HC Deb 15 July 1930 vol 241 cc1138-48

For the purposes of the provisions of this Act which relate to the obligations of a local authority with respect to re-housing, or which relate to Government contributions to the expenses of local authorities in providing accommodation available for displaced persons, the Minister shall, unless he is satisfied that owing to special circumstances some other standard of accommodation should be adopted, treat a house containing two bedrooms as providing accommodation for four persons, a house containing three bedrooms as providing accommodation for five persons, and a house containing four bedrooms as providing accommodation for seven persons.—[Miss Bathbone.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


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

I hope that it will not be considered a presumption on the part of a representative of an English constituency to move a new Clause in the Scottish Housing Bill. My object is simply to give the House an opportunity of considering whether this new Clause, which is word for word the same as one introduced in the corresponding portion of the English Bill by the Minister of Health, would be an improvement in the Scottish Bill. The similar Clause was introduced by the Minister of Health in the English Bill to meet a criticism which proceeded from the hon. Member for Withington (Mr. E. D. Simon). The criticism put forward was that the real value of the Bill with regard to the replacement of slums depends upon the value of the unit grant. The unit grant depends upon two factors. The first factor, as stated in Clause 23 of the Scottish Bill, depends upon the number of persons displaced from the slums, and the number of unit grants also depends upon the number of persons of the working classes for whom accommodation has, with the approval of the Department, been rendered available by the authority in new houses. What exactly does that statement mean? It is obvious that the meaning of these words is, that the number of unit grants to which the local authority is entitled under that Clause depends entirely upon the estimate placed by the Ministry upon the housing accommodation made available in a given number of houses. Suppose, for example, a local authority dispossesses 100 persons in a particular area. It cannot claim 100 unit grants unless it can show not that it has rehoused this particular number of persons but that it has built new houses and made accommodation available for 100 persons. How many houses are required to do that? There, we come across a factor which is left entirely vague by the Bill as it stands.

The difficulty that may arise is this: At present the Minister may take the view that, say, 100 two-bedroomed houses would mean accommodation for 400 persons. Suppose that a little later a different Minister is in power and he wants to economise, without letting it be known that he is economising. The path is left open for him to do that. He can simply say that he proposes in future to calculate that a two-bedroomed house makes accommodation for only one and a-half persons. Immediately, the number of unit grants that could be claimed on a given scheme would be diminished. I can imagine that if that economically-minded future Minister wanted to represent his action in the rosiest way he would represent it as imposing a higher standard of housing accommodation. He could say: "I am not satisfied that a two-bedroomed house makes accommodation for four people. I want something better than that for the people of Scotland. I claim that a two-bedroomed house only makes accommodation available for three persons. That could be put forward as an improvement, whereas the actual fact would be that the local authority would have the number of unit grants that it could claim immediately cut down.

Since I put this new Clause upon the Order Paper, it has been pointed out to me that the Secretary of State for Scotland has promised something that is better than my new Clause. He has issued a White Paper which lays down a rather different standard of housing accommodation than that proposed in this new Clause. I did not receive a copy of that White Paper, and I can only speak from memory, but I understand that it takes as the unit not the number of bedrooms but the number of apartments, and it is so worked out that it would allow a larger number of unit grants to be claimed than that provided in my new Clause. I can well understand that the House may not wish to accept a new Clause, in the form in which I have put it down, which would diminish the number of grants promised in the White Paper, but I suggest that a moderate promise in a Statute is better than a more generous promise in a White Paper, which can be changed. A Statute is a Statute, and we know that a Statute remains from Ministry to Ministry and from Parliament to Parliament, and that Ministers in succession accept the Statutes of their predecessors, and administer them. On the other hand, a White Paper can be changed. It does not give the proper basis of stability that is necessary for such a Bill as this, considering that the whole value of this Bill is going to depend upon the question as to what the unit grant is worth, and how many unit grants a local authority can claim.

Are hon. Members opposite prepared to leave it entirely to chance, to the passing mode of the moment of their successors, rather than know in the Bill what unit grants can be claimed? And will not the Secretary of State for Scotland, even if he is not prepared to accept this new Clause as I have moved it, at least undertake that, just as England has been given security under the English Bill, and has been given what the Minister of Health himself described as a yardstick by which to measure the unit value of the accommodation which has been provided by the local authority so as to know what they are going to get in the way of unit grants, so the people of Scotland shall be provided with a similar yardstick, backed by the security of an Act of Parliament, and not be left to the security of a White Paper, which is here to-day and gone tomorrow.

5.0 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

I do not wish to do more than emphasise what the hon. Lady the Member for English Universities (Miss Rath-bone) has made quite clear, that in the discussion on the English Bill there were reasons why it was thought desirable to insert a Clause analogous to this Clause. I should like to emphasise that this ratio which determines the size of the grants for houses for working-class tenants is the essense of the Whole Bill. Whether you give three, four, or five-unit grants per house determines, of course, the rent at which the house is to be let, and it is therefore of the utmost importance that local authorities should have some clear understanding of what grants they can get. The White Paper, I understand, already sets that forth quite clearly, but, as the hon. Lady has said, that is not binding upon the successors of the present Government, and there may be some danger that those successors will come into power before very long. It does therefore seem to be of the utmost importance, for the sake of continuity of administration and to ensure that there shall be adequate security for the local authority as regards the conversion ratio, that it shall be inserted in the Bill. While, perhaps, the Clause cannot be accepted in its present form, I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland will consider the matter and see whether he cannot insert a Clause giving effect to his own findings and making it binding not only on himself but on his successors that they shall give the grants set out in the White Paper.


As both the hon. Members who have moved and seconded this new Clause have already said, the Clause in its present form is really inadmissible. The words are inappropriate. In the fourth line the words "the Minister shall" ought to be "the Department shall"; and on three occasions the word "bedrooms" is used where, with us, it should be "apartments"; so that, even, if we 6esired to accept this new Clause in principle, we could not possibly accept the wording of the Clause as it stands on the Paper. But, as the hon. Lady who moved the Clause said, we have already dealt with this question in another way. The question was dealt with, I understand, in Committee upstairs on the English Bill; but, after discussing the matter very fully indeed with the local authorities, and indeed with representatives of all parties in this House, including representatives of the two branches of the Opposition, we came to the conclusion that it would be far better that the Secretary of State for Scotland should issue a Scottish Office Paper, which would be available at the Vote Office, which would be sent to all local authorities and would be supplied to all the Scottish Members, and which would set out with greater elasticity and in more elaborate detail how it was proposed to operate the grants system in Scotland than would be possible in a perhaps more concise Clause in the Bill.

May I read to the hon. Lady the words we have used in the Scottish Office Paper governing the question of the standard of accommodation? I should like to send the hon. Lady and her Seconder a copy of this White Paper: 5. For the purpose of determining the number of persons for whom accommodation has been rendered available in new houses it is proposed to adopt the following standard: A house of two apartments will normally be regarded as rendering accommodation available for three persons; a house of three apartments for five persons; a house of four apartments for seven persons; and so on. 6. The adoption of that standard does not mean that in no case will houses of the sizes mentioned be occupied by more than the number of persons stated. The actual number of persons to be allowed in each house will be a matter for the local authority to determine. For example, no objection would be taken if, say, a married couple and two children under 10 years of age were accommodated in a house of two apartments. But for the purpose of arriving at the amount of grant that will be payable the above standard will be adopted in the determination of the number of persons for whom accommodation has been 'rendered available'. The result of the consultations which we had not only with local authorities—and I do not wish to speak for them—but also with hon. Members who were taking an active interest in this Bill on behalf of the Opposition, was that this method provided greater elasticity in administration than the method adopted in the English Bill, and that the apprehensions of the hon. Lady that, while this might be right enough under the present Administration, the Scottish Office Paper might not suffice if the present Secretary of State for Scotland relinquished his position and some other Secretary of State reigned in his stead, were unfounded. We have the assurance of his potential successors in both sections of the Opposition that they agree with it. The suggestion in this White Paper is binding for any particular scheme which may be adopted. If, subsequently, a Secretary of State for Scotland chose to amend this method, first of all he would have tremendous difficulty with the local authorities, because no local authority, presumably, would build under a worse scale than this; secondly, he would have tremendous trouble with this House; then he would have great dissatisfaction in Scotland; and he would have no house building. No scheme would be adopted in future unless it were upon this basis.


May I ask whether the sanction of this House would be required before a fresh instruction could be issued?


No; that is what I am pointing out. We already have greater elasticity under this method, and no worse allocation of the grants system would be accepted than that which is contained in this White Paper. Every fresh scheme will be treated by local authorities on its merits. If a local authority comes to a bargain with the Government on this basis to build 100 houses, that bargain will stand for those 100 houses. If it comes forward next week with another scheme for 100 houses and is met by the then Secretary of State for Scotland with the statement that the terms have been altered and there are now new terms, then the local authority will not go on with its fresh scheme, but its old scheme will stand for the first 100 houses and the bargain which they have made will be kept; so that the apprehensions of the hon. Lady and of her seconder as to what might happen under some future Secretary of State for Scotland are, we think, without foundation.


If I may interpose for a moment, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland himself said that, if the new Secretary of State put forward different ratios, the local authorities would stop building. That is exactly what we are afraid of, and we are asking the Government to make that impossible.


May I point out that it is precisely to encourage building that we have asked for this greater elasticity, and it is precisely because they think it is the method best calculated to encourage building that the local authorities, who have to deal with the question, and who, besides that, know the situation best, did come to an agreement with us that this form of words would suit their conditions and the situation better than a Clause in the Bill, so that the Department will not be tied merely to three unit grants for two-apartment houses if it sees good reason afterwards to increase the grants. Let me give the hon. Lady an illustration: Take the case of a man and his wife with twins—very young children; are those people to get only a three unit housel? We must have greater elasticity in this matter; and, when I assure hon. Members that we have actually had a Treasury assent to this greater elasticity, I trust that hon. Members for English constituencies will not seek to worsen the conditions which we have already secured for Scotland.


May I ask one further question? Did I not hear the Under-Secretary yesterday again and again blame the slackness of local authorities in Scotland for the great falling off in the number of houses which have recently been built?


The hon. Lady did hear me say, and I am prepared to repeat it on appropriate occasions, that there are a large number of local authorities in Scotland in whose areas no houses whatever have been built, and we have noted those local authorities and hope to take powers to deal with them; but on no occasion did I ever utter any word of criticism of the bulk of the local authorities, nor of the association called the National Housing and Town Planning Asociation, which represents, shall I say, the more advanced, more progressive, and more intelligent local authorities. On the contrary, we have been working in close agreement with them.


My two hon. Friends who have moved and seconded this new Clause and with whose object I have great sympathy, should, I think, consider whether they can see their way to withdraw the Clause after the explanation given by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. In the first place, let me point out that here we are dealing with a country which has shown an active interest in slum clearance, as compared with England which has shown no interest in it whatever. We in Scotland have done about 10 times as much slum clearance as England has done, so that we have a certain amount of knowledge of the way in which the thing operates in practice; and we are doing considerably more municipal housing in Scotland than is being done in England. It is quite true that there is more villa housing in England than there is in Scotland, but that is entirely due to private enterprise and to local authorities building more villa houses. In Scotland, they are building more slum clearance houses, and have much more experience of how the Acts should be operated than people in England have. Furthermore, so far as I understand the position of my two hon. Friends, their whole point is, "Let us have a moderate provision in the Statute rather than an excellent provision in a White Paper."


No, let us have an excellent provision in the Statute.


No, that is not accurate, because the provision of the new Clause which has been moved is very much worse than the quotation which we have heard from the White Paper, and the question is whether we should accept a worsening of our position in the Statute to get the greater security of a statutory enactment rather than the less security but greater cash of the White Paper. An ancient poet said: Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go. I think that we might reasonably adopt that attitude in this case. Public opinion in Scotland watches with great closeness what is done in this House and elsewhere. There is a powerful Press devoting its attention very closely to local affairs. There are numbers of municipal authorities that live very close to the headquarters of the Department which has to govern them, and there are Members of this House who can be stirred almost too readily to bring forward any grievance. Any Secretary of State who went about to modify this promise would have a difficult task—a task as difficult as the repealing of the Statute would be. We regard the promise as quite as binding as anything that can be done by a statutory declaration. Of course no Parliament can bind future Parliaments, and therefore it would be quite open to any Secretary of State to make this bargain as regards future houses. As regards past houses they are not in any way helped or hindered by putting this in the Statute. The fact is that once a unit grant has been agreed for a particular set of schemes, it is as inviolable as the interest on war loan, and perhaps more inviolable, if the views of some hon. Members opposite were enforced. Any future Secretary of State would run counter to well-organised public opinion if he ventured to take such a step as has been suggested. The elasticity referred to has commended itself to Members of Parliament and to the local authorities, who have had a considerable experience of slum clearance work and have repeatedly spoken to us of their desire for greater elasticity rather than less.


I hope any hon. Friend will withdraw this new Clause, because we had a great deal of discussion about the basis of this grant in the early stages of the Scottish Standing Committees, and there were very delicate negotiations about it. I do not think that at any time in the discussions on the English Bill I saw any White Papers issued by local authorities comparable with those of some of the Scottish local authorities, notably Edinburgh, after their examination of the original proposals. It was because of that examination that we got the present White Paper, and I hope that it will be allowed to stand. It should ensure that each successive Government will keep the bargain unless a better one can be made.


I would like to make a few comments on the speech of the Under-Secretary of State. He referred to consultations with the more advanced, the more progressive, and the more intelligent authorities. It is unfortunate that there is no means of consulting some of the authorities which are at least as intelligent, and in their intentions at least as advanced, as those represented by the Association to which the Under-Secretary referred. I refer to the smaller and struggling authorities with very low rateable values, where the conditions are very hard. I wish that the Under-Secretary could devise what none of his predecessors have devised—some means of bringing them into consultation upon these important matters.

I see from the White Paper that a very wide latitude is taken with regard to the number of people who can be accommodated in a house. It is said that a married couple with two children under 10 years of age might be accommodated in two apartments. But suppose that the children are just under 10 years of age and the people remain in the House for 10 or 15 years. The children will then have become over 10 years of age. If you have two children who were very young it is at least probable that they are only the first two of a series, and in such a case it would be most imprudent to put a married couple into such a house. It might soon lead to overcrowding. On this issue I join with the Under-Secretary of State and others in hoping that the Clause will be withdrawn. The Under-Secretary met the Committee upstairs fairly and courteously. He has tackled the lions of the Treasury and tackled them very successfully, and I am sure that all parties are grateful to him for what he has done. As has been said, we would all join together in Parliament in future years to see that the utmost is made of this provision.


In view of all the explanations I feel that, with the permission of the Seconder, I can only ask to withdraw this new Clause. I congratulate the Secretary of State for Scotland on the good terms that he has made with the Treasury, while still regretting that he has not given the terms fixity in the provisions of the Statute.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.