HC Deb 02 February 1956 vol 548 cc1133-44

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Victor Collins (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I beg to move, in page 6, line 31, to leave out from "there" to the end of line 32 and to add: was substituted the word 'nil'. I promise to take only a minute or two in moving this Amendment. I shall state the case and refrain from developing it.

As the Bill stands at present, the Minister proposes to reduce by £5 per annum the subsidy payable on new privately owned cottages for farm workers. Such cottages in almost all circumstances become tied cottages—service cottages—giving the farm worker no security of tenure, and rendering him and his family liable to eviction if he changes his employment. Hon. Members on this side of the Committee do not oppose a reduction in the subsidy on such cottages. In fact, it is perhaps the only subsidy reduction in the Bill of which we fully approve. But we are opposed altogether to the creation of tied cottages for farm workers and especially the building of cottages for farm workers being assisted substantially by public money.

The tied cottage is a major cause of dissatisfaction among farm workers and, among others, a prime reason for the continued drift from the land which we all deplore. The purpose of this Amendment is, by reducing the subsidy to nothing, to ensure that no more taxpayers' money is spent on perpetuating and extending a system so generally hated by farm workers.

During our discussions on Clause 1 an Amendment was moved from this side of the Committee—unfortunately it was not accepted by the Minister—to increase the subsidy on houses for farm workers built by local authorities, or rather to ensure that the present subsidy was not reduced. That, of course, is Labour Party policy in respect of the provision of such houses. We wish to provide cottages for farm workers in order to assist agriculture and provide security of tenure, and, if farm workers have to leave such cottages, to throw on to local authorities the onus of providing them with alternative accommodation. It is therefore extremely regrettable that the Minister did not accept that earlier Amendment.

We pointed out at the time that the present proposals meant that the rent of a three-bedroom cottage in the country would increase by £1 0s. 7d., to a total of 47s. 9d.—which is more than one-third of the farm worker's minimum wage. That is a quite impossible circumstance. We argued that without a substantial subsidy local authorities would not be able to build farm workers' cottages. Nevertheless, the Minister refused to budge.

Now, however, we find that he is willing to continue a subsidy of £10 per annum in respect of privately-owned farm workers' cottages, thereby perpetuating the system which is so detested by farm workers He is spending in this way public money which he has denied to local authorities in order that they can build farm workers' cottages, and, indeed, other local authority houses. It is for that reason that we have moved the Amendment. We hope that the Minister will accept it, save that amount of public money and hand it over to the local authorities to enable them, with increased subsidies, to build farm workers' cottages in respect of which security of tenure can be given.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I find myself in a slight difficulty here, because I wish to address my remarks to the general proposal in the Clause, whereas the Amendment introduces what I regard as either an enormous red herring or sacred cow, which is now and has long been deceased. I start with the general question of the building of private farm cottages under the subsidy. The Committee will forgive me if I mention the terms upon which such building is carried out.

First, the local authority has to decide, upon the application of the proposing builder, that the house in question would be more conveniently built by a private owner than by the local authority itself. It then has to decide that the proposed house is satisfactory in size and construction, and then, if it permits the building, it makes it a condition that the rent chargeable, if any, shall be limited to a rent which would be applicable to the same type of house if the local authority had built it. After the house is built the subsidy is payable annually, provided that a satisfactory standard of maintenance has been carried out and also that it has been reserved for an agricultural worker. I speak subject to correction, but I believe there is also a provision that an agricultural worker has to be given four weeks' notice before his occupancy can end.

No farmer or country landowner builds a cottage except for a very good reason. He has plenty of other uses for his capital, such as the building of dairies and granaries and all the other fixed equipment which is very much needed. By itself, the cottage adds nothing like its cost to the value of the farm. Private cottages are built for one of two purposes. It may be that they are to replace existing cottages which are unfit and not worth reconditioning. That is tantamount to slum clearance which, if it were carried out by a local authority, would be grant-aided to the extent of £22 for 60 years under the new proposals.

The second reason for building private cottages is to attract skilled key men as foremen or stockmen, in order that full use may be made of a new dairy or an expanded plan of production or whatever it may be. That is tantamount to building for the urgent needs of industry. There again, if that were done by a local authority it would attract a subsidy of £24 for 60 years.

In each case that act by a private owner relieves a local authority of some pressure upon its housing list, and a house is built in the district for a small subsidy commitment. The National Farmers' Union and other bodies—and farmers generally—were naturally concerned by the effect of this proposed cut of one-third upon the future trend of private farm cottage building, especially as the cost of building such cottages is between three and four times the pre-war cost.

It would be possible to make out a very strong case, on costs, for putting up the subsidy, but for the somewhat curious and—certainly to me—surprising fact that comparatively little use has been made of the available facilities. In 1951, for example, 307 approvals for subsidy were given; the total of private enterprise houses built in rural districts in that year was 7,612, and only one in twenty-five private enterprise houses attracted subsidy. In 1953, the number of approvals rose to 395, and the total number of private enterprise houses built was 28,563, which is a proportion of one in seventy-one. In 1954, the figures rose to 557 approvals out of 32,550 private enterprise houses—an improvement to a proportion of one in fifteen.

It is not possible to find out how many of those private enterprise houses were actually built on farms for agricultural or forestry workers. The figures can probably be traced through the capital expenditure claims, but I would hazard a modest guess that they were at least ten times greater than the numbers built with the aid of the subsidy. The reason for that is probably that the bigger farms—which tend to be the only farms able to find the cash to pay the builders to put up these cottages—receive favourable terms in relation to capital expenditure advances, tax relief and investment allowances and, on the whole, such farmers have probably thought it not worth while to go to the trouble of attracting local authority approval.

Another possible reason is that, during the term of office of the Labour Government, the tied cottage provision was prohibited. It was laid down that any such cottage had to be occupied by an owner-occupier or a tenant, which ruled out the service occupant—the farm worker whose house goes with the job.

6.30 p.m.

Perhaps this will be a convenient moment to discuss briefly the tied cottage agitation and its effects, now that the matter has been raised. I believe that this agitation is a mistake. I do not know what the situation may have been fifty years ago but, in my experience since the war, the tied-cottage agitation has worked to the discomfort of the farm worker. It has been contended that the wicked farmer turns out the good man. I do not say that it is not possible to find a case of unsympathetic eviction but, broadly speaking, the fact is that most farm workers are harmed by anything which militates against the building or reconditioning of a tied cottage. It means that those cottages simply are not built or reconditioned.

The policy of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) in administering the Rural Housing (Improvement) Acts, after the recommendations that were made by the Hobhouse Committee, caused consternation in the country districts in which I lived and worked as a member of a housing committee. I do not want to take up the time of the Committee with detail, except to say that if the farmer wanted to improve the conditions of men working on the farm, even of the most loyal and the longest-serving people, he got no help.

I remember this very well because when I finished my service after the war, the only house I could live in happened to be an empty tied cottage. Opposite it were two small cottages. Plans had been made for their reconditioning, but absolute prohibition came along from the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale when he failed to continue the Acts to which I have referred, and which expired in 1946. Those cottages are now falling down. They have been known locally as "Bevan's memorial." I was glad to see the right hon. Gentleman in such good form today. I think he will outlive his own memorial; but there it stands.

The tied cottage provides mobility for the agricultural worker. If he is a skilled cowman, pigman or foreman and wants to rise in his profession, he must be able to move to another job. It is the fact that a good house, or what one hopes is a good house, goes with the job which enables the rising man to move the whole way round England and to work his way up in the profession. That is of very great advantage to the agricultural worker, who is in that way free to sack the boss. He can come and go and pick his jobs, leaving his tied cottage and sending a Christmas card back.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

Do not the figures indicate that men are going out of the agricultural industry?

Mr. Collins

Is the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) aware that the farm workers' union dislikes tied cottages so much that for many years it has campaigned against them? If what he says is right it would not have done so.

Mr. Hill

I am only giving my experience.

I agree that that is what is said about tied cottages, but I think it is one of the items of policy which have grown up in the past and have been clung to until they have become sacred doctrines and are not critically examined. My experience is that farm workers, on the whole, do not mind very much where they live. The things with which they are concerned are a good house and a reasonable rent. Sometimes the one consideration comes first and sometimes the other. Who owns the cottage is generally a very long way down on the farm worker's list. I do not want to get drawn into this controversy, because I believe it is obsolete.

I would like to come back to the question of the small number of approvals under the subsidy. The big farm does not bother about it much. I am concerned about the comparatively small number of farms which have availed themselves of the benefits. To a small farmer with not much money and in a remote area, £15 a year may be very important. I am anxious to avoid the position in which the decision between building anew or reconditioning depends on grants. Let me explain what I mean.

If one has a bad cottage which needs improvement, one can get a reconditioning grant. One can spend up to £800, of which £400 will be a grant. That will be plus the cost of doing any necessary repairs, the improvement grant not covering repairs and maintenance. It is quite easy to get to a stage in expenditure when it might be much better to make a clean sweep and build a new cottage. So far as I remember, the reconditioning grant insists upon a life as short as fifteen years, although that may have been extended. The house may be obviously good for sixty years or more.

This kind of decision is taken easily by big farmers. When they have to spend £400 or £500 in that way they may say "Scrap it" and build a new cottage. For the smaller farmer whose capital is small, the cut in subsidy may just tip the balance against building a new cottage. It means in the long run a waste of time, labour and material. I regret that there is no provision in the Bill to deal with any future period in which the supply of needed private cottages falls off.

I should like to see the Minister have power, where there is a need for cottages to be privately built in remote areas—which building the local authority would probably back very strongly because it would otherwise have to build in remote areas itself—to increase the subsidies, as he can for rural districts. If he cannot find it possible to seek that discretion, I hope he will assure the Committee that the position will be carefully watched so that we do not get into the position in which there is a lack of suitable agricultural houses.

Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)

I am trying to follow the argument of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill). Am I to understand that he is in favour of the Bill, which reduces the subsidy on houses that belong to central or local government, but is in favour of subsidies being granted to private owners for houses which they themselves put up?

Mr. Hill

I support the Bill because, in general, the housing subsidies, both for local authority and private enterprise farm cottages, are being reduced. All I say is that the economics of private enterprise housing were at a very low level to begin with. That is all. Had there not been a general need to reduce subsidies, one could have made a case for increasing the subsidy available for private enterprise purely on grounds of cost and on the number of approvals.

As I say, I do not think that that is now a point of substance, because the big farmers are building the houses without a subsidy. I am rather concerned about the small farms in some remote districts. I want that point watched, because I believe that it is vital to provide decent housing for the farm workers, whoever they are, whether they live in remote places or comparatively close to the towns and, above all, whether they happen to be housed on or by the farm.

Mr. Mitchison

I have listened carefully to what has been said by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill), but the one thing I did not gather was whether or not he was in favour of the Clause.

Mr. Hill

I am against the Amendment and in favour of the Clause, in the hope that an assurance will be given that the position will be watched.

Mr. Powell

I have no intention of carrying further this little debate on the well-worn topic of tied cottages—it arises only indirectly on the Amendment and even on the Clause which is before the Committee—though I must confess that I was a little surprised to hear the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins) count the tied cottage as one of the causes of the drift from the land.

The financial position of privately and publicly-provided houses for agricultural workers under the Bill is as follows. In respect of the privately-provided cottage which fulfils the conditions in the Acts of 1938, 1946 and 1952—which are all involved—the subsidy payable is a maximum—and I draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that it is a maximum—of £10 per annum over forty years.

In the case of a house provided by the local authority it is £10 plus—in a case which qualifies, which will often be the same class of case as that where the privately-owned house attracts the subsidy—the supplement of £9 under Clause 4. That is to run for sixty years and is subject, of course, to any rate contribution which the local authority might make towards meeting a deficiency. I therefore do not think that it can be said that the adjustment in the rate of subsidy to the privately-provided house is out of general keeping with the alteration in subsidies to council houses under the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) drew attention to the very important matter of the relationship between inducements to build new houses and inducements to recondition old ones. I am sure that he there touched on a very important point. We must be sure that the inducements which are given under the two heads are not such as to encourage uneconomic behaviour, to encourage reconditioning where new building would be more truly economic, and vice versa.I give my hon. Friend the assurance for which he asks, that that all-important relationship will be watched.

In the meantime, I would ask the Committee not to destroy this modest agency of providing agricultural houses for a very special category of agricultural employee of the kind mentioned by my hon. Friend—the cowman, the pigman and the foreman. It is true that, as he said, the proportion of houses built by private enterprise in rural districts which enjoy a subsidy for agricultural workers under these provisions is comparatively small. Nevertheless, at the present time the trend is a rising one.

My hon. Friend gave the figures for approvals, and the Committee might be interested to know the number of houses completed with this subsidy in recent years. In 1952 there were 288; in 1953. 346; in 1954, 400, and in 1955, some 600. The provision of houses by private enterprise with the aid of this subsidy is, therefore, making a modest but useful contribution, and I would ask the Committee not to bring that small but useful contribution to an end by agreeing to this Amendment.

6.45 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

I shall be very brief, but I wish to touch upon the subject of inducements mentioned by both the Parliamentary Secretary and by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill). For the farmer, there is more than the inducement of the subsidy. There is the fact that the farmer who builds a house which is a tied cottage for his worker can write off the cost at a rate of 10 per cent. per annum against his profits. That is an enormous inducement.

I know of no other employer who is in a position to write off against his profits such a percentage on a building. Is that not enough? Do we, in addition, have to give a subsidy to a man who is all the time appreciating his capital at the expense of the Exchequer? Under such conditions, I should have thought that the farmer who was building for a worker on the basis of the tied cottage should be satisfied with such an inducement as that.

Mr. Hill

With great respect, I was dealing with the small farmer. A great many farmers do not have that degree of Income Tax liability, although their farms may desperately need a new cottage. Another point is that although there may be a relief and a subsidy, someone must pay the builder quickly.

Sir L. Plummer

I only ask how it is possible for a man to build a house if he has not the capital. He has to build to get the subsidy, and he needs money for that. The subsidy is not capital but revenue. This provision does not help the small farmer. It is the large farmer who is building the houses on the estate and getting the workmen. He is quite able to take care of himself with the 10 per cent. annual depreciation, and he does not need this subsidy.

Mr. Mitchison

If it is intended that we should conclude the Bill today I earnestly hope that we shall be able to leave the question of tied cottages alone. I totally disagree with every word spoken by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill). As for his "Bevan's monument" as he called it, if he knows anything about the law he should take away that name and rechristen it a monument to ignorance. He could perfectly well have got some help, and I will tell him how if he will see me afterwards—if it has not gone too far.

We are not at all happy about these subsidies, but we agree that they are a small question, and that, at any rate, they are being reduced. We say—and so does the hon. Member for Norfolk, South—I do not disagree with him on this—that it is all to the good that they are being reduced, and that is as far as we are going today on this matter.

Mr. Collins

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Mitchison

When the Clause is being considered again, would it not be advisable to insert a reference to the Housing Act, 1952? Tied cottages were actually excluded by Section 13 of the 1946 Act. That was our legislation. They were put back in 1952, subject to certain safeguards, and I think that the 1952 Act is just as much an amendment as was the 1946 Act. The Clause is a little misleading as it is worded.

Mr. Powell

The 1952 Act is not mentioned because it did not alter the rate of subsidy. It is only the provisions which fix the rate of subsidy which are specifically alluded to. I have noted the hon. and learned Gentleman's point, but I think it was done in this way for that reason.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.