HC Deb 20 May 1935 vol 302 cc135-41

9.46 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 43, line 34, at the end, to insert: Provided that in respect of new or vacated houses for which an exchequer contribution is paid, the authority shall in fixing rent and in granting rebates and in selecting tenants aim at securing that the benefit of the exchequer contribution shall accrue only to tenants who need it and only for so long as they need it. This Amendment merely proposes to get into housing legislation a principle which has long been implicit in it and explicit in the circulars of the Ministry, but which has never been clearly laid down in any Act. The Act of 1930 gave for the first time permission to local authorities to charge standard rents subject to rebates, so as to bring the houses within the means of poorer tenants, and a circular in connection with that Act laid down that: It is the clear intention of Parliament that the benefit of the new grant shall not enure to persons for whom it is not needed. The grant, together with the prescribed rate charge, should be regarded as a pool out of which such abatements are to be financed. In view of that circular, a number of local authorities did introduce rebates on the standard rents, and when the present Minister came into office and developed the slum clearance scheme he issued a further circular, in which emphasis was laid on the principle that subsidies were not intended to be wasted on those who did not need them; and it was made clear that the principle of rebates could be applied in the case of 1924 houses as well as of 1930 houses. The circular definitely suggested that, even if a tenant was in a house and his circumstances so changed that he was better able to pay a higher rent, it would be proper for the authority to charge him a higher rent, and even the full economic rent; while, on the other hand, tenants whose circumstances had changed for the worse might have their rent lowered. That is a very important principle, because everyone experienced in housing work knows that one of the reasons why the subsidies given under different Acts have been relatively ineffective is that most local authorities, having put up their houses, have proceeded to let them to any tenant that offered, making little or no attempt to see that the houses were used for those tenants for whom, surely, houses are really intended to be subsidised, that is to say, those who could not afford economic rents. The present Bill, following on the lines of its predecessor, suggests in Clause 50 that in, the selection of tenants a reasonable preference shall be given to persons who are occupying insanitary or overcrowded houses, have large families, or are living under unsatis- factory housing conditions; and a later Sub-section says that: In fixing rents the authority shall take into consideration the rents ordinarily payable by persons of the working classes in the locality, but may grant to any tenant such rebates from rent, subject to such terms and conditions, as they may think fit. I suggest, however, that that does not go far enough. Sub-section (1) suggests that a reasonable preference should be given to people who are living in overcrowded or insanitary houses, or have large families, or are living under unsatisfactory housing conditions; but how is reasonable preference to be given to those families if the very families that suffer most are unable to afford the rents charged for the houses which were put up for their benefit? There is no security that the rents charged will bring the houses within the means of such persons, and we All know that people with small wages and large families are very often quite unable to pay either the economic rent or even the rent lowered by the full amount of the ordinary subsidy. The Bill recognises that fact to the extent of making it permissive, as previous Acts have done, for the local authority to grant rebates of rent, and the Clause which provides for the pooling of all subsidies under the different Acts very much facilitates the principle of rebates. But nowhere in the Bill is a clear lead given to the local authorities to adopt either the method of rebates or any other method, if there is one—I do not think, myself, that there is—which will really suffice to bring the houses within the means of the poorer tenants and yet not waste the subsidy on those who do not need it.

I submit that, if the Minister really thinks what he says in the circulars which he has issued, namely, that it is the intention of Parliament that housing subsidies should not be wasted on those who are able to pay economic rents, he should not bury that expression of opinion in circulars which go, perhaps, to the director of housing and the town clerk, but are never even seen by the members of the housing committee of the Authority. We know that in the ease of a large number of authorities these circulars, where they are permissive, are practically dead letters. About 30 housing authorities, including Birmingham, Walsall, Bolton and Cambridge, have adopted the rebate system, because they have seen that there is. no other way of lowering the rents sufficiently to meet the needs of the poorer tenants. The town that has done this most drastically has been Leeds, with Socialist majority which "went the whole hog," so to speak, and carried out the instructions of the Minister to their full logical extent. They revised the rents of all their houses—not only the new houses, but all the houses put up by the corporation—raising them to the full economic rent in the case of those tenants who could 'afford to pay it, and, where the tenants could not afford to pay the rent without stinting the minimum physiological needs of their families, granting rebates to such an extent that some tenants pay no rent at all.

That is an example of rebates which attracted very wide publicity, and it drew down a great deal of odium on the system, for, not unnaturally, tenants who had been admitted to their houses and had received the full benefit of subsidies of which they had no need, felt somewhat injured when, following a political change, they were asked to pay the full economic rent, which was a considerable advance on what they had previously been paying. I should never have advocated anything quite so drastic as that, although it was perfectly logical and in accord with the Minister's own circulars, which practically suggest that very thing. I only bring forward that instance to show that the plan is legal and has been carried out even to that extreme extent. The great majority of local authorities that have adopted the principle of rebates have done so on a much more modest scale, and most of them have only applied it to houses built under the Act of 1930; but, if this present Measure is to reach its full effect in providing, not only for families who are overcrowded, but for the families who most need better accommodation—that is to say, those who are overcrowded because they are both poor and burdened with large families—it really is essential that some means should be adopted, where the necessity arises, for lowering the rent by more than the amount of the minimum subsidy. That can be done and is fully authorised under the present Bill through the rebate system; but the position is left very vague, and no kind of indication is given that the authorities are even desired by the Ministry to adopt the plan. I think it would be very much better if a Clause were put directly into the Bill laying it down that authorities were expected to see that subsidies were used for those who needed them, and not for those who did not.

Some hon. Members of the House dislike the idea of this principle, because they say that it savours of that objectionable thing, the means test. The case for a means test in reference to subsidised houses is infinitely stronger than it is in any other connection. If you take the question of unemployment assistance, there is nothing but the Treasury to fix a limit to the number to whom assistance may be given, but in the case of houses the number available is so small that it is limited not only by the amount of money to be spent, but by the difficulty of putting up a large enough number of houses quickly. But if the houses that are put up by the help of the sudsidy are given to tenants quite irrespective of their means—and many authorities actually prefer the well-to-do tenant because he is likely to be a good tenant—the effect is quite inevitable. The poorest of the tenants and those with young families to support who most need good housing fail to get it. I believe that the Scottish Committee are being much more radical in this respect than were the Committee presiding over this Bill. I notice from the report of the proceedings on the Scottish Housing Bill that it is proposed not only to make the rebate system permissive but compulsory, or at least to urge it very strongly, and it is practically made compulsory in the form in which it is introduced.

I should like to propose a much stronger alteration in the Bill than that on the Order Paper, but I realise that at this stage it is no use proposing a drastic alteration. Therefore, all I suggest is an Amendment which, for the first time, puts into the Bill a definite direction to the local authority that it is their duty to issue such regulations as to rent and allocation of houses that the houses will become available for those who need them, and that the subsidies shall not be payable to those who do not need them. There is nothing new in this proposal. Previous Housing Acts have already made the principle permissive, and the circulars issued show that the clear intention of the Acts is that the subsidy shall be so used. If that be the clear intention of this Bill, why does it not say so? Why is the intention left vague in the circulars? Therefore, I suggest this very modest Amendment for the purpose of bringing into a Housing Act, for the first time, a reference to the principle that the purpose of housing subsidies is to reduce rents to those who cannot pay the standard rent without such reduction, and that they should not be used for those who are under no such necessity.


I beg to second the Amendment.

9.59 p.m.


I will not follow the hon. Member into the more controversial aspects of the speech in which she moved her Amendment. The Amendment itself has very little that is controversial. The only question that arises is as to its necessity. We shall all be in cordial agreement that it is a primary principle in good housing administration that houses, the rents of which are subsidised from public funds, shall go to benefit those who need assistance, and we shall all be strongly opposed to the kind of administration to which she referred by which the local authority may be tempted to give preference to the better off classes. There is really no difference about that position, and so far from this principle being concealed in circulars we are deciding for the first time to put it down in black and white as part of the Bill in a manner which forms a charter for the badly off class, and a guarantee against wastage of public funds for purposes for which they are not required. Sub-section (1) the hon. Member will see applies to subsidised houses in respect of which local authorities are to keep a housing revenue account, and Subsection (2) provides that priority is given to those who are occupying insanitary or overcrowded houses or have large families or are living under unsatisfactory housing conditions. Her Amendment, the spirit of which I fully appreciate, would not do anything at all. All that is intended is done in Sub-section (5). In these circumstances, and with the assurance which I am able to give, I trust that she will not find it necessary to press the Amendment.

10.2 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander AGNEW

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question on the meaning of the word "rent" in Sub-section (5). Does it mean that the local authority have to make rebates lower than the standard subsidised rent or can they work from an economic rent without subsidy and make rebates down from that rent? If they can do the latter, it will give the local authority a much greater range of action. They will be able to carry out more fully the provision of Sub-section (2) by having a larger pool to work to.

10.3 p.m.


It appears to me that they are not prevented from taking either course, but the normal course in fixing rents is to take into consideration the rents ordinarily payable by the working class in the locality. That is something to be taken into consideration in fixing the normal rent.

10.4 p.m.


The right hon. Gentleman has not satisfied me, because he has not explained to the Committee in what sense giving a reasonable preference to badly off tenants is equivalent to making it possible for badly off tenants to avail themselves of that preference. A preference may be given to a badly off tenant at the rent charged, but if the badly off tenant cannot pay the standard rent that does not secure that the local authority are required to make such arrangements as will enable him to do so.


Does the hon. Member press her Amendment.


I was going on to say—


The hon. Lady has already made one speech.


I do not want to keep the Committee as I know they are anxious to carry on, and, as the right hon. Gentleman has said that the principle is implicit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment, though I regret that it is necessary to do so.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.