HC Deb 23 November 1954 vol 533 cc1207-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Allan.]

11.18 p.m.

Mr. H. A. Price (Lewisham, West)

I have found the debate to which we have just been listening very encouraging. I have heard the Government restore freedom to yet another section of the population; I have heard the Opposition trying very hard to persuade them not to do so, and I have heard the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food insisting on doing so. That is very pleasant to hear. I only hope now that my hon. Friend will follow in such footsteps and restore yet another freedom. I am asking him to restore freedom to the owners of requisitioned properties either to live in them or to allow their families to live in them, and to restore freedom to them in other respects.

This Government have many fine achievements to their credit. Not least has been their success in dealing with the housing problem, but there is one aspect of this matter about which I have been very unhappy, and that is the problem of the requisitioned houses. For many months before the Summer Recess, I had been pressing for a statement of policy on this matter, but without success. I have, however, been very heartened by the reply which the Minister has given to a Question earlier today, from which, if I understood him correctly, we may expect an announcement of policy very soon.

I am, of course, aware that the problem has been investigated by a committee, and that so far as London is concerned, that committee was not very positive in its recommendations. I cannot feel—and I am sure that the Minister will agree—that that absolves the Ministry. The committee may not have been able to find a solution, but the Minister must. We all know that the problem is a difficult one. Indeed, no Member sitting for a constituency such as Lewisham, with nearly 4,000 families living in requisitioned properties, can be in any doubt as to its complexity.

I suggest that we must not allow that to blind us to the hardships and injustices which are being imposed on many owners of requisitioned properties. We in the Conservative Party claim to believe in a property-owning democracy, a claim which I am proud to make, but there is not much democracy in owning requisitioned property. May I make it clear here that I am not concerned so much with property which is in the ownership of housing trusts; I am concerned with those houses which belong to individuals, houses which, for the most part, have been acquired by them as a result of years of industry and thrift?

We have another claim in this country to which I am proud to subscribe, and that is that an Englishman's home is his castle. That is a claim which he was quite ready to give up during the war and immediately after the war, but with every passing month it is a claim which cries aloud for reinstatement.

I have here a letter, the last paragraph of which I shall quote. It comes from the Ministry: The Minister takes the occasion of your representations to the Prime Minister to state quite definitely that it is the intention of the Government to dispense with requisitioning at the earliest practicable moment and that, during the time when such powers must continue to be exercised, every effort will be made to minimise the inconvenience which it causes. The date of that letter is 5th April, 1950—four and a half years ago—and it came from a Socialist Minister. It is hardly to be wondered at, then, if the owners of requisitioned properties are becoming a little impatient, particularly when one bears in mind that they are living under conditions which try their patience very severely. Rightful owners have lost the right to live in their own house; they have lost the freedom to sell that house.

If such an owner happens to be an old man, he may have lost all hope of ever living in it again, even though requisitioning can have taken place while he was evacuated during the war, perhaps with a Government Department or even at the request of the Government, as long as 14 years ago. Some rent strangers' houses whilst strangers live in theirs. Some live in part of their own house whilst strangers live in another part. Sometimes they are unfriendly, hostile strangers, about whom the owners can do nothing, although they are the owners of the house.

No responsible Member of this House can approve the action of a very small number—so far as I know, only one—of owners of requisitioned properties who are tending to take the law into their own hands. We cannot approve, but I can understand the emotions which move them to take such steps, particularly when I remember the letter I have just read which, as I have said, is 4½ years old.

Yet look at the position today. I cannot do better than quote two letters with regard to cases in my own constituency as illustrations. One constituent has written to me: I feel compelled to write to you as I am the owner of a house in … which has been requisitioned since 1940. I have a son who has a wife and baby aged seven months and they are all living here with my husband and self owing to being unable to find other accommodation. We have only one kitchen and cooker in the house and sometimes things get very trying and difficult, not to mention the fact that it would be much more desirable for them to have a home of their own. I have applied to the Council for the release of the property stating my case, but without success. The council has turned them down.

In another case: I write seeking your guidance in a matter relating to a tower flat in the above-mentioned property which was requisitioned by the Lewisharn Borough Council in 1944 at a rental of £45 per annum. I have made application for the derequisitioning of this flat as I now require the accommodation for my daughter who is being married early next year. I regret that the Council has refused my application, and I am informed that the Committee concerned is unwilling to reconsider its decision for at least another twelve months.

I have noticed that other properties in the borough have been derequisitioned and are, in fact, still vacant. I consider my application not unreasonable, especially in view of the length of time the property has been requisitioned and the low rental paid by the Council. I would mention that my daughter has been in hospital with T.B. spine for two-and-a-half years.… I find it difficult to understand how a local authority can turn down such applications and that in this country, under a Conservative Government nine years after the war, rightful owners can be victimised and injustice done to them in this way. I urge the Minister to give us hope tonight that these people can look forward to better prospects in the not too far-distant future.

I should like to refer to one other aspect of this matter. The Minister might tell me in reply that the Ministry has already indicated to local authorities circumstances in which the Ministry feels that property might be derequisitioned. It is probably true that some local authorities are doing their best to follow the policy indicated by the Minister. It is equally true that other local authorities make no effort whatever to follow that policy.

There is no consistency whatever. Not only is there injustice but there is inequality of injustice. Some owners of requisitioned property are fortunate enough to live in boroughs where the local authority is doing its best to follow the policy laid down by the Ministry. Others have the misfortune to live in other local authority areas where that is not done.

There is, therefore, inequality of injustice. Perhaps that is partly due to the fact that the problem itself is unequal. It so happens that some local authorities suffered more than others during the war—I speak mainly of London—with the result that this problem of requisitioned houses is much more difficult in some parts than others. It is, therefore, unwise to attempt to deal with the problem on a borough basis. Those boroughs which have been more fortunate ought to be prepared to co-operate with the unfortunate boroughs in an effort to find a solution.

I do not want to be too dogmatic as to how it should be done. Perhaps the answer is that some central authority for London should be set up to handle this matter, and perhaps a proportion of new houses becoming available could be allocated to this body for the re-housing of families at present living in requisitioned properties the owners of which want them back for a perfectly good reason, whether for their own occupation, for members of their families or because of financial hardship, which in many cases is extremely pressing, or for some other reasons which have been mentioned too often for me to have to repeat now. I do not believe that this problem can be settled on a borough basis. A wider view must be taken.

I stress to my hon. Friend not only the need for justice and equality of justice but also the need for speed. These people have waited too long. We have tonight restored freedom to certain cold storage interests. Surely we should restore freedom to owners of requisitioned properties at least at the same time. I suggest that they have a prior right of freedom. At least they should have equal freedom. That surely is part of the basic philosophy of the Conservative Party. I know that the question is a difficult one; I know the problems; but we have tackled more difficult problems than this, even in the last three years. I ask the Minister to tackle this problem now and give us some hope tonight that that will in fact be done.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. E. Partridge (Battersea, South)

I want to urge on my hon. Friend that not only are there many cases of injustice in the borough of Lewisham but very many in Battersea and other London boroughs. I do hope that the Minister will be able to find a solution to this problem and not only bring justice to people who require their own homes back, but 'prevent an even greater injustice which I see taking place throughout the country and, I regret to say, particularly in Battersea. That injustice is the application of a compulsory purchase order to a house that already has been derequisitioned by a local council with the excuse, "You have not got it now; you had much better part with it altogether." That has the effect of debasing the price in favour of the local authority.

These injustices ought not to be in existence in our country today. We have fought for freedom, we have fought for justice, and the people of our country ought now to be enjoying it. They look with confidence to my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend to see that that justice is done.

11.31 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

My hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price), has raised an issue of wide concern. I hope to make clear during the course of my remarks that it is the concern of my right hon. Friend, who made a statement about it earlier today which I think my hon. Friend has seen was sufficient to indicate that he is giving this matter close and detailed study.

My hon. Friend has given a very fair account with great moderation, for which I thank him. What he said about real hardship caused to individual owners is beyond dispute, and I shall not attempt to dispute it. I think it will be of help to my hon. Friend and the House to understand the nature of this problem and the nature of the study it entails by my right hon. Friend if I say a word or two about the general background.

I think my hon. Friend is aware of the source of this problem. The requisitioning of housing began during the war, mainly to house people who had been bombed out or evacuated. That was continued after the war, as were other measures of this nature, as a temporary way of meeting part of the immediate need to find homes for inadequately housed families. The properties are held and maintained by local authorities on behalf of my right hon. Friend under Defence Regulation 51.

I should like to stress that the number of properties held is even at this moment being steadily reduced. There were 86,000 such properties, representing 130,000 families, when we took office. Now there are 64,000, representing 100,000 families. The majority—50,000, representing 75,000 families—are in the London area, where, of course, our problem is much the biggest, and much the most intractable. It goes without saying that the cost of all this is very heavy for the Treasury. It is more than £5 million a year. We recognise that requisitioning cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

My hon. Friend said something about the committee which reported on this subject. The working party which we set up in 1952 has issued three reports, two on this subject. In the light of their recommendations, we have asked all local authorities with few requisitioned properties to release them by the end of this year; that is, all local authorities with up to two families per 1,000 in requisitioned properties. The working party also recommended that authorities with up to six families per 1,000 in requisitioned premises should be set a timetable for clearing those premises by the end of 1957.

This left 48 local authorities, of which 44 are in the London area, with more than six families per thousand so accommodated; and I must say, of course, that for some of those authorities the figure is not six but nearer 20 and 30. The working party could make no recommendation in this field, and it is precisely to this field that we are giving special attention.

The position in London is that since the date of the working party's first report, which was in October, 1952, 6,080 properties, representing 9,000 family units, have been released in the London region, 3,080 in outer London. Lewisham has 2,290 properties, representing 3,500 family units and has released 290; and with one exception that is the best record of releases in the London region.

Lewisham has shown itself sympathetic to the claims of the owners to whom my hon. Friend has referred, and who are suffering hardship because their properties have been kept from them; and these include some hard and tragic cases. Lewisham is also co-operating in the release of uneconomic properties—those losing most money.

Mr. H. A. Price

I assure my hon. Friend that I appreciate that Lewisham has a good record, but the record is such that it makes me shudder to think what is happening in those boroughs with a bad record.

Mr. Deedes

What I have said was intended as a tribute to the hon. Member's borough, and should not be taken as an invidious comparison.

In pressing local authorities to release properties, we ask that special attention should be given in two spheres; to owner-occupiers who are suffering hardship, and second, to the particularly expensive houses. We do not underrate the problem confronting the London authorities. We appreciate that they have big waiting lists and that nearly all of them are short of land on which to build; some are without land of any kind. But there are ways in which the problem can be attacked in piecemeal fashion.

First, local authorities can persuade, and they try to persuade, the owner to accept the occupants as tenants. They can set aside a proportion of new houses for those people living in requisitioned premises. Local authorities can enter into leases, or they can buy suitable houses and add them to the permanent housing pool. I should mention that if they buy the houses it is not done in the way which has been hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Partridge). They are not obtained at compulsory purchase price.

Mr. Partridge

I did not hint at it; what I did was to charge the borough council with getting these houses by an unfair method.

Mr. Deedes

I do not follow my hon. Friend; is he referring to requisitioned houses?

Mr. Partridge

To requisitioned houses purchased by means of a compulsory purchase order while the premises are under requisition.

Mr. Deedes

The procedure I have been referring to is limited to suitable cases because if the houses are too expensive the local authorities cannot run them economically and my Department cannot assist by means of subsidy or by grant. Many of these houses have already been improved or converted at the expense of the Exchequer.

When the local authorities buy a house, the price they pay is based on the assumption that the house is still in the state it was when first it was requisitioned. When it has been converted at the Government's expense, and improved at the Government's expense, that value is enhanced. We could seek to recover the enhancement value from the local authorities. In fact, we take the lenient view that it should be construed as a grant towards the purchase.

Speaking generally, I can say that what has already been done shows that progress is steady.

Mr. H. A. Price

I am sorry to keep interrupting. The Parliamentary Secretary has stressed the financial implications. I hope he will not carry that too far. What is happening in some local authority areas is that they are not dequisitioning on the basis of the hardship to the owner, but on the basis of the cost to themselves and to the Government. That should not be the first consideration. Justice should come first.

Mr. Deedes

I do not underrate hardship, but the economics of this matter cannot be ignored.

We have made some progress towards release, and I think I have shown that progress is steady. There have been 10,000 releases in the last 12 months; about 500 local authorities have released all their houses since October, 1952; another 250 should have them all released by the end of this month, but I am afraid that that is unlikely.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government made clear earlier today, we are not allowing this problem to drift. It will not be solved overnight, nor by the stroke of a pen. The nature of the problem makes that impossible. I hope that the words of my right hon. Friend earlier today will be taken as an earnest of the Government's intention to come to grips with this problem anew. No less than my hon. Friend who raised this subject tonight, we are anxious to see this problem resolved in a reasonable period ahead.

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.