hand over to this class of people thousands and thousands of tenants who are protected to some extent under the existing legislation. I have had personal experience of injustices that take place under the law as it now stands, and we were twitted for not dealing with this question during 1924. I see that the Parliamentary Secretary nods his head. He knows quite well, because he is at the Ministry of Health, that before I left the Ministry I had taken the preliminary steps to put on the Statute Book exactly what I am proclaiming to-day in criticism of the policy of the right hon. Gentleman. When I was recently in my own constituency I found that the class of people to whom our tenants are being handed over by the policy of the right hon. Gentleman could have been dealt with in exactly the same way as evidently they are dealt with in the City of Sheffield. One of my constituents, who was a qualified teacher of mathematics in a higher-grade school. showed me a rent hook which he had been asked by a poor tenant to add up 1381 in order to ascertain how the account with the house factor stood, and he told me that, notwithstanding his high qualifications, the rent book had been prepared in such a rascally manner that he could not make head nor tail of it, and he was quite satisfied that the design was to enable the house agent to extract from the tenant money which the tenant did riot legally owe.
It is quite evident to anyone who studies the policy of the right hon. Gentleman that it is based on the principle of taking the very poorest people first. The very poorest people are those who reside in the meanest houses. They are the people who have least security in industry and they occupy the houses which are to be decontrolled earliest. These houses, when offered for letting if they are so offered, will again be occupied by members of that poorest section, and it 'e this poorest section which is being handed over first to the class of people described in the documents from which I have just quoted. Having dealt with that poorest section and disposed of them the right hon. Gentleman's policy then moves slowly but gradually up the scale and he hopes that by 1927 he will have decontrolled so many houses as to be able to go to the country and say that those whose houses are still controlled are a privileged few. He will say: "Why should you who are living in decontrolled houses, who have had your rents increased, and who have had none of the advantages of this legislation, continue to support control for a comparatively few remaining people? Those who are living in controlled houses stood quietly by and allowed your houses to be decontrolled; why should not you stand quietly by now and allow the remainder of the houses to be decontrolled?"
The right hon. Gentleman, pleading it as a reason why he did not interfere with the existing legislation, said that the Courts had had all the ambiguities of this Measure before them and had given clear definitions of the meanings of the words and he asked, "Why disturb that legislation which has been clarified by litigation and adopt some new form of words which would require a fresh crop of litigation in order to get at its exact meaning?" I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that what he said amounts to 1382 this—that the Department for which he is responsible is not capable of drafting a Rent Restrictions Bill winch can operate without extensive litigation to determine the meaning of the words and phrases used in it. If his statement means anything else I must say the alternative meaning passes my comprehension. The right hon. Gentleman says that the public now know, the owners know, the tenants know and, presumably, the lawyers know the meaning of the Act of 1923. I wish he would address his remarks to the Secretary for Scotland, who will tell him whether or not the public, the landlords, the tenants or the lawyers there know the meaning of that Act. I wonder has he heard about the Clydebank case? Does he know that the root of the trouble in Clydebank is that the Judge in Clydebank interprets the Act in one way while the Judge in a-neighbouring county interprets it in another. This is not something which took place during that earlier and, presumably, essential period of putting the Act through the mill in order that a wondering world might understand its meaning this is the position to-day. The tenants raised actions in the Dumbarton-shire Court and contended that the Act, if interpreted as they submitted it, did not justify the increases of rent demanded by the landlords. The Judge heard the tenants' case and without any hesitation decided in their favour.
It is true that a good deal of the public trouble which has taken place is in regard to tenants who owe arrears of rent, which arc not merely arrears of the excess over the 1914 standard, but the atmosphere in Clydebank is an atmosphere created by the ambiguity of the 1923 Act. The Judge says the Act means something entirely different from what I have no doubt the right hon. Gentleman contends its meaning to be and, consequently, the great majority of the tenants who are carrying on the agitation in Clydebank are actually defending the law as interpreted by the Judge in Clydebank and as put on the Statute Book by the right lion. Gentleman against the property-owners of Clydebank who are insisting on a right. which is outside the law as interpreted in their own county. For the right hon. Gentleman to come to the House, in the midst of these proceedings, and while this case is subject to consideration by a Com- 1383 mission which he himself appointed and to tell us that the Act has been clarified and is now so clearly understood that it would be sheer waste of time on the part of the House to disturb it, is, I suggest, a position that he cannot attempt to justify, nor is it a position that the people of the country will accept.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
May I ask whether in the words which he has used the right hon. Gentleman is referring only to the case in Clydebank? Is that the signification of his remarks?
§ Mr. WHEATLEY
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can seriously expect that when an Amendment of this kind is put on the Paper it should be confined to one particular case in one particular locality. Surely this Amendment was put down in order that I might draw the attention of the House and of the country to the state of affairs which the right hon. Gentleman refuses to deal with now that he is introducing fresh legislation. Then the right hon. Gentleman proceeded in his apology to explain why he did not interfere with the present standard of rents. I am sorry I have mislaid the notes which I made of his speech, hut I do not think I am doing him an injustice when I say that he attempted to prove that the standard of rent now being obtained by the owner is justified in the light of the whole of this legislation. What are the facts? When the 40 per cent. increase in rent was pot on the Statute Book in 1920, it was as the result of the recommendations of a Committee presided over, I believe, by Lord Salisbury. The Salisbury Committee recommended as a fair settlement of the claims of the owners at that date, that a 40 per cent. increase of rent should be allowed and I may say in passing that in many cases the increases were actually substantially greater than 40 per cent. In the City of Glasgow the increase amounted to 47½ per cent., and in some places in England the increases amounted to 60 per cent. or thereabouts. The Salisbury Committee said that 40 per cent. was an amount that might be reasonably granted to the landlord, and they gave reasons for it, the principal reason being the increased cost of the repair of dwelling houses. I am not going to enter into the question of whether or not the landlords have been 1384 carrying out repairs to dwelling houses in post-War times as they did in pre-War times. My hon. Friends behind me will have a considerable amount to say on that point, but in giving their reasons the Salisbury Committee said that the cost of repairs then was 150 per cent. higher than it was in 1913, and because it was so much higher they allowed a 40 per cent. increase in rent. At the present moment the cost of repairs, instead of being 150 per cent. higher than it was in 1913, is only 80 per cent. higher than it was in 1913, and, surely, if an increase of 1.50, per cent. in the cost of repairs was necessary to justify an increase of 40 per cent. in the rent, then an 80 per cent. increase in the cost of repairs does not justify the continuance of that high standard of rent.
What the right hon. Gentleman is actually doing is to say to the people in the building industry and the workers, "You are rightly getting less wages now than you did in 1920": he is saying to the manufacturers of building materials, "You are getting less profit now than you did in 1920": and he is saying to those who live on investments in working-class houses, "The sacrifices made by the industry, by the workers and by the manufacturers are under my legislation to he gobbled up by the investors." That is the pure undiluted Tory policy, and it makes a mockery of the appeals that are put forth to the industrial section of this community—not merely to the workers but to the manufacturers—to get together and reduce the cost of production. The underlying policy is exemplified in this legislation and in the toleration of the present state of affairs by the right hon. Gentleman. and is expressed in the recent increase in the Bank rate. It is, "Let industry do with less in order that the financial class may get more. Get together you employers and employés and bring down the cost of repairs in dwelling houses to half the cost that existed in 1900 and when you have done that, we will allow the people who live by investment in that property to continue to draw from it the same amounts which they were drawing before you made this sacrifice in the national interests." I submit that this goes very far beyond rent. restriction legislation, and it is a very serious pronouncement to make, not in words, but in actual deeds, to the industrial section of this country.
1385 There are many other points with which I would like to deal, but I have occupied the time of the House even longer than I was justified in doing, and the other objections to the existing state of legislation will, I have no doubt, be stated eloquently and forcibly by other speakers who will address the House.
My case against the right hon. Gentleman is not on the ground of what his Bill contains, but on the ground of the omissions he has made when he came to deal with this question. I have shown him that the tenants are suffering under the decontrol policy; I have shown him the character of the owners and the agents to whom the tenants are being handed over in ever-increasing numbers; I have submitted to him evidence to show that he is dealing here, I do not say in the mass, with a dishonest set of people, but, after all, is it necessary that I should prove that house owners or house agents in the mass are dishonest, to prove my plea for a law that will deal with the black sheep in their flock? Laws are not made to deal with honest people; laws arc made to deal with dishonest people. I submit that these people are allowed to pursue to-day a policy of robbery, merely because, in the General Election of 1924, they succeeded in returning a majority of Members to this House. I want to tell the right hon. Gentleman, in conclusion, that he may, by that majority, continue to oppress the people of this country with this kind of legislation, he may press this Measure through this House with that majority, but he will not prevent us from exposing to the British public the principles of his Measure, and of the authors of that Measure.
Mr. T. THOMSON
The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health has in this Bill fixed the limit of control at 2½ years. But he has produced no facts or figures to show that at the end of that time the position of the housing problem will be any different from what it is to-day, and I submit that the reason why we have control at all is because of the abnormal house shortage brought about by the cessation of building operations during the War. The facts to-day do not in any way justify control coming to an end in 2½ years' time. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that it was difficult to say when that period would arise, and he suggested that it 1386 would be undesirable to continue the period of control for 20 years. There is a complete difference between 20 years and 2½ years, and whereas, possibly, 20 years might be too long, 2½ years is undoubtedly far too short. Does anyone suggest that we are even making up the leeway of that big shortage which originally justified control? We were told by the Coalition Government that first dealt with the question, that there was a shortage of half a million houses after the War, and I submit that there is, in effect, that, half million shortage to-day.
In reply to a question addressed to him at the beginning of the month, the right hon. Gentleman told us that under the 1919, 1923 and 1924 Acts 270,151 houses were all that had been completed up to the present time. You have to add, to get a fair estimate of the position, the number of houses built by private enterprise without any subsidy whatever, and I think the right hon. Gentleman or his Department gave a figure not long ago which suggested that about 126,000 houses had been built in a similar time by private enterprise. Even allowing it to be 150.000, which is taking a very generous estimate, you only then get a total of 420,000 built since the Armistice. What good are 420,000 houses to fill the shortage which faces us? The half million, it is true, were not the only shortage, because we have to allow for the number of houses required each year since the Armistice to fill the ordinary wastage which takes place, and the increase of population, and I think it is an accepted fact that, prior to the. War, we required something like 80,000 to 90,000 houses a year in order to make good the demands of the increasing population and the wastage which arises from depreciation of property. If that figure is anything like correct, the 420,000 houses which is the utmost we can say have been built. since the Armistice only make good the normal demand due to the growth of population and the effluxion of time, leaving the position to-day as it was five years ago, so that there is at least a shortage of half-a-million houses facing us at the present time.
I do not think the Minister himself would suggest that under the most favourable conditions that half a million houses are likely to be made good within 22:: years, and it is, of course, utterly 1387 impossible to imagine that such a thing should take place. The maximum production of houses which we can expect tinder the most favourable conditions is certainly not 200,000 houses a year, and if you have to allow for the increase required to make good the increase of population as well as the half million shortage, it will be five or even 10 years before we get to the normal condition. Therefore, I submit that, in view of the abnormal conditions and the appalling shortage to-day, there is no justification for saying that control shall come to an end at the end of 2½ years, or oven for raising the hope that it will.
The other Section of the Act of 1923 to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, with some pride, was that allowing for the decontrol of houses which prior to 1923 were not decontrolled, if a landlord wanted them for his own use. I submit that the satisfaction which he felt with regard to the working of that Section is not shared by local authorities throughout the country. He admitted that there were certain cases of very grave hardship and I submit that those cases are more typical of the majority of cases than he seems to believe. One can only quoto from one's own district, but there I know that instead of this particular Section making for a reduction in the number of empty houses, it has, if anything, tended to increase them. The houses are held empty, not only for weeks and months, but sometimes for over a year, in order that a higher price may be obtained for selling or that a higher rent may be squeezed. Therefore, I say that this Amendment of the Section of the Act which was introduced for the first time in 1923 has caused very great hardship to a large number of tenants, and has not given us that increased accommodation which was foreshadowed as the reason.
Now may I come for a moment. to the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the Amendment which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Leith (Captain Bonn) and myself have put down to this Bill? I submit, with all seriousness, that in view of the appalling conditions to-day it is the height of folly not to see that use is made of every available house that exists. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that really the number of these houses that have been converted is very 1388 few. He said that they could not be many, because most of the working-class houses were protected by the Rent Restrictions Act, but by his own Section in the 1923 Act a large number of houses passed out of control when they came into the possession of the landlords, and I submit that, taking the country throughout, there are many thousands of houses which have been converted from ordinary working-class dwellings into clubs, garages, workshops, and offices, and that the Minister will find that that will be his experience if he makes investigation. One can only speak from one's own personal knowledge, hut in the town of Middlesbrough, which I have the honour to represent, during the last two years no fewer than 30 of these houses have been converted from dwelling-houses. That may not seem a large number, but if that 30 is proportionate to the figure in other towns, I am justified in saying that many thousands of houses have been turned from their purpose of housing the working classes into other purposes of infinitely less use. Whether the number be large or small, it is no comfort or satisfaction to the individual who has been waiting for four or five years for a house and who is living in the most appalling conditions, and every one of these houses that is converted is a source of social discontent and unrest. I submit that it is not right in principle that you should allow any houses to be converted at this present time from the purpose for which they were intended and turned to other uses.
I have given before in this House illustrations of the appalling conditions of overcrowding which exist, and it seems to me that sometimes those of us who live in comfortable houses, and some who possess more, than one house, do not really visualise the horror and tragedy that are going on in all our large industrial towns through this appalling amount of overcrowding. Let me give one or two instances. There is a six-roomed house, not a slum, where no fewer than six families are living, 26 people, and in one room of that six-roomed house you have the father and the mother, two boys, aged 18 and 12, and two girls, 15 and 10, all living together, sleeping, and having their whole being in this one room. It is not a question of poverty, because they are paying 10s. 6d. a week 1389 for the use of that one room, and to a. man living under such appalling conditions, where decency and morality are hardly possible, conditions which are a discredit to a civilised country, it is no comfort to see adjoining houses being turned from dwelling-houses into garages, clubs, and so on. Therefore, I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman that he shall reconsider this question.
This was a provision which was passed by a Government of which he was a staunch supporter in 1919. The provision of the 1919 Act allowed local authorities to veto these conversions. It is not a lard and fast rule. It does not say that under no circumstances whatever shall any house be turned into other purposes, but it gives the local authority the discretion and enables them to weigh up the situation and judge as to whether the housing needs of the district are so great that it is not right for a single house to be turned to another purpose. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, in view or the terrible tragedy that is going on and of the condition of overcrowding in many of our industrial towns, that he should restore to toe local authorities that power which they had to veto, if they thought fit, this conversion. There was, under this particular Section, the right to appeal to the Minister of Health if there was a case of grievance or hardship. The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to tell me the other day, in reply to a question, that in only three cases had there been any appeal whatever made to his Department, that, in two eases the appeals were withdrawn, and that there was only one solitary case taken to the Minister and in that case he found against the local authority. That shows that throughout the country the provision worked fairly and equitably, and that there was no sense of grievance, and if there had been, there is the machinery provided that the Minister himself can override a finding of the local authority and protect any particular interest, which may be aggrieved submit that not only is it desirable we should not convert any of these houses which are at present used as dwelling houses for other purposes, but also I say that we could use this large number of empty houses which are being withheld from occupation.
Again, the right hon. Gentleman suggested that the numbers were very much 1390 exaggerated. I am going only to speak from my own knowledge. I find that at, the end of last year in Middlesbrough there were 113 empty houses. Of these 109 were of the rateable value of 225 or less. It is sometimes suggested, when we are talking about this question, that these empty hones are large mansions which could not be used without a considerable expense of conversion, and that the thing does not apply to the ordinary small dwelling-house. That is not so in certain parts of the North of England. There you have in this town of 130,000 inhabitants 109 ordinary working-class houses withheld from occupation. The right hon. Gentleman may inquire how long these have been withheld. It is not possible to ascertain the exact length of time, but front inquiries I have made officially I am informed that in 20 eases these houses have been empty for from six up to 12 months, and the impression I got from the people who made the investigation was that the 113 so empty were rather a smaller number than a larger number.
I say again, that whether the number be small or large, if it is only 20 it is 20 too many, when we have, this appalling condition of overcrowding taking place. I do appeal to the Minister to reconsider this matter, and see if it is riot possible to do something. He told us that the local authorities already had power, if they so desired, to buy these houses. That is perfectly true. But I submit that the first concern of the local authority is the provision of more houses, and that it requires to use its financial resources, which are not unlimited, for building new houses rather than for taking over existing houses. That is the reason why the power was given to Scotland. One has heard that in Scotland the Act was ineffective. I do not understand what anyone means when they say that an Act is ineffective. How do they know what is the effect of an Act of this kind'? It is not altogether the question of the number of houses which the local authority takes over, but rather the deterrent effect that powers of this kind have on the district.
The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health in the Coalition Government, in introducing a Bill which was to give similar powers to the local authority in England to those given in Scotland said that in one Lancashire town there were, 1391 I think, 170 empty houses. As soon as the Bill was introduced the chairman of the local authority called the landlords together and said, "Here are certain powers foreshadowed in a Government Bill." Within a fortnight 120 of those houses had been let, leaving 50. I submit that the value of an Act of this sort is not the number of convictions that take place under it, but the deterrent effect which it has upon those who are withholding houses from occupation. It would not be sensible to say that the law against murder was ineffective because there was not a certain number of executions each year! Powers of this kind have a deterrent effect upon the owners in the districts. I submit what is effective in Scotland will be equally effective in England. If the right hon. Gentleman does not wish to give the local authorities that power to take over empty houses that have been standing three months in the midst of a terrible condition of overcrowding, may I remind him that the reason why so many of these houses stand empty is because the owners of empty property are exempted from rates. The property owner says: "It does not cost me anything to keep this house empty, I may get a higher price for it by waiting three or six months, either to sell or to let it." If on the other hand, the Minister turns this suggestion round in his own mind and brings in a Bill to allow the local authorities to rate these empty houses for the period they are empty he would take away the inducement to the property owners to keep their houses empty and give them an incentive to let them. Something must be done. It is intolerable that in these industrial areas you should have these houses which are being kept empty in order that the owners may make a profit out of the extremities and needs of those who ought to occupy them.
A man came to me only the other day. an ex-service man. He and his wife have to live in one room together with three children, boys and girls, 12 years of age up to 18 years. He applied for a house in 1920. He is on the selected waiting list. It is five years since that man was demobilised. He is in good work, as are thousands of others who are in like plight. It is not a question of poverty in this and other cases. The houses are not there 1392 for them to occupy. We have a waiting list of 3,000 who had their names down for three or four years, and, referring to Middlesbrough, many of these are ex-service men. They did good service during the War. I submit that this condition of affairs is an annoyance and a cause of social unrest to these men and their wives. They see that these houses which are suitable for them to occupy are empty, but they are not allowed to have them. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider this question and to see whether he cannot make some use of existing houses. Do not be afraid of treading on the corns of vested interests. Consider rather the clamant needs of those who by the refusal of these houses are turned almost to despair. There is no more fruitful cause of social unrest and upheaval in our midst than this shortage of houses. If the Minister can see his way either to embody in this Bill, or to allow the other Bill to which I have referred to go upstairs, it would be well. At any rate, it would add something to the housing facilities which are in existence and which are being withheld owing to the greed of landlords, and the delay and hesitation of the Ministry to take serious action.
§ Mr. DENNIS HERBERT
After listening to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Shettleston (Mr. Wheatley) I have been wondering what some of his constituents may think when they read it. I can imagine some of them, with their childlike faith in their Member, not knowing quite so much as some of us here, thinking that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is growing a, forked tail, outstanding ears, and is likely to go forth with a red cap on his head! Apparently, he has been guilty, in conspiracy with the property owners in this country, to raise the bank rate in order to prevent the building of houses! It has been suggested that, following on this, he has done his very best to assist the wicked class of landlords under a specious so-called scheme, to bring about some worse decontrol in the general state of affairs by which the wicked landlords' class would get more out of their tenants than ever before.
When, however, we come to think of it, to some of us, the picture of the right hon. Gentleman in producing this Bill is not 1393 that which I have suggested, but rather that of an angel, the only spot upon the whiteness of whose robes is that he Las not seen fit to repeal the Act of 1923 and to bring in a Socialist Measure in its place! Might hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite know perfectly well that they have no case whatever against this Bill; therefore, they are putting up the opposition they are, and all they can do is to tell us they regret that the right hon. Gentleman has not brought in legislation of a different kind. This Bill, everybody knows, is in accordance with the demand made at the time of the last General Election and the pledge given to continue for a certain time such a Measure of rent restriction as is absolutely necessary. The right hon. Gentleman opposite was a little less than fair when he complained that the Minister of Health had fixed the year 1927 as the one when all control should cease, though my right hon. Friend was careful to explain to the House that the Bill is drawn in such a form that it can he continued under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, from year to year as long as it; may be considered necessary.
But I did not get up with the intention of praising the Bill of my right hon. Friend. So far as it concerns the prolongation of the rent restriction provision it speaks for itself. No one in this House will venture seriously to quarrel with or oppose that part. I rose to criticise it in one respect, and that is in regard to the continuance of the restrictions on mortgages. This is a question which has been brought up on previous Bills, and anyone who has any experience in regard to either borrowing money on mortagage or lending it on mortgages, which come within this Bill—or rather I should say within the previous Acts—knows perfectly well that there is no reason whatever for continuing that restriction which has nothing whatever to do with the tenants of houses. The removal of this restriction on mortgages will not affect a single tenant in the country. He is protected by the rent restriction part of it. The reason for the restriction with regard to mortgages when this legislation was first introduced must be now gone. Everyone who has security of this kind, property of this kind on which he has raised money by 1394 means of mortgage, can perfectly well, if his security is good enough—and if not he ought not to he helped by legislation—if the property is worth the money and the security is good enough—can get money from some of the other sources and by the ordinary means without the slightest trouble whatever and at a reasonable market rate of interest. The reason why he does not do so, but prefers to take advantage of this legislation, is very human. He does now see why he should go to the trouble to find money from another source when he, is not obliged to do so. He does not see why he should bear the cost, though it is small in relation to the whole proposition, that he would be put to in getting the money elsewhere. I venture to suggest, and hope that, my hon. Friend now on the Front Bench will represent this very strongly to the Minister, because I am certain he does not dispute the truth of the proposition, that the Minister should do his best in Committee upstairs to see that the Bill is so altered as to except mortgages from this particular restriction.
As every solicitor with any extensive practice knows, there are at the present time an enormous number of estates if deceased persons which ought to have been wound up years ago, and the money distributed, which cannot be wound up owing to the fact that some part of the estate is invested in mortgages of this kind, which cannot be called in. The money is tied up and cannot be distributed, and lawyers' interference goes on, not to the general benefit of those concerned. If this restriction were removed, the estate could be wound up and the money divided amongst those entitled to it, and the only hardship caused to anybody would be that the borrower of the money would have to go to the trouble and the trifling expense of finding money elsewhere in the market in the ordinary way.
May I appeal to hon. Gentlemen on the opposite benches to support this point of view? Who are the class, or the classes, who are affected by this restriction of mortgages? I have already pointed out that the tenants of these houses, about whom the whole discussion has hitherto gone on, are not affected at all by this question. The people affected are those 1395 who have lent money, or who are entitled to money which has been lent on mortgage. They are very largely what one might call "small capitalists," people who have saved a certain amount of money and have invested it in what they consider a safe security of a non-speculative kind. They are also the relations of people who have saved that money and are now dead, and they are entitled to the money, but cannot get it for the moment owing to the restrictions.
Without attaching too much force to. or believing too much in, the lurid pictures drawn by hon. Members opposite as to the landlord class, may I point out that if anybody is going to suffer by the removal of these restrictions, is going to suffer by being put to the trouble of finding money elsewhere, it is the particular class of landlord whom the right hon. Gentleman on the opposite Front Bench has had so little pity for to-day? Landlords with mortgages on their property can get money elsewhere, but by the restriction which prevents mortgages being called in a number of small people are being hampered and hindered, and are having a considerable injustice done to them, and no ground can be made out for reasons either of equity, justice, or of protection against general hardship, for the retention any longer of this restriction on mortgages.
The 1923 Act made certain provisions to prevent hardship in what might happen under that Act in the year 1925 when general control conies to an end. If the Minister does not see his way to abolish altogether the restriction on mortgages. I hope he will allow that Section of the Act of 1923 to come into operation this year, and will, with that slight amount of control on mortgages, allow mortgages to be decontrolled. The Section to which T refer is Section 14 of the Rent and Mortgage Interest Restrictions Act, 1923, which gives the County Court the right to restrain the calling in of a mortgage in any cases where special hardship would result. I sincerely hope that when the Bill goes to Committee the Minister of Health and the Government may see their way either to free mortgages altogether, or at the very least to bring into operation Section 14 of the 1923 Act and otherwise relieve mortgages from this restrictive legislation:
§ Mr. P. HARRIS
I am surprised that there is no particular interest among the various sections in the House in this very important subject. No matter more concerns the general public than the continuation, alteration, or amendment of rent restriction. Hardly a working-class home is unaffected, and thee has been undoubtedly a very gem-rat desire for an improvement in the legislation in the light of experience. From whatever angle this subject is approached, nobody is satisfied with the present position. I support the view of the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) that two and a half years is far too short a term for which to extend talc existing legislation. Put i do not take the view, which the late Minister of Health took in his very strong speech, that the right hen. Gentleman the present Minister of Health is a wicked, evil person, fighting for the interests of landlords. On the contrary, I believe if there be one subject about which he is really in earnest, it is the housing question, and I am satisfied that he is anxious to get some remedy for the present appalling evils.
I do not think he or his Under-Secretary would for a moment suggest that in two, three, four, five or six, or even seven years, there is going to be any substantial improvement which would justify taking off rent control. Would it not he wiser and more satisfactory to face the facts boldly, and say "Here is a very unsatisfactory position; here is a house famine in the land; here is such a state of affairs that it is necessary to take exceptional measures," and then to devise such legislation as we could justify as permanent, or to be kept on the Statute Book for a reasonable number of years? It is unfair to all parties concerned to renew this legislation every two or three years. It is unsatisfactory to the landlords, and the mortgagees referred to by the last speaker, not to have this matter settled for a reasonable period. Uncertainty is no good to anybody and it is certainly bad for the tenant. Every two years we have nervousness among tenants, rumours are in the air that the security provided by the present legislation is to be removed, our letter bags ate filled, newspapers make alarmist statements, and unrest is caused. Surely it is wiser to make our legislation of such a character that we can justify keeping it 1397 on the Statute Book for a reasonable period.
As far as my own experience goes, and T think it is the experience of every Member, there is not the slightest improvement in housing conditions as compared with 1920. On the contrary, through the growth of local populations, it seems to be accentuated, and the fact that there does not seem an immediate prospect of improvement makes people feel the distress all the more. A few years ago we could buoy up overcrowded tenants with the prospect that houses would be forthcoming. Great schemes were in view, local authorities were very active, Acts of Parliament were on the Statute Book providing for houses to be built. Two or three years ago overcrowded tenants took the trouble to register their names for new houses, but many of them have ceased to do that now because the waiting-lists at the headquarters of municipalities have been closed in nearly every case. At the County Hall, on the other side of Westminster Bridge, they long ago closed their application list for houses on the County Council estates. I think, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman would be wiser to ask the House for a period of live to six years, so that we could feel there was some sort of permanence about the present legislation.
My own feeling is that the 40 per cent. in the original Act is too much. That advance of 40 per cent. was to meet the increased cost of repairs, and there was an idea that tenants would take advantage of the provisions of the Act and either get repairs done themselves through the local authorities, or by other means, or else make deductions from their rent for the repairs that had not been done. My experience throughout the East End of London is that very little repair work is being done. The ordinary working-man does not seem to have the initiative to take advantage of the provisions in the Act. There are streets and streets of old houses, many of them 60, 70, or 80 years old, to which very little except nominal repairs have been done. Much of this property is worn out.
It is no exaggeration to say that in East London and South London 25 per cent. of the old working-class dwellings ought to be pulled down 1398 or reconstructed. They were built 60 years ago, at a time when there was no Building Act, and when there had been very little development of municipal government. Most of the houses had no damp course, many of them had no water supply even, and landlords, with the best will in the world, cannot make them satisfactory habitations. In the normal course of events, if we had had no war, and no building slump, most of those houses would have been pulled down or turned to other purposes. Owing; to the abnormal condition of affairs, these houses have to be tolerated. I could take the Under-Secretary through places all over London which, if the sanitary authority was in a position to do its duty, ought to be condemned, but they recognise that the people have to live somewhere, and if they were pulled down there is nowhere else for them to go. The repairs are not being done, because the sanitary authorities take up the position that these buildings are not really worth improving.
I have a site in view, a mean: they not a mile from the City of London, where there is a court with five houses and no water supply except one old-fashioned out-of-date pump, and this has to supply the water for cooking, washing, and every purpose. Those houses should be pulled down or repaired, but, as a matter of fact, the cost of repairs would come to more than the houses were worth, and so no action is taken. It would be much better to reduce the 40 per cent. increase in the rent to 20 per cent., and give the tenants the right to do the repairs, which are not being done. The 40 per cent. is going almost entirely into the pockets of the landlords.
We have hail a sorry picture drawn of landlords being controlled while other industries are allowed to charge what they like for the articles they sell. May I point out that the landlords throughout the country are in an exceptional position? They enjoy a monopoly, and run no risk, except in Glasgow, with regard to their rent, because in the South, at any rate, the tenants make the rent a first charge, and the loss for nonpayment of rents is infinitesimal. Therefore, landlords, owing to the shortage of the supply of houses, have a secure investment unlike any other industry in 1399 the country. Not for a day will a room in any working-class district that is offered to be let remain vacant. I have letters almost every day from tenants who find themselves living with five or six children in one room anxious to find other alternative accommodation, and it cannot be found because it does not exist. The landlord has absolute security, and he can always find willing tenants ready and able to take his property and pay the rent.
I was rather surprised to hear the Minister of Health refer to a suggestion that was made with regard to the conversion of houses into workshops and factories. That has been going on in London on an extensive scale in spite of Acts of Parliament, because those Acts are being evaded. Acts of Parliament can be skilfully got round by ingenious people who desire to evade their provisions. In the last Parliament at the last moment in another place, an Amendment was inserted enabling the landlord to get possession, if he required the house not only for his own occupation, but for his son or his daughter. It is curious to find how ingenious some people are when they want to do a wrong thing. A common practice is for the landlord to get possession by putting his son or daughter in possession of one bedroom in order to obtain possession of the house. Once they get possession, the rest of the house is turned into a factory or small workshop. That practice has been going on upon a large scale and it is seriously diminishing the amount of accommodation available. The justification for that action is that in 1920 the provision in reference to rent restrictions as applied to factories and workshops was withdrawn.
The result has been that the rents of factories and workshops have been going up by leaps and bounds. In order to get cheap workshops or factories, landlords are taking advantage of this apparently innocent and well-intended provision which was put into the Act in another place. to get possession of dwelling houses in order to turn them into factories or workshops. For that reason, I think something might be done to prevent the decrease in the number of houses because of the demand for workshops and factories. Undoubtedly a number of large empty houses do exist. My own feeling 1400 is that the most practical way of dealing with them is to make empty houses subject to rates, and that would have a very quickening and simple effect. If empty-houses were subject to rates, property owners would not be likely to hold them up indefinitely in order to try and force people to buy them, instead of allowing people to rent them.
I suggest that now you have a Rating Bill on the stocks, it would not be an unwise thing, and it would certainly be very popular, to so alter our rating system that house property which has been vacant for more than a certain period should be subject, at any rate, to half rates, if not full rates. The London County Council, who are not a very progressive body in its ideas, have passed resolutions in favour of such a principle. I would suggest to the Under-Secretary, who at one time was a distinguished member of the London County Council, that he might take a leaf out of their hook, and advise the Minister of Health to introduce legislation of that character. t think it is unfortunate that the Government, with its big majority, should not have taken an opportunity before now to bring in a more comprehensive Measure dealing with a longer period than is dealt with by this particular Bill, which is a half-hearted Measure, and leaves the law very much as it is now and avoids every difficult question. I am afraid this Measure will leave the problem of housing an open sore because of its uncertainty, and it does not shoo that a Government with a big majority. Has necessarily much courage or imagination.
§ Mr. DENNISON
I wish to draw particular attention to the appalling shortage of houses in the City of Birmingham, and also to the action taken by the city council with a view to arousing the interest and enthusiasm of Parliament on this question. Over 17,000 people in the City of Birmingham have made applications for houses, with the result that the list has been closed for some time past. Quite recently, although we have in Birmingham a well-known Conservative city council, representing a city which boasts of having four Memo hers in the Cabinet, passing the following resolution:That in view of the appalling conditions arising from the acute housing shortage in 1401 the city, and the fact that legislation is needed to enable the Corporation to exercise any control or power over houses, the General Purposes Committee be and hereby are instructed to give immediate consideration to the position with the object of the Corporation obtaining legislative powers to take possession of and adapt for small families all vacant houses remaining untenanted for a period of one month.That is a resolution passed by the City Council of Birmingham, a city which boasts that out of 11 Members of Parliament four have seats in the Cabinet. A great majority of the members of that council are active members of the same party which is responsible for the introduction of this Bill this afternoon. I am asking, in view of the resolution which has been passed unanimously by the Birmingham City Council, and because of the shortage of working-class housing accommodation, that some provision should be in inserted in this Bill that will permit the City Council of Birmingham and other centres to be able to take over the empty houses in their particular areas. The latest figures tabulated by the Town Clerk of the City of Birmingham show that there arc over 960 empty houses in the City of Birmingham. We know that this state of things is no more common to Birmingham than to any other industrial centre where often more than one, and sometimes three families, arc living in a single-roomed tenement. No doubt we shall he told that it is impossible to do this, that, and the other to relieve this position, but I think the, electors of the, City of Birmingham will remember the absence of provisions carrying out many of the promises made during the Election campaign by the Conservatice Members who now sit in this House. I think this shows that. the Government have entirely failed in their duty, and I trust my remarks will have some slight influence on the Minister of Health.
§ Sir PHILIP PILDITCH
I have listened with interest to one or two of the speeches which have been made, including that of the late Minister of Health. The House is inclined to expect something of a high character from the right hon. Gentleman, and, as a rule, we get it. But I cannot help feeling that there is a general view in the House that the right hon. Gentleman was flogging a dead horse. It seemed to me from his Amendment and his speech that the right hon. Gentleman wanted us to go back to 1923, 1402 and find out all those objections to the Bill of 1923 and fight them out again ad nauseam with one exception. That Bill which represented, I understand. the views of the present Opposition only asked that control should be carried on until the year 192S. At that time both branches of the Opposition suggested that two years was not a sufficient period for control to be fixed. I cannot help thinking myself that two-and-a-half years is too long. I was a little astonished when I heard the Minister of Health suggest that not only was control to he kept on for two-and-a-half years, but after that it would be a fit subject to be included in the, Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. If he does not mind my saying so, it appeared to me as though part of his speech was not quite in accord with the rest of his speech, in which he stated as his view, and I presume the view of the Government, that the earlier decontrol can be got rill of altogether, and the sooner economic forces can come into play, the sooner can we get a real solution of the housing question. I do not know whether he went quite so far as that, but I believe that until that is done there can be no solution of the housing question.
I was a little surprised at the temerity of the right hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. Wheatley) in going back to the Act of 1923, and wanting to fight over again all our battles in regard lo the general question of decontrol. One cannot help remembering what transpired during the whole of last year in regard to this question. A large portion of the time which was at the disposal of the Ministry of that day was devoted to this question started with the first Bill, which was brought in my Mr. Ben Gardner, embodying all the points to which I have referred. Not only was a great deal of Parliamentary time devoted to that Bill in this House, but there was a great deal of time spent by 60 or 70 Members in the Committee Room upstairs on that Bill, when every proposal in the Bill was subjected to a very acute and very deserving criticism. [HON. MEMBERS: "Obstruction!"] At any rate, the Bill failed to emerge from the Committee.
§ Sir P. PILDITCH
It failed to emerge, because it had so many defects and demerits. That Bill took 13 weeks of 1403 Parliamentary time. Then the right hon. Gentleman for Shettleston took a hand himself. He would not adopt Mr. Gardner's Bill, and he would not say what was his attitude in regard to it. He brought in his own little Bill, which was intended to provide that when a man was out of work he should remain permanently in occupation of his house at the expense of the landlord, because he was not to pay any rent. That Bill was dismissed with very little ceremony. It was defeated. Then there was a Bill which emanated from a Gentleman who has a very excellent record in housing matters, Mr. E. D. Simon. That little Bill was adopted by the Government—the Government, of course, could not produce a Bill of their own which was in any way satisfactory to the House—and it was accepted by Members of all parties, and passed.
I mention Mr. Simon's Bill for the benefit of those hon. Members who were not Members of the House when that Bill was passed. That Bill, now an Act, bears upon the question which now arises as to whether or not any defects, if there were defects, in the 1923 Act have been already cured. That Bill substituted for the Clause in the 1923 Act, which enabled the landlord to obtain possession Without showing alternative accommodation, the following prevision, that the possession of a dwelling-house, reasonably required by the landlord, excluding a landlord who became landlord by purchase after the 5th Nay, 1924, for occupation by himself or for a son or daughter over 18 years of age, should he given onlyIf the Court is satisfied, having regard to all the circumstances, and including any alternative accommodation available to the landlord or tenant, that greater hardship would be caused by refusing than by granting on Order for possession.I draw attention to that provision because it goes entirely to the root of the right. hon. Gentleman's argument, that this Bill means the death of control. The defects that were inherent in the Act of 1923 were cured by that Act, an Act to Prevent Unreasonable Ejectment, which was pass-d last year.
I wish specially to refer to the argument of the right hon. Gentleman that this Bill means the death of control, that decontrol has gone on to a very considerable extent and that, coupled with this 1404 Bill, and the carrying out of the 1923 Act, it means the death of control. I do not know what the figures may be. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would be able to tell us to what extent decontrol has taken place; but, judging from letters I have received from tenants and landlords, it has not gone very far, and it has left an enormous number of cases of hardship. Even the Clause in Mr. Simon's Bill, to which I have referred, has left a loophole for a certain number of cases which are described by people who write to me as a very great hardship to small landlords—persons who bought their houses for the purpose of occupying the houses themselves. I do not think, although I have no figures to justify no, statement, that decontrol has operated in other titan a very few cases, compared with the number of cases in which control still operates.
I understood the right hon. Member for Shettlestone to say that this proposal to maintain rents at the level provided in the Act of 1920 and the Act of 1923 is unfair to the manufacturers, because they have. put their hand to an attempt to moderate the cost of production, whereas the rents are not subject to any reduction. Has the right horn Gentleman recently made himself familiar with the facts? I wonder whether he remembers that during the period of the War, from 1915, when these Rents Acts were first brought in, and when the cost of everything had been raised from 100 per cent. to 150 per cent. above the pre-War level, including wages and materials of all kinds, the rents of the houses until 1920 were not allowed to go up to anything like 40 per cent. if my memory serves me aright, it was something less than 20 per cent. For four or five years of the War, and until 1920, the rents were kept down to something like 15 per cent. above pre-War. In the first few years of the War the rents were not allowed to go up at all, unless the landlord had spent considerable sums of money in structural alterations. After 1920 they were permitted to go up by 40 per cent., 25 per cent. in respect of repairs and 15 per cent. because of the increased cost of living, the rise in the cost of money and other things. That 40 per cent. increase is not parri passe, even now with the rise in prices and in the emoluments to every class in the community. There is no 1405 injustice in the sense that the right hon. Gentleman has suggested. I do not think that there is any section of this House who would be inclined to suggest that there should be a change from the 40 per cent. permitted increase. If there is to be a change, then I say, in faireess—I am not speaking with any brief for landlords, but I am only trying to present some of the facts which bear fairly upon this case—the percentage ought to be higher.
I have tried to follow the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman in regard to rating. I presume he based his remarks on the Bill brought in by the Minister of Health recently, which allows a deduction to be made in regard to rating assessment. Speaking before I have had an opportunity of seeing the right hon. Gentleman's words in print, I can only say that I do not understand his argument. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary understood it, and that we shall get; something in the nature of an answer. I think the right hon. Gentleman sneered at a speech, quoted by my right hon. Friend, of the chairman of some association of owners, who suggested to the members of his federation or association that under decontrol they should not increase their rents. The right hon. Gentleman suggested there was something unfair and unworthy underlying that. I am afraid he must be a little hit Machiavelian himself, if he finds it so easy to attribute motives to other people, when those motives do not appear on the surface. This is not the first speech of the kind from the right hon. Gentleman. I have seen the speech referred to, and it never occurred to me that behind that speech some subterranean thoughts were occurring to the gentleman who made it.
The right hon. Gentleman said that it v as no part of his argument to prove that all landlords were scoundrels, and that we ought to make provision for the few who were black sheep. He practically admitted that the great body of landlords would not be inclined to increase their rents unduly if control was taken away. It would be impossible for the Minister of Health to take away control entirely at this moment. The Act of 1923, the operation of which was obstructed to some extent by the bringing in of the Bill of the late Ministry, and the Act passed last year, are in such a position just now that we shall not be 1406 able to ascertain how far they are going to cure, or help to cure, the housing problem until those two Acts are allowed to run for a period of time. It is impossible now to say exactly when it. would be safe to do away entirely with control, but I think that the right. hon. Gentleman has been very generous in extending the period for two and a half years. I do not think myself that it is necessary to go so far as that, and I shall certainly oppose any proposal to increase it.
§ Mr. WALLHEAD
I shall not trouble myself about the Bent Restrictions Acts of the past, because the question is what we ought to do at the present time. One can very well imagine that all those Acts have been very incomplete, and have scarcely met the case. They have never been intended to operate for any considerable period of time. The reason is that one never expects to see any Government, or at least any Government with any real power in this House, which believes in the principle of control at all. I cannot imagine the majority of Members of this House believing that landlords should be restricted in any greater degree than any other seller of products. I have never yet seen any disposition on the part of this House to control any section of the community, which was using what they call the law of supply and demand, to exact the biggest price they could get for the commodity which they have to sell. And so it has been in the case of houses. That, to my mind, explains why the Conservative Government particularly, following the Coalition Government in which the Conservatives were the predominant partners, display a great deal of sympathy with the desire of the owners of houses to increase their rent at the earliest possible moment.
What is clear is that the position with regard to the supply of houses is not improving. Big as the problem may have been in the year 1919, it is just as great now, if not greater, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. P. Harris) that. there does not seem to be the slightest possible chance, within anything like a reasonable time, of getting this problem solved. The Resolution which has been read, which was passed by the Birmingham Town Council, with regard to the taking over of empty houses is very significant coming from the 1407 quarter from which it comes. They recognise the enormous problem that arises. With regard to the plea of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Sir P. Pilditch), that more than 40 per cent. increase should be allowed, I have not exact figures. I am simply giving what I consider to be estimates, but suppose that the number of working-class houses in the country is about 6,000,000. which I think is a fair assumption, and that the average rent is £10 per year, which I think is a reasonable figure, that would give a total rent from the 6,000,000 houses of £60,000,000 per annum. An increase of 40 per cent. on that would be round about £25,000,000. Does any hon. Member suggest that the landlords of this country have spent £25,000,000 in repairing their property during the last three years? I have considerable experience of the question of repairing property, and I have never known that landlords have kept their houses in adequate repair. There are exceptions. The Noble Lord the Member for Newark (Marquess of Titehfield) may laugh, but I am speaking in the general sense. I have not the slightest doubt that on the estates in which he may have some interest the houses are fairly well kept.
§ Mr. WALLHEAD
I should expect that, but my experience extends to large industrial towns and to a very large number of villages as well, and, generally speaking, I have never known landlords who kept their houses in adequate repair. That was so even when houses were easier to get than they are at present. Very few landlords did any repairs of an internal kind. What intern al repairs they did took place when there was a change of tenancy. Since the War changes of tenancy have been extremely few, and even when changes have taken place people have been so anxious to get inside houses that no very big demand has been made upon landlords for internal repairs to be carried out, and I have no doubt that even if external repairs were carried out, even to the extent merely of painting the houses, the painting trade would he kept so busy that no painters would he out of work for a considerable period. Although this 1408 allowance was made to enable landlords to cover the cost of repairs, the landlords have not done the repairs, and have been able to put some millions into their pockets through this allowance for the repairs which they were to make.
Something should be done for the purpose of giving local authorities adequate powers to utilise houses that have become empty in their areas. I had brought to my notice a short time ago a terrible state of affairs which exists in some dwellings in Hereford or close to Hereford. There is a family of nine at present occupying one room. The mother gave birth to a child and the account stated—I am taking it from the Press—that the elder children were segregated on one side of a curtain in the room in which the birth was taking place, and that three children, one of whom was between three and four years old, lay upon the foot of the mother's bed while the birth took place. I cannot possibly conceive that there could not have been found far more adequate accommodation for that poor woman and her family in such terrible circumstances as those, and, while any thing like that can possibly occur, it seems to me that the existence of houses standing empty in a certain district of the town is a scandal which we ought to put right at the earliest possible moment.
A young friend who is a school teacher brought to my notice a case of one house consisting of 12 rooms, including attics and basement. From that house 40 children of school age were attending the school in which she was teaching. That left out of consideration the number of children below school age, the number of adolescents and those of adult age. Any Government that neglects to use any opportunity for effecting even the slightest possible change for the better is deserving of condemnation. In my own constituency we have an appalling state of affairs, and I should tremble to think of what would take place if it were possible to use the powers which landlords do possess to continue exactions, so far as the tenants are concerned. I support the Amendment moved by my right hon. Friend, and I hope sincerely that the House will show by its vote that it. approves of the position which he has taken up on the action of the Government in its belief that 1927 is a reasonable period in which control may 1409 be discontinued. They should tackle the matter in a statesmanlike way, and, so far as control is concerned, everybody should know where he stands.
§ Mr. RYE
After hearing the hon. Member for Merthyr (Mr. Wallhead), and listening in particular to the very moving tale. which he told of the woman who was confined, practically in the presence of her children, might I suggest to him that he should have a heart-to-heart talk with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. J. Baker) who, on the 13th of last month, stated that, although he believed the erection of steel houses would bring a considerable amount of work to those in the steel trade who are at present unemployed, yet if the building operatives engaged in the work should get anything less in the way of pay he would rather not see the steel houses erected. I do not think that the hon. Member for Merthyr would hold the same view, having regard to what he has told us, because, if that is the state of affairs in his constituency—and presumably there is a similar state of affairs in other parts of the country—he would be the last. person to agree that those steel houses, which can be put up very rapidly, are not required for the benefit of those who live in such unfortunate circumstances in his own constituency; and I invite the hon. Member, therefore, to take the hon. Member for Wolverhampton aside, and have a good heart-to-heart talk with him.
§ Mr. WALLHEAD
I do not like steel houses. I have said so here before. The virtue of steel houses is the shortness of their life, but if they could be made available I do not agree that it is necessary to insist on steel houses being built at less than the trade union rates of wages.
§ Mr. RYE
I was going to suggest to the hon. Member that even if (those steel houses were built by operatives who received less than the trade union rates of wages it would be better in the circumstances which he has detailed, that these houses should be constructed. Now as regards the real question before the House.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Mr. RYE
I must apologise for the diversion I have made. Now to return 1410 to the right path. Judging by the speeches from the Opposition Benches, there appears to be no doubt that the House is being asked to believe that the only persons who will suffer by this Bill, if it passes into law, will be the tenants and the working classes. If any grievance is done by this Bill, it is going to be done to the landlords, and not the tenants. Although I hold that view—and I am going to give the House, instances of where the landlords have unduly suffered in the past—I am still going to support this Bill, because I consider it best for the community as a whole. I am not going to fail to support the Bill simply because I consider injustices have been done, and will continue to be done to the landlords, in consequence of the continuance of control. I want to give the House one or two instances that have come within my knowledge where, undoubtedly, the landlords have suffered. Take the position that arises where a landlord, having obtained possession, granted a lease prior to the passing of the 1923 Act, and the rent was then agreed between him and his tenant. I am sure every one in the House knows that, unfortunately, it was found later that if that landlord had not gone through what was almost a farce of serving a week's notice on the tenant, the landlord could not get the benefit of the statutory increases. The result has been—and that has come within my personal knowledge—that a tenant, having obtained a valid lease for a period of years—in the case to which I am referring it was 6½ years—turned round upon the landlord, and claimed that he was not liable to pay the statutory increase. The case was taken to the County Court at Westminster, and the County Court Judge held that, under the wording of the Act, that contention was correct, with the result that the tenant is there to-day rightly claiming to remain for the remainder of the lease, and he is only paying pre-War rent without any of the statutory increases at all. I think everyone will agree that that cannot be a reasonable state of affairs.
I know other cases where landlords have suffered. A landlord purchased certain property, part of which was subject to a condemnation notice served by the London County Council under the London Building Act. The properties that 1411 had been purchased included one shop which was occupied by a woman who carried on a cobbling business, and that woman, it was alleged, had bought in a bed and put it in the back room or parlour behind the shop. In due course the house, which was subject to the first notice and subsequently to an order made by the magistrates was pulled down by the London County Council. While the demolition was being carried out, the County Council served other notices in respect of other properties. Ultimately the whole of those houses—there were five of them—were, with the exception of the actual shop which is in the middle of the block, pulled down. That shop was left standing and the tenant was in possession. The tenant claimed the protection of the Act on the ground that this was a dwelling-place, and on the ground that she had a bed, and for one year she held the fort against the landlord. She was not open to any suggestions of compensation. There she stayed at a rent of 15s. a week which the landlord, obviously, in the circumstances could not accept, and ultimately she had to be paid what to her must have been a very large sum of money, £325. She went out; she who claimed she could not find a habitation, she who claimed she must reside there as the only place where she could live with her children, went out with 025 in her pocket, free of rent for the year, with her solicitor's charges paid by the owner of the property, and she went immediately to a basement opposite which, under the Public Health Act, cannot be used for residential purposes. There is a clear instance of where hardship was clone to the landlord, and I should have thought. that in this Bill a Clause should have been inserted giving the County Court Judge an over-riding right in a case like that, where he was satisfied that fair compensation had been offered, and where he was of opinion that there was greater hardship to the landlord than the tenant to make an order for possession. I am not going to press for that Amendment, because I think this Bill, taking it as a whole, is the best thing that could be done for the community.
Hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition benches may say they are not very much 1412 concerned with the tale I have told, seeing that the person who suffered was a landlord, and, therefore, one, of what they would term, the capitalist class. What, however, do they say to the holding up of a site in Hors ferry Road within a few hundred yards of this House, property that belonged to a charitable institution, the Peabody Trust? It is a fact that the Peabody Trust had acquired a large block of derelict slum dwellings, and they were held up in 1919 by being unable to complete their scheme. They built the main part of their new houses to accommodate people of the working classes, and they were held up because there were a number of tenants in the remaining houses who declined to go out. Ultimately, during the last two years, only two were left Alternative accommodation was obtained for one of those tenants and his family, hut the remaining tenant., who had a small shop, declined to go out. Unfortunately, he only paid 10s. a week, and under a decision of the Courts, the only alternative accommodation to get him out was not only the equivalent of the dwelling-rooms but the equivalent of the shop, and I need hardly tell the House that in that district it was impossible to find such accommodation. He was there for another year, and only recently was got out on payment. of a very large sum of money for a man in his position. He had for one year, and for the previous year held up a scheme which would have resulted in the erection of dwellings costing £20,000 to accommodate 19 or 20 families. Do hon. Gentlemen opposite say that was fair or reasonable? Would they not suggest that the charitable institution, which I believe the Peabody Trust to be had been badly treated?
I can give many more instances. Take the case of the building lessee. What happens to the building lessee? Has he had any assistance or compensation or advantage under these Acts? He has not, and he is not going to get it under this Bill. A building lessee—a speculator, I will admit, and some may say is not entitled to any consideration—had taken a block of houses on a building agreement at a ground rent, on the understanding that he took the rents that were being paid by the tenants under the agreements, the aggregate of those being less than the ground rents, he to pay those ground rents till the agreements ran out, and he to then pull down and carry 1413 out a scheme. Then came the Rents Bill. Instead of losing two or three hundreds a year for two or three years he has lost ever since, and looks like going on losing for more years. Has anybody given him compensation? When he undertook those obligations he was under the impression that when he got possession he would have the residue of an 80 years' term, less two years. That 78 years is not 78 years now. If this Bill comes into law, it will be a shorter term than ever, and if the Act be continued, as is quite likely, what is this unhappy individual going to have? He may have 65 years before he is done with it, and still have the obligation to put up a substantial building. Surely in a case like that at least it would have been reasonable to put in a Clause under which the landlord, the freeholder, was bound to increase the term so as to give the building lessee his original term.
We are not complaining of that. I myself hold a building agreement on those terms, I do not know whether it is in Order to refer to personal matters: but I had the privilege and pleasure of paying half of that sum of £325. I had the pleasure of losing half of the rent, and I had the pleasure of paying half the solicitor's bill of costs. I do not ask anything to be put in for the benefit of landlords in this Bill. I say the Bill is necessary for the community as a whole. Therefore, despite my personal views, I am prepared to support the Bill. I would like to refer to the litigation that arose under the 1923 Act and the preceding Act. I understood the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health to say that really there was not much difficulty in interpretation, and that if anybody had paid a little attention to those Acts, he would have had no necessity to run to a lawyer. So far as it is possible or right for a back bencher and a new Member to differ from anyone on the Treasury Bench, I am afraid I do not agree. Opinions on the Acts are very con fusing. At the same time, I do think that they have now been clarified by the litigation which has taken place, and, being so clarified, there is not much likelihood of having further trouble. I hope the House will support this Bill, and that, if necessary, when the 2½ years is up, if there is not sufficient accommodation, there will be a further extension.
§ Mr. MARDY JONES
I rise to support the Motion against which I have not 1414 heard argument or reason from the Government Benches. I wonder whether the Prime Minister was consulted in the drafting of this Bill and the actual day fixed for control to cease in 1927. The Prime Minister made a very strong appeal last Friday to this House, which I appreciated very strongly, for peace and goodwill, and I noticed that the Government of which he is the head have decided that they will be a signal example of peace and goodwill by ceasing control on Christmas Day, 1927. It seems to me that this Bill is full of sins of omission. It is a clever device to hoodwink the seven million tenants now protected under the existing Rents Act into a false sense of security for the next 2½ years. I agree with the ex-Minister of Health that this is a subtle policy to get decontrol by stealth in the course of the next few years. The Minister of Health presented his beloved Bill as if it were a bed of roses, but I think that time will prove it to be a bed of thorns. The Bill, in my opinion, is a very real tax upon the patience of the poor. We have heard a great deal about bad tenants, and I know that there are bad tenants, as there are good landlords; but both are the exception, in our experience of the administration of the Rent Acts from 1915 to the present date. [HON. MEMBERS "No!"] I have had a fairly large experience in dealing with these Acts during the last 10 years in the South Wales coalfield, and that is my personal experience, anyhow.
If we are to treat this question in a spirit of goodwill, I think the problem we have to face may be stated thus: how to cause the minimum hardship to the landlord class in the effort to obtain maximum security for the tenant class. Along with the rent control question you have the housing problem. The one is dependent upon the other, and it appears to me that the control of houses, whether we like it or not, is a necessary condition until the supply of houses is about equal to the demand. The house owner to-day, because of the scarcity value of his house property, is in a monopoly position, and it is no comparison to say that he is suffering hardship because he cannot sell his property to the highest bidder, or let it to the highest bidder, since there is no open market, as there is in most other articles in this country.
1415 I thought it was understood that there was now general party agreement that the housing problem on a national scale means that we require something like 2,500,000 new houses, which, with the best goodwill and co-operation of all concerned in the building industry, of the Government and of the landlord class, will take 15 years from now to build.
In this building programme, without which there is no hope of decontrol nationally, it is admitted that during the next three years, 1925, 1926 and 1927—the period to be covered in England and Wales by this Bill—we shall have, of State-aided houses, if we are successful with the building programme, exactly 300,000 by the end of 1927, which coincides with the extended period of control. The maximum point, however, in the new building programme will not be reached until 10 years hence, and will have to be maintained for the last five of the 15 years to complete the programme of 2,500,000 houses. I think it must be obvious, in face of this fact, upon which parties are generally agreed, that there is no need of much prophecy to say what is going to be the degree of house shortage for some years. I think it must be obvious to everyone that the shortage will remain very acute for the next five years, and will remain very serious for the next to years. Therefore no prophet is required to predict that, whether the Government will agree to our proposal to extend the period of control much beyond two and a half years, or whether they adhere to the 1927 limit, when 1927 comes, even with the utmost success in building operations, the shortage will still be so acute that the Government will be compelled to continue control.
The Minister of Health, in his opening speech, in which he explained his proposals, pointed out that the reason the Government have adopted the policy of a short continuation of the period of control is because we do not know what will he the outcome of future building for the next few years, and should it turn out, as he tacitly admitted it would, in 1927, that the shortage was still so acute that it would be in the national interest to continue control, he said it could he easily arranged by continuing the existing Bill, if it becomes law, in 1416 the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. Up to now I have credited the Minister of Health with a very extensive and thorough knowledge of the housing problem, but his confidence in imagining that the Act could be satisfactorily continued year by year at the end of 1927 is to me a revelation, because we now know that it is physically impossible to build more than 300,000 or so of houses within the period for which it is proposed to continue control.
§ Mr. JONES
Allowing for all that, I understood that the master builders, as well as the operatives, who are the experts in the industry, have agreed that that is the maximum they can produce within the three years—it is in the scale; it is in the White Paper—and that the maximum production will not take place until 10 years hence. Therefore, it is obvious that for the next 10 years there must be such an acute shortage that a mere continuation of control year by year will be the most unsettling policy imaginable. Tenants generally, and the owners also, will not like any such policy. There is no certainty about. it; it gives a maximum of anxiety for landlords and tenants alike, with a minimum of security.
Then it appears to me that the Minister of Health has neglected to be loyal to those who were loyal to himself and his party at the General Election. I agree with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. Harris) that it is better now definitely to fix the period of control for the next five years. That will relieve the anxiety, not so much of the weekly and monthly tenant, who may, for the moment, be satisfied to he aware that he may have the protection of the Rent Acts for the next 2½ years, but there are in this country, according to my estimate, something like 2,000,000 tenants of houses of the villa type in the residential parts of the country. They occupy the higher-rated houses, and they are not weekly or monthly tenants. They are occupying houses let to them quarterly, half-yearly, or yearly, and a number of the higher type of villas are let on leases o:: two, three, four, five or seven years. Many of these leases will expire before the end of 1927, and most 1417 of these quarterly, half-yearly and yearly tenancies will expire at any time between now and 1927. By this proposal the Government are actually going to give the landlords, generally speaking, the power either to evict these middle-class tenants from their villa residences, or to force them to pay much higher rents in order to get renewals of their tenancies. That is human nature; that is business. The Tory party pride themselves upon their capacity to extract profit out of business, and they will extract it with n vengeance if this Bill becomes law. If they made it five years, the great majority at any rate of these middle-class tenants, as well as working-class tenants, would be protected generally. It is a betrayal of the middle-class supporters of the Tory Party at, the last General Election. I was taught, even in my school days, that the Tory party was the stupid party, but I never imagined them to be as stupid as that. There is one consolation, that it will drive some of their erstwhile supporters into the Labour party.
I think the House, should face the fact that even the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health some time ago admitted that we must be very careful about this date of decontrol, and that we could only do it when we know whether there is any likelihood of a sufficiency of houses to overtake the shortage. Is that the policy and opinion of the Parliamentary Secretary to-day? He nods his head, i f he does not speak, and he agrees. Perhaps he will explain, when he rises to speak, why it is that he is so confident that it can be done in 2½ years. My information is that we have at the present time in this country about 7,000,000 tenants who come more or less under the protection of the Rent Acts of 1920, 1923, and 1924. Of those 7,000,000, about 5,500,000 are weekly and monthly tenants. Probably another 1,000,000 are quarterly, half-yearly, and yearly tenants, and there may be some 500,000 who have leases of a few years as their system of tenancy. In addition, we have probably between 750,000 and 1,000,000 owner-occupiers, who are outside the scope of these Acts, and I believe—the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me if I am wrong—that there are probably about 250,000 tenants in municipal houses, who are also outside the scope of the Acts.
1418 I should like to draw the attention of the House to a remarkable fact which has followed this legislation and State house-building since the War. We have now in this country three main types of tenants, compared with one main type before the War. The first comprises the bulk of the population occupying controlled houses at restricted rents. The second is the increasing number of tenants of municipal houses, now probably some 250,000, and, if the building programme for the next 15 years is successful, they may be increased to as many as 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 in that period. The third type, however, is one of very great interest. It is a new type, created under the Act of 1923, namely, either an owner-occupier or a tenant of a decontrolled house. This type of occupying owner or tenant is a special creation of the Tory party, and they are welcome to the fruits of their labour. The decontrol of vacant houses has been going on steadily since 1923, and is now creating a new social discontent, which is rapidly increasing.
It is doing it in two ways. Firstly, when a house now becomes vacant for any reason other than arrears of rent, it is decontrolled, and the owner does one of two things right away. 'Usually he keeps the house vacant, patches it up to make it look as nice and new as he can, and seeks to sell it at an exorbitant price; and houses are kept vacant in that way for many months as the result of this de control. When the spider gets the fly into his web, when he sells the house to a new owner, who is anxious to get a house to live in, with security of tenure or ownership, at any cost, very often the new owner has only a little savings, and has to borrow money on a heavy mortgage to pay the bulk of the enhanced price of this house. That man then has the satisfaction of living in the house, but he has the bitter experience of having to pay very heavy interest charges on his mortgage, ground rent, Income Tax, rates, and a little money also each year to keep the house in good repair. That is a very heavy burden on the decontrolled house that is sold, as compared with the position of tenants under conditions of control. He has to bear this burden, and he bears it solely for the sake of security, and not for the love of ownership. Most of these men, even of the working class, 1419 who have become the owners of their houses in recent years, have become owners not because they are anxious to own a house, but because it is the only security that offers itself to be left undisturbed, owing to the acute competition for vacant houses.
The second way in which decontrolled houses are now creating discontent is that when the landlord fails to sell his house at a price high enough to satisfy himself, there is no inducement to him to sell it at a reasonable price, because he can always rely upon letting his house at an exorbitant rent, if he cannot sell it at an exorbitant price. The new tenant who goes into a decontrolled house has no security of tenure even if he pays a high rent. He is not protected by the Rent Acts, and the landlord can turn him out on due notice if he can get another tenant foolish enough to pay a still higher rent. I suggest that the Government should take these points into. consideration, and seriously consider the request that they should continue control of all houses, and not decontrol any more for the next five years, leaving the County Court Judges to decide cases of hardship as between owners who want possession for various reasons and the sitting tenant. If the Government are really anxious to help the great mass of tenants in this country, and if they speed up their own housing programme and provide new houses for the people as quickly as possible, the tenants of the existing old houses will be glad to yield them up to the owners so that they may occupy the new houses.
It seems to me that the Government are inclined to depart from the housing policy laid down by the ex-Minister of Health in the Act of 1924. There seems to be a desire to get away from the building of houses for letting, to the building of houses for sale, and to give the lump-sum subsidy to the builder under private enterprise who will provide houses for sale. Obviously, what the people want is reasonable house shelter at reasonable rents, and I venture to say that the mass of the workers would be willing to pay a rather higher rent for a municipal house, rather than be encouraged even to own their own houses, because they would have all the advantages of ownership in a municipal house without any of its disadvantages.
1420 Now I come to the point with regard to the 40 per cent. increase in the net rent. That has been permitted since 1920, and it is proposed to continue it. The Minister of Health, in his opening speech, taunted me with being inconsistent on the ground that, while I had always advocated a reduction of the 40 per cent. increase in the net rent whenever the Tories brought in a Bill, I was conveniently silent when the Labour party brought in a Rent Bill last year. The Labour party's Rent Bill, however, was not intended to be a comprehensive Bill dealing with all these items. There was a private Member's Bill, which received a Second Reading in this House by a very large majority, which was sent upstairs, and which provided for that reduction of the increase in the net rent from 40 per cent. to 25 per cent. Therefore, there was no inconsistency in not putting it into the Labour party's Bill, which was a short Bill to deal mainly with evictions.
I venture to say that, while the increase of 40 per cent. might have been reasonable enough in 1920, to meet the then high cost of repairs, it is not reasonable to-clay. As the ex-Minister of Health said this afternoon, the cost of materials and wages for repair work in 1920 was estimated by the Salisbury Committee at 150 per cent. above the pre-War level, and they recommended, on that ground, that a 40 per cent. increase on the net rent should be permitted to the house owner. To-day that cost is 80 per cent., as compared with 150 per cent., above the pre-War level, and I certainly think that that justifies a substantial reduction in the increase. There is another reason which I should like to put forward why the Government should seriously consider a reduction. The cost of living to-day is about 80 per cent. higher than in 1914, but the general average of wages throughout most industries in the country is much below what it was in 1920. As a matter of fact, it is about half what it was then, and, in particular, of those classes of workers who have contributed most to the development of the heavy industries of the country, the miners of Great Britain are to-day working at actual earning wages which are at least 30 per cent. lower than the cost of living. We have, in addition, over 100,000 miners entirely out work to-day because of closed-down collieries and depression of trade, 1421 and at least 250,000 who are working short time and bringing home very low wages indeed. It would be interesting to know what will be the attitude of this Government, which is maintaining this 40 per cent. increase in the net rent for 7,000,000 to 8,000,000 tenants in this country, when the miners bring in their Minimum Wage Bill on the 27th March. I hope they will then bear that in mind and add a little to that Bill for that purpose.
While things are bad with the miners, they are still worse, I understand, in the engineering and shipbuilding industries, and for these reasons, while 40 per cent may have been quite justifiable in 1920, and admitting that it was justifiable, surely it is not justifiable to-day in view of the tremendous reduction in the wage and in the standard of life of the workers generally. Therefore if the Bill goes through as it now stands, it will surely lead to a great deal of discontent among middle-class as well as working-class tenants. So I urge the Government to agree to extend the period of control definitely for the next five years and to reduce the net rent to 20 per cent., and if the landlord refuses to carry out the repairs after the tenant has secured a certificate from the sanitary authority within three months, they shall insert a Clause to give the local authorities 'he power to do the repairs and to charge the owner the cost. I also agree with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. Harris) when he suggested that when the Government bring in their new Rating Bill, it should include a Clause that all houses that are kept empty for a given period, obviously for the purpose of trying to get a high price for sale or an exorbitant rent, the house, as long as it remains empty, should be rated as if it were occupied. I am well aware that. that cannot be done under the existing rating law, but a Clause should be put into the new Bill to give effect to it, and it will have a very healthy influence in getting houses rented or sold quicker than is now done when they are decontrolled I admit that there are bad tenants as there are good landlords, but the two are an exception to the rule in my experience, and it is for the bad landlord, as well as the had tenant, that all this legislation is necessary. I therefore hope the Govern- 1422 ment will agree to the suggestions we have made.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Sir Kingsley Wood)
I am sure the House has heard once again with great interest, I might also say with entertainment, the lion. Member who has just spoken. He has his own views on the matter. I remember very well the last speech I heard bird make on this question in which he compared landlords to vultures. In the interval he has had an opportunity of extending his study of natural history, and to-day they are spiders. I think the hon. Member will at any rate agree with me in this, that seldom has he taken part in a Debate which has provoked so little attention in the House. That, I think, can be explained by the fact that, taking the restrictive legislation as a whole, it is clear that the Act is working, so far as a difficult Act of that kind can work, fairly and smoothly. I remember very well Debates when the House would he thronged, when there were all sorts of cases of injustice and inequality brought forward. But the most remarkable feature of the Debate to-day has really been the few instances. when you consider the millions of landlords and tenants involved, which have been given of hardship and wrong. The late Minister of Health relied for the greater portion of his speech on a leaflet which he produced from Sheffield. So far from demonstrating the inequalities and hardships of the Act, the leaflet in my judgment really proves how tenants can obtain their rights very quickly indeed without resort to litigation at all and receive very substantial sums in payment. The best part of the leaflet is the concluding portion, which the right hon. Gentleman omitted to read. After referring to the various payments which have been made and wrongs righted, the leaflet concludes by saying:You can stop these scandals by joining the Sheffield District Tenants' Protection Association, entrance fee 6d., contributions 1d. per week.That really demonstrates pretty fairly the position as it is to-day. One can, of course, find on either side, landlord or tenant, difficulties and inequalities that arise, but speaking from my experience, and I think I can speak for a constituency which certainly has its share of 1423 troubles in this connection, the present provisions in relation to rent restriction are, as a whole, fair and equitable, and I think that is one of the strongest reasons why they should be continued, as they are being continued by this Bill, for a further period of 2½ years.
The hon. Member who has just spoken said he has investigated the matter and found that the provisions of the Bill were going to conclude on a Christmas day, and he pictured tenants moving out on a day which certainly ought to be devoted to other things. But I think he overlooked, as did other hon. Members, a statement my right hon. Friend made, namely, that obviously in an Act of this character the matter must be reviewed at the end of the period and, if there was reason for it, the Act would be continued in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill the next year and, if necessary, the year after that, and so on. I think, apart altogether from any party or political considerations, that is an obviously desirable and reasonable way of treating this matter. Obviously no one can say what the position in two and a half years will be. The alternative is the one put before the House by the ex-Minister of Health and the hon. Member for Pontypridd. They say, "We want this Bill continued for 15 years," and the hon. Member opposite was very candid with the House in the reason he gave for the desirability of continuing it for 15 years. He said, "Look at the programme of the building trade. Bead the report they made, and you cannot possibly get sufficient housing accommodation for 15 years. People must wait that period, and therefore the Bent Bill must be continued for that time."
That is a very extraordinary statement. The hon. Member certainly cannot take it from this side of the House that we agree that the people have to wait 15 years. He has entirely overlooked other methods of construction which might be utilised. He told the House that the Government consulted with the building trade, and the building trade came to the conclusion that all they could do was this 15 years' programme. That is hardly a statement the hon. Member would be prepared to make on the platforms on which he so eloquently addresses up and down the country. The people of the 1424 country certainly are not prepared to wait 15 years for housing accommodation. He can take it from me, at any rate, that we are entirely against him in that connection. The path of housing may be difficult and troublesome, but I should be very sorry to think we have to sit down calmly and fold our hands and wait for 15 years to go by, by which time many people will probably be dead, and that that is the whole position so far as the Labour party is concerned. That is not the position on this side of the House, and the overwhelming reason for continuing a Bill of this character for two and a half or three years is that the situation can be reviewed at the end of that period and, if necessary, the Bill would have to be continued.
I want also to refer to one or two statements made by the hen. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) with regard to the Amendment in his name. I know he is very anxious on the question of empty houses. He has often urged it on the House and he has quite rightly seized this opportunity of putting it forward again. I want to put to him this point of view, first, that there is certainly a great difference of opinion as to the magnitude of the problem of the empty house, and, secondly, that, unless there is good evidence that the problem is of a reasonable magnitude, it is unwise to bring forward any further restrictive legislation at present. I had sent me a few days ago a pamphlet by a league with which I know he and his friends are familiar—the London Housing League. Its objects are stated in the pamphlet sent. me, which played not an important part, but some part, in the last London County Council Election, to be non-political, and I see the Right Rev. H. Russell-Wakefield is the president, and I believe the hon. Member for Bethnal Green is a member. The very first statement in this pamphlet, which is entitled, "How to get houses," is this:An empty working-class dwelling can hardly be found,and therefore, if that is a true statement of the facts, which does not come apparently from any political party, it would at any rate seem that so far as London is concerned, in accordance with the statement of this League, of which well 1425 known people like Major Barnes and Sir Edgar Bonham-Carter are officers, it would not appear from their view of the position—
Mr. T. THOMSON
In reply to a question the other day, the Minister of Health said that in the London County Council area on 31st March there were 9,461 empty properties.
§ Sir K. WOOD
That may be perfectly true, but have you distinguished as to what they are? They are dealing with working-class houses. It is, I daresay, true that there are a number of bigger houses in London which are empty. I remember very well in the days of a previous Minister of Health, attempts were made to deal with the big houses of London and to see whether they could be converted into flats, and a very disastrous experiment it proved. The, expenses of conversion were almost prohibitive, and in the result, notwithstanding the active steps which were taken, it was found that no appreciable additional housing accommodation resulted. The short answer to the hon. Member is that the lack of confidence which will undoubtedly be caused by further interference at present with the people upon whom we have to a large extent to depend to put up the houses, would, in my opinion, overbalance anything which could be obtained by taking over a few empty houses compulsorily. Also the hon. Member should remember that if a local authority really wants to take these empty houses it has power to do it by purchase, presumably getting value for its money, and I think that is a far better way of dealing with the situation than by bringing in a further restrictive law. I think that would commend itself to most housing reformers to-day. In every up-to-date statement of housing reform which I have seen recently there has not been a word said about this empty house question. The matter is, on the whole, too small, and the best remedy is either for the local authorities to purchase a house if they can do so, or, better still, to put up as many houses as possible.
A further suggestion has been made by the late Minister of Health that no further houses should be permitted to be decontrolled. He has made two or three 1426 suggestions. One was that the 40 per cent. addition should be reduced—a very extraordinary suggestion coming from him. I was very interested to hear the little bit of history the hon. Member for Pontypridd gave of the various Rent Bills which came before the House, and many hon. Members here to-day will recollect very well, as well as the late Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Health, the efforts which were made by the Government in relation to rent restriction. The Government brought in a Bill to amend rent restriction legislation, and the only suggestion the right hon. Gentleman made at that time was a Clause to permit the unemployed to live rent free at the expense of their landlords. The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), speaking of that effort, said it proposed to do the right thing in the wrong way. My comment on those proposals is that there was no suggestion coming at that time from the right hon. Gentleman to alter the 40 per cent. There was no suggestion at that time that houses should cease to be controlled.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
The hon. Gentleman knows the circumstances arising from it. At that time, owing to certain action, a large number of people, particularly in England, were being evicted from their homes, and there was an agitation for a Bill to be introduced limiting the power to evict people from their homes. It was not a question of dealing with rent nor with control. A Bill was introduced for that temporary purpose, but the Minister of Health extended it more than some of the people who asked him to introduce it wanted.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I am very interested to hear that explanation, because I remember very well that the Minister at that time was pressed by members of his own party to deal with the suggestion he is now making, and it is very interesting to observe, when we have the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that the 40 per cent. should be reduced, that he was the very person who, when he brought in his own Housing Bill, told the local authorities that they must base the rents of the new houses on the rents of similar old houses plus 40 per cent.
§ Mr. STEPHEN
Is it not the case that the late Minister left in the Department the outline of a Bill?
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I am afraid I am not permitted by certain rules and Regulations to say what he left or did not leave behind him in the Department. The late Parliamentary Secretary can perhaps make a better statement than I on the matter, but I myself have not seen it. I know that the whole of his housing legislation and his scheme is actually based upon the 40 per cent. addition, and 'f anyone wants to see it, because the right hon. Gentleman may have forgotten all that has taken place, he has only to read the Circular to local authorities which was issued by him in 1924. If that was his view then ho has changed it. [Interruption.] I prefer interruptions to come from the late Parliamentary Secretary. who was familiar with all the details. It certainly is a most remarkable thing, and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is nothing to the conversion of the ex-Minister of Health. It was only a few months ago that he passed the whole of the financial arrangements of his scheme and invited local authorities—
§ Mr. MAXTON
I do not wish to interrupt, but surely no one knows better than the Parliamentary Secretary the change in frame of mind that occurs on a transference across the Floor of the House.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman the former Minister of Health will be very indebted to the hon. Gentleman for the explanation which he has now furnished. In fact, you will find, at any rate so far as this country is concerned, that the present arrangement, both with regard to the Act itself and the payment of rent which now appertains, is fully accepted as fair and equitable. Anyone would think, from the statements which have been made by the ex-Minister of Health, and particularly by the hon. Member for Pontypridd, that the whole of the property owners of this country were capitalists, people who were seeking to "down" tenants and to take every possible advantage of them. If I may respectfully say so without offence, it shows a very limited and ignorant view of the conditions of property holding in this country. I suppose that at present—it is a very fine and valuable thing—the working classes of this country own £400,000,000 worth of house property, and 1 suppose that the building societies of 1428 the country, which are composed very largely of members of the working classes, have £83,000,000 invested in house property.
When I hear suggestions made, apparently without consultation with people of that kind, with trade unions and co-operative societies which have large sums of money invested in working-class property, that all these people with the others are guilty of some sort of malpractice and unfair treatment, I think it is showing a very ignorant view of the situation. This Act is very difficult. You can find numbers of cases where on the one hand there is a bad tenant or on the other hand a bad landlord, but, speaking generally, few Members will deny that. taking. it as a whole, and having regard to the difficulty of legislation of this character, at present the Act is working smoothly, and the County Court. Judges are dealing sympathetically with cases that are constantly arising, and—a most extraordinary thing—there is no outcry in the country against. the Act. I think most people would prefer that rent restriction legislation should, if possible, be abolished. The real solution of this problem is not a 15 years' programme, is not the reducing of rents or things of that kind. The real solution is the provision of more houses. The Government are doing well in continuing this Bill for a further reasonable time, and in devoting their skill to the real solution of the problem by getting more working-class houses.
§ Debate accordingly adjourned; to ho resumed To-morrow.