HC Deb 29 April 1930 vol 238 cc55-65


Considered in Committee.

[Mr. ROBERT YOUNG in the Chair.]




Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £12,724,200, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1931, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Health, including Grants and other expenses in connection with Housing, certain Grants to Local Authorities, etc., Grants-in-Aid in respect of Benefits and Expenses of Administration under the National Health Insurance Acts, certain Expenses in connection with Widows', Orphans', and Old Age Contributory Pensions Acts, and other Services."—(NOTE: £6,500,000 has been voted on account.)

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)

In accordance with custom, I do not propose to analyse in great detail the complicated figures published in the Estimate. I will give a general survey of expenditure, and then refer to some of the more outstanding and more important work carried out by the Department during the past year and in contemplation during the present financial year. The total amount of the Estimate, namely, £19,224,200, is a little over £2,000,000 less than the Estimate for last year. The decrease is accounted for primarily by the discontinuance of certain public health grants as from 1st April this year, which reduces the amount by a sum more than the £2,000,000, the net diminution resulting from an increase in certain other grants for administration, for housing, and for health insurance. Administrative charges show an increase of £190,000. That is mainly due, in the first place, to automatic increases in salaries and bonus for the full-time staff, secondly, to the additional staff required under the new Pensions Act, which, of course, is recoverable, and, thirdly, to the increase of staff required for the purposes of the Local Government Act.

I will turn to one of the large items of expenditure, that of housing. The Estimates this year show an increase of £705,000 over expenditure in the last year. Part of this is due to increased expenditure from Exchequer sources under the Housing Act, 1919. Under that Act, the responsibility of local authorities was limited, and the increase this year in the grant payable in respect of Addison houses, of £105,000, is due mainly to the decrease in the produce of a penny rate resulting from the operation of the de-rating provisions of the Local Government Act, 1929. As regards expenditure under the Act of 1923, provision is being made this year for an expenditure of £2,375,000. Under the 1924 Act, provision is being made for an expenditure of £2,575,000. The amount allocated for the purposes of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act stands at the same figure as last year, namely, £5,000.

I may perhaps here deal with the general housing position. Up to 31st March this year, there had been completed since the Armistice, in connection with State-aided schemes of housing, 939,000 houses. Of these, rather over 174,000 were built under the Housing Act, 1919, 39,000 under the Additional Powers (Housing) Act, 436,000 under the Act of 1923, and 288,000 odd under the Act of 1924. At the end of March this year, there were, under the Act of 1924, over 28,000 houses actually under construction, between 17,000 and 18,000 definitely arranged for but not actually started, and a further 13,000 or more authorised but not yet definitely arranged for, making over 59,000 in course of erection or in process of arrangement. In addition to the large number of State-assisted houses which have been built since the War, a considerable number have been built, without State assistance of any kind, and, up to 31st March last, this private building without Government assistance accounted for about 520,000 houses. So that, since the end of the War, the total number of houses actually completed in England and Wales amounts to 1,459,000.

Lieut. - Colonel FREMANTLE

All houses, or only working-class houses?


All houses. Of these, 939,000 were built with State assistance and 520,000 without. Of those built with State assistance, 527,000 were built by local authorities. In order to prevent the disorganisation which the Government thought would result from a further diminution of the 1924 subsidy, that subsidy was stabilised, but the subsidy under the 1923 Act came to an end in September of last year. There has been during the last year or two a fall in the cost of house building, and that reduction in prices has up to the present been generally maintained, and, so far as non-parlour houses are concerned, the price in March of this year was £338. In addition to actual building, there has been, of course, a, good deal of provision made by the advance of money under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act and in other ways to owner-occupiers and builders of houses, and since 1923, up to the present time, no less than about £68,000,000 has been sanctioned as loans for the purchase or erection of houses under that Act.

4.0 p.m

Slum clearance has gone slowly, partly because of the present state of the law, and partly because of a legal decision given in the Courts some little time ago, reinforced by a further decision given quite recently, and the Housing Bill now before the House will meet that situation. It is interesting to observe that, in spite of the fact that many hon. Members in all quarters of the Committee feel that we have not yet done sufficient to cope with the housing problem, a feeling which I, myself, share, we have since the War expended from the Exchequer, up to the end of March this year, no less a sum than over £85,000,000.


Can the right hon. Gentleman give the expenditure from the local rates?


I cannot give that, I am afraid, because, apart from the expenditure under the 1919 Act and the 1923 Act, the expenditure of local authorities varies.

Perhaps I may at this juncture say a word or two about the allied question of town planning. There are in existence now 80 regional committees, 60 of which are advisory and 20 of which are executive. There has been an increase in the number of executive regional committees, and I should like to emphasise the importance of proceeding by the method of the executive committee rather than the advisory committee. I know there are difficulties in the way because of the jealousy of neighbouring authorities, and often because of the difficulty of apportioning the charges between the various local authorities who form part of the regional committees, but it, is clear, I think, that we need a large master plan for sufficiently wide areas, the details of which can be filled in by more localised planning schemes. Reports have been received this year—the substance of them will be found in the next report of the Department—from some of the more important regional committees. Particular interest, I think, attaches to the work of the Cumbrian Regional Planning Committee, which includes a large part of the Lake District. It is of interest to note, in view of the movement in favour of national parks, that a scheme is under consideration there which, if carried to success, will, I believe, permanently save to the nation the beauties of the Lake District, and will do something to control in an orderly fashion any future development that may take place.

Substantial progress has been made in town planning in the course of the year. At present, town planning schemes are in operation or proposed covering, in England and Wales, at 31st March this year over 6,417,000 acres. A year ago, the number of acres covered by schemes was about 4,460,000 acres; so that in the last 12 months we have added an area of 1,000,000 acres to the areas which can look forward in the future for scientific and orderly development. It is, however, clear that a good deal still remains to be done, and that existing powers do not permit either the State or local authorities to do what is desirable in the sphere of regional planning. As I have already said, the Government contemplate comprehensive legislation on this matter, and the Department is now, and has been for some time, in consultation with members of some of the more important organisations who are interested or concerned. Their help has been extraordinarily valuable, and it is desirable that, before detailed proposals are put before Parliament, we should get the views of people of experience in this extremely important problem.


Can the right hon. Gentleman make some reference to rural housing?


I have not by me the particulars as to the number of houses built in agricultural parishes. I have already explained earlier that as far as the Housing (Rural Workers) Act is concerned, the fruit of it has been very small. If the Committee wish, I can give the figures again, but they can easily be found by reference to my speech on the Second Reading of the Housing Bill.

A big apparent reduction in the Estimates of the Department this year, as I have already explained, arises because of the change in the method of the grants for the Public Health Services. The net decrease under the Miscellaneous Grants, which will be found set out in the Estimates, amounts to £3,177,000. That is because hitherto the grants in respect of maternity and child welfare, other than the payment of health visitors and midwives, the treatment of tuberculosis, the treatment of venereal disease and the welfare of the blind, have appeared in these Votes, but in future will be included in the block grant which was decided upon in the Act of 1929.

Before I refer to some of the other big outstanding questions, the Committee might wish to know the progress which has been made in putting into operation the provisions of the Local Government Act. As hon. Members are aware, the Act provided that administrative arrangements to be made for the transfer of Poor Law functions should be formulated in schemes to be submitted to the Minister. The result has been that during the first year a great deal of the activities of county councils and county borough councils, on the one hand, and the Department on the other, has been concerned with the endeavour to bring into operation as soon as possible this transfer of functions from the board of guardians to the larger local authority, and it says much for the enthusiasm with which the new public assistance authorities have done their work, that most of the schemes were presented at the due time. The schemes which had to be presented, and which have been approved and are actually working, deal mainly with two subjects—the machinery to be set up for administering the transferred functions, and the scope and distribution of the work to be performed by that machinery.

As regards the first point, the Committee, of course, knows that the Act permits that the scheme shall provide for the setting up either of a separate public assistance committee or of another Committee of the council to act as a public assistance committee, in either case with or without a minority of co-opted members. Forty-eight out of 62 counties, and 75 out of 83 county boroughs preferred to set up an ad hoc committee as a separate public assistance committee. Forty-two county schemes and 52 county borough schemes provide for the inclusion of co-opted members. The only question on which representations were made to me was with regard to co-option, and in the case of a limited number of schemes representations were made with a view to securing the appointment of a larger number of special persons whether ex-guardians or women, but as that matter of co-option was one which was, by the Act, left within the discretion of the responsible local authority, I took the view that I should not be justified in interfering with the considered decision of the local authority with regard to co-option, and, therefore, the arrangements with regard to co-option have not been in any way altered.


Is the right hon. Gentleman able to tell us to what extent there has been a decline in the number of women engaged in Poor Law administration? How does the number now engaged compare with the number engaged before the Act was passed?


I could not say, because, as far as I know, there has never been a complete tally of the membership of the boards of guardians hitherto, and it would not be safe to speak with any measure of certainty.

Viscountess ASTOR

Do I understand from the Minister that where few have been co-opted, the Minister can do nothing about it?


I did not say that. I said that I did not choose to do anything about it. I said that the late Government in their wisdom gave a discretion to the local authority either to appoint co-opted members or not to appoint them, and it seems to me that that discretion having been given to the local authorities, it was right that they should be permitted to exercise it, and not be overridden by the central Department. That is all that has happened. I have not persuaded or dissuaded local authorities in regard to following what they thought right in the circumstances, and, as I have pointed out, in a large number of cases arrangements were made for the co-option of women, on the one hand, and members who have had experience on boards of guardians, on the other hand.


The right hon. Gentleman is referring only to public assistance committees, and not to the guardians committees, where, of course, the position is entirely different?


I meant public assistance committees.

Viscountess ASTOR

Suppose that the Minister saw several local authorities stupidly keeping off women when he thought they were needed, has he any authority to compel them to put women on the committees?


I should say that my authority is very limited. Discretion is given to local authorities, and it is very difficult, without very good reasons, for any Minister to override that discretion. Whether they are exercising their discretion stupidly or not is, of course, a matter of opinion on which people will not, I think, agree.

Viscountess ASTOR

I hope the Minister will agree.


It has always been contemplated that the transfer of Poor Law functions to the county councils and the county borough councils should not be the end but the beginning of Poor Law reform, and that it should be followed as rapidly as circumstances permit by a reorganisation of services, so that there should be separated from the Poor Law services as such those services which are of a general social character. The immediate possibilities, however, of local authorities breaking up the Poor Law in this way are limited, very largely of course by the absence of adequate accommodation, and also, no doubt, in many cases because these new authorities have had very heavy responsibilities thrown upon them, and it takes time to assimilate their new duties without attempting to make any immediate changes.

In the circumstances, therefore, it is gratifying to know that 16 county councils and 49 county borough councils have found it possible to make immediate declarations in their schemes that certain Poor Law services for which parallel provisions had been made under special Acts of Parliament should be treated exclusively under those Acts of Parliament and not by way of poor relief. One hopes, as the new authorities become more familiar with their work and are able to assimilate their new duties more completely, that that process of taking services out of the Poor Law and operating them under the several Acts will be developed. A large number of authorities, also, have provided in their schemes that certain Poor Law functions for which parallel provision under other Acts is not available or cannot be made under the present state of the Law shall be performed on behalf of the public assistance committee by some other committee subject to the general control of the public assistance committee, but administered in a way which does not associate it with the Poor Law.

Although the matter is not dealt with in the administrative schemes which have been submitted, one might say, here, that a number of local authorities who have not found themselves in a position to make extensive declarations have straight away appropriated individual institutions for the purposes of the Public Health Acts, and in such cases these institutions will cease to be Poor Law institutions and will come under the administration of the committee of the council that is concerned with the special services for which this scheme is established, but, if the council wishes to supplement it by the use of other Poor Law accommodation, it can do so. This method of appropriating institutions is the half-way house, which again, I imagine, will develop as time proceeds. It is not possible for me, unfortunately, under this Vote to deal with Class 10 and the position with regard to the rates of local authorities in any particular detail. That is not my fault. It is merely that Class 10 has not been put down. Perhaps I might be permitted to say a word or two for the convenience of the Committee. At present, it is a little too early to make any definite statement with regard to what the general level of local rates is likely to be for the present financial year. Steps are being taken to collect this information from the rating authorities with a view to the publication of the necessary information as compared with that of earlier years, and I hope that within a month or two the figures will be available.


When the right hon. Gentleman is preparing that statement, will he be able to give the House some information as to the effect of the yield of a penny rate in the various areas and as to how this matter is re-acting in higher rates, especially in some of the rural and semi-rural areas?


I will consider that matter. I was mainly concerned really to compare the rate poundage for the series of years before, during, and after the changes had been made, but I will consider whether the point of the hon. Member can be met.


Will my right hon. Friend permit me to ask whether, upon this question of rates and the yield of rates, he has received any representations from those areas termed "necessitous" as to the effect upon them of the new conditions?


As a matter of fact, a few months ago I received more than one deputation from necessitous areas on this particular matter, but we were then in a position that we did not know what was going to be the level of rates during this year. We want to collect this information in order to be able to assess the position of local authorities now as compared with what it was before the operation of the de-rating proposals. Under the working of the financial provisions of the Act of 1929, provided that local authorities spent this year no more money than they spent in the standard year 1929, in the majority of areas there would be a reduction of rates, but, as a matter of fact, where local authorities have increased their expenditure beyond that of the standard year that expenditure has to be met out of increased rates.

There is another reason which has resulted, in some areas, in increasing the rate poundage this year over last year and the year before, and I feel that I ought to explain it to the Committee. In some areas, the increase in rates this year over last year and the previous year is largely due to the fact that the late boards of guardians, coming to the end of their life and having unexpended balances, decided to utilise their unexpended balances last year in a reduction of rates. [An HON. MEMBER: "Quite right."]. It may be quite right, but I am explaining the effect of it. I am not arguing whether it was right or wrong. I am merely pointing to the fact that certain boards of guardians did use what balances they had last year in order to reduce rates. This year that particular expenditure will have to be met and can only be met by higher rates, and in some cases the county councils have had to increase their rates even beyond that in order to make some provision for the necessary working balance. In some areas—and I think this is true of London areas—the increase in rates which has taken place during the present financial year is due largely, if not entirely, to the fact that the boards of guardians, rather than hand over their unexpended balances to the new authorities, handed them back to the ratepayers in lower rates in the last half year or the last year of their lives. I am hoping to obtain fuller particulars, particularly with regard to London, and to have those particulars published.

Representations have also been made from a number of the councils of county districts to the effect that the operation of the Act has necessitated an increase in their rate poundage during the present financial year over that of the standard year 1928–29. Those cases are being investigated very carefully, and as far as one can ascertain at present, in those county districts, and in some of the large towns and in the London area, the increase is due to the use of the guardians' balances last year, and, secondly, to an increase in the estimated rate-borne expenditure of the county council for this year, including the expenditure on the Poor Law, on highway services, and so on, the services transferred to them from the minor authorities under the Act on which they are spending more than the other authorities were spending during the standard year. It would appear that certain county councils are estimating this year, not quite knowing what their expenditure is likely to be, on a more generous scale than they probably may do in the future. In some cases in the county districts I have no doubt that the increased rate poundage this year is due Go the fact that they are spending more on corresponding services this year than they did during the standard year of 1929.

Whereupon the GENTLEMAN USHER OF THE BLACK ROD being come with a Message, the. CHAIRMAN left the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER resumed the Chair.

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