§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Parkinson.]
§ Sir B. PETO
On Thursday last, I asked a question with regard to the continuation of the Rent Restrictions 178 Acts and, in particular, with regard to the operation of a provision which involves great hardship to the owners of single houses of which they have been waiting for years to obtain possession. That question was, when replied to, coupled up with three other questions bearing on different aspects of the Rent Restrictions Acts, and the reply of the Minister of Health was:The future of the Rent Restrictions Acts is one of the matters which is engaging my attention. I regret that I am not in a position to make a statement on the subject."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1929; col. 1067, Vol. 229.]Let me say at once that, so early in the lifetime of the present Government, I should not, because it would be unreasonable, expect that they would be able to give me precise details with regard to what they propose in this matter of the continuation of the Rent Restrictions Acts, or, indeed, in many other matters which are vaguely outlined in their programme; but I think, in view of the fact that all over the country for at least nine years past a very large number of the most thrifty and praiseworthy of the poorer classes of the population, who have purchased houses for their own occupation, have been deprived of the use of those houses, and that they are naturally waiting, with the advent of a new Government, to know what view the Government take of this matter, and whether any hope is to be extended to them of ever getting possession of the houses which are their property, I might have received a more comprehensive answer, and at least some indication of what the Government's policy is.
Let me call the attention of the House to the fact that the first Rent Restrictions Act, which was passed in 1915, is called in its Title a "War Restrictions Act." It was passed as a War Measure, and yet, in Sub-section (3) of Section 1 of that Act, it saysNo order for the recovery of possession of a dwelling-house to which this Act applies or for the ejectment of a tenant therefrom shall be made so long as the tenant continues to pay rent at the agreed rate …. except on the ground that the tenant has committed waste …. or that the premises are reasonably required by the landlord for the occupation of himself or some other person in his employ ….Therefore, when the Act was first passed, the fact that the house was required for the occupation of the original owner was 179 considered to be a sufficient reason for his getting possession. When the Act of 1920 was passed, a limitation was placed upon this right, for that Act provides that an order for the recovery of possession shall not be made unless:The dwelling-house is reasonably required by the landlord for occupation as a residence for himself …. and …. the court is satisfied that alternative accommodation, reasonably equivalent as regards rent and suitability in all respects, is available.It is this provision under which, in countless cases, owners of single houses purchased for their own occupation, while they have received the sympathy of the Court, have never been able to get possession of the houses which they purchased for their own use. When I put this question to the Minister of Health the other day, he said that it was one which might have been raised at any time for five years past. That is true, but it is equally true that it might have been raised at any time for nine years past.
On several occasions from year to year this Act of 1920 has been continued. It has been continued annually, and the class of people to whom I have referred have bought these small houses for their own occupation, in the confident anticipation—an anticipation which they were perfectly right in holding—that the Act would lapse, or at any rate would be amended or repealed. It is this provision, that they have to satisfy the Court that there is other accommodation equivalent as regards rent and suitability in other respects, which forms a bar to their ever getting possession of their own houses. It is obvious from the cases that have been brought to ray notice from all parts of the country, and even from parts of Scotland, since I first raised the question that there are very few friends of the small capitalist who will do anything for him in this House. Since I raised this question it has been constantly pointed out to me that the county council houses, built under the various building Acts, are almost invariably let at very much higher rents than those paid to these people for the houses they have bought for their own occupation. Therefore it comes to this, that the man or woman who owns his own house, and has bought it from the thrift and savings of a lifetime, is compelled 180 to pay in many cases more than double the rent that is paid by his tenant, for a council house, and in many cases the tenant is doing very good business in subletting part of the house, for which he is paying a far less rent than the actual owner has to pay for his accommodation.
I will give one or two examples of the cases to which I refer. The first I mention will perhaps be received with some sympathy by the Lord Privy Seal, who has been not unconnected with railway men in the course of his various duties outside the House. Here is a case of a railway man at Chester, nearly 60 years of age, employed by the. London and North Eastern Railway Company since 16 years of age. He bought a small house at Sheffield in November, 1920, after the Act to which I have referred was passed. He bought it with money he had struggled to save for that purpose. Thousands of houses have been built at Sheffield. The tenant makes no attempt to get one, and says he does not mean to. At present this man is living in a railway house, and when he becomes 60, as it is railway property, he will, have to give it up. He has beer careful and thrifty all his life, and is now to be homeless although he has bought the house in anticipation of precisely this eventuality. [Interruption.] He will certainly not get possession of any house at anything approaching the rent of the house he bought with his own money.
The second case I will mention may interest the Minister of Education. It is that of a school mistress who is near retiring, or just retired, and therefore during the greater part of her career she has been in receipt of a very much smaller salary than the Burnham Scale. In spite of that, she has saved enough to provide a small house for her old age, yet she finds she cannot get possession of it, although again it is a case of the result of a life's savings. I will call attention to another case because it shows that very often a family is penalised while the occupier of the house is a person who has no children at all. This is a small property inherited from the father. It includes a good, old-fashioned house of eight rooms and the present occupier has no children. The owner has three young children and is living in a small cottage. Council 181 houses of similar value are 16s. 4d. a week and the tenants of this man's house only pay 7s. 6d. a week. Here is another case from another part of Devonshire. It is at Exeter, where the tenant is paying 6s. 6d. a week for a six-roomed house. [An HON. MEMBER: "Where is it?"] The address is 18, Friars Walk, Exeter. I will not mention the name. The owner has to live in two rooms, paying 12s. 6d. a week, and two of his children have to go out to sleep. I could give the House a large number of other examples, but that, I think, is sufficient for my purpose.
Since I took up this question, as I told the House, I have had correspondence, and I am quite sure that the Minister of Health will have had plenty of correspondence on this subject also, from people all over the country. I want to point out that it is really a question of whether hon. Members opposite, and the Minister of Health in particular, agree with the present Chancellor of the Exchequer that everything ought to be done to encourage thrift. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made a speech to that effect within the last day or two. I want to know what form of thrift is more commendable and is a greater national asset than the thrift which results in a person saving during a great part of his life either through a building society or otherwise, and becoming the actual owner of the house in which he and his family want to live, and thereby making provision for his own old age.
I would point this out to the Minister of Health. He is very anxious that the Measure he proposed to the House to-day should increase the number of houses for letting. In the cases which I am putting to the House there is no question of additional houses at all. It is purely a question of whether the person who owns the house, who has saved his money in order to buy it, has a better right to live in it than anyone else. It does not make any more houses or any less houses. It is merely a question as to who has a right-to go into the house. I say that we are entitled in this new Parliament, and even at this period of it, to get some kind of indication from the Minister of Health as to what these people have a right to expect during the currency of the present Parliament. We do not know whether this Act is going to be extended from 182 year to year with or without Amendment. We do not know whether these people, who have been waiting for nine years to get into their own houses, will have to wait until the lifetime of the present Parliament is at an end, or not. If that is the position, it ought to be ended. The reason I am raising this question on the Adjournment to-night is that very shortly the House will be separating, and I do not want these people to be left in doubt and uncertainty, and, I would say, in mental misery, and in physical misery in many cases, for another long period of months without having an indication, if by pressing the matter on the Minister of Health I can possibly get some measure of hope that they will shortly be in a position to get the possession of the houses which they have bought.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I have listened with great interest to the somewhat belated speech of the hon. Baronet. There have been a large number of occasions when he might have raised this question with hon. and right hon. Members who are in greater political sympathy with him than I am.
§ Sir B. PETO
May I point out that the sole reason why I have had this correspondence from all parts of the country is that I have raised this question during the last two or three years on several occasions?
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I observe that on the last occasion when this question was before the House the hon. Baronet did not speak. It was in 1927 that the Rent Restrictions Acts were last before this House. I have no doubt that if the hon. Baronet had cared he might have made occasions to raise the matter between 1927 and 1929. If my recollection serves me right, the hon. Baronet has been a Member of this House longer than I have, and he may have raised the question much earlier than the date when I entered the House. I am fully aware of the complications of rent restriction, and I would say to the hon. Baronet, for his reflection and contemplation, that there are two sides to this question. If the question is to be raised in all its aspects I should imagine that hon. Members opposite would be constrained to defend the present rents that are being charged for decontrolled houses. It is an unfortunate fact that while, on the one hand, the owner of a house is unable to obtain occupation, on the other 183 hand, a very large number of people have been driven, against their will, to occupy decontrolled houses and pay, not the rents to which he has referred, but rents which are double those of municipal houses.
I am glad that the hon. Baronet has raised this question. I regard it as a great compliment to the present Government. He is expecting me to solve in four weeks a problem which the late Government refused to solve in 4½ years. During the last 4½ years, the most pitiable appeals were made to the Government by hon. Members then sitting on this side of the House to deal with the hard cases under the Rent Restrictions Acts, but the Minister of Health and the Parliamentary Secretary at that time treated them either with levity or contumely. On no occasion did those hon. Members get any comfort. Why should the hon. Baronet, on the second occasion that I have had to address the House as Minister of Health, expect me to be in a position to come forward with a complete solution of the whole problem of rent restriction? I regard it as a compliment. I admit that, taking it all in all, those of us on this side of the House ought to be able to solve in four weeks what those on the other side have failed to solve in as many years.
The problem of rent restriction is inevitably connected with the problem of housing. The real problem about rent restriction to-day is the fact that there is a shortage of houses. That is why I say that to attempt to deal at this stage with the problem of rent restriction as a separate problem would bring to me more difficulties than the difficulties from which I should be likely to escape. I have no intention to-night of making any announcement in regard to what may happen within the next few months. It is true, as the hon. Baronet says, that within the next week or two the House will adjourn for the Summer Recess. I hope that it may be possible before the Recess arrives for me to make some kind of statement. I would put this point of view to the hon. Baronet. If I am faced, owing to Parliamentary time, with an alternative which involves a choice between a new Act of Parliament dealing with housing and a modification of rent restriction, I would rather face the oppo- 184 sition of hon. Members opposite on a new Bill than on the time that would be involved in getting the most meagre advance on the present rent restrictions. I am not saying that the present condition of the restricted houses is as good as one would like it to be, but I say that if it is possible to deal with this problem at some stage in the life of the present Government many toes would be trodden upon.
This vast and complicated question cannot be raised without raising a large number of issues which the former Minister of Health refused to face. All that I can say at the present moment—and I am entitled to claim this—is that I ought not to be called upon within a week or two of taking office to produce a cut-and-dried scheme to deal with the hard cases which have been brought to the notice of the hon. Baronet. I sympathise with those cases as fully as any hon. Member in the House, but I am fully conscious of the fact that rent restriction was imposed in this country because of a shortage of housing accommodation, and that whatever may be done by Amendment of the present Rent Restriction Acts to deal with the problem of those who are now living in houses which have been built for years, the major problem is not one which can be solved by juggling with the houses which are already built. The major problem is a substantial addition to the supply of new houses. As far as I am concerned, I would rather devote what time I may be in a position to occupy in this House to the larger problem than to the thorny question of restriction and the condition of the people who are living in houses under the Rent Restriction Acts.
I hope, however, it may be possible for me to make some statement—not one, I imagine, which will meet with wholehearted enthusiasm of hon. Members opposite now that they have lost their sense of responsibility, but one which, I hope, will meet the sense of the House. I hope that statement may be made before the House rises for the Recess, but, obviously, anything which may be done must be conditioned by the amount of legislation which will be before the House when we meet after the Summer Recess. There is in all Governments some order of priority, and obviously I cannot at this stage commit the Govern- 185 ment to any order of priority with regard to legislation, and particularly with regard to legislation affecting one side of a problem which is a very large problem and which may ultimately take up a considerable amount of the time of this House and of the Committees of the House after the House reassembles in the autumn. I am glad that the hon. Baronet has raised this question. I do not wish to deal with the merits of it, because I am prepared to admit the hardships that already exist and it would not be right, even if I were prepared to do so, at this stage to be provoked into any kind of statement of policy on an Adjournment Motion. That must come in its definite place and in its due time.
The previous Government in four and a half years, with opportunities which we may not possess, and with a majority which we do not enjoy, with an empty programme for a large proportion of its life, failed to devote themselves to this question, and I do not see why in its early days the present Government, which is dealing with large problems affecting the whole of our people here and overseas, should be called upon to make an announcement of policy on a matter which the late Government failed to deal with and upon which hon. Members opposite were unable to convince their own leaders as to the justice of their case. A thousand and one questions are involved and an ultimate solution depends not only upon a minor amendment of the Rent Restriction Acts, but on a large and generous scheme for new houses.
§ Mr. KINGSLEY GRIFFITH
I hope the right hon. Gentleman in the discharge of his office, in which we all wish him well, will not take it as any kind of personal affront every time he is asked to deal with one of the questions which the late Government failed to solve. After all, one of the reasons why he is sitting there, and why hon. Members behind him are sitting there is, because of the vast multitude of subjects which the last Government failed to solve, and we are looking with a certain amount of hope to the right hon. Gentleman in this and other matters. Here is a matter of the most genuine importance—I am not confining myself to the particular grievance raised by the hon. Baronet for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto). It is a common fact that this question of rent restriction 186 is one which is puzzling everybody, including County Court Judges who have to administer it. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned something about a new Act of Parliament. If he could find time to devote himself to that he will confer a great blessing on many of the poorest people in this country. At the present moment rent restriction legislation is so complicated that no one understands it. Everything the right hon. Gentleman said about time everyone will understand. The building of houses undoubtedly takes priority—everyone will agree with that. But I venture to say that however successful the housing programme of the present Government may be, and I hope it will be very successful, yet there is so much leeway to make up that rent restriction in some form or other will continue to be necessary in my humble judgment for a considerable time, and if that is so, it will be a great blessing if new legislation can be prepared to make the law on this subject something which is available and understandable by the common people.
§ Captain BOURNE
One question we are entitled to ask the right hon. Gentleman, and that is, whether he intends to continue the Bent Restrictions Acts under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. He has said that we on this side did not raise this question in the last Parliament, but I would remind him, as he well knows as an old Member of the House, that although we may raise this question and did so on many occasions, that we were perfectly unable to amend any Act brought in under that Bill. It is a matter of some importance to know whether he intends to bring this Act in under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill.
§ It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Parkinson.]
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I have already said that I hope to make a statement before the House rises for the Recess. The hon. and gallant Member must be satisfied with that. His question is not going to draw me to make that statement now.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at One Minute after Eleven o'Clock.