HC Deb 25 November 1947 vol 444 cc1945-51

Considered in Committee. [Progress, 2ist November.]

[Major MILNER in the Chair]

Question again proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to increase the sums available for defraying expenses incurred by the Minister of Works under section one of the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, W is expedient to authorise the increase by twenty million pounds of the limit upon the sums which the Treasury may issue out of the Consolidated Fund for the purpose of defraying the expenses aforesaid.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

When we were interrupted on the Committee stage of this Money Resolution on Friday I was commenting on the fact that, as so often happens in these days, the Financial Secretary was not present. It used to be in the House a point of honour, for the Financial Secretary to foe here. I have been here for some time.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I know he sets himself up as an authority on Procedure in this House, but I should like to tell him that although it is often true that the Financial Secretary has been present when a Resolution such as this was taken, it is not strictly necessary, and I have made some inquiries. I find, too, that in the past it was not either essential or normal for him always to be there.

Mr. Williams

In answer to the Financial Secretary, in the first place, I do not consider myself an expert. But I have been a Member of the House for some time and it has almost invariably been the custom of most Financial Secretaries, certainly in the Governments from 1931 to 1940, to be present for an Estimate of this sort when it was of a considerable size. Having said that might I resume the remarks I intended to make before the right hon. Gentleman interrupted me? I intended to say that I. welcomed the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is here tonight, after leading off the Debate earlier today, and I thank him for his courtesy in attending. That is what I intended as my original remarks and what the right hon. Gentleman would have heard if he had not blown up like a certain hatter in "Alice in Wonderland."

I will try at this time to be as short as I possibly can on a matter involving a very large sum indeed. I had no intention of taking any part in the discussion on the Bill itself but I was forced to take part in this Debate not by any argument from this side of the Committee, but by two or three facts of a purely financial nature in regard to the sum of £20 million. I maintain that it is grossly beyond what we have any right to ask the taxpayers to find. The only point we can consider is whether we are justified, as representatives of the taxpayers in the country, in allowing an amount of this kind to be passed. In the first place, the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) made it perfectly plain in his speech on Friday that he considered the figure of £1,610 as far too big for the houses which were being built. I should like before I go any further to make it clear that I realise the necessity for these houses. I am not crabbing that, for I realise that but for them, a large number of people who are housed today would not be accommodated.

What I am criticising is solely the cost. The hon. Member for East Woolwich, who has some knowledge of this matter, maintains that we are spending vastly too much on the house itself. Then I come to the speech, remarkable in many ways, of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Braddock). He told us he was a great expert, and on three occasions during his speech last Friday, he said—and I think it was with the fullest justification, although I do not propose to develop that point—that there ought to be an inquiry into the amount of money we are spending on this house; that is, the actual amount we are being asked to spend. He ended with an absolute condemnation of the Government policy in asking for so much money. I am not quarrelling with the Government asking for some money, but, at the present time, there is no justification for the Government asking for the full £20 million. He said: … with regard to these temporary prefabricated houses, which, I repeat, are worth no more than 60 per cent. of the price now being asked."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1947; Vol. 444, c. 1551.] In other words, we are being asked to provide £20 million for something worth only 60 per cent. of that amount. Or, in another way, it can be said that if the Government were efficient and knew their job, these estimates we are being asked to pass tonight, would be only in the nature of £12 million. That is what is suggested by a practical back bencher opposite. We are told that some hon. Members are practical, and we accept their views and give them credit for their self-confidence. What has been said is what one hon. Member thinks of this particular Government expenditure.

I know that, at this time of the evening, we are not likely to get any withdrawal of the Resolution, but I suggest that it might save a certain amount of ill-feeling in the country if it was known that this money was being properly spent. Therefore, I think that the inquiry suggested from the Government benches should be made. This could be worked in, and if we give all this money to the Government, then either the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary—whose courtesy in coming here tonight I much appreciate—or the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry should give further consideration to the protests made from the Government benches, as well as our own. If there is to be an official inquiry into the terrific cost of these houses, then I will be satisfied. But I say quite frankly, having listened to the Parliamentary Secretary's remarks—without quoting them at this late hour—that they did not begin to satisfy me. To say merely that the cost of something has gone up by 40 per cent., as has been said, does not really cover the matter at all. No matter how much things are going up here or there, it is obvious that the Government have mismanaged the whole business. Would it not be very much better, and very much more satisfying, to hold an Inquiry into this matter? Then, someone would be able to say if the hon. Member for Mitcham was right—as I think he was:—or whether, for once, the Government themselves were right.

11.30 p.m.

Major Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)

I support my hon. Friend in asking for this inquiry. I had not intended to get up until I heard his speech. He made it perfectly clear to me that there is a great deal of money here that we are asked to vote tonight, and looking at the Financial Memorandum I am reminded that this is £20 million on top of £200 million already voted, and from the experience which I gained in Sheffield on this matter—and I may add that in Sheffield we have a housing problem as bad as any in the country—I cannot see that this £20 million that we are discussing is going to solve the problem that the Financial Secretary is setting out to solve. The reason is that the programme has been more or less placed now in the hands of the local authorities. There are back-to-back houses in my constituency where there is great overcrowding, and there has been a Socialist majority on the City Council for over 20 years. We are not likely to get the problem solved by merely voting this £20 million. Either the amount should be considerably greater, so that we can in point of fact get the houses in order to accommodate these people, or else it is a complete waste of money and the matter should be left to others to carry out. I do not know at this stage which is the better procedure. It seems to me that what we are doing is essentially wrong. Either it should be a great deal more to get the houses for people who are grossly overcrowded, or else we are wasting, money as my hon. Friend has pointed out, and it should be left to other sources which, of course, I should not be in order to discuss.

For those reasons I suggest that in order to solve the problem—as I say, in Sheffield, in my constituency, there is grave overcrowding, with back-to-back houses—there should be an inquiry into the way it should be dealt with and what money should be spent. Such an inquiry should be set up by the Government. We should not be asked as taxpayers to go into this without proper inquiry.

Mr. Tiffany (Peterborough)

Is it in Order, Sir, to discuss the pros and cons of an inquiry into this matter, and, if so, shall we be in Order in replying from this side of the House?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Members are asking that an inquiry should be held, and I cannot rule such a request out of Order however unusual it may appear.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Marples (Wallasey)

I would like to support the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams). If an inquiry cannot be granted, would it be possible for the Government to produce a White Paper giving the breakdown of the increase of £20 million? In 1944 the original amount for which the Government asked was £100 million. In 1945, the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Minister of Education asked for a further £50 million. Now, in 1947, the Government are asking for an additional £20 million on this temporary housing programme. The money has not been spent very well, for aluminium houses cost £1,010, when a private builder is only allowed to build permanent houses for £1,300. It shows a clear waste of money. When the Government first asked for the £50 million they produced a White Paper (Command 6686) which gave a very detailed analysis of the figures of breakdown of the cost per house which went to make up the £50 million for which they were asking. The cost per house, they said, was £268. The details per house were: site preparation, £89; superannuation, £96; fittings, £25; drainage, etc., £15; Ministry of Works' costs, £20; contingencies, £23; total cost, £268.

I am grateful for the presence here tonight of the Financial Secretary, because this is the second increase for which the Government have asked. They gave us a White Paper on the first increase, and, surely, we are not out of Order in asking for another on the additional £20 million? The first figure was £120 million and the second—on which they gave us the White Paper—was £50 million. Now they ask for another £20 million, and have not even produced a breakdown of that figure to show how it is arrived at. I would ask the Financial Secretary for a reply on that point. If they will not give an inquiry, then the least the Government can do is to give as much information as they can.

11.36 p.m.

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

Three points have so far been raised in this discussion. It is difficult to answer the first without traversing the ground covered in the Debate on the Second Reading. I must repeat that so far as the cost of the aluminium houses is concerned, nearly half of the increased cost is attributable to changes in specification and an increase in aluminium content, first, to strengthen the houses and secondly, to save steel. That, therefore, is no criticism of the efficiency with which the programme has been carried through. The great bulk of the remaining half arises from increases in the costs of the manufactured components going into the houses, and that again does not cast any reflection on the efficiency with which the houses are constructed.

The second point raised was the matter of an inquiry, raised by the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), and that of a White Paper, raised by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples). I think the hon. Member for Wallasey made it clear that so much information was provided in the past on the breakdown of costs and the reasons for increases that it would be difficult to say that there was a case for specific inquiry. As to his suggestion that there should be a White Paper I will call the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works to that, and he will no doubt make his decision known at a later stage of the Bill.

The other question I was asked was whether this was or was not an adequate sum? This arose, I think, from a slight misunderstanding of the nature of the Resolution. This is only concerned with a sum of money to meet financial costs of temporary house construction, which has almost reached its end, and has nothing to do with the solving of the future housing problem.

Major Roberts

Does that mean there will be further demands coming before the Committee for further programmes for temporary housing?

Mr. Durbin

Oh, no. The temporary housing programme has nearly reached its end.

Mr. C. Williams

I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary has seen fit to refer to the remarks recorded in the OFFICIAL REPORT at column 1570, which I have read carefully. It really does not meet the case. What was wanted was a much clearer breakdown. Those who have had a long experience in these matters realise that the answer is totally and absolutely useless. It is too late to have a Division tonight, but that course would other wise have been forced by the sort of repetition and the hopelessly incompetent answer that has been made.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

Committee counted, and, 40 Members being present

11.43 p.m.

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

On a point of Order. I very much regret having to draw attention to the unsatisfactory nature of the reply given by the Parliamentary Secretary. We had hoped on this side that we should have been given more facts on this matter. We are dealing with a very large sum of money. Nobody who listened to the Debate on the previous occasion when the House discussed this matter, last Friday, could possibly have felt satisfied with the explanation then given. Even Ministers admitted that further explanations were to be given. I submit that this was the proper occasion on which those explanations should have been given, and I feel very sorry this chance was not taken, because now we are forced to the position in which the Committee is voting public money without the full facts, and without all the information to which we are entitled. I must make this protest, without blaming the Parliamentary Secretary, that this Committee is being asked [HON. MEMBERS:" This is not a point of Order."]—If I am not in Order the Chairman will call me to Order, and not hon. Members opposite. I must make this protest, that we have not been given the full facts before the Committee is asked to sanction such a large sum of money.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

On a point of Order, may I call attention to the fact that after a count had been called at .11.40 there were only four Members on the Opposition benches to respond to that count?

Resolution to be reported Tomorrow.