§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ The Minister of Health (Sir Kingsley Wood)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
Members of the House may have read a recent report of the Rural Housing Sub-Committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee, which recently considered the problem of housing in the rural areas, and I think hon. Members will agree with me that they gave a considerable amount of attention to the operation of the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts. The Committee was a representative one. The chairman was the Bishop of Winchester, and the other members of the Committee were Lord Crawford, Mrs. Dollar, a well-known Labour representative, the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle), the hon. Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George), Mr. Hob-house, Mr. Simpson, Mr. Schomberg, Sir Raymond Unwin, and Sir Seymour Williams, all very expert people on this subject. They stated that all the witnesses who came before the committee agreed that "there was considerable scope for further work "under those Acts, and that they themselves regarded them" as an essential supplementary part in the machinery of rural housing legislation." The House will, no doubt, remember that the first Act, introduced in 1926, was designed to meet the situation in country districts of numbers of old cottages still sound in structure but lacking the improvements and conveniences which are essential to a satisfactory home, and it empowered the local authorities, on certain conditions, to assist the owners of such cottages to improve them and to introduce modern amenities. A further Bill was introduced, and became law, during the time and at the instance of the Labour Government extending the original Act. A Member whom we shall always recall with regard, respect and affection, the late Mr. Adamson, introduced the Bill at that time, and it is interesting to observe what he said upon that occasion: 1256Much of the work that has been done under the Act has consisted of the introduction of water, baths, and W.C's. into houses; the provision of sculleries; the renewal of defective roofs and floors; the adoption of measures to do away with dampness and the provision of larger windows to permit of better lighting and ventilation.Mr. Adamson also pointed out the conditions under which loans or grants could be given. Certain of the conditions provided that during the 20 years following the grant the houses must not, in his words,be occupied except by a person whose income is such that he would not ordinarily pay a rent in excess of that paid by agricultural workers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st April, 1931; cols. 881–2, Vol. 251.]He also stated that an owner cannot, in respect of improvements, increase the rent by more than 3 per cent.—now 4 per cent. —on the sum which he himself has to pay for the works of improvement after deducting the amount of the grant. He also assured the House that information obtained from certain counties appeared to indicate that in a number of cases of people outside the special category of farm servants, the permitted increase for houses occupied by workers have not been made while in others the increase was being made up to 3 per cent.
Since that time there has been a progressive increase in the grants made under these Acts. It is true that in the early years, perhaps at the time when Mr. Adamson introduced that legislation, the number of cottages improved in England and Wales was disappointingly low. Up to the end of 1933 the yearly average was 1055, but owing, I think, to the growing interest in the campaign for slum clearance which was then finding expression, during the years from 1934 to 1936 the yearly average increased up 2,068. Since that time we have made considerable efforts to make the Acts more widely known. In November, 1936, communications were made by me to the local authorities, and a large number of specially illustrated pamphlets and posters have been widely distributed up and down the countryside illustrating the advantages of the scheme; and for the last half of 1937, I am glad to say, grants were being given at the rate of something over 4,000 a year, an increase of 100 per cent. on the highest previous figure. So far as total numbers are concerned, the number of 1257 cottages in Scotland which have been improved under the terms of these Acts is far greater than in this country. I suppose that in Scotland they know a good thing when they see it better than we do. They amount to about 30,000, taking the grants promised by 31st December, 1937, as compared with some 16,000 for England and Wales. This progress encourages the belief that still more can be done under these Acts.
This belief is confirmed by the considerable disparity in the number of cottages dealt with in neighbouring areas in England and Wales. The disparity appears to be accounted for largely by the extent to which publicity has been given or has not been given in different areas regarding the facilities available. Hon. Members may agree with me that progress should be accelerated and the operation of this Measure extended by the general desire throughout the country for a Measure of this kind. That desire can be met to no small degree by the financial provisions of this scheme. There is a general desire for the preservation of country cottages of special charm and agricultural merit. Another reason why we should renew these Acts is that valuable work can be done for the relief of overcrowding by enlarging cottages by the addition of extra bedrooms and in other ways. The sub-committee to which I have referred has considered that matter, as has also the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee, and recommendations have been made for certain improvements in the operation and the administration of these Measures. The House will find a number of their recommendations incorporated in the Bill.
I would now refer briefly to some of the main provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 extends the period of operation of the Act for a further four years up to 30th September, 1942, that is, one year shorter than the period recommended by the Labour Government in bringing forward similar proposals. The date has been chosen to correspond with the date by which any alterations in the subsidy for agricultural housing, provided by the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act would take effect, if any such alterations were made following the review of Exchequer housing subsidies in October, 1941. It is important that the question of terminat- 1258 ing or further extending the Act should be considered in relation to the whole housing situation in the rural areas. By this means we should be able to consider all these matters at the same time. The Acts have always been extended for the same period in Scotland and England, and this practice is followed in the present Bill. The Clause also automatically extends all schemes made under the Acts by local authorities, so as to obviate the necessity for revising them and resubmitting them to the Minister for approval.
Clause 2 gives effect to a recommendation which was made by the English Rural Housing Sub-Committee, that local authorities should be empowered to pay grants by instalments during the progress of the work. It was represented to the committee by a number of witnesses that owners of limited means sometimes had difficulty in financing the work during its progress. This alteration is designed to assist owners in such circumstances. Clause 3 carries out another recommendation of the English Housing Sub-Committee that upon a breach of the special conditions attaching to a grant, or on voluntary repayment of grant, an owner should be required to repay, not as at present, the whole amount of the grant with compound interest, but an amount proportionate to the unexpired portion of the 20-year period during which the conditions applied. The Clause provides similarly for the adjustment of the Exchequer contribution in respect of grants. It was represented to the committee that the liability to repay the whole of the grant with compound interest was one of the principal factors which discouraged owners of cottages from taking advantage of the facilities offered by the Acts, and that this condition would prove increasingly onerous as time went on. For example, an owner who wished to free himself from the special conditions 19 years after the receipt of a grant would be compelled to repay the whole original sum, with compound interest, from the date of payment, notwithstanding that the special conditions had only a few more months to run. Obviously this Amendment should be made, in justice and fairness.
Clause 4 is designed to remove a difficulty which has arisen in Scotland in connection with the fixing of the rent which 1259 may be charged for reconstructed cottages. In certain circumstances, the Act requires, I understand, that local authorities in Scotland should determine the average rent paid by agricultural workers in their districts. In certain districts there are few or no agricultural workers but there are persons of substantially the same economic condition. In such circumstances, the Clause enables a local authority to determine the permissible rent, by reference to the rent paid by persons of substantially the same economic condition as an agricultural worker. Clause 5 applies an additional condition attaching to a grant of money under this scheme, It is that during the period of 20 years for which this grant is being given, reasonable steps must be taken to secure the maintenance of the dwelling so that it is in all respects fit for habitation. That important new condition applies to grants made after the Bill becomes law. The original Act of 1926 precluded a local authority from making a grant unless satisfied that the dwelling, after the completion of the work, would be in all respects fit for habitation, but it did not contain any special provision requiring the maintenance of the dwelling in that state, leaving that point to be dealt with by the local authority under the ordinary law which enables them to require the repair of dwellings found to be not in all respects fit for habitation.
I think the House will find that this condition is an improvement. The application of the additional condition will have the effect of incorporating it in the terms of any lease or agreement for lease or tenancy of the dwelling and of making it enforceable accordingly. Moreover, a local authority will now be in a position to require the repayment of the appropriate proportion of the grant calculated on the basis laid down by Clause 3, if this new condition is not complied with. If the owner has not kept his property in habitable condition, this Clause will come into operation, and the grant will cease. Houses for which grants have already been made to which the new condition will not apply will remain subject to the provisions of Sections 2 and 3 of the Housing Act, 1936, which provides that in a contract for letting a house at not more than £26 a year, or in the case of a tied house, in the contract of employment, there shall be implied a condition 1260 that the house was at the commencement of the tenancy, and an undertaking that it will be kept during the tenancy, in all respects fit for habitation. Moreover, the local housing authority will have all the ordinary powers under the Housing Act to require the repair of such houses.
The object of Clause 6 is to adopt the conditions governing the permissible rent to cases in which a second grant is given under the Acts. The effect of the Clause is to allow an owner to increase the rent payable before the execution of the second instalment of works by 4 per cent. of his own expenditure on these works. Clause 7 is designed to carry out another recommendation made to me and to prevent any evasion of the condition limiting the rent at which improved houses may be let when it is let for the holding of lands. The Clause empowers a local authority to determine in such cases the proportion of the rent charged for both house and land together, which shall be deemed the rent payable in respect of the house.
Is Clause 7 applicable at all to smallholdings, and if so, is it possible for the smallholder to have assistance under this Bill?
§ Sir K. Wood
I rather doubt that, but I will make inquiries and will let the hon. Member know later. This power, at any rate so far as the provision of grant under the Bill is concerned, should effectually prevent any evasion of the condition regarding the rent of the house by the charging of an unreasonable rent for the land. Clause 8 makes the necessary alteration in the machinery for charging the expenses of a county council, who have previously been the local authority under the Acts in a district where the administration of the Acts is later transferred to the rural district council. Clause 9 is based on the recommendation of the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee. It will enable a local authority to give to an owner who has received, before August, 1935 (the date when the overcrowding provisions of the Housing Acts came into operation), the maximum grant of £100, an additional grant, not exceeding £50 (or two-thirds of the cost of the works) for the purpose of carrying out works to abate overcrowding. The Clause also provides for the giving of a further grant in cases where the owner did not receive the maximum grant on the first application.
1261 Clause 10 also contains special provisions for Scotland, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is here to deal, if necessary later, with questions affecting Scotland. The Clause authorises Exchequer contributions at a rate of three-quarters instead of one-half towards the expenses of county councils in the Highlands and Islands. It also removes an anomaly in the existing conditions relating to grants to small landholders in Scotland.
That, briefly, is a fairly accurate statement of the proposals of the Bill. I am now enabled to answer the question that was put to me by the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin). The Acts allow a grant to a smallholder as long as he is of the same economic condition as an agricultural worker. The conditions are similar whether the resident is the owner or tenant.
§ Sir K. Wood
I will examine that matter. Having detailed the general provisions of the Bill I may add that I am, of course, naturally desirous that the administration shall be conducted with care and efficiency. No one wants patchwork repair or work done which does not result in the provision of good houses. I think, however, it can be said that experience gained in administering the Acts shows in fact that good houses are being provided. The Acts provide that no grant should be made for works costing less than £50. These are minimal works. But the average grants have been over £80, which means a minimum average expenditure of about £120 a house. In fact, the actual expenditure in a large number of cases has been much in excess of the figures on which a grant can be claimed. For the maximum grant of £100 a minimum cost of 150 would be required, and in many cases over £200 has been spent. It is of the utmost importance that all work done under the Acts should be done thoroughly and well, and that when the works are completed the cottages should be thoroughly satisfactory. I can speak for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as well as myself in saying that we are continuing to take all steps open to us where it is necessary to press on local authorities the importance of such conditions being strictly complied with.
§ Sir K. Wood
I have communicated with the local authorities and I will again stress the matter in that way. I shall also be asking the district councils to take steps to ascertain for themselves cottages which require conditioning, and, where owners are unwilling to undertake this work, to consider the advisability of exercising their powers to buy them and themselves carry out the reconditioning work. Of course, where the county council is the authority the list of cottages requiring reconditioning can be sent to them. I need hardly say that co-operation between the two councils, the county councils and the district councils, in this as in so many things that concern the administration of the Ministry of Health, is essential; it is only in that way that standards of fitness and other matters arising can be satisfactorily settled. I endorse what was said by the Advisory Committee as to discrimination in the administration of the Act against owners with means. The local authority, of course, has a complete discretion to decide whether to grant any particular application, but as the Committee state in their recommendations to me:Discrimination against owners with means is contrary to the intentions of the Acts and likely to result in depriving tenants of agricultural cottages of the benefits the Acts were intended to afford them.I must refer just briefly to the Amendment on the Paper in the name of the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). I suppose that in modern times few people have bowled so many political no-balls, and I am afraid he is going to bowl another this afternoon. I think he may have some difficulty in justifying his position to-day. I would draw his attention, and that of hon. Members opposite if they contemplate following the right hon. Gentleman in the rather devious way he would lead them, to what has already been said on behalf of their party and by the Labour Government when they were, of course, in a position of responsibility. The late Mr. William Adamson, then Secretary of State for Scotland, said on 21st April, 1931, in commending the Act to the House:Considerable advantage has been taken of its provisions and it has been the means of providing improved and healthier housing accommodation for a large number of rural workers1263 If that was the case then, much more is it so to-day, as I have shown by the figures I have quoted. It is, therefore, very difficult to see how the right hon. Gentleman can endeavour to lead his followers against a useful Act so commended to the House by Mr. Adamson. In that same speech Mr. Adamson also stated:Each year has seen a progressive increase in the number of applications made for grants, and in the number of houses covered by approved applications."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21St April, 1931; cols. 821 and 823; Vol. 251.]Of course, that is more than ever the truth to-day. I next call attention to the statement of the right hon. Member for Wakefield himself. Sometimes, of course, I cannot quite follow the variations and twists and turns of the right hon. Gentleman, who has certainly done a good many over this Measure. I know that he always professed great personal dislike of this Measure, but so he has of many Measures which have proved of increasing use and importance to the country, particularly to the workers. I asked him to state his position when the Labour Government brought forward their proposal. A very interesting statement he made. I shall not trouble the House with the whole of it, but the right hon. Gentleman then justified his support of the Measure. He said this, almost as a peroration:I did not believe and I never have believed that this method would prove to be acceptable on a very large scale to the local authorities of this country, but in so far as it can be used to make a practical contribution to the solution of the housing problem in rural areas, we ought to give it support.He then saidI have done what has been possible to encourage the adoption of the Act during the past few years, but I have been disappointed with the results. I was finally brought round"—this is the passage I commend to the House—the right hon. Gentleman goes round and round again—and wholeheartedly brought round, to agreeing to back a Bill for the extension of the Act of 1926 because of the relative success it had met with in Scotland. That is the real reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I are here to support the Bill.— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 21St April, 1931; col. 84o, Vol. 251.]Why has not the right hon. Gentleman who now sits beside him exercised the 1264 same influence as the late Mr. Adamson exercised?
There is one other matter to which I would call the attention of the House in connection with the action of the Labour Opposition this afternoon, in the hope that I may still prevent them from adopting an unreasonable and unsatisfactory course, which I am sure would be very much deplored up and down the country. That is the statement of the then Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who wound up the very interesting proceedings on the Second Reading of the Labour Government's Measure. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Stirling and Falkirk (Mr. Westwood), who in many respects was a very efficient and satisfactory Under-Secretary of State, said:The object of extending this Act for five years "—that is one year longer than the time for which I am now asking the House to extend it, so the Labour Government were in front of me in that respect—is to keep going the good work which we have already seen started in Scotland. We do not want it stopped. We want authorities who have been taking advantage of it to take still further advantage of it, and we want those authorities that have been negligent in dealing with disreputable houses in their districts, which by some expenditure of public and private money could he made habitable, to get that work done.I remember feeling very much encouraged when he went on to say:I can guarantee that, so far as administration is concerned "—that is to say, of this Measure—my right hon. Friend and myself will put all the energy and all the vim ' that is possible behind it, in order to get the maximum number of houses improved under this Measure if it is continued as an Act of Parliament for another five years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st April, 1931; cols. 873–5, Vol. 251.]Is it too much to ask the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon to put aside his little prejudices in regard to this proposal, and to help me in putting all the "vim" and energy that is possible into this Measure, and so bringing at any rate a certain amount of assistance to our rural housing problem? The Government believe that an improvement in housing conditions among the agricultural population can be made in a number of ways. Unfit houses which cannot be made fit require to be demolished and replaced by 1265 new houses; overcrowding needs to be abated in the country often as much as in the towns, and, again new houses in the countryside are usually necessary for this purpose. The Act which we have recently passed deals with both these aspects of housing, and has provided for a continuance of Exchequer assistance for a period of another four years. Apart from the new houses that are needed for this purpose, a further supply of new houses is required for the general needs of the agricultural population, and the Act of this year has provided a generous Exchequer contribution for this necessary purpose also. The present Bill, which is complementary—I emphasise that—to all these provisions, will, I consider, enable us to continue our efforts to improve existing houses, and will, I hope, play an increasingly important part in providing improved and healthier accommodation for large numbers of our rural workers. For these reasons I venture to commend its Second Reading to the House.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Greenwood
On the last occasion on which this Bill was before the House, I referred to the jaunty speech of the right hon. Gentleman. His jauntiness increases with his years. The strength of his argument, however, does not increase. Not that he has ever been noted in this House for argument. I should be surprised if any Member really thought that the right hon. Gentleman was as strong in argument as he was in his jauntiness of spirit. As I understand it, the real moral of the right hon. Gentleman's speech is housing by publicity—housing by advertising to local authorities. It is news to me that landlords are unaware what advantages they can gain under the law. The right hon. Gentleman is going to boost this Bill, when it is on the Statute Book, by more advertising. That does not seem to me to carry us very far. We put down our Amendment in order to express our view that the continuance of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, more especially in view of the recent reduction of the subsidy for slum clearance, is not adequate to deal with the problem of housing in rural areas.
I anticipated that the right hon. Gentleman would bring up my past utterances, and that is why I have armed 1266 myself with my speeches of 1926 and 1931. All that is perfectly true. I remember coming to this House on a hot day, the day following August Bank Holiday, in 1926, to move the rejection of the Bill on its Second Reading. I was at that time supported by the late Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, whose strength of language outvied my own poor, weak words. I opposed the Bill on grounds which I still believe to be sound; I have not changed my mind about the substantial merits of the Bill, and I propose a little later to quote some of the words that I used against it. When we reassembled in the autumn of 1926—I am giving the full facts of my private life in connection with this matter, because the right hon. Gentleman has not told the worst about me in regard to my attitude on the Bill—the remaining stages of the Bill were taken, and on 6th December, 1926, I moved a reasoned Amendment for the rejection of the Bill on its Third Reading in very strong terms. I remember how heated the discussions were in Committee and on Report. A large number of Amendments were put down by us and were rejected, and I am wondering whether, if we had been prepared to be a little more reasonable than the right hon. Gentleman appears to think we were on that occasion, we should have met with any better fate.
That Measure was due to expire in 1931. I had never liked it. My words about it are in the OFFICIAL REPORT. The right hon. Gentleman has quoted some of them, and, if I may say so, he has quoted some of my kindest words about it. But it was the duty of the then Legislature to carry that Act out as far as it could. It has been a dismal failure as regards England and Wales; the right hon. Gentleman does not doubt that It had been used more extensively—a good deal more extensively—in Scotland, and in May, 1931, my late right hon. Friend Mr. William Adamson moved the Second Reading of a Bill to continue the Housing (Rural Workers) Act for a further five years. I remember the right hon. Gentleman's glee on that occasion. A schoolboy let loose was nothing to him; he really was a model of bubbling, sparkling merriment on that occasion. I replied, and again I have the words here—words which I propose to quote a little later. Now the 1267 right hon. Gentleman's proposal is to continue the Act in an amended form, with some slight modifications, until 1942.
It is a great pity, in my view, that the housing problem has not been satisfactorily settled and solved by now, and it will not be settled in 1942. The amount of grants paid up to the end of last year, after a little over II years of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, is over £4,000,000. That has been devoted to cockering up and lengthening the life of something like 47,000 dwellings, each grant being, as I understand it, in respect of a single dwelling. It was left to the National Government in 1931 to kill a Rural Housing Act which had only been put on the Statute Book in July of that year. [Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite regard this with amusement; I regard it as a great tragedy. Our figures were never challenged. With a grant of £2,000,000 for capital expenditure, I undertook to build 40,000 new rural cottages. The right hon. Gentleman has spent more than that already in fiddling about with cottages many of which could not possibly be reconstructed to conform with modern standards. What is the output going to be under the new Bill? There were 47,543 grants made up to the end of last year. That is at the rate of about 4,000 a year for England, Wales and Scotland—not a very large number. It is estimated that from June of this year to the end of September, 1942, a period of four and a-quarter years, the number of dwellings in respect of which grants will be paid will be 35,000, or round about 8,000 per year. That means that the Ministers responsible for this Bill are seeking to double the rate of reconditioning, and, when they have succeeded, it will appear that there will have been reconditioned about 82,000 houses in Great Britain, presumably at a cost of well over £8,000,000. I suggest that the money could have been far better spent by devoting it to the building of new houses under conditions not so restrictive as those which will apply to the houses which are being improved.
The right hon. Gentleman is bound to admit that the Act has not been used to nearly the same extent in England and Wales as it has in Scotland. With a much smaller population, Scotland has reconditioned about twice the number of 1268 houses, partly, perhaps, because of the greater acquisitiveness and financial genius and foresight of Scottish landlords, but partly, also, because of the deplorable state of rural housing in Scotland and the difficulties which appear to stand in the way of providing new houses north of the Border—a matter which, I think, needs a good deal more examination than it has so far received. It was because of the difficulties of building new houses and the appalling state of rural housing in Scotland that many—I think I may say all—of my colleagues looked on the Bill with a far more friendly eye than they would otherwise have done. The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee, and he quoted their report. I can give some other quotations, not nearly so favourable to him. I had better read the whole passage:The evidence given by the Scottish Land and Property Federation, the National Farmers' Union, the Chamber of Agriculture, the Scottish Women's Rural Institutes and the Association of County Councils was in favour of the extension of the Acts. On the other hand the Farm Servants' Union criticised the Acts on the ground that they were largely used to prolong the life of dwellings which had radical defects, and thus to continue for form workers a lower standard of housing than is accepted for other workers.What becomes of the right hon. Gentleman's statements in his speech?Appendix II reveals that in the parishes surveyed only slightly more than half of the dwellings reconstructed or improved with assistance under the Acts have been satisfactorily reconstructed. If the conditions revealed by this report are applicable to the rest of Scotland—and we have no reason to believe that the parishes are exceptional—there has been a grave waste of public money in the administration of the Acts.I do not want to continue the quotation, but that is a very serious allegation, of a grave misuse of public money. I am bound to say that the Advisory Committee—and some of my colleagues were members of it—came down in favour of giving the Act another lease of life, though for the last time, largely because of considerations to which I have already referred. But we must have some guarantees of improvement in the administration in future. The general words used by the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon did not satisfy me. I, personally, attach a great deal of importance to standards of housing. I remember the right hon. Gentleman and his friends 1269 doing their best in 1924, when we were on that side of the House, to keep me sitting here all night, because, in a Schedule to the Bill, I wanted to add the words "and a bathroom."
§ Mr. Greenwood
Not far enough yet. During the passage of the Bill in 1926 we made repeated efforts to get included in the Measure something approaching the standard of housing which we had in the Housing Acts in respect of local authorities. Every attempt was bitterly opposed. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, cannot something be done, with greater experience and with the Amendments in the Bill, to establish proper standards of accommodation and amenities? The right hon. Gentleman referred to Clause 9 of his Bill:Power to give increased assistance for abatement of overcrowding.Overcrowding has now become the responsibility of our local authorities. If this Bill is to be used in this way to the advantage of private landlords, this House is entitled to ask that the houses so reconditioned shall fulfil the standards required by local authorities. That seems to me to be essential. I said in 1926 that I was not against the reconditioning of old houses. I do not want to destroy them if they can be made habitable; but the number of working-class dwellings which can be made habitable is a relatively small proportion. That is no solution to the problem. I have said repeatedly that the one solution is not to make secondhand houses or to pass secondhand houses off on the working classes: the real solution is to build working-class houses. I would draw the attention of the House to the Conference of the National Union of Agricultural Workers last week. They never referred to reconditioning, but I happen to know their views, and they are not highly enthusiastic. The whole of their emphasis is on the building of new houses, and on the establishment of standards for rural workers comparable with those now required for industrial workers. Their resolution reads as follows:
While welcoming the efforts to abolish slums and overcrowding in the villages, this Conference considers that the slow rate of progress of building a supply of houses on the countryside at rents farm workers Can
afford to pay is deplorable. Further, this Conference claims that all such houses built shall have reasonable accommodation, proper drainage and sanitation, and adequate piped supply of pure water in each house. This Conference calls upon the Government to take steps at once to expedite the building of at least 100,000 such houses and in no case should any subsidy be granted to a farmer who is to make such a cottage a tied one.
That seems to me a reasonable claim. When the 1926 Bill was before the House I described it on Second Reading as "a rural landlords out-relief Bill." And, of course, it still is. The right hon. Gentleman may have had the kindest remarks given to him. I have taken the trouble to read through the whole Debate. I said:
This is a Bill that is going to fasten the tied cottage system, which is one of the greatest abuses of the countryside, round the neck of the agricultural worker. It is going to add to the amenities, the prestige, and the pleasantness of rural estates almost entirely by an expenditure of public money. Rural landlords will be able to get £150 worth of work done for £50, which, no doubt, will be an admirable thing for them, but is a robbery from public funds.''— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd August, 1926; col. 2850, Vol. 198.]
§ I said some things harder than that. But there is now another difficulty about this Bill. I believe the right hon. Gentleman has missed his walk in life. Publicity has become his great passion. He attributes the fact that this thing has worked unevenly to differences in the art of publicity among local authorities and others. I do not believe that that is the cause. It is admitted that the Act is far more used in Scotland than in England. In England and Wales a few counties have used it: some have not used it to recondition a single cottage; and yet the housing conditions in those areas where the Act has not been used are possibly as deplorable as in those where it has been used. Legislation of that kind is most unfortunate, because it is not getting justice done. It happens to depend either on the good will of the landlord and his desire to improve his cottage, or on the greed of the landlord who wants to improve the capital value of his estate. That side of it seems well worth further examination.
§ Now I come to 1931. The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that I have been very illogical. In 1931 I would have been willing, personally, to allow the Housing (Rural Workers) Act to die. I would not have lifted a finger to save it, because I believed that there was a better 1271 way, though I had honestly tried to administer it, and had got more out of it than the right hon. Gentleman and the present Prime Minister. The fact, however, that there were these especially great difficulties in Scotland, the complete failure of private enterprise, the difficulties which the local authorities were facing, and the deplorable conditions in housing in the countryside in Scotland, convinced me that it was my duty on that occasion, reluctantly and without any great amount of spirit, to support the continuance of the Measure.
§ Mr. Greenwood
I am always wholehearted in support of my colleagues. No man has a right to be in politics unless he is. I was going to quote that very passage. The hon. Member has relieved me of the necessity. Certainly I was wholeheartedly in support, on the very ground that it might be something for an impoverished and sorely-stricken Scottish countryside.
The right hon. Gentleman twitted me with being illogical. The Amendment was put down in order to draw attention to the gravity of the situation and our dissatisfaction with what is being done. Having in 1931, as I have explained, agreed, with some reluctance but honestly, to the continuance of the Act, I cannot logically oppose the Second Reading to-day. If anybody cares to take this as an amusing remark he can do so. I have not changed my mind: I have not withdrawn one argument against the Act; but I face the realities of the existing situation. At the same time, I hope that the Ministers concerned will see that every conceivable step is taken to ensure that houses reconditioned conform to reasonable modern standards. In that task we are prepared to help, and I trust that any possible Amendment which we may put down will not be so readily and contemptuously rejected as our Amendments were in 1926. I am as deeply concerned as the right hon. Gentleman with the housing of the people. I will repeat what I said in 1931, though it is no pleasure to me, when I spoke on the Second Reading. Part of the words were quoted by the right hon. Gentleman but not the words which I prefer myself to remember: 1272I have explained once, and I will explain again, that so long as there is an instrument, however imperfect it may be, that can he used to help one single farm worker's family, I am prepared to use it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st April, 1931; cols. 838–39, Vol. 251.]If this Bill can provide worthy habitations for the people of the countryside, though I believe its contribution will be small and that the approach of the Bill is the wrong approach, the time of this House will not have been misspent. If we are not to get some understanding that we are to have qualitative reconditioning and to have something specific either in the form of regulations or a circular or a Schedule to the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will find that he will not get the Bill through the remaining stages very easily. We attach fundamental importance to it. If this is to be a contribution to the housing of the people, the houses must be worthy of the people who are to live in them. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot guarantee that, the Bill is no good to us and will be bitterly opposed in its later stages.
§ Mr. Speaker
Does the right hon. Gentleman move the Amendment on the Order Paper for the rejection of the Bill?
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Captain Sir Derrick Gunston
We have listened to a very interesting speech. I do not often trouble the House and I only occasionally speak on Housing Bills, but I have heard most of the speeches made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). I very well remember his denunciation of the Rural Housing Bill when it was first introduced by the Prime Minister. It is very tempting to twit the right hon. Gentleman, as he suggested we might, on having boxed the compass. I do not want to do that this afternoon, because it is most important that we should get the most out of the Act, and, therefore, the best thing that we can hope for is the co-operation of all parties. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield that when he said that he was surprised that landlords were unaware of the facilities which they could obtain under the old Act, he perhaps had not read the recommendation of the Rural Housing Sub-Committee, because on page 12 they say: 1273All rural district councils should be urged to take active steps to ascertain for themselves which cottages require conditioning and to bring the advantages offered by the Acts to the notice of the owners of all such cottages discovered.I can hardly imagine the Rural Housing Sub-Committee would put this into their report if they had not come across considerable evidence that many landlords do not realise the facilities which they can obtain under the Act. I am glad to note that the hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George) was on that committee. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Wakefield is not fully aware that there are many small landlords. I believe that in the Forest of Dean—in East Dean, I think—many houses which belong to owner-occupiers are being reconditioned. It is very important that men low in the economic scale should know the facilities which are to be obtained under the Act. Therefore, I hope that this Debate will, at any rate, have some effect in waking up the country to the possibilities of the Act. The right hon. Member for Wakefield had to tell us that all would have been well if his rural housing scheme had gone through. He is always a little unfair to the Liberal party when he tells us about the marvellous things that happened in 1930, because it was the late Sir J. Tudor Walters who used to egg him on day after day from the bench opposite. It was only owing to the pressure of the Liberal party that he brought in his Measure, but, unfortunately, it did not have a very great effect. I mention that in passing, because I like to see justice done to the Liberal party as they tried to do their best.
I believe that prejudice has had a good deal to do with the unsuccessful working of the Act. I do not mean only political prejudice, but prejudice on all sides. I have heard of cases of county councils where there was what was called a landlord majority, who said, "We as landlords could not possibly accept assistance under the Act." They have not worked it. No doubt the rich landlord does not want assistance, but the poorer landlord ought to have assistance. It is not possible to discriminate between one and the other. One of the reasons why we have not got as many houses under the Act as we should like is, that some of the local authorities have not been keen or have not realised the possibilities of the 1274 Act. A very good example is given in the excellent report of the Rural Housing Sub-Committee of what can be done by a keen council. It is a description of what happened in Devon and East Suffolk. No doubt the hon. Gentleman opposite had something to do with making the Act a success in Devon. In those counties they circularised not only landlords, but land agents and solicitors and anybody who was in touch with people who owned property. They brought the advantages of the Act to their notice. They also used the Press by means of informed articles explaining what could be done under the Act.
I notice in the report that so keen have some people become about the Act and the possibility of reconditioning houses, that local architects have become specialists in this very special branch. I hope that that will be copied in other parts of the country. If the officers of one of these councils saw a house which was suitable to be reconditioned, they brought it to the notice of the landlord, I believe that a lot more might be done in that respect. It is very remarkable—though this report is very much out of date, and no doubt the Minister has more up-to-date figures which perhaps he would give us—that in Devon there were 2,000 applications, 1,446 of which were granted, and in East Suffolk 1,010 applications, of which 784 were granted. In Gloucestershire there were only 233 applications, of which 140 were granted. Although in Gloucestershire we have stone houses of a type which could be reconditioned, our figures do not compare with those of Devon. I mention that to show what can be done where you have a local authority which is keen.
Publicity is of the utmost importance. The right hon. Member for Wakefield twitted the Minister of Health with being anxious to start a publicity campaign. -I hope he is. A lot can be done by getting the Press on your side. The Press, perhaps, do not think that houses are news, but nothing is bigger news, surely, than the housing of the people. If an old house or a mansion is burnt down we see great headlines in the newspapers, but the Minister is also trying to save these houses from destruction. I wish that some of the publicity of the War Office could be brought into this matter. I do not know why it is, but whenever the Secretary of State for War goes on a 1275 journey we see photographs of him getting into an aeroplane or into a tank. We always know what he is doing. We do not see sufficient photographs of the Minister of Health. It would be a very good thing if he could be photographed taking part in reconditioning some of these houses, putting the last bit of straw on the thatched roof, or perhaps having the first bath where the water supply has been laid on. He certainly put the Post Office on the map, and I hope that he will succeed in getting this Bill really to work.
It is suggested in the report that a survey should be made by the local authorities. I see that the Minister supports that and believes it would be a good thing to consider whether, when landlords do not take advantage of the Act, the local authority could buy the houses themselves by compulsory purchase. The disadvantage of this would be that the local authorities who were keen and had worked the Act would buy the houses where the landlords were slack, but the local authorities who had not worked the Act would do nothing at all. The net result would be more reconditioning such as in Devon, but not much progress in the other parts of the country. I would like the Minister of Health to tell us what he is going to do with regard to the local authorities who show no interest in the working of the Act. That is most important. I am very glad to note in the report that the National Federation of Women's Institutes realise that the successful working of the Act depends to a great extent upon the sanitary inspectors. They say that now they have this extra work to do there should be increased remuneration. The Devon County Council do pay increased remuneration per house to sanitary inspectors who are assisting to work the Act. I suggest other county councils should follow this example.
Nobody wants public money to be spent upon reconditioning if it is going to be badly done or the tenants are to live in bad houses. Clause 5 gives the Minister power to impose a condition that, during the period of 20 years, the houses shall not be allowed to fall into bad repair. When he sneers at old houses, the right hon. Member for Wakefield forgets the great value that these houses are to the countryside. We may not have the 1276 best critics and the finest public buildings in the world, but we have the finest countryside. I do not think that anyone who travels through England will deny that. I was travelling in the train the other day with a man who had just come from abroad and he was sneering at our institutions and our democracy but he suddenly looked out of the window and remarked "Heavens, what a lovely country England is." One of the glories of the country has been our rural villages. Since the War, however, we have done our best to destroy them by building ugly new houses, without any regard to line and design. In that destruction the Ministry of Health must bear its share of the responsibility.
If we can save these old houses and put them into a good state of repair, we shall be doing a considerable amount towards keeping the amenities of our countryside. It is not only the landlord or the tenant that gains. The whole village gains. If it is a well-known, beautiful village and people come from miles to see it, that brings trade. The townspeople also gain. It always annoys me to hear people say "Do not go to such-and-such a village, because it is only a sight-seeing village and full of trippers." I am glad to see people coming from the towns to see a lovely village, because they go back in the evening having had a day away from the bustle of the towns, and it has done them good. If we can preserve these old houses—not preserve them in the sense that we make people live in them in uncomfortable circumstances, but preserve them and make them decent to live in, we shall do a great deal to preserve the countryside. The right hon. Member for Wakefield has agreed not to oppose the Bill. I hope that all parties will work so that the Act will succeed, and that we shall recondition the houses and preserve the countryside.
§ 5.6 p.m.
Miss Lloyd George
I find myself to-day in the rather unusual position of supporting and, unless I am very careful, defending the Government. I do so because I believe that we should make the fullest use of every Measure and of every means of improving rural housing, even if the sphere of the Measure is limited, as this Bill certainly is. It is true, as has been said by the right hon. 1277 Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) that the majority of houses in rural areas can be dealt with only by demolition. Still, there are a considerable number of cottages which have not yet reached that stage, which are still structurally sound. I do not think that anybody wants to take them down if they are structurally sound and can be made into decent houses for the agricultural workers. It is very important that we should maintain a standard in these houses which are to be reconditioned. If there is any doubt of the definition which, I think, applies, namely, that they must be satisfactory houses? If it is felt that the definition is not adequate, then some further and more specific definition should be made in the Bill. There ought not to be an element of doubt about that.
The Rural Housing Committee, of which I was a member, came to the conclusion, after hearing a good deal of evidence, that a great deal more could be done under the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. I think that about 1,800 houses a year have been dealt with under the Act. It seems to me that that is a very inadequate number. It has been pointed out—I think the Minister himself pointed it out—that there is a great discrepancy in the use made of the provisions of the Act by rural authorities. The hon. Member who has just spoken referred to that fact, but I do not think he gave the figures, which are very interesting. In the eastern part of Suffolk 800 houses have been reconditioned, and in the western part only 39. It is difficult to believe that the good and the bad housing are so sharply divided in one county. There is the classic example of Devon, with its 1,800 reconditioned houses, and there is Bedford, which has not reconditioned a single house, and Brecon which has reconstructed only six. I should have thought that there was hardly a village in England or Wales where there are not a number of houses which can be improved, either made larger in order to accommodate a family in decent comfort or adapted for modern convenience and comfort.
A good many reasons have been given for the discrepancy to which I have referred. The right hon. Member for Wakefield poured a certain amount of contempt on the value of advertising in pushing these Housing Acts. I do not 1278 agree with him. Someone has said that the Minister has missed his vocation by being in politics. I do not think so. He is an admirable modern Minister, for the reason that he understands the value of publicity and of advertising. That is one of the reasons of his success; I will not say the sole reason, because as a member of the Advisory Committee on Housing I have had an opportunity of admiring his administrative qualities as well. There is no reason to suppose that the housing conditions in Devon are so very much better than they are in any other part of the country. When we looked into the question and received evidence from Devon, we found that there were two or three factors which were responsible. One was undoubtedly the fact that on the local authority there were people who were really enthusiastic about the Act and anxious to work it. I think the main reason was that they advertised the Act in every conceivable way. They issued circulars, they had posters and I believe they even stuck notices outside the police stations. They missed no opportunity.
I hope the local authorities will be encouraged to advertise, but the inspiration and the initiative must come from the Ministry. The initiation of new methods of advertising will, I am sure, be perfectly safe in the hands of the Minister, because he has proved himself a master of that art in the Post Office, at the Ministry of Health, and, less commendably, in the Conservative Central Office. The right hon. Member for Wakefield said that he did not think it was necessary to advertise to landlords the advantages that they were going to gain under the Act. The fact remains that when we complain that sufficient use has not been made of the Act, it must be obvious that the landlords are not fully aware of the advantages which they might gain under the Act.
There is in this connection one point which I should like to raise. The right hon. Gentleman made reference to the suggestion in the report that certain local authorities were reluctant to give grants to landlords with means, and that the Committee on the whole felt that that discrimination was wrong. I must make it perfectly clear—I thought I had done so at the time—that I do not take that view. I can understand the reluctance of the local authorities. This Act was meant to assist the cottage owner who through lack of means was no longer able to carry out 1279 the repairs. We realise the position of a great many agricultural landlords to-day. The industry of agriculture is suffering from the fact that for various reasons agricultural landlords are no longer able to carry out their responsibility in housing and in equipping their farms. No one can deny that fact, nor can anyone deny that there are a great many small landlords. I find it very hard to justify the giving of grants to landlords with considerable means. Under the Act as it stands Lord Nuffield could apply for a grant, and get it. [An HON. MEMBER: "Sir John Eller-man."] There is a case in point. Sir John Ellerman was, I think, the wealthiest man in the whole of these islands.
I have listened to arguments most eloquently put from the other side of the House about the position of the man who, through no fault of his own, has been long unemployed. It is said that no public money should be dispensed without careful scrutiny being made into the man's means and the means of his family. They tell us that it is possible that other members of the family may be bringing in wages, and that there may be contributions which, if they are not being made, ought to be made. You must scrutinise every penny if you are going to dispense public funds. How often have we heard that argument from the other side of the House. I find it indefensible, if we are to have a means test for the unemployed, not to have a means test for the landlord as well. I thought that I should like to make that point definitely clear. If the landlord can afford to put these cottages into decent repair, he should do so without assistance from public funds. On this point I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the recommendation of the sub-committee:Where owners are unwilling to undertake the reconditioning, we suggest that the local authority should consider the advisability of exercising their powers to buy the cottages, if necessary by compulsion, and themselves carry out the reconditioning.I should like to see that power, which has been there ever since the principal Act was passed, much more definitely used. It would do more to advertise this Bill than any amount of publicity if you had many cases in the country of compulsory purchase where landlords had failed to carry out their duty.
1280 I was interested at the solicitude with which the Minister urged the right hon. Member for Wakefield not to vote against the Bill because of the harm it would do him with the electors. It was a very refreshing departure from the ordinary advice one hears across the Floor of the House. The Minister twitted the right hon. Gentleman on the change in his attitude since 1931. I think the Minister himself has changed his attitude in many respects since that date. No one knows better than the Minister and his colleagues how differently things look when you are in Opposition to what they do when you are in office. I would point out to the Minister that even a deficit of £23,000,000 in Opposition is quite a different thing from a deficit of £90,000,000 in office, and I suggest that that is a change of attitude which the Minister has made since 1931. I could bring up other instances, but I will not do so. The Minister should be the first to sympathise with the right hon. Member for Wakefield.
As I have said, we shall support the Bill because we think it is a useful Measure, although very restricted in its scope. I do not believe that any Measure which contributes to the improvement of agricultural housing should be despised, and it certainly should not be rejected. The condition of houses in rural areas is deplorable. There are something like 46,000 houses included in the slum clearance schemes, but comparatively few houses have been replaced by local authorities in comparison with that large figure. The need for new houses apart, from slum clearance and replacement is still very great, and there is the further fact, which is often forgotten, that when you are dealing with rural areas you must remember that the population has declined by 17 per cent. in the last 10 years. I do not know how long the drift from the countryside to the towns is to be allowed to continue unchecked, but suppose that there should be a return to the countryside, suppose that the agricultural policy of the Government will at last be successful—I think it is very unlikely —what is going to happen? The Government might realise, as I hope they will, that food storage is not going to be adequate for this country in a war emergency; they will have to turn their mind to a policy of greater food production. If they do that on a large scale you will get 1281 a return of the population to the countryside, and, if so, the position of rural housing will be chaotic. I am very grateful to the Minister of Health, not particularly for this Bill, because I do not think it does so much, but for the new subsidy to rural houses, and I hope that by this subsidy and this Bill, into which, in the words of the right hon. Member for Wakefield, I hope the Minister will put vim and energy, and vigour and drive, we shall be able to have not only new houses but better houses than we have at present.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Mr. John Rathbone
When the Minister of Health was in Newquay he hinted at the possibility of something being done for rural housing, and I can assure him that there will be many rural workers who will be grateful to him and to the Government for the comprehensive way in which this question of rural housing has been tackled, not only from the point of view of new construction but also from the point of view of the reconstruction of existing houses. Town dwellers going on their excursions, as they can do now in greater and greater numbers through the countryside, are apt when they pass a country cottage to say, "Look at that picturesque cottage with its small windows and the roses growing round the door." They never stop to think what there is behind. The Government speak with justifiable pride of their campaign for slum clearance and the prevention of overcrowding. In the countryside one hears a great deal of what is being done in the town.
I want to deal with the question from a rather different point of view from that of the hon. Lady who has just spoken, that is to say with the flow of population from the countryside into towns. The younger generation treats what used to be regarded as conveniences, as necessities to-day. They will not stand for bad housing conditions. They will not stand having to go 100 or 150 yards to fetch water; and the reaction to all that is being done in the towns is to make them discontented all the more with country life. What makes it an even greater tragedy is that it is the more ambitious, the more intelligent, rural workers who are the first to get discontented with rural life and seek better 1282 houses, better wages and better conditions in the towns. In these days the type of agricultural worker which is most needed is not the old hayseed type, the general labourer, but the agricultural worker who is a skilled labourer, with intelligence and with a certain amount of mechanical knowledge to deal with tractors and all the machinery which goes with agriculture to-day. It is thus the cream of agricultural labour which is being lost, largely through bad housing conditions and low wages, although that is being seen to and does not concern us in this Bill to-day. Agriculture cannot flourish with a residue of inferior labour.
What then is to be done? First of all there is new construction, which is being provided for in the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act. I do not want to deal with that point this afternoon. Many hon. Members recently have been asked to take an interest in an organisation known as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. I am sure everyone who takes an interest in that organisation will be grateful for this Bill, because there must be thousands of cottages throughout the countryside which are structurally sound, but which inside have cooking-stoves which are broken and obsolete, which have no sink—that does not make for cleanliness—which have no larder—which does not make for economy—and which, perhaps, have no water supply inside—which, again, does not make for cleanliness—and which have closets which, to say the least, are dilapidated, extremely unhygienic and in many instances in most inconvenient places. That does not make for a fitter nation for which we are all striving. All this can be dealt with under the Bill, without necessarily spoiling the exterior. A tremendous amount of reconstruction can be done inside. The size of the rooms can be changed and still leave the frontage and the general appearance of a very picturesque and perhaps historic row of cottages. Furthermore, when you are dealing with overcrowding, rooms can be added at the back without changing the nature of the buildings at all, and at the same time solve the problem.
But there are two dangers in the Bill. The first has already been mentioned—the danger of slipshod work, work not being properly carried out, thereby endangering the whole scheme by bringing 1283 it into disrepute. The second danger is ignorance of its provisions, with the result that not enough action will be taken. We have been given figures which show that almost twice as much has been done in Scotland as in England and Wales, and I cannot believe that there are twice as many cottages needing reconstruction in Scotland than in the whole of England and Wales. The expiring Act is to be extended until 1942, and a question I want to ask is, what is going to be the effect of this extension on the number of applications? The Minister of Health has said that just recently there has been an enormous increase in the number of applications, and he put it down to the extra publicity that has been given to the valuable ways in which the Act can be used. I would like to know whether in this publicity the fact was mentioned that the old Act was about to expire, and whether it was also mentioned that it was to be extended. In other words, was this rush of applications due to the fact that there was not very much time left?
From that point of view I should regret that the Act is being extended, because it may mean that some applications will be put off to a future date, when it is known that the scheme is to be extended to 1942. In that case the reconstruction of rural houses will not go ahead fast enough to stop the drift of the country population into the towns. I should like too, to ask a little more about the nature of the publicity which is being given to schemes of reconstruction. Is publicity simply being given to the fact that various ways are available, or are the specific advantages stated? I should like to ask particularly whether attention is drawn to the fact that one can undertake work for two or more cottages under the provisions of Section 2 (2) of the original Act of 1926. It provides that:No assistance under this Act shall be given—That provision can be got round where the proposed works will constitute an improvement to two or more dwellings; in 1284 other words, in the most-needed cases where it would be possible to supply perhaps a row of several cottages with water and drainage which, after all, are two of the main essentials to-day. I wish to ask whether specific attention is being drawn to that sort of Clause, which is apt to be overlooked simply because the main provision has reference to the estimated cost of the work being not less than £50. I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly, and if there is anything which I would add to what I have already said to hon. Members above the Gangway, it is that this Bill should be read parallel with the Housing (Financial Provisions) Bill, which was recently before the House. It is not as if this were the only thing that was being done for rural housing; it is not as if new houses were not going to be built. Therefore, I ask hon. Members to give the fullest possible support to the Bill, and if possible, to give it a Second Reading without a Division.
- (a) where the value of the dwelling after the completion of the proposed works, as estimated by the local authority, exceeds four hundred pounds: Provided that in arriving at the value of any dwelling any carving or panelling shall not be taken into account; or
- (b) where the estimated cost of the works to be executed in respect of the dwelling is less than fifty pounds."
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Hopkin
I feel sure that those hon. Members who represent rural areas will welcome this opportunity to discuss the Bill. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) that the working of the Act up to now has been entirely unsatisfactory. Will the Minister say whether or not, if the working of the Bill were put into the hands of the district councils, it would, in his opinion, increase the number of houses for which applications would be made? Last Saturday I was talking to a man who has had a great deal of experience of work on a rural district council, and he expressed the opinion that it would be far better, in West Wales, if the working of the Act were placed in the hands of the rural district councils. I think that, properly administered, the Bill could do something, although very little, to improve the conditions of rural housing. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield that it would have been far better for rural housing and rural conditions generally if, instead of this patchwork, there were new houses built. I know that the Minister will not forget that, linked up with this problem, is the problem of the revival of agriculture. It is no good having houses in rural areas unless there are people to live in them, but equally it is hopeless at the present time to think of stopping the drift from 1285 the countryside to the towns unless there are in the rural areas decent houses in which the people can live.
§ Mr. Hopkin
And decent wages as well. I was interested to find that in the county which I represent, there were 170 applications, and that 59 of them were successful, involving a sum of £4,604. In the next county, Pembrokeshire, there were 591 applications, of which 479 were successful, involving a sum of £22,615. I have been told that the reason for the large number of successful applications in that county is that the big landowners have taken advantage of the Act, have made applications, and have been assisted to the extent of £22,000. It seems to me to be extraordinary that in the one county that there should have been that very large sum of money expended and that in the next county there should have been granted a sum of only £4,604. I have made it my business to try to discover the reason for which very few applications were made in the county which I represent. There were 59 successful applications in 12 years, which means that about five houses were restored in each year.
I am told that the greatest difficulty which the Carnarvonshire County Council meets is that they do not know whether or not they are entitled to give a grant to a smallholder. I respectfully ask the Minister to give an answer, either "Yes" or "No," to the question whether a smallholder is entitled to this grant. I have seen a letter which the county council sent to the Ministry, and the answer which they received was that it was at their discretion. I think that answer is wholly unsatisfactory, for it is no guide to the county council, who want to know whether, in principle, a smallholder is or is not within the Act. As the Minister knows, a smallholding is defined as being a cottage having attached to it land from one acre to 50 acres. There arises for the county council the difficulty that if help can be given to a smallholder having 50 acres, why can it not be given to a small farmer having 60 acres? I understand that there is also very great difficulty in making the grant in cases where there are mortgages. It is often extremely difficult to get the mortgagee to join in, for join in he must, because, of 1286 course, his security is altered. The rent is fixed for over 20 years, and I understand that, particularly in West Wales, that is a very serious difficulty. I notice that under Clause 3 a man who has paid back half his grant is given the advantage of paying back the whole of the amount in a lump sum, so that should he need to sell his house, he would have the opportunity of doing so. I ask the Minister to explain Clause 7 to the House.
I am able to give the Minister an example of how the Act has been working, and why it is that it has been such a failure. Last Sunday, in a little village called Llansaint, I saw a row of three cottages. I should mention that at one time the three cottages were equally dilapidated. Some time ago the owner of one of the end cottages applied to the county council for a grant, and obtained it, and as a result that cottage is now well built and constructed, has good rooms and is a comfortable home. The owner of the cottage at the other end applied to the county council for a similar grant for the purpose of doing the same thing as his neighbour had done. First of all, he sent his plans to the rural district council concerned, and the plans were passed; but when the plans were sent to the county council along with an application, the application was refused. I understand that another report had been received to the effect that the house would not be suitable. His application was similar in every way to that of his neighbour, but it was refused. In my submission, it is things such as that which have made the working of the Act such a failure. I entirely agree with the contention of my right hon. Friend that it would help local authorities greatly if the Minister were to send out regulations with the Act, and such publicity as he proposes to make, in order to stir the county councils and local authorities which at present do not attempt to make the Act a success.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Sir Malcolm Barclay-Harvey
There has been an interesting Debate on this Bill, which I welcome as being a distinct advance on previous Bills of the same sort which the House has had before it on various occasions. I do not propose to enter into a discussion as to whether 1287 or not the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) is entirely consistent in his beliefs, but I am glad that the Opposition do not intend to oppose the Bill, because, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thornbury (Sir D. Gunston) said, it would be a very much better Bill if we could achieve unanimity, and thereby get more work done under it. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield that I did not realise before that I had anything for which I should be grateful to him, but, speaking as a Scotsman, it appears that we in Scotland may be grateful to him for his support in getting a Bill through under the Labour Government and thereby allowing us to recondition a large number of existing houses, because, as has been said in the Debate, Scotland has made very good use of the Bill, as I hope will continue to be the case.
I see that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Stirling (Mr. Johnston) is smiling, and I have no doubt that he is thinking of the report of the Alexander Committee, which contained some very unfavourable comments on the way in which the money has been spent. All I will say on that is that, as far as my experience goes, I have seen a good deal of good work done in Scotland under the Act. After all, the Alexander Committee dealt with three parishes in Scotland, and although they were no doubt as representative as it is possible for any three parishes to be, they did not form a very large proportion of the parishes in Scotland. If they had considered some other parts, particularly Aberdeenshire, they might have found a very much more satisfactory state of affairs.
Reference has been made to the fact that the standard of building is not high enough. In Aberdeenshire, a great point is made of the standard of building, and I know that plans have been turned down because they have not conformed with the local by-laws. I should be glad to see that practice made universal. If the Act is to be used in the way in which we all want it to be used, to improve the housing conditions of farm servants in Scotland and England, then at least it is necessary to make certain that when the houses are built, they will be of the type that is wanted. The hon. Lady the 1288 Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George) said that farm servants now look with some jealousy on the people who live in towns and who are given better houses than they are. I have said for some time that people who live on the land should get just as good housing accommodation as people who live in the towns. If this Bill will do anything to achieve that object, then on that ground alone it will receive my support.
I am very glad to see the new provisions to deal with overcrowding, but there are one or two respects in which the Bill might have improved the previous Measure. In the first place, I think the sum of £400 might have been increased, at any rate, to £500. Not being a lawyer, I am not clear as to the exact meaning of the terms of the original Act which refer to the value of a house not being in excess of £400. It may be that a house which has cost more than £400 to recondition has an actual value to the owner of less than £400. If it is the intention that it should be a question of value and not of actual cost, that should be made more plain. I know that in some cases applications have been turned down because the cost would be over £400. In one case the plans were submitted unofficially to the county clerk and the owner was told that they did not conform to the county council's standard, and therefore would not be passed. Fresh plans were submitted under which reconditioning would have cost rather more than £500 and the application was then rejected on the ground that the cost would be in excess of £400, or that the house would be of a greater value than £400. That seems to be a wrong way of setting about the matter.
We are very badly in need of more rural houses and decent rural houses in Scotland. There has been a set-back in Scottish housing, for a great many reasons, such as shortage of labour and materials, and surely what we want to do by this Measure is to encourage people to recondition any houses which are capable of being reconditioned. There are many houses which could be reconditioned though at considerable expense. The walls are good enough to enable a start to be made and houses of that sort ought to qualify for assistance under this Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will look into this point and see whether it cannot 1289 be met. There is another point which affects Scotland particularly. We were considering not long ago a Bill dealing with the building of new houses in rural areas in Scotland, and it was provided in that Bill that the grants of the local authorities should be seven-eighths of their expenditure in the Highland counties and three-fourths of their expenditure in the Lowland counties. In this Bill the figures are three-quarters in the Highland counties and one-half in the Lowland counties. There are a great many Lowland counties which are by no means rich, and one reason why the previous Act has not been used more in some of the smaller counties is because the local authorities feel that it is putting too heavy a burden upon them. If we are to get the full benefit of this Measure, we ought to lighten the burden on some of the poorer local authorities on whom the pressure is becoming serious. These people are anxious to use the provisions of the Act, but with one burden after another being put upon them—burdens which we are all willing to bear as far as we can—they are beginning to feel that the pressure is more than they can stand.
I am afraid there is not much hope of any amendment being made in the present Bill, but I hope that the Government may, even at the last hour, find it possible to meet this point. If it is logical to give seven-eighths in the Highland counties and three-fourths in the Lowland counties for new housing, surely it is equally logical to observe the same proportions in regard to reconditioning. When it is not possible to build new houses in sufficient numbers, for reasons which we know to exist, we ought to do all we can to encourage the reconditioning of existing houses. Reference has been made to the decline of the rural population. I am certain that one of the main causes of that decline, and one of the reasons why it is so difficult to get good farm servants in Scotland, is the deplorable condition of rural housing. I believe that this Bill by continuing the previous Act, will do something to meet that case Because I believe that, I shall do all I can to make it a success, and if it were put to a vote I should vote for it, but I am happy to learn that that will not be necessary.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
Personally, I am sorry that there is not to be a vote upon the 1290 Bill, because I would like to vote against it. I have listened to every speech in this Debate, and I have had some experience in the working of the previous Act, and I have never been able to find any good in it. It began from a wrong angle, and every speech to-day has emphasised the fact that we have all along been dealing with this matter from the wrong angle. The Minister of Health twitted my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and suggested that no cricketer to-day had bowled more "no balls" than my right hon. Friend had bowled—politically speaking. I thought, when the right lion. Gentleman was speaking, that it was a good thing that he had been kept on bowling for his side, because he pointed out the defects in this Measure and its predecessors. After so many years' experience, it seems to me that the time has arrived when we ought to discount and discourage attempts to meet this problem in this very inadequate manner.
We talk about housing the rural worker as if a certain type of house was good enough for the rural worker just because he is a rural worker. I object, in the first place, to the Title of the Bill. Why describe housing as being for rural workers? I know the answer will be that it is in order to safeguard the rural worker himself, because he is engaged in a certain occupation, and living under certain conditions in the country. But the standard of house ought to be the same whether it is in the country or in the town. I go further and suggest that a man in the country is entitled to a better house and more amenities than a man living in the town. What was the object of the original Measure and what is the object of continuing it by this Bill? It is to make grants to landowners in order that they can recondition their property. I know that certain conditions are laid down and that handsome grants are made on those conditions. The Minister suggested that one reason why there had been what was termed a "fillip" in the utilisation of the Measure, was the advertising by his Department, which had brought it to the notice of the landlords. I suggest that a different method of advertising has been responsible for this fillip, namely, the slum clearance schemes in adjacent towns under which no compensation has been paid. What has taken place in many rural districts is that 1291 houses which ought to have been condemned and pulled down have been reconditioned under the previous Act in order that they should remain assets to the individual owners. I was amazed to hear the Minister's suggestion that we should attempt to retain many of these cottages because of their special charm and agricultural merit.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
It was a slip then. I was so much interested in the case of these country cottages and the uses to which they have been put, that I did not notice that the Minister had made a slip.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
What architectural merit they have passes me by. An hon. Member who spoke earlier referred to the historical value of some cottages, and how important it was that they should be retained. It may be in the interests of historians to retain them, and if they were being restored in order that historians might live in them, I would not mind, but I object to restoring them in order that agricultural labourers should be compelled to live in them. I was also surprised at the Minister's suggestion that under this new Measure there would be powers whereby, if a house was not kept fit, the grant could be withdrawn and whatever had been paid would have to be repaid. It seems a strange proposal coming from the Minister of Health, that we should have to depend upon the power of taking back money that has been granted. Has not the Minister already power to compel a landlord to keep his property fit for habitation? I know that the county councils have been reluctant to act and that we have not a sufficient number of sanitary inspectors, but it seems strange that we should have to offer a bribe to the landlord in order that a house may be kept fit.
Two or three alterations are proposed in this Bill to which I take strong exception. First, it is proposed that, for the purpose of meeting conditions of overcrowding, additions can be made to houses and they can qualify for grant even though something had previously been spent upon them for reconditioning. If a house has been planned in a certain way and has 1292 fallen into such a state as to require reconditioning, and if, having been reconditioned and having already qualified for grant, it is to qualify for a further grant in order that it may be used to house more people, it seems to me that we are in danger of creating a situation of which advantage will be taken by the landlords. What are the conditions under which the money is to be granted? There is nothing about that in the Bill, and no standard is laid down in the Bill. Is the standard which applies to overcrowding under the last Housing Act to be adopted in respect of alterations in the countryside? If so, I have no objection, but I know something of the houses which have been suggested for reconditioning in Lancashire and I cannot think of one in which it would be possible to meet the requirements laid down in the last Act as regards overcrowding. I would like to know whether those conditions are to apply or not?
Then the suggestion is made that release from the conditions should be obtainable in the event of a landlord wanting, so to speak, to buy back his freedom before the expiration of the 20 years. That is something which ought not to happen. I know it is suggested that this grant covers a period of 20 years after the House has been altered or reconditioned and that in some cases after 10 years have passed the conditions from which the owner is seeking relief would best be met by the paying back of one-half of the subsidy or grant. In the first place, when the landlord receives the grant he receives it upon property which otherwise would not be in a fit state for habitation. Therefore, you have made an uneconomic unit into an economic unit. You have made something of value which was of no value, or would shortly become of no value without this assistance. The State and the local authorities have found the wherewithal to do that. I contend that the conditions under which that money has been obtained should remain in operation to the end of the time, irrespective of the position of the individual who has accepted the grant. I can foresee a number of conditions arising under which it will be a good speculation for a man to pay back the grant, to buy his freedom from the conditions under which it has been obtained.
During the past few weeks we have been discussing in this House the question of air-raid precautions, and I know 1293 something of what might take place in the event of an emergency in this country. I know the safest places from the standpoint of air-raid shelters, and I know the places which will be best suited to meet the convenience of the people who can afford them; and when 10 years of this grant have run, I can imagine a number of country cottages that have been reconditioned being used for the purpose of housing people who want to escape from populous areas during air raids. It may seem a far cry to-day, but I suggest that in certain eventualities these houses would be available. They may not be fit for agricultural labourers to live in to-day, but they would make very good places for people who value their lives to flee to when trouble arises in populous areas, and I want to prevent not only that, but an individual from being in a position, during the running of this grant, to change the conditions under which a house has been let. I want us at any rate to control the conditions under which a house shall be let after the money has been paid.
Another question that I would like to ask is whether or not all these houses stand by themselves. I do not mean in the sense that they are built singly, but where a group of three or four houses is built, am I to understand that it will be possible under the Bill for each habitation, not for each block or each scheme of improvements, to get a grant of, say, £100, without a portion of it being paid by the individual? If so, I want again to suggest that the landlord who is in the best position is the one who owns the houses which can be reconditioned and which are grouped together; he is receiving an unfair advantage under the Bill as compared with the individual who owns a single house. Three houses can be reconditioned, and if each house gets £100, it is a much simpler proposition for him to recondition three houses standing together than it is for the one individual to recondition the one house. Three times £99, I suggest, is a matter of £297, if the lessons that I learned at the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week are anything to go by, and a grant of £297 for three houses seems to me to be very generous. I am not surprised at that, because generosity to the landlords has been one of the characteristic features of the Government since I came into this House some three months ago.
1294 Again, in opposing this Bill and its principle, I want to appeal for something better for the rural workers. The houses that we are thinking about mostly under this Bill would, it seems to me, be best wiped out and a new beginning made. I would much rather spend more money on building new houses of a decent type than on providing landlords with money to save what we have already. If it is the countryside that you are concerned about, beautify those houses, stick flagpoles on them, do what you want with them, but do not ask people to live in them. That is the tragedy of the countryside at the present time, and I, for one, object to this Measure because it is treating the people in the countryside as entitled to something less than the best in which to eke out their existence.
An hon. Member who spoke just now spoke of the individuals who were fleeing from the countryside, and he said that the men whom we wanted to get were the men with brains. The agricultural labourer needs to be a man with brains. I was an agricultural labourer 20 years ago, before the coming of the tractor, when the tractor was not required. There have never been any hayseeds in the countryside. The agricultural labourer has never received his due, either in houses, in wages, or in anything else, and it has not been because of lack of brains. His knowledge of the turning of the plough and of the way in which to cultivate the ground without the implements in modern use deserves a great deal more respect from people who speak about the value of the countryside than it has received in this Debate to-day, and in his defence, at any rate, I wanted to say that before I sat down.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Mr. De Chair
I listened with some astonishment to the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson), who has just sat down, when he said, with a sweep of his hands, "Architecturally they pass me by," when referring to the repairing of cottages in the English countryside. I wondered whether I was sitting in the English House of Commons and whether the heritage of England, with all its beauty, one of the most remarkable things in the world, had descended into the hands of people who had absolutely no conception of beauty whatever. I was reminded of the phrase of a dictator of a 1295 foreign Power which shall be nameless, when he said, recently, "I hate the picturesque." I think it is very difficult to divorce this question of rural housing from the question of the picturesque, and I would like to put it to hon. Members opposite, Do they seriously want to wipe out all the old, picturesque, interesting houses and to replace them simply by mechanical rows of four-square houses blotted against the countryside? If they want to do that, it seems to me that they are trying to secure the world and to lose their own soul. We can have efficient people on the land, and we want to see them in comfortable homes, but their comfortable homes might better be good, solidly built, comfortable homes that will last 300 years than many of the modern council houses that will last possibly 10, 20, or 30 years at the outside.
There are houses standing in English villages to-day which have been there for 400 years, but I very much question whether any of the houses built under subsidies, even from the present Government, will last 400 years. And there are many houses to-day which, when restored, will last another 400 years. I agree as heartily as anyone who has spoken in this Debate in regard to the housing conditions which exist in the countryside to-day. The hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George) described them as deplorable, and I agree with her entirely. Slums have existed unnoticed in the countryside which would have been dealt with in big cities, where they would have been more under the eye of the authorities, and I cannot help thinking that people are often deluded by the external appearance of a picturesque house into thinking how charming it is, without bothering to peer inside and find out how really deplorable its condition is. We are entirely agreed upon that point, but it is an entirely different matter to go another step and to say, "All right, pull it down," when it may simply be because the gutters have been blocked up with leaves that the damp is rotting through the walls, or because some neglect of a single tile has allowed water to pour through the roof. Very often the expenditure of a little money may put an old cottage into good repair where hon. Members opposite would apparently prefer the expenditure of some hundreds of pounds in order to wipe it out and 1296 build an entirely new one in its place. That surely is the Oriental method of proceeding from point to point by three sides of a square. Frequently it is the quickest, easiest, and cheapest method to repair an old house.
I, for one, unhesitatingly support my right hon. Friend in having brought forward this Bill. I support it a great deal more wholeheartedly than the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) apparently supported a similar Bill in 1931. He said that he did it with great reluctance, yet that he did it wholeheartedly, and I could not quite follow the logic of that reasoning. This kind of reluctant wholeheartedness was a new method of procedure to me. Much has been said in this Debate about the drift of agricultural labour from the land, and I agree with what has been said. The hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey asked whether anything was to be done to check this drift from the land. The first thing which is going to check it will be the proper use of this Act. If all the cottages in rural areas in which agricultural labourers are living to-day are put into a proper state of repair, that will do more than very many things to check the drift of agricultural workers from the land.
I will come to the point raised by my right hon. Friend when he said that he was not satisfied merely with giving publicity to this grant and with exhorting the local councils to use it, but that he was going to have a survey made, I understood, of the present condition of rural cottages. I should like to ask for a little more information on that point. How is this survey to take place? Is it to be simply a casual perambulation of Ministry of Health inspectors, or is it to be a really sound, vigorous drive right through the countryside, so that no cottage will be overlooked? I feel that the whole rural housing position needs drastic overhauling, and if my right hon. Friend could assure us that no cottage was to escape scrutiny, I should feel very much easier in my mind. With regard to the number of cottages that have been restored under the Act, it is perhaps interesting to notice that there have been three cottages built in rural areas with grants from the Government for every one cottage that has been restored, so that I do not think hon. Members opposite need feel too worried about it. They are getting three 1297 brand new modern houses for every old one that is being preserved, so that I do not think they need feel that the proportion of the latter is too great.
I only wish that all the rural houses of the old type could be preserved, but I realise that many of them are too far gone and have to be condemned. That is quite right, but that is a far cry from sweeping all the old cottages away, and I sincerely hope that the practice of simply ignoring the use of the Act which is very common among councils, will drop into disuse. It is true that the Act is very unpopular in many areas. I remember discussing the question with the chairman of a rural district council, to whom I said, "I cannot understand why you keep on refusing applicants these grants, when it is simply a matter of getting the best possible housing conditions for the rural workers, which is presumably your aim." He replied, "This is an unpopular Act. It puts money into the pockets of the landlords." I tried to reason with him and to point out that the landlord does not benefit financially, because for 20 years the rent is restricted to 4 per cent. on the money which he contributes to the cost of repairs, but he did not see it that way, and he said to me, "If I were you, I should not go on advocating the Act, because it is unpopular." I said, "I am glad that not everybody is deterred simply because an Act is unpopular."
I am glad for that reason that the party opposite have decided not to oppose the passage of this Bill through the House of Commons to-day. Perhaps that will have the effect of making some of their supporters in the country give the working of the Act in the future a little more whole-hearted support than they have given it in the past. I cannot understand the attitude of people who regard old houses as second-hand houses. They regard houses as they do motor-cars which wear out in a few years; and they consider that new houses are infinitely better than the old. I should say that houses are much more like teeth, and I would say to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield that it is far better to stop a tooth than to have a new one. If he carried that into the realm of rural housing the countryside would be preserved a little better. We are passing through an age of mass production in 1298 which we boast of turning things out in similar types by the thousand. We saw posters, for which I think the Minister was responsible, which said, "A thousand houses a day." We ought to stop and ask what kind of houses we are getting, and what the "thousand houses a day" will look like in a few years' time. The more we can do to preserve what beauty we have, the better service we shall do the country as a whole. I whole-heartedly support this Bill.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Dunn
I wish I could get as interested in this Bill as the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. De Chair). There are many parts of England which are beautiful. There are many parts which are not beautiful, and which are, indeed, ugly. The impression created upon my mind by the first part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was that the beautiful cottages of England are not so beautiful as to induce the landlords of England not to neglect them, as they have done for years. I have never heard the Minister of Health so unconvincing as he was in opening this Debate to-day. I have listened to him on many occasions and I have often felt a tremendous amount of admiration for the great work he is trying to do. To-day, however, I could not but feel that his heart and mind were not in the task of presenting this Bill. He must have felt, I think, that this was a bad piece of patchwork in the housing policy of this country, and that he would really like to see demolished the majority of the rural cottages in which agricultural labourers have to reside. It may be true that there are a few of these old houses which can be renovated. They have gathered round them a great amount of local history and a good deal of sentiment, but I have seen a large part of this country and I am satisfied that the only sensible thing to do with the great majority of these cottages is to demolish them.
I represent in this House a constituency in which there is one of the largest rural district councils in the country. This council has made a great contribution to housing, a contribution second to none, I should think, of any rural district council in the land, and I am proud of the work it has done. In every portion of its district this council has been busy demolishing old houses, many of which have housed agricultural labourers, but 1299 I do not know of one cottage in that area where this progressive council has taken the view that it should renovate under either the 1926 Act or the 1931 Act. It has taken the view—rightly, I think—that the proper thing to do with these dilapidated, insanitary houses, houses without adequate light and water supply, was to demolish them and to build new houses. In the Minister's depressing presentation of his case to-day there was not a word about the agricultural labourer. I have two pictures in my mind. Last year when I was touring the country I met a good friend of mine who runs a progressive dairy farm. He showed me the manner in which he housed his cattle; there was running water supply and all the modern equipment and conveniences. I thought that the job was a very good one and I was glad to see milk being produced in circumstances of that kind. After I had looked at the dairy farm I asked the farmer whether I might look at 'the cottage of the agricultural labourer who was in charge of the cattle. He was good enough to show me, and I am bound to confess than the cattle were housed 10 times better than the agricultural labourer. Yet the Minister did not say a word with regard to the agricultural labourer. We cannot look with satisfaction upon the conditions in which many of our agricultural labourers live.
One hon. Member said that if the owner of an agricultural cottage is too poor to put it into a habitable condition, he did not disagree with the provisions of this Bill which permit a grant of public money to be made to the owner. I do not disagree with that. If the owner is in such a poor financial position that he cannot put the house into a habitable condition in which the agricultural labourer can live in decency and comfort, I do not object to the Clause in the Bill which permits the local authority to purchase the house at a fair value and to take advantage of the provisions of this Bill in order to put it in a fit condition. I take the view on the other hand, that if a wealthy landowner or farmer fails to put a house into a habitable condition, he should be subjected to a means test before any public money is spent on the house. Not only is there no means test in such a case, but the Minister went out of his way to say that if the owner of an agricultural cottage had already received one grant 1300 and found that it was not sufficient, he was entitled to receive a second grant. It is wrong to use public money in that way.
I agree that we have to do something to check to flow of agricultural labour from the countryside to the towns. The policy of this Government does everything possible for the people who control agriculture, but it cannot give a reasonable wage to the agricultural labourer. The Government not only deny him a reasonable wage, but this Bill proves that they are denying him proper shelter. We have denied him the common amenities of ordinary life. He lives in outlandish places. How can we expect the agricultural labourer, badly fed, badly housed, badly clothed, to be content with such a life? After all, the farm worker is one of the most wonderful types of men in this country. I take the view that the farm labourer is a highly technical man, a highly scientific man, and he is responsible for the agriculture of this country, and yet we ask him to remain the most shockingly treated of British working men. Personally I object to money being handed over to the landlord class without some guarantee that the agricultural labourer will be properly housed; but if this Bill will accomplish that end then, for whatever it will do to improve conditions, I shall give it my support.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Sir Francis Fremantle
I do not want to follow the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Dunn) into his complaint that the Minister did not speak about the agricultural labourer himself, because the whole Bill is instinct with the housing of the agricultural labourer. It is with the welfare of the agricultural labourer that the Bill deals. What is of importance is that the hon. Member should suggest that the agricultural labourer is so poorly paid that the Government ought to raise his wages. Surely he knows quite well that the rate of agricultural wages is not a matter in the hands of the Government, but that it is settled by local committees, who are infinitely better fitted than any Whitehall Department to decide what is the proper wage.
§ Sir F. Fremantle
I do not think the Chair would allow me to follow up that point. Who is to pay the agricultural labourer more? Is it to be the farmer? As everyone knows, farmers, taken as a whole, cannot make both ends meet; all over the country they are getting deeper and deeper into debt. Nor can it he the landlords. For the most part landlords are giving up the countryside, because they cannot make both ends meet, and nobody suggests that they can. Is it, then, to be the Government? Presumably that is the Socialist policy, that the Government should take over control of the whole of the land and pay the labourers. I will not deal further with that point.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and other critics opposite that this Bill carries us only a short step in dealing with the rural housing problem, but do not let us belittle it for that reason, because what is proposed in this Bill means everything to the tenants of the houses concerned. To the tenant of a bad house in the country it means everything that his house should be made habitable and improved, perhaps, to meet the needs of an expanding family. Those people do not want to be turned out of their houses. The argument 44 the right hon. Member for Wakefield and others has been, roughly, that instead of reconditioning these old houses we should build new ones, but those who know the countryside know that in most cases it is not a question of the labourers getting the one or the other, because if this Bill is not passed the existing houses, unless they are so bad that they must be condemned by the local authority, will continue to be all that are available. The amount of building done by rural authorities is, in most cases, very limited. It is true that under an Act passed this Session further opportunities are given, accompanied by a subsidy, for building houses in rural areas, and it is hoped that a great deal more will be done in that respect, but we know that the supply of building labour in the villages is limited.
The housing machinery of rural district councils is really rusting, and there is neither rapid building nor extensive building, but according to the logic of hon. Members opposite we still ought not to pass such Measures as this, and the inferior houses, if they are at all habitable, ought to be allowed to remain. [Interruption.] That is what it comes 1302 to. I agree that these reconditioning Measures are limited in their application, and that we ought to go ahead with new housing in the countryside, but meanwhile we should get other people to help, so far as they will, in improving the houses already in existence. I will give two instances which are within my knowledge, in a county which, to our shame, has done very little to make use of housing legislation. In one case there was a row of four houses on a farm. They had been built according to the best traditions of about 60 years ago, but they had not a damp-course arid had only two rooms up and two rooms down, and the out-sheds were inadequate. What was done there was just what it is possible to do under this legislation. The landlord converted those four cottages into two cottages; it was the best way of providing improved housing accommodation, and perhaps it was an excessive provision. Unfortunately, that was done just before the Act of 1926 came into force. Consequently the landlord did not get the benefit of that legislation, and he lost on the transaction, because he got the rental for only two cottages instead of four, and he decided that he could not afford to go on in that way. If this legislation had been in force he would have had some recompense for the loss of income and for the capital outlay to which he had been put, although he would not have received anything like what it had cost him.
The other instance concerned an old laundry house attached to a big house. The laundry house was no longer wanted, and with the grants for loans given under this legislation. it was made into two good cottages, which are the equal of any built by any municipality. They were passed by the local authority. Real emphasis ought to be laid on the point that the consent of the local authority has to be obtained, and the authority, in deciding whether to give a grant or not, can make conditions. It can say that the rental is not to be too high, not above 3s. or 3s. 6d., and make other terms and conditions. We of the Rural Housing Sub-Committee refer in our report to the power given to owners to raise rentals up to the level of prevailing rents, but we also refer in paragraph 29 to the fact that where the rental was above the prevailing agricultural rent local authorities had no power 1303 to make conditions, and there is nothing about any power to insist on a reduction of the rent. That point is now being met, because local authorities have powers to make conditions.
A point which I would ask the Minister to deal with in his reply, because it puzzled us on the committee, is referred to in paragraph 30 of the report. It is pointed out there that these Acts provide no remedy in the case of houses which are already fully mortgaged, belonging, probably, to a small owner, where the mortgagee refuses to extend his mortgage or to agree to the extra conditions laid down before a housing grant will be given. That means that such houses, although they may be suitable for reconditioning, cannot be reconditioned, where there is no way of compelling the mortgagee to agree. I believe that position could be met, but what the committee reported was that none of the witnesses appearing before us had been able to suggest a solution to the difficulty and that we could not make any recommendations. I should like to know whether the Minister has been able to deal with that particular point. I hope that it can be met by the power of the county council, to which the Minister referred, to buy up such property, but I am not clear how that can be done if the mortgagee objects to being paid off. It is possible that in the majority of cases county councils may be able to buy such houses, and that may to some extent meet the difficulty. At the same time I should like to know where it is stated that the county councils have the power to buy up these houses. I cannot find it stated in the Bill, and I imagine, therefore, it is a power conferred by previous legislation. I hope it is a very real power and that it can be used effectively.
There is no question that there is a danger that local authorities who do not understand their responsibilities may give grants, whether under pressure or not, for the reconditioning of houses which are not worth reconditioning. I speak very strongly as an old county medical officer of health. Before so much attention was paid to rural housing it was one of the subjects about which county medical officers were keen, and they have been increasingly keen about it. Incidentally, county medical officers of health and their associations are very much in favour of 1304 these rural housing Acts, and this Bill too, and are very anxious to see them more freely used. The medical officer of health for Devonshire has given us a good account of what has been done in his county, and we should like to see that work spread to other counties, but we have to beware of the danger of repairing—and still more reconditioning—houses which may keep alive bad housing conditions, because if a house has only 10 or 12 years of proper life left to it and it is reconditioned the maintenance of it will be costly, and in such circumstances it might be more economical and better to build new houses. Generally there is that alternative, and, where there is, by all means build new houses rather than recondition those which are approaching their end, but do not let us be blind to the fact that many houses built in the middle of last century are quite capable of being brought up to present standards.
It is the duty of the local authorities to decide this question, when investigating whether a particular house, in the existing conditions of the locality, is a proper one for help of this kind. We come back to this point again and again, that it is the local authority who have to be responsible. It is for that reason that our committee emphasised the fact and reported upon it to the Minister that the difference between counties was most marked because certain local authorities had not made the Acts properly known. Acting on that, the Minister has put forward a considerable programme of publicity which is already taking effect, as he has shown us to-day.
I hope that the protest made by my colleague the hon. Lady who represents Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George), regarding gifts to rich landlords, will not prevent us from exercising our vote in favour of this Measure. It is difficult to take any practical line to distinguish the rich landlord from the poor landlord. Are we to have a chartered accountant making a return of the expenses of the landlord and of his estate? If so, hardly a landed estate in this country would not show a loss and therefore that the landlord was not rich. Are we to take account of a landlord's earnings from another point of view? Is he bound to spend his earnings or his savings in keeping up the estate? Obviously he is not necessarily going to do so. Although I sympathise with the 1305 general idea that we do not want to give the grant to rich members of another place, I would point out the safeguard that local authorities are not bound to give a grant. I am certain that Lord Nuffield would never ask for a grant, but if he were to, his application would be turned down by his local authority. If it were not, there would be the very good reason that cottages were going to he reconditioned and they could not condemn them because they wanted to get them reconditioned.
Let us come back to the fact that this grant is made definitely for supplying a need that would otherwise not be supplied and that the local authority are the people who can decide whether that need exists and whether it can be supplied without these grants. If not, the landlord has a right to come forward and ask for the loan or the grant. Nobody can define the difference between a wealthy landlord and a poor landlord. I believe that most of these houses belong not to landlords as commonly understood; in my county it is the retired tradesman who has bought this type of cottage with a view to its being his pension, or as a safeguard for his widow after his death. Neither he nor his widow has more than a very small means for repairing the cottage and none to meet the expenditure of reconditioning, and although they will pay great attention to keeping it up to the mark they cannot afford to put in what would be required to bring it up to modern standards. That is the kind of landlord whom this Measure is designed to help and ought to help, and to whom we should turn our attention in considering the Bill.
A further practical point that I wish to bring forward arises out of the fact that the owners I have described are usually not of very wide education or experience or very much in touch with public life and public forms. They may be reached by the campaign of publicity, and they may be face to face with an appalling big form which they have to fill up but cannot understand. After trying to go through the form, which is often made out in official language, they give it up, and the form gets buried under a heap of papers and forgotten. I therefore suggest that the need for greater simplicity in forms should be impressed upon local authorities. A second point 1306 is that some authorities are very prompt in dealing with correspondence, while others are less prompt, and that there are cases in which applications are delayed week after week and month after month. They may not be dealt with until after the next quarterly meeting of the county council, or perhaps not till the quarterly meeting after that, very little, if any, correspondence taking place meanwhile. Such an experience checks people from applying under these Housing Acts. Attention to these two points should do a good deal to make it easier for people to appreciate the meaning of these Acts.
The real working of the Acts falls back upon the local authorities. That is a point which we are frequently pressing in this House. If we are to make local government ever worthier, keener and more active we must press upon the electorate the necessity for keeping the local authorities up to the mark, giving credit to local authorities who do excellent work and discrediting those who do not. Although this is a small Measure it will be very useful as far as it goes, especially to people whose houses and homes are at stake. I hope that it will be passed unopposed and that it will be properly worked when it is passed into law.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Acland
Many hon. Members have drawn attention in this Debate to the pre-eminent position of the county a part of which I have the honour to represent. I do not suppose there are many counties—I doubt whether there is any in this aspect of public administration—which is so pre-eminently in advance of all the others as is Devon in this matter of assistance to rural housing, and it is appropriate that a representative of that county should say a word of appreciation and of support to the Government for prolonging the existence of an Act which has been of so great an assistance to us. Having thrown that bouquet, I would say a word about the suggestion which the Minister made to account for that preeminence of one county and the apparent failure of others to take advantage of these Acts.
§ Mr. Loftus
I would point out that East Suffolk led the way for years in applications for assistance of this kind and that it is only recently that Devon has caught up.
§ Mr. Acland
I have no doubt that there is something in common. In the matter of circularising landlords and others interested, I would give to hon. Members who represent parts of counties which have not made as much use of these Acts as they might have done, the advice that they should determine that the Bill shall be worked after it becomes law. The Minister recently came down to Newquay in North Cornwall and made a speech in which he said that the great drawback about Members of the Opposition Liberal party was that they never took part in public administration. That remark did not bring him as much credit as did other parts of his speech, and I would remind him that the chairman of the committee dealing with this matter is the right hon. Baronet the Member for North Cornwall (Sir F. Acland) in which constituency the Minister was saying that Members of the Opposition Liberal party never took any part in public administration.
§ Mr. Acland
The Minister must not shake his head, because those were his words as reported in the Press. If there is any doubt in the matter, would the Minister be so kind as to clear it up by asking the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to say one sentence, or perhaps a half sentence which is not entirely irrelevant, on that matter?
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Lipson
I wish to say a few words in favour of this extending Bill because I have had experience of the administration of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act of 1926, as a member of the Gloucestershire County Council. We were somewhat slow in Gloucestershire in beginning to work the Act, but I am glad to say that we have taken advantage of it increasingly. No doubt, after the improvements brought about by the Bill, we shall make still further use of it. I welcome in particular the check that will be kept upon the condition of the houses for the purpose of seeing that they are maintained fit for people to live in. With regard to the proposal that the contribution can be paid by instalments, I am sure that it will be a great advantage to landowners.
Objection has been raised to the Bill on the ground that it is entirely for the 1308 benefit of landowners, but I challenge the statement. The Bill does what no other Housing Bill does, in that it provides for agricultural labourers or people of similar economic status decent houses at rents they can afford to pay. The fault of a great many Housing Acts, admirable so far as they go, is that a great many people who ought to have houses are unable to pay the rents asked by local authorities. Under the Housing (Rural Workers) Act the rent is definitely restricted for 20 years within an amount that the agricultural labourer can pay. It is said that that has been done at the expense of the standard of accommodation provided, so perhaps I may be allowed briefly to say what test we apply in Gloucestershire in regard to that standard.
The applicant has to submit plans. Those plans go in the first instance to the rural district council and have to be approved by the Council's surveyor. They are then sent to the county council, and the county councillor for the district himself goes and inspects the house, studies the plans, and learns what changes are being proposed. Then, if he recommends that a grant be made, the application goes to the health committee of the county council, who consider the proposed improvements from a health standpoint; and if the application has the approval of the health committee, it then goes to the finance committee, who consider it from a financial point of view, and afterwards to the county council proper for final determination. We were told by the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin) that plans which had been approved by a rural council for one house were not approved by the county council.
§ Mr. Lipson
Yes. Presumably they were not approved because the county council was not satisfied with the standard of accommodation provided. That, I think, meets the objection which has been raised from the other side that this Bill may recondition houses, but when you have reconditioned them the houses are not fit to live in. But I have pointed out that in my own county—and it is confirmed that apparently the same is the practice in Carmarthenshire—the standard has to satisfy the county councilors for 1309 the area, and if their standard is a poor one then I think they must blame the people who elect them. But I think everything goes to prove that the standard is a reasonable one. Therefore I do not think it is fair to criticise this Act on the ground of the standard.
Then objection has been raised because some of the applicants for grants are wealthy people. I think it must be left to the individual to decide, if he is a wealthy man or woman, whether it is quite the right thing to apply for a grant or not. I hope that hon. Members opposite are not going to suggest that there should be one law for the poor and another law for the rich. Under the Housing (Rural Workers) Act the question of the financial position of the applicant does not arise. Therefore it is not right to judge the question from that point of view. I am not going to defend a rich man or woman making application on the ground, mentioned by an hon. Member who spoke just now, that it is not always easy to say whether a man is a rich man or not. I think in a county we usually know who are the rich people and who are not. I would approve the giving of a grant for one reason only, namely that on its merits it is justified, that it is going to provide accommodation which otherwise would not be provided.
May I point out that there is nothing in this Act which justifies the grant of money merely for landlord's repairs? If a grant is to be given, additional accommodation or improved accommodation must be provided. I submit, too, that the local authority is able to get a house at an economic rent comparatively cheaply from its point of view. It is much cheaper for the local authority to make the two-thirds grant up to £100 towards an alteration than to have to build a new house. On that ground also I think the continued operation of these Acts is to be recommended.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen raised the point as to whether a grant should be made to a smallholder. In Gloucestershire we have made grants to smallholders. The only test we have applied is whether a man's income as a smallholder is approximately the same as that of an agricultural labourer. That is the answer to the hon. Member's question, "If you can make a grant to a smallholder with 50 acres, why cannot you 1310 make it to a farmer with 6o acres? The answer is this, that you might be a smallholder with 50 acres and financially be no better off than an agricultural labourer. If you are better off, then you are not entitled to the grant and the county council would not give it; but if you are no better off, your economic status is that of an agricultural labourer, and therefore you are entitled to the grant.
I welcome the extension of this Act with the additional advantages proposed in this Bill. We have been considering to-day a matter of vital importance to the nation, because the preservation of rural England means also the preservation of the rural population of England, and I believe that the future greatness of England depends upon the preservation of our rural stock.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Johnston
The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health when he introduced this Measure this afternoon I am sure enjoyed himself thoroughly among his quotations of what somebody said in 1931 and what somebody said in 1926, and I am sure that had we lived in other times he would have re-echoed the famous election war-cry, "What did Mr. Gladstone say in 1886?" He set out to prove that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) held a different opinion on this matter from my late right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Adamson; and indeed the Minister was at some pains to indicate that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield held opinions at variance with those of my hon. Friends who sit with me for Scottish constituencies on the Opposition Benches. Let me disabuse his mind upon that point at once. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield holds precisely the same views as are held by 99 per cent. of hon. Members on this side of the House. Like many other steps in life this is a choice between two evils, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield has never disguised his view—and I share it —that it is absolutely foolish and wicked and wrong to provide from the public Treasury for the development of privately-owned property, that if the community is to make contributions to housing then the State should acquire part ownership, to the extent at any rate that it gives grants. If you like, it should take mortgages; but the community ought not to hand over 1311 funds from the public purse to private individuals, and selected individuals at that.
I would draw the attention of the House to one fundamental difference. The hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) touched upon the fundamental fact that under our housing laws we have given these particular proprietors the right to add 25 per cent. to their annual income on condition that they expend that 25 per cent. upon repairs to the property. No one knows better than the hon. Member that the vast majority of the proprietors of these houses are not expending the 25 per cent. increase of the rent upon repairs. They simply pocket the 25 per cent., and when a number of years have passed without any repairs upon these properties they fall into serious disrepair, and then these proprietors under this class of Measure go to the local authorities and say, "Will you please give us two-thirds of the total capital expenditure that we shall incur upon our property? We will pay the remaining third, and upon that third we shall be entitled to exact interest."
§ Mr. Johnston
That is what I am coming to in a moment. I am going to prove that so far as Scotland is concerned—and we have heard a great deal this afternoon about Scotland leading the way, showing the English how to do it—a committee has inquired into this matter and reported unanimously that on the evidence submitted there had been a grave waste of public money. That is the unanimous view of a committee the majority of whose members support the right hon. Gentleman and his Government. It is within my personal knowledge that properties which have fallen into disrepair have received public money for reconstruction, and that reconstruction has 'in reality been repair. They have got money for painting, for wooden windows that have been allowed to rot, and for putting on doors; and when we come to the Committe stage I trust that hon. Members who have spoken so enthusiastically about the Bill this afternoon will support us in the demand that a standard of regulations should be laid down by this House or by the Minister, and that no individual shall get a grant from public funds for reconditioning his property unless the property 1312 comes up to that standard. Surely that is not an unreasonable demand, and I trust that in that we shall have the support of the hon. Member for St. Albans.
The report of this committee, which was a committee inquiring into the subject in Scotland, discloses why many of us would not vote against the Second Reading of this Bill. I know nothing about the English conditions or about the Welsh conditions, but I do know something about the state of affairs in Scotland. I take one parish the parish of Tarbat in Ross, represented in this House by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Dominions. The committee took three parishes—Tarbat in Ross, Inverarity in Angus, and Jedburgh in the South. Here is what they got at Tarbat in Ross. They examined 223 houses, and of these, 120, or more than half, had no sanitary convenience of any kind whatsoever. The Kaffir kraals in South Africa are more provided with sanitation than the people at Tarbat in Ross, and, if the only chance that these poor people have in this generation of getting sanitary conveniences in their homes—I do not say they will get them—is through an Act like this, I, who enjoy the advantages of sanitary arrangements in my home, cannot vote against that chance of my fellow-countrymen getting sanitary arrangements in theirs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield says the same. He says that, so long as there is an odd chance of doing some good to workers in the rural areas, he would not take the responsibility of voting against this Bill. We are all agreed about that. But where we on this side differ is that we say it is infinitely preferable, if public money is being expended, that the public shall own the property, and we shall take all the steps available to us to induce local authorities to purchase property, or to get mortgages on property, and not, as we say in Scotland, to "grease the fat sow."
Two hon. Members who spoke a short time ago said that this Measure would help only the small property owner, but one thing that irritated any number of people in Scotland was that the wealthiest man in our generation, the late Sir John Ellerman, who, I believe, left about £40,000,000, had the effrontery to go to the county council of Aberdeen—an hon. Member for one of the Aberdeenshire 1313 Divisions supported the Bill this afternoon, but he never told us about the Ellerman estate—and get a cottage reconditioned at the public expense. Not only did that happen in Aberdeenshire, but I believe I am right in saying that down in Berwickshire the great house of Usher, well known in connection with the brewing industry, with properties in Berwick, actually went to the county council of Berwick and got public money for reconditioning their property. As far as I am concerned, on these matters I am for a means test, but at any rate, if I cannot get a means test, I am for a sanitary test, and, if regulations are not going to be propounded clearly by the Government as to a minimum standard for houses for which public money is to be provided, I, for my part, will cheerfully vote against the Third Reading of the Bill.
Clause 9 of the Bill says that in certain circumstances public money is going to be given for reconditioning provided that there is abatement of overcrowding. In Section 58 of the Act of 1936, a standard with regard to overcrowding is laid down. Will it be clearly stated here this evening that, as regards the whole of the public money that is to be given under Clause 9 of the Bill to subsidise private landlords in respect of abatement of overcrowding, at least the Government's 1936 housing standard will be followed? Can we have an answer on that point later? We do not want this matter dodged. Is there to be an overcrowding standard as stated in previous Housing Acts under which public money is provided, and a lower standard here? If so, many of us would take the most strenuous objection to any such procedure.
As to the question of waste of public money in Scotland, the right hon. Gentleman, when the Bill of 1931 was going through, said that he did not know of any in England. Does he know of any in England now? I understand he has had no complaints. In Scotland there are any number of complaints. I believe I am right in saying that the procedure, until the beginning of this year, was that a landowner might apply to the county council for a grant, that if the county council approved the work might be proceeded with, and that the Government or the Department of Health in Edinburgh only knew about the matter when the works were completed and a certificate 1314 was sent in by the county clerk, when the Government had to pay.
We want to know whether the regulations are going to be tightened up. We want to ensure that every house, so far as possible, gets a water supply, or no grant. I am not certain that it is possible absolutely to insist upon it in every case; I would not go so far as that, because there are shepherds' cottages away in the hills where it might be absolutely impossible to do it; but we want the most stringent regulations laid down, so that the odd case may not become the average. We want to know if drainage will be supplied before public money is handed out; we want to know if 'there are to be water-closets; we want to know if there is to be light—if the windows are to be of sufficient size. We want to know whether rotten damp houses, streaming with dampness and wet, are simply to be plastered over, or in some cases papered over, and public money applied for? On this matter there is no difference of opinion at all on this side of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield shares the opinion that all of us here hold. We are not going to vote against the Second Reading of this Measure so long as there is a chance of some of our fellow-citizens in the rural areas getting some of the amenities of civilisation, or a chance of them. But it is our duty, as an Opposition, and I trust we shall fulfil it during the Committee stage of the Bill, to take every step in our power to see that the public Treasury is not milked in the future, as it has been in the past, by a selected group of investors in house property.
§ 7.24 p.m.
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Wedderburn)
In view of the Amendment for the rejection of the Bill which appeared on the Order Paper, I had prepared myself to defend at some length the principles embodied in the Bill, but I think that, since hon. Gentlemen opposite have decided not to vote against the Bill, and in view of its general acceptance, at least so far as the Second Reading is concerned, in every part of the House, I shall be making better use of the time at my disposal if I simply confine myself to replying to the requests for information which have been made in the course of the Debate.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Stirling (Mr. Johnston) raised 1315 three matters with regard to which he said he would like some answer. First there was the question of the ability of very rich men to receive these grants; then there was the question of the standard with regard to overcrowding which would apply under Clause 9 of the Bill; and, finally, the right hon. Gentleman wanted to know whether the regulations under which these reconditioning grants may be received would be tightened up. The hon. Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George) also, I think, raised the first point, about the ability of men with very large fortunes to effect such improvements as are provided for in this Bill without any State assistance. The hon. Lady gave, I think, the example of Lord Nuffield, who has made large sums of money out of motor cars. The right hon. Gentleman opposite mentioned Sir John Ellerman, who made a large fortune out of shipping, and he also mentioned someone who had made very large sums out of beer.
If a man makes several million pounds out of shipping or motor cars or beer, and if he spends a small fraction of his fortune on purchasing an agricultural estate, I have no doubt whatever that he personally is able, not only to do all the improvements that are contemplated under this Bill, but to build a whole lot of new houses, without receiving any money from the State. All I would say is that the money to pay for it does not come out of agriculture. It comes out of shipping, or motor cars, or beer, as the case may be. The only difference is that, instead of the agricultural industry being subsidised by the State, the agricultural industry is being subsidised by beer, or by motor cars, or by shipping. In every case funds are provided from some nonagricultural source of wealth to supplement the economic deficiencies of the agricultural industry.
I suppose that the individuals to whom the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have referred either employ themselves, or get their money from sources which employ, enormous numbers of nonagricultural workers in the manufacture of motor cars or the building of ships or the brewing of beer. Their houses are subsidised by the State under the ordinary Housing Acts, according to the principle which Parliament has laid down, that we give subsidies for housing for low-paid 1316 wage-earners because we wish them to enjoy a higher standard of housing than that which they can normally pay for out of their wages. If you are going to say, in the case of rural houses, that because a man is personally very rich he is not qualified for this grant in respect of that small fraction of his possessions which is in an agricultural district, you are then denying to agriculture advantages which you do not deny to those engaged in urban and manufacturing industries.
Miss Lloyd George
Reconditioning is not subsidised in urban areas. It is only in the case of rural houses that reconditioning is subsidised.
I think it is analogous, because a reason for reconditioning is that it is more satisfactory to improve a large and old, well-established house in the country than to pull it clown and build a new one in its place. In the towns the same kind of conditions do not always apply. The next question of the right hon. Gentleman was about the standard of overcrowding under Section 9. Additional grants may be given to houses which have been already reconstructed under the Act to a smaller additional extent, in order to prevent overcrowding. The right hon. Gentleman wanted an assurance that the standard of overcrowding would be that laid down in 1936—I think in Scotland it is 1935. The answer is, Yes, it will be the ordinary overcrowding standard which is identical in both countries.
Let me say a word about regulations. As the right hon. Gentleman will remember, the report of the Committee on Rural Housing in Scotland has already been fully discussed more than once in this House—on the Scottish Estimates last Summer and also, I think, in a Debate on the Adjournment. My right hon. Friend and myself have gone into the matter at some length, so I do not think I need go into the whole of the report and our views on it again. It was made plain at the time that we were very grateful to the committee for pointing out that some reconditioned houses were not satisfactory in all respects. We also made it plain last year that we did not accept their inference that the Acts involved a grave waste of public money. If the house is not satisfactory in all respects; if it has, for 1317 instance, no indoor water supply and an additional room is built without putting in an indoor water supply, that house, from our point of view, is not in all respects fit for habitation, but, from the point of view of the people living in the house, it is preferable perhaps to have the additional accommodation without an indoor water supply rather than to have neither of these advantages. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of the circular issued by the Scottish Department of Health last July, after the report had been received. At the bottom of page 4, the Department say:The Housing (Rural Workers) Acts have played an important part in the improvement of rural housing, but the investigations carried out by the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee show that in a number of cases these Acts have not rendered the houses fit in all respects for habitation.It is then pointed out that assistance ought not to be payable except for dwellings that can and will be rendered in all respects fit for habitation. The next paragraph goes on to explain that in view of the Report, no promise to give assistance should be made until a statement has been submitted to the Department showing the number of rooms in the dwelling before and after the execution of the works proposed and the extent to which the dwelling will be brought up to modern requirements. We then go on to refer to certain sanitary conveniences which we regard as essential. [Interruption.] Yes, an inside water supply, and other conveniences, unless we are satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable to provide them. Most local authorities have always insisted on an indoor water supply, though a few have not. In the case of those who have not insisted on it, in those parts of their area where water is at present inaccessible, nothing at all can be done. That is one reason for prolonging this Act. In a few years, perhaps, a new county scheme may bring water to these districts, and reconditioning may then be done, whereas if the Act were to end now the chance would be gone for ever. Since the issuing of this circular the number of applications we have scrutinised amount to 468. Of these only 59 were not approved by the Department, another 97 were approved with some variations on which the Department insisted, and the remaining 312 were approved without any variation. These figures show that under the new 1318 arrangement by far the greater number of applications being made are satisfactory.
With regard to England, my right hon. Friend the Minister will, perhaps, be able to deal in the course of the subsequent stages of the Bill more fully with points that may be put to him. In the meantime, I may say that he intends to issue a circular in which advice will be given to local authorities on the design of the new houses, and it will include a section dealing with reconditioning, showing how to get best results. In his campaign for the improvement of rural housing, he is making a point of maintaining close contact with local authorities. It is his intention to include the working of the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts in the scope of this work. This Bill includes a condition to require that a house in respect of which a grant is given must be maintained in a fit condition, and the grant becomes repayable if this condition is not fulfilled. My right hon. Friend intends to emphasise the importance of good workmanship and sound standards of construction on every occasion.
In replying to questions asked by other hon. Members, perhaps I might dispose of purely Scottish questions first. My hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and West Aberdeen (Sir M. Barclay-Harvey) put two specific Scottish questions to me. He suggested that the maximum value of houses which qualified for grant should be raised from £400 to £500, and then he asked whether the value of the houses was in any way calculated with reference to the amount of money spent on reconditioning. We do not think it necessary to raise the amount to £500. As to my hon. Friend's question, the amount is calculated by the local authorities on the selling value, and has nothing to do with the amount of money spent on the house.
§ Sir M. Barclay-Harvey
In fact, I think the £400 is taken into consideration by some authorities. Will the Department make the position plain?
Yes. I am not sure if the instances my right hon. Friend gave were rejected solely on account of cost.
In the case of reconditioned houses there are restrictions 1319 of the rent, and these naturally reduce the selling value of the houses. If you have a house valued at £500, its gross rent is certainly more than £30—it is probably more like £40—and that would be beyond the means of an agricultural labourer. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that under the recent Housing (Agricultural Population) Bill 75 per cent. of the expenses incurred in making grants by local authorities is paid by the Exchequer in Lowland counties and 87½ per cent. in Highland counties. Under this Bill only 50 per cent. will be paid to the Lowland counties, and 75 per cent. to the Highland counties. Of course, the grant in respect of each house is twice as much under the former Bill. If a grant of £200 is made for the building of each house, and 75 per cent. is paid by the Department, the burden on the local authority will then be Under this Bill, the grant for reconditioning being £100, and 50 per cent. being paid by the State, the burden on the local authority will still be£50. It is calculated to work out at the same figure in each case My hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Rathbone) asked whether more use could be made of the Sub-section in the original Act which enables grants to be given in respect of drainage improvements to more than one cottage at the same time. My right hon. Friend the Minister would welcome action by local authorities on these lines, and the Department will certainly do what they can to encourage the practice.
§ Mr. Rathbone
My point was that in the ordinary way if the amount is to be less than £50 the grant is not paid, but it may work out, in fact, at less than £50 per house, but if you are taking two or three houses in a row you can nevertheless go forward, although the amount would be less than £50 for each.
My right hon. Friend will look into that, but, of course, the grant can only be made where a public supply of water by a local authority is not practicable.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
I would also like the Minister to look into the reverse point, with respect to amounts up to £100 for a row of houses, each brought in separately.
I think the hon. Member asked a question on that point. 1320 The grant is calculated separately in respect of each house. The conditions for the maximum grant are the same in those cases as in the case of an individual house. It is not to exceed £100, or two-thirds of the cost, whichever is less.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin) wished to know whether smallholders were entitled to receive grants under this Bill, and he asked for Clause 7 to be explained. Clause 7, of course, has nothing to do with the question of whether a smallholder can receive a grant. It provides that if the owner of a house which is let with land has reconditioned the house, and is indirectly charging more than the permitted increase of rent by the subterfuge of increasing the rent in respect of land the local authority may prescribe the amount of rent applicable for the land and the amount for the house. With regard to the question of the hon. Member about the ability of smallholders to receive grants, that will entirely depend upon whether their economic condition is similar to that of the agricultural labourer. If their economic condition is similar to that of the farm servant—if the size of the house and earnings are comparable to those of the rural worker—they, in exactly the same way as anybody else, will be enabled to receive grants, or the owners of their houses, if they are not owners themselves, for purposes of reconditioning under the Bill.
§ Mr. Hopkin
Will the same principle apply to a farmer, that is, an owner-occupier, of, say, a farm of about 80 acres?
I think that possibly, if it was an arable farm of 80 acres, the economic condition of the owner-occupier would be considerably superior to that of the farm worker, and therefore he would not be qualified. But if you had a crofter with 80 acres of hill grazing, his economic condition would probably not be superior to that of the farm worker. There are landholders in the Highlands with much more than 80 acres who will be entitled to receive grants under this Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) asked a question about mortgages arising from paragraph 30 of his own report, which I see baffled the ingenuity of himself and his colleagues. The conundrum which defeated the prolonged labours of these expert people has proved equally insoluble by the Government 1321 and we are not able to suggest any remedy. My hon. Friend pointed out that the local authority has the power, if it wishes, to purchase such a house and recondition it. He wanted to know under what Act it is possible. It is possible under the Act of 1935.
I would like to give a word of thanks to the Liberal benches, which at this moment seem to be more overcrowded than they usually are, for the valuable and much appreciated support they have given to the Government. I was most delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) of the pre-eminence of Devon in this matter, a county which, I believe, is pre-eminent in other ways as well. I am sure that in that county at least the administration which is being undertaken by local Liberals is highly creditable to their party. My right hon. Friend is grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey for the excellent work she has done on the committee which produced the English report, and which she has pursued with such studious diligence that she has even embraced within its scope a comparison between the Budget deficits of 1931 and 1938.
I am afraid that the far greater part of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), who opened for the Opposition, was concerned with a period during which I did not have the good fortune to be a Member of this House. He referred to the previous occasions upon which these Acts have been passed. He said that on that occasion he described a speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health as being characterised with his usual air of jauntiness and a few quotations. On this occasion on both sides of the House not only the jauntiness but also the few quotations have again been experienced. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Stirling talked about going back to the time of Gladstone, but I see that on the Third Reading of the 1931 Bill the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield again said: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.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st May, 1931; col. 2377, Vol. 252.]We seem to have had further examples this afternoon of these quotations and of 1322 some repetition. I am exceedingly sorry that all these matters are only history to me. But I heard with the most profound admiration the right hon. Gentleman's account of the unswerving rectitude with which he has always addressed himself to this subject. I only hope that, when I have been in this House for as long as he has, I too, shall be able to look back with equal pride upon a comparable record of unbroken consistency. In the meantime, let me repeat his former example by now asking the House to give a Second Reading to a Measure which will bring to great numbers of people in the country the enjoyment of those improved standards of comfort and accommodation which public opinion now demands, without destroying those external amenities which can seldom be replaced by any modern type of construction.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Captain Dugdale.]