HC Deb 31 March 1925 vol 182 cc1270-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


I should like to repeat at greater length the point I have submitted to the Minister of Health at Question Time and on many occasions. I refer specially, of course, to the condition of housing within the County Borough of West Ham. In our borough we have about 49,000 houses. We have a very up-to-date sanitary department, guided by our very able medical officer, and we have about 12 sanitary inspectors, and in the course of a year they can cover about 10,000 houses. It would take approximately five years to deal in the ordinary way with insanitary houses in our borough. I am sure the Minister and the House will be surprised when I tell them that I have analysed the past four years and the average number of inspections in those years was 10,933, and it was decided by our sanitary inspector that 8,654 houses were not in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation. In 1923 when I attended Standing Committee A and the Rent Restriction Bill, introduced and piloted by the present Attorney-General, was before us, I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston (Mr. Wheatley) were responsible for getting the Attorney-General to accept an Amendment The point we put was that the onus and responsibility then was on the tenant to go to the County Court Judge and produce a certificate from the sanitary authority that his house was not in all respects fit for human habitation and claim the right to the non-payment of the 25 per cent. increase in rent. We submitted that that power was not commensurate with the needs of the area. The Attorney-General saw the point quite well and put through an Amendment which made it open for the local authority to go to Court on behalf of the tenant. We were pleased with that and I noted what the Under-Secretary for Health said to-day, that he was sure the public generally were aware of their powers under this Clause. I wonder whether he will be surprised to know that for the past four years only 30 persons in West Ham have been able to take advantage of that Clause, proving again, as I proved to the Attorney-General, that that power is not quite what the people want, the reason being that a man is usually at work and the wife is busy at home with domestic work, and, in addition, working people do not like attending at the Court.

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman understands that my few words are not words of carping criticism. I believe my idea is a practical one and will assist him in the point of view of constructively dealing with insanitary property. The special point I want to urge on his is this. Because people do not feel disposed to go to Court they should get the help of a civic administrative authority. We are willing to do all we can. We are circumscribed because of the circumstances under which we are compelled to operate. It is within the power of the Minister to get an Order-in-Council to deal with the owners of insanitary property. They ought to be compelled by law to provide for people a commodity just as much as purveyors of meat or bread can be dealt with by rules and regulations of public health. In my borough in 1924, 8,500 notices were delivered upon the owners of houses that they were not in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation. If you assume that only 75 per cent. of these owners are charging the full 40 per cent. increase, and assume a 10s. pre-War standard rent, it tells you that 6,375 owners are getting 2s. 6d. per week from the tenants that they are not permitted to draw by the law of the land. If you work that out it comes to nearly £32,000 per year. The point I want to put to the Minister for his consideration at some future date is that he could get the order to which I have previously referred, make a Proclamation dealing with West Ham first, calling upon the owners within a period of six months to put their property in a sanitary condition, give them six months' fair trial, and if they do not then comply with the Regulations of the local sanitary department, take it for granted your public notice serves the re quirement of the usual notice, and then have these landlords taken to court.

I thank the House for listening to me, and I trust the Minister will accept my remarks in the spirit in which I make them. I ask him to give serious consideration to the housing conditions in this borough, which is the seventh largest in the country. The borough is crowded; in one room we find as many as eleven people living, and we cannot build houses for them because there is no land available in the borough. We cannot afford to build houses outside the borough because our rates are so high that we could not bear the incidence of the necessary financial adjustments. I am sure the Minister is as desirous as I am of getting houses for the people. I want him to feel that my suggestions are constructive and that it is my desire to be helpful. I ask him to give consideration to the point which I am putting, and I hope the Government will take a bold stride forward and brine pressure to bear on owners of slum property so that justice may be done to the common people of my borough.


I am sure the House generally appreciates the motive and the tone of the hon. Member and the manner in which he has just spoken, and, speaking for my Department, I am sure we will give fair consideration to any proposal which he makes to help us to solve the many difficulties which are confronting us at the present time in connection with the housing problem. We appreciate particularly the difficulties of a neighbourhood like West Ham. West Ham is practically a built-up borough, and I think it can be said that, speaking generally, the only method by which West Ham can do anything to solve the problem is by dealing with the insanitary houses to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I want him to appreciate, as I know he will, the efforts that have already been made. I did not follow all his figures with regard to the inspections that have already taken place in the neighbourhood, but I obtained exact information as to what happened in one year as far as inspections in West Ham are concerned. I find that the latest information is that in West Ham 11,207 inspections were made in one year—probably between one-fourth and one-fifth of the houses in the borough. I am glad that, as a consequence of those inspections, repairs were carried out by owners in respect of no fewer than 9,069 houses. We would, of course, gladly see more done, but that, at any rate, shows that something is being done in this connection. Speaking of the whole country, I may tell the hon. Member, as showing the efforts that are being made in this connection, that in one year notices were served throughout the whole country, in respect of 265,548 houses, and defectswereactually remedied in no fewer than 246,787. The hon. Member will, therefore, see that we are not neglecting at the Ministry of Health that important side of our work. He will understand that we are hampered by difficulties in connection with labour, but we are always keeping before us the necessity of bringing, if we can, a large number of these unsatisfactory houses into a better condition, and we shall continue to follow that policy. With regard to the proposal which the hon. Member has made, I do not want him to think I am unduly criticising it, or that we do not welcome any suggestion, especially from one who is so sincere and anxious to help us as he is. But what he is proposing is that instead of the local authority serving each landlord with a notice of defect in respect of the particular property which is to be the subject of the survey, some form of public declaration or announcement should be made. I anticipate that he would like the local authority to issue a public announcement exhibited, say, on the church doors or at the town hall to the landlords of, say, West Ham that they must put their houses in order. He will at once see the difficulties of that. In the Schedule to every one of these notices that the local authority serves the defects which have to be remedied must be specified. I think it will be seen at once that it would be impossible by means of a general proclamation dealing, say, with some 11,000 houses, to specify all that would be necessary and desirable in connection with each house. That is why I told the hon. Gentleman to-day, not in any carping spirit but because we have to do justice all the way round that it would be impossible to deal with specific defects by means of a general public notice. He indicated that this might also be done by means of an Order in Council. I am afraid that the Minister of Health has no such power. All these matters are laid down by Act of Parliament. What steps the Minister has to take and what steps the local authorities have to take are at the present time all regulated to the very last degree by Statute. So it would be impossible for the Ministry of Health by Order in Council to say to-morrow that all the landlords, for instance, of West Ham must obey some public declaration affixed to a church door, and that if it is not obeyed within six months those landlords would be liable to be brought before the West Ham Police Court in respect of the defects in their houses. I wish we could do it so quickly and simply as the hon. Member has indicated.

I am afraid we must pursue the remedy so far as we can of serving these notices and getting the landlords to put their houses in order by the method I have indicated. I am glad to think that, as I have shown, by the figures in a large number of cases, in fact some 80 or 90 per cent., when the notice has been served no further proceedings have been necessary. In a small number it has been necessary to take the landlord into Court, but by the service of the notice a great deal has been effected. I can, however, promise that we will pursue, so far as we are able and labour difficulties allow, what is, I think, a very important part of the problem of remedying the housing shortage at the present time. It is a very painful and difficult thing to get new houses erected, and, therefore, we must turn our attention to every side of the problem. I certainly agree with the hon. Member, and he can rely upon the Ministry of Health pursuing the policy of endeavouring to get as many of these defective houses remedied and repaired as quickly as possible, and I thank him for bringing the matter before the notice of the House to-night. I can assure the hon. Member that we do our best in the difficult circumstances that confront us to pursue this policy, and any suggestion which the hon. Member, or any other hon. Member, can make, will be gratefully received by the Department and considered, with a view to dealing with the housing shortage as speedily as possible.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty one Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.