HC Deb 16 May 1938 vol 336 cc143-57

Paragraph (e) of Sub-section (2) of Section two of the principal Act shall have effect as if at the end thereof the following words were added— and (without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provision)—

  1. (i) will, except where otherwise approved by the Minister on the recommendation of the local authority, contain a bathroom with a fixed bath; and
  2. (ii)will, as respects the walls or other partitions of the rooms used or intended to be used as bedrooms, comply with the requirements of decency."—[Mr. Greenwood.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Greenwood

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This new Clause is intended to amend the powers of local authorities to make grants or loans. In the 1926 Act, it was provided, in Section 2, Sub-section (2, e), that the grant or subsidy should not be given unless the dwelling was made fit in all respects for human habitation. It would be of advantage if the principal Act were amended to include certain other elementary human conditions. The first to which reference is made in the new Clause is that, except in special circumstances—and one can visualise special circumstances in remote cottages—there should be a fixed bath in a bathroom. As I said in the Second Reading Debate, the right hon. Gentleman opposed a similar proposal which I made in 1924, but I hope that now he will be good enough to accept the proposal, and to agree with the general case which we made on the Second Reading and which has been made in regard to several Amendments to-day, namely, that the reconditioned houses should conform to modern standards. The second point, which I think is one that will commend itself to all hon. Members, is that the internal structure of the cottage shall be such as to preserve the conditions of decency. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, as long as he remains with us in his present office, will do something to assist with regard to some of these proposals. I do not think he is necessarily in opposition to the principles of this new Clause, which I feel sure will commend themselves to him, and I shall be very glad if he can do something to meet us.

9.22 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

I think I can say at once, speaking on behalf of my Department perhaps for the last time, that we are in general agreement with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) in the objects which he has outlined and their achievement. I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that in this matter there is a difference between England and Scotland, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Which one?"]—the one who is now sitting beside me—has had to take exceptional steps in regard to the position in Scotland. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman will disagree with me when I say that the position in England is somewhat different. In England, the local authorities, whom we have trusted, as we would desire to do and as our democratic system allows, have carried out their work quite effectively, and one does not hear—I have not myself heard—of the complaints which one sometimes hears in Scotland. When the Housing Advisory Committee examined this matter and heard a very large number of witnesses, there were no complains in this respect as far as one can gather, in relation to England.

I remember that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield, in the course of the speech which he made in the Second Reading Debate, indicated that, in his opinion, there were certain steps which we might take in England, particularly in the direction to which he has referred this evening, and he indicated that we might do so by regulation or by communication with the local authorities. I think that in England we might very well continue the practice of trusting the local authorities, adopting the method that we have generally adopted, of being more of an adviser, a counsellor and a friend. I certainly had in mind—and I have no doubt my successor will take the same view—that so far as England is concerned we should lay special stress on some of the matters which the right hon. Gentleman has indicated to the Committee. In our communications with the local authorities I believe it is very important indeed that we should emphasise that the grants which are to be made under this Bill are not available for repairs. We should also say that houses for which grants are to be paid should not be merely sanitary and watertight, but should be satisfactory and comfortable homes.

I would, however, suggest—and I think the right hon, Gentleman took the same view when he was Minister of Health—that the precise works which are best adapted to secure this result must necessarily vary, and to a very large extent that depends on the circumstances of each case. Each local authority in England should apply its mind to the particular application that is before it. Quite recently in a communication which I made to the local authorities, and particularly in a pamphlet which, I think, has been found satisfactory and has been of some use to them, we have indicated what we regard as the essentials of a good house. But if we prescribe a minimum there may be a considerable danger of it becoming, in fact, a maximum, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that one of the objectives at which we should aim is the provision of a bath and the introduction of modern methods of sanitation.

I certainly had it in mind to urge the local authorities to do everything possible to induce owners to include these items among the works to be carried out where —I emphasise this—the local conditions of water supply and drainage permit it. But from the point of view of practical business and of obtaining the best we can for the agricultural worker we must allow the local authorities some latitude in dealing with proposals for the reconstruction of existing houses. I should be the last to suggest that we should deprive the agricultural worker of the opportunity of getting a house which possesses modern amenities because it does not possess them all. The difficulty I see in some of the statements made in the House on the Second Reading of the Bill—not by the right hon. Gentleman—is that if you made it a strict condition that a bath or a bathroom should be provided you would be very much open to the danger of an owner saying, "I am prepared to do this and that for the improvement of this cottage"—we will say putting in better windows, better ventilation and dealing with damp and that kind of thing; but if, in addition to that and as a preliminary condition you were to say, "You must also have a bathroom or a bath," he might very well turn round and say, "Well, all I am prepared to spend on this property is some £150, and I really cannot do more." If one took up that attitude I think the Committee will see that there is a real danger of a number of agricultural tenants not obtaining considerable improvements.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with the general indication I have given that we will endeavour to carry out in spirit what I think is the general opinion of the Committee in relation to the improvement of the housing of agricultural workers. I certainly think that good standards are as essential for them as for the dwellers in the towns, but I do see danger in hard-and-fast rules. My Department will certainly maintain the closest association with the local authorities, which I think is one of the best features of the work of the Ministry—both in the time of the right hon. Gentleman and now. It is an association not brought about by autocratic methods, but the local authorities are regarded as wise people who are endeavouring to help us. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will feel that in the statement I have made we are pursuing the best methods of securing the housing conditions for the agricultural workers which we all desire.

9.32 p.m.

Sir P. Harris

As usual the right hon. Gentleman is very persuasive, and I have sympathy with what he said about allowing latitude, but we have to be realists—he claims himself to be a realist. The real trouble of the last Act has been that the use of valuable powers has been largely confined to counties, such for instance as Devonshire, where they have shown great initiative and enterprise in using those powers and have produced a great improvement in the housing of the rural workers. In such an area we can leave almost complete discretion to the local authority; but on the other hand there are counties which are largely in the power of reactionary owners of property, who have very low standards, and if discretion is left to those local authorities I am afraid it will mean the continuance of the bad old standards of the past. I think we are all, including the right hon. Gentleman, agreed that we want to keep rural workers on the land and stem the drift to the towns, but the rural workers are entitled to the same standards as the town workers.

We had a great fight at one time for the fixed bath. I was responsible for carrying an Amendment on an old Bill. It was considered by some people on our side rather a revolutionary thing to introduce such a thing as a fixed bath into an ordinary cottage, but there is a stronger case for a bath in a country village than in a town, where there are public baths and washhouses within reasonable distance of the people's homes. On the other hand, in a rural village, if there happens to be a lake, stream or pond, that is the labourer's only chance in summer time of a real dip. With the discretion allowed in the proposed Clause —and it gives discretion to the local authority—I think it would be a good thing to get something of this kind into the Bill as a recognition that if old cottages are to be preserved—as I wish them to be because of their picturesque character—they must come up to modern standards, inside as well as outside.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Price

The suggestion has been made that this proposal would place undue pressure upon local authorities, but in my opinion no local authority which is at all progressive, would object to these conditions. On the contrary, I think that only the most backward authorities, or those which are in the hands of reactionary landowners, are likely to object. The Minister also seemed afraid of laying down hard-and-fast rules about these matters, but surely these requirements are essential if we are to have the minimum of decency in rural housing. The provision of baths and of proper partitions between rooms is essential to decent housing.

As regards baths, it may be argued that in certain districts water supplies are insufficient and that it would be difficult to meet this requirement where water is not laid on, but it would be possible, even where water is drawn from a well, to have a system of pumping the water into a tank on the roof and to provide a tip-up bath in one of the rooms. These baths do not take up much space and could be supplied from a cistern if the water was pumped up in the way I suggest. That is technically possible even where water is not laid on, and I do not see why these conditions should not be imposed. I am sure local authorities would have no difficulty in seeing to their enforcement. Of course, if there were exceptional circumstances which prevented these conditions being carried out, then those cases could be exempted with the approval of the Minister, but I think that necessity would seldom arise. Knowing the disgraceful conditions which prevail even now—though they were much worse in the past—both as regards proper water supply and the provision of proper partitions, it is time that steps were taken to expedite improvements of this kind, and I hope that the Minister will reconsider this matter.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I was disappointed with the Minister's pronouncement. He began by saying that it might be the last time he would address us on behalf of the Ministry of Health. I could not help thinking that he could hardly have taken a less appropriate way of bidding farewell to his present Department. I was alarmed when he proceeded to point out that conditions in this respect are worse in Scotland than in England. I suppose that is why the Secretary of State for Scotland is to be transferred to the Ministry of Health. I recognise that the capacity of English Tories is so poor that they cannot find, for a purely English office, an Englishman or a representative of an English constituency. But there was no need to rub in the fact that the new Minister of Health is receiving that appointment, because he has had experience of worse conditions than those which exist in England, and, therefore, may be expected to accept a lower standard than the present Minister.

The hon. and gallant Member for Kingston-on-Thames (Sir P. Royds) and I were, until recently, in a joint capacity, the largest landowners in the county of Surrey as members of the county council. I cannot imagine that our experience as landlords, was very different from that of the majority of agricultural landlords. We were again and again pressed by our tenants—the farmers—to repair and improve the cottages because, they said, "unless you do so, we cannot get a reasonable choice of labourers." Labourers in these days are very particular about the kind of cottages in which they put their families, and I am not at all impressed by the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the provision of a fixed bath would be the last requirement which would break the landlord's heart, when he came to ask for this subsidy. I believe the benefit of this Measure to the landlord is very considerable. It enables him to get a better choice of labourers. There is another consideration which weighs heavily with many landlords. It enables them to keep their tied cottages, and there are still many of them who know the benefits, from an economic point of view, of being able to bring pressure on the labourer by keeping him in a tied cottage.

I do not, therefore, accept the right hon. Gentleman's argument about what will happen if we ask for these things in England. I do not profess to know about Scotland. I know as little about Scottish local government as the new Minister of Health 'knows about English local government, and therefore I make no statement about Scotland. I shall doubtless have to listen later on to a Scotsman making statements about England with the usual dogmatism of his race. It does not follow that I shall be convinced by dogma. The argument of the right hon. Gentleman that you are likely to scare landlords off from making applications in England if you put in these stipulations does not impress me. I only wish that the right hon. Gentleman, in flying from his present office to another, had left in his last will and testament as Minister of Health something better for the English agricultural labourer.

9.43 p.m

Sir Ernest Shepperson

Hon. Members above the Gangway need have no fear about supporting the right hon. Gentleman in his determination to trust the local authorities, because I assure them that that trust will not be abused by the local authorities. Those authorities are strict. I, unfortunately, have had some experience of reconditioning cottages, and I found great difficulty in supplying all the requirements of the local authorities. Therefore, I assure hon. Members that they need have no fear of the local authorities as regards compelling landowners to recondition houses in a manner to make them suitable for the agricultural labourer. Hon. Members above the Gangway, to a large extent, represent the urban areas of England, and I suggest to them that in the case of cottages in rural areas, with the advantages of fresh air and the amenities of country life, the conditions need not be as stringent as in the urban areas.

9.45 P.m.

Mr. Tomlinson

The speech to which we have just listened is the best argument that could be advanced for this Clause. It proves beyond a shadow of doubt the necessity for laying down minimum standards. I was amazed that the right hon. Gentleman should suggest that there is a danger of the minimum becoming the maximum. We have heard that so often that it has lost its effectiveness. I am prepared to allow for that, providing your minimum is a decent minimum. If you can guarantee a decent minimum standard, I think you can leave the maximum to look after itself. What has been the minimum when we have left it either to the local authorities or to public opinion? The effect of leaving it there and not laying down standards has been that a very low standard has been, not accepted, but pressed upon the rural worker.

It is a strange but true reflection that until the local authorities did begin to lay down standards, the only people who had baths in their houses were the people who never got dirty. Perhaps the Minister might think about that. In the little village in which I spent the first 25 years of my life the man who had a bath in his house was the manager of the pit, who never went down the pit, but none of the colliers had a both. The same thing applied to the people who worked on the land. The gentleman farmer had a bath in his house, but none of the people who got dirty on the land had a bath, and not until local authorities began to lay down standards and insist as a condition that a house should have a bath did we begin to realise the necessity for workers, as workers, having baths in their houses at all. I claim that the man who is working on the land is entitled to this simple amenity; and in the second place this Clause is suggesting a common standard of decency to be insisted on.

Surely it is not too much to ask that, in an Act of Parliament under which public money is being spent, a definite minimum should be established. The Lancashire County Council have laid it down that unless a bath is provided, they will not consider a cottage ranks for grant. What the Lancashire County Council, in their wisdom or otherwise, have decided is a minimum requirement, surely we can put into an Act of Parliament, saying, as this Clause suggests, that without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions, this requirement should opera-ate. I do not think the Minister need worry about the minimum becoming the maximum. If he is prepared to put into the Bill a minimum for which payment will be made, I think he can congratulate himself on having done some little thing that is worth while.

9.48 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

I have some difficulty in trying to convince myself that the Minister is wise in offering resistance to this new Clause, because, after all, he was responsible for bringing before this House the 1935 and 1936 Housing Acts, which have had a very disturbing effect upon this country with regard to the question of overcrowding. Many of us think and feel that the standards that were then fixed are working very unfairly and very hardly in many of the districts which are trying to do their job faithfully. It seems to me that the Minister to-night, in resisting this Clause, in its application to houses for rural workers, has totally forgotten the standards for which he himself was responsible in regard to housing matters generally, and I hope he has not done so. I believe that a bathroom is just as essential to an agricultural labourer or a farm worker as to any other section of the community. What right has anybody to assume that a farm labourer, because he is a farm labourer, should be looked upon as a person to be totally disregarded from the point of view of the general provisions which apply to other people?

In the Act of 1935 the right hon. Gentleman was rightly concerned that the sexes should be properly divided, and as I understand this new Clause, it simply seeks to lay it down that before any grants are made for the reconditioning of cottages, the sexes shall be properly divided in those cottages. Surely that is not too much to ask. It is not too much to ask that the man who works on the land should have proper facilities for himself and his family to wash decently, and it is not too much to demand, I suggest, that the standard that the Minister himself set up in 1935 should be applied to these reconditioned cottages before the owner receives a grant. The Minister asks us not to press these people too hardly. They have not been really good people in the past. They have neglected to house their workers properly and to pay them decent wages, and they have, left undone all sorts of things, as far as the agricultural labourer is concerned, but now, if you put these old, dilapidated cottages into something like a respectable condition, we are not to press the landlord either to put in a bath or to divide the sexes within the cottage itself.

I cannot understand the right hon. Gentleman's reluctance to accept a Clause of this kind. I do not think the country will appreciate that public money should be given to private landlords to recondition tied cottages and that you should deny to the agricultural workers in rural England reasonable amenities within the reconditioned cottages. In these circumstances I think the Minister even now should reconsider the position. I have in mind four agricultural labourers' cottages, in not one of which is there a bath or are there reasonable partitions for the sexes; worse than that, although there is a public water supply within the village itself, not one of those houses has been put on the town water supply; and even worse still, there is no outside lavatory accommodation for one of those cottages. All the refuse from the cottages is simply deposited into the stream, at the bottom of the hill, out of which the cows drink their water. The Minister says that they are prepared to allow from £100 to £150 to be spent in putting these houses in order, but the best thing to do with them is to pull them down. The agricultural labourer ought to be housed under the same conditions as the urban dweller. The acceptance of this Clause would give some hope to the agricultural workers in the isolated parts of the country that this House genuinely desires that they should have the same facilities as are given in other parts of the country.

9.56 p.m.

Mr. Greenwood

I feel disappointed about the Debate to-night. We have been dealing with a deathless horseman who has been here and yet has not been here. We have a Minister who is not responsible and a new Minister who has been passing the time talking with the Lord Advocate for Scotland because their partnership is to be dissolved forthwith; and we have not had anyone paying any attention to the Debate. The right hon. Gentleman does not care what anybody says in the Committee to-night. He is really not interested, but before he leaves for higher regions I want to remind him of the history of this new Clause.

We have taken, on Second Reading and in Committee, a perfectly consistent line. In the 1923 Housing Act, with which the right hon. Gentleman was concerned, there was the requirement for a fixed bath. In the 1924 Housing Act we laid it down that the fixed bath had to be in a bathroom. The right hon. Gentleman kept me up all night on that occasion and I have never forgiven him for it. That has been the law of the land for all State-aided houses. We have consistently taken the line on this Bill that if public money is to be provided for privately-owned houses in order to improve their condition, then, as far as is reasonably practicable, this House ought to conform to the standards laid down in Acts of Parliament for houses for which public money is provided. That is a perfectly simple case, and I do not understand the right hon. Gentleman's reluctance to accept it. He has accepted no Amendment of substance to this Bill, and he is prepared now that he is going to regions 20,000 feet high —[An HON. MEMBER: "He will get a harp. If he gets a harp we shall never see him again. The right hon. Gentleman is shackling the country for four years with a Bill which will permit, indeed encourage, private landowners to utilise public money for their own advantage. The agricultural worker is as much entitled to decent amenities as the town worker, and if, as is still the law of the land in normal circumstances, there has to be a bath and a bathroom, for State-aided houses, why should it not apply to these people who are now utilising public money to improve cottages which will remain in their private ownership?

The second point with regard to requirements of decency has far more weight in rural areas than in town areas, although there are circumstances in towns which are very bad. Why should there not be decent bedroom accommodation? I opposed the Government on their overcrowding Measure, for, as I have said on more than one occasion, I would never agree to a standard of overcrowding which regarded the living room as a bedroom. That is not the problem in the rural areas. It is there the problem of the loft with no partitions. Is not the right hon. Gentleman prepared to provide a standard of decency there where public money is to be expended? We have had the best of the argument to-day so far,

and the right hon. Gentleman has put up no case. If the Committee care to divide against this new Clause and say that they do not think that the agricultural worker ought to have a fixed bath in a bathroom and that there should be no proper arrangements made for decency in bedroom accommodation, then they can say it.

Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 118; Noes, 191

Edmondson, Major Sir J. Lindsay, K. M. Russell, Sir Alexander
Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E. Lipson, D. L. Russell, S. H. M. (Darwen)
Erskine-Hill, A. G. Llawellin, Colonel J. J. Sanderson, Sir F. B.
Fleming, E. L. Lloyd, G. W. Sandys, E. D.
Fremantle, Sir F. E. Loftus, P. C. Scott, Lord William
Furness, S. N. Lyons, A. M. Shakespeare, G. H.
Fyfe, D. P. M. MacDonald, Sir Murdoch (Inverness) Shaw, Major P. S. (Wavertree)
Goldie, N. B. Macdonald, Capt. P. (Isle of Wight) Shepperson, Sir E. W.
Gower, Sir R. V. McKie, J. H. Shute, Colonel Sir J. J.
Grant-Ferris, R. Macmillan, H. (Stockton-on-Tees) Smith, Sir R. W. (Aberdeen)
Gridley, Sir A. B. Macquisten, F. A. Somervell. Sir D. B. (Crewe)
Grimston, R. V Maitland, A. Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Grittan, W. G. Howard Makins, Brig.-Gen. E. Spears, Brigadier-General E. L.
Guest, Hon. I. (Brecon and Radnor) Manningham-Buller, Sir M. Spens. W. P.
Guest, Maj. Hon. O. (C'mb'rw'll, N.W.) Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Stanley, Rt. Hon. Oliver (W'm'ld)
Gunston, Capt. Sir D. W. Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J. Storey, S.
Hannah, I. C. Mellor, Sir J. S. P. (Tamworth) Strauss, E. A. (Southwark. N.)
Haslam, Henry (Horncastle) Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest) Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)
Haslam, Sir J. (Bolton) Moore, Lieut.-Col. Sir T. C. R. Stuart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)
Heilgers, Captain F. F. A. Moore-Brabazon, Lt.-Col. J. T. C. Tasker, Sir R. l.
Hely-Hutchinson, M. R. Morris, J. P. (Salford, N.) Taylor, C. S. (Eastbourne)
Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P. Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.) Titchfield, Marquess of
Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan- Morrison, Rt. Hon. W. S. (Cirencester) Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.
Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth) Muirhead, Lt.-Col. A J. Wakefield, W. W.
Holmes, J. S. Munro, P. Walker-Smith, Sir J.
Hopkinson, A. Nail, Sir J. Wallace, Capt. Rt. Hon. Euan
Horsbrugh, Florence Neven-Spence, Major B. H. H. Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.) Nicholson, G. (Farnham) Ward, Irene M. B. (Wallsend)
Hulbert, N. J. Nicolson, Hon. H. G. Warrender, Sir V.
Hume, Sir G. H. O'Connor, Sir Terence J. Watt, Major G. S. Harvie
Hunter, T. Palmer, G. E. H. Wedderburn, H. J. S.
Hutchinson, G. C. Petherick, M. Wells, S. R.
James, Wins-Commander A. W. H. Ponsonby, Col. C. E. Whiteley, Major J. P. (Buckingham)
Jarvis, Sir J. J. Procter, Major H. A. Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.
Joel, D. J. B. Raikes, H. V. A. M. Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)
Jones, Sir G. W. H. (S'k N'w'gt'n) Ramsbotham, H. Wilson, Lt.-Col. Sir A. T. (Hitchin)
Keeling, E. H. Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin) Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel G.
Kerr, H. W. (Oldham) Rayner, Major R. H. Wise, A. R.
Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.) Reed, A. C. (Exeter) Womersley, Sir W. J.
Knox, Major-General Sir A. W. F. Reid, W. Allan (Derby) Wood, Hon. C. I. C.
Lamb, Sir J. Q. Remer, J. R. Wood, Rt. Hon. Sir Kingsley
Law, Sir A. J. (High Peak) Rickards, G. W. (Skipton) Wright, Wing-Commander J. A. C.
Law, R. K. (Hull, S.W.) Ropner, Colonel L. Young, A. S. L. (Partick)
Leech, Sir J. W. Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge)
Leighton, Major B. E. P. Rowlands, G. TELLERS FOR THE NOES—
Levy, T. Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R. Mr. Cross and Lieut.-Colonel
Liddall. W. S. Ruggles-Brise, Colonel Sir E. A. Kerr.