HC Deb 03 March 1938 vol 332 cc1339-47

5.55 p.m.

Brigadier-General Clifton Brown

I beg to move, in page 4, line 3, to leave out "rural," and to insert "county."

There are a good many other Amendments standing in the name of my hon. Friends and myself, not only to this Clause but also to Clauses 3 and 7, which are consequential upon this one, and I hope we shall be enabled to have the discussion now, so that later they may be simply moved. I think the object of the Amendment is clear, and has been very well explained by hon. Members on all sides of the Committee and especially by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tiverton (Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte). He explained that while the cottages on one side of a road adjoining an urban area might be drawing agricultural subsidy, cottages on the other side of the road might be more convenient for the agricultural workers, but, being in an urban district, they would not be entitled to the subsidy. It was also argued that in some cases cottages in a borough as well as those in a rural district should be entitled to the rural subsidy of £10 for 14 years, provided they were for agricultural labourers and fulfilled the conditions in the Bill. The Minister saw our various Amendments on the point and suggested that a way out could be found by introducing the word "county" to replace the other designations, and we have joined together in putting our names to these Amendments, and I very much hope that he will be pleased to accept them.

5.57 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

This Amendment and a large number of other Amendments standing in the name of the same hon. Members are intended to extend the higher rates of subsidy payable for houses provided for the agricultural population to such populations in urban districts and non-county boroughs. It is true that the Bill, as drafted, limited this subsidy to rural districts, on the view that the existence of an agricultural population in such districts was a more permanent characteristic of the district and that with the more limited number of agricultural workers to be found in urban areas there was by no means the same certainty that the houses would continue to be required for such persons during the period of the subsidy. There are, however, certain districts other than rural districts where the agricultural population is a substantial factor in the situation, and after considering the matter I have decided that where that is the case it would be equitable to give urban districts and non-county boroughs the benefit of the higher subsidy for houses for persons engaged in agriculture. For these reasons, I would advise the Committee to accept the Amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Consequential Amendments made.

5.59 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte

I beg to move, in page 4, line 33, to leave out from "population" to the end of the Sub-section.

I do not move this Amendment with the idea of pressing it, but in order to get an explanation from the Minister of what he expects to happen under this part of the Sub-section. It is obvious that if the houses are not required for the agricultural population they must be used by someone else if they are not to be left empty. I should like to know whether such houses can be let to other people; whether postmen or others engaged in other industries in an agricultural area can have these houses, or whether they are to be confined to those who are earning more or less the same wages as men engaged in agricultural operations. Will preference be given to those who are working in trades relating to agriculture, and are the houses to be reserved for people who are earning the same sort of money as the agricultural population earn?

6.1 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

I am glad to give to my hon. and gallant Friend the explanation that he requires. The Clause as drafted follows the course of Section 85 (4) of the Act of 1936. The Amendment seeks to compel rural district councils to reserve for the agricultural population a number of houses equal to that on which agricultural subsidy is paid, for the full 40-year period of that subsidy. The purpose of the words which the Amendment seeks to leave out is to make this reservation of cottages unnecessary in the event of any marked change taking place in the character of the district. You must make some provision for a change of that kind, because it is by no means impossible that some areas which are now predominantly agricultural will become industrial before the period of 40 years is over. I do not expect that there will be many such cases, but it would be unreasonable to reserve cottages for the agricultural population when such a population may have ceased to exist.

Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made:

In page 5, line 2, after "and," insert "Sub-section (2) of Section eighty-nine and."

In line 4, leave out from the second "the," to "to," in line 5, and insert "references in those Sub-sections."—[Sir K. Wood.]

Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

6.3 p.m.

Mr. Greenwood

I do not understand the attitude of mind of the right hon. Gentleman towards the Clause. He has accepted a series of Amendments, the result of which will be that other authorities than rural district councils will be able to enjoy the benefits of the grant for agricultural workers' houses. I am not opposed to that, but I object to the inclusion only of the agricultural population. In the Housing Act of 1924 we spoke of the agricultural population, but we were not concerned whether they were working on the land, so long as they were people of that kind of status. The Housing (Rural Authorities) Act, 1931, applied to rural authorities, and did not limit the assistance, which was given there upon special conditions, to people who happened to be land workers. The right hon. Gentleman now stands by the Housing Act, 1936. The agricultural population is defined in Clause 115 as: Persons whose employment or latest employment is or was employment in agriculture or in an industry mainly dependent upon agriculture.

Sir Francis Fremantle

Those are the words in the right hon. Gentleman's own Housing Act of 1930, Section 34 (2), copied word for word.

Mr. Greenwood

I am coming to that point—as a matter of fact I have already dealt with it. The right hon. Gentleman has taken that Section, and his special assistance is not to be given to people who are living in rural areas, but to people who follow the industry of agriculture. That will do a great disservice, and will not be an aid, to the housing of the people in the countryside. You could not now find an agricultural parish where the big majority of the workers were actually agricultural workers. Our villages are slowly being industrialised, as the right hon. Gentleman has admitted within the last five minutes. I mentioned—and it is within everybody's knowledge—the kind of people who now populate our rural areas. The cottages of the agricultural workers may be pretty bad, but most of the agricultural workers are housed. One of the difficulties now is the case of the man who works at a garage in the village street. People like that have to live miles away from their work, and the right hon. Gentleman is doing nothing for them. To say, "I am going to be generous in the provision of a grant for the houses of agricultural workers, and that will thereby enable me to deal with the other problem," is either a fraud on the agricultural workers or a fraud on the other people who are not agricultural workers. The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Though one cannot vote against Clause 2 standing part of the Bill, I must press the point of view, as was pressed during the discussion of Clause I, that the right hon. Gentleman ought not to make a provision in this way which has no regard for the changing economic circumstances of our time which he has himself admitted.

6.8 p.m.

Mr. Turton

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) has just delivered himself of a very remarkable speech. His party have put themselves forward in certain parts of the country as friendly to the agricultural workers. We are losing the agricultural workers from the countryside at the moment because they have not proper housing conditions, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is trying to put that position right. Then the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield objects. It is an extraordinary position. I would remind him that two out of five agricultural workers are leaving agriculture between the ages of 25 and 40 because they have not proper houses. [HON. MEMBERS: "Proper wages."] If you open Clause 2, as the right hon. Gentleman wishes, to all trades in the rural district, it means that those with better wages will drive the agricultural workers out of their cottages. I hope that my right hon. Friend will retain the position of this Clause.

I really rose to ask the Minister a question about Clause 2. In the Second Reading Debate, talking about the Clause, he said: I also hope that it will be possible for suitable out-buildings to be provided and that arrangements may be possible to meet the needs of tenants for garden plots and the keeping of poultry and pigs."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1938; col. 1739, Vol. 331.] In the evidence given before the subcommittee on Rural Housing it was made clear by the rural district councils that their view was that this should not happen. If the Minister will refer to page 22 of the report he will find these words: Rural district councils generally are opposed to the keeping of chickens by tenants as being a fruitful source of bad feeling and of irritation between neighbours.

Mr. E. Smith

Hear, hear.

Mr. Turton

I am surprised that the hon. Member wishes to deprive the agricultural labourer of keeping poultry. I advise him not to utter those words in agricultural districts or he will find himself rather unpopular. I know that he will take great care about that. Many district councils have unfortunately passed by-laws that prohibit the keeping of all poultry, and in some cases of all pigeons. It would be very unfortunate if this Clause operated to stop the tenants of these houses keeping poultry to add to their incomes or a few pigeons to indulge in the sport of either fancying or racing. I hope that the Minister will take some active steps when the Bill becomes law to secure that those by-laws are repealed, and that as long as the keeping of poultry and pigeons does not constitute a legal nuisance under the Public Health Acts tenants will be allowed to keep them. I hope that he will make it clear to rural district councils that the Government and the country generally do not look with favour upon preventing tenants of council houses from keeping poultry and pigeons, or even pigs.

6.12 p.m.

Mr. Acland

Is one right in assuming that the effect of the Amendments which the Minister accepted on this Clause is to transfer the whole administration of the Measure from rural district councils to the counties? If people are really anxious that houses should be built and that advantage should be taken of the Bill as quickly as possible in their areas, which authorities have they to go and see? Should they see their county councillors or their rural district councillors? I understand that the answer is that they should see their rural district councillors, in spite of the Amendments in which we have substituted the county for the rural district. I should be pleased if the Minister woiuld tell us how this procedure will work. Are the rural district councils still left in control, and are they still able to take the initiative in spite of the Amendments that we have just made? Who are the houses for? The Minister says that they are for the agricultural population. I am sorry to find that we are not able to move Amendments on the question of who is the agricultural population, which was defined, I believe, in the Financial Resolution. I hope that that definition was not in contravention of the undertaking that Financial Resolutions would be drafted as clearly as possible. I understand that the definition is: Persons who are engaged in agriculture or in an industry mainly dependent upon agriculture. Will the Minister give us his view as to whether the definition will include roadmen working on rural district council roads at wages almost identical with those of agricultural workers? If it will not, it is a great pity. I wonder whether the Minister will look into this aspect of the matter to see wheher there is any way, in spite of the Financial Resolution, of extending the definition to cover the class of person mentioned by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), earning wages on or about the agricultural rate.

My last point is that the Minister should make clear how Sub-section (2) will work. What is meant by the words "shall secure"? I appreciate that the words are part of some other Act and that I ought to know how they are working in that Act, but I do not know. Suppose three houses are built in a village and, for one reason or another, you cannot get more than three houses. In accordance with the intention of this Measure, there are put into those houses three agricultural labourers. Suppose the demand for accommodation for agricultural labourers is still unmet and that, none the less, there cannot be any more houses. What will happen if those three agricultural labourers next week get jobs on the road, in a garage or in some shop? What is the process by which the county council will secure that the intention of the Sub-section is carried out? It seems to me to be important to know how it is to be done. If it is not to be done by turning out those people if they should cease to be agricultural labourers, how is it going to be done? Perhaps, if the right hon. Gentleman cannot give an answer at once, he will consider the matter between now and Report.

6.16 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

With regard to the question of poultry keeping and matters of that kind, I will endeavour to influence the local authorities in the direction suggested, and I am not unhopeful that they will accept the advice of the Minister, as they have often done in the past. I can quite understand that disputes arise from time to time between neighbours with regard to these matters, and that, no doubt, is what has induced a good many local authorities to make by-laws for the purpose of keeping peace among people living together; but I think there are considerable advantages in encouraging people in this direction if it does not involve annoyance to their neighbours. I shall, no doubt, be consulted by the associations of local authorities concerned on matters of this kind arising out of the Bill, and will take an opportunity of taking the matter up with them, as I shall in the case of other matters as soon as the Act is on the Statute Book.

As to the question of definition, the special assistance which is now proposed is really to be given because of the real need for new houses at rents within the means of agricultural workers, and I think it will be generally agreed that, as regards both overcrowding and the rehousing of slum tenants, it is better that the definition should be based on the occupation of the person for whom the house is provided than upon wages. I do not want to criticise what has been done in the past, because everyone has done his best, but I think it can fairly be said that the basis previously taken in connection with the housing of agricultural workers has not been a good one, and that, although in some cases considerable and expensive Exchequer assistance has been given, a relatively small proportion of the houses concerned are in fact occupied by agricultural workers. It is in view of these facts that we have followed the definition laid down in the Act of 1930, and also in the Act of 1935. The whole object of this Bill is really to assist directly the agricultural labourer, not only from the point of view of housing, but from the point of view of helping the agricultural industry generally.

As to the questions put to me by the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland), I should like, if he will allow me, to look into his third question a little more closely, as it is a rather technical matter of administration, but, as regards the first two, this Amendment which I am accepting does not in any way interfere with the administration of the Act by a particular local authority; it is simply an extension of the Measure to other local authorities, and does not mean that the administration will be taken out of the hands of the rural district council. As to whether roadmen would come within the definition, I am informed that they would not. I think it might be fair to say that the wages of many roadmen are higher than those of people working on the land. I think I have dealt with all the questions that have been put to me, and I hope that the Committee will now feel able to agree to the Clause.