HC Deb 26 June 1956 vol 555 cc445-54

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

12.23 a.m.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

I am raising on the Adjournment a very personal and urgent case, because I want to prevent an impending injustice. It concerns a constituent of mine, Mr. J. L. Speedy, of 9, Astley Lane, Swillington. Mr. Speedy lives in that house, which is now owned by the National Coal Board, and he has been told since his retirement that he must vacate the property. He has lived in the house since 1925. It was built by the then private owners of the colliery, and Mr. Speedy was never under the impression that he would have to vacate it at the age of 65. Being a good living man, he prepared himself for retirement in the village where he had worked and spent his life for many years; and, furthermore, since the property came into the ownership of the National Coal Board, Mr. Speedy has paid the rates as well as the rent, and also done some excellent repairs.

It must, therefore, have come rather as a bombshell when the area general manager of the Board told him on 15th July, 1955, that he must vacate the house. In his dismay, Mr. Speedy contacted the local authority to see whether it could do anything about the matter or about rehousing him. This is only cottage property, situated among property belonging to the local authority, and to any detached observer this cottage would be taken as belonging to the local authority.

In dealing with this case I am bound to give some dates. Mr. Speedy was interviewed by the area general manager on 30th September, 1955, but evidently no agreement was reached. I cannot, in this connection, understand the point that he was offered a new house of the Coal Board which had been provided for an operative miner, because this would have meant that Mr. Speedy would have had to pay three times more rent.

Mr. Speedy is a man who has given a lifetime of service to the coal industry, yet he is asked to leave or is expected to tenant another house belonging to the Board and pay three times as much rent. It is callous treatment. He was later interviewed by the area housing manager and then offered a slum cottage;it can only be described as such. Mr. Speedy, being a respectable man, would not accept slum cottage; and it is interesting to note that Mr. Speedy's successor at the pit had been offered this same cottage and had refused to occupy it. The Parliamentary Secretary must surely agree that the Board was not seriously handicapped by not having Mr. Speedy's cottage.

There seems to have been some concern about getting Mr. Speedy out of the cottage, because it is let at a cheap price. There are 24 houses belonging to the Board in this district, and about 150 belonging to the local authority; and the strange thing is that many of the tenants of those 24 houses, who do not belong to the mining industry, are left undisturbed. I have always tried to work in co-operation with the Board, having spent many years of my life in the miningindustry, but when this case was brought to my notice I was greatly disturbed. Knowing the industry and knowing the houses provided for officials, I could not understand why Mr. Speedy has to be removed.

If one goes to a mining area, one sees the type of houses in which the general manager, the assistant manager, the civil engineer and the other executives live. There can be no argument about wanting the electrician to live adjacent to the colliery. I know that in that part of the country men with executive jobs live six or seven miles from the colliery, but in these days of modern transport that does not offer any difficulty. Therefore, the Coal Board has no argument about wanting Speedy's successor to live at the colliery.

I have lived in the area for more than 40 years, and I am prepared to say that I know more about this sort of matter than some of the Board's officials. When I saw the deputy-chairman of the Board, in London, after receiving a very curt letter, I put the facts before him. There was no doubt about it that Mr. Latham had no reply to make to my points. He promised that when he visited Yorkshire he would look into the matter. Two or three weeks later, and after his visit to Yorkshire, I received a letter telling me quite baldly that, having viewed all the aspects of the matter, he was afraid that he could take no action.

I was shocked, because Mr. Latham had never put the argument of the Coal Board to me at all. As I said during my conversation with the Parliamentary Secretary, if the Coal Board could prove to me that it was justified in getting Mr. Speedy out of the house, I was quite prepared to throw in the cards. I am beginning to get a little fearful of the bureaucracy of the Board.

As I have said, I want to work with the Coal Board, but it must realise that I have a responsibility to my constituents. The Parliamentary Secretary must know that having spent many years on the local authority, dealing with housing and having, on many occasions, had to tell frustrated people that there was no hope of their getting a house, I would act in a very rational way when dealing with a matter of this kind.

It is not fair for the Coal Board to say to a man, "Well, you are 65 years of age and you must leave the house." Even though the agreement says that a man must leave, the Board should realise that it ought not to take advantage of a legal point when the individual concerned does not understand the position. The agreement says nothing about vacating the house at the age of 65. When dealing with local authority housing matters I have never hesitated, where necessary, to say to a person, "You will be compelled to leave the house." The same applies to tied cottages. People taking houses of that kind are well aware that when they cease their occupation they must vacate the accommodation. But the agreement in question makes no reference to that at all.

The Coal Board may be right, but is it morally right to take advantage of a man who does not understand the position? If I were dealing with the matter, I would say to any electrician, engineer or official that when the time came for him to retire he would have to vacate the property and that he must sign to that effect. This did not happen in the case of Mr. Speedy, who was not aware that when he reached retirement age he would have to leave his house.

There is a great moral issue here. I think it wrong for the Coal Board to say, "We are legally right and he must leave: it is not the type of house usually occupied by an official." Since 1946, we have co-operated and we want to see the industry flourish, but the Board must realise that it is beginning to raise our tempers and we are beginning to ask whether there should not be more accountability to this House. There are organisations which say that there should not be more accountability, but if things like this happen we have to remember that we have responsibilities. I well remember the Parliamentary Secretary saying to me that I ought to acquaint my constituents with the 1946 Act. That may be so, but in reply I could say that I ought to try to educate the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary in how to approach the Coal Board.

Although, legally speaking, the Minister may not have the power, surely it is not beyond the ability or concern of any Minister to make an approach to a corporate body. I know that it is done at present; there are weekly consultations. If not, there ought to be. If I were the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary dealing with this case I would say to the Coal Board, "Is it not possible to meet the hon. Member for Normanton and discuss this matter?" I have tried without success and I hope that it is not too late. If the Coal Board or the Parliamentary Secretary can prove to me that the Board has a case and I have not, I am prepared to throw in the cards. If the Board cannot do that, the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary should say to the Board, "Please meet the hon. Member for Normanton and settle this issue."

If that cannot be done I must take some guidance from the recent publication of the Labour Party, which deals with the taking over of all property, even that belonging to the Coal Board. We look forward to better behaviour from these bodies. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary not to be afraid of saying he will go into the matter again. I have not sought publicity on this issue for many weeks. I am proud to think that we can raise an issue concerning an individual on the Floor of this House. I appeal to the Coal Board to realise that if it has responsibilities so have we. It must understand that I represent a large mining district in my constituency and intend to do my duty. Although, in the past, I have championed many lost causes, I trust that on this issue I shall be successful and obtain the treatment I should receive from such an organisation.

12.40 a.m.

Mr. Robert Woof (Blaydon)

I want to deal with the tenancy of colliery houses from another point of view. Many of the dwellings in my constituency would be better termed industrial barracks. They were inherited from the former coal owners by the National Coal Board. While we appreciate very much indeed the good spirit and sound intention of the Board, and the amount of money and labour which has been spent in an attempt to modernise and improve these dwellings, it is now, unfortunately, evident that to some extent the Board's work and ideas have come to a full stop.

We well understand the cost of repairing colliery houses, but I want to draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the exhausted energy of the housewives who have to tolerate in 1956 what I would term "Robinson Crusoe" methods of cooking and of boiling water. These housewives are not members of any trade union, nor are they employed by the Board but, somewhere, somehow, they are entitled to have a voice in this matter.

The problem of catering for the family has now become an intolerable labour for many of these women. In many cases, the fireplaces in their houses are from 50 to 80 years old. The positionis worse even than that. It is aggravated by the futility of not being able to get the necessary materials to repair them, and they have to adopt the motto of the war years. "Make do and mend," always assuming that they can get anything to mend them with.

I fully realise that the Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary, or the Coal Board, cannot use magic, but at a time when we are paying lip-service to a policy of cleaner air and fuel efficiency some thought should be given to these antediluvian conditions in these colliery houses. If an effort were made to remedy them the Parliamentary Secretary can rest assured that it would be greatly appreciated by all concerned as a measure of relief to their present drudgery.

12.43 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. David Renton)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof) will forgive me if I do not deal at length with his extension of the case which was presented by his hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. A. Roberts), of which I had some notice. I will just say that the question of slum clearance of old houses and the repair of those which still have a useful life ahead of them is receiving the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and I hope that my right hon. Friend's policy will have the support of the hon. Member to the fullest extent.

To return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Normanton, I would remind the House that this debate arose as a result of his asking me, at Question Time yesterday week, whether my right hon. Friend could give a direction to the National Coal Board as to the occupancy of houses under its control. I then pointed out that it was not possible for my right hon. Friend to give any such direction, for reasons with which I need not trouble the hon. Gentleman as he has not pressed that point in this debate. The hon. Member dealt with an individual case, the case of Mr. Speedy, and he asked that this occasion should be used for preventing an injustice to Mr. Speedy.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman quite candidly, and at the outset, that it is not possible for my right hon. Friend to intervene and start giving orders to the Coal Board in individual cases of this kind. We have, however, done what it is within my right hon. Friend's power to do, and that is, put the hon. Gentleman in touch with the Coal Board. He has had, I understand, a lengthy letter from the Deputy-Chairman on the matter, and we have arranged for him, if he wishes, to get in touch with other senior officials to discuss this case. It would be quite wrong to say, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman has been rebuffed at every angle.

With regard to these tied houses, as they are so often called, or service tenancies, it may interest the House to know that the Board took over no fewer than 130,000 miners' houses and 4,000 managers' houses at vesting date, and that since then the Coal Industry Housing Association has built 20,000 houses more. Those houses, of course, have been built in areas which are short of mining labour and to attract labour to the mines where it is needed. There are now 700,000 miners and 11,000 colliery officials to fill those tied houses.

If the Board is to fulfil its statutory duty to produce coal and develop the coal mining industry it is essential that it should use its own houses to its best advantage, that is to say, for the people who are in its employment. That is part of its managerial responsibility, which, I think, any fair-minded person would say comes within its duties under the Act. In law, the Board is in the same position as any other employer who owns houses; that is to say, it is entitled to possession even if the house is protected by the Rent Restrictions Acts, if, to use the words of the First Schedule to the Act which are so familiar to many lawyers, it is … reasonably required by the landlord for occupation as a residence for some person engaged in his whole-time employment … That is the wording of paragraph (g) of the First Schedule to the 1933 Act. As a result of that Schedule and of Section 3 of the Act the landlord is not required to provide alternative accommodation for the employee in those circumstances.

It has been a well established custom in the coal industry, going back, of course, long before nationalisation, for certain officials to live in houses provided free by the employer. This custom arose because officials closely concerned with colliery management had to live near the job, and in many of the coalfields suitable accommodation would not have been available unless it had been provided by the colliery companies. The right to such a house is a jealously guarded privilege among many of the officials concerned, as well as, of course, being an obvious advantage to the Coal Board, to enable officials in certain key positions to live near the collieries.

As the hon. Gentleman the Member for Normanton must know as well as any hon. Member of this House, it has been agreed, in negotiation between the Board and the British Association of Colliery Management, which is the trade union for the coal industry staff, that the Board would provide houses for most of these key officials. If the Board is to fulfil its obligation it is obviously necessary for it to obtain possession of a house from the occupant when the occupant leaves the service of the Board, so that the house may be made available for the successor.

Mr. Roberts

Will the Parliamentary Secretary agree that that is quite right provided that the person who has retired, or is leaving the industry, is aware of the facts?

Mr. Renton

I should have thought that it was impossible for a man to have spent his life as an official in the industry and not to have known of this custom which I have described and which is beyond all doubt.

In carrying out its policy on these lines the Board is acting well within its rights as a landlord and is carrying out its managerial responsibility as a public corporation with important statutory powers and duties. It would be wrong for the Minister to interfere. I suggest to the hon. Member for Normanton that the fact that Mr. Speedy retired from the Board's employment in March, 1955, that he was not given notice until February, 1956, that he is still in occupation and that, even though the Board was not obliged to offer him alternative accommodation, it has offered him several possibilities, shows that there has been considerable forbearance shown by the Board.

Finally, I say this. Mr. Speedy can either make his representations to his association or he can even force the Board to take him to court. The only person who, alas, cannot help Mr. Speedy—and there is no doubt about this—is my right hon. Friend, because he is not an official of the British Association of Colliery Management, he is not Chairman of the National Coal Board and he is not a county court judge. Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has discharged his duty by raising this matter tonight, I regret to say that there is no satisfaction which I can give him beyond that which my right hon. Friend has already tried to give him by putting him in touch with the Board.

12.53 a.m.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take the trouble to read his speech when it appears in the OFFICIAL REPORT. He will find that he made no effort to make any distinction between a man who has served for most of his working life in the industry and has then retired and a man who leaves the industry. The repercussions of this matter can be very grave. This is one type of nationalised industry. I have worked in another, the railway industry. I have never known the railways to turn out a retired servant or his widow, but I have known them to get possession of a house when a man has left the industry.

When a man reaches the age of 65 it is far too late for him to go to a municipal authority to ask for a house and it is too late to buy one. It is disgraceful of the Parliamentary Secretary not to admit to us that his right hon. Friend could make representations to the Board that if it needs a house it should turn out people who are not working in the industry rather than a man who has served a lifetime in the industry. I hope that it is not too late now for him to make representations to that effect and to point out that it would be far better to turn out someone who is not in the industry than a man like this who has spent his life in its service.

Mr. Renton

In spite of the strong words of the hon. Gentleman, I shall certainly not accede to his request. It would be quite wrong to attempt hastily to make the distinction of a general character which the hon. Member invites me to make.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes to One o'clock.