HC Deb 08 November 1937 vol 328 cc1476-88
The Chairman

There is an Amendment on the Order Paper in the names of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. N. Maclean)—

Schedule, page 4, line 2, at end, insert,—
"23 & 24 Geo. 5, c. 32. Rent and Mortgage Interest Restrictions (Amendment) Act, 1933. The whole Act. —"
That Amendment is out of Order as it proposes to continue an Act which is not a temporary Act. A manuscript Amendment has been handed in by the the same hon. Member which is in Order.

6.25 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood

I beg to move, in page 4, line 12, at the end, to insert:

"10 & 11 Geo. 5, c. 17. Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest Restrictions Act, 1920. The whole Act. 14 & 15 Geo. 5, c. 18.
15 & 16 Geo. 5, c. 32.
23 & 24 Geo. 5' c. 32.',
I am sorry that the Amendment did not appear on the Order Paper in the proper form. It has been put down in order to raise a point which has created some difficulty in my mind. In the past, Rent Restrictions Acts have been regarded as involving questions of major policy which Governments have considered worthy of inclusion in the King's Speech. It happens that next year the continuance of certain provisions of the Rent Restrictions Acts will expire for Scotland in May and for England and Wales in June. I observed with interest when I first listened to the King's Speech at the opening of the present Session, that while it foreshadowed a series of odds and ends of Bills, no reference whatever was made to the possibility of Rent Restrictions legislation, although that is a question affecting millions of people. It is, of course, within the knowledge of hon. Members that the Government set up a committee of inquiry into this matter. I imagine that that committee is now drawing near to the end of its deliberations. In the circumstances one expected a reference to new legislation in the Gracious Speech, but, as I say, there was no such reference.

A few days ago, when I looked at the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill I found there was no reference in it to continuing those sections of the Rent Restrictions Acts which normally should be continued. I felt that the Government could not have it both ways. Should this Departmental Committee prove to be recalcitrant, and should the right hon. Gentleman not get its report in time then, once this Bill has been passed, he will be faced with a dilemma from which I wish him to escape. By June of next year many of the provisions of the existing Acts would come to an end, and my purpose in moving this Amendment is to ask the Government what are their intentions in the matter. I think it regrettable that the question was not judged by the Government to be of sufficient importance to justify its inclusion in the King's Speech, having regard to some of the other Measures which are there outlined. Alternatively I submit that the Government ought to have protected themselves against the possibility of delay in the presentation of the report to which I have referred by including these Measures in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. I hope, therefore, that either the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary will make a statement as to the Government's intentions with regard to future legislation on this subject.

6.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Bernays)

The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) said there was some difficulty in his mind as to the attitude of the Government on the question of rent restriction, and I am very glad to have this opportunity of trying to resolve that difficulty for him. The Government have, of course, been giving very close attention to this matter, knowing that the Rent Restrictions Act was due to expire on 24th June, 1938. As long ago as last summer, my right hon. Friend, after surveying the position, decided to appoint a Departmental Committee to examine the new position that had been created by the recent boom in private enterprise building, and their terms of reference were: To inquire and report on the working of the Rent Restrictions Acts and to advise what steps should be taken to continue, terminate, or amend those Acts. As the House will remember, the three principal Rent Restrictions Acts have all been passed following upon the inquiry of a Departmental Committee. The Act of 1920 followed the report of Lord Salisbury's Committee, the Act of 1923, Lord Onslow's Committee, and the Act of 1933, Lord Marley's Committee. Thus my right hon. Friend has followed the procedure of successive Governments when any amendment of the law has been contemplated by setting up a Departmental inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that that inquiry must be drawing to an end of its deliberations, and that is perfectly true. The report of that inquiry will be in the hands of my right hon. Friend in a few weeks' time, and it will be published. In view of that fact, it is obviously not necessary to put the Rent Restrictions Acts in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, since, in the light of the recommendations of that inquiry, the new legislation will be introduced before the Rent Restrictions Act expires, and upon that my right hon. Friend is prepared to give this specific pledge, that he will certainly introduce new legislation well before the present Act expires and, he hopes, quite early in next year. It will be passed through all its stages well before June, 1938. [Interruption.] Well, we shall submit it to the House to be passed through all its stages, and I hope we shall have the co-operation of the right hon. Member for Wakefield. I hope that, after that specific statement and assurance that I have been authorised by my right hon. Friend to give, the right hon. Gentleman will not find it necessary to press his Amendment.

Mr. Greenwood

I do not wish to press the Amendment, but it still remains a mystery to me why the Government's major propagandist should not have put this Bill in the King's Speech.

6.33 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Sir Kingsley Wood)

You cannot have everything in the King's Speech, and I must say, from the point of view of the Ministry of Health, that I do not think I have done very badly. In fact, as the committee was sitting, I thought it was evident to everybody that the Government had this matter very closely in mind and indeed that my right hon. Friend would understand that legislation would be brought in at the appropriate time. I need hardly remind him, because I think it has been said before, that simply because it is not mentioned in the King's Speech, it does not mean that we do not attach great importance to it. I think the same criticism was made with reference to the League of Nations, but when the records were searched and the books were gone through, it was found that actually in the time of the Labour Government, when the late Arthur Henderson was Foreign Secretary, there was no mention of the League of Nations then, so that I hope no one will feel that any criticism is necessary so far as the omission of rent restriction is concerned.

Mr. Montague

Since the terms of reference to the Departmental Committee were that they should advise what steps should be taken to continue, terminate, or amend the Rent Restrictions Acts, how is it that before the report of that committee has been issued the Government have decided that they must pass legislation on the subject? Has the policy of the Government been decided in advance of the report of the committee?

Sir K. Wood

No, Sir. If, for instance, the committee advise that rent restriction shall finish to-morrow, which I hardly anticipate, there will obviously have to be amending legislation in order to clear up the present position, as we could not leave the matter as it is. Anyone who has given study to this matter knows that following the termination of such an Act, even if it were to-morrow morning, you would have to have legislation to clear up the whole matter.

6.36 p.m.

Mr. Kirkwood

I put it to the Government that when the Rent Restrictions Act is under review, they will have regard to the notorious position in which the majority of the house-owners of this coun- try find themselves at the moment. The Rent Restrictions Act is to protect the tenants from the property owners of this country, and the position to-day is worse, as far as the tenants are concerned. They are needing more protection than ever they had before, so that I hope the Government will have that in view, particularly as far as Scotland is concerned. Our condition there is absolutely scandalous. It is not as if we had not something to go by to safeguard the idea that supply and demand increase or lower the price. Supply and demand during the War, when the engineers were in a position to demand anything they liked, the Government of the day, through the Defence of the Realm Act, made it impossible for the engineer to get any increase in his wages, because they said it was for the good of the country at large. Now I hold that it is for the good of the country at large to legislate for the greatest number, and the greatest number in this case are the tenants and the lesser number the house-owners, so that I hope the Government will have that in view.

It is not the case that private enterprise has supplied the want, because, so far as house-building is concerned, private enterprise has miserably failed. I can speak authoritatively as far as Scotland, particularly the West of Scotland, is concerned, and I say that private enterprise is building no houses to let. It is building houses to sell, but it has absolutely refused to build houses to let. I took one of the biggest builders in this country, McAlpine, to see the Secretary of State for Scotland after he had promised me that he was going to build 600 houses in the Clydebank, where we are in desperation. Think of our situation. Houses in Clydebank are falling down—it is no exaggeration—and we have no houses for the people to go into. There is not an empty house in Clydebank, and the result is that we have to put them into the pavilions of bowling greens. There is a state of affairs. When he went before the Secretary of State for Scotland, he was quite prepared to build 600 houses, but he discovered that it was not going to be a paying proposition, and the result is that we got no houses.

There are the people whom you want to defend your country if the Germans or somebody else happens to come across, and they have no place to stay. What is the use of a country like that? It is of no use to these folk. It is all right for folk who have comfortable positions and good homes. They have something to defend, but thousands of people in this country have nowhere to live, and I want to press on the Government how essential it is to keep the Rent Restrictions Ad as it is, as far as the tenants are concerned. No one in this party will stand for allowing any increase in the rents. We have been sent here from Scotland, if possible, to bring the rents back to the pre-war level. We are not looking after the interest of the individual who has two or three houses, as is the case in England. Ours is quite a different proposition. I could mention one who owns, in my constituency, 10,000 homes, so it is not a matter of two or three little cottages, as they have in some towns in England. I therefore hope the Government will have due regard to these facts, because they are very serious.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, "That this Schedule be the Schedule to the Bill."

6.42 p.m.

Mr. Ross Taylor

I would like to ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury whether he can give us any indication as to when amending legislation will be introduced to the Coal Mines Act, Part I, which is to be prolonged until the end of August, 1938. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman must be very well aware that there is a great deal of discontent on the part of consumers, owing to the fact that the Committees of Investigation set up under Part I of the Act are very ineffective, and chambers of commerce, municipalities, and public utilities find that they have no proper means of redress. It is most essential that some Amendment should be introduced to give them the necessary protection against what is now a complete monopoly, and I shall be very glad if my right hon. and gallant Friend can give me an indication of the possible date of new legislation on this subject.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Lieut.-Colonel Colville)

The fact that Part I of the 1930 Act is proposed to be continued for eight months only whereas the other Acts are being continued for 12 months will indicate that the Government are intending to proceed with no avoidable delay, but I will bring what my hon. Friend has said to the notice of my hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary for Mines.

6.43 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris

I think we ought to have the Minister of Mines here. We are entitled to know what the Government's intention is in this matter. After all, this is a Bill which has been on the Order Paper for some days, and as we have such a very distinguished number of Ministers here, we ought to have somebody to give a plain answer to a very courteous inquiry made by one of their own supporters. I assume that if the request had been made from the Front Opposition Bench, a Minister would have been present to reply, but a Government supporter is a representative and is equally entitled to full information when he raises an important question.

6.44 p.m.

Mr. R. Gibson

There is another Act in this Schedule to which I desire to call attention, and that is the Debts Clearing Offices and Import Restrictions Act, 1934. It is proposed that the whole Act should be continued, but in my submission the Act is not operating satisfactorily. I had occasion in February of this year to draw the attention of the House and of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to a very serious case of injustice. While the Government propose to continue the Act I submit that it is the time when injustices should be remedied. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury will recall the case I have in mind of a gentleman living in Greenock and carrying on business as an agent and acting for a firm in Newfoundland which had trading relations with Spain. At the time of his death in June, 1936, a sum of £11,000 was due from the Spanish interests to the firm in Newfoundland, and a cheque for £5,000 was sent to Greenock by the Anglo-Spanish Clearing House in London. When the cheque arrived the gentleman who had been carrying on' business as agent had died. That cheque, I take, was sent bona fide with the intention that it should be honoured. Accordingly, the money represented by the cheque must have been segregated or earmarked for the payment of that particular sum to the Greenock firm, but it was not paid over.

This seems to be the time when that injustice should be remedied. The money has been held up from the end of June, 1936, to the present time, and not a penny has been paid. I am sure the right hon. and gallant Gentleman sees that, if this matter is allowed to go on, it may go on indefinitely. The facts are within the recollection of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, and I would like him to be able to make a statement which will assure those in Greenock, and particularly the executrix of the agent, who have been waiting for this money in order to pass it on to Newfoundland where money is urgently required. If such an assurance can be given it will be welcomed not only in Greenock but in Newfoundland, and it would be an assurance that the Act will not continue a condition of things which is eminently unjust.

6.48 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Colville

I understand that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not wish to discuss the whole policy of the Act but wishes rather to draw attention again to a particular case which he brought before the House some months ago. If he wishes an explanation of the working of the Act and the clearing agreements which we have negotiated, I shall be glad to give it, but I understand that he simply refers to the difficulties which were occasioned in the case which he mentioned. The Spanish Clearing Agreement cannot be worked satisfactorily while that country is in the throes of civil war. Its operation has been completely suspended for the moment and the sterling standing to the credit of the clearing office has been paid into a reserve fund with the Bank of England until a further Treasury order is made under the Act providing for its disbursement.

Mr. Gibson

Is not the amount about £1,000,000?

Lieut.-Colonel Colville

I cannot say without notice, but I believe that the actual amount is somewhere in the neighbourhood of that figure. A very considerable sum has been paid into the Bank of England as a reserve pending a further Treasury order as to its disbursement. It is not possible for me to say when such an order can be made. The President of the Board of Trade informed the House recently, in reply to a question, that a meeting had been held with the Advisory Committee which advises the Government on the operation of these clearing houses—a body representative of trade and industry—and it was explained that the present circumstances made it impossible to recommence the operation of the Spanish Clearing House at the present time; but the Government will have full regard to the position of those who are waiting to receive payment as soon as it is possible to re-open the Spanish Clearing House arrangements.

The case which the hon. and learned Member brought before the House some months ago had peculiar features, and it was one with which I should have felt a great deal of sympathy if it had been possible to make an exception, but I was advised that it would have been illegal for us to do other than we did, namely, to stop the payment in this case at the time when the general stoppage of other payments took place. All I can do is to assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that that case is not forgotten and will certainly be remembered as soon as it is possible to make payment. On the general question of the continuance of this Act, it has been found necessary to have these powers. There are only four clearing agreements in which this country is engaged, and we hope we shall not have to add to them. There are certain cases where it is impossible to get payment for our nationals without the application of a clearing order, but we shall use these powers sparingly because it is not our policy to establish clearing agreements if we can possibly avoid it.

Mr. Gibson

Is the reserve sum in the Bank of England credited with any interest? Will there be anything in addition to the capital sum available for the legal representatives in the case of a Greenock agent whom I mentioned?

Lieut.-Colonel Colville

I will bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's point.

6.53 p.m.

Mr. Lawson

May I ask the Secretary for Mines whether he has had any representations from the Miners' Federation about the amendment of the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act, 1912? Some of us have had representations from district organisations, and I meet from time to time men who tell me that they are not receiving the minimum wage of the district, although they are under that standard, and that they are simply ignored by their employers. Does the Secretary for Mines ever receive information of that kind? When a man is ill he is excluded from the operation of the minimum wage, and it has been brought to my knowledge during the last few months that men who have been unemployed for any length of time are denied the minimum wage. Looking at it from the point of view of business, that is a foolish action on the part of the employers. A man came to me recently whose wage for working at the coal face for his first week was 17s. He was not given a minimum wage because of the operation of the provision under which a man who is sick is denied the operation of the Act for a month, but I find that that is applied generally to men who have been unemployed.

There is considerable feeling about this, and the Minister of Labour will tell the Secretary for Mines that in some cases like this the men have to give up work. They cannot carry on with the wage they are getting and they give up work, not because they desire to be idle, but because they are not getting sufficient income compared with what they would get when unemployed. The case that I have mentioned was brought to me within the last week or two. The minimum wage from the first was fixed deliberately low in order, so far as the piece-rate men were concerned, to give the pull of endeavour. These wages have not advanced to any extent since they were fixed in 1912. There are some men working in very difficult places in mines whose minimum wage would hardly be counted as worthy by some youth in factories. I remember when the minimum wage was 5s. 6d. a day, and then it was 6s. I venture to say that any hon. Member, or the average workman in this country, would, if he had only to walk from the shaft to the face in the average mine, consider that he had well earned his 6s. Unless they were in a fit condition they would feel next day as if they had been set upon by a score of bruisers. Some of these men have to work in seams of under two feet under difficult conditions. In the last few years the class of work has altogether changed. It was bad enough when they used to lay on their sides, but now they have to use the automatic machines, but there has been no change in the standards of the minimum wage for this class of work.

The Committee will remember the case quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams) where men were working in a seam of 21 inches. It was beyond their ability to work with the automatic drill under those conditions. Men are working in these seams all over the country. I should be surprised if the Secretary for Mines has not received some representation on this matter from either private persons or some organisation. All I know is that my own organisation, the Durham Miners' Association, is dissatisfied, and is asking for an Amendment of this Minimum Wage Act because of the change of work and the particular points I have made to the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I would ask him to take particular note of the fact that there are men up and down the country being denied their minimum wage without any explanation at all, merely because the owners in these cases think that they can get away with it. So I would ask him whether he has received any communication about this important matter, and whether he is prepared to consider if the time has arrived when, in view of the great change in the type of labour in mines, there should be reconsideration and Amendment of this Act.

7.1 p.m.

Mr. Greenwood

Before the Minister replies I feel called upon to say a few words of protest. There are nine Measures in this Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, three of them being Bills which concern the Secretary for Mines. It seems to me a matter of common courtesy that Ministers who have to answer for Measures in this list should be in their places. An hon. Gentleman asked a question a few minutes ago for which there was a perfectly simple answer. We were fobbed off with a quite unintelligible answer.

Lieut.-Colonel Colville

That was not my intention. My hon. and gallant Friend was outside. It was my intention that he should come in and answer the point, which was a very simple one, and I immediately communicated with him. He was only outside. The point is a simple one, and my hon. and gallant Friend intends to deal with it.

Mr. Greenwood

I am not on that point at all. In the case of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the least said the soonest mended. He ought to have waited until the Minister had come in. My point is this: It was discourteous to the Committee that, when this Bill of all Bills is before us, Ministers who may be called on to defend them are not in the Chamber when questions arise, and it imposes an impossible burden on the less informed Members of the Front Bench on the other side. I think I am acting in the interests of the whole Committee on that side as well as on this, in making this formal protest against the absence of Ministers.

7.4 p.m.

The Secretary for Mines (Captain Crookshank)

I hope I am the last person to wish to show any Member any discourtesy. I went out for only about two minutes when the right hon. Gentleman was moving an Amendment with which I was not concerned. Past experience has shown me that I can generally absent myself for five minutes when he is speaking. Many points of interest were developed during his speech, and there was some controversy with my hon. and gallant Friend here. I am, however, quite ready to apologise to the Committee.

The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) asked me whether I had received any representation at all as to the Minimum Wage Act, 1912. Speaking on the spur of the moment I have no recollection, certainly not of any representations made to me by such bodies as the Federation, whom I have had the pleasure of seeing in recent weeks on other matters. Certainly I have not heard anything in a formal way at all. Whether the matter has been mentioned casually in a letter I really cannot charge my memory at the moment. If he would care to discuss the point which he raised in regard to any specific case I shall be only too happy to deal with it. As the Bill stands, there is no possibility of amending the Act. It is only a question of its being continued. I am sure he and all other Members who sit for mining seats, and have the intimate knowledge that they do have as to complicated price lists, recognise that this individual minimum wage and the necessary district rules which go with it are the foundations on which have been built up price lists. If the hon. Gentleman has any further point to raise I shall be only too happy to deal with it.

As regards the other question which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Ross Taylor) put as to why the Coal Mines Act, 1930, appeared in the Schedule and also why it appeared for a broken period, the reason is quite simple. Part I of the Act of 1930 is the basis from which the existing selling schemes derive their statutory authority. That Act expires on 31st December this year. The Committee knows quite well that we are about to introduce a Measure dealing with coal, and in it, one of the points to be dealt with is the provision for extending the duration of the 1930 Act, and, subject to certain Amendments, to strengthen the constitution and the powers of the committees of investigation, which are the safeguards of the consumer. I am sure that even the most hard-working or enthusiastic Member of this House would not expect that, as the Government have only three days a week of Government time, it should pass through both Houses a major Coal Bill this side of Christmas. Therefore provision is taken to extend the existing Act in order to dovetail one into the other.

It was as an earnest to all those concerned that we deliberately extended it, not for the full period, which is normally 12 months, and that we extended it for that broken period so that it might not be said, "You are not going to do anything." We thought that would show that it was our intention to put before Parliament our proposals. Hon. Members will remember that in the Debate on the Address it was stared that we hoped to make good progress with this Bill before Christmas. Beyond that I do not think I can go.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.