HC Deb 26 September 1944 vol 403 cc175-83

Considered in Committee, under Standing Order No. 69.

[Major MILNER in the Chair]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to make provision for temporary housing accommodation, and for purposes connected therewith, it is expedient:

  1. A—(i) To authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of sums not exceeding one hundred and fifty million pounds to defray expenses incurred by the Minister of Works in connection with the manufacture, construction or erection of structures to be made available to housing authorities for the provision of temporary housing accommodation.
  2. (ii) To authorise the Treasury to raise money for the purpose of providing sums to be issued as mentioned in the preceding sub-paragraph in any manner in which they are authorised to raise money under the National Loans Act, 1939.
  3. (iii) To authorise the repayment into the Exchequer, out of moneys provided by Parliament, of the sums issued as aforesaid, together with interest thereon.
  4. (iv) To authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of sums paid into the Exchequer as mentioned in the last preceding sub-paragraph and the application of sums so issued in redemption or repayment of debt, or, in so far as they represent interest, in payment of interest otherwise payable out of the permanent annual charge for the National Debt.
  1. B—(i) To authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of expenses incurred in the removal of structures, fittings or materials made available to housing authorities for the provision of temporary housing accommodation.
  2. (ii) To authorise the payment into the Exchequer of proceeds of disposal of articles removed as mentioned in the preceding subparagraph.
  1. C—(i) To authorise the payment into the Exchequer of sums received by the Minister of Health or the Secretary of State from housing authorities in respect of structures made available as aforesaid.
  2. (ii) To authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of expenses incurred by the Minister of Health or the Secretary of State in making contributions towards expenses incurred by housing authorities where land provided by them for the erection of structures to be made available as aforesaid is land of exceptionally high value."—(King's Recommendation signified.)[Mr. Willink.]

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

Do I understand that the Government are to insist on taking the Financial Resolution without attempting to make any reply to some of the criticisms which have been made? It seems to be a very strange procedure. The only people who are ever hurried in the preparation of legislation are Members of the House of Commons. We are expected to rush Bills, more or less through all their stages, on the same day, although Ministers have dilly-dallied and wasted months, and when Members raise certain questions we cannot even get replies. There is no hurry about this business at all. [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh!"]We know that there is need for temporary housing, but there is no hurry about the Bill. I and the whole House are prepared for the Government to take certain steps, and when the time comes we shall be ready to indemnify the Government for any absolutely necessary expenditure they may have undertaken. But this ought to have been done before. These powers could have been obtained before the Recess. It is a very strange state of affairs indeed. We ought to be told far more than we have been told concerning the financial arrangements in this Financial Resolution, because the sum of £150,000,000 bears no relationship to any definite figures. We have not heard the figures and we ought to be told what they are. An hon. Friend said that raw materials ought to be costed and went on to say that we ought not to waste our time. What guarantee has he that raw materials are to be costed? None at all.

Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)

I know that my hon. Friend is a watchdog and not a lap dog. We are here to see to it.

Mr. Bevan

We are at the present time trying to find out what forms of costing, what arrangements are going to be made, because obviously we are not going to have open tender. We are to have orders placed with particular films in a favoured condition and we ought to know who those firms are, what are the costings, and what steps are being taken to safeguard the public funds. Furthermore, if the cost of these houses is to bear any relationship to the rents charged for them, then people will be mulcted in higher rents in order to pay money over to private firms who ought never to have got in. Is it not our duty as Members of the House of Commons to find out whether the cost of the houses is reasonable, and whether the rents to be charged are reasonable?

An hon. Member talked about the situation at the end of the last war. I was very familiar with the situation at the end of the last war, for I was a member of a housing committee all the time and I know what happened then and what happened in between—that rents were charged for houses which half-starved the tenants. We are now being told seriously, without any attempt to find out whether the costs are reasonable, that an average of 10s. per house is to be charged, with rates on top of it. The rents will be highest, of course, in the poorer areas, because there, as has already been pointed out, the rate table values are lower and the rate table is higher. So in poorer areas the rents are going to be anything from 17s. to 18s. a house. Will men coming home from abroad be happy at being pushed into these houses, which many of them feel are unsuitable, and charged those rents, only to find out perhaps in six months' or a year's time, when the Committee on Housing Expenditure has got to work on the matter, that the rents are hopelessly high and the cost of the houses exorbitant because the House of Commons has taken no proper steps to see that public funds are being properly spent and tendered for? If hon. Members do not want to do their job as Members of Parliament they ought to resign, but they ought not to pass Bills in this slipshod fashion. Why, after all this time, does the right hon. Gentleman inform us that another Clause is to be added? I have never known what it is to be treated in such a fashion in all my life and I have never known Parliament to be so careless about its functions. I suggest seriosuly that the Government ought not to ask for the Financial Resolu- tion until they have provided the Committee with far more details as to the way in which this money is to be spent.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

It is proposed in the Financial Resolution that when the time comes to scrap these temporary houses the scrap value should be credited to the Treasury. Is it proposed to credit the local authorities with any of the scrap value, seeing that they will be called upon to make a substantial contribution?

Mr. John Wilmot (Kennington)

May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman before he replies to consider again a statement which I understood him to make earlier in the Debate and which is provided for in the last Clause of this Resolution? It authorises him to make contributions to the expenses incurred by local authorities where land has proved exceptionally expensive. I understood him to say that the contribution which he had in mind was limited to 80 per cent. of that extra cost above what he regarded as the normal cost. It seems to me that this is a very unfortunate proportion, and that really the whole cost of this extra expense ought to be borne not by the local authority but by the taxpayers as a whole.

The reason I put this to the Minister with the utmost earnestness is that the places where the maximum bomb damage has been done—the badly blitzed urban areas, the London boroughs and other places—are the very places where land will prove expensive. Therefore, it is the badly blitzed areas, particularly the urban boroughs of London, to which this applies. Great tributes have been paid by members of the Government to the courage and fortitude of the London public. It is a poor recognition of that spirit if they have to pay out of their own meagre resources—for their rateable values are sadly reduced by the bombing they have suffered—20 per cent. of this extra cost, which arises solely because of the bomb damage itself.

The provision of these temporary houses is no part of the permanent solution of the housing problem of these boroughs. They still have to shoulder the heavy burden of rebuilding their towns, and if they have to bear 20 per cent. of the cost of expensive land in London that may well be a crushing burden on them. Surely it would be more just and equit- able that the cost of providing this temporary accommodation, which has been occasioned entirely by enemy action, should be spread over the community as a whole, so that those who have had the good fortune to be relatively immune from bomb damage will pay a contribution towards those who have suffered most heavily. I put it to the Minister that this is a reasonable request. The Minister should meet the whole of the excess cost over the normal cost out of the national revenues. That is provided for in the Money Resolution, but it seemed to me to be limited by the statement which was made earlier to-day.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Willink)

I hope I shall be able to show the Committee that this is an urgent matter and that we are right in asking for this Financial Resolution now at the earliest possible moment. I would like to deal with one or two points which were made by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan). This preparation for reconstruction is a matter on which it would be quite normal for the Committee to approve pertain steps having been taken in advance of legislation. Most Members of the Committee went to see the first prototype house made early in the year, long before further types could be decided upon, and still longer before the cost of the houses and bungalows, to be produced at an uncertain date at the end of the war, could possibly be ascertained. There was an example of expenditure—expenditure incurred on that prototype—which could hardly be said to be incurred in the prosecution of the war.

Mr. A. Bevan

There is no reason why the Government could not have had the permission of the House of Commons for that expenditure.

Mr. Willink

There is a good deal of pressure on time, but if the. hon. Member is really suggesting that there should have been legislation in order to provide for the building of that prototype I think he is expressing a view with which the majority of the Committee would not be in sympathy. But it is not only with regard to production and matters of that kind that we need this Bill. I am sure the Committee will accept it from me that one of the most urgent matters is that the land to receive these bungalows, when they are produced, shall be ready, not only acquired but serviced too. It is a Clause in the Bill as it stands, together with another Clause of which we have given notice to-day, that we desire to have operative, not for action by the Government but for action by local authorities, applying to all citizens of the country on whose land entry may be made and whose land may be acquired by the process we indicated earlier to-day.

On those two matters there is real urgency and, in the very close consultation that I have had with local authorities on two occasions with regard to the proposals in the Bill, they have said with even greater stress, than on the financial issue:—"You must enable us to get land suitable for these bungalows at the earliest date." It is not a question of weeks, or a month, or two months, but of something like six months to survey, acquire and service sites for these bungalows. That is perhaps the most urgent matter of all. Criticism of a vigorous kind has been made that it is slipshod and shocking at this date to be introducing a new Clause. Need I really deal with such a contention as that? The Committee know that we have been in consultation with local authorities and, if the local authorities make a reasonable suggestion which appeals to us as one not adequately covered by the Bill as first drafted, is it to be said that it is an indication of incompetence that the Government intimate that they are going to move on that suggestion?

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

Surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman realises that the allegation of being slipshod arises out of the very fact that on a matter which is now urged to be of such vital importance and urgency the Minister responsible for handling this urgent problem never thought of it until after he had prepared his original Bill and consulted the local authorities. Why did he not think of it before?

Mr. Willink

If the hon. Member is suggesting that omniscience is supposed to reside in the Government he is making a suggestion which I do not believe any of our constitutional theories support. I, as Minister of Health, am, I think, saying what all my predecessors have found, that in matters of this kind, particularly in the field of housing, which is a function of local authorities and not of the central Government, one expects to receive, and does receive, relevant and valuable assistance from the local authorities.

Mr. Silverman

I rise at once to rebut the charge that I ever accused the Government of omniscience. I am not doing that, but I am saying that here is a matter which ought to have been obvious, as it was to the local authorities, who will have the principal part of the job to do. They brought it to the Minister's attention, and he now agrees that it is vitally important and urgent, so that we must deal with it now. Surely it is obvious that one cannot build even temporary houses unless there is the land to put them on. The Government's handling of this part of their scheme and the necessity they find themselves under at the last moment of giving notice of a new Clause on Second Reading is a confession of complete incompetence and of slipshod handling of an urgent problem.

Mr. Willink

I do not propose to argue the point further, except to correct the hon. Member on a question of fact. The suggestion made by the local authorities has not been found to be obvious. In fact, it has been modified as a result of discussion and another arrangement has been arrived at which will be moved tomorrow. The question of the rent to be charged for houses has never found a place in any housing legislation, as far as I am aware. The actual rent remains under this legislation, as under our housing legislation as a whole, a matter to be fixed by the local authorities. When the cost of the bungalows is uncertain, as it must be when there are four types and the date of production is still in the future, my hon. Friend's suggestion is not a reasonable one. I think the hon. Member for Kennington, (Mr. Wilmot) will agree that the point that he raises is entirely open on the Committee stage of the Bill, because everything that he urges is covered by the Financial Resolution.

Mr. McKinlay

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has not dealt with the point I raised.

Mr. Willink

I am sorry—it was by inadvertence that I omitted to deal With my hon. Friend's point. His point was, as I remember it, that there should be some provision in the Financial Resolution and the Bill dividing in some proporton any scrap proceeds on the property. I venture to think, and I suggest to the Committee, that that is not really a practical proposal, provided it is known that the scrap will go to one or other of the partners. It is a matter which, instead of being left to the complicated procedure of dividing the spoil in the Bill itself, will be taken into account in the arrangements made under Clause 3.

Mr. Cocks

Before we depart from the Financial Resolution there are certain questions I would like the Minister to answer and which the Committee is entitled to have answered. We have been told that the Government have ordered jigs and tools for the manufacture of these bungalows. Can he say how many jigs and tools have been ordered or it will be expected will be ordered in the future? Are they only the jigs and tools required for the manufacture of the Portal type and not for any other? If that is the case, does it not give the Portal type a preference over other types? I understand from the Minister of Production that the Government will own the jigs and tools. Will they then have to lease them out to various firms who will pay a rent for them, and how can factories obtain them? Are there enough of these jigs to be supplied to firms other than those mentioned by the Minister? Will there be an over-plus so that other firms can make the bungalows? I would also like to ask what charge it is proposed to make to the local authorities for these bungalows? We have not been told that. If non-steel types are manufactured at a lower cost than the Portal bungalow, will they be supplied to the local authorities at a lower cost so that the local authorities will be able to charge a lower rent? If a local authority prefers a non-Portal type will it be able to get it? Finally, it is not clear yet what proportion of the cost of these things will in the end have to be borne by the local authorities and what proportion by the Treasury. These are a few little queries which I would like the Minister to answer.

Mr. Willink

My hon. Friend rightly referred to "queries," but I doubt whether his adjective "few" or his other adjective "little" were appropriate. I can hope to answer only certain of his queries at this stage. On the question as to the extent to which local autorities will be able to make an effective choice between the three or four types that have been mentioned to-day and any further types that may be produced after further research, the essence of the matter is to produce the maximum number of these bungalows at the earliest possible date. We propose to invite an expression of preference from every housing authority which makes a request for these bungalows. We guarantee that we shall comply to the utmost possible extent with those preferences as expressed, but if they all ask for Portal steel bungalows and we have, by that date, properly and wisely produced other types, it is obvious that they may not all be able to get what they want. We shall give them what they want so far as we can, but the allocation to any particular authority must depend upon the number produced and the types that we have available.

With regard to the jigs and tools, I cannot answer the actual question as to how many have been ordered, but I can tell the hon. Member and the Committee that no jigs and tools, in the sense in which that phrase is properly used, are required for any of the other three types, which can be inspected by hon. Members tomorrow. They are required only for the Portal house. They are, of course, required also for the kitchen unit. So far as arrangements for supplying jigs and tools to various manufacturers are concerned, I must point out that the production side is not within my Departmental competence, and I respectfully suggest that the hon. Member and the Committee might consider this to be a point of detail which might be left over for to-day.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow.