HC Deb 16 July 1941 vol 373 cc625-47

Order for Second Reading read.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. Johnston)

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

It has fallen to my lot on each of two successive days in this House to propose a Measure to relieve distress among the working classes. Yesterday I proposed a United Kingdom Bill increasing the benefits and widening the classes of beneficiaries in National Health Insurance. To-day—and I propose to be as brief as I was yesterday—the Bill deals with the predicament in which many thousands of people now find themselves as a result of war damage to their dwelling-houses. Before the war is over their number may run into a million. The Bill applies to Scotland only. The counterpart Measure for England and Wales is already well on its way to the Statute Book.

On 1st September, 1939, Parliament enacted a Measure called the War Damage to Land (Scotland) Act. The main purpose of it was to provide that any interested party might apply to the sheriff court for modification of any agreement as to rent or ground rent because of war damage. That provision obviously did not meet the difficulties of tenants who had taken their houses upon a short let or tenancy, which is the situation of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. When a tenant's house is damaged, he may be told that if he does not pay the full rent, he can beheld to have broken his con tract and that his remedy is to go else where. In these clays, there is really no elsewhere, so that, in effect, the Act of 1939 gives no protection to the small tenant. Generally speaking, rent is not, in practice, exacted in Scotland for any period during which houses cannot be occupied. Landlords and factors' associations in the West of Scotland have circularised their members to that effect. It may be that there are isolated cases where rent has been exacted, but I have made diligent inquiry in Clydeside to find such cases, and I am assured—

Mr. Buchanan (Glasgow, Gorbals)

I am in substantial agreement with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Has he applied to the sheriff clerk who deals with rent cases, more particularly when summonses are taken out?

Mr. Johnston

I have not done so. Town clerks would know in the area I have mentioned whether instances have been reported in which landlords have exacted rent for periods during which houses were not occupied, and to the best of my knowledge no case has yet been submitted to the Scottish Office. I believe that the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) has a letter, which in his view tends to prove the contrary. I hope he will give it to me; and, as I said yesterday, I will have immediate inquiry made. My point now is that, as a general practice, no rent has been exacted for periods when no occupancy has taken place. On the other hand, the attitude of the houseowner has generally been that where there has been occupancy, even if the house had been damaged and accommodation had been lessened, full rent should be paid.

The Bill is on the general lines of the English Measure, but has been drafted to deal with the situation existing under Scottish conditions. It provides that there shall be cover for all houses up to yearly lets, that is, weekly, monthly, quarterly, six-monthly and yearly. The English Bill deals only with quarterly tenancies, both for Rouses and for business premises. Our Bill does not provide for business premises. We believe that houses with rents over £90 and all business premises should continue to go to the sheriff, when there is a dispute between landlord and tenant.

By Clause 1 of the Bill, where the rent of any dwelinghouse is under £90 and where the tenancy is under a year, and where the house is unfit as a result of war damage and is not occupied, no rent shall be paid. As I have already said, that is the general practice now; and the intention is to make that practice explicit. Where there is an unfit house occupied in whole or in part, or where the accommodation is substantially reduced, then the rent will be reduced either by agreement between the landlord and the tenant or by the machinery which is provided in this Bill.

The next Sub-section to which I draw attention deals with the recovery of forehanded rent. I think my attention was first directed to that problem by the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan). Cases have arisen in which the tenant, having paid his rent in advance, finds that his house is blitzed. We provide that the porportion of the rent which he has paid fore-handed in respect of the period during which he is no longer able to occupy the dwelling, shall be returned. This is set out in Sub-section(3). Subsection (4) defines occupancy or, rather, it defines what is not occupancy. It is not occupancy, for instance, if a tenant merely has some furniture or other goods in the damaged house, or has possession of the key or visits the house occasionally for removing or looking after any furniture. If a tenant sublets and if the subtenant occupies the house or any part of it, that is held to involve an act of tenancy. Sub-section (5) deals with the question of fitness. Supposing a house has been damaged, it is to be regarded as fit only if it is repaired to such an extent as is reasonably practicable, having regard to the circumstances prevailing in the locality and if it can be reasonably regarded as fit for occupancy.

In the event of disagreement between the landlord and the tenant on whether or not a house is fit for occupancy or on whether or not it has been repaired to such an extent as is reasonably practical in view of the circumstances prevailing in the locality, then, under the following Sub-section (6), the dispute goes not to the law courts but to a man of skill outside. In England it is the local authority which decides in these cases and in the event of a dispute between the local authority and the tenant the matter goes to the law courts. By Sub-section (7) of this Clause—this is not in the English Bill—provision is made whereby a tenant may apply for a review of a certificate that the house is fit. He may apply for cancellation of the original certificate on the ground that his house has again been bombed or blasted. A man might get a certificate on one day and have his house damaged again on the following day. Under this Bill a tenant may apply at once for a review of the certificate, or he may apply for a review of a certificate because the repairs done to the house can no longer be said to make it fit. He may apply on those grounds at any time for a revision of the certificate, and he may apply after three months' time for a review of the certificate on the ground that further repairs are now reasonably practicable but have not been carried out. The man of skill, again, may revoke a certificate

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

Who is to be the man of skill?

Mr. Johnston

I will come to that point later. This is a rather complicated Measure to explain and I would prefer to take these points in order. Under Sub-section (8) of Clause 1 general directions may be issued from time to time by the Secretary of State for Scotland, and the men of skill must have regard to those general directions. For example, it will be necessary to give directions if there is a shortage of labour or of certain materials in a particular locality. Clause 2 of the Bill provides for the appointment of these men of skill to whom I have referred. It provides that Such number of persons being registered Architects, or Fellows of the Chartered Surveyors' Institution or having other qualifications which the Secretary of State may deem suitable shall be appointed to a panel from which the men of skill are to be drawn. I should mention that all the expenses in connection with these men of skill are to be paid by the Treasury. No expense in this connection falls upon either the tenant or the landlord in having any dispute settled. By this method we think that we avoid any semblance of injustice or unfairness. If the local authority were to decide, it might be held that in some instances it was judging its own cause, because a considerable proportion of houses are owned in Scotland by local authorities, and in some cases sanitary inspectors or surveyors or factors might be considered by the tenants to be prejudiced. On the other hand, we think it is unnecessarily cumberous and costly and in all ways inadvisable to take these disputes to the law courts. The law courts might have difficulty in deciding what degree of habitability a house has achieved. The sheriff might require, in such cases, himself to appoint a man of skill. The tenant would require, possibly, to lead evidence to counter the man of skill; the landlord might be raising questions also and this would all have to be settled in the sheriff court. We think we avoid difficulties and delays by the method pro- posed in the Bill. I believe it to be the case that no question of any reduction in rent has, so far, been settled by the sheriff court in Glasgow under the Act of 1939, although it is now some three months ago since there was considerable damage to houses in the West of Scotland. Clause 3 brings in tenants under the Rent Restriction Act who might otherwise be legally held to be outside the protection of this Bill. It might be held that a tenant under the Rent Restriction Act is a tenant with an unlimited let, and therefore not a tenant coming under the Bill. This Clause says that all such tenants are to be protected. Clause 4 provides that relief from occupier's rates, if given to the landlord, must be passed on to the tenant. The remaining Clauses of the Bill are merely machinery and definition Clauses.

I hope the House has grasped the essential features of this Measure. If I have failed to be sufficiently explicit, I am sure my hight hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate will be able to explain with greater clarity and precision any points I have failed to make clear. The essence of this Measure is that we have adopted the principle of the rent court— a rent court worked by a single arbiter and at no cost to the disputants. We believe and hope that the bulk of the arrangements, both as to habitability and as to reductions in rent, will be made by agreement between the landlords and the tenants, and that only a very small proportion of cases will fall to be settled by the arbiter, but we have avoided cluttering up the law courts with disputes as to fitness and degree of habitability upon which we believe they are not best suited to adjudicate. What would the sheriff do if he were asked to decide such a question but appoint a man or men of skill? We have provided both landlord and tenant with the means for expeditious and cheap settlement of disputes as to habitability and reduction of rent, and I therefore commend this Measure to the House.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

The House is indebted to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland for the clear outline of this Bill which he has given to the House, and I must thank him for it. The only point about which I myself have felt dissatisfied was that he did not seem "to me to justify the Title of the Bill. He did produce a precedent for this Title, but he made it clear that the Act of 1939 had features very different from those embodied in this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman himself knows something about historical research, and I am quite sure that the historian of the future, trying to find out what was done in respect of war damage to dwelling-houses in Scotland in the war years, will look in vain for some real guide. In looking for Titles of Bills it would never suggest itself to the historian that this Bill, when it becomes an Act, is really concerned with war damage to small dwelling-houses in Scotland. I think we are entitled to have a Scottish Bill in this connection. It is well that Scotland should not be involved in a United Kingdom Measure. We have our differences in Scotland, and do not seek to accentuate them, but it is well that there should be this special provision in a Scottish Act for this particular purpose.

It does not seem to me to be necessary to say a very great deal on the Bill at this stage. I know that some of my hon. Friends have in their minds Amendments which they would like to move to specific Clauses of the Bill, and I can assure the right hon. Gentlemen that when these Amendments come forward on the Committee stage they will be put forward with the idea of helping him in the task that he has undertaken in providing this protection and method of adjustment for damage to dwelling-house property. In my judgment, therefore, the Committee stage of this Bill will be much more important than the one upon which we are engaged at the present time. I echo the hope expressed by the right hon. Gentleman that the machinery provided by this Bill will not have to be used to any great extent. What I mean by that is that I hope the appeal to the man of skill—and I commend that as something better than the otherwise inevitable appeal to the law courts—will not be necessary in the vast majority of cases. Two alternative methods are provided in the main operative Clause of the Bill: the method of agreement and the method of adjustment through the intervention of a man of skill to decide between landlord and tenant. These might be described as the co-operative method and the competitive method, and I am sure I have my colleagues with me in declaring that we stand more for the co-operative than for the competitive method. While that is true, we hope that the arrangements made in this Bill for the bringing in of an independent arbiter will meet the position in a very excellent way.

I think the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that up to the present time there has been a tendency—almost universal—not to charge rent for houses which have been rendered uninhabitable by enemy action. That is all to the good, and I hope that that spirit will be carried forward even after this Bill has become an Act of Parliament and has provided for any difference of opinion between landlord and tenant to be adjusted by the man of skill, without any expense to the two parties. I would commend the idea of agreement, because I am certain that with the best will in the world there must be some time occupied in making the necessary adjustments of a difference between landlord and tenant. It is much better that the spirit of goodwill should prevail, and that the parties should get down to their own differences and adjust matters in a proper way by agreement. I hope that when- the right hon. Gentleman comes to appoint his men of skill he will be fortunate in the choice he makes, and that they will enjoy the full confidence of those for whom they have to work. I hope the work they do will be such as to give confidence in them and in their impartiality.

It seems to me that the explanation we have had of the Bill has been an admirable one. We shall have the opportunity of going into the Bill in more detail when we come to the Committee stage, but in the meantime we welcome the Bill and the principles which my right hon. Friend has laid down. I, for one, do not seek to stress the differences between this Bill and the English Bill. I think this is a Bill admirably suited to meet Scottish requirements, and, that being so, I have pleasure in welcoming the Bill now before the House.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

I do not wish to make a speech but to make a single request to the Minister who is to reply to the Debate. This Bill deals with the position of the tenant of damaged property; it deals very fairly and justly with him, and it is right that he should be safeguarded. I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman did not complete the picture he gave by saying just a word or two to explain what is being done to safeguard the rights of owners of these houses. I am speaking of a constituency, East Fife, in which there are a good many quite poor people, men and women, who own houses which they have let to other people. We know here that when the house is damaged there is a War Damage Act which gives them compensation, and I feel it would give a balanced picture of what is being done if, when the Minister replies, he would remind Scotland of the privileges, advantages and rights that the Bill secures for the owners of these houses. We here know what they are, but it would be helpful if these people also were made aware of them.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

I want to take this opportunity of thanking the Secretary of State for Scotland for this Bill, as it affects my constituency, because if is going to affect thousands of my constituents now. There are thousands of homes destroyed in my constituency, and they are affected at the present time. I will put into the hands of the Secretary of State for Scotland not merely one statement proving to the hilt the correctness of my statement that the factors at the present moment are charging rent for houses not yet occupied. In respect of houses that have been blitzed out since March, notice is now being sent to people that they have to pay the rent from March before they get into the houses. I am very glad to welcome this Bill, because it will put a stop to this. It will legalise the statement which has been made for the Secretary of State for Scotland that this will not be tolerated. I do not know what the Secretary of State for Scotland is going to do to the factors. He says he has been in contact with them. The paper I held up to him yesterday from Hacking & Paterson is signed by David Paterson, who is chairman of the Factors' Association. It asks for payment of rent. The Secretary of State for Scotland says in this House that he has been in contact with the Factors' Association and that they assure him they are doing nothing of this kind. I will hand that document to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I hope he will see to it that instructions he gives to these men of skill are in writing, and I hope these men will be architects. All manner of individuals will be negotiating for this job, and I want an architect put on the job. At the present moment, although the Secretary of State for Scotland has given instructions to the architect who is in charge of first-aid repairs in Clydebank, the pressure is so great, both through the lack of labour and the anxiety, which I am encouraging, of the folk to get back to Clydebank— thousands are anxious to get back—that the work is being scamped. I do not know that "scamping" is just the right word, but the regulations which have been laid down by the Secretary of State for Scotland are not being fulfilled. People are being asked to go into houses again that do not comply with the regulations laid down by the Secretary of State for Scotland. The reason I welcome this man of skill, as he describes him, is because I have had bitter experience, particularly in Dumbarton, where the local authority say there is not a house unfit for human habitation, although there are houses that have been condemned by everybody but them. They have been condemned time and time again for years, so, therefore, in my own particular case, I am very glad that it is not being left to the local authority to decide whether the houses are fit or otherwise. As has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers), the opportunity will present itself for us of analysing this Bill more at a later stage and, if necessary, putting down Amendments, but, in the main, I welcome the Bill.

Mr. Buchanan (Glasgow, Gorbals)

It would be rather childish if I did not say that this Bill was an attempt to meet a difficult situation. I welcome it as a real attempt to meet a situation which is somewhat difficult and, in many respects, more difficult in Scotland because of the great tenement dwellings than in most parts of England, and difficult because of our systems of tenancy. But I am not going to become lyrical over the proposals, because I think that time and experience will be the test of whether this Bill is all the success claimed. For instance, there is in the Bill a completely new departure in the men of skill. One has got to see how it works, how (the men of skill approach the problem, how human and understanding the)' are in the terribly difficult task they are to undertake. A great deal will depend on the type of men they are, their approach to the problem. I do not want to be taken as saying that the courts in the past have been altogether unfavourable. In my experience, taking courts, on the whole, over a long period of years, sheriffs in my own city have, with a fair amount of decency, tried to carry out the law. While I accept the new position, because I think this is a new situation and that a new method has to be tried, I only want to say that I do not always take the view that the courts are the wrong way of settling a problem. This is an experiment well worth trying.

I wish to refer to two matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood), and, with all deference to him, I differ from him on one of them. There are capable working men who have spent all their lives building houses, who might be first-class men to decide whether a house is habitable or not. I trust that the Secretary of State for Scotland will not shut his mind to the appointment of a first-class tradesman who has been used to building and repairing houses. I would agree with the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs that in one or two cases the spirit of the agreement made by the house factors has been violated. In one case I myself went to the sheriff court. I know that you, Sir, would rule me out of Order if I criticised the sheriff. I make no criticism, but the sheriff of Glasgow has decided that rent is payable for bombed houses. That, at any rate, is the information which was given to me in the courtitself—it may be wrong. If it be true, I hope that the Bill will be retrospective, so that any decision of that kind may be dealt with. Obviously, it would be unfair, where a judge has given a decision and a tenant has paid, that that tenant should be treated differently from another tenant. The factor in that case is not a member of the House Factors' Association, so it would not be fair to blame the association.

In this case, I wrote to the sheriff's clerk, who is always reasonable in his dealings with me. For many years it has been my practice not to run to the Minister with every case that comes to my notice, but to try and negotiate with the officials concerned locally. In this case, I wrote about a tenant occupying a bombed house. I would have expected that at least the clerk of the court—I am not referring to the sheriff's clerk—would have put my letter to the association and have seen that the point was examined, but in my absence from the court, which was due to the fact that the train from London was late, the case was dealt with. The tenant, a woman, was tongue-tied. Hon. Members know that a person appearing in court for the first time is very often inarticulate. It is a very awe-inspiring thing to appear before a court. The sheriff granted a decree. I had then to make the best arrangement I could, because the decree had been granted. I will furnish the name of the factor and of the tenant if it is necessary. In the main, my own dealings with the organised house factors have not been bad.

This is a new Measure; time and experience will test its results. I remember that in the old days of the unemployment agitation there was a famous provision, "not genuinely seeking work." That caused more heart-burning, more feeling, than almost anything I have known in this House. On the face of it, the rule was not a bad one. It provided that a person should not get benefit if he was not genuinely seeking work. The trouble arose over the type of person who was employed to approach applicants and to examine their cases. One of the keys to the working of this Act will be the type of person put on to approach those people who are bombed out of their houses, and who sometimes have injury and ever death in their homes. I ask the Secretary of State to see that the people he employs are not merely people who understand what is fair and what is not fair, but people who understand something of the people of the districts in which they work. If he does that, the Bill should be a success, because we want to mitigate the sufferings of these people as much as possible.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I think that the point I wish to raise will be in Order, but I know that you will at once inform me, Sir, if it is not. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers) objected to the Title of this Bill. I do not object to it. I agree with nearly everything that has been said by the hon. Members who have already spoken, but I want to put one point, on the rural aspect of the Bill. This is a question of administration. I hope that the Scottish Office intend to take steps to meet damage which is likely to be caused to standing crops by incendiary bombs. That is a most important point. It has been raised by way of Question in the House, and I hope hon. Members will continue to press it on every occasion, and that the Scottish Office are giving the matter very serious attention. The farming community are seriously exercised about it. I am told that there will be only a few nights in the year when it will be possible for much damage to be done in this way, but when it is possible the Luftwaffe will undoubtedly try their hardest to "do in" our standing crops, as I hope we shall do our best to destroy theirs.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I regret that in this Bill, simple as it is, it has apparently not been found possible to deal with owner-occupiers. Owner-occupiers were encouraged by the actions of this House. Tens of thousands of people are owner-occupiers, not because they desired to be, but because they were compelled to be, when no provision was made for the well-paid artisan or the lower middle class in ordinary housing legislation. They have been provided for in another Act. These persons are not able, during the time that they are not in occupancy of their own houses, to meet the commitments imposed upon them or for which they have contracted and to pay rent for alternative accommodation. Someone may say that they can get billeting allowances, but in the main they are people who would not apply for a billeting allowance. The restoration of property is something which has exercised the mind of the Department in Edinburgh and has presented difficulties to those who own the houses. Possibly the Lord Advocate may say something about that when he replies to the Debate.

The use of the phrase "reasonably practicable" seems to be becoming a habit in Acts of Parliament. The man who coined that phrase ought to have an honour conferred upon him by the State, because it consists of two of the most elastic words. No two persons can interpret them in the same way. The Secretary of State himself showed that something could happen, even in connection with this simple Bill, that would make the standard of fitness wholly different in Clydebank from that in Glasgow. The Bill says A dwelling-house which has been rendered unit by war damage shall be deemed to be fit if it has been repaired to such an extent as is reasonably practicable having regard to the circumstances prevailing in the locality. The circumstances prevailing in Clyde-bank are that slaters are doing plaster work, and they are not as smart at doing plaster work as they are at doing slaters' work. In Glasgow the plasterers are doing the plaster repairs, and 75 per cent, of the blast damage is glass and plaster. It would appear, therefore, that a house would be declared reasonably fit in Clyde-bank because of the peculiar circumstances in relation to the supply of a particular type of labour. The standard would be different in Clydebank from what it would be in Glasgow. I am sure that there is no desire that such should be the case, and I hope that the Department which will deal with the matter when the Bill becomes an Act will be reasonably practical in the attitude they take towards the whole question. I regret that I cannot go into ecstacies on the question of the appointment of an architect to determine when a house is reasonably fit for human habitation. It is rather remarkable that no local authority ever employs an architect to determine whether a house is unfit for human habitation under the ordinary housing legislation. They would never dream of appointing a member of the Chartered Surveyors' Institute. The surveyor is a very clever fellow. He can quantify and measure jobs and determine values, but he could not tell me at first glance whether the angle tiles of a house were broken or not. The surveyor could not tell me whether, where broken angle tiles had been covered up with plaster, a house was damaged or not, and the possibility is that an architect could not do so either. The architect is a very admirable man in his place, but in how many hundreds of cases have those of us who have had practical experience of the building industry had to bring the architects down to ground level when it came to a question of working to the plans they themselves had prepared? That in no way takes away the responsibility of the architect or of the surveyor.

I admit as the Secretary of State has explained to us, the difficulty about using machinery for determining what constitutes a simple dwelling. Is that any reason why that machinery should be ruled out altogether? I suggest that the Secretary of State might find ways and means, in consultation and where desirable, to delegate to the local authority the power to put the persons on to this work of determination who ordinarily do this kind of work. I speak with some experience on this question in Glasgow. As an ex-convener of the Glasgow Housing Committee, I had more trouble with the closed compartments of other departments of the Corporation than I had with outside bodies. Our own town planning sub-committee could give us more pains in the head than any other body. Some of our members sat on both committees, and they hamstrung you on one committee for what they could not do to you on the other. Is the fear at the back of the mind of the right hon. Gentleman, that local authorities who own so many dwelling-houses would be acting as arbiters and owners at the same time? I am not in the least concerned about the authority in Glasgow where the compartments are so watertight and where each department has such a regard for the other that the difficulties which he anticipates would not show upon the surface at all.

I am frankly disturbed, and I say that without offence either to architects or surveyors, that they should be called in to determine whether a house is habitable or not. One of the paradoxes of the other housing Act is that a house, according to the sanitary authorities, could be a perfectly habitable dwelling, while the city engineer could determine that the building was a dangerous building. You can live inside, but it is dangerous to lie against the outside of the building. I have no desire to make things more difficult for my right hon. Friend, and he knows that, but I am not a bit enthusiastic about the appointment of architects and surveyors as the persons who are to determine whether a house is habitable or not. I believe that if you keep the architect's pencil sharp, he will go on drawing lines and circles and keep you amused until the end of all time, but I would like my right hon. Friend to put words into the Bill—if they are not there already—that will not definitely rule out the bringing in of the sanitary department. When all is said and done, the man who is trained to deal with buildings should determine whether they are habitable or not. He must know something more about them than the man who merely draws the plans. He must have practical experience of the building, from the drains to the chimney pots, and he could tell us all about it. With these one or two observations, and the hope that the Secretary of State will keep in mind the points I have made, I want to commend the Department for having produced such a simple Measure to deal with a most difficult problem.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. J. S. C. Reid)

Since war damage first came to Scotland on an extensive scale there have been many hard cases, and there has been a great deal of loss, but there has also been a very great deal of the spirit of accommodation and willingness to share each other's losses, and accordingly the task of the framer of this Bill has been made all the easier because he started from such a pleasant atmosphere. May I say that I welcome and appreciate what was said by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers) in regard to the likelihood of that spirit of mutual accommodation continuing? The intention of this Bill is not to supersede mutual agreement in any shape or form, but rather to encourage it, and I hope and believe that mutual agreement will in the future, as in the past, solve almost all the difficulties "which arise from time to time.

That being the atmosphere, and Members in all parts of the House having welcomed the principles of this Bill as calculated to solve, so far as it is possible to do, all outstanding problems, I think I should be saving the time of the House if I restricted myself to dealing with the specific points which have been raised. Any point which is put down by way of Amendment will, I can assure the House, receive the most careful consideration. One or two Amendments of a drafting character will probably have to be proposed from this bench, and the present Measure is open for consideration in every relevant way. The hon. Member for Linlithgow raised the question of the Title of the Bill. Well, the machinery Clauses are not confined to the particular subject matter of the small dwelling, but have more extensive application, and accordingly the Bill has to be wide in Title although the greater part of it deals with a limited class of property. Questions were raised by the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) and the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) with regard to the position of owners. The rights of owners were subject to extensive consideration in connection with the War Damage Act, and elaborate, and in some respects, at least, generous, provision was made for solving their difficulties. I do not think, from what I know of the matter at present, that there is any room here for distinction between the rights of owners of property of the class to which Clause 1 applies and the rights of owners of other property, which has either a higher rental or which is let for a longer period or, indeed, is occupied by the owner himself.

It would be out of Order now to go into any extensive examination of the rights of those owners, but Acts have been passed to enable local authorities to relieve them of rates in suitable cases; they get their repairs done by the local authority and are paid for proper repairs they do themselves. I do not for a moment see what additional benefit could be properly given to owners within the scope of this Bill. Therefore, I leave the subject of owners and owner-occupiers as one which can hardly be brought within the general purposes of this Bill. The hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) raised two points. The first was that he feared there might be a number of cases where rent was being demanded for past occupation. I observe, in the instance to which he referred yesterday, that the demand apparently was for fore-hand rent for future occupation. I think there may be some misunderstanding in this matter, and I am not prepared to express any view about it until the hon. Member produces—as he has undertaken to do—the correspondence, so that it can be examined. I can assure him, however, that we shall do our best to clear up the matter when we get the details.

Mr. Kirkwood

This is the document which was sent from No. 3, Hume Street, Clydebank, on 13th June, 1941, to Mrs. Cecilia Gillespie, c/o O'Donnell, 6, Greenavenue, Kirkintilloch—that is the place to which she has been evacuated— and it reads as follows: — We shall be pleased to have early settlement of rent due by you for house at 5, Bruce Street, Clydebank. The amount due to 28th May, 1941, in advance, is £6 1s.—Yours faithfully. Hacking and Paterson. This woman has not been in the house since March, yet she is being asked for rent to be paid up to May.

The Lord Advocate

I do not want to go into details of cases until I know the particulars, but this case will certainly be inquired into. It may be a case where rent is being asked in advance for the current quarter. I do not know, but, as I have said, we shall look into this question, and if the hon. Member knows of other cases and will give us details, I can assure him that we shall look into them too. Up to date, however, my right hon. Friend has no details of any case of this character.

Mr. Kirkwood

I have given the information time and time again, and always the answer is that inquiries will be made. The town clerk knows nothing at all about the business.

The Lord Advocate

We have received one case from the hon. Member, and I have already assured him that there will be inquiries into the case of Mrs. Gillespie. If he has any more cases to bring to our notice, we will make inquiries about them.

Questions were then asked concerning the instructions or directions which would be given to the man of skill. I think that matter is fully covered in Clause 1, Sub-section (8), where there is provision for my right hon. Friend to give general directions from time to time to the man of skill, although, of course, there will be no attempt to direct the man of skill as to what he is to decide in a particular case.

Mr. McKinlay

Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell us what will be the directions?

The Lord Advocate

That question brings me to the other point that was raised by the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay). He asked questions about the repair standard. If he will look at Clause 1, Sub-section (5), he will see that there is to be a doublebarrelled standard. First of all, the house has to be made reasonably habitable. That is a minimum below which it will not be permissible to go. Over and above that, the directions may provide that, where there are labour and material available, there is to be a somewhat better standard. It is at this point that the directions come in. Nobody is going to permit a direction to lower the general standard of habitability, but in certain cases that standard may be able to be improved upon, because there may be available material and labour which enable first-aid repairs to be done rather better than usual. If those factors are present, directions can be given to the man of skill not to be content with the ordinary minimum standard of habitability, because there are material and labour available to do a little better. Directions will be given to that effect if and when those conditions exist. If the hon. Member has any other proposals concerning a different kind of standard that could be applied in the very difficult position following an air attack, I should be glad to consider them, but it seems to me that there must be a minimum standard below which it is not permissible to say that a house is habitable. It would not be right, however, to say that that is to be the universal standard, because it may be possible to do better in particular cases, and therefore, it seems to me that the principle on which the Subsection is drawn is the right one. I shall be glad to consider any suggestions in that respect.

I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) express his confidence in the Sheriff Court. I should never willingly acquiesce in taking a case away from the court because the court cannot deal with it. That is not the reason these cases are taken away. The court can deal with them, and deal with them well, after a time, but if there were many cases it is clear that, that court having to take evidence in each one of them, the time consumed before one got to the end of the cases might be very long and the expense considerable. There is all the difference in the world between somebody coming in, looking round and seeing whether the place is habitable, water-tight, its roof repaired, and so on, and having evidence from two sides in a court about the condition of the house. The second course would take hours, whereas the first would take minutes. It is for reasons of expedition and cheapness that this new procedure of the man of skill has been adopted.

There is no attempt to limit the people available as men of skill to those professions mentioned in Clause 2, Sub-section (2), that is to say, architects and surveyors. It is specifically provided that the Secretary of State can accept any other qualification which he may deem suitable. He may, if he likes, accept the qualification of the working builder referred to by the hon. Member for Gorbals, or the sanitary inspector or other official referred to by the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire. As far as the Bill is concerned, there is no reason why he should not do so, and I am sure he will consider each qualification and each proposal on its merits when he sets up the panel after the Bill becomes law. There is no limit either to the specific qualifications or to the number of people who may be put on the panel. There is, therefore, room to consider all these proposals immediately after the Bill becomes law.

Mr. Kirkwood

Will the Lord Advocate tell us why it is that the standard of first-aid repairs which the Secretary of State for Scotland has given, at any rate as far as Clydebank is concerned, has not been put into the Bill?

The Lord Advocate

It is very difficult to put a standard in the Bill, because the standard may have to be raised at some time and it may need to be modified in the light of experience. I do not think we can tie the hands of my right hon. Friend to specific proposals of that kind. After all, at one time there may be plenty of plasterers and it may be difficult to get joiners, and at another time the position may be the other way round; and it may be necessary to have different arrangements to cope with a given situation concerning men and material which faces one in any area after a particular attack. I should very much deprecate any attempt to lay down a hard-and-fast standard. If the right people are appointed and the right directions given, as I venture to believe they will be, the standard of habitability can be applied from house to house with comparative ease, because it is not a very difficult thing to assess. I think it is, much better that the matter should be left fluid and at the discretion of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. McLean Watson (Dunfermline)

With regard to the man of skill, will the Lord Advocate tell us a little more about the panel that is to be set up? Will it be drawn from every district in Scotland, or will there be only a small panel drawn from Edinburgh and Glasgow, to which all cases will be submitted? I hope to have an assurance that the panel will be drawn from all parts of Scotland, because there are different conditions in different parts of the country, and the local architect or surveyor has a better knowledge of local conditions than a panel drawn from selected areas would have.

The Lord Advocate

I think my right hon. Friend will make every endeavour to get representatives from all districts and parts of Scotland. At this time, it is not always easy to get qualified men who have time available for work of this character. It may be that in some districts it will be difficult to find the right men, but I assure the hon. Member that every endeavour will be made to select the panel from various areas and not confine it to men from one or two large centres. The hon. Member for Gorbals asked for a decision about rent. I do not know the circumstances of the case, and I could not make any general statement of the present law, which varies very much according to the circumstances. If he will give me particulars about the case, I shall be glad to consult him about it. The hon. Member then raised the question whether the present Bill should be made retrospective. He knows that one gets into immense difficulties as soon as one makes any Act of Parliament retrospective. I need not go into the details, because they are common knowledge. Of course, if the necessity is sufficiently great to require retrospective legislation, it must be made, but I should be very much averse to making a Bill retrospective unless there were an overwhelming necessity for taking that course. So far, I do not think any such necessity has been shown in this instance. If facts put by hon. Members to my right hon. Friend show such a necessity, then no doubt the matter will receive consideration.

Mr. McKie

As I was allowed during my speech to refer to incendiary attacks, perhaps I may have an assurance on that subject?

The Lord Advocate

I think I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend, so far as his fire-fighting capacity is concerned, will do everything in his power. I cannot say what the other services may be doing, but I am sure they will also do the same.

Mr. McKie

It is a very important point.

The Lord Advocate

I believe that I have now covered every point which has been, raised. I will therefore conclude by saying that careful examination will be made of any proposals which are put forward, either directly to my right hon. Friend or by way of tabled Amendments, but I hope it will be found that few Amendments are required, because I think it has been shown by this Debate that the general principles are sound and that there is, in the details of the proposals, an answer to most of the difficulties which have been raised.

Mr. Gallacher (Fire, West)

I have two points I should like to raise. The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) asked for someone to be appointed with the maximum of human consideration. I think that is necessary too, but we should start that process at the top. When the Lord Advocate replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirk wood), he said that his attention had been drawn to the case. He picked up a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT and said he would consider the matter when the hon. Member let him have any correspondence in connection with the case. The fact is that the hon. Member gave him the correspondence in a supplementary question he put yesterday. By this time the Lord Advocate ought to have been able to report that action had already been taken against the chairman of the Factors' Association. Why has not the Lord Advocate not been able to report that some action has been taken? The hon. Member did not promise to send any correspondence, but read it out to the House. I am certain the Secretary of State for Scotland will understand what it means to an ordinary housewife to receive a letter of that kind. It means that she will be unable to sleep night after night, and that she will be worried to death as a result of receiving this communication. If the Lord Advocate had understood that, the moment his attention was brought to it he would have sent a wire telling his officials to go immediately to that association and stop this process. Time and again I have known mothers of families who have received particulars of this kind driven almost out of their minds. Just imagine a woman, blitzed out of her house, receiving a demand of this kind. She has not a penny, and yet she believes she has to meet this demand for £6. She does not understand the power behind the demand or the authority behind it; it looks like a legal document, and it drives her nearly crazy. And yet the Lord Advocate tells the hon. Member that he will look into the matter when he receives the correspondence, in spite of the fact that my hon. Friend plainly stated it to the House yesterday. I hope the Lord Advocate will immediately instruct the association to withdraw the letters which they have sent to these people.

My second point is this: According to the statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs, it appears there is a standard laid down for Clydebank. Why should not that standard be laid down in the Bill in the form of a Schedule? If a minimum standard were laid down, it would not prevent a higher standard being operated at any time, and if there is a standard applied to Clydebank it should be put in the Schedule to the Bill. Clause I states (6) If on the application of the landlord or the tenant a man of skill nominated in accordance with the provisions hereinafter contained issues a certificate that the dwelling-house has been repaired to the extent mentioned in the last foregoing subsection the certificate shall while it remains in force be conclusive evidence that the dwelling-house is fit. (7) It shall be competent for the tenant to apply for a review of the certificate on the ground that either—

  1. (a)the dwelling-house has again become unfit either by reason of war damage or because the works of repair carried out before the issue of the certificate are no longer effective; or
  2. (b)further repairs have been reasonably practicable since the issue of the certificate and have not been carried out; "
It is stated quite definitely and categorically that "it is fit." That should be amended. A house should be deemed fit only when repairs had been carried out in accordance with the minimum standards set down in the Schedule. I earnestly request the Lord Advocate and the Secretary of State for Scotland to give consideration to these two points. The Bill appears to express a good intention on the part of those responsible for the Scottish Office, and I hope that that good intention will be made as effective as is possible by accepting the suggestions which we have put forward to-day.

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 the next Sitting Day.— [Mr. A. Young.]