HC Deb 21 May 1931 vol 252 cc2368-80

Order of Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."


I wish to detain the House for a few moments, in order to ask a few questions, before we give a final Reading to this Bill. It may be recalled that, on the Second Reading and, I think, on the Committee stage, the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland expressed very warm approval of the proposals which are contained in this Measure, and which we will, by passing, extend for another five years. The right hon. Gentleman said that the reason for the extension arose from requests from various local authorities, many of whom have taken considerable advantage of its provisions. The right hon. Gentleman stated, I believe, with truth and accuracy, that this Act, so far as Scotland was concerned and, in a measure, in England, has done a great deal for providing improved and healthier housing accommodation for a large number of rural workers. I Was glad that the Secretary of State for Scotland emphasised that one of the advantages of the Act was that it was making further and better accommodation for the people who required it, and that it did not involve, as was the case with the Wheatley Act, renovated houses being occupied by people other than the class for whom they were intended. He also said that the effect of this Act would be to increase housing from year to year. He generally approved it, in the warmest terms. But the Minister of Health took a very different view, although his name is on the back of this Measure. In case any words of mine might be open to misconception, I would desire to refer to a speech which was made on that occasion, when the question I want to put to the Minister of Health was put by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Camborne (Mr. Leif Jones), who, in expressing strong disapproval of the speech of the Minister of Health belittling this Act, said: 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.… 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st April, 1931; col. 845; Vol. 251.] The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, when he replied to these observations, made a disparaging reference to this Act of Parliament. That is very strange because his name is down to this Bill, which asks the House to extend that Act for a further period of five years. He said: 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. The question I want to put is: is that going to be the attitude of the Minister of Health towards the Act? If so, it is a strange attitude to adopt. Later he said: I do not understand this paeon of praise about this wretched little Measure, with its poor paltry result, that we have had from the right hon. Member for West Woolwich."—[OFFICIAL REPOHT, 21st April, 1931; col. 832, Vol. 251.] That is a strange attitude after the Secretary of State for Scotland had commended the Act in the warmest terms, and when the Minister of Health is himself trying to get local authorities to improve housing conditions, particularly in the rural areas. I want to know whether the right hon. Gentleman really means to commend this Act of Parliament to local authorities, and to vigorously work it? In the same debate the Under-Secretary for Scotland referred in terms which were not exaggerated to the work done by his predecessor, and said that for over two years his predecessor every week-end had been commending to local authorities in Scotland, not only the Wheatley Act, but the Conservative Act as well. That is a strange contrast to the attitude of the Minister of Health.

The Second Reading of this Bill was passed on the 21st April, 1931. Since then, the Minister of Health has been communicating with the local authorities with reference to their housing proposals and urging them to make further endeavours in the provision of housing accommodation. One does not wonder at that, having regard to the right hon. Gentleman's record in relation to housing. I have here Circular 1197, dated 27th April, some days after the Second Reading of this Bill. It might be imagined, as the Government were seeking the sanction of the House to the extension of the Act, that the right hon. Gentleman would have shown some interest in it and some desire to ask the local authorities to concern themselves actively in the Measure, but in the circular there is no reference whatever to it except in the schedule at the end, where there is a little blank and the words "Scope for action under the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, 1926." I do not understand the action of the Minister in this matter. How can he expect local authorities to interest themselves in the Measure, if he is describing it as a miserable little project, and belittling it as he did on the occasion of the Second Reading of this Bill? How can he expect local authorities to take advantage of the Act, if in the very first communication which he makes to them after its extension has been proposed in this House, he does not vigorously encourage them to adopt its proposals? It seems to me an unsatisfactory method of procedure. Of all people, the Minister of Health ought to take advantage of every Act of Parliament to increase the housing accommodation in the country. But the right hon. Gentleman's record, as I have said, is a very poor one. During the year which ended in April last 1,000 fewer houses were built in rural areas than in the preceding year. In almost every phase of housing activity, in both rural and urban areas, there is great need for improvement in housing progress, under the righ hon. Gentleman's administration. I confess I think it useless, or at any rate of very little use, to give this Bill a Third Reading if we have at the head of the Department responsible for its administration a man who puts his name on the back of the Bill asking for the extension of the Act and at the same time decries the Act in this House and endeavours to discourage local authorities from adopting it.


I congratulate the Government on introducing a Measure which may do some good to somebody. We have spent a considerable part of this Session in considering a Bill to reconstruct the fortunes of the Liberal party. We are now considering a Bill to reconstruct rural housing. I protest against discussing such an important Bill at this late hour, but I do not complain at the Government adopting a Conservative Measure. I know that they are conscious of their own failure as regards rural housing, and that they are delighted to save their faces by continuing a Conservative Act which has done a great deal for the agricultural labourers of Scotland and has been of assistance to a lesser degree in England. When the original Act was introduced, we believed that it would be possible to reconstruct rural housing and make them more habitable, and on the Second Reading of this Bill, the Secretary of State for Scotland told us that considerable advantage had been taken of the provisions of the Act in Scotland and that it had been the means of providing healthier housing accommodation for a large number of the rural workers there. We welcome that statement but we are concerned to see that the Measure has been less useful in England than in Scotland. I think there are three reasons for that difference. In the first place, I believe that the canny Scot knows a good thing when he sees it. In the second place, I believe that the Secretary of State for Scotland has shown himself ready to work a Measure which he knows is going to help the workers in the country, and has not been blinded by partisan prejudice like the Minister of Health.

I do not propose to spend time in quoting the speeches of the Minister of Health on the subject. I believe it was Cromwell who came to this House and tore up the records of Parliament. I am sure that the Minister of Health would like to tear out some of the records of his speeches, because surely, no Minister in such a short space of time, has made such extraordinary statements as the right hon. Gentleman. One can scarcely imagine that he himself believes in the accusations which he made against this Act, or take seriously his statement that if he were in Opposition, he would make them again. My complaint against him is that he has deluded many of his followers in the country into believing his statements. That brings me to the third reason why the Act has not been as successful in England as we would have liked. Everybody knows that Labour Members of district and county councils have done their best in many cases to prevent the Act working. They have done so, quite sincerely, because they believed in the words of the Minister of Health, that this was a dole to landlords. [HON. MEMBERS: "Quite right."] Then, hon. Members opposite are going to vote for it to-night. The hon. Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Alpass), for example, says, quite sincerely I believe, that he thinks that it is a dole to landlords and that it will not be much use to rural workers. He himself took a very active part in the Gloucestershire County Council and was so successful that that Act has not been working there to any great extent.


I am sure the hon. Member would not desire to misrepresent me. My opposition on the Gloucestershire County Council was directed to making gifts out of the public rates to landlords to put their houses in order when they were able to do it. The motion I moved on the Gloucestershire County Council was not to refuse to administer the Act of Parliament. I am too good a constitutionalist for that. It was that any assistance given to landlords should be by way of loan and not by way of gift.


I did not mean to misrepresent the hon. Member, and I warned him that I was going to raise the matter. He did not want to give assistance to landlords, and it was because he believed the speeches of the Minister. I should have thought, therefore, that he would be supporting an Amendment for the rejection of the Bill.


There are two alternative ways of using this Bill. You may lend the money or you may grant the money, and the option is left to the local authority.


I am not accusing the hon. Member in any way. I say that he is perfectly sincere, but that he was led into this attitude by the speeches of the Minister of Health when he was in opposition. I want to ask whether there is going to be a reversal of the attitude of the Minister of Health. Is he going to ask all his supporters on the local councils throughout the country to forget what he said and to see that the Act is properly used? When I read the speeches of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Scotland, I am very much encouraged, because they have realised that this is a, useful Act and have determined to work it. We ought to have some assurance that the Minister of Health really does want to work it in England. Speaking the other day, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said of this matter that he felt sure that the representatives of East Lothian would be only too pleased to pay visits to the reactionary areas in England and convince them of the success that they made of the administration of this Act in Scotland. I suggest that the first visit the representatives of East Lothian ought to make should be to the Minister of Health in London. Rural workers who want it are entitled to have their cottages improved and the Government should make some statement that they intend to work the Act and to get as many reconditioned houses as possible for the workers of this country.

The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Mr. William Adamson)

I do not think that the last speaker or the right hon. Member for Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) will expect the Minister or myself to reply—


I certainly expect the Minister of Health to reply.


To reply to the questions. As a matter of fact, these questions were put and answered on Second Reading. In a former Debate, the right hon. Member for West Woolwich stated that it was the almost unanimous view of members in all parts of the House that this was a desirable step for the Government to take. One would have thought, when they saw the general feeling, that there would have been very little discussion required on this Bill. On all three occasions it has been very fully discussed. The right hon. Gentleman further stated that he was very glad to see that the Act of 1926 is now being generally adopted in England as well as in Scotland. Surely, that is a result that should stand to the credit of the present Government, and the few figures I shall give to the House to-night will prove that is a result that does stand to the credit of the present Government to a much greater extent than to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House. The figures that I shall give are the figures for the last full year that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends had the administration of this Act under their charge. In Scotland there were 1,396 houses built and in England 1,316 houses, a total of 2,712 houses. In the last full year that the present Government has been responsible for the administration of the Act, the year 1930, there were 6,960 houses built in Scotland and in England 4,049 houses, or a total of 11,009 houses, which is four times the number of houses built by the right hon. Gentleman. When I take the number of houses that it is estimated will be built by September 30th next, when the present Act would expire but for this Bill to extend it, I find that it is estimated that in England and Scotland there will be built 15,287 houses, or six times the number that was built by the right hon. Gentleman.

I claim that it is because the present administration has properly administered this Act that they have produced the results which I have given to the House. Instead of the right hon. Gentleman standing at that Box and boasting how good an Act this is, he should be standing at the Box clothed in sackcloth and ashes, confessing in all humility his sins and his shortcomings. If anyone is entitled to boast about what has been done in connection with this Act of Parliament, it is my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health and myself, but, instead of doing that, we have been getting the work done quietly and efficiently, done in a way that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends failed to do. When the Act was first introduced, some of us had grave doubts as to whether it would fulfil the anticipations that the promoters of the Bill had about it. That did not prevent us, when we became responsible for administering the Act, taking up even a faulty Measure and making the best of it. As a matter of fact, we made a far better job of administering it than the right hon. Gentleman. Instead of the veiled sneers that have been passed across the table in the course of the three discussions we have had, we should be getting a special vote of thanks. There is not much gratitude in the matter. While you may administer an Act of your opponents, and make even a better job than they did, even for that there is little gratitude. In my country, we have an old proverb which says Where there is heart room there is house room. We put heart into this Measure and provided house room. We have produced houses in a far greater measure than the right hon. Gentleman and his friends were able to accomplish. I hope all parties in the House will see fit now to let us have the Third Reading of this Bill, and I strongly state that, if we get the Third Reading, we will do our best to make a good job of it in the future, as we have done in the past. I hope that in doing so our friends of the Opposition will not be so jealous about our taking up this faulty Measure, as we are prepared to take it up and do our best to make it a success.


I should like to move the adjournment of the Debate. The right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary for Scotland, and his vociferous friends need be under no misapprehension as to our intention. On the Third Reading of the Bill we will certainly not vote against it. At the same time we do not propose, without protest, which we shall make in the most effective way open to us, to allow this misuse of opportunity by the Minister of Health to pass. There is nothing that this House recognises with more warmth and readiness than a genial and ready confession of error. If the Minister of Health had been here this evening, and had got up in a frank, manly, fashion and admitted that he was wrong before, and hoped now to be right, he would have earned not only the greater respect of his party behind him but the appreciation of hon. Members on this side of the House. I say that sincerely. The Minister of Health found the recital of the success of the administration of this Measure by the Secretary of State for Scotland such that, as the figures improved, he could not stand it any longer and left the House. That is apparently an earnest of the intentions of the Minister of Health with regard to this Measure.

The Secretary of State for Scotland has given some figures which suggest that he has made a greater success of this Bill than my right hon. Friend the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood). When we remember the opprobrium the Government attempted to inflict on this Bill in its early stages the surprise is that we managed to get so many county councils to take an interest in it and put it into administration. As an Englishman, I may say that the Scottish nation were more impervious to the subtle arguments of the Minister of Health, and the Act was a greater success in Scotland at an early stage than in England. It is a fact that the cold water which the Minister of Health poured upon this Act of Parliament persuaded many county councils—I am ashamed to say Gloucester County Council was a glaring case—not to put this Act into operation. If the Minister of Health had come in a frank fashion—I see that the right hon. Gentleman has just returned. Let me not' repeat what I have said, but let me say that we hope—and I say this in all sincerity—that the Minister will recognise that we shall meet him with no taunts if he will rise and help this country to appreciate the fact that all sides of this House are now in favour of this Bill; that all sides of the House now recognise that it can be made into a really useful Act for the benefit of the country workers in England as well as in Scotland.

In order to give the Minister of Health that opportunity, which I think he ought to accept in view of the criticisms he passed on this Act in its early stages, I wish to move the adjournment of the Debate. If he is prepared to get up and say that he was at one time under a misapprehension about this Act—[Interruption]. I do not want the right hon. Gentleman to apologise to anybody, let alone to me, but there are only two attitudes which the right hon. Gentleman can take up about this Bill. He can say he was right in the opinion he once expressed about the Act—in which case it shows he has no intention of making it a success in the future—or he can now say he realises that he was wrong. I give him an opportunity not to apologise—not in the least—but there is no more generous assembly in the country than this House, and if he can tell us he now intends to make this Act the success, that he believes he can, we shall be able to withdraw the Motion for the adjournment.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)

Since midnight we have been playing at politics. There is no Member of this House dare vote against the Third Reading of this Bill. These speeches are not speeches to give the impression of political sincerity. Either hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite believe in the Bill they passed in 1926, or they do not. Why is it that when we have decided to continue what they did that we should be kept here until this hour. This is a debasement of modern politics. The right hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) heard the speech I made on Second Reading. He does not appear to have understood a word that I said. He has repeated again, almost word for word, the speech that he then made. He knows quite well, if he would only take the trouble to look at the OFFICIAL REPORT, that all the questions he has put to me were answered. Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are guilty to-night of the worst kind of political exploitation. I am asked what is my attitude to this Bill. I explained it on Second Reading when I showed that we have got more out of this Act than the others did.


Six times as much.


I have explained that if this Act is to be on the Statute Book, and with the county councils using the powers which we gave them last year, we shall get more out of it than the previous Government got out of it. That has been explained. I said on Second Reading that we want to get the best out of the Act. I am reminded again of what I said in 1926—it is like the question regarding what Mr. Gladstone said in 1867. I explained on Second Reading that I was opposed to the Bill introduced in 1926 and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke against the Bill when it was introduced. I explained that this was not our way of doing it, but I said, as I said regarding the Derating Act, that there is an Act on the Statute Book, and it is my duty to administer to the best of my ability. We shall try to do so. If I had my time over again, going back to 1929, I should still administer the Act, and I should still have made the speech I made in August, 1926. I do not like this method, but, if we can do anything to provide a better cottage for a single agricultural worker, even if it means enriching the landlord, I am prepared to do it.

I am asked now by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir T. Inskip) to confess that I was under a misapprehension, but I was not under a misapprehension. I do not believe that the Rural Workers Housing Act can solve the problem of rural housing. I say that the first Labour Government and this Labour Government have done more to deal with that problem than any other Government, and that the Act of last year offers more opportunities for the solution of the rural housing problem than this amending Bill. Therefore, I am in no mood for confession. I have nothing to confess. I opposed this Bill in 1926, because we thought it was the wrong approach to the problem, and I said so on Second Reading. I am not defending the Act of 1926. I am saying that there it is on the Statute Book. It has done very little—it has done far less than hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite thought it would. We have got more advantage from it than they have done, and we are prepared to give it another chance. But I am not going to say I agree with it. I say what I said on Second Reading—I will not quote the OFFICIAL REPORT—that if we can do anything to improve housing conditions for rural workers I am prepared to do it.

I will throw out a challenge to hon. Members opposite who have kept us here. They dare not divide against the Third Reading, for in that case they would, of course, be denying the parentage of the Measure. It is not our Measure, and, as we pointed out, nobody needs to be proud of it. It has not achieved very much. The point I tried to make on Second Reading and am trying to make again to-night is that it has done very little. I see no reason for inordinate pride, but we are prepared to continue the life of this rather dubious infant for five years. It is not a very worthy infant, but it might be a useful person in the community, and that is all that we claim on this side of the House. I hope hon. Members opposite, having had their fling to-night, will agree that we might give it a Third Reading and get it on the Statute Book at the earliest possible opportunity.


I have taken down some of the choice phrases which the right hon. Gentleman used to-night when he proceeded to refer to the speeches of my hon. Friends as the debasement of modern politics, and things of that kind. All this froth and fury on the part of the right hon. Gentleman.—and I am afraid I have never listened to any of his speeches which did not contain froth and fury—


It appears to me that most of the Debate has been out of order this evening. Very little has been said about the Bill, and hon. members must remember that on the Third Reading of the Bill only what is contained in the Bill is in order. These speeches of attack on the Minister have gone backwards and forwards across the floor of the House, and there must be an end to the answers which hon. Members give each other.


I am sorry to incur your displeasure, Mr. Speaker, but I must point out that we have been subjected to a very strong attack by the right hon. Gentleman [Hon. Members: "Who started it?"] and that a phrase like "the debasement of modern politics" is not one that should be used by a Minister regarding a right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench opposite.


The noble Lord must remember that the Minister was replying to an attack made upon him. If we go on doing that from one side to the other, we shall be here until to-morrow morning at six o'clock.


With respect, Mr. Speaker, there is nothing to prevent us being here until six if we choose to discuss this matter.


Yes there is, because it is distinctly out of order on the Third Reading of the Bill.


It would be strictly out of order if I were to say anything which you would rule out of order, but it would be strictly in order for me to address myself to the purposes of the Bill itself for the next hour.

I only wish to say that the right hon. Gentleman has been convicted of the grossest possible inconsistency. Here is a Bill which, in the various stages through which it passed when it was brought in by the late Government, he condemned in the strongest possible terms, and to-day he is supporting the same Bill. In those circumstances, the right hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) was quite entitled to put to the right hon. Gentleman the questions which he did put, and he has received no answer. I do not propose to comment on that fact. Had the right hon. Gentleman given the answer which was obviously called for, it would not have been necessary for the House to have been delayed for half-an-hour, nor would the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir T. Inskip) have sought to move the adjournment of the Debate. I only wish to say that this is an excellent Bill and that the Minister would have shown more political courage if he had admitted it. He dare not abandon the Bill, because he knows—[Interruption]—that, if he did so, he would be condemned from one end of the country to the other.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.