HC Deb 21 November 1947 vol 444 cc1524-69

Order for Second Reading read.

1.35 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Key)

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

The purpose of this small Bill is to increase the funds required to meet the cost of the temporary housing programme. Hon. Members may recall that at present the sums which the Treasury may issue out of the Consolidated Fund for defraying the cost of manufacturing and erecting temporary houses is limited to a total of £200 million, the original sum of £150 million provided by the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, hav ing been increased by £50 million by Section 5 of the Building Materials and Housing Act, 1945. This short Bill provides for the total to be increased by £20 million to £220 million.

Before dealing with the Bill, it would be well if I give the House some broad outline of the scope of the programme, and the position now reached. The number of temporary houses allocated to local authorities by my right hon. Friends the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland is 156,667, 124,511 for England and Wales, and the remainder, 32,156, for Scotland. Of that total some 54,000 are of the aluminium type, for which the Ministry of Supply undertake responsibility for manufacture and erection. The Ministry of Works were responsible for the remaining 102,000, made up of some seven principal types. The number of temporary houses still remaining to be completed at the end of last month was 24,184. Of those, some 17,500 were aluminium, houses, which should be completed in England and Scotland by May next year. There remain something like 1,900 of other types in England and Wales, and 4,700 in Scotland. In England and Wales the work should virtually be completed by the end of next month. In Scotland, however, they are unlikely to be finished before the end of next summer.

The total cost of the temporary housing programme is now estimated to be £217 million, but in order to cover contingencies, it has been considered advisable to seek approval for £220 million. The estimate of £217 million represents, in effect, an increase of about £39 million, compared with the estimate of the cost of the programme prepared two years ago when the White Paper on temporary housing was published in October, 1945. I have to explain to the House how those increases have taken place. Four main factors are involved. The first is the increase in wages rates, which have increased by 11 per cent. in the last two years, and in the cost of materials and fitments, particularly steel fittings, which are necessary. These together have involved an increase of about £11 million on site preparation and house erection, and on the supply of the fitments for rather more than 100,000 houses provided directly by my Ministry.

The second substantial increase in respect of these houses is in the cost of distribution and transport. This amounts to about £7,500,000. The increase was due very largely to the prolongation of the programme combined with unbalanced production during 1946. When the original estimate was prepared it was expected that, except for the aluminium houses, the temporary housing programme would be completed by the end of 1946, but it is running on until the end of 1947 in England and Wales, and for some months longer in Scotland. One of the principal reasons for the extension of the programme has been the difficulty experienced by local authorities in completing the preparation of sites. The part played by local authorities in the temporary housing programme was to select and acquire sites, to construct the roads and sewers, and to provide the main supply services.

I am convinced that the local authorities played their part with considerable energy and enthusiasm. In carrying out their part of the task they had very many obstacles to overcome. In the first place, many of them were short of technical staff in the early stages of the programme. That tended to cause considerable delay in the preparation of plans and specifications at a time when rapid progress was essential if the programme was to be fulfilled within the space of time that had been decided upon. As a general rule, the sites were not readily available. In given local authorities, areas had already been earmarked for permanent housing, so that new sites had to be selected and acquired for temporary housing. They were not always easily obtainable, particularly in the built-up industrial areas to which a very large proportion of these houses had been allocated. That necessarily gave rise to delays.

The development of sites after they had been acquired was hampered in many cases by shortages of labour and of materials essential in site preparation. At the same time, the difficulties of the local authorities were also increased by the fact that as the permanent housing programme got under way they were undertaking concurrently the work of site development for both permanent and temporary houses. The Ministry of Works, for its part, met with similar difficulties, in many cases due to shortages of labour, in the part which they had to play in the preparation of foundation slabs and other site work necessary for the houses.

Whilst those delays were taking place, the production of house structures and of fixtures and fittings had gone ahead. I do not say that we had got into a fully balanced production. The temporary houses are made up of between 2,000 and 3,000 separate parts and fitments. The achievement of an exactly balanced production of six or seven different types of houses would have been a formidable task even in the most favourable circumstances, and circumstances immediately after the war and during 1946 were far from favourable. There were continual shortages of material, particularly of steel, copper, timber, plywood and lining material, and production was difficult at a time when factories were changing over from wartime to peacetime production. In addition, there were labour shortages in the factories. In the autumn of 1946, we had achieved an even balance of production. That resulted in a very rapid improvement in the rate at which houses were completed, but the winter of 1946 and early 1947 added to our difficulties.

The accumulation of stocks during 1946 made it necessary to take over a large number of airfields for storage and distribution purposes. This system of prefabricated house construction is not the easiest and cheapest way of going ahead with the production of houses if the sites are not readily available so that the components can go from factory to site quickly and readily. There was great delay in site preparation coinciding with the time at which the improved production was taking place, and we had to take over airfields for storage purposes. They were what were available to us, and they were not necessarily suitable for the job. Many of them were distant from railways and main roads and the cost of loading was further increased by the distances between individual buildings and hangars. Labour, including prisoners of war, had to be brought to the sites at additional expense. Also, there was a good deal of unavoidable double handling.

This expansion of storage and distribution organisation, and the retention of some of the centres for a year or more longer than had been expected, considerably upset the calculations in regard to costs. In addition to increasing the cost of storage and distribution, the frequent shortages of materials and fitments, as well as the shortage of building labour, caused delay in house erection and other work on the sites. This involved increased costs in the carrying out of that work. It is calculated that the extra expense on this account will be something like £8 million. That is necessarily a provisional estimate since most of the site erection contracts have yet to be finally settled.

The fourth increase in the cost of the temporary housing programme is on account of the aluminium temporary houses, and this increase amounts to about £13,500,000. It is estimated now that each of the aluminium houses will cost £1,610. It was always known that the aluminium house would be more expensive than other types of temporary house, but one of the principal reasons for embarking on the project was to provide employment for the light alloy and aircraft manufacturing industries, which had been so greatly expanded during the war, and, at the same time, to help in the change over from wartime to peacetime production. Until the factories got into production on the aluminium houses, there was little data on which to base an estimate of the cost of the work. The form of construction that was being undertaken was novel, and the technique of producing houses on a moving belt system had never before been attempted.

Experience soon made it evident that the cost of the materials had been considerably under-estimated, and the increase on this account had been accentuated as well by the rising cost of fitments. In addition, the estimate of labour costs and overheads was far too low. The cost of site preparation had also increased for the same reason as I gave in connection with the types of ordinary temporary houses for which my Ministry was responsible. The aluminium house is the most highly prefabricated of all our temporary houses, and is wholly factory-built. It is erected on the site in a very few hours, and the saving in building labour thereby effected has, in my opinion, fully justified the inclusion of the aluminium house in the temporary housing programme. Such, therefore, are the explanations of the increased amount which is asked for in this Bill.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me? I understood him to say that the total increase amounted to £39 million. Unless I have got the figures wrong, the detailed figures which the Minister has given appear to result in a total of £40 million. It may be that there is a misunderstanding on this side of the House, but it would be convenient if we could have the figures checked.

Mr. Key

There is no large difference between £39 million and £40 million in this sense, that if we take the rounded-off figures, the other items which we leave out will very quickly make the difference between £39 million and £40 million, and all I have attempted to give is round figures, so that I should be able to say that I had dealt with the four main directions where this increase has taken place.

The completion of this programme is within sight, and, when it is finished, 156,000 families will have been provided with a home. They will have been provided with a home which, for a great many of them, is far superior to anything which they have enjoyed before. That is the almost unanimous testimony on the part of people inhabitating these houses who express satisfaction with the fitments and general appurtenances provided for them. This programme has fulfilled a very important part in assisting local authorities during the time when they were getting under way with their work for permanent housing, and it provided very welcome shelter for the people who were in need. It is now practically coming to an end. There is no desire, I am certain, on the part of any of us, to extend the temporary housing programme, but it has played a Very important part in these first three years of tackling our problem, and, therefore, for that reason, I am certain that it has been well worth carrying out. This Bill is designed to give us that extra amount of money for the completion and rounding off of the whole programme, and I hope the House will agree to give it a Second Reading.

1.55 p.m.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

The right hon. Gentleman has just paid a tribute to the part which the temporary housing programme has played in our housing programme generally, and I am sure that all of us will agree with him on that, but I cannot fail to remember at this moment the remarks which were made about that programme by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Health in other days, when he spoke about the dreadful legacy that was left to him by the previous Government. We are glad, at least, to know that that temporary programme has played a most important part.

The right hon. Gentleman, in opening his remarks, said that this was a small Bill. The Bill may be small in its content of paper, but it does get rid of a considerable sum of money, and it seems to me that, when we consider that we are discussing, at 2 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, a matter of £20 million, there is no doubt that a tremendous change has come about since other days, when a Measure of this nature would have been debated at very great length indeed. As I listened to the explanations of the right hon. Gentleman, I could not help wondering what he would have thought if a contractor had presented him with a proportionate bill for a new house that he was building. I think he would have had a very considerable amount to say about it, and I am afraid that his contractor would not have got away very lightly. It is, indeed, a matter of anxiety to note the way in which the costs of this programme have increased from time to time, and I would like to recall some figures so that the House may have them in mind clearly in considering this matter.

It was at the beginning of 1944 that the Government decided that a temporary housing programme was necessary in order to fill in the gap, and it was on 1st August that the House gave a Second Reading to the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Bill, which continued its course until 26th September of that year. All that that Bill did was to authorise a programme of temporary housing up to an expenditure of £150 million. It did nothing more than that. It was mentioned during the Debate that the cost of the house might be about £600. The next step after that was the White Paper of the Coalition Government in March, 1945 (Cmd. 6609), and that merely stated the Government's intention to go ahead with the expenditure of £150 million, and that the programme would continue until the allocations, which then numbered 145,000 houses, had been made and completed. In the Debate at that time, the Minister of Health said that the cost of the temporary house had increased from the original figure, but was expected to be below £800, while the cost of the aluminium house would be about £900.

A further step was the White Paper of the present Government in October, 1945 (Cmd. 6696), where it was stated that the Government, on coming into office, had decided to have a re-estimate made of the cost of this programme. It was found that an additional £268 had to be added to the previous cost. There we have the process—originally it was about £600, from there it went up to a figure just below £800, and from there, in October, 1945, to, approximately, £1,100. The cost of the aluminium house had gone up from £900 to £1,365. At that time, 165,000 houses had been allocated. In the White Paper, the Government laid down in detail a programme for 158,483 houses at a cost of £185 million. Then they were given the additional £50 million to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

The point I want to make is that while, of course, I know that the Minister for the time being is responsible, here we have the Department for which he is responsible producing all these various estimates, one after the other. I am certain that the estimate they gave us in the White Paper in October, 1945, took into account everything that could possibly be thought of. It was very detailed. There had been a very detailed examination, and the detailed programme was submitted to us. I have no doubt that the Government, when they got the £200 million, thought that they were amply covered for a programme of that size; but now we have another £20 million added. It is very disturbing, and the more so in view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman himself has often said that one of the real needs of our time that must be attended to is to cut down the cost of housing. Yet here we have him asking for another £20 million. Is that the end of it, or is it not? The right hon. Gentleman said that it seemed doubtful whether this was the end. Are we going to have any more estimates of a like kind brought before us from time to time, or is this final? I hope that we may get an answer to that question this afternoon.

The right hon. Gentleman has given us the various factors which have lead to this increased expenditure. The first one, he told us, was the increase in wages and in the, cost of materials and fitments, and that that would amount to about £11 million. Here I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in his opinion, the labour force employed was employed with the highest efficiency. Quite recently, his Ministry issued a document called "Production Building and Civilian Engineering Supplement No.1." In Table No. 7 of that document there is shown the method of estimating labour and plant requirements for a site containing 50 permanent houses. One of the things estimated for is erection and finishing. It is said that a site of 50 houses could be completed, so far as erection and finishing are concerned, in 552 man-weeks. That seems to work out at 11 man-weeks per house.

Let us look at the average of all houses that have been completed in the first six months of this year. There were, on average, 847 completed each week during the first six months of this year, and the labour force employed was 31,430. On the calculation of the Ministry of Works themselves, that number of men should have produced 2,800 houses a week, and, even taking into account the fact that all the sites were not for 50 houses, there is a very great difference between 2,800 houses a week, with a labour force of that size, and the average of 847 houses which was actually attained. From these figures it seems that the labour force has not been economically employed, that it has been far too great, and, therefore, that the £11 million should never have been incurred.

The right hon. Gentleman again went back and talked of a matter which his right hon. Friend the Minister of Education spoke of many months ago—at least 18 months ago—when he drew the attention of the House to the fact that there were between 2,500 and 3,000 different components in each house. He pointed to the difficulty of collecting these altogether and bringing them forward at the right time. Today the Minister said that it was a formidable task. I agree with him, but it is a task which has been accomplished by housing contractors over a long period of years. But the point to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is that the right hon. Gentleman, who was then Minister of Works, said in July, 1946, that an organisation had now been produced which, he hoped, would get over the difficulty. Yet today, we have the right hon. Gentleman drawing our attention to these difficulties. It seems to me that the organisation ought to have been able to function better than it has.

In this matter, the Ministries have had complete charge of every operation; everything has been in their hands. And yet we have this tremendous additional bill. Apart from the manufacture which they have certainly contracted out, every single thing has been in their hands. They have been the prime contractors for the whole of this operation. If they have fallen down, it is their own fault. And they have fallen down very badly because, after having recalculated the whole thing in October, 1945, and, as I have said, made very generous allowances for every possible contingency, to add an additional 10 per cent. on the amount granted is very considerable. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to finish up on the sentimental note that at least 156,000 families have been given new accommodation, and better acommodation than they ever had before. I agree with him. That is something for which we are all very thankful, but that is no excuse for the enormous cost at which that accommodation has been provided.

When one comes to deal with the aluminium house at £1,610, one really is amazed. I should like to have had a statement, such as the right hon. Gentleman has given us this afternoon, issued before this Debate took place, because the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it was very difficult indeed, during the course of his speech, to assimilate all the points he was making, and, if I may say so—and I am not saying it in a nasty way—all the excuses which he has brought forward. It would have been much easier if we could have had a short explanatory paper issued previously. All I can say is that I am amazed at the very great increases which the right hon. Gentleman has submitted to us, and I am not at all satisfied—because one cannot be without a close examination—that the money has indeed been well spent. I hope that some of my hon. Friends will take the matter further than I have been able to take it, but my sentiment in regard to this matter is that we are receiving too little for far too much.

2.10 p.m.

Mr. George Hicks (Woolwich, East)

I would like, first, to thank my right hon. Friend for his very frank and lucid statement. No one envies him his present task, but I, like hon. Members opposite, am very deeply concerned to know why this aluminium house has been selected. I had something to do with temporary houses in the early stages, and I remember that we in this House were frequently derided on the question of providing temporary houses. We were only trying to provide tem porary shelter, which was to have a very plain architecture associated with it, the hope being that this type of shelter would disappear at a fairly early date. I remember having something to do with the steel house. Why it was abandoned I do not know, but I would inform the House that there were discussions with the steel industry. The steel industry were prepared to provide the necessary steel to build 100,000 houses which were to cost no more than £800 each. From time to time a statement was made in this House on the subject. The iron and steel industry and the Ministry of Supply were consulted. Everyone had been informed of the importance of building temporary houses, and the steel industry agreed that there was sufficient steel to make 100,000 houses. I repeat that statement in case there should be any dubiety about it.

Mr. Austin (Stretford)

Is my hon. Friend referring to the Portal house?

Mr. Hicks

I am referring to the Portal house. Unfortunately, that house, which was to have cost £800, has been abandoned and now we are to have this aluminium house costing the ridiculous price of £1,610. While I was connected with this task, we were frequently asked to consider an aluminium house. We asked what was the cost of the aluminium. No cost was ever agreed, but it was always said that we would provide that house as cheaply as we possibly could and very likely at not more than £900. But we were all the time pressing for the cost of the aluminium. No cost was ever given to the House or to any Minister, so far as I know. Now we get this ridiculous figure of £1,610 and more, as the cost of the aluminium house.

The building industry have a legitimate right to complain about the indecision and frustration which they have experienced from time to time. There is now a proposal to cut down building by a certain amount; I regret that the figure was ever mentioned, but it has been mentioned, and the figure is £100 million. That is to be the extent to which certain building materials are to be cut, and the building industry have legitimately complained. Permanent houses can be built cheaper than £1,610 per house. They can be built in brick and they will last for 80, go or 100 years. Yet we are talking about cutting down the building programme, and builders all over the country are very uneasy. The Government are certainly not to be congratulated upon the way in which they have handled this task.

Let me deal with the question of the aluminium house in relation to the other seven types. Why building trade labour has been employed in its manufacture instead of in erecting permanent houses, I do not know. I would like to know. To what extent such labour is employed in the manufacture and erection of the aluminium house I do not know, but the house is now being constructed and, as the Minister says, there are so many thousand parts used in its construction. I suppose a screw or a latch on a window could be regarded as a part. I cannot say without calculating, how many parts there are in an ordinary house, but I would like to know by what number the parts in an aluminium house exceed those in an ordinary house. If this house has been constructed on the belt system, why has there not been a reduction in the cost, instead of an increase? One would think that system would have produced a degree of efficiency and output which would have reduced the cost. But £1,610 for a temporary house! I do not know how temporary it is going to be. I know that when I am riding about I have to get out of the way to let the ugly things pass me. I have seen them on lorries. On one occasion we had to try one on a "Queen Mary" lorry. It was tested up hill and down dale to discover how many pieces would be shaken out of place when it was being taken along our roads. I should have thought it could be provided at a much cheaper price, and that is the main question which I am raising today.

I am not going to vote against this Bill, but I am very sorry to think that the Ministry of Works have agreed to abandon what was a more reasonable, cheaper and better type to build. My friend Lord Portal, who was very interested in this matter, and I worked together on this temporary house because we wanted to provide some shelter for the people. We never intended that it should be a permanent home. I agree that the appointments in the house were of a superior character to anything which had been installed before.

With regard to the other seven types, it was wrong to agree on those. A temporary house ought to be temporary, and there ought to be one plan for it. Time and time again I have fought in this House to get agreement on one type, but the interests which were so powerful came along and tried to get other types of temporary shelter erected. As a practical man who knows something about the origination of this idea and of the steps which have been taken to perfect it, I say that the Government should not have agreed to other types of temporary house. Instead of the temporary house costing between £800 and £900 at the maximum, it is now costing £1,610 for an aluminium house. I do not know how long it will last. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us later how long he expects it to last. Personally, I would like to see all temporary houses pulled down as soon as possible. I would not attribute the cost of the house to the increased cost of wages and materials, to the same extent as the Minister has done, but I know that great difficulty has been experienced with regard to the quantity and quality of labour.

I do not know whether I shall be ruled out of Order, but I hope that at this stage when the Government are considering questions of essential work and the direction of labour, the building trade labourer will be retained. He was never preserved during the war, and this impoverished the industry very much. Unless he is preserved, when the industry gets back to normal production again it will be several years before the supply of building trade labourers with the necessary skill and capacity to do the job will be available. I hope that will be remembered when the Government are directing people, because the building trade labourer is the easiest type to direct, inasmuch as he is said to have no particular craft or designation apart from that of general labourer. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary, if he can, to give us an assurance on this point.

I stand here today criticising, as I feel I must do, the Government for cutting down their building programme, for putting up temporary houses at £1,610 per house when permanent houses can be built cheaper than that, and for cutting down the building labour. How long is this to last? I object very seriously to this cultivation of the aluminium type of house in preference to all the others. We resisted it. Attempts were made to push it on to us. Time after time, month after month, there was a definite move to try to push on to the Ministry of Works acceptance of the aluminium house. In the absence of knowledge of costs we said we would not have anything to do with it. We tried to get the necessary figures in relation to it. I was afraid that once the aluminium houses were started the prices would jump up to such proportions as to be disgusting. Instead of being a substitute for something else, they are costing more than real homes. I hope we shall not go further with this programme; and perhaps by limiting it we shall save expenditure. I hope the building industry will not be neglected as it has been and is being, and not frustrated and hampered in a way which gives rise to a legitimate cause of complaint against the Government.

2.21 p.m.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

I cannot help agreeing with a great deal of the criticism which has been made by the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks). More particularly would I agree with his suggestion that a great deal of the trouble and delay and consequential additional cost has been due to changes in a policy which, in fact, was not properly worked out before the changes were put into effect. I cannot help looking at this so-called little Bill which involves a matter of £39 or £40 million—it does not seem to matter very much to the Minister which it is—with some doubt and a great deal of concern. It is a very serious matter that at this stage this House should be asked in such an off-hand way to approve of a sum of this amount, and to pass it through in a comparatively few Parliamentary minutes without the fullest possible explanation of all the causes which have made it necessary.

I cannot help feeling that one of the chief causes of our troubles—the Minister of Health—is not here today. I cannot imagine why he is not sitting on that Front Bench. All of us in this House remember very well what he said about the temporary housing programme. He has done more than any other man in this country to pour contempt on it. If the Minister at the head of a great Department, which is partly responsible for seeing that this programme is brought into full effect, speaks like that, one cannot help suspecting on fair grounds—I am not attempting to impute unfair grounds—that the full energy of his Department was not thrown into the effort to see that this programme was carried out as quickly and efficiently as possible. When the Minister of Works today speaks of some of the causes for the additional cost—such as the difficulty of getting the necessary material for site preparation, and delays through the upset of the whole of the transport and distribution programme, which, in turn, added to the cost of the temporary houses—I want to know what steps did the Minister of Health himself take to see that local authorities were fully armed and ready prepared with supplies of all necessary materials on the spot? I do not think we can leave the Minister of Health out of this picture. A great many of the causes which were mentioned by the Minister of Works today are directly attributable to the lack of drive shown by the Minister of Health in pushing ahead with the programme.

I turn to some of the other excuses made for the Bill—both the bill in cash and the legislative Bill. We were told that the cost of these houses had risen. The figure was not carefully analysed in any way. I should like to see it broken down in far greater detail than the Minister had time to do today. It is not fair to come before this House and say that the figure is so much; that the cost of wages went up by 11 per cent. and that then there was the added cost of material and equipment in particular schemes. It is a little vague. The cost of labour rose by 11 per cent. By how much did the cost of materials rise? What was the effect of the rise in wages by 11 per cent.? That is only part of the bill. We are not told. It is just lumped together in a bracket. It is not a question of £1,100 or £11,000 but of £11 million, and when we are dealing with sums like this we ought to be given the facts.

The Minister of Works cannot give us all the facts, because he is not entirely and solely responsible in this matter. There are others involved. That is one of the difficulties we are up against. One of the reasons—and the Minister of Works knows it perfectly well, for I have raised this matter in the House on more than one occasion—why the cost of the equipment and fitments rose was the frequent changes that were made in the designs and plans and everything else. There was no co-ordination and no attempt to co-ordinate. All the people concerned were not brought round a table to work out a plan properly. That is far too near to common sense to command itself to this Government. We have three different Ministers concerned. I do not know how friendly they are. We are never told those secrets. When, however, we have three separate Ministers concerned there are three chances of quarrels arising—and any hon. Member can work out for himself the combinations and permutations to see what chances there are for friction, especially in a Government like this.

However, most of us know, who have anything to do with engineering and manufacturing, that another reason why the cost of these fitments and equipment rose was simply that when the orders were placed, within a few weeks they were cancelled, and replaced by others entirely different; and again, when the replacement orders were placed stating the estimated number of requirements, they were probably cut down by 50 per cent. or 75 per cent., so that one was only supplying a quarter of the total needs on one contract at one time. Nobody would say that the total requirement was, say, half a million and that he was going to place orders for half a million. He would say only that he would order 100,000 now. The Government had not the sense to see that that sort of thing affected the cost and that a more orderly procedure would have reduced the costs considerably. That did not appear to strike them. Lack of coordination and lack of knowledge of how these requirements are produced was another of the reasons. They approached the problem as so many people approached the problem of the milk supply, thinking that it was simply a matter of pouring the milk into bottles.

The Minister of Education (Mr. Tomlinson)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

It is all very well to laugh. These considerations are all very material. I hope the Minister of Education will speak, if he knows so much about it. He probably knows more about it than anybody else; I hope he will give us the benefit of his knowledge, because we have not learned a great deal up to the moment. We are all thirsting for knowledge.

Let us get back to the point stressed by the hon. Member for East Woolwich—the question of the aluminium house. Even putting it as kindly as I can, the rise from £900 a house to £1,600 is tragic, and, as the Minister will agree, is the biggest item, taken by itself, in the whole of this schedule of unfortunate events. Say it is £13½ million, or maybe £14½ million—we never know—or it may be £12½ million, a difference of but £1 million, which, apparently, is as near as this Government can tell the House on how the money is being expended. Let us strike an average and say it would be round about £13 million—the biggest single item in the Bill. That is really alarming, and we have been told remarkably little about it.

Some of those houses are made in my constituency, in what was a dispersal factory, by one of the best aircraft manufacturing companies in the world. It is not lacking in skill or experience, by any means; it will be freely admitted that some of the most highly skilled planners in the country who had anything to do with the aircraft industry are there. The future of those men and those factories which have been turning out these houses is in the melting pot—and aluminium melts at a very low temperature. I wish they could be told something about their future. There is a great productive staff and a great deal of valuable equipment there. It seems rather a pity to leave the matter in the air. They ought to be told. It affects a very large number of my constituents—and not only those directly employed.

Now let us look at the cost factor—a rise of £900 to £1,600 per house. The Minister threw out the hint, quite gently, that a great deal of that rise was due to the additional cost of raw materials. Let us examine that aspect for a moment. Who fixed the price of the raw material when these houses were started? Who owned the raw material? Was it owned by private merchants, by the manufacturers of the raw material? Am I wrong when I say that that raw material was owned by a Government Department as scrap? Is that incorrect? If I am incorrect in saying that, am I incorrect in saying that when these houses were started the raw material belonged to the Ministry of Supply? I hope I shall be corrected if I am wrong, but did it not belong to the Ministry of Supply, and was not the price of that raw material fixed by the Ministry of Supply at the time the house was first to cost £900?

To whom does that raw material belong now? Where is it coming from now? Who fixes the price now? Is one Government Department trying to make a profit out of another Government Department, and soaking the people of this country by artificially raising the price of that raw material? What is the reason for the increase in price of that raw material? How much of it is scrap and how much of it is neat, virgin, raw material? Can we not be told that when dealing with a matter of £13 million? Are we not entitled to the details on an issue of that sort? Before I can feel any confidence and happiness about this Bill I shall certainly want information on that score. Who owns that raw material now? Who fixes the price of it? How much of it is used in each house, and what has been the proportionate rise since the figure of £900 per house was given to this House? With that information we would have some idea how much of the rise from £900 to £1,600 is accounted for by the rise in the cost of raw material.

However kindly I would wish to deal with this matter, I must say that I think the House has been treated very unfairly in the way we have been asked to consider this Bill. So much detail has been hinted at—I am not being unfair to the Minister; he obviously could not go through every item—that it leaves me to believe we can only give fair consideration to this Bill if we are armed with a White Paper explaining the facts in full detail. A very big sum of money is involved—far too big. As far as the aluminium house is concerned, it would have been fairer to describe it as the "Ali Baba" house. But where are all the 40 thieves who were associated with this matter?

Mr. Austin

On the Opposition benches.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Is there not something going on as between Government Department and Government Department? So far, they have not reached 40 Government Departments; even in housing we have not had to deal with the housing programme through 40 different Government Departments. Do let us be given the truth when dealing with sums of money of this size, particularly in the present economic situation to which this Government has brought the country.

2.36 p.m.

Mr. Braddock (Mitcham)

The hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) attempted to draw the Minister of Health into the consideration of this Bill. I agree that the Minister of Health probably had a great primary responsibility in this matter as the principal Minister in the Government dealing with the housing problem. This temporary housing scheme was inherited from the previous Government, and I think we must all agree that the new Government had to make a very difficult decision on this matter. In view of the housing shortages which were known to exist then, and which we could anticipate would exist for quite a time, it was a matter of the utmost urgency that a decision should be come to as rapidly as possible. The Government faced that problem as they have faced many since, when they have not hesitated to make unpopular decisions. So far as the building trade generally was concerned, this acceptance of the temporary housing programme was, to a great extent, an unpopular decision, but it was taken.

Commander Galbraith

Surely, the hon. Member will agree that the temporary housing programme had been accepted by the Ministers in the Coalition Government, which contained all the principal figures in the present Government?

Mr. Braddock

That is an old argument which is dragged in time after time. There was a Government which existed between the Coalition Government and the present Government. In addition, I remind the hon. and gallant Member that the origin of this scheme, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend, was based on what was known as the Portal house. It will be interesting—and no doubt history will tell us—to find out why that Portal housing scheme was thrown overboard. I have a pretty good idea why that was done. Something connected with the motor industry will be brought into the picture when we know the full details.

This temporary housing programme was Inherited from the previous Government. A decision had to be made. The decision was made, and, in my opinion, the new Government, having accepted that programme, found they had accepted a scheme which had very little but a name to it. Certain contracts had been placed with certain basic firms, but we know that the names attached to these various houses were not those of the people who were manufacturing the component parts of those houses. They were merely figureheads and profit-takers in the final analysis. As far as concerned the technicalities and any scheme for getting the materials together, practically nothing had been done. Having accepted the programme, the new Government dealt very effectively and rapidly with the difficulties facing them. Had they left the matter, as the previous Government would have left it, we should not have had one-tenth of the houses which have been built. They set about the job in an efficient and businesslike way, and I compliment the responsible Ministers and the Department on what they did to get the temporary housing scheme going.

We have certain lessons to learn from the methods which were adopted. As the Minister has told us, it was found necessary to gather together the component parts as they came from the factories, so as to keep a firm hold on them and know where they were. In this way, they were able to send the components to the sites as and when they were wanted. As I have said, there is a lesson to be drawn from this. As we are facing difficulties today with regard to materials, it is worth considering whether a similar proceeding should not be adopted in regard to permanent houses. Such a scheme would strike a definite blow at the black market. If the Minister had allowed these materials to get into the builders' workshops and stores, it is very doubtful whether all the prefabricated housing materials would ever have reached the sites, with the result that there would have been continual delays.

Criticism has been made in regard to the increased costs. We have to remember that the only cost for which the present Government were responsible was the one prepared in 1945. Therefore, these lesser figures were the fabrications of the Ministers in the previous Government. We had a 10 per cent. increase on that estimate, and anyone who has anything to do with building, in this or in any other country, would have been very pleased if, when the contractor's final account was received, there was an increase of no more than 10 per cent. on the estimated cost. It is almost an unknown low figure. I believe that the cost of these houses is very much too high. Emphasis has been placed on the cost of the aluminium house at £1,610. I am a friend and supporter of prefabrication in the building trade, but I am bound to say that if this is an example of what prefabrication produces, it is a most unfortunate start. What is the implication of the figure? The Minister, very rightly, pointed out that there was very little site cost involved. That means that practically the whole of the cost takes place in the workshops and on the belt. I do not believe it is true that prefabrication and workshop production cost more than the old method of building.

I believe that there is something wrong with this price, not only with regard to the aluminium house, but with regard to all these temporary prefabricated houses, because the average cost for them all works out at something like £1,400 per house. When the present Government came into office, so far as I know—and I shall be glad to be corrected if I am wrong—no price had been settled in regard either to the aluminium house, or to any of the other types which have been used. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us when the prices were settled, and at what cost. Whatever the cost may be, I suggest that a very close scrutiny should be made of the workshop costs of these constructions, because I am perfectly certain—and I have been in the building trade for the greater part of my life—that if there were a proper check made by accountants and technicians who understand these matters, not more than one-half of these costs could be justified. The Government should hold such an investigation, and they should make their findings known to the public, because there is bound to be very great uneasiness in the building trade in regard to the costs which have been given to us today.

If we are to justify prefabrication—and all who know anything about the trade hope that prefabrication can be justified—it is essential that we should know the real truth with regard to the cost of these houses which have been put up. The Minister says that he has not yet got the complete figures with regard to the work that has been done on the sites. If that is so, I am afraid that we may have another demand later on for an increase in the cost of these buildings. I hope that that will not be the case. I am praying that the Minister and the Government will look into this matter with a view to coming forward, not with an increase in costs, but with a report to enable the people of the country and the building trade to know that the cost of these houses has been nothing like the figures shown, and that a rebate will be forthcoming. It was a common procedure in the war for the Government to go into a factory and check the costs of shells and other munitions, and to bring the contractors to hook if the costs were too high. I suggest that a similar procedure would be absolutely justified with regard to these temporary prefabricated houses, which, I repeat, are worth no more than 60 per cent of the price now being asked.

2.49 p.m.

Mr. Marples (Wallasey)

The more enthusiastic the hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. Braddock), became, the less convincing he was. I ought to declare that I have an interest in this matter, because my own firm have erected just over 2,000 temporary houses in London alone. Therefore, I know a little about it. The first point the hon. Member for Mitcham made was that the distribution centres of the Ministry had worked very efficiently, that it was an extraordinarily good scheme, well carried out, and that the houses were delivered to the sites as a whole unit. I would point out that of those 2,000 houses I have erected, there was not one complete house sent to the site. That was the experience of every London contractor. I am not blaming the Ministry for that, at this stage of my speech at any rate—

Mr. Braddock

There was a reason for that. Owing to the lack of organisation, before the Government started on this scheme the shells of the houses were probably well in advance of the rest of the components and got to the site first. The Government, in order to organise the delivery of fittings, were obliged to organise these distribution centres so that the thing could be properly worked out.

Mr. Marples

This Government have been in office two years, they have been in charge for two years, and yet I am still asking for temporary houses, and they have still not been delivered. Surely that is a condemnation of the Minister of Works, because they cannot deliver them complete at this moment.

Mr. Braddock

I do not know anything about the organisation of the Ministry of Works. All I know is that a great many builders do not know what they want until the workmen on the job send for the various items.

Mr. Marples

It is the duty of the Minister of Works to supply the house as a whole. It is not the duty of the contractor to say what should arrive. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary if that is so?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Durbin)

indicated assent.

Mr. Marples

The Parliamentary Secretary assents. For two years now they have been in office, and they have not yet organised their distributing centres so that the components are flowing freely. I hope that answers the first point made by the hon. Member for Mitcham.

Mr. Braddock

It does not answer my first point. What the hon. Gentleman's remark suggests is that a building contractor has no responsibility whatever in these matters, and that it is left to the Minister of Works the whole time. If that is the case, let him say so, and we shall know what to do about building contractors.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Gentleman is still trying hard, but he is batting on a sticky wicket. He would be well advised to sit down and say nothing. He does not know anything about these things.

Another point he made was that usually if not invariably the final price from a contractor exceeded his contract price by over 10 per cent. But if the architect has prepared the plans properly there are no variations and there is a specification and bill of quantities and a price submitted on an R.I.B.A. contract, and the contractor is bound to complete the job at the price. It is the alterations made by the architect and the client—who always want alterations made—that disrupt the work, increase the price; and make it possible for a contractor to claim extras. The hon. Gentleman knows that.

Mr. Braddock

I made no accusation against the contractor on this particular matter. All I said was that anybody who places an order for a job and gets out of it with not more than 10 per cent. increase in cost is lucky.

Mr. Marples

Then clearly there ought to be a re-organisation of the architects of this country, not the contractors. Perhaps such a report will be published in the same way as I hope the report which the hon. Gentleman asks the Minister of Works to produce on the costs of temporary houses, will be produced.

There have been difficulties in this temporary housing programme, and it would be wrong to suggest that the whole of the criticism of inefficiency lies against the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Minister of Works. He has at his side the Minister of Education, to whom I think we are grateful for coming to listen to this Debate this afternoon. I only wish the Minister of Health showed the same courtesy to this House. There is still a definite responsibility on the part of the Government in this matter. The Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, asked for £150 million, and there were to be four types of houses. Then we had the present Minister for Education coming along in his capacity as Minister of Works, and, in Clause 5 of the Building Materials and Housing Act, 1945, asking for a further £50 million. The hon. Member for Mitcham, who said that this Government were not to blame in any shape or form, may care to withdraw that. In the Second Reading Debate on that Act the right hon. Gentleman the present Minister of Education, when asking an additional £50 million, said: So far as we can see at present the cost should not exceed this amount but in order to cover possible contingencies, we think it advisable to ask for an additional £50 million."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1945; Vol. 416, c. 911.] So the right hon. Gentleman himself thought that £50 million would cover all the cost of the temporary housing.

Mr. Tomlinson

The right hon. Gentleman meant what he said "so far as we can see at present."

Mr. Marples

Well, obviously he did not see correctly at that time.

Mr. Tomlinson

Nor did anybody else. I am not objecting to that statement.

Mr. Marples

I am not trying to score off the right hon. Gentleman but his estimate of £50 million was inadequate. He is now asking for an additional £20 million.

Mr. Tomlinson

I stand by what I said in my answer. So far as we could see at that time we thought that £50 million was sufficient, and we should not be coming before the House today if it had covered it.

Mr. Marples

That would answer the criticism of the hon. Member for Mitcham, who suggested that all this increased cost was due to the Coalition Government. The right hon. Gentleman—a Socialist Minister—presented the previous Bill in 1945.

Mr. Tomlinson

I put forward an estimate.

Mr. Marples

The right hon. Gentleman asked for £50 million and got it. It was not sufficient, and his estimate was wrong.

Mr. Tomlinson

That is right.

Mr. Marples

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman agrees.

Mr. Sparks (Acton)

Would the hon. Member agree that the original estimate was wrong and that the original estimate was the estimate of his hon. Friends on the other side of the House.

Mr. Marples

But I thought the hon. Members opposite were the repository of all the virtues and wisdom and that they never made a mistake of any sort.

Mr. Tomlinson

The hon. Member will have to revise that idea.

Mr. Marples

The whole country has revised that idea. When the right hon. Gentleman asked for that sum he presented a temporary housing programme White Paper, Cmd. 6686, which analysed the figures of cost and gave hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House an opportunity of studying the way in which the figures had been arrived at. The right hon. Gentleman had broken it down into the sum of £268 per house additional expenditure—site preparation £89, superstructure £96, fixtures and fittings £25, breakages £15, Ministry of Works agency costs £20 and contingencies £23, making a total of £268. The right hon. Gentleman went on to infer that the first estimate presented by the Coalition Government was a crazy assumption and that his was accurate. We have seen how accurate that was.

Mr. Tomlinson

Did I say mine was accurate?

Mr. Marples

I presume if the right hon. Gentleman asks for £50 million he hopes that it is accurate. Is he suggesting that it was not accurate?

Mr. Tomlinson

No, all I am asking is that the assumption should be based on fact.

Mr. Marples

Surely when a Privy Councillor presents an estimate it is based on accurate information. Of course, any assumptions made in this House by Ministers were based on reality and not on fiction prior to July, 1945. Things have changed. Will the Minister of Works produce, as indeed one of his hon. Friends suggested, a White Paper analysing the causes of the increased costs in the housing programme, and break that down, so hon. Members on this side of the House will have the opportunity of making a detailed analysis, and, if necessary, criticisms.

On the question of distribution I have a word or two to say from the contractor's point of view. Some of the houses have taken as long as 52 weeks to complete, some more. We still do not know the average time it takes contractors to complete these houses all over the country. The Ministry of Works in their contract usually allow for completion in 13 weeks. But what happens is that materials arrive on the site in a very erratic and impulsive fashion. I remember the Ministry of Works on one occasion asking for the contractor to arrange for plumbers to be on site the first thing on Monday morning. But the plumbing materials arrived at about five o'clock on the Tuesday afternoon, and nobody would unload them. Then they came back on the following Thursday, were unloaded, and the whole rhythm of the work on that site was disrupted. That means there is to be increased cost, and that the contractor will put in a substantial claim because of his work being disrupted on the site, due to the late delivery of materials. Where is that shown in this explanation? I think the right hon. Gentleman included some £8 million. Does that sum allow for the claims that contractors put in? Does it cover the gross amount of claims that the contractors have put in? How does the Minister arrive at the figure?

Mr. Key

It is an estimate.

Mr. Marples

Is it an estimate on the safe side? What proportion does it bear to the gross figure which the contractors have claimed? Can the right hon. Gentleman answer that question? If he cannot, his estimate will be almost as hopelessly inaccurate as that of the Minister of Education.

I should like now to have a word about the aluminium house which was referred to by the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks). The private enterprise builder in London is not allowed to exceed £1,400. The figure has recently been raised to £1,300 outside London and £1,400 inside London for a permanent house. Is that figure really fair when it costs the right hon. Gentleman £1,610 to build a small temporary aluminium house. The Ministry of Works cannot build this house under £1,600. Is it fair to say that a private builder will not be allowed to charge more than £1,300 or £1,400 for a better one and a permanent one. What justification is there for the difference. The question of the aluminium house was dealt with in the report of the Select Committee on Estimates which was presented to this House in November, 1946.

The House is entitled to further information on this point. On page 18 of their report, the Select Committee suggest that the amount required for moving a house from factory to site is £70. It is a two-ton house. The cost of haulage is between £45 and £50. In addition to that, there is £1,400,000 for special vehicles. If the right hon. Gentleman will look at paragraph 48 of the report he will see: The total transport cost is therefore over £70. That is, £45, or £50 actual cost incurred, and allowing for the £1,400,000 for the transport fleet. Has that estimate been exceeded or not? If my information is correct, the £70, too, has been inadequate. If so, it cannot be blamed either upon the manufacturers of the houses or upon the contractors, but only upon the Ministry of Works. What figure of transport charges has been incurred upon the aluminium houses? Can we have that information?

I should like to refer to some of the complaints made by the hon. Member for East Woolwich. He was quite right in what he said. He is a practical man who has been at the Ministry of Works and he knows his job. He knows the effect upon the building industry of constant interruptions of work. The whole art of building has changed. We must get it into people's minds that a contractor is no longer a craftsman but an organiser and a financier. He brings together the various elements that are necessary to make a successful building. On the one hand, he has materials coming along, and on the other he has labour under his direct control. It is his job to see that those two are married and welded together so that building proceeds efficiently. When the supply of materials is left to another agency he cannot plan for a good rhythm and flow of work on the site unless the materials arrive smoothly and in the correct sequence.

Any disruption which is caused is laid at the door not of the contractor but of the Minister of Works or whoever supplies the material. That is as it should be. Very often when a man is working on a site and sees no materials at hand, he will not work. I have been on a site and seen a small pile of bricks and a bricklayer apparently working. I have gone along three days later to find that the pile of bricks is precisely the same height and the bricklayer is still showing a great ability to work; but no bricks have been laid. I spoke to one bricklayer and he said, "The governor has not paid his bill and I am not going to work myself out of a job." One reason for the appalling cost—there is no other word for it—is the fact that the Ministry of Works' distribution did break down. Perhaps the Minister of Education will give me credit for having prophesied in the earlier stages that this sort of thing would happen. I would like him to say whether he disputes that.

Mr. Tomlinson

I am not taking any responsibility for the hon. Member's prophecies.

Mr. Marples

And I would not take any responsibility for the right hon. Gentleman's estimates either. They are hopeless. The disruption in the industry shatters me. It is the slowest moving industry in the country. It is a difficult industry to weld together, and unless the Government show more foresight in, cutting down the building programme than they have in the temporary housing programme there will be no building worth while in this country for many years to come.

3.7 p.m.

Mr. Sparks (Aston)

I have listened attentively to what has come from the benches opposite. I have heard a long catalogue of criticisms of cost and distribution. I listened attentively to try to discover how such costs and weaknesses in distribution could be overcome and what alternative the Opposition had to offer. I found not a single constructive suggestion, but what the Opposition have said indicates quite clearly that all these alleged weaknesses must be traced back to the original Bill when it was put before this House by hon. Members who now sit on the benches opposite. That Bill was brought in in 1944 by the three principal Ministers who were concerned with the housing problem. I believe that the right hon. and learned Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) took the major part in its passage through the House, that the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) took part and that Lord Portal at the Ministry of Works had some interest in the Bill originally.

All these errors, if they be errors, and all these weaknesses were inherent in that original Bill. The Minister has been criticised, for instance, because he was not able to give an accurate estimate in 1945 of the cost of the temporary housing programme, but hon. Gentlemen opposite completely fail to realise that the originators of that Bill failed correctly to estimate the cost of the temporary building programme. Therefore, having in the first place completely failed properly to lay the foundations upon which these temporary houses could be constructed and having completely failed accurately to estimate the cost, they should be the last to accuse the Government Front Bench of not being able accurately to forecast the cost of the scheme which was so badly constructed and so badly laid down in the original Bill. On behalf of the 156,000 families who are occupying and will occupy these temporary dwellings, I offer the Government their great confidence in the work which has been undertaken. If one had been living in one or two rooms with a family of one or two children and had been given the benefit of a temporary house, one would have great cause to thank this Government.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)

That is what we are all waiting for.

Mr. Sparks

Whatever hon. Members opposite may say, there are very large numbers of men, women and children who have good cause to thank the Government for what they have done in the temporary housing programme.

Commander Galbraith

I know the hon. Gentleman does not wish to be unfair, but should he not congratulate and thank the three Ministers he mentioned who were responsible for the initiation of the programme?

Mr. Sparks

No, I would not do that because I know that if they had still been in power we should not have had half the number of temporary dwellings erected that we have today. I am quite satisfied that the Government has made a great deal more of a very bad Act than would have been accomplished by hon. Gentlemen opposite. In addition, we must realise that to some extent the expeditious manner in which the Government has tackled the permanent housing programme has caused a certain amount of dislocation in distribution because the pipe-line which has had to supply our temporary dwellings with components also has had to supply our permanent construction. It may be true, perhaps, that hon. Gentlemen opposite could have collected the components a little quicker than has been done in recent months, but they could have done that quite easily simply by not proceeding with the development of permanent housing. The mere fact that the Government has pushed so well ahead with the development of permanent housing schemes—

Sir T. Moore

Who says so, beside the hon. Gentleman himself?

Mr. Walker (Rossendale)

It is well known.

Mr. Sparks

Everybody knows that. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman had been interested in these problems he would have discovered, without any wish to make political capital on either side, that although it is true that there have been problems in the distribution of components to temporary houses, these have been aggravated to some extent by the rapid development of permanent housing schemes. Therefore, the one pipe-line has had to supply two phases of our housing programme. However, my right hon. Friend has said that the temporary scheme is now coming to an end, and I am certain in my own mind that the amended estimate we have before us of the complete cost of this scheme will not be far out. If what hon. Gentlemen opposite say is correct, that the cost of this temporary housing scheme is amazing, do they not realise that it is the greatest condemnation they could offer of private enterprise, because the bulk of this manufacture and production is being undertaken by private enterprise firms.

I would also draw the attention of the House to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Woolwich (Mr. G. Hicks), that the Coalition Government started out wrong in the original instance; that, if they were going to produce temporary dwellings, these should have been of one standard type and able to be mass-produced, which would have effected a considerable reduction in cost. But no, what did the Coalition Government do? They did not agree to that at all; instead they multiplied the types and processes involved in the scheme. They dispersed it among so many different concerns that it was impossible to get that speed and drive and economy which would have been obtained if there had been agreement on one single type which could have been massproduced.

There is one other aspect of this problem which ought to be mentioned in view of the criticism coming from the other side of the House. It is quite true that a good deal of the money we are voting away on this temporary housing programme is absolute waste. It is absolute waste as a result of the policy of the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury in particular, who insisted on many occasions that when local authorities sought permission to buy land and purchase sites for temporary dwellings, they should purchase sites on leases of 10 or 12 years. In my constituency we were forced to acquire land for temporary housing on leases of 10 or 12 years. We shall have to undertake the preparation of those sites, the laying of roads, sewers, water, and other services, and at the end of 10 years we are under agreement to give up the sites, demolish the houses, and hand over to the owners the roads, sewers and other services already prepared.

Mr. Marples

Does the hon Member not agree that the Government have powers compulsorily to acquire the land, so that point is not valid?

Mr. Sparks

I hope that the Government will do so.

Mr. Marples

They have the power.

Mr. Sparks

I hope they will take that power.

Mr. Marples

They have got that power.

Mr. Sparks

That may be, but the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury and the right hon. and learned Member for North Croydon had that power before 1945, when my local authority went to them. I was a member of the deputation, and they absolutely refused to allow us to purchase the freehold of that land, but insisted that if we were to get it at all we were to have it on the terms of a lease, and under the agreement with the owners of that land we have to hand over to them the whole site, prepared with sewers and other services. Thousands of pounds of public funds will be thrown away in that way.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)


Mr. Sparks

The right hon. and gallant Member says "nonsense," but, if he likes to come to my constituency, I will give him evidence to prove it.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

The hon. Member continues to talk as though the Government have not the power to take that land. He is misleading the House.

Mr. Sparks

Why did the right hon. and gallant Gentleman not exercise that power when we asked for it?

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

The hon. Member very well knows that it was insisted that there should be only a 10-year housing programme. He is deliberately misleading the House.

Mr. Sparks

I know that the temporary housing scheme is only a 10-year programme, but we wanted to carry on at the end of 10 years with a permanent housing scheme.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

That can be done any time, and the hon. Member knows that that is true.

Mr. Sparks

When we went to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman's right hon. Friend we were refused permission to do that, and were forced, against our will, to, acquire this land on a 10-year lease. It is no good throwing this at the present Government, and saying, "They have the power to remedy our misdeeds and faults." I sincerely hope the Government will do that, and will give us the power at the end of 10 years compulsorily to acquire those sites, so that we can preserve for the people the money which has been vested in the preparation of the sites in roads, sewers, and services. I am not sure that they will not give us the power before long.

Sir T. Moore

The power is there.

Mr. Sparks

The original fault lies with the benches opposite. When we asked permission to acquire the site we were refused it, and told we would have to take a lease for 10 years.

I am afraid that much of my time has been taken up in cross-talk with the benches opposite, but I feel that hon. Members opposite are most unfair in their criticism of the Government's administration of this Act. They must know that they cannot take credit for the original Act, and point out its weaknesses at the same time. They must take credit and blame for any goodness and weakness in the Act. One weakness, obvious to anyone who knows anything about the scheme, was the difficulty we had immediately the war was over in rebuilding and reconstituting our building industry to provide the necessary components for the job. The Government, despite all the difficulties, and the magnificent permanent housing scheme which is developing, have done a remarkably good job. I am satisfied that the people of our country, and those living in temporary dwellings have good cause to thank the Government for the way in which they have tackled this job.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

I always listen with interest and attention to the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks), not least because I know that he brings to the consideration of these problems a genuine interest and enthusiasm. I hope, if both of us sit in this House long enough, that one day I shall find that his enthusiasm is equalled by the accuracy of the knowledge which he brings to bear on these subjects. The hon. Member complained that a large part of his time was taken up in what he described as "cross-talk" with my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the House; but it need not have been so if the hon. Member had not brought forward some private King Charles' head of his own which really has very little relevance in the present case. I assure the hon. Member that the powers of compulsory acquisition of land are very ample indeed. He knows-that as well as I do.

There is no suggestion here, nor has the Minister made any suggestion, that what has held up this programme has been the compulsory acquisition of sites. Of course, it could not have been so, because the administrative processes of compulsory acquisition are comparatively quick. Under Section 2 of the Act of 1946, as the hon. Member knows, there is a form of expedited compulsory purchase which can be brought into use if necessary. There is no suggestion that the work has been held up because of difficulty in the acquisition of sites. The delaying factor is the preparation of sites to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Sparks

I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman on that. It took us in Acton nearly 18 months to get permission to acquire a site for temporary houses while the right hon. Gentlemen opposite were in office.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I really cannot understand all the peculiarities of the things that go on in Acton. I am very familiar with application of the law in regard to these matters generally, and I can only repeat that Acton is perhaps a little misguided or slow in the way that things are tackled. We have had the peculiar factor both in the speech of the hon. Member for Acton and in that of the hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. Brad-dock) that they have not been able to make up their minds about the position of the Coalition Government in this matter. They are trying, with characteristic disingenuousness, to have it both ways.

So far as a large number of people have been housed under the temporary programme, that is uniquely to the credit of the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend to preceded him; but so far as the programme has resulted in what one of my hon. Friends has called, "An appalling cost," that is uniquely the fault of the Coalition Government. Indeed, the hon. Member for Mitcham went so far as to suggest, first, that it was the fault of the Coalition Government because it was a legacy from them and, secondly, that nothing by way of programme had been inherited from the Coalition Government, with the result that the present Government had nothing to go on when they came into office. The hon. Member is an architect. We know that the principles of architecture consist, to some extent, in a nice balance of factors. I suggest that his speech in that way was so well balanced that it cancels out both propositions completely.

Mr. Braddock

If the hon. Member will look at HANSARD, he will find that I said that the Government inherited nothing but a scheme, and that the working out of it was to be carried out by the new government.

Mr. Walker-Smith

If the hon. Member will look a bit further into HANSARD he will see that the Minister of Health, in regard to that scheme, stated on a previous occasion that there was very little in it. Therefore, unless he dissents from the proposition of the Minister of Health, my previous statement, I think, holds good.

I want to pass from that to another fallacy in the speech of the hon. Member for Mitcham, though I do not say that I will go through all the fallacies in that speech, because time is limited. The hon. Member suggested—and it really is a fantastic suggestion.—that this great monetary loss which is inflicted upon the taxpayers of this country is not really out of the way, and that we do not want to cry over these spilt millions, because, after all, it is merely common form in the building industry, in which we never expect to get the work done for a figure comparable to the tender price for that work. It is very wrong that a suggestion such as that should be made, and especially by the hon. Member, who, by virtue of his profession, is in close contact with the practices of the building industry. He knows, and I think the House knows, that the position is far different.

It is only in the case of the application of the vicious cost-plus system that such a statement could bear the remotest relevance to truth or accuracy. Under the normal system of contract building, the contractor puts in his price. It is true that the price may be raised by reason of variations of the contract by way of extras authorised and certified by the architect. The difference between the two cases is that, in the case of a building, contract, if more is paid for extras by way of variation of the contract, the result is that more is being paid for something better than was contemplated in the contract price. Here, the position is far different. Here, more is being paid for exactly the same product as was contemplated in that price. I think that is a distinction which should be obvious even to the hon. Member for Mitcham, and it is the distinction between the two cases which breaks down the parallel which he sought to draw. Indeed, if the building contractor does not keep to his tender price, apart from the special circumstances to which I have referred, then he feels it in the loss of profit, and, similarly if he does not keep to the date of completion, which, as the hon. Member knows, is specified in the contract, then he is subject to a penalty by way of liquidated damages. The two cases bear no sort of comparison at all, except in the imagination of the hon. Member for Mitcham.

This extra cost is a very serious thing indeed. It is evidence is it not, and just one more piece of evidence, of the bad housekeeping for which this Government are becoming so notorious? It is, I think, a melancholy occasion that, at the fag-end of a busy week, the House of Commons should be faced with this appalling bill resulting from the maladministration and bad planning of the present Government. It is, indeed, so far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, a doubly melancholy occasion. Not only is he forced to present a Bill for this enormous increase of cost; but the Minister of Works has also claimed credit that there is, at any rate, some positive achievement by way of the provision of accommodation through this programme, which is the one part of the housing programme on which the Minister of Health, who is so characteristically absent from our deliberations today, poured contempt.

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

Will the hon. Member give a single example of a private enterprise contract over the last two years which has been as near its estimate as this?

Mr. Walker-Smith

The hon. and learned Gentleman really does himself less than justice. The point he is striving to make, I think, is that every form of contract today is affected by the inflationary situation provoked by the economic policies and lack of courage of his own party. That is the point he is seeking to make. Of course, I fully grant him that it is a most complicated factor for those who have to contract for building contracts, as in other things.

Mr. Paget

It is wider than that; not only in England, but in the whole world.

Mr. Walker-Smith

The more the hon. and learned Gentleman is forced down to a point, the wider he seeks to make its application. Of course, that is an element which people have to take into account; but the much-abused profit motive does put it on the contractor to take the risk of that estimate, and the difference in this situation is that the Government are able to present the bill to the taxpayer. Indeed, the first of the four reasons put forward by the Minister of Works this afternoon is really the general inflationary situation. He says that a further £11 million has been incurred in respect of increased costs for fitments, wages, and so on. What is that but the reaction of the general inflationary situation provoked, as I say, by the policies of this Government? That is the first excuse, the accounting for the extra £11 million.

The second excuse is the cost of distribution and transport. But it is exactly on this question of maldistribution, of the clogged channels of supply, that some of us on these benches, and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), have been preaching for two and a half years now in this House. Here now is our justification in a bill of £7,500,000 presented under that head alone to the House this afternoon. The third reason is the difficulties of the local authorities in regard to sites, and so on, and the difficulties of the shortage of technical staffs. But is not this partly due to that very overloading of the local authorities in this matter of housing which we have also protested against from these benches during the last two and a half years? The local authorities have been put in competition with each other; they have been put in competition as between their temporary housing programmes and their permanent housing programmes. It is all part and parcel, of the general policy which we have condemned here, as best we could, for the last two and a half years. The justification of all we have said on that theme is here this afternoon in a bill for £8 million presented to the House today under that single head alone.

Lastly, the aluminium house is to cost £1,610, and that, presumably, is not the total figure. I would like to know whether that includes the proportion for roads, sewers, and services or not, or whether it is merely the cost of the house plus perhaps something for the site. The Parliamentary Secretary will, no doubt, inform us of that; but, whatever the answer is, £1,610 is a grossly inflated figure. It is very difficult to know what a permanent local authority house costs today because the Minister of Health is very coy on the subject of giving figures. But we know what a private enterprise permanent house is expected to cost—£1,300, or £1,400 in the Metropolis. What a shameful contrast between those two figures. Is that the measure of the superiority expected from private enterprise by the present Socialist Government, that they should build a permanent house for £310 less than the present administration' is able to build a temporary house?

The right hon. Gentleman, having exhausted his excuses—and I must say he had the grace to shuffle through then" pretty quickly—said that the saving in labour had justified all these great losses. But he is out of date. The saving in labour does not justify them. The great economic difficulty with which this country is faced is not because of the shortage of building labour but because of the inflationary pressure; and no excuse as to the saving of labour can justify the acceleration given to the general processes of inflation by the cost of this temporary housing programme. As I say, the presentation of this vastly increased expenditure for these temporary houses is a melancholy occasion. It has happened; but let us at least have the consolation of thinking that the Government have learned something from the great expenditure with which they have burdened the nation and from the great humiliation to which they have subjected themselves. Let us at least hope that they will apply this lesson to their policy in the future; and let us hope that they will tell their absent friend the Minister of Health something of what has passed today in order that he can recast his whole housing policy in the light of this woeful and ignominious experience.

3.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Durbin)

During the Debate, which has now lasted some three hours, I have been asked a number of questions, and I shall begin by doing my best to reply to them. The hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) asked me whether this was the end of the story, or whether there is a danger of further financial requirements in the future. The answer is that, as the programme is now tailing off, it is expected that the present estimates will be more accurate than those which have been presented to the House before. The Bill will provide us with a margin of £3 million, and although there can be no guarantee that the contingency item of £8 million will be sufficient for the completion of the outstanding payments to contractors, that margin is there, and therefore the expectation is that this is the end of the story, but there is no certainty about it. I wish to make that clear.

I was then asked by the hon. and gallant Member whether, on the basis of the figures that he quoted for the first half of this year, we were satisfied that the efficiency of the labour force was that which had been stated in the published figures. The answer to that question is, Yes—not on the basis of the average output during the six months that he took, which were dominated by the freeze-up, but in the previous six months. The published figures required an average weekly completion of 2,000 temporary houses a week. That was his own calculation. In the six months of the second half of 1946, the completions averaged 2,350 per week, so that our estimates in that respect are unquestionably reliable.

I was then asked by my hon. Friend the Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) why we had proceeded with the aluminium programme in particular. Of course, it arose out of the decision to abandon the steel house, which was not the decision of the present Government. I must go on to say that in view of the steel situation as we see it now, it is difficult to argue that the abandonment of the steel house proved to be a mistake in the long run. The fact is that the steel would not now be available for any substantial programme of Portal house construction.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) asked a number of questions about the price of aluminium. Undoubtedly, the Ministry of Supply is responsible for fixing the price. There are two groups of prices involved, the price for the virgin metal, and the price for the fabricated material. I am sorry to say that it is not possible at the moment to distinguish the effect upon the figures given in the Debate of these two different items, but we can supply him with the necessary information. Although the price varies very considerably from time to time, the price of virgin aluminium has continued to decline, and I shall make clear why that is not reflected in the case of the aluminium houses when I come to deal with the substance of the Debate. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) asked whether the estimate of transport costs that he quoted to the House had been exceeded or not. The transport cost of the aluminium house was the one, I think, with which he was concerned. The answer to that is "No." They have not been exceeded; in fact, the cost is running slightly under the estimate.

I now come to the general question of further information, and I shall do my best to provide a more detailed account of some of the points that were made by my right hon. Friend the Minister in opening this Debate. The House will remember that he spoke of an increase in cost of £39 million. The arithmetic was not incorrect. It arose only out of averaging figures. The figure of the present increased estimate which makes this Bill necessary, £39 million, is made up of these four main items: £12½ million on the Ministry of Works houses—I mean the non-aluminium houses—£13 million on the aluminium houses; and then the smaller items of £4½ million on fixtures and fittings, and £8 million on the contingency assessment of outstanding cost contracts. That figure for fittings falls a little outside the scope of the temporary housing debate that we are having today. It is, therefore, on the main two items of increased cost, of the temporary houses, other than the aluminium houses, on the one hand, and the increased cost of the aluminium houses, on the other, that I shall speak.

As far as increased costs of the Ministry of Works types of temporary houses are concerned, the factory costs of those houses are down. A third of the increase in cost is due to the increase in site preparation costs, almost the whole of which is to be attributed to the increase in wages. Almost all the remainder—I am now speaking of the Ministry of Works types of houses—is due to increases in transport and storage costs for the reason that my right hon. Friend the Minister made plain, namely, the difficulty in completing the sites in time. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) said that failure to complete the sites was due to the overloading of local authorities' building programmes. I am sure he would agree that that is far from the whole truth in the case of this particular group of sites, because many of these are, as he well knows, very small sites, and a lot of them war-damage sites where the problems of construction and laying out have been difficult and intricate. I think there is no doubt that much of the delay in the preparation of this group of sites, which gave rise to the increased cost of this type of house, is to be attributed to that fact.

Now I come to the aluminium house. Here the story is rather different as far as it concerns the increase in cost with which we are dealing in arguing the case for this Bill. In the first place, 40 per cent. of the increase in this cost is due simply to an increase in the aluminium content, following two sets of changes in specification. The purpose of the first set of changes was to strengthen the houses, and the purpose of the second set of changes was to economise in steel. A very large part, of the 40 per cent. increase in the cost of the aluminium house is really due to steel economy, and, as such, reflects nothing upon the efficiency of the original estimating, much less upon the efficiency of the work now reaching completion. A further 35 per cent. increase is due to the increased costs of the components in the house, which again lie wholly outside the temporary housing programme which we are discussing this afternoon. Therefore, more than three-quarters of the increased cost with which we are dealing is not due to the operation of the programme, or the cost of manufacture, or construction in the ordinary sense. We are left with less than 20 per cent., most of which is due to increases in overhead charges through the delay in the programme, with which I have already dealt.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary does not wish to mislead the House. He said that the item of increased cost of equipment, and so on, was quite outside his own sphere of activity and interest. Surely, he is going rather far from the point when he says that?

Mr. Durbin

I meant the increase in the cost of those units—refrigerators, heaters, and the rest of it—which are not part of the temporary housing programme, and so throw no light upon the efficiency with which the temporary housing programme has been conducted. Does that make my point clear?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

It does not answer the point I tried to make during my speech, that it is the slowness of fixing the aggregate amount of orders to be placed which is causing grave embarrassment to suppliers, and actually adds to the costs of the suppliers. To that degree I am sure the Minister will agree that he is concerned.

Mr. Durbin

Perhaps I was not very clear in what I was trying to say. The 40 per cent., with which we are now dealing, is due to an increased cost of the components coming into the aluminium-house factory and going into the aluminium house. It has nothing to do with the costs of the construction of the house itself.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I quite agree.

Mr. Durbin

Therefore, it falls outside the discussion of whether the temporary housing programme, or the construction of the aluminium house, is efficient or desirable.

I now turn to the two main points at issue in this Debate. The first concerns the question of under-estimation. There can be no question that the mere history of the figures shows that there has been grave under-estimating in the cases of both these main groups of houses. I do not want to make a mere debating point, but it is, of course, plain that the degree of under-estimation in the last two years has been far less than the degree of under-estimation with which my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Education found himself faced when he took over the responsibility of Minister of Works at the formation of the present Government.

Commander Galbraith

Yes, but it is all done by the same people.

Mr. Durbin

I thought it was most improper to say that. Between 1944 and 1945 the under-estimation was of the order of £50 million. Between 1945 and 1947—more than twice as long—the under-estimation was only £20 million.

Commander Galbraith

I think that the hon. Member is wrong. He said that the under-estimation was £50 million in the first case. If he looks at the figures in his own Government's White Paper, he will find that that is quite wrong. It is £35 million, not £50 million, for a considerably larger programme.

Mr. Durbin

So far as the sums of money asked for in this House are concerned, the figures are as I have stated. The point which arises is: why has this under-estimation taken place, and why has it been so great?

We all know the answer. Take the aluminium house. The process of construction of the aluminium house is elaborate and complex. It was wholly novel, and it involved bringing into operation methods of practical organisation which had never been applied to this type of thing before. It was a most complex and difficult process even to guess at. The point I am making is that, in the normal course of industrial and scientific procedure, for this immense undertaking—and these factories are immense undertakings, and this programme is a large one—there would have been a considerable amount of time spent upon work of investigation, development, pilot models, and all the rest of it. It is familiar to everyone that, before the war, this type of work took five years in the case of an aeroplane, and although this is not of the same degree of complexity, it was a a very difficult operation to complete.

If two years had been spent upon preparing, experimenting and investigating—let me be perfectly frank with the House—a considerable amount of the cost could have been saved. But is anyone going to say that the decision of the National Government, when the programme for the Portal house was abandoned, to go on at once and speedily with this programme was mistaken? Is anyone going to say that the decision to carry on this programme, when this Government came into office was an error? Surely not. The urgency of the housing situation is a justification for what has been done. Whether or not it was a net addition to the housing programme, I will come to in a moment. The fact is that a large part of the underestimation and the increased costs is because of the speed with which this ambitious industrial enterprise was launched without the necessary preparatory work. The people who live in these houses would, I think, value them at considerably more than the cost which has been incurred in their manufacture, and that is the real test by which the success of this proposal should be judged.

Now I come to the last question, which is whether these high costs are justified. First of all, the appearance of high cost is in part an appearance and not a reality. The appearance is in part illusory, because although these houses, particularly the aluminium house, are legally temporary houses—and there is no intention on the part of the Government to abandon the undertakings which have been given that they will be temporary houses, and will be removed from the sites on which they have been constructed within the 10-year period—technically and physically, they are not temporary houses at all. There is not the slightest doubt that the aluminium house, technically and physically, is capable of a far longer life that the 10 years, which appears to make these costs so excessive.

The second point is that these prefabricated houses of various types have made a net contribution to the housing programme, because they all economise where there have to be economies, namely, in skilled labour on the site and in scarce materials. As far as the actual building of temporary houses is concerned, the output per skilled man in the temporary housing programme is twice as high as it is in the ordinary traditional housing programme. Roughly speaking, one skilled man erects one traditional house per year and two of these temporary houses per year. There is, therefore, a net economy in labour which means that had there been none of these temporary houses there would not have been an equal increase in the number of permanent houses.

Mr. Marples

That is site labour, not labour in the factory?

Mr. Durbin

The economy is on site labour, which is the limiting factor in the housing programme taken as a whole. When one comes to materials the limiting factor in house construction is timber. Here, we have an addition to the housing programme because non-traditional material as used either in the Airey house or the aluminium house are made available for house construction.

There can be no question that although the costs are high the reasons for that are clear. They make possible a larger number of houses for the British people to inhabit. Indeed, it is true to say that the hope that was origin ally expressed in the 1944 White Paper has been fulfilled: The use of temporary accommodation will, the Government believe, make it possible approximately to double the number of dwellings which could otherwise be provided with the limited amount of skilled labour available in the first year after building can be resumed. It is on the basis of that contribution that we ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to get the information asked for as regards the aluminium supply and cost?

Mr. Durbin


Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House, for Monday next.—[Mr. Wilkins,]