§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)
For some time we have been discussing the question of Cyprus and from there we went to British Guiana. Now I hope to come down to earth and deal with a problem which is just as important to the ordinary man and woman of this country, but which may not affect so large a number. I want to raise with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government the question of requisitioned dwellings used for housing purposes.
As the House will remember, during the period of the war when people were being made homeless by enemy action and their houses were being destroyed the Government took powers to requisition empty dwellings for the purpose of housing families made homeless in air raids and other actions of the enemy. In most cases the Government requisitioned houses already empty because those who previously lived in them had gone to country areas. Some of those people were fairly well-off and others not so well off. In the post war years a number of those dwellings have been derequisitioned in cases in which the original owner wanted to come back and live in his house. For all practical purposes we are now left with a hard core for which it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to 577 proceed any further in the field of de-requisitioning unless the Minister does something about it.
I want to raise the question as it exists now. As the Parliamentary Secretary said in an answer to a Question a few days ago, there are now 69,400 premises under requisition for housing purposes. He estimated that at least 100,000 families are living in them and that gives an approximate figure of 325,000 persons. At least three-quarters of these families live in London, and to some extent in Birmingham and Liverpool and some of the other larger cities; but in the areas of 48 local authorities where there are more than six such families per 1,000 of the population there are 76,500 families concerned. In my own constituency of Acton, there are at present 767 families living in requisitioned dwellings.
I think that these figures can, as I have already said, be described as the hard core of the problem—and it is a hard core because practically all these local authorities cannot themselves, unaided, solve the problem of derequisitioning these buildings because nearly all of them have no land on which they can build new houses to transfer these people into so that the dwellings they occupy may be derequisitioned.
I raise this matter because I have been very concerned about the persistence of friends of the right hon. Gentleman who sit behind him who, for some time, have been urging him on to take a course of action which, in my view, would be unjust and which would create great hardship. The right hon. Gentleman set up a working party on this question of requisitioned dwellings and they have presented to him three reports. I do not propose to attempt to inflict upon the House any kind of summary of these reports, but I will say that the right hon. Gentleman is to some extent acting upon the recommendations contained therein; and I am not sure that by so acting he is doing the right thing by the local authorities and by the families who are to be displaced.
The working party put forward four main recommendations to deal with this problem. It said that where the number of families in requisitioned dwellings are between 2 and 3 per 1,000 of the population, and there are not more than 578 100 families, the whole of those dwellings should be derequisitioned by 10th December, 1955; that where the ratio is 3 to 5 families per 1,000 of the population, and there are not more than 250 families involved, all the dwellings should be derequisitioned by 10th December, 1956; and that where the ratio is somewhat higher—5 or 6 families per 1,000 of the population—and not more than 350 families are involved, the whole of those dwelling should be derequisitioned by 10th December, 1957.
Where the problem is more acute, and there are more than 6 families per 1,000 of the population, or more than 350 families together in the area of the local authority, the working party referred the matter to the Minister for his determination because it was unable to make a recommendation as the problem was so acute.
The right hon. Gentleman has been carrying out the first three recommendations, and he has now been issuing ultimatums to local authorities that by these particular dates, they must derequisition all their requisitioned property. That is leading to a great deal of hardship. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) raised this matter in the House a day or two ago, in a Question to the Minister, in which she asked:if he is aware that his instruction to Southport Town Council, Lancashire, to serve notices to quit on 23 families living in requisitioned houses will mean that these tenants will be made homeless, as no instruction to rehouse has been made; and if he will notify the town council not to evict those families until suitable alternative accommodation has been offered them.The Parliamentary Secretary declined any responsibility for the consequences of this, and threw it back on the Southport Town Council—
§ Mr. Sparks
I propose to read what the hon. Gentleman said in reply. He stated:My right hon. Friend has not instructed the council to serve notices to quit. The council were advised in October, 1952, that all requisitioned properties should be released by 10th December, 1953. As the council had failed to comply, my right hon. Friend issued 579 a direction to the town clerk on 20th May, 1954, that the properties still held on requisition should be released not later than 31st August next.There was no regard whatever to what was to happen to the families in the derequisitioned houses.
§ Mr. Marples
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who wishes to be fair, would like to read a little further. He is now confusing derequisitioning with eviction. He will realise, if he reads an answer which I gave to a supplementary question by his hon. Friend, that I said that the council could acquire the premises—still retain them and keep the families in them—but on the normal and usual basis and not on the basis of requisitioning.
§ Mr. Sparks
I quite agree that that is so, but if the local authority refuses to do that what does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about it? Will he compel them? That is the whole point: he will not do that. It is no use telling the Southport Town Council and other councils that there is no need to put these people out into the street, that the councils can buy the houses or lease them. If the councils say, "We shall not do that," what will the right hon. Gentleman do? That is the whole point.
I was about to proceed a little further. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange produced a letter which was sent, presumably by the town clerk of Southport, to these 23 families in which the following sentence appeared, apparently at the end of the letter:…if you fail to vacate the premises I shall reluctantly be compelled to take the appropriate steps to have you evicted from the premises."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 270, 272.]It really is not good enough if this sort of thing is taking place in Southport, where the problem of requisitioning is not so acute as what it will be in London. I am afraid that if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that these tactics will succeed in London, Birmingham and Liverpool he is asking for a riot, because the folk just will not tolerate that sort of thing.
I wish to draw the attention of the House to the recommendations of the working party's report and to ask the Parliamentary Secretary not to adhere to those dates unless and until the local authorities concerned have made satisfactory provision for rehousing. I hope, 580 before I sit down, to make one or two suggestions as to how that could be done. Adherence to the dates in the working party's report will undoubtedly create hardship. There is no guarantee whatever that the families concerned will not be made homeless in the process, and no guarantee that urgent cases on the housing list, which are far more urgent than those of most of the families in requisitioned premises, will not be superseded by the transferring of families from requisitioned dwellings.
Therefore, the suggestions of the working party are largely inoperable, and they are unfair to families on the housing list because precedence is given to families in requisitioned dwellings. They are unacceptable to owners, because most of the owners of these dwellings do not want to receive them back with a family in occupation; they want vacant possession, which they claim they are entitled to, and they want vacant possession in order to be able to sell the property—
§ Mr. Sparks
I do not want to take up too much time, but some of my hon. Friends wish to say a few words on this subject, and I think they will satisfy the hon. Member that there are quite a fair number of such houses that have been vacated, are now up for sale, and have been for some months.
§ Mr. Hay
I do not think that the circumstances justify the sweeping accusation which the hon. Member has just made. We all know that there are a great many owners of requisitioned property who wish to get back into the houses which they formerly owned, and who, at the moment, are living in most cramped and unsatisfactory conditions.
§ Mr. Sparks
There are only a few dwellings in that category. Only a few such owners still have their dwellings requisitioned—
§ Mr. Sparks
I say that there are only a few. I have had experience of this and I say that the number is very few. If there are owners whose houses have 581 been requisitioned, and who wish to rehouse their families in those houses, there is no local authority in the country which would not make special efforts to assist them. But a large number of dwellings already released from requisition have been acquired by the owners so that they can sell them and make a good price.
§ Mr. Sparks
I want to make a few suggestions about how this problem may be solved. I consider that the right hon. Gentleman must go much further than the recommendations contained in the report of the working party. But I would urge that he does not act in the way that his hon. Friends have suggested, because if he does he will create grave hardship. The Minister should consider making a scheme whereby as many as possible of these properties might be acquired by local authorities. I do not mean that they should all be so acquired, but there are a large number of houses which would be suitable for inclusion in local authority housing pools.
The Minister should request local authorities to submit to him schemes for the acquisition of these requisitioned dwellings, and, in addition, he should give loan sanction for the purpose and extend to such acquisitions the benefits of the housing subsidy. Such a scheme as I have suggested would be workable with financial help for reasons which I have not the time to discuss now. Such a course of action would help considerably towards solving the problem. I am not suggesting that property should be acquired in cases where the owners required it to live in and that in such cases they should be forced to sell their houses to local authorities. But such cases are few. In most cases the owners would be satisfied with a reasonable price for their house.
Local authorities would undoubtedly have to pay vacant possession value, and unless the proposal is coupled with the extension of rate subsidy they would find that the rents which they would have to charge would be impossibly high. It 582 would be essential that the Minister persuade the Exchequer to waive what is called recovery of the cost of conversion or improvement carried out to the property during the period of requisition.
In some cases, local authorities have spent money in converting requisitioned houses into flats, and it is a condition that when such property is sold, the value of the improvement must be deducted from the compensation payable. If local authorities acquired these houses, that condition should be waived and that would ease considerably the financial problem. In addition, these properties should be eligible for the improvement grant under the 1949 Housing Act.
I could say a good deal more on this subject but several of my hon. Friends wish to speak because this is a problem which affects not only London, but Birmingham, Liverpool and many other parts of the country. I repeat, if the Minister proposes to yield to the pressure of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and derequisition these premises by sending ultimatums to local authorities that from a certain date all dwellings must be de-requisitioned and the people living in them evicted, it will cause a great deal of hardship and suffering. I believe that my proposals would provide a better solution.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Percy Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) has introduced this matter. I wish to discuss it from a different angle. The situation is different in Birmingham, where people who are dispossessed of their houses are found accommodation by the local authority, with the result that they are occupying houses which could have been occupied by people at present living in rooms.
Yesterday I had a Question on the Order Paper addressed to the Minister which, unfortunately, was not reached, and so I was unable to put a supplementary question to him. In my Question I asked the Minister of Housing and Local Governmentwhether he is aware that many houses have been derequisitioned in Birmingham and other cities while people are still living in rooms; and whether he will circularise all local authorities, recommending that only when a house is required for the occupation of the owner or a member of his family should it be de-requisitioned.583 The written answer included the statement:No. The derequisitioning of privately owned dwellinghouses does not reduce housing accommodation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT,27th July, 1954; Vol. 53,1, c. 35.]That is not true. If the houses were let again, or if they were required by the owner or a member of his family, that would be understandable. But the Ministry has acted far too hastily in this matter. In our large cities and towns there are thousands of people who are still living in rooms.
What is happening in Birmingham? There we requisitioned a number of large houses which were converted into flats; and I could take the Parliamentary Secretary to my constituency and show him dozens of houses only a stone's throw from my own home, including two beautiful flats, where all the windows and grates have been smashed by children. This property has been standing idle for the last six months. Yet nearby may be found examples of overcrowding, where eight and nine people are living in one room.
If that is what is called derequisitioning, it should not be allowed. We ought not to permit houses to be derequisitioned and to stand empty so that the owners can dispose of them at the highest price. We have over 50,000 people on our housing register in Birmingham, although our housing record is as high as that in any part of the country; but there have been a great many people who have come to Birmingham because there is plenty of work in the city.
My hon. Friend the Member for Acton mentioned land. We are short of land in Birmingham. I do not know where we can build houses for our people, and yet we find the houses are being left standing empty. I do not understand why the Department has allowed so many houses to stand unoccupied for sale to the highest bidder for as long as 12 months when, in the same road, other people may be living in overcrowded conditions. There is one road in my constituency along which, on Friday morning, a funeral procession will pass of a man and five children who were burnt to death in a little rat-trap of a house. We have 40,000 of these rat-traps in our city. I have represented Birmingham for some time and I know the position there. 584 There is road after road of derequisitioned houses many of which have been made into beautiful flats and many of which have been unoccupied for six or nine months, and sometimes more, simply because the Corporation have been able to derequisition them and place the tenants in new houses.
We cannot allow these conditions to continue. The Department talks about its wonderful housing programme and how it has stepped up housing as against other building.
§ Mr. Shurmer
Against schools, for instance. The schools being built today had their foundations laid during the life of the Labour Government; but we are not discussing that now.
I am surprised that the Department acts so hastily in derequisitioning these houses. No house should be allowed to stand idle in any city for any length of time where people live huddled together in rooms. That state of affairs makes for unhappiness and it does not help the morale or the health of the people. It causes incidents such as the terrible tragedy that we had in my constituency on Sunday morning.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not say that this derequisitioning makes for more housing accommodation. I want him to take action to tell local authorities that until the situation is eased no house should be derequisitioned unless the owner wants it for his own accommodation or for that of his family. Owners should not be allowed to hold people to ransom, selling to the highest bidder and leaving other people to live in rooms. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some encouragement to believe that something will be done in the matter.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I am glad that this subject has been raised. In this House we deal with many different problems and spend a great deal of time on various aspects of our affairs—foreign policy and all sorts of important questions. Now we are discussing a human problem of the greatest possible importance.
It is easy to talk about the rights of owners and about owners being deprived 585 of houses for a considerable time, but when we have this extraordinary human problem in connection with housing, with which all of us have to deal, something more ought to be done than has been done so far. Today virtually no housing authority has the right to requisition a new property in order to alleviate housing difficulties. If only because of that it is vital that housing authorities should be allowed to retain the requisitioned properties which they now have for as long a period as possible.
If the Minister directs these authorities to release the requisitioned properties they hold, then he is making the conditions such that the position of the authorities is made impossible. I should like to illustrate this argument in a practical way by reference to boroughs which form part of the constituency which I have the honour to represent. In the Borough of Stoke Newington, which has a population of only 50,000, there are 607 requisitioned properties now held by the housing authority. That represents 1,128 housing units and in those units there reside 4,060 persons. Eight per cent. of the population of the borough reside in requisitioned properties. I add the information to show the importance of the figure, that we have a housing list of some 2,300 families.
In the Borough of Hackney there are 1,803 properties held on requisition, representing 3,413 units, and the live cases on the housing list number over 6,000. When one remembers that in both boroughs, as in many other parts of the country, the only practical way in which the problem can be dealt with and new houses built is by pulling down existing properties and building on the sites, with the obligation of rehousing the people who are deprived of the places they live in when they are pulled down, and when one also remembers the further difficulties that will be created with the coming into law of two new Measures shortly—the Housing Repairs and Rents Bill and the Landlord and Tenant Bill—it is obvious how essential it is that the housing authorities should retain for as long as possible the requisitioned properties which they now hold.
There is another point which I desire to raise. As I understand the position, the maximum allowance permitted as reimbursement for repairs is £25 per unit. That is the ceiling figure. When one 586 knows the type of requisitioned houses —very often large old properties which need a considerable amount of repair—one realises that the figure is totally inadequate. The Borough of Stoke Newington made direct representations to the Ministry and pointed out that in the years 1950–51 and 1952–53 the amount of repairs worked out at an average of over £38 per year. Now they are told that the amount must be limited to £25. I respectfully suggest that that figure is inadequate to keep these properties in habitable condition.
I would also mention a case that occurred in the Borough of Hackney which shows the way in which the Ministry acts in this problem. The Minister directed the council to derequisition a property in which the council's licensee, an old-age pensioner now widowed, was living at a rent of 15s. per week. The decision to derequistion was opposed very strongly by the council, but the Minister insisted upon it and said that the Ministry had arranged with the owner that the licensee could remain, presumably at the same rent.
Now the owner, as he is entitled to do, has increased the rent to the standard rent, which is at least twice the amount the old lady was paying as a licensee of the council. The old lady has no other means except her old-age pension, and she is unable to pay this amount. She is not upon the council's housing list, and is not eligible to be upon it. As she has no money to pay the rent, there is no solution to her problem. That is the direct result of interference by the Minister in a particular case about which I have written to him.
I hope the Minister will look again at this problem of de-requisitioning. There is a great deal in the fact that if one travels through London and its surroundings one sees many houses which for months have "For Sale" boards upon them. I know that an argument can be put forward, as was said by an hon. Member opposite in an intervention, that an owner whose property has been requisitioned for a considerable time may want it for himself. Those cases are few, and in most cases where an owner desires his property back after he has been kept out of it for a considerable time and can show that he wants to live in it and has nowhere else to live, the local authority 587 will do everything it possibly can to restore it to him.
But where is the justification for de-requisitioning a property when the owner merely desires to dispose of it and, under the conditions in which we live today, is ready to allow it to remain empty with a "For Sale" board upon it until someone with sufficient money to buy it comes along? Surely it is wrong that that should happen in the present state of affairs.
One of my hon. Friends suggested a scheme for dealing with this problem, and many other suggestions can be made, I suggest that the proper way to deal with derequisitioning is to recognise the difficulty of housing authorities and say to them, "The Ministry will not make any direction unless the council's consent to derequisitioning." Surely it is the Minister's duty to help in every way possible towards a solution of the problem. It is not a question of party politics; it is a question of dealing with a human problem. I urge the Minister to look at the problem of derequisitioning anew and consider the possibility of making arrangements whereby councils can be assisted in the fine work which they are doing in rehousing and not have obstacles put in their way in the efforts which they are making.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Mr. W. E. Wheeldon (Birmingham. Small Heath)
I hope that the Minister will accept the very strong submissions made by my hon. Friends and agree that the matter is one of very grave concern indeed to the majority of local authorities. It is of particular concern to those which have long waiting lists or applicants for municipal houses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) said, it is of particular interest and concern in Birmingham, and indeed in my own constituency.
If the housing circumstances were normal, there would be something to be said for the Minister's present policy of derequisitioning, but I wish to impress upon the Minister that the housing conditions in the majority of our towns and cities are certainly not normal, despite the fact that we are building about 300,000 houses a year. Unless we appreciate how abnormal the housing 588 situation is today, we cannot possibly judge the present scheme of derequisitioning.
Birmingham has 50,000 applicants on its register. That by no means illustrates the gravity of the housing problem in Birmingham. In addition to those applicants for houses, there are many thousands of families in the city who have houses which cannot by any means be described as fit for habitation. Many of these people have been waiting for houses for 10 years. Many of them are grossly overcrowded.
I know from personal experience that there are families in my constituency consisting of up to 10 people who have no chance of being rehoused by the local authority at an early date. This is for the simple reason that, although large numbers of houses are being built, the number of four-bedroomed and five-bedroomed houses is comparatively small. Most of the requisitioned houses are fairly large compared with the municipal houses now being built; they are old but they provide the necessary accommodation, and in many respects they are eminently suitable for applicants with large families who cannot get local authority houses except by waiting for many years.
We have also to remember that there come to the offices of a local authority in a large city like Birmingham week by week and month by month cases for rehousing submitted by the medical officers of health because of the presence of active tuberculosis in families. There are also houses which, because of their dangerous condition, have to be demolished, and they are by no means few in number.
I understand that in the Birmingham courts last year there were more than 1,000 eviction cases. These have also to be considered by local authorities. In many instances the evicted persons have been tenants of incontestable soundness and the rent has been paid regularly, but simply because of the pressure of the present law, which the Government refused to alter in the recent Bill, they are being evicted. I had such a case only last week. A person who had lived in the same house for 41 years with her parents was, on the death of the second parent, immediately served with notice to quit and was evicted. These 589 are the conditions which apply, and that is the background against which the Minister must judge the effectiveness and the humanity of the present scheme of de-requisitioning. These conditions cannot be regarded as normal.
Now that the circumstances have changed people who in some instances left their own houses to escape from the bombing—I am not blaming anyone for doing that; I lived in the centre of a very heavily bombed area, and I know what those conditions meant, but other people were compelled to remain where they were—want to come back. If they want their former houses in order to accommodate their own families, I should raise no objection to that, and, as far as I know, local authorities give those cases every consideration. I have yet to heat of a single case of a local authority declining to permit the retransfer of those families. On the other hand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) said, it is undoubtedly true that many people want to regain possession of these houses simply in order to sell them and make some money. That is grossly unfair in the conditions which exist in our cities and boroughs.
The pressure which the Ministry is exerting upon local authorities to get rid of their requisitioned houses should be dropped. It is certainly not justified. In Birmingham, as the Minister knows, over 2,000 families are now living in requisitioned property. In view of the ordinary demand for houses, it is impossible for the local authority to derequisition except on a very slow and gradual basis. It is a matter of very grave concern to local housing authorities.
I hope that the Minister will assent to the submissions which have been made tonight. The present policy of the Government is anti-social and against the interests of the community, and ought not to be pursued in existing circumstances. So long as there is a desperate shortage of houses, no pressure should be exercised by the Minister. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to assure us that a change of policy is to take place and that local authorities will be permitted to work their housing schemes in their own way and will not have to deal with requisitioned houses as suggested by the Minister.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
The reasons which animate the Government in their approach to the problem of derequisitioning are based not upon social arguments, but upon purely financial considerations. The Parliamentary Secretary will probably remind us that the cost of requisitioned property represents a direct charge upon the Exchequer. We know that the difference between the compensation paid to the owner of requisitioned property and the amount of rent charged by the local authority to the occupant of that property has to be borne by somebody, and is, in fact, borne out of Exchequer funds and not out of local rates.
In those circumstances, if the Government wage an economy campaign and start looking for items of expenditure which can be cut they soon consider the question of requisitioned properties. As has already been pointed out by my hon. Friends, however, the need for housing is as great as it was two, three, four or five years ago. In those circumstances it is very undesirable that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, or the Government generally, should maintain this pressure upon local authorities to derequisition even faster than they have done hitherto.
The pressure campaign organised by the Minister has not been without some effect. There have been not insubstantial reductions in the number of requisitioned properties in various districts, resulting in not insubstantial savings to the Exchequer. We have been told by the Government that there must be a maximum of about 300,000 new houses a year; that is about as much as the economy can be expected to stand. The Ministry has now realised that schools, factories, hospitals and other such buildings are needed, and that the whole of our building force and materials cannot be directed solely to providing housing accommodation. Having come to that decision, it is surely all the more inappropriate to continue this pressure campaign.
What is the position in any local authority which has a long waiting list for houses? Every time anyone is pushed out of requisitioned premises he becomes another applicant on the waiting list of the local housing authority. In those circumstances, the number of applicants can never be reduced, 591 because if a local authority has 1,000 families living in requisitioned properties, when the derequisitioning of those properties is carried out all those families have to be provided with other accommodation by the local authority. Thus, the local authority is very much worse off than it was before.
§ Mr. Sparks
I do not think that my hon. and gallant Friend is quite correct in saying that a local authority must provide other accommodation. There is no obligation whatsoever upon the local authority to do so. If a local authority receives a direction from the Minister that on and from a certain date it must de-requisition all its requisitioned houses it can serve notices to quit upon the occupants of those houses and they must get out. There is no obligation upon the local authority to rehouse them.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
I agree with my hon. Friend. When I mentioned the obligation of a local authority I was referring to its social and moral obligation. It can certainly serve notices to quit upon every tenant of such premises.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
In some cases local authorities are doing it, but any local authority which has serving on it men and women with social consciences does not do such a thing. A social conscience is not encouraged by the present Government, however.
The Minister admits that it is necessary to have some kind of plan, because without one it will not be possible for him to maintain the building programme at the present level of 300,000 houses a year, but when we try to find out how this plan is being operated we are given somewhat vague answers.
Only the other day the Minister of Housing and Local Government in reply to Questions on this aspect of the matter said that the total number of houses completed depended on prior planning and on sufficient labour and materials being available. We all know that. He said that resources varied from region to region. I would quote one sentence of his. He said:While I have, therefore, had to take some steps to see that the programme does not get out of step, I do not attempt to control it within 592 precise figures."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 20th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 1157.]I think hon. Members and the country are entitled to know what steps the Minister is taking to see that the programme does not get out of step and how this mechanism, which is being somewhat mysteriously operated somewhere, is applied.
In some cases it so happens that a local authority that has, perhaps, done exceptionally well finds that, by reason of these mysterious steps the Minister reserves to himself to take to see that the programme does not get out of step, its housing activities are being retarded. That is an additional reason, which I shall not develop now, why it is difficult for the local authorities to embark upon this policy of wholesale de-requisitioning which the Minister is trying to operate. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to provide us with some information on some of the points raised by my hon. Friends, because I can assure him that there is very deep feeling on the subject all over the country.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)
I am sure the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) for raising what is a very human problem. It is a problem the discussion of which can sometimes generate a great deal of heat, and perhaps sometimes it is seen out of perspective in consequence. However, that is because the human factors involved tend to cause us to be excited and so to confuse judgment.
If any passion is to be generated I think that I personally am in a position to be more heated than any other Member of the House, for the reason that when I came out of the Army after five years' service my flat was requisitioned and I had to live in rooms. It was left empty for some time while I had to argue with a London authority about going back to my own flat. I did not leave that flat to sell it for a large sum of money. I left it because I was, not compelled, because I voluntarily joined the Territorial Army, but required as a Territorial to go on service.
Thus it is not always the fact that the property owner leaves his property because he wants to make a profit out of 593 it. It is not always the fact that property that is requisitioned is the property of an owner who leaves it because he wants to make a profit out of it. Eventually I got my flat back. I mention this experience to show that I have some personal knowledge of requisitioning, to show that I know what it is like to expect to go back to one's home only to find a little notice on the door saying, "Requisitioned," even though the place is still empty and may remain so for a considerable time.
§ Mr. Sparks
The hon. Gentleman had no objection to a bombed-out family being in his flat while he was away, had he?
§ Mr. Marples
No, but I rather hoped that there would be a place for me to live in when I came back. It is not unreasonable to enjoy occupying one's own flat. It was not unreasonable that I should look forward to enjoying the occupation of my own flat when I came back. That is not an unreasonable request to make after five years' service. However, I had quite a dispute about it, and it took a lot of argument before I got it back. I realise—and I want to make it clear— that the human aspect of this problem is sometimes difficult to calculate.
The hon. Member for Acton was kind enough to give me notice of some of the things that he said. At the moment, properties are being steadily released, but most people in the country are not in the 48 difficult areas in London. No new requisitions are now being made. When the Government took office there were about 86,000 properties held; that represented 130,000 families. The number is down to approximately 66,500, and that is 100,000 families, and the great majority of those—over 50,000—are in the London area.
The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) raised two points. One was the financial burden on the Treasury. He dealt with that so skilfully that there is no point in my labouring that theme. He also said that we were retarding housing. He uses words in a very odd way at times. I am glad to tell him that Lambeth is now building six times more houses than in 1951, and a deputation I saw the other day seemed to think it satisfactory. I think the hon. and gallant Member covers the Lambeth area.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
In order to clarify the situation, I represent the Brixton division of Lambeth, which includes two other constituencies as well.
§ Mr. Marples
They are fortunate in being so well represented.
The Working Party made two Reports and it is on the recommendations of that Working Party that the Minister is, in part, acting. It is not a question of acting on his own view, it is a question of acting on the recommendations of the Working Party, which was composed of representatives of all local authority associations. There was a representative of the Association of Municipal Corporations, which represents all the big boroughs. In the first Report, the Working Party said that authorities with between one and two families per thousand of the population in requisitioned property should release the property at the end of this year. In the second Report it recommended that other authorities, with up to six families per thousand of the population in requisitioned property, should be set a time table for releasing them by the end of 1957.
That deals only with those local authorities where the problem is not great. As the hon. Member for Acton rightly pointed out, the Working Party was unable to reach any conclusions on the 48 authorities, almost all in London, which had more than six families per thousand of their population in requisitioned property. The Working Party made no recommendation about those authorities. My right hon. Friend has not decided yet what line of action he will take in this connection and I will call his attention to the suggestions which have been made tonight, including those constructive suggestions made by the hon. Member for Acton. I will see that they form part of the agenda when this matter is being discussed. I am grateful to the hon. Member for his suggestions.
We are pressing local authorities to reduce their holding of requisitioned property within the recommendations of the Working Party, and in doing so we have asked them to pay particular attention to those cases where owner-occupiers are suffering hardship through being deprived of their property. That is a point which was raised by the hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer).
595 Hon. Members have no doubt armed themselves with the Interim Report of the Working Party. They will see, on page 6, that the evidence submitted by the Association of Requisitioned Property Owners was fairly reasonable. It did not ask that property should be derequisitioned so that that owners could make a profit. It saidthat requisitioned properties should be released in the following order of priority: (i) to the owner who requires the property for his own occupation.I think no one would dispute that many people have property which they want for their sons or married daughters, and they have some right to it(ii) to the owner who resides in part of the property, and there is incompatibility with the licencees in the other part.I think every hon. Member knows how difficult it is when two ladies share the same kitchen. More friction and domestic vicissitude has been caused by that than by almost any other cause. I will not enter into the reasons which cause it to happen, but I think the conclusion which I have reached is the right conclusion. The third category isthe owner who has been, or is, compelled to remove to a district other than that where the requisitioned property is, and is in consequence suffering financial hardship.Many cases occur where a man has had to move from, for example, Birmingham to Manchester. If he has requisitioned property in Birmingham, he may suffer a good deal financially.
If hon. Members will look at the evidence given by the Association of Requisitioned Property Owners, they will see that the property owners did not make extravagant claims. We in the Ministry have always impressed upon local authorities that they must try to judge the relative hardship, because it is a relative hardship in many cases, and it is a judgment which is not easy to make in the majority of cases, because somebody will have hardship inflicted upon them. The Working Party said that it had a good deal of sympathy with these representations and my right hon. Friend also has sympathy with them, but I do not think he has unduly pressed any local authority to derequisition a house unnecessarily. Derequisitioning is not synonymous with eviction. Houses were requisitioned under Emergency Regulations, either 596 those of 1939–15 years ago—or those of 1945—nine years ago. They were requisitioned in an emergency. That does not mean that the occupants should quit. The local authority can do many things. First, they can lease the property from the owner by agreement or apply for a compulsory purchase order which will be submitted to my right hon. Friend, and in many cases they have done that. They can also say to the owner, "Will you take part of it and leave the tenants in the other part?"
§ Mr. Wheeldon
In the instance I quoted, derequisitioning is absolutely synonymous with the eviction of the lessee.
§ Mr. Marples
I will look into that, but generally speaking it is not necessarily so. The hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) mentioned a case at Southport. In that particular case, my right hon. Friend acted, not under the second Interim Report of the Working Party, but under the first Interim Report, in which it was recommended that it should be released by December, 1953. Southport is a constituency with a certain amount of resources. I have heard harsh things said about certain seaside towns and the resources which they have. They can take over that property, if they wish, at any time. As a matter of fact, some of the local authorities have been singularly successful in taking over property. Manchester are buying 15 and negotiating for a further 289. Sheffield are buying 86. Bristol has purchased 86 over the last three years and are still negotiating for a further 100 properties. Leeds have acquired 23 while a further 30 are subject to active negotiation.
§ Mr. Sparks
That is all right, so far as it goes; but what is the hon. Gentleman going to do with people like the Southport Town Council who refuse to buy and are not prepared to buy? On the other hand, he is insisting that they must derequisition. That means that families have to go out.
§ Mr. Marples
The local authority have a duty under the 1936 Housing Act to the people in their area. If any local authority fall down on their particular task, it is up to my right hon. Friend to consider what action should be taken if they do not carry out the statutory duties.
§ Mrs. Braddock
Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that the Town Clerk of Southport, in the opening sentences of his letter, informed 27 tenants in requisitioned houses that he had instructions from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government that they must be out by last Monday? Has he asked for a copy of the letter sent by the Town Clerk, and will he see that, when any instructions are given about derequisitioning, along with the instructions there is a request to rehouse the people concerned? Is he aware that in Southport people were taken from their own areas in Liverpool and Bootle, not at their own request, and were sent into this area by the local authorities concerned? Now they have lost their title to housing in both Liverpool and Bootle because they have been out of the area for 10 or 12 years. These are matters which are giving great concern, and the Southport people are being told that they are—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
The hon. Lady must not develop a question into a speech.
§ Mrs. Braddock
—they are only allowed until 31st August and then they must go out or they will be evicted. Will he say whether he agrees with that, and what was the instruction given?
§ Mr. Marples
I can only reaffirm what was said at Question time on that particular case, that neither my right hon. Friend nor the Ministry have given any instruction that tenants shall be evicted. I will ask for a copy of the letter and will look at the first paragraph to see whether I can analyse what the Town Clerk said and what his reasons were. I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend has said no such thing. He has not said that they shall be evicted, and we are urging, as much as we possibly can, that all local authorities should acquire the property, which was the point made by the hon. Member for Acton. He went further and made suggestions about monetary arrangements, because his mind is always acute on local authority finances; but we will certainly look at his suggestions for assisting the purchase.
I want to make these comments regarding the purchase or leasing of properties. The hon. Member for Acton said that if a house had been improved or converted at Exchequer expense, when a local 598 authority bought it it would pay a price arrived at on the assumption that the house was still in the state in which it was requisitioned. A great many of these houses were converted after requisitioning, at Government expense. The value of the properties has, therefore, been increased. The Government can seek to recover these increased values from the local authorities if they buy the houses. But whatever we can do in theory, in practice we have been extremely lenient and have made in effect a concealed grant to the purchase The hon. Member for Acton will be well aware of this.
The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) called my attention to a particular case. I should like to look into it myself before the Recess and I will write to the hon. and learned Member. If any hon. Member has a case of hardship—as, for instance, the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange thought she had at Southport—and will write to my right hon. Friend or to me, we will do our utmost to see that there is no hardship. It it is not the intention to make local authorities evict people. Our idea is to carry out the recommendations of the Working Party, where no hardship is involved, by seeing that a local authority acquires the houses on a proper basis; that is, not on an emergency basis.
§ Mrs. Braddock
Will the hon. Gentleman give instructions to local authorities that if they require houses to be de-requisitioned, there is an obligation upon them to see that the people who are being dispossessed are being found suitable alternative accommodation?
§ Mr. Marples
They have that already. Under existing legislation, local authorities have a duty to house people in their area; the hon. Member for Acton will confirm this. It would not be right for my right hon. Friend to lay down what priority a local authority should follow in allocating its pool of housing accommodation.
§ Mrs. Braddock
This is most important to the people who are likely to find themselves on the streets. Has the Minister said that a local authority, although it is required or is asked to derequisition, must not do so until it is able to offer suitable alternative accommodation to its tenants who will be dispossessed?
§ Mr. Marples
Generally speaking, we have given the notice recommended by the Working Party—that is, over 12 months—that a local authority should either derequisition the house or acquire it on another basis; and it is the authority's job to house its people in its area.
We do not lay down orders of priorities, not even whether an ex-Service man should be given priority; in some areas such a person cannot even get on the housing list. The allocation of the pool of accommodation is a matter for a local authority to decide. If it thinks that a family in requisitioned property is in greater hardship than a soldier coming out of the Forces, it gives the proper priorities. The Minister cannot lay down what an authority should do. It would be resented and it would not work, because local conditions vary greatly.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that when the Ministry directs a local council to derequisition property, with the result that people have no home, there is an obligation on the local council to rehouse those people? If so, what is the authority for saying that there is any such obligation?
§ Mr. Marples
When my right hon. Friend asks a local authority to derequisition, it is left to that authority to acquire the property, either on lease, by putting in a compulsory purchase order—
§ Mr. Marples
Perhaps I should not mention it in this context, but Coventry refused to carry out certain things and three commissioners were appointed. If a local authority does not carry out its statutory obligation, it is up to the Government to take proper action. I stress that my right hon. Friend has never told a local authority that it should evict people, and I hope no one in the House will say that he has. The Acton Borough Council called together a number of the 48 "hard core" authorities, as they are termed, to consider the problem and we 600 hope that they will press forward with the reduction of their holdings or give constructive suggestions, as the hon. Member for Acton did. We at the Ministry are prepared to listen to any constructive suggestions which hon. Members may have for overcoming a very grave and very nearly insoluble problem.
I want to assure hon. Members that it is sometimes very heartbreaking when people come to see me about these matters, as they sometimes do. The other day we had to consider the case of an old lady of 78 in a requisitioned house with incompatible tenants; they were at loggerheads all the time, and she did not know which way to turn. What does one do in a case like that—turn her out of the house or turn the others out? I assure the House that my right hon. Friend is fully aware of this grave human problem, and we will consider carefully any constructive suggestions which are made.
§ Mr. Shurmer
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that if a serious international situation arose, the Government would commandeer everything necessary for the benefit of the nation. Why is it that the Ministry, who can act if they like, allow so many vacant properties to stand idle for months on end in the large towns and cities which are so badly overcrowded, simply because the owners are waiting to get the greatest amount of money for those houses? Surely it is just as important to requisition properties for the benefit of the morale of the people in peace-time as it is in war-time?
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. A few days ago there was posted in the Lobby of this House an indication from Mr. Speaker that after my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) had raised certain matters I would have an opportunity of catching Mr. Speaker's eye. I have been here very nearly the whole day waiting for that opportunity. Now I find that by an arrangement which I know nothing about, and of which no indication was given, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) is called. I understand that he is raising a matter of some substance. My point was a short one; it would take about 10 minutes and it would be 601 followed by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport who would occupy, I suppose, about another 10 minutes.
Surely, if one has had an indication in writing, posted on the wall, that one would be fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye after the debate on the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton—though I entirely agree that it is within the right of the occupant of the Chair to select any speaker he wishes at any time—the hon. Member who has had that intimation should reasonably expect to be called.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I know nothing about that arrangement. In any event, this debate has not followed that arrangement at all. This debate has taken place on the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill. What I am trying to do is to meet the wishes of the House and to proceed to the next subject.
§ Mr. Sparks
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Is it not correct that if my hon. Friend wishes to remain here he will be called in due course and that the debate on this Motion will not be closured?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
It is nothing to do with the Closure. Unfortunately, I cannot call more than one hon. Member at a time.
§ Mr. de Freitas
I am only protesting that, having stood in the queue, I was not called in due order as indicated by Mr. Speaker. I think that is quite wrong.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
If I had called the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) would have made his protest.