HC Deb 19 October 1944 vol 403 cc2545-67

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Amendment proposed: To leave out from "be", to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House in respect of the new Clauses and new Schedule standing on the Notice Paper in the name of Mr. William Morrison."—[Mr. W. S. Morrison.]

12.10 p.m.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

I rise to object to the recommittal of this Bill in respect of the proposed new Clauses. I do not think that the extra time allowed for the consideration of the new Clauses affects my argument at all, because these Clauses have been drafted so hurriedly during the last week. I would say at once that I regret that this House, in view of the obvious difficulties that lie ahead, did not agree to the sagacious course indicated by the Prime Minister a week ago last Friday, when he suggested that the Bill should find its way to the Statute Book without the compensation Clauses, and that another overtaking Bill should be introduced, after mature consideration and in good time, to complete, but not to hinder, the work of the first Bill. The Prime Minister, speaking with prophetic wisdom and with an almost unrivalled Parliamentary experience, pointed out that any Government that made eleventh-hour changes would only bring difficulties upon their heads if they indulged in patchwork and compromise. I was impressed then, I am convinced now, but this House, led by the suggestion of the right hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick Lawrence), decided to recommend a different course. That course, in the opinion of many of us was, not only fraught with unforeseen consequences to the Bill, but fraught with the possibility of breaking the unity which is so essential and necessary when so many of our fellow countrymen of all classes freely bleed on foreign fields.

This hurried attempt at compromise is full of the probability of injustice and hardship to the long-suffering citizens of our blitzed and blighted towns, this ill-considered attempt at a solution of a problem of the greatest complexity dealing as it does with the fundamental asset of any stable society, this undue haste on a question teeming with innumerable and unforeseen pitfalls may well result, not only in inequity to those who most need help and whom this Bill is meant to relieve, but, in spite of all, may be to the advantage of the few, but miserable men, the speculators, who endavour to exploit the sorrows of their country. Therefore, on behalf of, and with the authority of, most of my colleagues on this Bench, I beg the Government, for the reasons I have given, not to proceed with the recommittal of this Bill, but to go ahead with the Third Reading of the Bill as it now stands.

12.15 p.m.

Mr. A. Greenwood (Wakefield)

I profoundly disagree with every word that has fallen from the lips of the hon. Member for Southampton (Dr. R. Thomas). This is now an occasion for a little straight talk. This is an ill-starred Bill. We have had the Uthwatt Committee's Report in the hands of Members for a very long time, but up to now, the Government have not been able to make up their minds what to do about it, though quite clearly a Bill based on the Uthwatt Report ought to have been on the Statute Book before the present Bill was introduced. We have put the cart before the horse, and that is one of the real difficulties arising from this Bill. Moreover, the Government have given long consideration to the terms of this Bill These have met with a certain amount of opposition from certain quarters of the House. I would remind hon. Members of what has happened in the past. It some of my hon. Friends here become a little obstreperous, the schoolmaster himself comes down and threatens the House with a Vote of Confidence. If, on the other hand, there is some sort of Conservative revolt, the Prime Minister comes to the House with a proposal that the awkward part of the Bill should be deferred to another Session. I say, quite definitely, that if there is a successful attempt to divide this Bill into two parts I shall Vote against the Third Reading. We cannot, in any circumstances, accept what is now in the Bill unless at the same time we clear up the question of compensation.

There are now some new Clauses on the Paper; I am very glad that they are there, and that the Bill is to be recommitted, because in my view it is vital that we should get on the Statute Book this Session some Bill, and a Bill as good as we can make it. The House more or less accepted the proposal of a price ceiling for land at 1939 values. We on these benches have submitted with considerable reluctance to its becoming a standard and not a ceiling. Now, further concessions are to be made in the new Clauses, concessions which, in my view and in the view of many of my hon. Friends, go much too far. I wish my right hon. Friend to tell us what the new concessions to agriculture and the new concessions to owner-occupiers—a term which now seem to cover an enormous proportion of the people of this country and certainly all the big multiple firms—will impose on the local authorities by way of additional burdens. With some reluctance, I would be prepared, subject to some amendment, to accept the principles of the Clauses—I say with some reluctance—but I am bound to inform the House that neither I, nor my hon. Friends, can accept any further concession in an upward direction which would mean even greater burdens on the local authorities.

That is, more or less, all that I wish to say at this stage, except that I do not believe that my right hon. Friend has really dealt effectively with the land speculator. I would like to see some firmer action taken, and no doubt that point will be discussed on the first proposed new Clause. I wish to reiterate that we cannot agree to a division of the Bill; that we cannot agree to any further concessions during the remaining stages of the Bill, and that it is our hope that the Bill will go on to the Statute Book, broadly, in its present form.

12.20 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

On the Second Reading of this Bill I was a very severe critic of it and I was called to account because I afterwards voted for the Second Reading, but I did so on the definite understanding that I reserved the right, if the Bill was not improved along the lines of the criticisms put forward by the local authorities, that I should vote against it on the final stage. But all through the various stages of the Bill, I have felt that we were dealing with an urgent problem, and that vast areas of the country were waiting impatiently to know what was to be their fate, and I was amazed that the hon. Member for Southampton (Dr. R. Thomas)—of all people, representing a devastated area—should be prepared to ask his constituents to wait for some indefinite period.

Dr. Thomas

I was acting, as I feel, in the best interests of my constituents. I thought that what I proposed would be the best for them and the corporation in the long run because there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in Southampton who might suffer and will suffer if an improper Bill is passed.

Sir P. Harris

I doubt whether the hon. Member represents the large majority of his constituents. I cannot believe that they are prepared to wait for a solution of their problems, or redevelopment and the rehousing of their people, to some distant date in the next Session. Many of us have given support to the right hon. Gentleman and have been prepared to sit round a table to try to work out the difficult problem of arriving at a compromise, because we thought it was a national responsibility on us to see that these devastated areas—Southampton, Plymouth and my own constituency in London—should know how they are to be redeveloped and replanned and get the people rehoused. I am amazed that my hon. Friend, claiming to speak on behalf of so-called Liberals, should have taken up the attitude he has taken. No one would suggest that compromises are ideal, because it is always a question of give and take, but my right hon. Friend and the Deputy Prime Minister have endeavoured to get a reasonable arrangement, so that occupiers of land shall get a fair deal and, above all, that millions of people living in our cities should know that their future has been provided for by Parliament, without delay.

12.23 p.m.

The Deputy Prime-Minister (Mr. Attlee)

I would appeal to the House to consider the time factor. The Government have done their utmost to meet the views of the House. We wished to get this Bill, but found the House was against it. We have yielded to the wishes of the House, which I think was a reasonable course, and it would be a great pity if at this stage of the Session we were to waste a whole day in merely talking about time, and possibly getting into quite irrelevant scraps on old unhappy far-off things, And battles long ago. rather than getting on with the business. I suggest that, if it is desired to have a decision on the point now before us, the House should proceed to a Division on this Amendment, so that we should not waste time, because, after all, the country, and particularly the people in the blitzed areas, are expecting the House to get on with business and not to engage in a scrap over procedure.

12.25 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, South)

Naturally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Divide."]—No one wants to cause undue delay, but the speeches made so far have not been time-wasting speeches. I have not agreed with them, but they have dealt with certain principles in the Bill. The enthusiasm of the right hon. baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) arose, I suppose, from a desire to show how young some of the members of his party are, having regard to the antiquity of their new recruit; but here we are faced with difficult Clauses, and quite obviously the right hon. baronet has not read them, otherwise he would not have made his onslaught upon the hon. Member for Southampton (Dr. R. Thomas). The hon. Member for Southampton realised that, unless we pass satisfactory Clauses, no local authority will dare to operate the Bill. Exactly the same thing happened as a result of an unfortunate Section in the Housing Act, 1925. It was felt that the compensation offered in connection with clearance schemes was inadequate. Certain houses which were getting beyond the age at which they should continue to exist, were to be demolished, but the owners were to get only the bare site value. As a result of that provision slum clearance was held up in dozens of towns, because the local authorities would not inflict the gross injustice which would have fallen upon the owners through the inadequacy of the compensation. The same thing will happen here.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is now discussing the merits of the Clauses. They can be discussed in Committee, but it is not in Order now.

Sir H. Williams

I am sorry, but I was led astray by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). He made comments on the merits of the compensation Clauses and I thought he was very disorderly, but I felt that I might be permitted to sin in such distinguished and right honourable company. However, I will not pursue the matter in view of your Ruling, Sir. Personally, I think there is an overwhelming case for not proceeding with the Clauses. There is no real need for hurry. The local authorities can proceed with other work in this connection. There is a great deal of preparatory work to be done before they begin arrangements for the purchase of a single property—months will elapse—and therefore the compensation Clauses could be settled much more carefully, and without the heat which they are engendering at the moment. If we had a Measure containing the compensation Clauses passed in the next four months, there would be no delay whatever to any of the necessary town and country planning.

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)

The hon. Member said, I gathered, that certain work could not be carried out under the Housing Act, 1925, because—

Mr. Speaker

I have already told the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) that he cannot, at this stage, go into the merits of the new Clauses.

Mr. Woodburn

The question I was going to ask the hon. Member was whether, in the light of his argument, local authorities would proceed under this Bill if they did not know what the compensation terms were to be.

Sir H. Williams

It is clear that the first duty of local authorities when this Bill reaches the Statute Book will be to set their staffs to work on drawing maps and making other preparations, and that will take many months, particularly now, when most of them are short of the requisite technical staff. Therefore it would not matter to them if they did not know the precise terms of the compensation Clauses for three or four months. On the other hand, it seems to me of the utmost importance that wherever compensation Clauses are passed, they should be regarded as acceptable to that great mass of the population to which my right hon. Friend referred. He said that these Clauses extended to the great mass of the population, which is a realisation on his part that the interested people in compensation are not a small minority of the population; they are the majority of the population. I was very glad to hear that slip on the part of the right hon. Gentleman. He did not realise when he said it that he was wrecking the greater part of his own case. This is not a case of a few big landlords. They are not the people affected. The people affected are some half the population who, either as owner-occupiers or, alternatively, as the owners, in many cases, of—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is getting very wide of the Motion.

Sir H. Williams

No one likes disobeying, but we are considering at this moment whether we shall take steps to make it possible to put these Clauses into the Bill. If we refuse to re-commit, none of these Clauses can go in, and, therefore, to some extent, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield pointed out, whether we pass this Amendment or not must depend, to some extent, on our attitude to the Clauses, though I agree we cannot discuss them in full. If I were convinced that these Clauses were thoroughly bad, then my duty would be to vote against re-commital. If I think they are good Clauses, then my duty is to vote for re-commital, and the vote we cast must depend, to some extent, on the Clauses which are not before us.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Bill immediately considered in Committee.

[Major MILNER in the Chair]

  1. NEW CLAUSE.—(Assessment of compensation in connection with acquisition of land for pubic purposes by reference to 1939 prices.) 41,229 words