HC Deb 09 December 1931 vol 260 cc2006-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]


I want to raise a matter of which I have given notice to the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am somewhat kept back from doing so by the importance of the matters which have been discussed in the Debate to-day, but the question I am raising affects a very large range of people and in my view it is extremely important. It deal with the question of rents and evictions. I am only raising the question in relation to Glasgow, but I know that there is great distress in other places too, and the instances I give are typical of every part of the country so far as industrial workers are concerned. Yesterday I received an answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland which showed that during the last nine or 10 months over 11,000 cases had been dealt with by the Glasgow Rent Court and 4,000 had had decrees passed against them. I know the Under-Secretary of State said that a large number of these cases did not get evicted at all and that, though the power to evict was given, that power was not exercised in every case. I would point out, however, that these courts are not the only courts, and, while I asked the hon. Gentleman a question about the Rent Court, he knows that the small debt courts are also now largely rent courts and that people are sued there for arrears of rent with practically the same effect as at the rent court. The factor sues the tenant for arrears, and these are granted against the tenant, and then, if the tenant cannot pay, the goods belonging to him are sold. Then the custody of the house is automatically given to the factor, because the tenant has no goods. The consequence is that, though the hon. Gentleman gave me the figure of 11,000, that does not deal with half the cases, because the small debt courts now deal with a vastly larger number.

The very poor people are dealt with at the rent court because they have no goods worth selling, but there is a large residue of cases from other areas, from a better type of house with usually better furniture. The factor sues them at the small debt court because there are realisable assets covering the amount. These cases are not included in the figures which were given by the Under-Secretary. It is true that a decree is not always granted, but not one of those who go to the court desires to do so. It is hell; and I have seen women there. I wish I could get hon. Members who do not know the conditions in my city to go and see the courts dealing with these cases. Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Slave Market is a picture compared with the conditions sometimes revealed in the courts. There is the sheriff on the bench. True, not always s bad sheriff; God help us if he were. Not all the factors are bad; Heaven help us if they were. Not one in 50 of these men and women wish to go to the court; they are driven there by sheer awful poverty. They have 30s. a week for two children and two adults, and have to pay a rent of 8s. or 9s. a week. They are left with 22s. or 21s. to keep them alive. I am going to Gorbals on Saturday and for the first time in my life I do not want to go. I would sooner stay here. I do not want to be in Gorbals during the coming winter. I ask the Under-Secretary of State and also the Secretary of State to look at the condition of these poor mortals and see if something cannot Le done to ask the public assistance committee to pay some of the rent. Winter is the worst time of the year. During the summer they have no coal or light, and they can go out if they want to. I n the winter they have to stay indoors and must have a little coal and light.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the: Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Skelton.]


I want to know whether the public assistance committee can do something to help these people. Coal costs 2s. or 2s. 6d. per bag and light probably 1s. a week. Surely the public assistance committee could give them 3s. or 4s. extra to meet the cost of light and coal? Surely the Under-Secretary can ask the public assistance committee to come to their assistance in their distress. These conditions are going to have a detrimental effect on the health of these people, and it will cost the State and local authorities large sums of money to restore them to health. From that aspect we cannot view the situation with ease. We ask the Secretary of State to tide over the winter through the public assistance committees by giving this grant.

A second thing I ask. Though the courts are not badly administered, there is still the practice going on of officials granting decrees in cases in which there is a non-appearance or when the factor says that an arrangement has been made. Even without the sheriff being present, decrees are granted. I ask that, whether the person concrned is present or not, whether an arrangement has been made or not, a decree shall not be granted unless the sheriff says that it shall be done. Apart from these things, apart from the cost involved, I ask the Under-Secretary of State to go to Glasgow and to meet everybody concerned—the sheriffs, the public assistance committees, and the victims themselves, the unemployed people and their families. He ought to go to the courts without notice being given. If it was known that he was coming the knowledge might improve the administration for the day, though nothing could improve the victims' appearance. The hon. Gentleman might also see the factors. No man, no woman, no family should be evicted during this coming winter.

I might be told, "You are demanding too much. There are some of these people who are awfully bad." There are some of them bad, but they are not half as bad as they should be. If I were in their condition I do not think I should be as good. My wife was born and brought up amongst these people. It is only sheer accident that has put her and me where we are. She might have been one of these people to-day as easily as she is what she is. Even if some of these people are bad the punishment of putting a man out of his house in the coining winter is too great. It is worse than six months in gaol, because it is punishing the man's children. It is punishing the bairns. Either no evictions should take place in these cases, or else, before the actual eviction is carried out, the sheriff and all concerned should consider the case thoroughly. I was at the Court a fortnight ago and they have now to meet in the afternoons as well as in the mornings. I see women there from Bridgeton and other districts trying to placate people concerned in these cases.

I make an earnest appeal to the Secretary of State for Scotland and to the Under-Secretary. I have been in this House for nine years and I have seen four Secretaries of State for Scotland, and various Under-Secretaries. I will say that every Under-Secretary has tried to do something to make things different. I say that of Tory and Labour alike. But I could never say it of the Secretaries of State. I say this seriously. I am not sarcastic. The Under-Secretaries have tried to introduce the human note, but from the Secretaries of State we have always got the stereotyped letters on these matters. Previous Secretaries of State have been old men, and one of them, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Pollok (Sir J. Gilmour) not too young, but the present Secretary of State is much younger than some of his predecessors. I ask him not to do what they have all done before. We are dealing here with a fearful human problem—with terrible things. I ask the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for their own sakes not to leave office when the time comes feeling that they have done nothing for the good of these folk who matter just as much as iron and steel. I ask them to accede to my appeal, first, for the sake of these folk who have given a lot. They have made money for this country. They fought for this country. In a great many of these cases either the men or their fathers fought in the War, and many of them would fight again. I do not think that I would let them, if I could help it, but they would do it. They have still love of their country. My love for my country is of a different kind. However, here are these people, and I ask the hon. Member to try and reciprocate their feelings and to use the power of this great Government on their behalf. This Government has great powers, if it cares to exercise them. I ask them to leave aside for the moment the consideration of other matters and to see if something cannot be done to make my native city, which is a great city, a little happier in this respect than it has been in the past.


I do not think that anyone could listen to the speech of the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) without feeling that he was perfectly justified in raising this problem which is of great importance. The hon. Member raised it from a local angle, though Glasgow is so important an element in the life of Scotland that the word "local" is scarcely applicable. I am sure all who heard the hon. Member will agree that any topic, however important, could not have been dealt with in an abler or more impressive way. The question on which the hon. Member's speech was raised dealt, not with the small debt court, but with the ejection court, and any questions connected with the ejection court are in their nature really more important than those connected with the small debt court. I have not seen the Glasgow small debt court for myself, though I am aware of the character of a small debt court, but when you come to a court where a decree is given which may result in a family being turned out of their home, you are coming to a very important question.

I want to say at once that when this question was first brought before me, the figures filled me with great anxiety, and the question seemed to be one which might be of a very alarming nature. I am glad to say that on the best survey of the matter which I can make, it is true to say that, as far as the ejection court and the decrees for ejection are concerned, the situation this winter is not abnormal, and I shall give some figures on that point, because I am bound to say that my own mind has been to some extent relieved by the figures which I shall give. My hon. Friend's figure which he quoted to my answer of yesterday is in truth only half the figure. That figure was 11,000 odd, but the total figure before the ejection court up to 18th November this year, counting new cases and re-enrolled cases, was 24,141, which would seem to be a very serious figure. And let me add that the decrees which have been granted amount to 4,030. My anxiety on the subject was, I confess, to some extent mitigated when I found that, so far back as 1924, the figures were as follows—and we have the figures for 1924 because they are incorporated in the report of Lord Constable's Rent Restrictions Committee, a purely Scottish committee which dealt with rent restrictions. For the year 1924 the total of all cases in the ejection court was 29,663, and the total number of decrees granted was 4,510. My hon. Friend will see that, taking the few weeks of this year less, the figures are cenainly not worse this year, as far as we can judge, than they were as far back as the year 1924.

But the vital question, as I said to my hon. Friend in my supplementary answer of yesterday, is not the actual number of ejection decrees, but the number of people who are ejected on the strength of the decrees. I cannot give my hon. Friend the figures for this year of actual ejections, but the vital figure which I want to put before him is this, that in the year 1924, for which we have full information, when there were 29,663 cases and 4,510 decrees there were actually in Glasgow only 822 ejections.


I know that, but the hon. Gentleman does not take cognisance of the great number who leave without being ejected. In effect what happens is that if a man is a decent fellow, he leaves voluntarily and he does not come within the category of actual evictions.


That may well be so. I am giving my hon. Friend the most accurate figure that I can give him, and it is only fair to say that in the speech that he has just delivered he was not able to give me any more information or any evidence that the number of actual ejections was very much higher than the figure for 1924. It is a difficult subject about which to get information, but my information is that the actual number of people who have to leave their houses as a result of ejection decrees is very small compared with the number of decrees. I think that I am in a, position to say that that is so. That is the vital fact, and I am happy to say that, as far as I can judge, the number of actual ejections is not to be arrived at by the number of decrees granted.

The second matter which gave me great anxiety when I had first to direct my attention to this matter was this: I was very much afraid that people in receipt of public assistance were in danger of being ejected, that is to say, the class of people for whom naturally the State has responsibility, and for whom I as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland would have to bear my own share of responsibility with the local authorities. I am glad to be able to tell the House that, so far as I can ascertain, it is not the case that people in receipt of public assistance are ejected from their houses, but that, in fact, it is one of the definite duties and the ordinary practice of the public assistance committees to prevent ejection. I am extremely glad to be able to give the House that assurance. So far as Glasgow is concerned, there is also this to be borne in mind, that those who are not in receipt of public assistance have special facilities with regard to their rents from the Lord Provost's fund.


It does not pay rent.


That does not exist now.


It is not now properly to be described as a fund It is the successor of a voluntary fund, but there is now special provision in Glasgow whereby the Glasgow Public Assistance Committee can assist out of the rates, for the purpose of helping with their rents, people who are not otherwise in receipt of public assistance. A large number of applications is naturally enough made under this head, and the practice of the committee is to give assistance wherever ejection is imminent. No doubt where ejection is not imminent, such applications are turned down, but wherever ejection is imminent, the committee gives assistance to prevent it. Those are people not getting public assistance otherwise, but just ordinary tenants. For the year ended 15th May, 1931, the public assistance Department got 3,548 applications under this head, and gave assistance to 2,074 cases. Therefore we have it that, over and above the general principle of public assistance in Glasgow that those who are in receipt of public assistance are not turned out of their homes, there is this admirable provision that the public assistance committee does, where it thinks there is a prime necessity, an immediate necessity, give assistance out of the rates to prevent ejection. That is a most important factor in the situation.

Let me add that the receipt of such help from the public assistance committee does not result in the receiver being treated as though he had became a pauper. While it is impossible not to feel the seriousness of the large number of cases before the ejection court it is a matter in regard to which we may justly take some measure of comfort, that it has not increased since 1924. In that year the number of ejections—though I quite understand the qualification introduced by my hon. Friend's interruption—was certainly very, very much smaller than the number of decrees. I ought to have said earlier that I compared 1924 with 1929 because I have the most complete set of figures with regard to 1924. Let me say also that taking the years 1930 and 1931—at the end of May in each case—you find the number of decrees for those two years are 4,366 and 4,307 respectively, whereas for the 11 months of this year the figure has reached 4,030. Therefore, in the matter of decrees, one does not gather that 1931 is going to be unfavourable as compared with 1930.

My hon. Friend made some very direct suggestions to me, and I think they are all worthy of the very closest attention. He asked me to go to see for myself. I have no hesitation in accepting that invitation, and nobody knows better than my hon. Friend that as soon as my Parliamentary duties allow, it is my intention and my obvious duty—as it must be the duty of anyone who has any relation with the administration of Scotland—to go to study Glasgow problems for myself. I hope that hon. Members of all parties, if I think their assistance essential to me, will give me what assistance they can. I know the suggestion that I should discuss these matters with the sheriffs. That suggestion needs a little more consideration. The final request of my hon. Friend was that we should see that there are no more evictions. I do not think that I can give any such guarantee this evening. I think I have made it plain to the House that the scope of evictions is in my judgment, very narrow. When you have the whole of the people going to the public assistance committees, you have a well organised scheme. It seems to me that you have provisions and safeguards which are of a very powerful and valuable sort, and I cannot myself—and I do not think any fair-minded Member of the House can—doubt that in a, great city like Glasgow, with its immense population, there must be cases where the eviction of a tenant is a thing which it is right that the landlord should be allowed to do. I think that that will be admitted as a probability in a city like Glasgow.

I have ventured to put before the House considerations which I do not say satisfy me, because no one has ever any right to be satisfied about anything, but which certainly have very much mitigated my own anxiety, and which I hope will have made my hon. Friend feel, as I feel myself, that the City of Glasgow is not failing in its duty, but is facing up to this aspect of the problems of poverty with the energy and practical sense which distinguish that great city. I think that one ought to be able to say that the problem is not so anxious as it might be at first sight, and there are already many valuable safeguards. If as the winter approaches and the justification for my hon. Friend's obvious anxiety increases, and if there are any other safeguards which ought to 'be considered, I think I am not saying what I should not say, when I say that any further safeguards; which can properly be considered will have the most careful consideration of my right hon. Friend and myself.


Even when Parliament is not sitting?


Oh, yes. Close consideration will be given to the matter whether Parliament is sitting or not. It is quite clear that there is difficulty in getting information, and I hope if my hon. Friend has any information which will throw further light on the problem he will give it to me without waiting for the re-assembling of Parliament. My own anxieties have been very considerably relieved, and I am extremely obliged to the hon. Member for raising this question—another example of the care which hon. Members of all parties devote to these problems.


May I ask the hon. Gentleman a question in the minute that is left 1 It is obvious that there is a disparity in the figures. I am not challenging his figures, but he himself has admitted that there is a serious difficulty in getting accurate figures as to certain kinds of ejections—


There is a doubt as to whether they exist.


There is a doubt as to whether they exist. My question is this: Could not the hon. Gentleman make inquiries from the Sheriff with a view to having the cases tabulated, so that accurate knowledge may be available as to the actual number of ejections, and so that we may know exactly where we stand? That can surely be done, as these cases are actually recorded in the Courts.


I will certainly consider whether there is any method by which more accurate information can be obtained.

Adjourned accordingly at Minutes Twenty-nine after Eleven o' Clock.