HC Deb 16 November 1951 vol 493 cc1391-406

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

3.44 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

I believe that the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) made a brief incursion into our debate last night, in his new role as Under Secretary of State for Scotland, but I think that his inaugural appearance in his high office might really be said to be this afternoon, and I should like, on behalf of my colleagues on this side of the House, to congratulate him on his appointment and to wish him well in his new duties. We shall watch sympathetically and critically his performance in a very difficult job. I can assure him that in all that he does which redounds to the well-being of Scotland he shall have our steadfast support. On those occasions when he may fall from our high estimate then, alas, he will get that support in a somewhat different fashion.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has many tough jobs before him, and certainly not the least of them is the one that I present this afternoon, the sale of tenant-occupied houses when they become vacant. This problem is a source of great concern and irritation, particularly in the City of Glasgow and to some extent in other parts of Scotland. In presenting it to the House I am fortified by the great volume of support which I have received by way of letters. That support comes from somewhat unexpected quarters.

I have brought a selection with me today. Strange to say, some of those who offer support belong to that section of the community who we are supposed to be attacking—or, at least, whom I am supposed to be attacking in bringing forward this matter—namely, the property owners. It is not without significance that I have in my hand letters from property-owners in Glasgow, and I shall quote from them later. They offer a certain measure of agreement for my contention that the sale of those houses ought to be prohibited.

Naturally, I have support from tenants and organised workers in my division, from the shop stewards in one of the great engineering projects, Messrs Howden's, in the Tradeston division. Later, I shall cite support for my proposition from another unexpected quarter, namely, the benches opposite, because I shall direct attention to the remarkable speech made by the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne), when he claimed that this traffic ought to be stopped. That speech has become more remarkable because, unlike speeches of that nature, it has earned him promotion, which all of us who know him think he thoroughly deserves.

I am raising something which is of concern to many people and an irritation to a great many more. I feel sure that it is fairly clear that something must be done about the sale of these houses. We must, of course, take certain factors into account at the very beginning, because the problem is a derivative of the Scottish housing problem in general. We cannot go into that today, but I merely point out that this is something which springs from that problem.

The House well knows that we started with a need for 400,000 houses immediately. We had on our hands 400,000 houses condemned as unfit for human habitation. The position was almost as if we were minus 400,000. We were 400,000 below zero, and before we could reach the zero position we had to build 400,000 houses, and then we should have to face the normal problem of housing our people. On top of that—perhaps as a result of it—there have been the appalling waiting lists in the City of Glasgow and all other parts of Scotland. There are at least 500,000 people on the waiting lists for local authority houses in Scotland. There are 100,000 on the waiting list for corporation houses in Glasgow at the moment.

When we look at that aspect of the matter we can realise the anger filling the breasts of many people in Glasgow when they look at the "Glasgow Evening News" on a Tuesday afternoon and see two whole pages—almost a special supplement—advertising nearly 300 houses for sale, when, at the same time, 100,000 people in the city are looking for homes. The fact that these houses are advertised for sale publicly does not obscure the fact that there are hundreds which are never advertised publicly.

Despite the appalling need for houses in Glasgow, these empty dwelling houses are sometimes kept out of use for anything from six weeks to three months—[HON. MEMBERS: "Six months."] That is even worse than I had gathered—for the sole purpose of achieving as high a price as can possibly be extracted from these needy people.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

Owners should go on strike.

Mr. Rankin

If the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), has anything to say, I shall be willing to give way. If he is prepared to defend people who are making great profits out of a terrible need—some of his colleagues are not—I am sure that the House will be glad to hear him.

Sir H. Williams

I only made the observation that the owners should go on strike as workers in essential industries sometimes do, despite the inconvenience they cause, because they want to get better pay.

Mr. Rankin

That is such a peculiar and disgraceful argument that I am certain that the House would not expect me to waste time in dealing with it.

I am suggesting that these houses are kept vacant until the highest possible price is achieved before they are brought back into circulation. This is leading to a very disgraceful traffic indeed, and is the sort of thing to which I am asking the Joint Under-Secretary to give consideration this afternoon.

I have a letter from a property owner telling me of a modest three-roomed house with kitchen, W.C., bathroom, and so on, which his tenant was prepared to purchase. Accordingly, a building society—the Co-operative Building Society—was brought in to value the property. They valued it at £350, but the tenant offered £450 and the property owner took that amount. I have no quarrel about that, but within a month of purchasing the property for £450, that individual sold it for £1,100 to another person who was in desperate need. That is the sort of traffic which is developing and is a traffic which, I hope, we will all unite in condemning and in bringing to an end.

Mr. J. N. Browne (Glasgow, Govan)

I am following the hon. Member's argument with great interest, but can he clarify one point? There is the very serious problem which arises with privately owned tenement properties. The examples which the hon. Member is quoting seem to me tend to be of the normal buying and selling of property, not only in Glasgow, but all over the country. Is he confining himself to the Glasgow and Scottish problem, or is he covering the wider problem of the buying and selling of houses?

Mr. Rankin

As I said at the beginning, I am confining myself to the problem particularly as it applies to the City of Glasgow, but I do not think it is localised in Glasgow. 1 think it is found more or less all over Scotland. If my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) is fortunate in catching Mr. Speaker's eye, he may be able to tell us a little more about it as it affects certain English constituencies.

I have given one example of an abuse that arises from the withdrawal of these houses from the market. I want to give another example, which comes from a lady in another part of the City of Glasgow, whose husband is a chief officer with a British tanker company. When she married, this lady, like many other people, had to take a small two-apartment house. Now, with a small family, she is looking for a larger type of house. When she goes to the factor, however, the factor tells her, "You can only have the larger type of house if you are prepared to buy it."

The lady is willing to exchange; she is willing to pay the bigger rent for a bigger house to suit what might be called her developing needs, and she is faced immediately with this ultimatum: You cannot have the bigger house unless you are prepared to buy that house altogether.

It being Four o 'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

Mr. Rankin

Unfortunately, as I have discovered, many of those who undertook the purchase of these houses failed to realise that with the purchase goes a number of other commitments. They are charged with owners' rates, and their share in the maintenance of the property and they are also charged with their share of maintenance of the pavement outside. When all these bills begin to flow into their homes they are the cause of a great deal of distress, as I had the experience of discovering during the recent Election.

We are not suggesting, of course, that there is any illegality in what is going on. In this Adjournment debate it is quite impossible for us to deal with that aspect. One thing I do say, and on which I hope I shall have support from all parts of the House, is that the action we condemn is something which is anti-social and that is something on which we should unite in trying to stop. If we cannot alter any illegalities that may exist, I am certain that we have the power to stop these anti-social acts.

This problem is further intensified in the City of Glasgow by the fact that 500 properties have been abandoned altogether by their owners. There are such properties in my division and one typical instance was in Marlow Street in Tradeston, where on one occasion almost a quarter of the property fell down. It had stood for so many decades that it was wearied of standing and simply subsided altogether.

I do not know how many tenants were left without homes as a result, but it was fortunate that all those living in that part of the property were either at work, or out shopping when it fell. Otherwise, there might have been a tragedy of very serious dimensions. The abandonment of these 500 properties has intensified the difficulties I have indicated.

I agree that this problem is largely peculiar to Glasgow and the acuteness of its incidence was graphically described by the hon. Member for Govan on 6th November, when he said: I wish also to refer to the question of houses for sale, but not to let, in privately-owned tenements. He went on to say: There should be no empty house and people should not be forced to buy what is virtually valueless property in order to secure houses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1951; Vol. 493, c. 88–9.] That sentiment, which I fully endorse, met with unanimous approval in the House on that occasion.

Today, I am asking his chief to show what he can do, what I believe the Government can do to put an end to the traffic that was so vividly described by the hon. Member on that occasion.

What he says of Govan is true of my own division of Tradeston, but, as I have said, the problem is not local, as many of my hon. Friends here may be able to testify. What has been said of Glasgow is equally true of many other parts of Scotland. So we are faced with the issue of what can be done; that is the vital point. We will all agree that it demands urgent attention not merely because of its extent, but also because of its intensity.

Power is in the hands of the Government to deal with this problem if the Government so desire, because 48 hours ago, in the House on Wednesday, we extended the Defence Regulations until 10th December, 1952. In Regulation 68BB the Government are given power to deal with this problem, in these words: If a county or town council are satisfied as respects their area— That there are in their area unoccupied houses which … cannot be reoccupied but some or all of which can be put into such a condition of cleanliness and repair as to be reasonably capable of being used, as a temporary measure for housing purposes; The powers conferred by paragraphs (2) and (3) of the last preceding Regulation"— that is Regulation 68B— shall he exercisable with respect to the area of that council: Provided that the said powers shall not be exercisable … with respect to their area without the consent of the Secretary of State. Thus it is perfectly clear that the Secretary of State has the power, and he can use it if he so desires. He can give to the City Council of Glasgow or any county council in Scotland the power to end this despicable traffic. In that way the people of Scotland and of Glasgow in particular can be given, if not the housing accommodation that we should like to see them getting, at least the comparative decency of a house of their own which they may obtain by renting, and not one that they are forced to acquire by spending money, whose amount in many cases is so high as to be totally unjustifiable and to constitute what, in my view, is a wrong which we should do everything we can to right.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I would like to add my voice to what has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tradeston (Mr. Rankin). This is not a localised problem; indeed, it is not a single problem, because it has many facets. In the last Parliament I drew the attention of the then Minister to one of the important aspects of this problem from a rather different angle from what my hon. Friend has been describing. This traffic is going on in many parts of the country, including my own division.

The first point is one that I raised during the last Parliament. Landlords are refusing to allow exchanges of houses to try to force existing tenants to get out so that the houses may be de-controlled and the landlords able to sell them. As I explained rather fully then, this is leading to a situation where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, are living in houses and flats with many more rooms than they can use; while others are living in overcrowded conditions in smaller apartments, only too anxious to exchange with them, so that everybody could be accommodated. But they are refused permission to do so by the landlords.

The Minister in the previous Government to whose attention I drew this matter was extremely sympathetic, and discussed with me afterwards the possibilities which existed for dealing with that particular aspect of the problem. I am sure that his successor will be no less willing to look into that side of it, because this makes a serious and a very large contribution to the difficult housing problem with which the country is faced.

The other aspect on the matter is this. In my own constituency a block of houses was purchased recently by a Manchester firm. I do not know what they paid for the property, which is very old and delapidated. The firm bought them as a speculation. The houses are occupied and the property is rent protected. There was no purpose at all in any firm, let alone an absentee firm, being interested in this property, because it was practically valueless. But they bought the property and they sent an agent to see the tenants. He told the tenants that the property had now been bought and was in the hands of a new owner, but that he was prepared, before turning them out of the property, to offer them the opportunity of buying.

Two of these tenants were frightened out of their wits. They signed a document saying that they would be prepared to buy the property at the price given by the new owners. They now find themselves committed to this. It may be said that they ought to have had more sense, but after all, there are many millions of people in this and other countries who are not very well aware of their legal rights, and who become bewildered when faced with what seems to them to be a frightening problem; and they are liable to do things which they ought have more sense than to do.

The fact remains that it has been done. It is a most dishonest procedure. The tenants have not even had a copy of the agreement they signed. I have asked them to demand a copy of this agreement so that I can look at the wording to see if anything can be done about it. I mention these two sides of the case to show that this is really a ramp which is going on all over the country; it is exploiting the general pressure on housing accommodation.

Whatever the law may be at the present time, and whatever may be the difficulties, it is very clear that if our people are to be protected, and if the housing position is to be relieved in other ways than merely by building more houses—which is the most important way—in ways which can make a great contribution to relieving the problem, it is worth while for the Minister and his colleagues to study this to see what can be done.

I hope that when I get further information about the cases I have cited I shall be able to forward the particulars to the Minister, and that something may be done to protect these unfortunate people. But that is what is happening. There is no doubt whatever. It is a preposterous ramp, and if anything can be done to stop it it ought to be done. There is no question of a fair reward for a fair day's work or even for fair investment. This is a racket and it ought to be stopped, if it is at all possible to stop it, by any means within the power of the Government. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give attention to this question.

4.15 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I only intervened because I thought that the argument which has been addressed to us was not quite as honest as it should have been. I own no property, so I am not engaged in this racket. I am a tenant. That is my relationship to house property. I object to monopolies. I object to monopoly exploitation of all kinds. When the hon. Member for Tradeston (Mr. Rankin) was speaking, I said that property owners should have gone on strike. I am not sure that he realised the analogy. Every now and then, even after a trade union has made an arrangement with the employees, a body of work people have what they call an unofficial strike for the purpose of exacting a higher profit out of their labour. It is the same principle. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to appreciate it.

Mr. Rankin

I quoted figures which denied completely the proposition that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. Does he consider that paying £450 for a house valued at £350 and then re-selling it within a month for £1,120 is a fair profit?

Sir H. Williams

I am talking about the question of principle involved—the exploitation of monopoly powers. The hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues have frequently talked about this. People living in glass houses should not throw stones.

Mr. Rankin

But they are not glass houses.

Sir H. Williams

Brick houses.

Mr. Rankin

And they are falling to pieces.

Sir H. Williams

That is very often because the Rent Restriction Acts apply to private property and not to municipal property. We all know that slums have been created at a great rate because, in many cases, the rents are insufficient to enable the owners to keep the property in repair. Everybody knows that a house which is rent protected has three different values—

Mr. Rankin

May I appeal to the hon. Gentleman? There is not much time left and I believe that the Under-Secretary wants to speak.

Sir H. Williams

It has three values—what it would cost to replace, which is the highest; what it could be sold at in a free market, which is the next; and what is could be sold at if it is rent protected. One must take all these factors into account.

The hon. Member did not point out to the House that the Regulations which he quoted were in operation in July, 1945, when the Government of which he was a supporter were in office. They never used them.

Mr. J. Hynd

Yes, they did.

Sir H. Williams

I am talking about Glasgow. The hon. Member for Tradeston said that they did not use them. That is his grievance. If they had used them, the trouble he mentioned would not have happened. He did not tell the House that one of the main causes of the shortage of houses in Scotland is the system known as "owners' rates." Every responsible person who has been at the Scottish Office knows that this system ought to be modified. Socialist Secretaries of State have known that. They have said so to me. Really, the hon. Member might go into the matter a little more carefully than he has done. I am not unfamiliar with this problem.

Mr. Rankin

I am willing to argue the point with the hon. Gentleman, because he does not understand the position, but I appeal to him. We have only ten minutes for a reply, and I want to hear the Under-Secretary.

Sir H. Williams

If the hon. Gentleman had not intervened so much I should have finished by now. I believe that this is still a place for free speech.

Mr. Rankin


Sir H. Williams

I represent a borough that was very badly bombed during the war when 3,000 houses were destroyed and 90 per cent. of the rest were damaged. I have a lot of constituents who would like to build houses for their own occupation, but under the practice which has prevailed they are forbidden that right. The Government which the hon. Member for Tradeston supported did everything they could to stop more houses being built.

Mr. Rankin

That is wrong.

Sir H. Williams

It certainly is not.

Mr. Rankin


Sir H. Williams

Certainly not. They said they would not have more than 200,000 houses. [Interruption.] I know that hon. Members opposite do not like it. The labour force available before the war, which was the same as it is today, was building 350,000 a year and anything else that one wanted building. Hon. Members opposite must occasionally take their medicine and not think they are the only people entitled to criticise others.

4.20 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Commander T. D. Galbraith)

First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman the Member for Tradeston (Mr. Rankin) for the very kind personal references that he made to me, and assure him that I shall always look for his support. I have listened with the utmost sympathy to what the hon. Gentleman has said today and to the case he has presented to the House, and also for the remarks of the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd).

After all, the situation which they have disclosed today is simply another of the very many facets of our housing problem in Scotland; but in doing what he has done the hon. Gentleman for Trades-ton has rendered a service to us all, because I do not think that we can be too often reminded of the distress, the misery and the frustration which arise out of the existing housing shortage, which imposes such very great misery on many thousands of families in our country. Let me assure the House, if there is any need to do so, that the Government fully appreciate the evils which flow from the discontents which arise out of our present housing situation. They regard that situation as the greatest social problem of our time, and are determined to do everything possible within their power to remedy it as soon as possible.

To that end, the hon. Gentleman will remember that, in the Gracious Speech, housing is placed immediately after defence. We do look—and I hope we may look with confidence—to every Member of this House, and to the building industry as a whole, to lend their utmost aid to the attack which we are making upon this very grave and very difficult problem.

The particular problem to which the hon. Gentleman has referred is one which, as he said, has existed for a number of years, and particularly since the end of the war. In the early days after the war it did not arouse such acute feelings as he has described to us, and I think that there was a very good reason, perhaps, for that, because in those days the homeless and the badly housed and those who are very grossly overcrowded were buoyed up with hope, and it was a hope—and I say this with all respect and deference—for which hon. Gentlemen opposite had a very large measure of responsibility. It was the hope that the housing problem was simple of solution and would speedily be solved. In the intervening years that hope has been almost completely shattered, and now a realization of the long-term nature of the cure rather induces those who are homeless or overcrowded almost beyond bearing to snatch at almost anything which they think conceivably may relieve their difficulties. That is a very natural reaction, and it is one, I am sure, with which the whole House sympathises.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the great urgency of this problem; but, apart from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne), to which he referred, this is, I think, the first time that this problem has ever been raised in this House, although, as I said previously, it has existed for a good number of years. I agree with the hon. Member for Tradeston that the problem is local rather than national. According to the information that I have, which is in agreement with his, it arose principally in Glasgow and the industrial west of Scotland, and to a lesser degree it may be existing in Dundee and elsewhere.

Let me attempt to put this matter into its proper perspective. We have in Glasgow over 250,000 houses with a rent of £35 a year and under. Since the war slightly over 3,000 houses have been sold, and many of the 3.000 continue to be available for rent. In the same period, let me remind the House, some 26.600 houses have been built, or are building now, for letting purposes. So what it comes to really is this: that for every house that has been sold nine houses have been provided for rent. Now, although these figures may show that the problem is of relatively modest dimensions, I fully realise that that in no way relieves the feelings of those who, either rightly or wrongly, think that the prohibition of these sales may relieve their individual plight.

What the hon. Gentleman, quite frankly, proposed was that there should be a standstill in the sale of all tenement flats, and he suggested that is desirable in the public interest.

I want to make one or two observations as to that. The first thing I would say is that the freedom to own a house of one's own is not prohibited in any country in Europe, not even in the U.S.S.R. Further than that, freedom within the law to dispose of individual property, whether real or personal, has hitherto never been seriously challenged in this country, and, if it were, then to my mind it would be the beginning of the end of all individual rights and freedoms.

Apart from these somewhat fundamental considerations, there are others which have a practical bearing on the subject. For many years it has been common knowledge to all hon. Members that there has been no return from privately owned property, and in recent years very serious losses indeed have been incurred, so that today essential repairs are unable to be carried out. That is the cause of the 500 abandoned properties to which the hon. Gentleman himself referred. That situation is the cause of the very greatest anxiety to all concerned in any way with the well-being of the people. But what has surprised me very much indeed is that I have been unable to discover that the late Government took any serious interest in that problem.

The present Government have already taken steps to ascertain the extent of the problem, and will strive by every means to find a satisfactory solution to it. It is perfectly obvious that the preservation of existing homes is of equal importance to the provision of new homes, and I would go further and say that if we are to continue to allow existing homes to fall into ruin and decay then the housing problem is altogether impossible of solution. In the circumstances which exist, that is to say, where there is a shortage of money available for repairs, I would put this to the hon. Gentleman. It may well be that the sale of a tenement house here and there will go a long way to ensuring the preservation of other properties from deterioration, and, therefore, to some extent, is in the true interest of the whole community.

The hon. Gentleman made a suggestion as to requisitioning. In the time at my disposal I can only say that the recent Government gave that up two years ago and that we would find it very hard, in view of the experience of the past few years, to justify the resumption of the use of what were originally emergency war-time powers.

Mr. Rankin

The Government resumed them on Wednesday.

Commander Galbraith

I am just stating the facts of the case.

Then there was a reference by both hon. Gentlemen to the control of the sale of houses. I will merely say, on that point, that the Morris Committee reported and the Government of the day, supported by the hon. Gentleman, found it impossible to implement the recommendations of that Committee and gave their reasons for so doing.

One last word. I want to say that the charge against owners in general of exacting extortionate prices from unwilling purchasers is, according to my official information, not capable of being substantiated, at any rate, in full. But I feel that what the hon. Gentleman has said about people purchasing houses and not being aware of the serious nature of the obligations they are undertaking is one which deserves attention, and I would advise all who intend purchasing a house to seek professional advice.

There is only one real solution for this problem, and that is to press on with building houses. I indicated earlier that that is the Government's intention. It is our intention to do everything towards solving the housing problem, and we shall welcome assistance from all towards the attainment of what I believe to be a great national and human objective which would remove a very great deal of suffering from our country. I feel certain that the Government will receive from all quarters the co-operation which they seek and for which they ask. Having said that, I undertake to examine with the utmost care and consideration the questions which have been put to me this afternoon.

4.29 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

In the very short time at my disposal, I wish to draw the attention of the Home Secretary to the case of Tommy Kavanagh—

The Question having been proposed at Four o 'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o 'Clock.