HC Deb 16 October 1952 vol 505 cc503-26

Order for Second Reading read.

9.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. John Foster)

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

The Bill deals with the Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust, which was created in Ireland in 1924 by United Kingdom Act of Parliament in order to provide homes for ex-Service men of the 1914–18 War. The object of the Bill is to give the Trust power of sale to the widows of ex-Service men. It also confirms the powers which are believed to exist to sell to ex-Service men. If the Bill is passed, the result will be that the Trust will have the power to sell houses which have been built by the Trust to ex-Service men and to their widows.

In Southern Ireland, owing to a decision of the Irish courts, there is no power to charge rents. The Trust has to maintain the cottages and houses out of its own cash reserves, and as those reserves dwindle the point will be reached when the Trust will be unable to keep the cottages in repair. The Trust is anxious to create a purchase scheme in Southern Ireland by which the houses will be offered at less than market price to the ex-Service tenants or to their widows. The money obtained will be used to build other houses for ex-Service men who are beneficiaries under the Trust. There is still a considerable list of ex-Service men who would like to enjoy the benefit of these houses.

In Northern Ireland the houses are let at a low rent which just covers the cost of maintenance, and there will be no purchase scheme there unless responsible Service opinion desires that one should be put into operation. The provisions under which the Trust lets houses to widows will continue. At the moment the figures are that in Eire 623 houses are let to widows and in Northern Ireland 269.

The Bill is not controversial. It is brought forward to ensure that the beneficiaries of the Trust in Southern Ireland will continue to enjoy benefits under the Trust and to provide a way in which they can secure the benefit of these cottages or houses for their families. It will be appreciated that unless ex-Service men or their widows buy the house the family will not be entitled to it, and that the house will go on to some other ex-Service man who might be on the list. In Northern Ireland the Trust gets in enough money to maintain the houses, and it is not the intention of the Trust to bring in a purchase scheme unless ex-Service men there wish that to happen. Lettings there will continue both to ex-Service men and to widows at low rents just sufficient to cover maintenance.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

My hon. Friends and I welcome this Bill. We may have some points to raise in Committee to improve it, but we shall certainly do all we can to give it a Second Reading.

As I understand it, the problem of these 2,700 houses in the Irish Republic which have been let to ex-Service men of the 1914–1918 War and their widows is, as the hon. Gentleman said, the problem of getting any money to maintain them since rents cannot be collected according to an Irish court decision. Obviously this cannot go on for ever, and if the Government of Eire, the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Northern Ireland are all agreed that the Trust should be given powers to sell and to build, then it is right that we should look at that carefully, and it seems to me that the case has been made out for this Bill.

There is one important point, and that is the price at which these houses will be sold. I was going to ask for an assurance that they will be sold really cheaply. The hon. Gentleman said that they will be sold at less than market price. I do not think it is possible to press for more than that because that is an important concession, but quite rightly so. These veterans of the 1914–1918 War in Southern Ireland are men who served us well, and previous Parliaments set out to help them for so doing.

It is difficult to get figures as to service from Southern Ireland in that war because the Irish figures were taken as one at that time. I see hon. Members for Northern Ireland here, and I think we all agree that, taking Ireland as a whole, the proportion of volunteers from a country which had no conscription and no immediate danger of invasion itself were remarkably high. The only figures I have seen on this were the British Legion figures, and they were outstanding.

I should not leave this Bill without referring shortly to the Irish service record in the last war, especially as I see here the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. We all know the magnificent record of Northern Ireland. It is more difficult to know the record of Southern Ireland because a neutral country does not keep official figures. However, we know of the great numbers who served and are serving today in the British Forces.

We know the instance of the senator from the South who was serving in the British Army and who returned from time to time to Dublin leaving his uniform at the Border, who made speeches in the neutral House and then came back. On one of those visits he was told that his villa in Italy had been taken over by the Italian Government and that Kesselring was living in it. He was so moved with indignation that he sat down and wrote on the notepaper of the Irish Senate a sharp letter of protest to the Embassy in Rome protesting at the monstrous act of the Italian Government in seizing the home of a senator of a neutral country. As a result, Kesselring left.

We welcome this Bill and hope it will receive a Second Reading.

9.34 p.m.

Mr. Alan McKibbin (Belfast, East)

At the beginning of this week I attended by request a meeting of the North of Ireland British Legion and the members present were disturbed by reason of the fact that the British Legion had not been consulted about this Bill. They were much concerned about the widows of the ex-Service occupants when those occupants died, and also about certain other matters which I need not go into.

It gave me much satisfaction to hear the statement of the Minister, from which I understand that there will be no scheme for purchasing the 1,362 houses in Northern Ireland, although there has always been power to sell them to ex-Service men, that no scheme will be introduced without all the interested parties being consulted, and that the widows will be admitted as tenants after the deaths of their husbands. I am glad that the Minister has given these assurances, which should satisfy the Northern Ireland ex-Service community, as they have always looked upon these cottages as a pool for ex-Service preference.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

Surely, the hon. Member has raised a point of tremendous importance. Is it really true that the Bill is being brought before the House without the recognised organisation of the ex-Service men having been consulted or even informed? Can the Minister tell us?

Mr. McKibbin

They were consulted in England, but apparently they were not consulted in Northern Ireland.

For a number of years it has been assumed that when the turn of the 1914–18 men had been served, these houses would become the ultimate inheritance of the men of the 1939–45 war. It is conceded that the houses were built for the 1914 men, but one must take the common sense view that if there had been any reason to anticipate another world war these conditions would have been slightly different.

But for the fact that there is a considerable waiting list of 1914–18 men for these houses, there would undoubtedly have been considerable agitation long before now to have the tenancies open for the 1939–45 men. I feel certain that at a later stage when there are no more 1914–18 men available, the Trust will preserve the rights of the 1939–45 men who are now on the waiting list and that it will not allow the houses to pass into any other hands than those of ex-Service men.

There has never been any wish on the part of the ex-Service men in the North to sabotage the interests of their comrades in the South. There has always been the best of feeling between the ex-Service men on both sides of the Border, and I am quite sure that this will always continue. A few years ago I went as a guest to a re-union dinner of ex-Service men in Dublin, and on that occasion I heard them sing "God Save the King" with an enthusiasm that almost blew off the roof.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Although I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) has said from the Front Bench, it seems that we shall want a lot of information about the Bill before we come to the Committee stage. I want to protest in opening at the very little information that was given from the Government Front Bench in this debate or, indeed, in another place when the Second Reading was taken there, and at the very little information we have now and the wholly inadequate accounts that are filed in the Library by the Trust.

The noble Marquess who moved the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Lords said, if my recollection is right, that probably very few people knew that the Trust existed. I imagine that that is true. Very few people would know anything about it by going into the Library and trying to find the information that is available there.

We are told in a footnote that the rents derived from the houses in Northern Ireland are of the order of £28,000 a year for 1,300 houses, or, roughly speaking, something of the order of 8s. or 9s. a week, which seems a reasonable and modest rent. And we are told offhand by the hon. and learned Gentleman that a decision of the Irish courts has deprived the Trust of the right to receive the rents from the houses in Southern Ireland. As I understand the position, it is said that no power to receive rents was ever inserted in the original Bill and that it was due entirely to a mistake in the Bill that they were able to come to that conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln said, very rightly, that this cannot go on for ever. But it has already gone on for 19 years, and if the relative rents are of the same order in Southern Ireland, there is an income of something like £60,000 a year that has been lost to the Trust for 19 years without, so far as we are able so see, anyone doing anything at all about it, or indeed, as far as I know, the matter being formally reported to this House or any suggestion being made about the introduction of legislation.

The hon. and learned Gentleman who moved the Second Reading said that what is wanted is first to have the right to sell houses to widows. He said further that they want the right confirmed—they think they have it—to sell to ex-Service men. I should have thought that in 19 years that could have been found out by the simple process of selling one or two. If I read the accounts aright, some have been sold. It may be that that is in Northern Ireland.

So we have the position that for 19 years the Trust has carried on owning 2,700 houses in Southern Ireland and never drawn any rent from them. That is a principle of which, substantially speaking, I am in favour. I think that all rents should be abolished, but if I developed my views on that, I should probably get outside the direct terms of the Second Reading.

The hon. and learned Gentleman made no attempt to explain the situation or to inform the House of what has been done to change it. What he has not said is that under this Bill it is intended to go on letting houses to widows at all. As I understand it, unless the husband has died before the Bill is passed, or six months thereafter, it is not proposed to let houses to widows of those men. That is the first fundamental point, that there could be nothing more contrary to the intentions of a benevolent trust than to say that we are not going on letting to widows of ex-Service men because we do not think they will be able to pay and we may lose money on them.

The fundamental proposal is very remarkable, and I hope the House will consider it seriously between now and the Committee stage. They say, "We cannot draw rents and are not going to seek power to draw rents, nor to ask for powers to dispose of all this property, preferably to ex-Service men and preferably at a reasonable price." It is well at this stage to consider just what has been the mechanics of the administration of this Trust because, drawing no rent, the noble Marquis in another place said, maintenance has been kept at a minimum. One can understand that one would not be over-lavish with maintenance, but I ask the House to consider for a moment precisely what are the relevant figures. I have the figures on revenue account for the year ending 31st March, 1950, from the Library. I understand these are the latest figures available. The House may be surprised to know what they are.

In Northern Ireland, on 1,300 houses £16,416 has been spent on maintenance, and in Southern Ireland on 2,700 houses only £1,387 has been spent. On 2,700 houses, if I am right in my figures, the amount has been approximately 10s 0d. per house per year, and the House might be interested to know about this anonymous Trust. The names of the members are not given on the memorandum, although under the Bill there are to be appointed by the appropriate Minister, one from Southern Ireland and one from Northern Ireland.

The House might be interested to know the administration of these houses in Southern Ireland on which virtually nothing has been spent on maintenance, on which no one collects rents, and there is no commission on rent to pay. But they spent £7,833 9s. 1d. in one year in Southern Ireland alone on administration. They also spent, at their headquarters in Southern Ireland, another £923. So we get the Trust spending £8,600 in administration in Southern Ireland and £1,387 on maintenance of houses.

That seems to me to be a quite appalling situation. What is the state of these homes? The House has a right to know this. What is the sort of price that is to be obtained for these houses? If they had no maintenance done on them in the 19 years which have passed, what is their state? Could we see a photograph of them, or be told what is their approximate valuation?

In another place it was said that they are going to sell these houses and build more houses and sell them. They are going to try to provide for the ex-Service men of Southern Ireland by treating the capital derived from the sale of these houses as capital available for further investment, and are going to build more houses and sell them. Is that correct? Is that really the intention. If so, at what price can houses be built in Southern Ireland at this moment? I happen to know something of house building prices in Dublin, and I suggest that the figures are higher than those here for comparable houses. They normally build smaller houses than we do, so that the price per capita is lower but for comparable houses the price is higher.

In this situation, it is suggested that these houses be sold at modest prices.

No one will pay much if they are living rent free. What is an ex-soldier living rent free likely to pay to extinguish his non-liability to pay rent? Then it is intended to use the money to build houses elsewhere at present prices. As one noble Lord said in another place, how many people will there be in Southern Ireland today of the type whom it is intended to benefit by this provision who will be able to pay, or who can in any way provide, a sum which will meet the extraordinarily high building costs of today?

I like to be courteous to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is himself always courteous, but I think it is surprising that he has not opened up a little on this. It is unfortunate that he and I should be called upon to start the discussion on this Measure at this unearthly hour of the evening. The fault for that is not mine, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has made representations to the Leader of the House. I am also perfectly certain that his representations have been received in much the same way as any representations which we make from time to time as to the ordinary conduct of the business of the House.

Some remarkable things were said in the course of the debate in another place. One noble Lord said that we wanted to make provision for the soldiers of the 1939–45 war but they must wait until we have dealt with all the soldiers of the 1914–18 war. Why?

In this country we initiated a system, which unfortunately has been abrogated to some extent by the present Government, of allocating houses on the basis of need. Those who served in the 1939–45 war are likely to be people who are married, with young families, and most in need of housing accommodation. I am not for a moment suggesting that we should treat with anything other than the fullest consideration those who served in the first war and for whose needs the Act was primarily intended. At that time we did not contemplate having another war.

There is, however, no reason why there should be this disparity of treatment and why it should be said that no man may have a house under the provisions of this Trust until after those who, irrespective of need, made application following the 1914–18 war. I do not think that can be the case

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

There is apparently a waiting list of ex-Service men of the 1914–18 war who are waiting to avail themselves of an opportunity to occupy or acquire a house already built under the terms of the Trust.

Mr. Hale

I do not doubt that for a moment but I fail to see its relevance. There would also be a waiting list, if one were opened, of people who took part in the 1939–45 war and who were in difficulty. I am suggesting that consideration should be given to individual need and that houses should be allocated to those who need them most.

That is impracticable within the terms of the Bill because it is proposed to sell and not to let the property. I am dealing primarily now with Southern Ireland. I am not raising any objection to the proposals for Northern Ireland, which seem to me to be perfectly reasonable. In Southern Ireland, however, it is going to be a question not of need but of purse, and it seems to me that after the first sales which this Bill authorises the financial difficulties will greatly increase.

In view of the £8,600 spent on administration in Southern Ireland, and the fact that they have £25,000 on deposit, £100,000 invested and several thousand pounds on current account at the bank, it is a little surprising that the Trust have not done a little more about it. They might have experimented, come to this House and said, "This is what we propose to do. These are what the costs are, and these are the investigations we have made to see if we can do it."

I mentioned one matter quite casually, and I wish to emphasise it a little. Why are there to be no new widow tenants? What is to be the position? Has the hon. and learned Gentleman really considered this point? What is to be the position of the widow of a soldier of the 1914–18 war who dies more than six months after the passing of this Measure? If we cannot get rent from her, how can she be evicted? Under what powers and provisions and on what grounds? It is difficult to think of grounds to make an application for possession to let to somebody else from whom we should not be able to get rent either. What is the position of such a widow who, if I read the Bill rightly, does not come within its provision?

I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman has considered this, but I think the House ought to be informed of it. What is the ultimate intention? How is the Trust really to operate in Southern Ireland. If we are to sell the houses we have and build more and sell those, how long do we go on building? What losses are we prepared to incur? What subsidies are we prepared to give to the Trust? We have had a savage announcement today in a previous debate about the cost of houses. We are told that, chiefly under this Government and certainly in the last two and a half years, the cost of housing has gone up by something like 33⅓ per cent. I submit that there can be no doubt that if that be so here, it is very likely to be so in Southern Ireland, and therefore there will have to be a question of subsidy if it is hoped to realise those houses.

I frankly cannot see the point of this Trust going into the building industry and building houses and selling them, with the intention of building more houses and selling them, unless they can produce some figures to show that it can be done to the public benefit and with advantage. On what terms are sales to be made? The first proposition, and the only proposition contained in the Bill, is that we shall realise one by one 2,700 houses that are now built, some hundreds of which were built by the Local Government Board before the Trust existed, way back in 1919, 1920 and 1921. If they have not been maintained at all for 19 years, it is questionable what amount is likely to be realised.

Is it proposed to sell only to the tenants, to sell each house individually to a tenant? I hope so, but I cannot find from the wording of the Bill that there is any limitation on the power to sell them in bulk if required. I may be wrong about that. It is not easy to master three or four Bills each day in the way we are now called upon to master them. I suggest that that is a matter on which the hon. and learned Gentleman should take the House into his confidence.

There is a further point, and it is a serious point. When we come to discuss this matter in Committee, we shall have to consider whether this Trust is properly constituted and administered. I have on occasions paid very great tribute to the care and assiduity with which the Comptroller and Auditor General audits many accounts debated here, but these accounts are hopelessly inadequate. As I understand it, the position is that a large number of houses were built-I think 600—by the Local Government Board under the Act of 1919, under the powers then given. After the passing of the Irish Free State Bill the Consequential Provisions Bill of 1922 was passed, under Section 3 of which this Trust was set up. There was to be made available under the provisions of that Measure £1½ million, a very large sum in those days before we had an inflationary Chancellor of the Exchequer such as we have had in this last 12 months.

I think I am right in saying that £1,300,000 was paid and made available to the Trust. But there is no capital account at all. There is nothing to show what has been lost in the capital account; nothing in the accounts to show what these houses are estimated to be worth or to show what would result from the sale under these conditions. There is no reference to their condition during the last 19 years, or what has been done about it.

I can well understand that in these circumstances the members of the Trust prefer to remain in anonymity. We have this Bill put forward without even the names of the members of the Trust being presented to the House. Surely, this is a quite appalling situation on the Second Reading stage of a Bill which is not merely of interest to this House but will need some corresponding legislation in the Parliaments of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, as I understand it.

I hope I am right in this conclusion, but frankly I do not see how we shall get over the legal difficulties which we failed to get over in July, 1933. The hon. and learned Gentleman indeed gave expression to some doubts of mine. He said, "We rather think that we have the power to sell in Southern Ireland, but we are not absolutely certain, and this Bill will put it right." Of course, it will not. It may put it right in the Chancery Division here, but this is a matter of property, and in a foreign country, and we are still subject to legislation which is passed there. Therefore, as I apprehend it, there will have to be legislation in all three Houses, so that this becomes an important matter.

Even if it is getting on for 10 o'clock at night, I think it is an appalling state of affairs that we should be asked to pass a Bill without any information at all, without any relevant documents, without a White Paper and without any information being available to show what the houses are worth or what they are likely to realise, and without the Minister having given to the House any of the relevant information when he opened the debate.

I am quite sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will try to give it in reply to the debate. I only ask him to consider quite seriously the three or four points I have made. What will be realised, and what will he do with the money? How does he propose to sell, and will he sell to tenants only or to people who do not even occupy the houses? This is a little disquieting. I have not seen in this Bill any provision which permits the hon. and learned Gentleman to charge anything in rent.

Mr. Foster indicated assent.

Mr. Hale

I gather that I am right. and I am fortified in that by——

Mr. Foster

They can be let, but no rent can be charged.

Mr. Hale

They can be occupied rent-free. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to consider this question of administrative costs. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman how, if one owns 2,700 houses, if one is spending only £1,700 a year on them, and one is collecting no rents, one can do anything about them except perhaps take a photograph once a year to show that they are still there, and sign the insurance policy? Where, then, does this amount of £8,600 of administrative costs come from? It is not the same in Northern Ireland, because there they have the job of collecting rents and they have to pay commission, and they do repairs.

These really are matters to which I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman will direct his attention, and I hope we shall have some satisfactory answers to the points I have ventured to raise.

10.0 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I am afraid I cannot join my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) in approving this Bill on Second Reading on the information at present before us, because the scheme which is put up is fantastic in its nature.

Here we have got some 2,600 houses, which are let at no rent, they have not been maintained for 19 years and it is proposed to sell them to the people who are the least likely to give any substantial figure for them; that is to say, the occupant himself, who has merely got to pay for the privilege of living there rent free, which he is already doing, or his widow. That is the sort of people who are benefiting here, and the probability is that the widow would have very little.

What sort of price—and I really feel the House is entitled to know this—do the Government imagine they are going to realise for these houses in this sort of market and in these sort of circumstances? Then, presumably, they are going to build new houses with which to repeat this performance. How many of these old houses does the Minister think this Trust will have to sell in order to build a new one? Is it 10, 20, 30 or 50?

Mr. Hale

Five or six.

Mr. Paget

My hon. Friend says five or six; I should have thought it would be nearer 50 or 60. What is the figure? Are we not entitled to know? Has anybody any idea as to how this scheme is going to work and what sort of money will be realised, or is the scheme that these houses are not going to be offered to the tenant or to the widow, but are going to be sold to somebody who happens to be an ex-Service man and who, having bought them, will not be under the disability of this Trust and will be able to charge rent, and any rent he likes?

If that is the scheme, I can imagine that something might be got for the houses, but certainly the whole purpose of the Trust would be utterly destroyed. Is that the scheme? I hope the Minister will tell us because, as far as I can see, it would be within the powers which we are asked to confer on this trust.

Again, on whose advice is this scheme—which on the face of it appears to be fantastic—being put forward? We have heard that the British Legion, which is the generally recognised organisation of ex-Service men, have not been consulted. Who has been consulted? Has anybody other than these trustees been consulted because, quite frankly, on their record we are not very impressed by their advice.

Here are people who for 19 years have been satisfied to sit back and allow their property to deteriorate while maintaining their administration expenses at over £8,000 a year, and who then come forward with this scheme. If they are the only people who have been consulted, then I think the Minister must agree that their record as we know it is not such as vastly to impress us with their abilities. All we can see of them is the shockingly inadequate accounts which they put forward of their stewardship, accounts which this House would not accept for one moment from anybody responsible to it.

Again, I do not entirely understand why the power to sell is confined to the widow. What happens if it is an elderly sister who has been keeping house for the ex-Service man, if it is a daughter who, perhaps, has not married in order to look after her father, or if it is all sorts of other members of the family who have just as much right to be protected as far as their home is concerned and who have just as much right to benefit by this Trust? Why is it limited simply to the widow?

Finally, what does the Bill do? We do not know. We are told that a decision of the Irish courts decided that this Trust had not the power to charge rents for the houses which they let. Can we give them power or cannot we? Has this House the right or has it not to enlarge the power of this Trust in a manner which will be recognised by the Irish courts?

If the answer is "yes," then why in the world not give this Trust the power to operate in the manner in which they were obviously intended to operate and in which they operate in Northern Ireland? Give them the right to charge rents for these houses and make this extraordinary scheme unnecessary. If the answer is "No," and we have not the power in this House to give this Irish Trust rights which they did not have before to deal with this property, what effect has this Bill? How can we give them that power to sell, and to sell to widows?

I find it extraordinarily difficult to see why, if we can enlarge the power of these trustees at all, we cannot enlarge them by giving the Trust power to take rent. If we have not the power to enlarge the rights of these trustees, what is this Bill doing at all? These seem to me to be questions to which we require answers. I do not feel that we should give this Bill a Second Reading until somebody has gone back and done a bit of thinking and somebody is in a position to answer these questions.

10.7 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I should like to make one brief point, because I happen to have a very old friend of mine who is directly concerned in this matter. He is an Irish ex-Service man of the 1914–18 War, and some considerable time ago he wrote to me to find out whether anything was likely to be done to regularise what we must all agree is a highly peculiar situation.

The House will be indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) for the researches he has made into this obscure and complicated business. This ex-Service friend of mine tells me that one-third or approximately 600 of the men who fought in the 1914–8 War and were tenants are now dead and their wives and children are just hanging on. These people want to be in a position to hand these houses to widows or children legally and not at the whim or on the authority of any particular body or individual.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West said that it has been stated in another place that the maintenance of these properties has been kept at a minimum. According to my informant the position seems to be that representatives of the Trust in Dublin have for long carried out no repairs. In the case about which my informant writes, no repairs had been caried out at all for the past five years. When it is announced in another place that the maintenance has been kept at a minimum I think it is probably an accurate statement of fact, because it could not be less than nothing, which was the amount spent on repairs for the past five years. It is perhaps difficult to understand why, after referring to the fact that the Trust representatives in Dublin carried out no repairs for the past five years, my friend goes on to say: I may add, personally, I always found them gentlemen and they gave me every consideration. If I may respectfully say so, that is a truly Hibernian interpretation of the situation.

I am also informed that the Trust of one estate—I think it is Lord Harlech's—built five cottages for these 1914–18 ex-Service men and that there are now only two remaining in their possession. The Trust sold some of those cottages or houses to other people. It may be an explanation of the extraordinary level of expenditure to which my hon. Friend referred that one of the duties of the Trust appears to be the carrying out of evictions from time to time.

According to my information—which I have no reason to doubt—the Trust has evicted the sons and daughters of tenants from houses in which they were born. My informant tells me that the last place in which such a thing happened was at Longford. These people are very concerned about the situation. They want to know what is going to be their future.

Some of the previous speakers have been wondering what these houses are worth. My friend informs me that they are worth £1,500 each at present. In his letter he says: … people are greedy and would like to shove us out on any old pretext, but they will have a job. I do not think that we can disregard or treat lightly this kind of thing, and that is why I very earnestly support the request made by some of my hon. Friends for a little more information on this matter.

The information that I have has been culled only from the correspondence I have had with the particular friend to whom I have referred. Had it not been for that I, like most other hon. Members, would have known little or nothing about what is involved in this Bill. I do hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced this Bill has taken the trouble to arm himself with a little more information. I would point out that some of us will consider it our duty, on the Committee stage, to subject this Bill to an even closer and more detailed scrutiny than either the time or the rules of procedure permit us to do at the present moment

10.14 p.m.

Mr. J. Foster

I am sorry to have noticed the unwonted division between the hon. Members opposite—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Gentleman requires the leave of the House to speak a second time.

Mr. Foster

If I may have the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the questions which have been asked of me. I regret the unwonted division between hon. Members opposite, one of whom is supporting the Second Reading and one opposing it.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

On a point of order. I did not hear the hon. and learned Gentleman either ask for or obtain the leave of the House.

Mr. Speaker

When I drew the attention of the hon. and learned Member to the omission he instantly asked for, and, by my Ruling, obtained the leave of the House to speak a second time.

Mr. Mitchison

Further to that point of order. I did not hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman said, and I do not think anybody else did; and if we refused him leave, having regard to the way he began, then he had no subsequent opportunity of requesting it.

Mr. Speaker

I heard him myself, and that is enough.

Mr. Foster

There is again a curious division. On the one hand we have the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) and the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who want me to give the information, and on the other hand the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), who apparently does not.

Mr. Paget

Surely the point is that we desire the information but also desire the ordinary courtesies.

Mr. Foster

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman say that I did not ask the leave of the House? He knows perfectly well that I did—and he heard me. Let him get up and say he did not. Perhaps I may get back to the Bill—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."]—from which I was diverted by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)

The hon. and learned Gentleman should not have permitted himself to be diverted.

Mr. Foster

The purpose of the Bill is to carry out the object of the Trust, which is to help the ex-Service men in Southern Ireland——

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Of the 1914–18 War.

Mr. Foster

Yes, of the 1914–18 War. As I told the House, the decision of the Southern Irish courts was that no rent could be paid or collected.

Mr. Hale


Mr. Foster

They decided that the Trust had no power to charge rent; that was their decision. The courts in Northern Ireland decided the opposite. Since the decision in 1933 there has been no power to collect rent in Southern Ireland, and the Trust have had to maintain the cottages out of their cash reserves. Clearly, if that situation continued, in the end the Trust would be without any cash reserves and unable to carry out even the minimum maintenance which they do in Southern Ireland.

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton asked why we had not included in the Bill a power to charge rent. He will appreciate that whatever we do must be with the agreement of the Government of Eire. What the Government of Eire want is that we should not charge rent. The history before the decision of 1933 was that there were a number of tenant strikes; they objected to paying rent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Some hon. Members appear to agree with them.

What the hon. and learned Member for Northampton is asking, therefore, is that we should put a provision in the Bill which the Government of Southern Ireland do not want and which the ex-Service men do not want. I think that is a sufficient answer to him, showing why we did not include such a provision. In a Trust which is set up by the law of one country—the United Kingdom—which operates in one country which is not part of the Commonwealth—Eire—and in another which is another jurisdiction—Northern Ireland—it is necessary to get the agreement of all three Governments.

Mr. Paget

Can the Minister tell us when the Government of Eire were asked, in what terms they were asked, and what they replied; and when he says that the ex-Service men do not want it, can he tell us who spoke on their behalf?

Mr. Foster

I am pointing out that there were a number of tenant strikes against rent, which certainly shows that they do not want rent. The negotiations among the three Governments have been going on for a very long time. The position is clear; it would be unwise and wrong for the House to insert a provision to charge rent in Southern Ireland. The reason why nothing has been done in recent years is, I assume, that there would be no way of getting rent collected in Southern Ireland and that it would have been wrong for this country to override the decision of the Southern Ireland courts and the wishes of the tenants.

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton asked who had been consulted. The British Legion in Southern Ireland has expressed its agreement with the Bill. So has the British Legion in the United Kingdom, and we understood that the British Legion in Northern Ireland had also agreed, because two of the trustees are members of the British Legion in Northern Ireland and they would be in touch with their members. Whether that be so or not, the statement which I made is entirely satisfactory to the points raised by the British Legion in Northern Ireland, so there is not much substance in that point. The Bill as it stands is agreeable to the ex-Service men's associations, and I consider that that justifies the bringing forward of this Bill to allow the Trust to promote a scheme for Southern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West asked questions about the price of the houses and how many houses the Trust anticipated building. The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) was anxious that the prices charged should not be too high, and the hon. Member for Oldham, West was inclined to think that we should not get anything at all for the houses. On the other hand, the friends of the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) seemed to think that the houses would fetch a considerable sum if sold at a market price and there seemed to be people waiting for houses who would have paid higher prices for them. We have to reconcile these varying points of view.

Mr. Hale

I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not want to misrepresent the position. He was asked specifically whether it is the intention to sell these houses to a person, who can technically qualify as having served in the war, as a landlord, who would then be able to charge a rent. Clearly, the question about the value will depend on whether the houses are to be sold as houses occupied by tenants who can continue to live rent free, whether they are to be sold to the tenant or whether they are to be sold in any way, and that is where these considerations come in.

Mr. Foster

Obviously, but I was saying that a number of contradictory points have been made by several hon. Members. I was proposing to deal in a minute with the question raised by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. The answer to his point is that the Trust intends to sell the houses to the tenants. If no tenants are available to buy the houses, the Trust would have to dispose of them elsewhere. In reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton, that is why in a group of cottages only two ex-Service men are in possession. It would undoubtedly be because there were no ex-Service men in the locality who wanted a house.

Mr. Hale

Who wanted to buy a house at a price.

Mr. Foster

Who wanted to occupy the houses. If there had been any ex-Service men who wanted to be tenants they would have been in the houses, and if there were no ex-Service men who wanted to buy them, the houses would have been available to be sold.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West mentioned that some houses had been sold. Those were houses which no ex-Service men wanted to occupy. In those circumstances the Trust sells the houses. But the Trust houses will be sold to the tenants and they will be sold under restrictions as to resale. The House will agree that it would be undesirable to sell the house at a privileged price and then have an ex-Service man sell it outside the list of beneficiaries.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

We are in some confusion here. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman telling us that the Trust, in circumstances where no ex-Service man wants possession of the house, has power to sell the house at a market price? The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned that the houses were worth £1,500, and yet the Trust has no power—this is the purpose of the Bill, as I see it—to sell to ex-Service men. Are the powers of the Trust such that they can dispose of the property when and how they like with the qualifications mentioned and yet they have no power to dispose of it as it was intended by the Bill?

Mr. Foster

That may be the position, but the belief of the Trust is that they have the power to sell to both, but the reason why this is put in the Bill is for confirmation purposes. If the contrary view is right and they have not the power to sell, they will still retain the power to dispose of a house when it is not wanted by the tenant. I do not think the hon. Gentleman wants to make any complaint on that score but is merely seeking for information.

Mr. Mitchison

If I understood the hon. and learned Gentleman aright, the whole purpose of this Bill is to confirm a power which may already exist. Is it the case that this Bill has been brought forward without any test case or any other legal proceedings in Ireland verifying whether the power exists?

Mr. Foster

No, the hon. and learned Gentleman is not correct. He perhaps did not comprehend what I said at the outset in moving the Second Reading, but I may have put it rather clumsily. If I have not made it clear to him I should like to explain that two powers are given in this Bill. One is to sell to the sitting ex-Service tenant, and that is for confirmation purposes, and the other is to sell to widows, which is a new power. Therefore, the object of the Bill is to give the Trust power to sell to the widows. As the Bill had to be introduced anyway the power to sell to the ex-Service men was put in as well just in case the Trust had not got it. I do not think the hon. and learned Gentleman would make a complaint of that.

The position is that the houses will be sold to the tenants or to the widows as provided in the Bill, and the money realised from those houses will be used to build other houses. The value of the houses will differ from case to case, and I do not think it is possible to give any estimate of what the 2,700 odd houses will realise. It depends when they are sold and what their condition is. The enormous labour of making a survey and a valuation of the houses in every part of the country would be out of all proportion to the value of the information received. The information would not help the Trust to administer its trust more properly or to give to the beneficiaries, the ex-Service men of the 1914–18 War, any greater advantage. What is required is this power to sell to ex-Service men and widows so that the Trust can continue to serve its beneficiaries by providing more houses for the ex-Service men who are still desirous of having one.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West alluded to the accounts, and in the year to which he pointed the administration costs were swollen by the fortuitous event of the retirement of a number of the employees of the Trust, to whom gratuities were given. The administration costs also cover the expense of the administration of the Trust in the sense of sometimes moving the tenant from house to house, getting new tenants in, and in certain cases securing evictions.

The object of the Trust is to benefit the ex-Service men of the 1914–18 War. Under the terms of the Trust it has to benefit these ex-Service men and their widows. If they leave a family—like the instance given of a sister or children—it is thought more in keeping with the principles of the Trust that some other ex-Service man of the 1914–18 War should occupy the house than their dependants. It may be a matter of opinion, but it is certainly carrying out the terms of the Trust that this other ex-Service man should occupy it.

Mr. Paget

What about the houses which nobody wants?

Mr. Foster

The houses which nobody wants are sold in order to provide more houses for the ex-Service men of the 1914–18 War.

Mr. Paget

Cannot the sister of the ex-Service man who dies be left in his house and another ex-Service man have one of the houses which nobody wants?

Mr. Foster

The price realised for that house will provide the other ex-Service man with a house. There is no difference in principle.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

It is six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Mr. Foster

As the hon. and gallant Gentleman says, it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. I commend the Bill to the House and assure hon. Members that it is not as complicated as hon. Members have tried to make it——

Mr. Hale rose——

Mr. Foster

I do not know if the hon. Member was here when I opened the debate, but the grievance was that I did not say enough. Now he complains that I made it complicated. As I have said, the Bill is the result of careful negotiation between the three Governments of Southern Ireland, Northern Ireland and of this country. It is also the result of negotiation with the ex-Service men's organisations. I cannot believe that the Opposition would really want to upset all these negotiations and throw this Bill out in order to satisfy the desire of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, for details of the accounts of the Trust. That is not a worthy consideration for upsetting these negotiations between the three overnments. I assure him that the Government puts forward this Bill as the best way of dealing with a difficult situation, namely, that we are not allowed to charge rents in Eire.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I desire to express my sincere sympathy with the hon. and learned Gentleman in having to handle this question, because I dealt with it for six years. I am quite certain that such a state of affairs could never arise anywhere except in Ireland. After all, it has been for rather more than a century the national sport of Southern Ireland to avoid paying rent and they have now, in this instance of the game, managed to get a position where the law supports them in that object which they have always had in view. That is the fact with regard to the situation.

For some reason which I was never able to understand, the court in Southern Ireland said, "The tenant cannot pay the rent"—I do not know what they would have done with him if he had—"and the landlord cannot collect it." Yet under the law of Southern Ireland they have allowed evictions to take place. Really the whole thing is so fantastic when a mere Englishman attempts to understand it that I think any way out of the situation is something that we ought to welcome.

This is a subject which I inherited from previous Governments. A good many of the negotiations to which the hon. and learned Gentleman has alluded took place when I was Home Secretary and I took a substantial part in them. We got towards an agreement, and I am quite certain that there is no other solution than the one which is proposed.

It is difficult enough to know what the proper rent for a house is in this country, and any person who likes to go to the court seems to be able to get quite a new decision that throws out of court all the previous decisions which have been made. Here we are trying to administer what was a United Kingdom trust in another country, where they have decided in their courts that the tenant cannot pay the rent and the landlord cannot collect it.

It is the kind of problem I knew I would come up against any time I tried to investigate any Irish problem without the assistance of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), who has not graced us with his presence this evening. I have shared all along the view with regard to the fantastic accounts that inevitably arise from the situation that the Irish courts have created. I would like to see some effort still made to see whether this Trust cannot be given power in Southern Ireland to obtain rents for the benefit it confers upon certain people. I know how difficult the negotiation would be. I hope the House will realise that we have had an impossible situation for 19 years, and unless we do something to bring it to an end it will go on creating fresh anomalies and making matters worse.

I wish to end as I began by expressing my sympathy for the hon. and learned Gentleman. I have the greatest possible appreciation of his powers of exposition, but I am quite certain he will agree with me that to expound this position, so far as it can be made intelligible, to any audience of Englishmen, is beyond human capacity.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Drewe.]

Committee upon Monday next.