§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Mr. William Adamson)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The object of this Bill is to extend for a further period of five years the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, 1926. As will be remembered, that Act arose out of representations submitted by local authorities in rural areas to the effect that the grants for the erection of new houses were not wholly suitable to the circumstances of those areas. These local authorities say that what was required was a grant towards the expenses of reconstruction and improvement of existing houses for farm workers and other persons of similar economic condition, the problem in many rural areas being, it was said, not so much that there was a shortage of houses as that the existing houses required to be modernised and supplied with the recognised conveniences. Considerable advantage has been taken of its provisions, and it has been the means of providing improved and healthier housing accommodation for a large number of rural workers. Much of the work that has been done under the Act has consisted of the introduction of water, baths, and W.C's. into houses; the provision of sculleries; the renewal of defective roofs and floors; the adoption of measures to do away with dampness, and the provision of larger windows to permit of better lighting and ventilation. Many examples of actual cases showing what has been done could be given if time permitted.
It may be mentioned that assistance is not allowed to be given in respect of works of ordinary repair except in so far as these are incidental to or connected with works of reconstruction and improvement. Financial assistance may be given by the local authorities in accordance with schemes approved by the Central Departments. The assistance may take the form of grants or loans, or partly by grant and partly by loan. The amount of assistance which the local 822 authority may give by way of grant is limited by the Act to two-thirds of the estimated cost of the works of improvement, and is further subject to a maximum of £100 per house. No assistance is given where the estimated cost of the works to be executed is less than £50 per house, or where the capital value of the house after improvement exceeds £400. The local authority may give assistance by way of grant either by a lump sum payment after the completion of the works or by means of an annual payment spread over a period not exceeding 20 years. This period of 20 years corresponds with the period during which certain special conditions laid down in the Act must be complied with by persons receiving grants. These conditions, in effect, provide that the house during that period must not be occupied except by a person whose income is such that he would not ordinarily pay a rent in excess of that paid by agricultural workers. Further, an owner cannot, in respect of improvements, increase the rent by more than 3 per cent. on the sum which he himself has to pay for the works of improvements, after deducting the amount of the grant. The farm servant in Scotland does not as a rule pay any rent, and, accordingly, he is not charged anything extra on his improved house. Information obtained from certain counties appears to indicate that, in a number of cases of people outside the special category of farm servants, the permitted increase for houses occupied by workers has not been made, while in others the increase has been made up to 3 per cent. Provision is made for the recovery of the grant paid in the event of any breach of the conditions to which I have referred.
The assistance by way of grant is ordinarily given by way of lump sum payments, and local authorities finance such payments by means of loans spread over 20 years. The average grant given by Scottish local authorities has worked out, in the course of the five years for which the Act has been in operation, at £86 per house, and in England the corresponding figure is £78 per house. Towards these grants the Exchequer contributes one-half, in the form of an annual payment spread over a period of 20 years. A useful provision of the Act, so far as Scotland is concerned, is one 823 that enables the grant to be given to small landholders. Applications had been approved, at 31st December last, for 431 houses of small landholders in Scotland.
Each year has seen a progressive increase in the number of applications made for grants, and in the number of houses covered by approved applications. For example, at 31st December, 1927, a year after the Act had been in operation the numbers of houses included in approved applications were 281 in Scotland and 151 in England, or a total of 432. By December, 1928, these figures had risen to 1,396 houses in Scotland and 1,316 in England, a total of 2,712. By December, 1929, the figures had again risen to 3,518 houses in Scotland and 2,510 in England—a total of 6,028; and by December, 1930, they had risen to 6,960 houses in Scotland and 4,049 in England, or a total of just over 11,000.
The Act, as I have stated, was passed with the object of improving the housing accommodation in rural areas, and it is therefore interesting to note that, of the 33 county councils in Scotland, 32 have had schemes of assistance approved, and the remaining one has decided to adopt a scheme. In addition, schemes have been approved from 28 burghs. In England, I am informed, schemes have been approved from 297 authorities, including 46 county councils and 146 rural district councils. I would like to take this opportunity of impressing on local authorities, in the event of this Act being extended, that they should be careful, in their administration of the Act, to see that houses in respect of which applications for assistance are made to them are capable of being really fitted for habitation, and that grants are not given for houses which are not worth improving. When this Act was first introduced, there were some of us who had grave doubts—[Interruption]—and there are some of my friends who still have grave doubts; and, in order that hon. Members opposite may be under no misapprehension, I would point out that the reason for our misgivings was the danger of these grants being given for houses which were not worth improving.
§ Sir KINGSLEY WOOD
Does the right hon. Gentleman know of any case in which things have gone wrong in this way?
§ Mr. ADAMSON
Complaints have reached me from people who have some knowledge of what they are talking about, but the right hon. Gentleman need not be under any misapprehension—?
§ Mr. ADAMSON
Now that we are responsible for extending the Act, we will take very good care that these complaints will be very few in the future. We shall take care to impress upon local authorities the need for seeing that no grants are given unless in the case of houses which are worth improving. I would call the attention of county councils and local authorities to the statutory obligation which rests on them to cause a systematic inspection to be made of the housing conditions in their areas. Unless this is done, defective conditions in rural areas cannot be known, and the local authorities are not in a position to put in operation the powers necessary to secure improvement by the owners. The Housing Act of last year definitely laid it down that where a local authority, on consideration of a report by their medical officer of health or sanitary inspector, or other information in their possession, are satisfied that a house is in any respect unfit for human habitation, they must either call on the owner to carry out any works necessary to make the house fit for habitation, or take steps to have the house closed or demolished. I trust that the local authorities will not allow negotiations to drag on indefinitely, but will, failing prompt action on the part of an owner to comply with the statutory notice, put in force their powers to compel compliance with such notice.
I am aware that, before this discussion finishes, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Major Elliot), particularly may accuse me, in moving the extension of this of Parliament, of ploughing with his heifer. I would remind him that more than once he and his friends have ploughed with ours; I have charged him before with ploughing with mine. The limitation of the class of person who is to occupy these improved houses is a feature of the Act which, I am bound to confess, has a special attraction for me. I have always considered that the housing problem is largely a rent problem, and that, when 825 we had built a large number of houses under the Addison, the Chamberlain and the Wheatley Acts, the rents charged for those houses, running as they do from £16 to £35 or thereabouts, have been beyond the reach of a large number of the working classes for whom they were originally intended, and in many cases these houses are to-day occupied by the fairly well-to-do. By our Slum Clearance Act, to which I would call the attention of my hon. Friends opposite, we have set out to remedy that by providing a similar class of house at a much lower rent, running from £12 to £16 per house—a considerable reduction on the rents charged for the houses under the other Acts that I have named. In order that time may be given for the operation of that Act to be developed to such an extent as to provide completely for working-class requirements, we propose that the machinery of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act shall be extended for another period of five years.
§ Sir K. WOOD
We are much indebted to the Secretary of State for Scotland for the very clear and precise statement which he has just given to the House. I particularly welcome it, because this is my first experience of finding the right hon. Gentleman in charge of a Bill which affects both Scotland and England; and, as one would perhaps expect after hearing such a speech, we find him really in supreme command and control, at any rate for the moment. I confess that I have been rather puzzled lately as to the responsibility of the Minister of Health, and also of the Secretary of State for Scotland, with regard to housing in this country. I heard the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) informing the House only last week of visits paid, in relation to housing affairs in England, to the Lord Privy Seal; but I hope, and no doubt the Minister of Health will assure us before the end of this discussion, that the Minister of Health, not in his individual capacity but as Minister of Health, still remains in charge of housing operations, and is responsible to this House for his housing policy. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs stated that he thought the Lord Privy Seal was in a better position to deal with housing proposals, and give them their due value, because 826 he had no officials round him. I do not share that view, and we have had from the Secretary of State for Scotland today a statement which I think justifies us in thinking that he is seized of the position and is exercising control at any rate so far as Scotland is concerned.
I want, in the first place, to thank the Government, and particularly the Patronage Secretary, for placing this Bill first on the Order Paper to-day, because a number of us gladly welcome the opportunity, as I think the House generally will, of returning to a discussion on one of the most important aspects of the housing question, namely, the rural housing position; and I propose, in commending and supporting the proposals of the Government, to spend a short time in ascertaining whether I think the House is right in adopting them. One has only to look at the present position in the rural areas, at any rate in England, to see the necessity for some action on the part of the Government in regard to this matter. There is a more authoritative statement so far as England is concerned in the last report of the Ministry of Health, which makes this admission on page 79:The problem of providing a suitable house for the agricultural worker at a rent proportionate to his wages remains acute in many areas.I think that is undoubtedly true. Reference is also made to the fact that:Unhappily the agricultural labourer is often seeking a house in competition with more highly paid persons from neighbouring towns. The resources of rural district councils may be limited and many authorities fear that they will be unable to justify the burden which greater activity, coupled with small resources, would throw upon the ratepayers.In a further interesting account of the present position there is set out a table, which anyone who is interested in rural housing might very well study, showing what progress has been made. Again, it shows that it has been private enterprise without State assistance which has shouldered the greater burden, if it can be so called, of rural housing and that since 1924 private enterprise in rural districts has built over 160,000 houses while local authorities—not that I am disparaging their efforts for a moment, but in order that we may get proper proportion and focus of the situation—have contributed some 35,000. That shows one 827 aspect of the matter, at any rate. I could not understand the statement of the Minister of Health in February that the housing policy of the Government is contained in the Act of 1924 and the Act of 1930, as to which we have been asked to indulge in so many prophecies. The Government, apparently, are relying on their Acts of 1924 and 1930—at any rate, they were in February, but, as their policy varies from day to day, I am somewhat uncertain. So far from relying on what the right hon. Gentleman said was the policy of the Government, we find ourselves to-day having to make an extension of this Act, and we have also to note that, in fact, the greatest contribution that is being made to the assistance of rural England in relation to housing is also omitted from the Government's present policy, and that is the encouragement of private enterprise.
Optimist as I am, I never thought I should live to hear the Secretary of State for Scotland make the speech that he has done upon the Conservative Rural Workers Act. I hope to live to hear a similar testimonial from the Minister of Health. It is most encouraging to read the financial memorandum that has been produced by the two Ministers. It will cheer up the author of the Act to hear that there is evidence that, after an initial period of comparative inactivity, steadily increasing advantage is being taken of its provisions. What the right hon. Gentleman is proposing, although he has been some little time in getting at it, is that this Act should be extended for the very considerable period of five years. All of us on this side of the House welcome his announcement. We hope increasing use will be made of this very valuable Act of Parliament, and anything that we can do to assist the Government in their endeavours to promote it still further, both in England and Scotland, we shall desire to do, because undoubtedly it has very much to commend it.
It is based upon the principle of giving preference to the workers in the rural districts and of public money going substantially to the tenants and not to the landlords. It enables houses to be reconditioned by bringing them up to modern standards by means of a financial stimulus. It limits the class of house 828 that is to be reconditioned, so as to help the agricultural labourer. It lays down that the alterations to be made are to be substantial and that financial assistance may be given either by way of grant or loan, and conditions are made which restrict the rent and limit the class of occupants. I am very glad, from the particulars with which the Minister of Health supplied me, that we can commend a good many efforts that are being made by various county councils, and we hope their example will be followed by a good many other local authorities as well. In this statement, which shows the number of dwellings for which assistance has been given or promised at 31st December, 1930, I find that Devon is responsible for giving assistance in 523 cases, Gloucester is responsible for 168, Norfolk 229, Southampton 236, Suffolk East 190, and in all the total for England and Wales is over 4,000. That is some contribution to the difficulties of the rural areas.
§ Sir K. WOOD
No, it is county councils only. At first sight it appears remarkable that the Government are introducing these proposals, and there may be some difficulty with hon. Members opposite in accepting them. The Treasury Bench has become a penitent form, and it is a very pleasing spectacle to see Cabinet Ministers in that salutary but pleasing role. I am very glad we have the honour of the presence of the Minister of Health, because it is only fair to reflect that he is one of the intellectuals of the Labour party. He gave us some very striking statements about thee proposals when the Bill was introduced. I shall be very glad to hear him publicly recant them a little later in the Debate. He said the Bill was an attempt to make the land safe for the landlords. [An HON. MEMBER: "So it was!"] The hon. Member forgets that this is a proposal to extend it for five years. The right hon. Gentleman said this Measure was virtually a rural landlords' out-relief Bill. Five more years for the rural landlords' out-relief Bill! He said it was a dole to the landlord. He said it was a Bill that was going to fasten the tied cottage system, which was one of the greatest abuses of 829 the countryside, round the neck of the agricultural worker. Another five years round their neck!
He went further. He said it was robbery of the public funds. The robbery is to go on for another five years. He said it was a tinker's Bill and not a housing Bill. He said that under the guise of a title which was most deceiving—it is the same title that is being continued for five years—it sought to confer direct pecuniary benefit upon the most spendthrift class of the community, who happened to be the strongest supporters of the Conservative party. I suppose the right hon. Gentleman, having abandoned all hope of getting any support from the labouring classes in the constituencies, is now endeavouring to approach Conservatives by continuing the Act for five years. He also said it was the most amazing piece of class legislation that we have had and that it was full of deceptions.It violates what we believe is an essential principle, that public money should not be devoted to the interests of private gain."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd August, 1926; col. 2854, Vol. 198.]It is a very sad thing. I remember that so convinced were the Socialist party of the injustice of the Bill that they actually produced the Prime Minister, and he made a speech. It is true that he had not much knowledge of the Bill, as a perusal of the speech will show, He said:It is a good sound principle of public policy which is being violated by this Bill… We are opposed to private ownership being maintained at the public expense."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd August, 1926; cols. 2900–1, Vol. 198.]5.0 p.m.
I liked also to see that he called it "a landlords' Measure." I cannot leave this particular part of my observations with out referring to the Secretary of State for Scotland. We always look to him for some consistency, but he actually went into the Lobby and voted against this Bill on the Third Reading, with the Minister of Health, the Prime Minister, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, to whom also we all look for consistency. That is just a little resume of what happened on the last occasion when this Bill was before the House.
Supporters of the Government may ask why, in face of all these statements of 830 members of the present Government, this Bill should be introduced. I do not think the Government could have adopted any other course. There are only two portions of policy which they have for dealing with the rural areas. One is the 1924 Act and the other is the 1930 Act, which they say is going to do such wonderful things, just as they said the 1924 Act was going to do. If you look at the position in the rural areas, it is no wonder that the Socialist Government are turning to a Conservative Act of Parliament for some assistance, because there has been a very considerable fall in the number of houses built in the agricultural parishes of England and Wales, and, instead of things getting better under the Socialist Government, which is full of so much energy and so many denunciations of other people, they are getting worse. The number of houses built under the 1924 Act in the agricultural parishes of England and Wales has fallen by over 1,000 since the Labour Government assumed office, and since they have been kept in office by the right hon. Member for North Cornwall (Sir D. Maclean) and his Friends below the Gangway. The longer they are in, the fewer houses there are built in the agricultural areas. For instance, in 1929 there were 3,816 built, and in 1930 the figures had fallen to 2,989.
Those figures ought to have been given on the Vote of Censure the other night, because the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs was then endeavouring to defend his action by saying that the Lord Privy Seal had been in office for only a few weeks. Well, the Minister of Health has been in office for a good many more weeks than that. He has had a full opportunity. He has his own Act of Parliament, and he cannot put any blame, after two years, on his predecessor. Nothing has been refused him, and when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Northern Cornwall goes down and defends himself in Cornwall this week-end, I hope he will give some account as to why he is supporting the Government in this matter.
There are many other defects in the Wheatley Act. I was very much interested to hear the Secretary of State for Scotland reading to us how the poor agricultural labourers could not afford 831 to pay the rents. He has been a long while thinking about that, because I think he was in the House when we were told that the Wheatley Act was introduced for that very purpose. What is the result? I ask the right hon. Gentleman to remember this, because he might like to tone down that speech a little, in view of what does happen after various statements that he makes. What has happened so far as the Wheatley Act is concerned? It is true that there have been fewer houses built, but has there been any material difference between the rents under the Wheatley Act and those under the Chamberlain Act? I gather from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that he has come definitely to the conclusion that the agricultural workers are not able to pay the rents and yet there is a very heavy charge on the public funds under the Wheatley Act. We were told that the reason why there was to be an additional subsidy, and the reason why a great economist like the right hon. Member for North Cornwall voted for it, was on the definite understanding there was going to be some proper return for the agricultural labourer; yet we have this very considerable charge on public funds, and no one can look with any pride—I did not understand the right hon. Gentleman at any rate to look with any pride—upon the results that have been achieved.
Unfortunately, under the Wheatley Act, there was no condition made as to the people who were going to occupy the houses, and I think it is true—the Minister of Health will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—that there is a very large number of instances in the country where it has not been the agricultural labourer who has got into a Wheatley house which has been built at great public expense, but the week-end town dweller who has come down and taken it. I was very glad indeed to hear the Secretary of State emphasize the advantage of the Conservative Act, because one of the great benefits of that Act was that it secured fairly to the people who really ought to have the advantage of this public money what we all desired, and that is one of the great distinctions between the two Acts of Parliament.
During the course of the Debate the other day, but after I had spoken, so that 832 I had not an opportunity of referring to it, I heard it stated that we must blame the local authorities for this. I hope the Minister of Health will be able to give us an assurance to-day that further efforts will be made, in connection with this Act of Parliament which we are extending, to stimulate and encourage the local authorities. I hope that he and the Parliamentary Secretary will hold conferences with them and put the merits of this Act of Parliament, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston (Mr. Chamberlain) before them. He could not be better employed. He should spur them on to follow the example of those authorities which are already taking active steps in this matter. I hope that hon. Members opposite will not go about blaming the local authorities, because I would like to read them a statement which was made on that subject. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs made a very extraordinary statement. He said, as regards rural housing:It is no use depending upon the county councils."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April, 1931; col. 419, Vol. 251.]I suppose he would like to tear up the whole of the work of the local authorities in connection with housing, and follow the scheme of the right hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Sir T. Walters), to have a national housing board and build—how many houses was it?—200,000, at no cost at all to the ratepayers of the country. That is a very interesting suggestion, and I shall be very glad to hear more about it, after the Government have very carefully examined it. But who said this about the local authorities, referring to the country as a whole and the general housing position:We do not blame the bulk of local authorities. As a whole they have responded magnificently to the appeal of the Minister.These are public-spirited authorities. It may be said that that is done because of the superior attractions of the 1930 Act. That has stirred up the hearts of the local authorities, but not with regard to the past, and you cannot say that about their past efforts. Let me read another statement:Hon. Members opposite seemed to think I should have a hard task in justifying the housing programme of the Government. They could not have listened very carefully to the statement of my right hon. Friend. We have reason to thank the local authori- 833 ties for their response and to know that they are making a considerable advance, and no Parliamentary Secretary ever had an easier task than I have in closing this Debate in explaining our hopes in regard to housing, which are founded on present performances and not on vague promises."—[OFFCIAL REPORT, 14th April 1931; cols. 161–2, Vol. 251.]Who said that? Was it some Tory supporting the local authorities of the country? No, it was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, speaking on the 14th April. How many days was that ago? It was a week ago. I hope no one will get up and say that the failure of the Wheatley Act is due to the bad behaviour of the local authorities, because this statement is founded on present performances. The undertaking that was given in regard to housing by the Lord Privy Seal was this. He said:If there are rural local authorities which either cannot or will not, for any reason whatever, fulfil their statutory obligations, then, on health and sanitary grounds alone, it will clearly be the duty of the Government to consider remedial measures."[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April, 1931; col. 384, Vol. 251.]That does not take us very much further, and, therefore, I think we can assume that it is the present considered judgment of the Government that no great blame can be cast upon the local authorities of the country so far as progress under the Wheatley Act is concerned. In those circumstances, it is not surprising that to-day, with the state of housing in the rural areas that I have indicated, the Government have turned to a Conservative Act of Parliament and are asking the House to renew it for another period of five years. I hope that the Government will feel assured that in the step they are taking they will have the general support of the House. It has been a disappointment to me that in a large number of cases the local authorities have not acted more vigorously in connection with this particular Act of Parliament which we are now seeking to renew, and I know that it has been a source of considerable disappointment to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston. We are glad to see that this Act is now being gradually taken up, but, candidly, I think that a great deal more ought to be done and can be done by local authorities in connection with rural housing. I hope that the Minister will, if he can 834 spare the time, carry out a vigorous compaign up and down the country in favour of this Act. It certainly secures houses and cottages for the agricultural labourer which the Wheatley Act has not done. Therefore, I find myself in the unusual position of heartily congratulating the Government upon the course they are taking, commending them for their efforts, and hoping that this is a sign of repentance on the part of the present Minister.
§ Sir DONALD MACLEAN
We have listened this afternoon to an admirable exposition of the art of Parliamentary badinage, with which we are becoming increasingly familiar, in which statesmen imagine that they can dispose of great and serious social problems by flinging old quotations at each other's heads. The right hon. Gentleman varied his statement this afternoon by some evangelistic references. I am glad to see my right hon. Friend on the penitent form. I suggest that both Front Benches might avail themselves of the opportunity of repentance, as regards housing at any rate. I desire to support the renewal of the Act. I do not know what, was said on the last occasion, as I had not the opportunity of being here. So serious is the position that, no matter how small and how ineffective, and in some respects how pitiful, are the results, the Government would be wrong to throw away any opportunity of assisting to mitigate the evils of this really serious problem.
I am interested particularly in one thing, and that is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has been selected to be in charge of this Measure. Why? This Act which we are about to renew, has been made partially successful only in Scotland. The reason for that, I suggest, is that if you give Scotsmen a chance of working even an Act as imperfect as this progeny of my right hon. Friend, and you link with it some opportunity of getting assistance from the Treasury, you will find a great deal more use being made of it than is made of it by their neighbours South of the Border. It is a very remarkable position. In Scotland, which has a population of round about 5,000,000, there have been 6,960 applications and grants. In England, with a population round about 36,000,000, there 835 have been only 4,049 applications and grants. I have been making a rough calculation, and it is pretty clear that if in England there had been anything like a practical effort to make use of this very imperfect instrument, there would have been no fewer than 35,000 applications for grants. I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues rejoice so much about this Act. What has it done? It has not been used, except quite fractionally, in England, so that there must have been some justification of the criticisms, if I may apply so mild a term, or some of the epithets which were addressed to the Bill when it was before the House.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
Whether they are partial or not, they were the figures given by the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I am dealing with figures given by the right hon. Gentleman as representing the exact position, which is also justified by other statistics which I have by me. I hope that much greater use will be made of this Measure, because I am old-fashioned enough to believe that there is a good deal to be said for private enterprise. This country does not move upon purely theoretical lines at all. It moves slowly, but ever surely towards a wider measure of public control on great public matters. To scoff at the maintenance and development of private enterprise applied to a very serious social problem is foolish in the extreme. There are some very reasonable proposals in this Act. The owner of a cottage can expend up to, say, £150 upon it. I think the tenant is fairly well protected. For 20 years the rent of the cottage cannot be altered except to the extent of 3 per cent. upon the outlay which the landlord or the owner of it has incurred. You cannot increase the rent by the amount of the public subsidy. Another most important thing is that for the term of 20 years the cottage can only be let to members of the agricultural community or to those who are earning wages similar to the 836 wages of those who are working in agriculture itself.
I cannot make out why greater use has not been made of this Measure. It is a very great step in advance, but up to now all that has happened and could happen is that the county councils and rural district councils have been making their surveys, and, having made their surveys, they will begin to elaborate the next phase. It will be years even under the most vigorous administration before the principle of the housing of the working classes in the rural districts is adequately grappled with. Therefore, I welcome the renewal of this Act and the stimulation of any form of enterprise which will be of assistance.
I listened to what my right hon. Friend said, beating his breast with joy, as to the results of the administration of the Tory Act—about 160,000 houses under private enterprise, compared with about 40,000 with public assistance. I should like him to tell me what was the rent of those houses. Unless you can provide cottages at rents of at most from 7s. or 8s. a week, you are not touching the gravest part of this problem. I am sure that the rents of the houses to which he referred must run to 10s. or 12s. a week, and I believe that thousands of them are used by dwellers in town who desire to make use of the amenities of the countryside to the exclusion of those for whom these houses were designed and on whose behalf immense sums of public money are being poured out. It is one of the gravest scandals, as those who know anything about the countryside will know, especially in Scotland, to find districts where young people cannot marry because of the housing position. If you look into the houses you see the scandalous conditions under which they live, and yet a couple of doors further down you may see a furnished house with nobody living in it, perhaps in the occupation of some people, say, in Edinburgh, who come down occasionally to visit it. It is that sort of thing which is creating the gravest social unrest in the countryside, and rightly so. We want to see that cottages in such a lamentable state of disrepair are made possible of reconstruction. I am alarmed because there have been only 4,049 grants in England after five years' administration of the Act. There must be something wrong somewhere. Is it the administra- 837 tion? Is it the landlords? What is wrong? The Act contains real opportunities. They are utilised in Scotland, and why are they not utilised in England?
§ Sir K. WOOD
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a statement which I read, and he realises that such statements have a very bad effect upon local authorities up and down the country. It may be that political bias is introduced into discussions. I am sorry to say that in a good many cases those statements were relied upon and believed by a great number of people.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I do not know what may be the reason, but I assume that people are able to distinguish between mere political bias and a good business proposition. Here is a real opportunity for something to be done, and to say that it is merely because of political prejudice that nothing has been done does not carry the matter very far. I have an example from the clerk of a county council, showing how the Act would work:The following is an example of how the Act would work in regard to a cottage let at 4s. a week and which has to be enlarged or improved at an estimated cost of £150. Towards this £150 the county council make a free grant of £100 and the owner must pay £50. The owner can charge interest on his £50 at the rate of 3 per cent. That would be £1 10s. per annum. The rent of the cottage would therefore be 4s. 7d. per week.I do not care one bit what line people may take in saying that this is private enterprise or assisted private enterprise. If that can be done in thousands of cases, it is worth doing. I am in entire agreement with the policy of the Minister of Health in regard to doing all that is possible under Acts on the Statute Book. The county councils in regard to rural houses have been given the responsibility of themselves making their survey. That is one great and notable change. Then, the rural districts councils are required to furnish periodically reports of their housing activities. These matters will be subject to Parliamentary criticism. This makes a great and fundamental change in the responsibilities of the county councils to this House in regard to rural housing. I hope that whatever Government or Governments may be in power in the course of the next five years, this very serious matter of not only the defects but the scandal of the housing in our 838 rural areas will receive some measure of redress from the Acts of Parliament that are now on the Statute Book. There has been an unfair lack of drive to remedy the conditions of rural housing and there has been a lack of interest in the shocking conditions of rural housing throughout England, and I welcome the renewal of this Act because it is something that can be developed and can lead to a useful approach towards the solution of the problem.
§ The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)
After the speech of the right hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood), it may be well that I should speak now. We have had a typical speech from the right hon. Gentleman, characterised with his usual air of jauntiness, and a few quotations. I have never known him deliver a speech which has not been primarily composed of an air of jauntiness and some ancient quotations. I withdraw nothing of what I said about this Act on its passage through the House. I did not ask for the Act in its present form. I opposed it in all its stages, and, if I were in Opposition now and a Bill of this kind came along again, I should do precisely the same thing. I therefore make no apology for the criticism of the Bill that I made when it first came before the House. The situation now is that it is on the Statute Book as an Act. There are many Acts on the Statute Book of which I have disapproved, but which I have to administer. I have done my best to administer this Act, little as I liked its origin. I have even made it more successful than did my predecessor.
If there is one single ray of hope and if there is one single thing in this Act which can help the rural worker in regard to housing, am I to deny him those facilities? Certainly not. When we come down to the substance of the matter, I do not understand this paean of praise about this wretched little Measure, with its poor paltry result, that we have had from the right hon. Member for West Woolwich. Measured by the size of the problem and the hopes of its promoters, the Act has been a failure. [Interruption.] I have explained once, and I will explain again, that so long as there is an instrument, however imperfect it may be, that can be used to help one single farm worker's family, I am 839 prepared to use it. I make a present of that admission to hon. and right hon. Members opposite.
It is true, as the right hon. Member for North Cornwall (Sir D. Maclean) said, that the results in England and Wales as compared with Scotland have been extraordinarily small and that the public authorities have built far more new houses than they have assisted in the improvement of old houses. It is not true for the right hon. Member for West Woolwich to say, as he said with an air of irresponsibility, that private enterprise has saved the situation in the rural areas. That is not so. The biggest volume of building that has taken place in the rural areas since the War has taken place under the auspices of the local authorities, under State-assisted schemes, and not under private enterprise. Nor is it true to say that building under the Wheatley Act has declined in recent years. Since I took office a substantial increase, not perhaps a large enough increase, in the amount of the building has taken place in the rural areas under the provisions of the Act of 1924. In England and Wales the operations of the Act have been confined to a very small number of areas. The one county that has achieved results on any substantial scale is the county of Devon, where loans have been made in respect of 523 dwellings. Those figures are more than double the figures of any other English county.
Some of the other counties have made certain progress in operating the Act. Southampton and Essex are among those counties, and they have dealt respectively with 236 and 168 dwellings. Pembroke in Wales has been more active than any other Welsh county. The net result of all these efforts by the county councils and the rural district councils—in Shropshire the rural district councils are operating the Act instead of the county council—has been a total output of some thing over 4,000. Those counties that have operated the Act have made representations for its continuance. They feel that it is performing a service. It is performing a service on lines that I do not approve, although I did say when the Act was passing through this House—the right hon. Member for West Woolwich did not quote this—that there 840 might be something to be, said for the reconditioning of houses, but that it was a relatively small part of the problem and not the essence of the problem. Those representations having been made by those counties, one is right in saying that those local authorities who feel that there is a use for the Act, should be permitted to use it for a further period. It may be that now the county councils are housing authorities under the Act of 1930 in a sense they were not before and with their new knowledge of the housing problem of their area, they may find a use for this particular method of approach, in conjunction with others, which they have not hitherto realised. It may be that as a result of the Act of 1930 a number of county councils will go further under the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. If they do that, they will make a contribution to the solution of the rural housing problem.
I did not believe and I never have believed that this method would prove to be acceptable on a very large scale to the local authorities of this country, but in so far as it can be used to make a practical contribution to the solution of the housing problem in rural areas we ought to give it support. I have done what has been possible to encourage the adoption of the Act during the past few years, but I have been disappointed with the results. I was finally brought round, and whole-heartedly brought round, to agreeing to back a Bill for the extension of the Act of 1926 because of the relative success it had met with in Scotland. That is the real reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I are here to support the Bill. For what it is worth, within its limitations, narrow as those limitations are, I hope that the Act will be continued and that it may be more fully used.
§ Mr. HURD
Those of us who are deeply interested in the rural housing problem welcome very heartily the concluding words of the Minister of Health. We welcome also a great deal of what was said by the right hon. Member for North Cornwall (Sir D. Maclean), but one cannot help reflecting on how gladly we should have been of that support when we were piloting the Act of 1926 through this House. However, it is more serviceable to think of the future than of the past and to see how this Act can 841 be made more serviceable for the purpose that Parliament intended. That purpose is quite clear. There seems to be a happy agreement in all quarters of the House, with perhaps one exception, that this Act has proved, up to a certain point, most useful in providing homes for agricultural workers, and at a rent which they can pay. That has not been achieved by any other housing legislation that this House has adopted.
Those who are familiar with English rural areas must have felt depressed, as I have been, when they have visited some of the cottages that still remain in Divisions like my own. One finds a great deal of damp on the walls and one is led upstairs to a bedroom, a poky little room where perhaps three, four or five children have to sleep. An appeal is often made by the labourer's wife when she says: "How can I do my cooking for the family in the poky little accommodation that is given to me?" If such a house had been provided with a scullery and an extra bedroom, and if a damp-course had been put in, as can be done within the scope of this legislation, the home of that farm labourer and his wife would have been greatly improved. Council cottages are quite beyond the reach of most agricultural labourers in respect of rent. They can only be taken by an agricultural labourer who is living with his son or who takes in a lodger. The labourer and his family are unable to afford the rent of these council houses.
It has been said by hon. Members opposite, and I overheard the remark this afternoon, that they are pigsties for agricultural workers. If the hon. Member had had the good fortune to see one of those exhibitions which are going about the country, organised by one of his own political friends, he would have seen the great change for the better that has been brought about in rural England by the operation of this Act, and he would have seen, by photographs, the contrast between the pigsty of the past and the home which the agricultural labourer now has under the operation of this Act. We have also heard something about turning stables into homes. That exhibition would also have shown hon. Members that the stone-built farms in our villages make excellent accommodation which the new 842 occupants would be loath to dispense with.
Another argument advanced against the Act, particularly in former days, is that it is a bonus to the landlord. In my own area that has been one of the greatest impediments to the successful working of the Act, and it was brought forward when the first application was made to the housing authority in the county of Norfolk. It was said that it was handing over money to a man who had enough money already and who should be able to provide the accommodation. Surely that argument has fallen to the ground in face of the facts given from the Treasury Bench to-day, showing the severe conditions under which State money is provided for the purposes of this legislation. I believe that it is the onerous character of the Act, as bearing upon the owner, which has led to its limited application. In Wiltshire one owner has refused to have applications made for his houses to the county council, because he said that it would immediately become a matter of political animus and that he would be losing money all the time.
It has been represented to me that the 20 years obligation in respect of the owner under the Act is too long. I suppose that we cannot amend the Act in that respect, but, if we could limit it to 15 years, and that at the end of that time the owner was able to revert to the proper economic rent, instead of tying it to the limited rent under the Act, it would help to an extended use of the Measure. I agree, from my own observations, that this Act, in the words of one of the county councils which are operating it most successfully,is one of the best and most helpful Housing Acts that have appeared on the Statute Book for many years.The point I want to make is as to the means that should be used to bring the Act more into operation. We have had the figure of 11,000 houses which have been brought under this legislation, and I must ask the House to remember that although this figure may seem small it is necessary to visualise it from the point of view of a village. If you have four cottages in a village which are manifestly unfit for habitation they are a festering sore, and appear much worse than four houses in an urban area. If you take these four cottages and put them into 843 a good condition you are raising the whole social atmosphere of the village to a degree which would not operate in a large town. From that point of view, and if you think of how many villages must have been affected by the number of 11,000 houses completed or approved, hon. Members will be able to realise the wide operations of the Act. When it is also remembered that there are probably six or seven inhabitants to a cottage it is evident that you are dealing with a large and substantial population.
It is true that in the rural areas there is a slow moving mind. County councils are slow in the operation of their administrative machinery, they meet once a quarter, and the rural district councils are not more rapid than the county councils. You have to deal with facts as you find them, and if we are all agreed that this is a Measure which can be of real service in providing the agricultural worker with the home for which he can pay is not this an opportunity to join together to promote further and fuller use of the Act? How can it best be done? The late Parliamentary Secretary has suggested conferences. I am all in favour of conferences, but I should like them to be based on facts. I do not want to see officials coming to the rural areas and talking at large and vaguely. I should prefer that some of those who have actually administered the Act in county council and rural areas were asked to undertake something in the nature of a missionary campaign with the use of the cinema and photographs, and I believe the House would be surprised at the beneficial effect of an effort of that kind. It is most desirable also that they should have the advantage of an illustrative circular from the Ministry of Health.
Let me give an illustration of the kind of success which could be put before a gathering of that sort. The county council of Devonshire have been good enough to supply me with exact details as to how they have made this Act so great a success, and the first point which strikes one is that they at once saw that the Act could not hope to operate with any large measure of success unless there was good will. They immediately got into touch with the rural councils of the 844 county and said that while no doubt they were disappointed that the administration of the Act had not been put into the hands of the rural councils, yet, as they wanted to make the Act a success, they asked them to come in and help them by the advice of their surveyors and medical officers, who knew the conditions in each village and the kind of pressure that could be brought upon the rather difficult owner. They operated together with good will, and it is surprising the measure of success that has been obtained in Devon. I suggest that the same spirit should be shown in other parts of England.
Something has been said as to the heavy charge upon the rates. The County of Devon, which has carried out the Act with such enormous benefit, has completed and approved over 600 houses, which means a great deal in a county, and the whole of this work has been carried out at a cost of less than one farthing in the pound over 20 years. I do not think that you can hope to bring about a better result than that at so small a cost. I ask that in any conferences the greatest stress should be laid upon the necessity of starting and carrying on in a spirit of good will and harmonious co-operation with rural councils. Take another case, the rural district council of Atcham in Shropshire. There most beneficial work has been carried out, affecting water supply, the sanitary arrangements, the provision of extra bed rooms, the provision of sculleries and prevention of damp. I am certain that if the sort of improvements which have been brought about in two typical areas like the County of Devon and the rural district of Atcham, could be exhibited by photographs or the cinema in those parts which are still sluggish in the operation of this Act, the progress we should be able to make would be very surprising. It is necessary to have object lessons of that kind to persuade not only the local authority but the owners of property.
In their communication the Devon County Council point out that one of the factors in the successful working of the Act has been a realisation by owners of unsatisfactory property that the alternatives are a perpetual bombardment with sanitary notices, an annual expenditure on patchwork, leading to nowhere, with the eventual condemnation of the 845 house by the local authority. These punitive measures are in the hands of a local authority, but you have also the attraction and encouragement of public money to assist owners to get a decent cottage and avoid a constant drain upon their income. I commend some effective propaganda of this sort, especially in those counties and rural districts which have failed to realise the benefits of this Measure. Here is a great boon to the agricultural worker. I hope that it will be utilised to the full.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Mr. LEIF JONES
I will keep the House only a few moments in discussing a Bill which is, apparently, supported in every part of the House. I have had some experience of putting the Act into force in two counties, and I know the difficulties that have to be encountered in order to get grants and to proceed with the work. I want to press the point which has been made by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hurd), as to the necessity for the Government to take steps to popularise the Act. The truth is that although they have brought in proposals to renew the Act, the Minister of Health in his speech used the phrase:Lines of which I myself do not approve.If the Bill is on lines of which the Minister does not approve, why does he bring it in? It is not dealing fairly with the country or with those who have to operate Acts to pass them in this grudging way. I put it to the Minister and the House that the real reason why this Act has not been pushed throughout the country is that this prejudice has been created. I know about what I am talking. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry may smile, but I live in the country. I know the villages and I have had to carry out these things in my own administration of estates. I have had experience of the prejudice which exists against this Act. It appears to the critics in the rural districts that this is a grant to landlords to enable them to increase the value of their property, and it is not regarded, particularly by members of the Parliamentary Secretary's party on local authorities, throughout the country as a help to housing, but rather as a means of propping up impoverished landlords in dying privileges.
846 The landlords have really very little interest in spending money upon these houses. Indeed their interest is not to spend money. It is far better, from the point of view of their pockets, to lend the sum they may be ready to lay out on a cottage to the Government at 5 per cent. and to get a 5 per cent. return, than to lay it out at 3 per cent. on cottages where probably the rent will not be raised, or no rent at all and no return. Therefore, if the Government really intend that the Act is to work in future better than it has done in the past, they must take steps to remove the prejudice which, largely owing to their own propaganda about the ownership of land and houses, and in regard to housing schemes, exists in the country districts.
I believe that of all the subsidies which are paid by the Government for the purpose of housing, more results are obtained from the small payments made for the renewal of these cottages, than from any other subsidy. I am doubtful as to how far the subsidies for great housing schemes result in much increase of housing, but from the small sum granted to the landlord to prevent these cottages from going to absolute ruin we really do get a fair return. The money does the work for which it is intended. In present circumstances that work would never be done unless some such scheme as this were adopted by the House. The rural landlords are greatly impoverished by the trend of events. I am not going to apportion blame. They have not the money that they had in the old days to spend on the building of cottages, especially if there is to be no rent received in return. In any case the rent to be charged is limited. Therefore, unless the House is willing to grant this subsidy the work will not be done.
In all the villages that I know there are houses which justify the application of this scheme. There are very few villages that I go through where there are not some houses that require renovating and almost rebuilding. I know some where, fortunately, that might not be said, but they are not as numerous as they ought to be. Those who live in the, country are fond of their country life, and it is not the case that the rural landowners are careless in this matter. I do not make that charge. They have their faults, and I criticise them on 847 occasion; but they are fond of their districts and they will spend the money if they can possibly do so. This Bill will not solve the rural problem. We want a much larger scheme, such as I was glad to hear outlined in the speech of the Lord Privy Seal in a recent Debate. I do not think the Government will successfully tackle the rural village question until they bring forward some such scheme as that.
At any rate, this scheme will go on all the time. It will renew a house here and there in the villages, and more and more it will be used, if only the Government will put the full weight of their authority behind it, through their officials, through the speeches that they make to their constituents and through the whole operation of their powerful publicity; that is to say if they will only say, "This is a small Measure which will help the agricultural labourers in the villages." It is not, as some hon. Members appear to think, a grant to the landlords to prop them up—not at all. It is a rural subsidy, paid to secure a good house for a rural labourer, and therefore it deserves the support of men of every party. We are always embarking on great schemes in this House, and not a great deal comes of them always; but this is a small matter whereby those living in the country districts can use a subsidy to advantage, and I hope that the Government are not going merely to pass the Bill, but to give it all the weight of their authority, and to push it as if it were one of their own pet schemes.
Earl of DALKEITH
I am very glad that the Governmnt have consented to renew the Act, but I regretted to hear the hint that Members of the Government are individually opposed to it. This is the only Act which applies to particular kinds of houses in the country. The whole benefit of it goes to the workers on the farms or on the land, or to those who have retired from such work. In Scotland already nearly 5,000 families are benefiting under the Act, and another 2,000 will very shortly do so. There have been endless conferences as to how agriculture can be assisted. This is one way, and the very best way, of improving the lives and the conditions of those who work on the land. Very real assistance has been brought to them in the 848 last five years and very little has been said about it. No doubt the setting of the machinery in operation and the county council schemes took considerable time, and that accounts for the delay in starting the Act during the first two years. At the present time, however, a greatly increased amount of work is being done.
The only advantage to the landlord—it is a real advantage to him—is that he is enabled to carry out a responsibility which otherwise would be impossible—a responsibility which would be one of the foremost charges upon his income, to do his utmost to improve the cottages of those who live on his estate. If improvement and reconditioning of rural cottages were allowed as a maintenance charge to be deducted from taxation there would be less need of a Bill such as this in the case of those larger estates against which, as a rule, the opposition to this Bill is directed. But while the present method of taxation continues the Bill is very necessary. There is a very large gap between those cases where the owner of one or two farms has no means for spending money necessary to improve the cottages, and those larger estates where, in some cases, as much as 12s. 6d. in the pound goes in Income Tax and Super-tax, leaving only 7s. 6d. in the pound, or £100 out of £250 of income, to be spent upon this work or wages of any kind on estates.
In Scotland nearly all the cottages improved under the Act are rent-free houses, but in any case it is clear that there is no prospect of any economic return for the money spent. I ask the Government to give careful consideration to possible methods by which the Act can be carried out on a larger scale. First of all I think they might consider whether a larger proportion of the grants should be paid by the Exchequer rather than by the local authority. At present the local authority pays the grant and recovers 50 per cent. from the Exchequer. The Government might consider amending the Act so that local authorities could recover at least 60 per cent. or even recover a sum equal to double what they would have to pas themselves. That would encourage a number of local authorities to see that the Act was very much more widely used. It would be welcomed by agricultural opinion, and it 849 would be justified economically, in view of the large expenditure from the Exchequer towards housing in the towns and the share contributed by the taxpayers of rural areas towards the town houses.
The Government might also consider obtaining information from those county councils which have had most experience of the administration of the Act. The Act has entailed much additional work upon the public health staffs of the various county councils, and any simplification of the administration of the Act would be welcomed by local authorities, and might encourage more work to be done. I am sure that we all welcome the official approval which is now given to the Act by all parties in the House. I feel sure that the work under the Act, which increased in amount last year, will be doubled or trebled during the next five years of its operations.
§ Major GEORGE DAVIES
I think the right hon. Member for Camborne (Mr. Leif Jones) put his finger on the right spot when considering why it was that the Act had not been more successful in its results. It is the spirit of prejudice that was aroused when the Conservatives first brought in the Bill in 1926. What is more deplorable is that the Minister of Health, having really had to alter his convictions on the subject, has indicated it in such a grudging may this evening. He told us that he did not retract one of the statements which he made when the Bill was originally brought in, from which we are to understand therefore that he is proposing to continue what was described as further robbery of public funds, and that more out-relief is to be handed out to rural landlords. How can he expect the Bill to be put into operation successfully if that is the frame of mind in which it is given a send-off? It has created not only a natural echoing among members of local authorities who share the political views of hon. Members opposite, but other members of local authorities and the owners themselves have felt that they were taking on themselves the onus of criticism, of vituperation and denunciation which they did not choose to take. It has come out in this Debate, as we pointed out when the original Bill was brought forward, that there is nothing in it for the landlord at all. I should 850 like to draw attention to a statement made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston (Mr. Chamberlain) when introducing the original Bill:The Bill is so drafted that the benefits arising out of this use of public money must go practically entirely to the tenants and not to the landlords."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd August, 1926; col. 2842, Vol. 198.]That is and always has been our case, and indeed that has been our experience. As has been pointed out, there is no inducement to the landlord to put his money in for the miserable return which the Act allows, unless he is doing it with the object of keeping up the value of his estate as a whole, and fulfiling his obligations to his employés, particularly those who fill the lowest-paid jobs such as agricultural workers. We have brought in many fine housing schemes and tried to operate them, with bigger or smaller subsidies, with or without parlour accommodation, with buildings of a greater or less size, but we have not been able to touch the question of rehousing in the rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hurd) has pointed out what has been done in Devon in this matter, whereby only one farthing in the LI has been added to the rates. This is the cheapest bargain which this House has made in housing, since we started an advanced housing policy after the War, and at the same time the Act is bringing into the cottages to which it is applied a measure of convenience and happiness.
There is another point which has not been touched upon. We form societies both through Government action, and through private and unofficial action, for preserving the beauties and amenities of our countryside. One thing which is obvious to anyone who goes about the country, in either England, Scotland or Ireland, is that the old buildings—the old cottages and houses—are products of the genius of the place, and are made of materials which exist there. A brick cottage in my part of the West Country is as much an anachronism as would be a stone cottage in those parts of Sussex where they have half-timbered houses. One of the difficulties of housing in rural areas is the cost of the materials necessary in order to preserve that element which is a feature of the landscape. In this Act we give opportunities not for the ruthless housebuilder on a big scale to tear down 851 worn-out buildings, and put up those new red-brick monstrosities, with asbestos diagonal tiles, which so much disfigure our countryside, but opportunities on the one hand to afford better facilities to the occupiers of the houses, and on the other hand to preserve to some extent the beauty and rural outlook of our villages.
I have had some experience in connection with the reconditioning of houses though not under the provisions of this Act, but the principle is precisely the same, where you have to deal with houses on which thatch needs replacing, which have no bathrooms, no decent accommodation for washing clothes, no water supply laid on to them, and have, perhaps, inconvenient staircases, each staircase taking up half of a little bedroom. It is remarkable how the expenditure of £80 or £100 will transform such buildings. One of the difficulties in connection with this question arises from what was a few years ago a closed subject to hon. Members opposite, but one the importance of which, we are encouraged to think, they are now realising. That is the question of water supply. As the standard of life goes up in town or country the demand for water and the demand for light go up with it, and those are the two big tests of decent accommodation in housing. But the question of supply is very different in the country and in the town. You cannot lay on a supply from the water main or the gas main in the country. You may have certain cottages getting their water supply from a spring, and thus a perfectly new problem arises in that connection in the country. Those who are interested in rural housing have to consider all those matters which come within the scope of the Act.
It is disappointing in the first place to find that the Act has been so little used, and secondly, to find the reason. The occupants of the Treasury Bench have themselves to blame if the Act has been so little used. It is all very well for them to come before us now in the white sheet of penitence, but we have not forgotten the speeches which were made when this Measure was originally introduced. I do not include the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is in a peculiar position, but those of us who followed the Debates of 1926 watched with 852 some interest how the right hon. Gentleman the present Minister of Health was going to acquit himself in commending this Measure. The right hon. Gentleman avoided the dilemma. He took a pace to one side, and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland stepped forward and filled up the gap.
That is one way of dodging the issue, and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland was at pains to point out that the Act had been a success, particularly in Scotland. He also expressed a hope for its further development, but he has not been helped in his aspirations by his right hon. colleague who appeared to feel that his position as a critic of the Act in 1926 was being given away. Accordingly, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health has said in effect, "I said that this was robbery and so it was; I said that it was a dole to the landlords, and so it was." But surely the right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not so, and that such statements are not going to help the working of the Act. The right hon. Gentleman must realise, now that he is in office, that what he said so rashly when he was in opposition is not really true. But in order to give a false air of consistency to his position he makes a speech such as we have heard to-day, and then expresses the hope that the Act is going to be worked by the local authorities better than it has been worked in the past. I hope that the local authorities will study the speeches made in this Debate with one exception, and that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health.
§ Major McKENZIE WOOD
Several hon. Members expressed the opinion that the only test of the Act of 1926 is whether or not it has been successful in providing houses for agricultural workers. I agree that that is a very important test, and perhaps the first test to apply to the Act, but, I cannot agree that it is the only test, or that this House would be right in not looking at the finances of the original Measure. I am surprised indeed to find the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Health, who appear to have denounced the original Act roundly when it was going through the House, are now asking that 853 it should be renewed, exactly as it was passed five years ago. I can quite understand their statement that it has done some good but I did not think that they would attempt to continue it, without taking advantage of the opportunity thus presented, of wiping out what they then considered to be bad features of the Act, or dealing with the things which they thought capable of improvement. They have not done so, and to that extent they seem to have placed themselves in a false position.
When the original Act was passed, I thought its finance was bad, and I still think so. I still believe that it is a bonus to landlords, and I ask the House to believe that it is more so in Scotland than in England. That fact is perhaps responsible for what has been pointed out already, namely, that in Scotland the Act seems to have been much more successful than in England. It is interesting to remember that since the original Act was passed, the whole basis of rating has been changed, and, in Scotland, rural rating at any rate has been changed much more drastically than in England. Before the De-rating Act, practically half the rates in Scotland were paid by the landlords. That was the basis upon which the rating system there had been built up, but by that Act the rural landlord was practically wiped off the rate book altogether. When the Housing (Rural Workers) Act was passed, the rural landlord had to pay his share of the sum provided for housing out of the rates. In the new circumstances he pays practically nothing at all, and the whole sum which comes to him under the Act is practically a net subsidy. Therefore, the bonus which he now receives is a great deal more than it was when the Act was passed. A great deal has been made of the fact that, if a subsidy is given to the landlord, at any rate he cannot raise the rent to the tenant or occupier on the basis of that subsidy. But in Scotland there is no control in that way, because there practically all the houses dealt with under this Act are on farms, and the farms are let for lump sums. No sum is allocated by way of rent for individual cottages, and it is quite impossible when the rent of a farm is raised, to say whether it is raised on account of the improvement in cottage accommodation made as a result of the subsidy or not.
§ Major WOOD
The right hon. Gentleman says there is no evidence, but what I am pointing out is that you can have no evidence, and that there is no possibility of preventing a landlord, if he wishes to do so, raising the rent on the basis of the improved housing accommodation. After all, rent is determined, not by what the landlord charges, but by what the tenant is willing to pay, and of course they will pay higher rents when they find that a farm has better accommodation. To that extent we have not the control over these rents which exists in England and, to that extent also, I believe that the finance of the Act is bad. I am sorry that members of the Government, after all the condemnation to which they subjected the Act at an earlier stage should not have taken this opportunity of putting matters on a better and more satisfactory footing. That, however, is not the only fault. I have said that since the Act was passed, the rural landlord has been taken off the rate book. The result is that the basis of rating has become very much narrowed, and the burden which is going to be put on the ratepayers by the extension of this Act, will fall on fewer shoulders. The rating question is going to be much more serious in the future than it has been in the past, and I am rather surprised that the right hon. Gentleman had not something to say on that subject. If this Act becomes more popular, as indeed I hope it will, it is going to create a very difficult problem for the rating authorities in the rural districts of Scotland. This is a question which they will have to face very soon.
There is another aspect of this question which I would like the right hon. Gentleman to take into account. Some considerable time ago there were a number of applications before a county council in Scotland. A large number of them were from owners of large landed estates, and the applications went through as a matter of course. One application came from a small farmer of about 60 acres. I was informed at the time that he was originally a farm worker who had worked himself up and had acquired his farm. He was informed, however, that he could not get the subsidy, because he was not an agricultural worker. I should like the right 855 hon. Gentleman to tell us what is supposed to be meant by the term "agricultural worker." Is a small farmer who works his own farm an agricultural worker within the meaning of the original Act, or are we to understand that the subsidy is to be granted only where the house in question is to be occupied by an employé? That is an important question, because if you exclude the small farmer who owns his own house, you will narrow the whole field of housing. This requires the urgent attention of the Government.
It was interesting to note that the right hon. Gentleman particularly stressed the importance of this Act to smallholding, in so far as it increased the improvement of the housing of smallholders. I do not see why a smallholder should get the advantage of the Act and a small farmer, who happens to be just above the limit of 50 acres, should be deprived of it. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have taken advantage of the opportunity of this Bill to enlarge the whole scope of the original Act, and to make it applicable to small farmers and persons of that kind. If the right hon. Gentleman had drawn the title of the Bill a little more loosely, he would have been able to give us the opportunity of bringing under the original Act a large number of those who are agricultural workers in the true sense of the word, who will be excluded by the way in which the Bill is drawn. I regret that the Bill has been drawn so tightly in that respect.
In discussing a Bill of this kind, one has to take it in its larger aspects, and ask, will it, on the whole, do an amount of good which is sufficient to neutralise the bad parts of it? No one at the present time could offer any opposition—he would he a bold man if he did-to a Bill which will increase the housing of the rural districts. When we talk about housing, we nearly always talk about housing in the larger districts. That is a great pity, because I am satisfied that there are in many country districts of Scotland and England worse slums than in the large cities. The only difference is that in the case of the county districts, they are usually off the high road, and nobody but the doctor or anyone who has to go in his course of 856 duty to the houses knows the state to which they have been brought. Here is a Bill which is designed to help rural houses. The Act which it amends has helped it, although it has done so in a bad way and under a bad financial system. The fact that it has helped rural housing means that no one will oppose the Bill to-day.
§ Mr. BUTLER
The genuinely poor rural areas, particularly of East Anglia, will be glad that so much interest is being paid to the question of rural housing. I come from the county of Essex, which has been mentioned as one of the counties which has taken a genuine part in promoting the success of this Measure. I would like to be assured that the right hon. Gentleman in introducing an extension of the Act for a further period of five years, contemplates it as only part of a great housing policy for the rural areas, and not as the sole measure which the Government propose to introduce to help us to house the rural dwellers as they should be housed. We have had the advantage—or what should be the advantage—of hearing two Ministers of the Crown this afternoon. I was disappointed by the speech of the Minister of Health, because he gave us no outline of a general rural housing scheme of which this small Bill might be but a part. I would prefer to give this Bill my support if I thought that it were part of a great scheme, and not an isolated measure of its own. I realise the benefit the Act has been and the benefit it will be, but it does a small thing only in comparison to what there is to he done in rural areas at the present time.
We in England are sometimes proud of our civilisation and of our standard of living, but when we travel abroad, even in tropical countries, we are always prone to comment upon the superior existence of English men and women at home. It has often struck me when I have travelled through the rural areas of Great Britain, and seen the housing conditions in which our people are obliged to dwell, that they are in many cases infinitely worse than those that exist in foreign countries. The House should realise that we have in the midst of our own British civilisation something of which we should be thoroughly ashamed, and the Government should grapple with 857 it at once with courage and determination. The conditions which exist in our rural housing are some of the worst that have existed. I have been disappointed with the way in which the Government have tackled rural housing since they have been in power.
I remember sitting through the interminable proceedings on the Housing (No. 2) Bill, and there is a point I should like to raise in connection with the rating question raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Banff (Major Wood). The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland mentioned with a certain pride the provision in the Housing Act of last year which was introduced by his Government. I remember that there was a great sense of disappointment that sufficient attention was not paid in that Bill to the definition of an agricultural parish, in order to ensure that grants could be made for agricultural parishes as a result of the derating scheme. Genuine apprehension was expressed then that the Government had not dealt with rural houses by defining an agricultural parish as it ought to be defined. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to preen himself on that Measure when that great lacuna, was left glaringly open as regards rural housing. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleague the Minister of Health recommend this Bill, although they must remember that they have to their credit a Bill which has in it a definite gap with regard to rural housing. He now recommends the Measure, which this party originally introduced, and about which the Minister of Health has used such grudging words this afternoon.
In supporting the Measure, I want to ask the Government to undertake the question of rural housing with a great deal more scientific attention and with courage and determination, and if there be a presage in those words which the Lord Privy Seal used in his speech last week about the future of rural housing, I shall do all that I can as a representative of rural areas to support the right hon. Gentleman and the Government in any measures that they may undertake. This Bill ought to be only one among many in tackling rural housing. I am not surprised that the Act has not been more successful. It has come at a moment of very severe agricultural depression, and the people who might 858 have wished to take advantage of it have often been so hard hit that in many cases they have not been able to pay the necessary amount to put some of their cottages right. It has been said by agricultural experts that one of the most notable features of agricultural depression is the decay of the houses and of the barns and equipment. We see in rural England a great example of depression in the decay of the housing. I believe that this Measure will have an enormous future, provided some other Bill is brought in to put agriculture on its feet. In prosperous times the Act would have been very successful; it has managed to weather the storm of agricultural depression and given a good account of itself, and that is another argument for extending its scope for another five years.
The question of water supply, which has already come up, will also give this Measure a great future. It has already been pointed out that it gives an opportunity for cottages to have taps and other conveniences, and if our water supplies develop in the country districts, as they ought to do in a civilised country, I believe that the provisions of the Act will form a necessary extension and corollary to that development. The Government have given a grant for water supplies, for which we ought to be grateful, and I hope that the Act, which was originally conceived by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Edgbaston (Mr. Chamberlain), will be a corollary to that generous action which the present Government have taken with regard to water.
We in Essex believe very largely in lath and plaster. I do not believe that it is recognised in many of the handbooks of the Ministry as a suitable method of building a house. I live in a lath and plaster house which has lasted 400 years, and we in Essex believe that it is a most suitable method of housing, and that this Act is a suitable Measure to deal with lath and plaster. The various Schedules of suggested improvement works under this Act in most cases deal with plaster which might have been torn off by a gale, or rotted by the passing of years. In many cases, a house can be improved for little money by the putting on of new plaster, and perhaps new laths as well. So from the point of view of local conditions, the Act will be used in Essex to a much greater degree. 859 It has been used in 60 cases in North Essex, which I represent, and I should like to take this opportunity of saying, as a form of publicity, that I hope that the local authorities and local residents will take much more advantage of this very useful Act to help the housing of rural workers, who in their pressing difficulties deserve the consideration of this House.
§ Lieut.-Colonel FREMANTLE
I do not wish to take up time by adding to the reasons given to show why we on this side of the House support the Bill, but it may be as well to give my personal experiences as an illustration of some of the difficulties which have been met with, in order to see to what extent they can be removed. It may not be generally known that county councils, in addition to administering the Act themselves, have power, on making representations to the Minister, and with the Minister's consent, to transfer their powers to the rural district councils. That was a matter which was threshed out in Committee, and there were some differences of opinion between my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hurd) and others on this side of the House. In my own county the county council made the mistake, in my opinion, of applying to the Minister to transfer the powers to the rural district councils, on the ground that as they were the bodies who administered housing legislation in general they ought to administer this Act, too. That was an argument discussed when the original Act was in Committee. At that time the right hon. Member for Edgbaston (Mr. Chamberlain), who was Minister of Health, said that landowners had great compunction in asking their friends and neighbours who constitute the ratepayers within the area of a rural district council to give them what appears on the face of it to be a bonus for themselves, and that therefore they would not make application to the district councils. The county council was made the authority, because it was hoped the landowners would have less compunction about applying to a county authority not so closely on the spot and concerned with them.
I had reason to believe that very little use had been made of this Act in Hertfordshire since the power had been trans- 860 ferred to the district councils, and asked the present Minister of Health to give me the statistics. He told me last November that in this county two houses were provided under the Act in 1928 and seven in 1929, and that in 1930 work on two houses was in progress and was to be begun on two more. That is a most unsatisfactory record. I decided, therefore, to make an application myself. It was an unpleasant thing to do in an area for which I am Member of Parliament, and laid me open to the very objections to which I have referred. I had no cottages which required repair or improvement. I had made the mistake of repairing them at my own expense instead of waiting for this Act to be passed, but there was a building, formerly used as a laundry, attached to my house which I thought could be converted into two cottages and thus give extra cottage accommodation in the district.
I made an application under the Act to the district council, and it was turned down. One member expressed the view that it was not right to lend money to an individual to benefit his own property; and the chairman of the finance committee, in referring to the matter, said that if the application were granted it would be a good investment for the borrower. I had raised this as a test case in order to encourage my fellow-landowners to take advantage of the Act, but found that I had done the very thing which would discourage others from taking similar action. They would see, by the public Press, that I had been made to appear as trying to "feather my own nest" at the public expense, and they would be deterred from applying. I felt it my bounden duty, however, to go on with the matter, and I replied to the district council. Apart from personal representations, I replied in a letter extending to three sheets, in which I gave them a general explanation of the Act. The result was that they reconsidered the application, although it is a very difficult thing to get any authority to do that, and this time they decided to make the grant.
The original objection to my application was that it would be "a good investment for the borrower." This is what the good investment amounted to. The cost of making two good cottages, with no fancy work about them, out of 861 this derelict laundry, amounted to £835. I have the bills here. It was somewhat difficult to bring my case within the scope of the Act, because its provisions are limited to work on houses the final value of which must not exceed £400 each; but I was able to show to the district council that, although I was spending £835 on the two cottages, in addition to the cost of the original structure, they would not be valued at anything like £800, as they would be cottages for rural workers. I was given £200 towards the cost. Therefore, this undertaking has cost me £635. I have to borrow that sum and pay the ordinary charges on it. What do I get in return for that? I get nothing. They are cottages which I let to my own workers, whom I have already housed at 3s. a week. I simply get the 3s. a week, which I should get in the ordinary way, because I have charged them nothing extra. All that I do get is an extra 3s. for one of the other cottages which was vacated by one of them. That is all the revenue I get—and it is minus the rates which I have to pay on the cottage. I am glad to have done this thing, because I have added to the cottage accommodation in the area, but it has been a mere bit of philanthropy. I do not regret it. I am, unfortunately, in a special position as an old medical officer of health and a Member of Parliament, and I have to do these things; but the experience I have given shows why the Act has not worked. In most cases the conditions are too severe.
The Noble Lord the Member for Roxburgh (Earl of Dalkeith) suggested that better terms ought to be given, for the sake of the local authority. I do not think we can give better terms to landowners, but we might improve the terms offered to the local authorities. At present local authorities pay half and the Exchequer pays half, and I suggest that the Exchequer should pay a larger share. I ask hon. Members opposite who are keen on housing to recognise the very great value of this legislation in the rural areas if it can be made to work better than it has done. The report of the Ministry of Health shows that even under the Act of 1924 only 18,000 houses had been built in the whole of the agricultural areas up to December last. That is not nearly enough; everybody recognises that we must go ahead and try to 862 build more. Every house built under the Wheatley Act costs a local authority £3 15s. a year for 40 years. Local authorities are anxious to keep their rates down, and the charge which the Wheatley Act imposes is a matter of serious consideration with them before they will build new houses. In that case how are the workers to be housed? I ask the hon. and gallant Member for Banff (Major Wood), who has been arguing against the finance of the Measure, how we can meet the housing problem without making the utmost use of this Act? The hon. and gallant Member ought to know better than to say that this Measure, which gives no adequate return to the owner, is giving landowners a bonus because they are relieved of their rates on other properties. To my mind that is a false argument, and there is no logic in it—unless things in Scotland are working in a very different fashion from how they work in England.
There is no advantage to the landlord under this Act, except that he may have the feeling that he has done a good action. At the utmost he will get 3 per cent. return—sand very rarely that—on money which he has had to borrow at 4½ per cent. This is one of the Measures which show the line along which we can usefully proceed in agricultural areas. The other view is, "Sweep away the old, and get the new and the very best." As a medical officer of health I have heard people who are enthusiastic for good housing suggest that the old houses in villages should be just swept away and new ones built in their place, but I feel that would involve a great deal of unnecessary waste. Cottages built in the middle of the last century are not up to date, but they can be made useful and sound cottages by a certain measure of reconstruction. It must be bold reconstruction and this Act provides for that, and it is by an extension of this Act that we shall be able to cope with the housing problem in rural areas—with the condition that we prevent from getting these houses people who have no right to them, and for whom they are not intended. If we safeguard ourselves against that situation this will be found to be a very useful Measure. I am glad the Government have been converted, and trust they will convert their followers to realise what good work was done for housing by the late Government.
§ 7.0 p.m.
Mr. FRANK OWEN
I will not detain the Minister of Health for more than a moment from rushing out of the House to get on with his housing programme. This Bill will go through without a Division so far as we are concerned, but it ought not to go through without some measure of discussion. Some comment ought to be made on the fact that after nearly two years of office the Minister of Health is relying upon an Act which he described as a "tinker's Act." I do not know whether he called it "a two-penny-halfpenny Measure," but certainly I should call it that. The hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Butler) said he was disappointed with the speech of the Minister. I was not disappointed, because I never expected much. The Minister of Health treated us to the same kind of light and airy discourse which we heard over a week ago. He said that he was not much in favour of this Act, this Tory waif and stray which had been left on his doorstep, but that he had consented to take it in and give it a little shelter, though he had not much use for it. He had not much sympathy for this orphan of the storm. Neither have we on these benches. At the same time, the Minister of Health did not hold out any promise of producing a family of his own. He talked with his usual satisfaction of the 10,000 or 11,000 houses which have been reconditioned in the countryside. What measure of satisfaction he could derive from that I cannot think, when his own Minister for Unemployment was only too grateful the other day to receive the suggestion from these benches that the needs of the countryside were nothing less than 100,000 new houses. We did not expect him to discuss here this afternoon—and it would be out of order if he told us—anything of the progress which has since been made in the course of the week in getting on with that programme. We did, however, expect to hear something of the extended and enlarged programme of reconditioning. He said last week that he hoped there would be a considerable enlargement of this programme, but he gave us no figures and no practical indication of what he intended to do.
Every hon. Member who has spoken this afternoon has agreed that this in 864 itself is a good Measure, but the Conservative party, who were its authors, have themselves stressed the fact that they are not satisfied with it. We are not satisfied with it, the benches behind the Minister are not satisfied with it, and the Minister himself is not satisfied with it. It is impossible for the party above the Gangway, for this party or for the back benchers opposite to devise anything, but it is not impossible for the Minister. He is the one person in this House in a state of dissatisfaction who has got the means of getting out of that state of dissatisfaction. He has not indicated to us that he intends to take any very drastic steps to do that. Under his Slum Clearance and Housing Acts there has not been a house built in the rural districts of Herefordshire and, as far as I have been able to discover, there has not been a house reconditioned under the Act passed in 1926, or under its operation since the Minister had charge of it. We are asking from these benches, as has been asked from other quarters of the House, that something more vigorous should be done. Everybody in the House is agreed as to the need for a bigger drive in this direction, and I cannot approve of the Bill without expressing to the Minister my own dissatisfaction with the progress so far made.
§ Mr. CHARLES WILLIAMS
I would, first of all, assure the Minister of Health that I shall not be quite so ruthless and brutal with him as his quasi ally the Member for Hereford (Mr. F. Owen). I would like to take the opportunity of congratulating the Secretary of State for Scotland on his speech this afternoon. After a lapse of about two years, it is good to hear a speech on the subject of health from that Box which shows some slight knowledge of the facts of the case. It was also interesting to hear that the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is partially responsible for this Act, was not compelled to-day, as the Minister of Health is so frequently compelled to do, to hide his total lack of knowledge behind a screen of verbiage and abuse of his opponents. That is the Minister's only speech, which we have heard upwards and downwards, backwards and forwards and in every possible way, adjusted to various Bills. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who will 865 later address the House, will follow the example of his Scottish chief, and not that of his English one.
I come to the speech of the right hon. Member for Camborne (Mr. Leif Jones). I listened to that speech with pleasure, and to almost every word of it with agreement. I wondered as I heard it if any parts of that speech had ever been delivered in his own constituency. If not, I hope it will be done at every meeting in the future, because there is a great deal of work which can be done in that division, and a good deal of obstruction has been put in the way of this Act in the whole of Cornwall during the last four or five years. It is a curious fact that, while the county of Devon is doing the best of all counties, Cornwall, which is attached to Devon by the Saltash Bridge and other things, and where you have a similar race of people, has only succeeded to the extent of about 70 houses. I believe the number is better now. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his courageous speech, a speech which really came from his heart, because he is greatly interested in this matter. Of all the amazing speeches to which I have listened from hon. Members below the Gangway, I was most interested in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Cornwall (Sir D. Maclean). He is apt to spring surprises upon us on those rare occasions when he sits in the House, but it was interesting to see that on this occasion he has managed to support a thoroughly Conservative Bill. It is so rare that he supports anything which is not Socialism in one way or another, amid cheers from the hon. Members opposite in the hopes of a convert. He was, however, a convert this afternoon. If hon. Members opposite would care to follow the history of his speeches, they would realise that a most remarkable change has come over the right hon. Gentleman in connection with this Bill.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
If I followed up the subject of pacts, I should be called to order very quickly, and I am not going to be tempted in that way. He made a suggestion, which interested me, that, if this Bill were put into operation in England in a proper way, there would be 866 35,000 houses reconstructed under it. I would like to know from the Minister whether there is any estimate of the number of houses over which this Bill might operate. The right hon. Member for North Cornwall also said that this Bill would do something while the great schemes are being formulated, and that it was of some use while the Government were thinking over bigger schemes. Under this Bill these small schemes are to go on for five years, which is the period in the Act.
It is apparently five years—otherwise the Government would not put that period in their Bill—before the Government are going to do anything to tackle the rural housing problem. I do not know whether the Lord Privy Seal In his speech the other day meant that five years is the time before anything can be done. In the event of such an extraordinary thing happening as the Government being still in power then, you would have had half a dozen Lord Privy Seals by that time. They come and go like the seasons. I would not twit him in any way, only I am so pleased to see him in the House for a few minutes. I would ask the right hon. Member for North Cornwall if he is prepared honestly to go into his own constituency and say precisely the same things that he said to-day about this Bill? He said it would be foolish to scoff about the Bill. Is he prepared to say that he has scoffed about this Bill for four or five years and that he has been foolish all the time, and has now discovered his error? Is he prepared to tell the people there that they were wrong to throw away the opportunities which they have had during the last four or five years, during which everything has been done to discourage them from taking advantage of those opportunities?
That is the kind of thing which has been done in different districts in this country and, if there is no other result to the Debate to-day, it will have the result that all three parties will be voting in favour of this Measure, a Measure which is in some ways extravagant, a Measure which in some ways some people would like to see go further, but which is doing a great deal of good, and which in Scotland is doing good out of all proportion to what it has been allowed to do in this country. Apparently, the 867 Scotsman thinks more of his packet and less of politics than they do in some parts of England. This Bill is one of those Measures which effect a good deal of good. I would like whoever replies for the Government to answer three definite questions: Why is it that these houses on the average cost rather more in Scotland than in England? I do not ask that in a critical sense but, if the information cannot be obtained now, the House is entitled to know it at some later stage.
Another point is as to the limit of £400. If the total value after renovations of the house is beyond £400, one cannot get grants. The case has been brought before us of the difficulty which arises in the case of a small farmer, who may be ruled out by the £400 limit. At some stage that point may he answered by an Amendment which would cover the small farmer's position. That is a point which ought not to be overlooked. They form a valuable part of the agricultural community, and it is a question which under many measures we are trying to encourage. The Secretary of State for Scotland referred to the time when he had some doubts about this Measure, but I should like to ask if he could now assure us that he has had all those grave doubts removed. If he would do that, it would enable many of us to help him forward with this Bill to a very large extent. I am certain that, if he could give the House that assurance, all parties would welcome this Bill, which is a sound Measure, and which at the present moment is doing a great deal of good in every part of the country.
§ Major ELLIOT
To-night both sides are pleased. The Minister desires to get the Second Reading of this Bill and he will get it. Those who introduced the Act originally are only too pleased that it has found favour in the eyes of some of its bitterest critics and are only too glad to see that the Act is going to be continued for another five years. Yet in all parts of the House we feel that full use has not been made of this Measure. There are great differences in the use which has been made of its provisions in adjacent counties in England, and the comparison is more striking between the counties of England and Scotland. For instance, the figures for the county of 868 Cornwall are 74 reconditioned and 50 in process of reconditioning, and in Devon 249 reconditioned and 122 in process. All through England we find that certain counties have done a great deal, and others have done very little. In the Isle of Ely only 10 houses have been reconditioned under the Act; in the county of Durham 21 have been reconditioned, and only 10 are in process of reconditioning. In the county of Lancaster, 10 houses have been reconditioned, and only six are in process of reconditioning. In the county of Lincoln, no houses have been reconditioned, and no reconditioning work is in progress. I think all these figures clearly show that the Act did not have a fortunate send-off. What is more, it seems, to judge by the Minister's speech, to have been administered during the last two years in a very grudging spirit.
It is perfectly easy to find quotations of the strongest nature from the party opposite while this Measure was passing through the House. The Minister of Health has already been criticised this afternoon. The right hon. Gentleman complains that those who criticise him use only jaunty air and a few quotations. Nothing more is necessary when criticising his present attitude. There is plenty of ammunition to go on with. I could read the whole of the right hon. Gentleman's speech on the Second Beading, and on the Third Reading. In the Third Reading Debate the Minister of Health said:To-day we have heard with sadness that the Government have now inscribed on its banner, Working-class houses without baths and bathrooms.' This is to be regarded as a Conservative standard of what are fit houses for working-class people to live in.Continuing his speech the right hon. Gentleman said:This is an attempt on the part of the Government to give definite financial support to a class which is one of the strongest in the political forces which they represent. It is an unfair and an unjust Act, a measure of political bribery to a class of their political opponents and it will do next to nothing really to solve the rural housing problem."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1926; cols. 1800–1802, Vol. 200.]This Measure of political bribery is now brought forward by the Government as their main contribution for a period of five years towards the problem of rural housing. Furthermore, in these previous 869 Debates, the late Opposition brought up their biggest gun. They put their siege howitzer into position. The Leader of the Opposition was brought, down to take his part. First he attacked the Government for taking two years to do anything in regard to this problem. It has taken the Labour Government themselves two years. The Prime Minister went on to say:The agricultural labourer, however, is not so simple as some of them imagine, and he knows perfectly well the difference between legislation which is aimed primarily at helping him and legislation which is aimed primarily at applying public funds for private ends."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd August, 1926; col. 2898, Vol. 198.]Could we expect the Act to be taken up enthusiastically when it was described by the Leader of the Opposition as primarily an effort to apply public funds to private ends, and when the leading housing speaker for the Opposition at that time said that it was simply a barefaced attempt at bribery and corruption for a particular class. Under those conditions, the Act has taken several years to work itself into favour. I am glad to find that in Scotland local authorities were not led away by the rhodomontade of the Leader of the Opposition or the vituperation of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Greenwood). What was the result? The figures show that in Scotland we have succeeded in doing more than the whole of England put together, and that is a record of which we are not ashamed. The memorandum on the Financial Resolution upon housing (rural workers) shows that the number of grants made up to 30th September, 1930, in England and Wales were 3,694 and in Scotland 6,193. The amount of these grants in Scotland came to £530,000 for these 6,000 grants. That was six months ago. The present figures must reach over £600,000. The amount paid by the landlord as his corresponding quota must have been at least £400,000 sterling or even more, because the landlord pays more since £150 was fixed as the maximum sum for the grants which are allowed, and the sums expended are frequently in excess of that. What does that mean? That over over £1,000,000 is being spent in Scotland in reconditioning rural houses. The equivalent amount for England and Wales would reach a sum of between 870 £8,000,000 to £10,000,000, instead of the sum of under £1,000,000 which is at present being expended.
If the Act had been taken up with the same vigour by the local authorities England as in Scotland, it would have made a difference between what is now being expended and what could have expended of some £7,000,000 or £8,000,000. And on what? On what the Secretary of State for Scotland has referred to this evening, namely, the provision of water, light, extra bedroom accommodation, all of them most valuable things. As a matter of sheer public health, apart from its effect on rural unemployment, the expenditure of £7,000,000 or £8,000,000 sterling, a large proportion of which would have come from the landlords, would have been one of the most beneficial measures that could possible have been conceived, and it is clearly shown by the figures from the north of the Tweed that that result could have been achieved.
Even in Scotland a great deal more could have been done for the reconditioning of rural houses. In answer to a question, the Secretary of State circulated a table showing the number of houses being improved under the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, 1926. It showed that in West Lothian the number of dwellings to be improved was 67, in Perth 278, in Inverness 165, in East Lothian 313, in Berwick 299, and in Aberdeen 323. Other counties have done very little. Many populous and wealthy counties such as Lanark could have done a good deal more than improve 193 houses, or the county of Renfrew which dealt only with two houses. The differences show that it is usually only a case of whether the local authorities and the landlords have taken this matter up. What has been done in one case could have been done in other cases, if a similar amount of energy and drive had been applied.
We make no apology for having taken up a certain amount of time to discuss this Measure. The subject requires more publicity. We have been told that in the county of Devon considerable effort under the Act led to only a farthing rate for a period of 20 years, and that seems to be a sort of figure worth while repeating in this sounding board of the nation. I think that other counties might very well consider whether a great deal of unem- 871 ployment could not be mitigated by a more vigorous application of this small and practical Measure. I am sorry to find that even yet it does not command universal approval. Mr. Joseph Duncan, whom I have quoted when he agreed with me, and whom I feel it is necessary to quote when he disagrees with me, writes, in "Forward" of the 11th April, 1931:Five years ago the Tory Government introduced an Act under which rural landowners are given doles. It is known as the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, 1926… I wrote at the time, It is the most barefaced piece of corruption which has been presented to Parliament in our generation.'It led, at any rate, to some 6,000 houses in Scotland being reconditioned, with water, light and extra sleeping accommodation, and, if it is the most barefaced piece of corruption presented to Parliament in our generation, at any rate it has had more beneficial effects than some pieces of corruption which have come under the review of this House. He goes on:The Act expires in October this year. Even the Tories could not face up to such robbing of the ratepayers and taxpayers as a permanent institution. It has been left to the Labour Government to renew the Act. … Even although the Government has decided to renew the Act, I still think it is the most barefaced piece of corruption which has been presented to Parliament in our time.I fail to follow that argument; it does not seem to me to have any bearing on the issues that are before us. Mr. Joseph Duncan has had a great deal of experience in practical affairs, and is deeply devoted to the cause of better housing for agricultural workers, and I am surprised to find him bringing forward arguments like this at this time of day. It is exactly those arguments, that mentality, and these attacks, which have led to the great hold-up in many counties, and it is just those attacks, that attitude of mind, that whole complex, which we want to see cleared off and dissipated; and it is for this reason that we have been most desirous of having the Debate this afternoon and of obtaining the admission which have been made—generously in the case of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and grudgingly in the case of the Minister of Health, but at any rate backed by something more definite than the speeches of either of them, namely, a Financial Resolution of the House of Commons, recommended to 872 it by the Treasury, and with the King's assent signified in the usual fashion, declaring that the Government will find money for the Measure. So wt must take it that they believe the Measure to be a good one, and one which ought to be supported. The proposals which the Government bring before us to-day are sound proposals; and they are none the less sound because we said they were good proposals five years ago, and it has taken the Government five years to find out that we were right and they were wrong.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Mr. Westwood)
It seems to be unnecessary for me to detain the House for very long when practically everyone seems to be agreed that this would be a useful Measure to continue for five years, but I propose as briefly as possible to deal with one or two points that have been raised during the discussion. I would like to point out to the hon. and gallant Member for Kelvin-grove (Major Elliot) that any success that has attended this particular Act in Scotland has been mainly due to the energy of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] Saturday after Saturday for the last two years my right hon. Friend has been addressing conferences in different parts of Scotland, and trying to create the necessary public opinion to make a success, not merely of the Wheatley Act or of the new Slum Clearance Act, but also of the Act which lye are discussing at the present moment. We were in Inverness Saturday, and within three weeks we shall be discussing the same matters in Midlothian; and at both of these conferences—the one which has been held and the one which is to be held—we do not merely stress the advantages of one particular Act, because, where we can get improvements in any of the housing conditions that affect our people, no matter under what Act, we are going to get the improvements so far as our administration is concerned. I may point out to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that, during practically three years of the operation of the Act, when he and his friends were responsible for its administration, the total number of houses approved for grant was 3,518, but, in the year 1930, the full year of our administration, we find that the houses approved for grant totalled no fewer than 3,342.
§ Major ELLIOT
Will the hon. Gentleman apply the same test to the current administrative working of the new 1930 Act?
§ Mr. WESTWOOD
That question will be more appropriately put after our Slum Clearance Act has been in operation for two or three years, and, when that question is put to us, I feel sure that, on the tenders approved then and now, we shall be prepared to accept the challenge and prove that our Act is operating better already than this particular Act operated until we were responsible for its administration. [Interruption.] We shall not admit any crabbing of this particular Act—
§ Mr. WESTWOOD
I am speaking of Scotland at the moment. Scotland has already demonstrated that it has taken better advantage of this Act than England, and we shall continue to get every house that requires improving improved, if we can get the assistance of the local administrative bodies to carry through that work.
A question was put as to why this Act is to be extended for five years. I think the answer is obvious. The difficulty that has been found with housing, particularly on the financial side, has been in connection with the two-yearly review of the financial arrangements. Every two years there has to be a review of the financial arrangements associated with these Acts. As a result of these difficulties, we, in our Slum Clearance Act, made the period of review three years instead of two. No sooner do you get an impetus for building on the part of local authorities than you have a slackening up, because they are not sure of the financial arrangements for future years, and that has been one of our difficulties in connection with the housing push at the present time. The object of extending this Act for five years is to keep going the good work which we have already seen started in Scotland. We do not want it stopped. We want authorities who have been taking advantage of it to take still further advantage of it, and we want those authorities that have been negligent in dealing with disreputable houses in their districts, which by some 874 expenditure of public and private money could be made habitable, to get that work done.
We have been asked what means we are prepared to adopt to work the Act. We will consider every suggestion from every quarter of the House which will be useful in operating this Act still more successfully. It was suggested, I think by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hurd), that we might ask the representatives of those authorities who have been successful in administering this Act to be missionaries. I feel sure that that would be most acceptable to my colleagues north of the Tweed, because we have been the most successful in administering it, and I feel sure that representatives from East Lothian would be only too pleased to pay visits to the reactionary areas in England to convince them how successful we have made the administration of this Act in Scotland. There is nothing that a Scotsman likes better than a visit to London or to England, to teach Englishmen how to erect houses.
§ Mr. LEIF JONES
It is not to London that the missionaries would have to go, but to the rural areas.
§ Mr. WESTWOOD
All that I said was that nothing pleases a Scotsman better than a visit to London, and, indeed, it would perhaps be necessary to come to London for the purpose of getting down to Cornwall. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Banff (Major Wood) put several questions. Incidentally he complained about the finance of the scheme, but, as there seems to be a conflict of opinion between him and the right hon. Member for Camborne (Mr. Leif Jones), it would perhaps be better to allow the two to fight out that difficulty outside rather than here. I would point out, referring to another point that he put, as to whether it would be possible to extend this Act to small farmers, that the conditions of the grant and the provisions of the Act itself are such that it would be impossible unless these people accepted the conditions, and those conditions are that such a house during the specified period must not be occupied except by a person whose income is such that he would not ordinarily pay a rent in excess of what is paid by an agricultural worker. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not amend it?"] 875 That would extend the financial commitments that have to be met, and would be dealing with a problem with which the Act was never intended to deal; it was intended that it should be confined to the provision of houses for those who had either agricultural wages or wages similar to those of agricultural workers, and who were unable to pay the rents which are being demanded for the new houses which are being put up at the present time. I think I have met all the points which have been raised; if not, it is not because I do not desire to do so—
§ Mr. WESTWOOD
The answer is that transport costs in Scotland are far greater. In my own constituency, a shepherd's house reconditioned under this Act would be at least 10 or 12 miles, if not more, from the nearest station, with the result that transport charges in that case would be far greater than in many cases in England. Transport charges add very materially to the cost. There is also the fact that repairs have to be more effective than in England, where the climate is not so severe as it happens to be in Scotland. There may be other reasons, but these are two good reasons why the cost is greater in Scotland than in England. I trust that I have met at least the main points which have been raised in connection with the Bill, and, as there has been no objection from any part of the House, I feel sure that we are going to get the Second Reading unanimously. I can guarantee that, so far as administration is concerned, my right hon. Friend and myself will put all the energy and all the "vim" that is possible behind it, in order to get the maximum number of houses improved under this Measure if it is continued as an Act of Parliament for another five years.
§ Major COLVILLE
Did I understand the Under-Secretary to say that, at the conferences which have been held in Scotland, this Act, as well as the Housing Act, 1930, has been explained, and that the local authorities have been urged to take advantage of it? I person- 876 ally was consulted in regard to the Midlothian Conference that will take place shortly, and this Act was not on the agenda until at my own request it was included. I want to be quite certain that the Government really have urged this Act on the local authorities up and down the country.
§ Mr. WESTWOOD
I have already given that assurance. It has been done in all the other cases, including the Conference at Inverness last Saturday. It will certainly be done at the Midlothian Conference, not merely on the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member, because it was in our minds at the time, but, in drafting the communication to the Midlothian County Council, there was a certain agreement on the terms inside the letter. That is really the position so far as the Midlothian Conference is concerned.
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE
The hon. Gentleman has said that he can assure us that the Act will be properly administered in Scotland, but we have had no such assurance with regard to England. Neither representative of the Ministry of Health has condescended to say a word about this Bill, except that the Minister of Health did a certain amount of crabbing; he has constantly run it down and crabbed it in every possible way that he could. What I want, as coming from a county which has been constantly mentioned as being the best county of any in England, is an assurance that the Bill will be properly administered in England, and that we shall be encouraged to carry on with it in our own country.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Miss Lawrence)
The Act has not had great success in England, but the amount of money spent under it is growing. The number of houses in 1928 was 1,165 and in 1930, 1,539. The amount of grant promised has grown from £85,000 odd to £120,000. The total is not great but it shows a certain growth.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]