§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)
You will be fully aware, Mr. Speaker, that the House has discussed the general housing problem on several occasions during recent months, but this morning I wish to ask it to consider a particular aspect of that problem. I refer to its aggravation, in London, by the arrival and settling here of considerable numbers of overseas British subjects. This matter is of such importance to certain local authorities that the House and the Ministers concerned should consider it with a view to coming to the aid of these local authorities.
Although what I shall say will be mainly in reference to the London position, I think that it will be found that the problems which arise in parts of London in this connection also occur in the centres of many of our large towns. We all know that the residents of our Colonies and every part of the Commonwealth overseas are free to come into the Mother Country and settle here without any restriction as to numbers and without any conditions being imposed upon them.
I shall not attempt to deal with that aspect of the problem today. Were I to attempt to raise the question of the unrestricted flow of British subjects into this country you would at once tell me that I was out of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that any change in the present unrestricted entry of such subjects would involve legislation affecting every country in the Commonwealth. I shall not, therefore, attempt to deal with that question.
Every hon. Member will probably be fully aware of what has been happening during the last few years in regard to the inflow of these people, mainly from the Colonies but also from other Empire countries. I do not think that any Government Department can state with certainty the numbers of people involved. I have tried to get exact figures but I find that there are none. What we do know 744 is that in the last few years there has been a very large increase in the number of people coming here from the Colonies and settling down.
In a Written Answer to a Question on 18th February last the Home Secretary gave figures of West Indians arriving here in recent years. He said that 30,400 persons had arrived from the West Indies in 1955 with the intention of settling here, and that in 1956 the number was 33,500. In think that the figure was under 30,000 in 1954 and the figure for this year will also probably be below the 30,000 mark. It is probably true to say that we have as many as 150,000 or even 200,000 West Indians here at present. That may be an exaggeration; I am in a difficulty, because I cannot obtain exact figures.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
It may interest my hon. Friend to know that in yesterday's debate on the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department stated that there were in this country 140,000 coloured people who were British citizens and therefore not aliens.
§ Mr. Evans
To that figure we must add the people from Cyprus, who, presumably, are not designated as coloured. My guess is that we have here at present about 50,000 Cypriots, so that we have about 250,000 people from the Colonies and other parts of the Commonwealth who have settled in this country in recent years.
What we are sure of is that the inflow has increased very considerably, and that it is now probably going on at a rate ten times that of pre-war years. It is a new feature in our population situation. We are becoming a multilateral society of many races. Most of these people settle in our towns; they are not to be found in the countryside to a very great extent. They settle especially in the large towns, as is understandable. In London, they congregate in places like Stepney, Lambeth, St. Pancras, and Islington, part of which borough I represent. They are also to be found in smaller numbers in other Metropolitan boroughs.
I say at once that most of these people are good, law-abiding citizens, and not work-shies or undesirables. They are worthy people to have amongst us. A 745 few of them give trouble, and there are a few criminals—but every society has its minority of criminals. Generally speaking, however, the newcomers are good people, and most of them do a good job of work. In this connection, I must mention that the good work done by the coloured women in our hospitals is deserving of favourable comment, and we should thank them for doing work which, very often, our long-standing citizens would not readily do.
These people are coming here to what is, to them, a strange country. They meet prejudices. There are prejudices on both sides. They exist between coloured people who have been here for some time, the new arrivals, and our own people. It is the duty of us all to help to allay these prejudices as far as possible. I am sure that in this debate none of us would not wish to have one word said which would add to the existing prejudices and give pain to the newcomers.
I have watched them arriving in the part of London that I know best. They arrive in crowds, seemingly lost in a strange city in a strange land. I see them going along, each carrying his bag, through the streets of my constituency, trying to find somewhere to rest. It is not a happy sight to see them trudging along the streets, bewildered and seeking somewhere to stay. At almost every door in a borough that is densely populated and overcrowded they are turned away, generally with a polite negative but sometimes with anger and abuse. I wish that these people could be received in this country in a better way. Others arrive armed with the address of a compatriot and go to the house where he has already settled.
A number of these people, not only West Indians, but also Cypriots and people from other countries, have been here for a few years and have managed to acquire a little money with which they have got possession of houses. There are many such cases in my constituency and in other parts of London.
I want to digress for a few minutes to say a word about this business of selling houses to these newcomers. There is some traffic in selling derelict and semi-slum properties to these immigrants to our shores. It is largely a most unscrupulous business. The property owners, generally speculators, offer these 746 slum houses for sale with complete or part possession. The newcomer, whether he be West Indian, Cypriot, or any other nationality, is only too anxious to get some sort of house, and often buys a property that is really not in a fit state for occupation. He is encouraged by these unscrupulous property speculators he is smilingly received by them, his deposit is taken from him, he signs on the dotted line and the derelict house, so he thinks, becomes his property. In fact, of course, it belongs to the speculator until the whole amount involved has been paid.
In many cases such houses are very dear when one considers their condition. I have the name and address of a firm in Mayfair which is doing quite a profitable and unscrupulous business in house selling in my constituency. I will not name the firm, but I am watching its activities very closely. When this debate comes to the notice of the firm it will probably realise to whom I am referring. It is difficult to know how to check the exploitation of these newcomers to London and other parts of the country.
Some social problems arise when they take part possession of houses. Many houses are sold to them with part vacant possession and they share the accommodation with the long-established residents. The newcomers regard the houses they have bought as their property, but, naturally, the people who have been living in the houses for many years do not always welcome their arrival.
There are many cases of strife and difficulty between the newcomers and the established residents. The police have full information about what is going on. The newcomers are driven to get in somewhere because there is no adequate accommodation for them. They push in wherever they can, and, by doing so, disturb the home life of many established residents. As I say, the police are fully aware that this kind of strife occurs in numerous cases, and is increasing.
I will mention just one case to illustrate the kind of thing that is happening. It concerns a widowed lady who has lived in a certain house for most of her life. Most of the house became vacant and she retained her one room. The property was sold with part vacant possession to an African. Naturally enough, he gave shelter to a number of his compatriots from Africa until the house contained ten 747 African men and the widowed lady, who, as I say, had lived in the house most of her life. They had to share the place and its amenities, including the one toilet.
That lady wrote to the local housing authority, saying that she lived in fear and terror, as no doubt she did, not because the Africans were necessarily difficult people, but because the contrast between their code of conduct and hers was sufficient to cause her fear and terror. The local housing authority could not help her in any way because she was not living in an overcrowded condition and because it had many thousands of cases on its housing list of people who were even worse off than she was. That kind of thing is happening in hundreds of cases. Lack of adequate housing accommodation creates strife and bitterness between the newcomers and the people who have resided in the houses for most of their lives.
Before April, 1956, there existed an arrangement between the Commissioner of the Government of Cyprus and the Metropolitan borough councils under which the Commissioner notified the councils of the intending arrival of people from Cyprus and of the addresses at which they were going to live. That enabled an authority to have the place inspected and to report to the Commissioner as to its suitability for the number of people proposing to occupy it and whether or not it complied with the Public Health and Housing Acts.
That was a helpful arrangement, but, as I say, it was discontinued in April, 1956. There was a similar arrangement between the Government of Malta and the local authorities. It was not an identical arrangement, but it enabled the Metropolitan borough councils to watch the position. That arrangement, too, has ceased to operate. Perhaps the Minister can give some attention to the possibility of reviving those arrangements. If the Minister could also use his influence to begin a similar arrangement regarding arrivals from the West Indies, he would be making a contribution to the easing of this problem. This arrangement would not solve the problem, but it would help the authorities to have a better knowledge of the situation and to ease the problem to some extent.
748 I have dealt with the main problem of the local authorities. When these people arrive in this country they know nothing of our public health and housing laws. Most of them are ignorant of our laws, customs and usages. They proceed to occupy houses in such numbers that those houses become overcrowded. It is quite impossible for the local authorities to deal effectively with this recurring offence of overcrowding by newcomers from overseas. This applies to most of the Metropolitan 'boroughs, though it applies to some in greater measure than to others.
I should like to quote a short extract from an article which appeared in The Times as long ago as November, 1954. It is by a special correspondent of The Times who has obviously studied the matter carefully and is well-informed of the problem. He said:When it is learned that ten coloured men are paying £1 each a week to share one room, or that 22 coloured people are living in one small house, the only course a local authority might follow would be to consult the medical officer of health about forbidding overcrowding. If a certificate were granted"—that is, a certificate to abate over-crowding—the onus would be on the authority to provide other accommodation to those displaced; and, of course, no other accommodation exists.I think that that quotation puts the matter in essence.
These good people do not know that they are committing an offence, and proceed to overcrowd the houses they occupy. Whether they have possession of the whole house or only part of the house, they almost always grossly overcrowd it. That quotation which I have just read is as true today as it was in 1954. It has been true for three years and it remains true now.
This is a matter to which the Minister should give his attention. In my own borough it is indisputable—I can say on good authority—that 70 per cent. of the penal overcrowding known to the medical officer's department concerns settlers from the Colonies. There is the size of this overcrowding problem. I think that a similar situation obtains in other Metropolitan boroughs as well as in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and all the other large cities.
749 Local authorities, of course, have no knowledge of the arrival of these people from other countries and, consequently, the first time they learn of overcrowding is when they receive a complaint. Complaints are numerous. When a complaint is lodged, the health inspector goes to the premises and if he finds that gross overcrowding is taking place it is the duty of the local authority to deal with the problem. Parliament has laid on the shoulders of local authorities certain responsibilities relating to overcrowding and it is the duty of the local authority to cause the overcrowding to be abated.
In fact, local authorities cannot carry out their duties. They cannot enforce the provisions of the Act for the simple reason that there is very little, if any, alternative accommodation. Powers are given to the local authority under the Housing Act, 1957, Part IV. Reading that Statute, one would think that it is simple enough, that the local authority only has to operate the law and the overcrowding will be solved. But it is not so simple as that. Under Section 78 of the Act overcrowding is not an offence if suitable alternative accommodation is not offered to the offending party.
I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to consider, even if the local authority were in a position to offer alternative accommodation, whether it would be right and helpful in the broad sense if the local authority offered all the alternative accommodation it had to the newcomers. We should have the spectacle of perhaps a whole street or a new block of flats being occupied entirely by the newcomers. Many of them, of course, would be coloured and could easily be distinguished from the local residents. We should have that spectacle of this property, which had been built at great expense, being occupied by newcomers, whilst thousands of families who had waited many years for adequate accommodation would have to wait. It is a fair point: should the local authority, in order to carry out its duties to abate overcrowding, use what small amount of accommodation is available to accomodate the newcomers whilst allowing the long-established residents to wait in their sub-standard accommodation?
750 Section 90 of the Act deals with overcrowding of lodgings, and the position here is extremely difficult. It is found in practice that the local authorities cannot enforce this provision. The Section provides a right of appeal to the county court against a notice to abate issued by the local authority. If the right to appeal is used, and the offender goes to the county court, the judge can decide as he thinks fit. He can give any decision he likes. He can give his decision in favour of the council or of the offending person, or he can come down between them. But mostly the judge is quite unsympathetic to the local authority in its effort to abate overcrowding if he is told, as he must be told, that there is no alternative accommodation. As a result, the local authority is unable to enforce the provisions of the Act.
Usually the matter does not go to the county court. Therefore, the offending person who is overcrowding the house becomes liable on summary conviction to a fine of £5 in the magistrates' court, and a further fine of £2 a day whilst the offence of overcrowding continues. When the local authorities go to the magistrates and ask for a conviction for overcrowding, the magistrates are powerless to move if the local authority says that it cannot offer alternative accommodation. The overcrowding provisions of the 1957 Act cannot be enforced. If the local authority had enough alternative accommodation it is even then questionable whether it would be right in the interests of the community to go ahead, secure convictions and rehouse the newcomers.
The problem derives from the influx of people from overseas, and local authorities in certain parts of London cannot tackle it. It is not enough for the Minister to say that the local authorities have the duty to abate overcrowding. That is an unrealistic and impracticable attitude, which evades the issue. The Minister ought to know the hard facts about the lack of accommodation in certain parts of London which prevents the local authority carrying out its duty.
The Minister tried to insist upon compliance with the Housing Act as recently as last Thursday. My hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson), who is now sitting beside me, put a Question 751 to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, askingwhat powers are enjoyed under his Regulations by local authorities to deal with the overcrowding of houses by landlords who exploit the housing needs of coloured immigrants in London.The Minister replied:Section 90 of the Housing Act, 1957, empowers local authorities—in London both the London County Council and the metropolitan borough councils—to serve notices upon landlords fixing, at their discretion, the number of people who may sleep in a room. Appeal lies to the county court.My hon. Friend put a supplementary question, in which he asked the right hon. Gentleman:In view of the difficulties which this problem is creating in some of our towns, will the right hon. Gentleman call the attention of local authorities to these powers and ask them not to wait until complaints are made by white people, which is what they are doing at the moment?The Minister replied:The hon. Member himself has a local authority background. These are discretionary powers already enjoyed by local authorities, who do not, I think, need any direction from me.Then my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) rose and asked the Minister:Has the right hon. Gentleman any suggestion to make to local authorities as to where the surplus occupants of overcrowded houses are to live?The Minister replied:That is clearly something which a local authority must take into account when considering the exercise of its powers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November, 1957; Vol. 578, c. 195.]It will not do for the Minister of Housing to take that line. He knows that the problem is there and that local authorities cannot solve it. It will not do for him to try to evade the issue by referring the local authorities to the Act and telling them to bear in mind the question of alternative accommodation. The problem is baffling all of us: Members of Parliament, local authorities and the Minister himself. It is time that he said frankly that the problem is there in certain parts of London and in other great cities, and that the housing situation is such that the local authorities cannot carry out their duty.
The position is quite different in the country generally. I hope that the 752 Minister will cease to talk vague generalities about supply and demand and other ideas which are beside the point. Let him consider the housing problem as it is. He should "come clean" about this matter, admit that the problem is there and try to devise a means of helping the local authorities, who expect him to come to their aid.
§ 1.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
I would add a few words to the able speech which has been made by my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) who has rendered a great service in bringing the problem to the notice of the House. The matter has caused me personally a great deal of distress for a long time.
It is an acute and growing problem. My hon. Friend has stated the matter very sympathetically. There is in Islington a growing coloured population consisting of immigrants from Colonies, including the West Indies, Cyprus and Malta. There is no point in blinking the fact that this situation causes hardship, pain and suffering. The immigrants themselves suffer by having to live in overcrowded conditions while the English people suffer because a large number of tenants have to share unwillingly the existing accommodation with immigrants from overseas.
Hardly a week goes by but I, in my "surgery", deal with problems of this kind. Let me cite one which is typical. A week or two ago the mother of two young girls aged about 8 and 10 came in great distress to see me. She and her husband had been occupying one part of a tenement house during the whole of their married life. They had been living happily in that house with another white family consisting of a married couple and one child, who then moved. The house was sold by the landlord, with part vacant possession. In this instance it was sold to Cypriots; in another case I have in mind, a house was sold to Jamaicans. Before very long there were, first, five or six Cypriots sharing the house with them, then eight, nine, and now ten. There is only one lavatory, which they all share; and they share other parts of the house.
No one wishes to say anything which would in any way exacerbate the very deep feeling which exists on this subject. 753 It is nobody's fault that people from overseas are content to live in conditions different from those sought by white people. Some of them do not object—perhaps it would not be much use if they did—to sleeping five and six in a room. They have different habits, through no fault of theirs. I am sure that any hon. Gentleman here will agree that if he had to share a house having one lavatory with nine or ten coloured people, conditions could become very unpleasant however deeply he may feel the duty and obligation of brotherly love and affection for all people. There are circumstances in which this situation, which is not an uncommon one, produces tension.
The mother of the two children I mentioned lives in a state of terror. Perhaps her terror is unnecessary, but she has been brought to a state of distraction. Hers is one case out of dozens I could cite. It would not be so bad if people could find somewhere else to go, but, of course, they cannot. Eventually they will have to go, because the tendency is for things to become so intolerable that they must go somewhere else. In Islington, and in other boroughs too, I have no doubt, we are now finding groups of houses which are wholly occupied by immigrants, and that does provide some easement of this problem of shared accommodation which is so unsatisfactory.
Something must be done about the problem, for it is becoming acute. Overcrowding is causing colour prejudice. Colour prejudice is not spontaneous in this country—British people are very friendly to coloured immigrants—but the degree of prejudice is growing as a result of these housing conditions. As my hon. Friend has said, the conditions in which immigrants come to London inevitably involve a breach of our housing laws. They know before they come that there is no room for them unless they live in conditions which violate the Housing Acts. An intolerable burden is put on local authorities in trying to enforce the law, and the Minister must tell us what he wants done.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that, very often, immigrants occupy property already condemned and due for demolition and shortly to be demolished or acquired for demolition by the London County Council. There is, therefore, an 754 obligation on the London County Council to rehouse the coloured people there in advance of many thousands who have been waiting on the housing list for years. Because these coloured people are living in condemned houses in such large numbers, the numerical obligation when the properties are pulled down is three or four times as great as it would have been if the premises had remained occupied by their previous white tenants. A feeling of deep grievance is growing up among Londoners who have waited on the housing lists for years, because they find that, through no fault of theirs, priority is now being given to coloured people who have acquired and occupied premises due for demolition. I hope that we shall hear some definite proposals from the Minister about it.
§ 1.16 p.m.
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) for his courage in bringing before the House this extremely urgent and delicate problem. It is claimed that we have in my borough a density of population higher than any other in London and, it is sometimes claimed, higher than in any part of the world. This arises not so much from immigration as from the necessity, to which I shall revert in a moment, for there being available near the centre of London accommodation for large numbers of people who have to work there. In present circumstances, when that problem is exacerbated and intensified by the influences to which my hon. Friends have referred, balanced judgment can be overthrown in favour of prejudices and hatreds which ought never to have a chance of rearing their heads in the capital of the Commonwealth.
At the outset, I hope that the Minister will recognise that the problem is not at bottom one of colour or nationality. It is not at bottom a problem arising from one influx after another of people from outside. The problem arises from the need to have accommodation for lower-paid workers near the centre of London because London needs such people.
It is possible, when discussing planning, so to organise things that the bigger industries employing large numbers of workers can be re-located, but one can never overcome the problem that a great 755 capital city needs two types of workers. First, it needs those with the highly specialised skills who work in establishments, perhaps no larger than workshops, of a particular industry or trade which is of necessity situated in the capital of a country. Secondly, we need enormous numbers of lower-paid, unskilled or semiskilled workers—semi-skilled, perhaps, only in the sense that the job they do can be learned only on that particular job. That sort of servicing of the work of a great capital city requires workers who must live near their places of work. Their times of starting and finishing the various shifts vary. Wherever one goes about in London, by day or night, one finds people going to or leaving work, and of course, they must live in London.
The Minister will understand that the worst effects of his Rent Act—I will not say more about it now—will be felt in areas like Paddington. There is great resentment against the Act and against the effect of Government policy. In particular, there is in Paddington a local problem, to some extent shared in other boroughs but particularly intense in Paddington, which arises from the use or misuse of the fag-ends of leases.
The Minister once said, in one of those moments when he was trying to impress us with his sincerity, that whenever he went for a walk through London he could not help thinking of the bricks and mortar and the people living behind them. I should like to invite him to come for a walk with me through Paddington, when I could show him some things which would move him not only on the general problem, but on the particular problem as well. I wonder whether he would come with me to No. 39, Lydford Road, which is a specimen of the sort of houses to be found in the Harrow Road Ward of my constituency, where the leases are running to an end. As I have said before, our problem in Paddington is intensified by the fact that Paddington Station was completed just over 100 years ago and many of the ninety-nine-year leases of the houses in the area which were built following that development are now running out.
The lease of No. 39, Lydford Road—the freeholders, I think, are still the Church Commissioners—has about six 756 years to run. The present owner of the lease has gone back to Nigeria. He has a pal who collects the rents for him. There is one family there which has lived there all its life and is now surrounded by the sort of problems of overcrowding and the difficulties of association with people of other habits and customs such as my hon. Friends have been describing.
The house needs considerable repair. The roof leaks and there is a whole list of defects which, of course, will be put on Form G and as a result of which, in due course, I hope, my constituents will have to pay only part of the increase in rent which the Minister has imposed on them. The owner of the lease, who is in Nigeria, will none the less be collecting a certain amount of extra rent because of the Minister's Rent Act, not one penny of which will be spent on the house—of course not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) mentioned the problem of the one lavatory in the house. It is a very real problem and a common one, but it is one which, I think, something could be done to remedy. In this case, there is a little girl in the family. For some years she has been frightened to go downstairs and use this communal lavatory—and so, Mr. Speaker, would you or I. She has used a little chamber pot in the couple of rooms that the family occupies and her elder brother has been accustomed to go and fetch it for her when required. If the Minister accepts my invitation, perhaps we will arrange to avoid that embarrassing moment. The little girl, however, is growing up. She is about 10 or 11 years of age. Her elder brother is growing up too. Would the Minister like to give some advice as to what time and at what period that arrangement should cease? This problem has been brought to me again and again.
Never, in any of the cases that have been brought to me at my advice bureau, has the opening of the conversation been other than, "Mr. Parkin, do not get me wrong. I have no prejudice against coloured people, or I had not to begin with. I realise that they are unfortunate, that they have to live somewhere, that we owe them something in the Commonwealth" and so on. Always, the first attitude of the ordinary working people 757 has been one of sympathy and welcome. It is only the close association of different habits and customs which has sometimes produced a nervous tension which is intolerable.
Sometimes, the difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that the new owner of the lease has paid far too much for it, has borrowed the money and now finds himself impelled to exercise every kind of pressure to get old statutory tenants out so that he can make more money to repay his loan. There is the appalling position that if the local authority should rehouse an old family in these circumstances, it is at the expense of the accommodation available to people on the long waiting list, and all that is done is to hand over vacant accommodation which will be re-let, so-called furnished, at four guineas a week—
§ Mr. Parkin
—or more in the first place.
The irony of the situation is that the family at 39, Lydford Road—and, of course, the families in so many others of these houses—were offered the lease; at least, they had the same opportunity as anyone else to buy it. What the people are afraid of in all these instances is that when the lease comes to an end, they will have to face the schedule of dilapidations and a very large bill for repairs.
Therefore, all over the Borough of Paddington—and, I am sure, the circumstances must be the same in the rest of London—people of substance get out from the ownership of these ends of leases lest they be caught with the demand that repairs be carried out; and they are replaced by people of no substance, or people who will leave the country and cannot be chased up, as the owner of this particular house cannot now be chased up because he has left the country.
No problem has caused me more anxiety and distress than this one. No problem has caused more anxious discussion concerning the means that could be adopted. One had wondered whether it would be possible for the local council to make much more use of the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act and the 1949 Housing Act to provide loans for an 758 occupier to acquire the whole property. The situation becomes complicated, however, when, in the first place, the property is already in a bad state of repair, and secondly, when the occupiers would themselves be the landlords of sub-tenants on other floors.
People like these working people in my constituency are not smart enough to avoid their obligations in the matter of repairs and the lease. A device which is all too frequently used is to put the ownership of the property or of the lease in the hands of a company—a purely nominal company, with a capital of £100 and £2 paid up. I could quote a number of examples. Sometimes it is done, I think, on accountants' advice to help with the tax problem, but in other cases it is done deliberately so that the last halfpenny can be wrung out of the property.
If there are any demands from the local authorities upon the freeholders for repairs, unfortunately the company is insolvent. The company pays out all that it extracts—it pays it away—and has no assets and cannot be forced to do anything to the property, while the real owner is sitting happily collecting the proceeds. That, surely, is not an intractable problem.
The price of the leases is, naturally, inflated, because those who will not stay to the end of the term and those who are wily enough to evade their obligations through the misuse of the Companies Acts can afford to pay a much higher price than could anyone who was acting at all responsibly in the ownership of the house.
I have given one example of what happens when the owner is not in this country. In this prospective walk-around that I hope we are to have, I should like the Minister to come with me now to Warwick Avenue Underground Station. That is a very nice part of the world. It is quite a mistake to suppose that these dreadful conditions exist only in ugly, broken-down properties. They exist in stately, well-laid-out streets, which could have been centres of gracious living, but have been allowed to deteriorate. Many of them could still be rescued and preserved.
Come to Warwick Avenue tube station. Let us go up the steps and across the road to No. 52, Warwick Avenue. I do 759 not know who owns the lease. The freehold is still owned by the Church Commissioners. No. 52, Warwick Avenue is managed by a firm called Martin East of Oxford Street. There are, I believe, family associations with another very substantial property company. This company manages No. 52, Warwick Avenue. As I say, I do not know who the owner is; he may be a nominee.
I was interested in this property because of an Irishman who had the temerity to take a case to the rent tribunal. What happened was this. In the basement of No. 52, Warwick Avenue lived an old lady over 80 years old who died, and no relatives of hers were found and nobody collected the few sticks of furniture there. So the house was let furnished to the Irishman, who, of course, comes under the subject of this Adjournment debate about overseas British nationals who come here to work, and do some of the semi-skilled work.
In the same road Irishmen with families pay half the wages that they get from British Railways in rent for accommodation of the kind I am describing. Four guineas a week were paid by this Irishman. He took the matter to the rent tribunal, which reduced the rent to 30s. Of course, when the tenancy ran out they chased him up, and they induced him, I am sorry to say, to leave the premises.
I thought that at least the ruling of the tribunal would stand and that the place could not be relet at more than 30s. a week, the rent laid down by the tribunal, but, of course, I reckoned without the ingenuity of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who has given so much time and thought to improving the conditions of landlords. They can now announce a new tenancy; they can now announce they are letting unfurnished and can make the poor wretches who come in pay the same amount of money and pay for the furniture as well. Indeed, the new tenant paid £6 for the dirty, stinking old mattress which had been there since the old lady died.
These are facts. I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary has gone out. I do not know whether he has gone out to be sick or to collect some information, but he has my sympathy. All these are facts of life, and one needs a strong 760 stomach to face them. I hope that he and the Minister will come to Paddington to have a look at what goes on.
The basement of No. 52, Warwick Avenue is now occupied by Jamaicans, and I went to see them. It can be understood that, very politely and very nicely, they would not let me in. The tenant said, "No, I should not like you to come without the permission of the agent, because I do not know your country very well. We paid a lot of money in other accommodation and we have always been asked to leave. Now we have got this place to ourselves and do not want any trouble."
The chairman of the local Labour Party and a member of the Council came with me. He said very nicely, "Of course, we have nothing against you. We want to see that the place is fit to live in and that the sanitary regulations are in force. Is it damp?" "No, no," they replied. "It is not damp. It is very nice, very nice indeed." It is a paradise for them compared with what they had to put up with before.
On the ground floor of the same house lived an old gentleman who became a widower. The agents of the firm went to him and said, "You will not want all the accommodation now. If we reduce the rent a bit you can let us have the back room. You will not mind sharing the kitchen, will you?" The old boy gives way and lets them make that change. They put a man and his wife and two children in the back room. There is one lavatory for the whole house. All the cooking goes on on the landings.
On the top floor of that house are two rooms. The people there were very unwilling to admit that there were six people there. They said, of course, "There are only two." I got them to admit there were six people there. I went up and there were thirteen people in two rooms, paying £1 a week each. They sleep by shifts in the beds. They are not crooks. They are hard-working people who come here to try to save money and they are always afraid of people asking questions. Incidentally, they were all missing when it came to making the voters' list. They are not on the register.
I talked to one of them. I asked, "How much a week can you save?" 761 He replied, "£3." He was a young boy over from Jamaica who got a job, I believe, as a kitchen porter somewhere and, presumably, gets his meals at work. All he needs is a bed somewhere and he puts £3 away in the bank waiting for the time when he can go back to Jamaica—or, perhaps, be tempted to join in competing with the whites in this horrible sort of exploiting of other coloured people.
I have said that the freeholds of many of these premises belong to the Church Commissioners. A few doors away they are actually exercising a control they have found over one of the leases. They have always complained, when I have taken these cases to them before, that they have no power to control the sale of the leases, and that is true. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to co-operate with the Church Commissioners and with the local authorities to find out what powers exist for exercising a control over the use of premises.
I am not going to say much about this now because I have handed an instance to the new representative in this House of the Church Commissioners, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Ashton), with whom I had a discussion yesterday. He wishes me to express his regret that he is not able to be here for this debate today. He has undertaken to convey to the Commissioners what is said in this debate on matters which concern them, and to see what can be done.
I think a lot more can be done than they have thought possible up to now, but, of course, we know the difficulty which has already been mentioned by my hon. Friends, that we cannot start by rigidly applying overcrowding tests and turn these people out into the road. They would then have to be rehoused by the London County Council or some other authority, to the disadvantage of people who have been on the waiting lists for many years.
What we can do to prevent the problem from getting worse is to make an announcement that forthwith no further overcrowding of this kind will be permitted, and if it occurs powers will be used to withhold from those who break these rules any profit they are making. I am sure the Minister could find a way to do that. I am sure he could find a way 762 to help the local councils in matters of compulsory purchase orders. I am sure he could find a way to encourage the councils to make wider use of improvement grants related to short-term leases.
Some of these improvement grants, especially those for bathrooms and lavatories, would make it possible to house almost as many people as are at present in the buildings if the conditions were made tolerable. It may not sound a very good business proposition to install lavatories and bathrooms and so on in a house with a 17-year lease.
Let us consider what will happen. I am thinking particularly of the 17-year lease on a house in Warwick Avenue for which over £900 was paid. Before that lease expires, £17,000 will have gone into the pockets of the owner of the lease. Surely it might be worth while to make arrangements by which a couple of thousand of that money would be spent on improvements. After all, we know that in other parts of London there are houses with very large rooms which were white elephants in their original state, but which have been very successfully repartitioned and fitted up as flatlets, single room habitations and so on.
There is a demand for this sort of accommodation. It is possible to make use of the houses by partitioning them, provided that sanitary facilities, bathrooms, cooking facilities, and so on, are installed. This is being done frequently as a business proposition in other parts of London. It is not being done only in the areas where this dead hand of paralysis lies over these fag-ends of leases where no one has any control and no one cares.
I abate nothing of what I said in opposition to the Rent Bill. I abate nothing of the anger which my constituents and I feel at the failure of the Government to face the fact that their general housing policy and their policy of reducing subsidies and forcing up interest rates are unmitigated disasters for my constituents, whatever colour or nationality they may be or whatever income group they may be in. They are all united in their detestation of the Rent Bill.
I do not wish to develop that point now, but I beg the Minister to do something on this narrow front, in consultation with local authorities and with the Church Commissioners, to see whether or 763 not we can make a sensible business proposition of saving part of the remaining lives of these houses and making them into places fit to live in until the bigger development plans can work themselves out.
§ 1.43 p.m.
§ Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)
So far, the speeches have come from hon. Members whose constituencies are in North London and where there is a very bad social problem. But it exists in other parts of London. It is a sore problem in south London, and there has always been a problem of this kind in west London. The problem has been in East London as long as the London Docks. It is becoming a little more pressing than it was in the days before the war.
It is difficult to talk about this, because nobody wants to overthrow the British principle of freedom of travel between countries of the Commonwealth. There is no tinge of colour bar in what we on this side say or feel about the problem. There is no doubt that there is a social problem, which has become intensified since the war.
In my part of London, Wandsworth, where the people say that there has been an overspill from Lambeth, and in Brixton, this problem is stirring up local people, but I can get no action of any kind either by the local authority or by the Minister.
To substantiate that, may I quote from a petition which was sent to me from a part of my constituency where I did not expect to get a large number of votes? It says:In this road "—Narbonne Avenue, Clapham—however, West Indians, by living in unlimited numbers in a house are apparently able to raise and repay the sum necessary to purchase any house that becomes unoccupied.The petition says, later:Here it seems that we may well have a repetition of what has happened in Brixton, and the Rent Act, contrary to its intentions, will be helping these immigrants to create further slum areas.That is the feeling of a considerable number of people who signed this petition in a part of my constituency which is notoriously Conservative in political outlook. I mention it because it indicates the growth of strong feeling.
764 I have another letter, in which a man says that he knows of Jamaicans who sleep eight to twelve in a room, and that if overcrowding is an offence, why should Jamaicans be allowed to do this? All of us who have spoken this afternoon have the same kind of experience from people who come to us in our "surgeries." What worries me is the complete complacency which appears to exist in the Ministry. There is a strong feeling growing up. The officers of the local authorities admit that there is a problem. They say, "We cannot do anything, even under Section 90 of the 1957 Housing Act, unless someone complains."
We cannot expect a coloured man to complain. I have complained, but apparently that is not good enough, and the local medical officer of health says that he is unable to take action. Of course, the truth is that if he took action these people would be out on the street and would have to be rehoused in a workhouse, or half-way house, or something of that sort. There is not the accommodation available in south London to rehouse these people if they were turned out, people who, it is admitted, are living in greatly overcrowded conditions. It is to be regretted that there is so much complacency about this matter in the Ministry.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) said, it is not sufficient to say that powers exist under Section 90 of the Housing Act. That is quite true, but they are permissive powers and are not bound to be operated. Most of the officers will not operate those powers unless the trouble becomes so bad that there is a public outcry, or a riot, or something of that sort, or unless they are encouraged to do so by the Minister. I want to appeal to the Minister that he should encourage the boroughs in London where this problem exists it does not exist in all boroughs—to get together to see what can be done to ease not only this housing problem, but the social problem. It is not right that these people by the tens of thousand—there are over 30,000 Jamaicans in London—having been drawn here, as though by a magnet, because of full employment, should have to make their own way and social contacts, thus leading to some of the housing difficulties which are facing some of the London boroughs today.
765 The State, with the local authorities, has a duty to see that coloured immigrants who come to this country are cared for and that reasonable accommodation is provided for them. I suggested once to the Minister that he should develop a system of hostels to accommodate them when they first come here until we could spread them out in employment and decent housing conditions. The responsibility for doing that, or something else in that connection, ought not to be left to the council of the locality in which they happen to land when they have found a job, or even sometimes before they have found a job.
Many people are helping already. In some localities there are voluntary committees to help these people to become easily merged into the social life of London. The trade unions are helping. The railwaymen and the transport workers' unions, in particular, are doing good work and hundreds, if not thousands, of these people, men and women, become full members of the unions. A report which appeared in the Press this week of a move made by a branch of a railwaymen's union shows how very anxious people are to help. There is no difficulty on economic grounds. While the immigrants get the proper rate for the job the unions will encourage them and try to help them, but the unions can do nothing about housing and they cannot help them to find lodgings. That is a problem which, inevitably, can be solved only if the Ministry gets together with the local authorities to try to do something about it.
I know that the Government's present policies make that rather difficult, but we must do something like that or watch this problem fester and become worse and worse. I cannot see why arrangements which apparently once existed in relation to Malta and Cyprus have broken down. There should be some discussions and a joint agreement between Her Majesty's Government and the Government in the West Indies which would control the entry of these people into this country by mutually agreed means. That would help to solve the problem which arises when they arrive in such large numbers that we cannot house them. Fortunately, at present they can find jobs, but who knows how long that will be possible if the Government's policies continue to 766 operate for another twelve months? If these people cannot find employment I doubt whether even the trade unions will not object if coloured people are here to get jobs when white men are unable to find work. However much we feel in principle that that is all wrong, it is a quite human and natural reaction on the part of people when they are themselves suffering.
Efforts should be made to enable these immigrants to be merged happily into our social community, and we should do something to prevent the terrific overcrowding of houses by coloured people. They overcrowd houses not because they like to do so, but because they have no choice, although I believe that in most overcrowded houses they are still living in better conditions than those in which they lived in some of their villages at home.
I should like to give the House an illustration of the present situation. An old lady came to me with her daughter of 18 and said that coloured people, who, incidentally, were not Jamaicans, had bought the house in which she lived. She had rented and lived in the ground-floor rooms of that house for thirty or forty years. Her husband was dead but, with the help of her daughter and with her pension, she could struggle along. Then a new landlord arrived and started at once to do all sorts of annoying and miserable things to drive her out.
Someone told her that I met people on Friday nights and she came to see me. I found a way of putting some social pressure on that coloured owner and he moved out and took his wife with him, but he put four coloured Jamaicans in the same room and since then the numbers have increased. Legally, he cannot be stopped. He owns the place and is entitled to let it as he likes, and it is good Tory policy to squeeze as much money out of every job one does and every property one owns. That is happening all over London.
No Government are doing their duty unless they admit that the problem exists and do everything they can to alleviate it. If the Ministry would consult the borough councils in London and give them some encouragement to operate the conditions under the housing laws governing overcrowding and be prepared to assist them financially, and had 767 discussions with the Government in the West Indies over the whole general problem, we should be doing something to relieve from the minds of many people in London a fear which is there now and which may blow up to something much worse if nothing is done.
§ 1.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
This is indeed a unique debate. No fewer than five Labour Members, representing different parts of London, have told the Government what is going on. I feel very angry about the whole situation and I am sorry that for the moment there is not a representative of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government present. We in Brixton and in the Borough of Lambeth saw what the dangers were likely to be a long time ago, and I raised the matter in the House in 1954.
At the end of 1954, or the beginning of 1955, we sent a deputation to the Colonial Office on this very problem. The deputation from Lambeth consisted of the mayor and other members of the Borough Council and myself and we made representations that it would be desirable, because of the nature of the problem, that representatives of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government should also be present at the meeting. They were present, and we told them that an impossible situation was beginning to develop even then. We said that we, as a responsible local authority, were unable to carry out the law. We were unable to enforce the legal provisions on overcrowding.
The reason we said that was very simple and it has been explained already by my hon. Friends. If the Lambeth Council, three or four years ago, had insisted upon carrying out the law relating to overcrowding it would have meant people being compulsorily moved out of the overcrowded premises. These people, coming from Jamaica and other parts of the Commonwealth, would have had to go right up to the top of the housing list and would have had to be rehoused by the local authority in preference to local families who had been on the housing list for many years.
The Government knew about this. They had been told about it, but they have done nothing at all about the prob- 768 lem, because they have sheltered themselves behind the excuse that this is a local government matter. The people of London are the most tolerant and good-natured people in the world, but when they see the kind of thing going on, which has been described so clearly by my colleagues today, they cannot be blamed if they begin to feel a little impatient.
It so happens that only two or three years ago I raised this matter in the debate on the Loyal Address, and I drew attention to some of the serious difficulties that were developing out of the emigration of British subjects from various parts of the Commonwealth into this country. The Minister of State, who was the official spokesman, said:I can assure the hon. and gallant Member and the House that the Government are very conscious of the urgency of this matter and are doing their best to deal with it as rapidly as possible."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th December, 1454; Vol. 535, c. 1681I ought to say, in fairness, that, as a result of the speech I made in the House on 6th November last, I received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, to whom I am obliged for his courtesy. The reason the hon. Gentleman wrote was that there had been no opportunity for a Government speaker to reply to the remarks I made on that date about the problems of West Indian immigration into the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman wrote as follows:…there has been further immigration into the United Kingdom during the past three years, but…the rate has been declining recently; in fact, for the first nine months of this year it has been under 13,000, as compared with some 25,000 for the corresponding period in 1956.I do not want to do the Colonial Office an injustice, but it is not a solution of the problem to say that the rate of immigration into this country is falling and that, as a result, somehow or other, in some way that has not yet been divulged to us, the problem will solve itself.
One of the difficulties mentioned in the letter from the Colonial Office is that many West Indians tend to congregate exclusively in certain districts of London. Also, many of them are content to live in grossly overcrowded conditions, with consequent opportunities for landlords to exploit these difficulties. The Under-Secretary went on to say in his letter: 769…the bulk of the evidence which has reached w, hardly seems to support the view that West Indians, as such, are bad tenants, bad landlords, or are in any real measure contributing towards a lowering of living standards, either generally throughout the country or in these particular areas where they settle. There have been a number of complaints of bad landlordism brought to our notice here, and these have been investigated by the British Caribbean Welfare Service, which is an organisation of officials maintained by the West Indies Governments, accommodated in the Colonial Office.
§ Mr. Lipton
My point is that there is no British Government official or civil servant or Government Department which is interesting itself in this problem. I know that the British Caribbean Welfare Service, within the limited resources placed at its disposal—not by the British Government, but by the West Indies Governments—is doing what it can, and any approach to that service will not be ignored. I agree with the Under-Secretary of State that it has done an immense amount of first-class work in connection with the reception, settlement and general welfare of West Indians who, in so many ways, are making a happy and valuable contribution to many departments of the commercial and industrial life of the country. I accept all that, and all my hon. Friends on this side of the House will agree with it, but it does not solve the problem that we are now once more bringing to the notice of the Minister of Housing and Local Government.
Reference has been made by previous speakers to the evasive answers we have been getting from the Minister to questions such as those put by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson), in which the right hon. Gentleman is just wriggling and pretending that the local authority has the powers but that they must be used with discretion, that the local authorities must bear in mind the possibility of having to rehouse people compulsorily removed, and so on.
The problem is of too serious a nature to be fobbed off with slick answers of that kind. I am sorry to have to say it, but we have a Government of artful dodgers in power, and of all the members of the present Administration I would say that on this issue the Minister of Housing and Local Government is the most slippery customer of them all. The 770 time has come for the Minister to recognise that the Government have responsibility in this connection, because the Metropolitan borough councils are now placed in a position in which there is nothing they can do.
The situation is bound to become aggravated for all kinds of other reasons into which I will not go now. The tail-ends of short leases are being bought up by people who have no other means of providing themselves with accommodation, and who are prepared to take the chance of buying property of that kind and disappearing when the time comes for the dilapidations to be carried out.
There are firms of estate agents operating in south London doing nothing else but buying for a song the short leases to which my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) has referred. They are selling these at grossly inflated prices to coloured purchasers, who either borrow or get the money somehow to buy the properties. Only yesterday I received a letter from a constituent of mine in which she referred to the remarks I made in the House two or three weeks ago.
In that letter, she said that all the while these various firms of estate agents are allowed to buy cheaply houses that are in a bad condition, and they sell them to coloured people at a price which ensures that there will be coloured slums in Brixton. She said that the house next door to hers was sold for £600 in a not very good condition and resold to coloured people for £1,800. This is what happens; the person buying that house for £1,800 on a short lease must, by hook or by crook, get his money back as quickly as possible, and that results in an even greater degree of overcrowding.
The first thing that happens is that a gas cooker is put on the stairs, one family goes into each room in the house and they all try to do their cooking on the landing. There is one dustbin put on the front doorstep for five or six families, and it remains there from the beginning of the week until the end of it. These are the conditions under which coloured people are having to live, and alongside of which white people have to live.
I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to realise that there is a great and growing problem, particularly in London, because it is bound to grow so long as immigration into this country continues. It is bound to grow so long as building by 771 local authorities is restricted. What makes it even more impossible is that at a time when the provision of housing accommodation is being restricted, and, in some areas, disappearing altogether, immigration is going on which is adding to the pressure in certain specified areas.
I know that the Government say that if we compared all the rooms available throughout the country with the number of people needing accommodation, there is a balance, but that does not apply to special areas like Brixton, Paddington, Clapham and Islington where, as far as we can see, the problem will continue and will worsen until the Government realise that they have a responsibility in the matter.
Various ways have been suggested by which the Government could deal with the matter before any very serious consequences arise. I beg the Government to take the necessary action, which is within their power, and not pretend that the problem is impossible of solution.
§ 2.11 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) for raising what is, after all, a very important social problem, especially in London. Also, I am glad that he and his hon. Friends have spoken in the main with such commendable restraint. I forgive one or two hon. Gentlemen who have been a little less restrained in their references to the Rent Act, which invariably raises the temperature in this Chamber. This is the first occasion on which I have been described as an artful dodger. I have often been described in less flattering terms, if that is any comfort to the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton).
A great deal has been said about the subject and its many aspects today. My home is in Liverpool where there is a similar problem, though it is not of the same dimensions as that in the metropolis. I have seen in operation in Liverpool many of the abuses which have been referred to. Obviously, on a subject like this one has to speak with a good deal of circumspection, but I would straight away assure hon. Members that everything that has been said in the discussion will be most carefully studied by my 772 right hon. Friend. It certainly is our intention to look in a very thorough way at the whole problem. If, as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) and other hon. Members, we think it would be profitable and helpful to have discussions with the metropolitan boroughs, and perhaps the London County Council, and to collaborate with interested Ministries, we shall not hesitate to do so.
Having said that, I think it is important that we should neither understate the extent of the problem nor exaggerate it. It is true that in the 'fifties, as was said by the hon. Member for Islington, South-West, there was a very large increase in the immigration of coloured people, particularly from the West Indies.
The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there are no exact figures of immigration available. The best information that I can get is that in 1954 the total increase in the number of coloured immigrants was 10,000. In 1955 the figure grew to 35,000 and in 1956 to 40,000, most of whom were West Indians, and it is estimated that in April this year the total British coloured population—I emphasise "British"—was about 120,000, about 80,000 of whom were West Indians. There are, of course, some coloured people in this country who are other than British.
As was hinted by one or two hon. Members, there has been a decline in the immigration of coloured people during the last twelve months. I believe it is correct, as the hon. Member for Brixton said, that in the first nine months of 1957 a total of about 16,000 West Indians came into the country compared with about 26,000 in the corresponding period of 1956. Therefore, it is true to say that the extent of the problem has not assumed the dimensions that many people feared or thought it might a few years ago.
We reckon that in London itself there are at present about 48,000 coloured people. To see this in its proper perspective, one has to set that figure against the total population in the metropolitan boroughs, about 3¼ million. Thus, the percentage of coloured people in the population in the metropolitan area is a very small one, about 1½ per cent.
It is true that many of these coloured men and women are drawn to London by its various attractions, not excluding 773 its great diversity of trades and employment. We ought to recognise that a large proportion of these people coming to London and our provincial cities succeed in finding useful work and make a very valuable contribution to the nation's economy. It is true, however, that the tendency of the coloured people, as has repeatedly been said in the debate, is to congregate in areas such as Islington, Kensington, Lambeth, Paddington and St. Pancras, and it is because they tend to congregate in certain areas which are attractive to them that a great deal of public interest becomes focussed on the problem.
It is difficult to measure the extent of the problem in the areas which are so well represented on the Opposition benches this afternoon, because there is no static pattern to the problem. It is shifting all the time. Many of these people come here intending to stay a long time, but then stay only a short time and return to their native land. Many remain here. Some fail to adapt themselves to conditions here, both socially and from the point of view of employment. On the other hand, others are very successful in adapting themselves to the conditions that exist here. It is a fact, however, that a problem exists, and it is a difficult one. The more I have listened to the speeches which have been made, the more it has been impressed upon my mind how difficult and intractable the problem is.
The hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) referred to the very vexed question of what commonly happens not only in London but in Liverpool and other places, relating to the fag ends of leases. He described how these leases are very often purchased for a song by unscrupulous people five years or so before they are due to terminate, how these people are prone to exploit not only coloured immigrants but very often English people as well in certain circumstances, and how at the end of the day those concerned try to evade their responsibilities in respect of dilapidations.
It is a problem not only for London, but for Liverpool Corporation which has been a very large ground landlord in that City for many years. It is a difficult problem and I listened with the utmost care to what the hon. Member said. I shall certainly take the earliest opportunity of having a discussion with my 774 hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Ashton) to see whether any positive steps can be taken to improve the position in that respect.
References were made to the use of overcrowding provisions, and one or two hon. Members seemed to suggest that the Government ought to encourage, or even to compel, local authorities to use the overcrowding provisions of the Housing Act, 1957, more rigorously than is being done at present. There can be no doubt whatever that in these localities there is an enormous amount of overcrowding involving coloured people, but the difficulty of local authorities and the reason they are not over-zealous in applying and enforcing these provisions is that they know full well that if they do so a certain result will follow and that they are not in a position to provide alternative accommodation for the people liable to be displaced.
In fairness to him, the hon. Member for Clapham made one or two suggestions, including the possibility that the Government should take some initiative in encouraging local authorities to construct or improvise hostels for accommodating many of these people. That is certainly a suggestion which we shall investigate. As a general principle, it is fair to say that most local authorities are reluctant to use these provisions too freely because they have no alternative accommodation to offer.
§ Mr. Parkin
Will the hon. Member say whether he can take further the matter of enforcing improved sanitary facilities which would abate some of the evils of overcrowding, as in many houses the present numbers would be tolerable if the amenities were adequate?
§ Mr. Bevins
Yes, indeed. I saw the force of that argument. I have taken note of it and I will most certainly consider it.
In some districts immigrants do not qualify for the housing list because, very often, they lack the residential qualification necessary to get on the list. As a general rule, local authorities are willing to accept coloured applicants for their lists and do not distinguish between one applicant and another on the ground of colour. That is not to say that some local authorities have not accepted immigrants as tenants, but it would be unrealistic to expect local authorities to 775 give priority to immigrants over other overcrowded families who have been on the waiting lists for many years. To do that would clearly be most unwise.
I believe that several local authorities in the London area have successfully settled some of these people in older houses.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
How can the Parliamentary Secretary square his assertion this afternoon, that there is substantial overcrowding in many houses in most provincial cities as well as London, with the speeches he made in support of the Rent Act when he said that by and large the housing situation had been met?
§ Mr. Bevins
The hon. Member must not try to convert a debate of this sort, in which we are trying to help each other and in which we are discussing a subject impartially, into a revival of debates on the Rent Act. I have never made the statement which the hon. Member has attributed to me and I should be glad if he would be good enough to turn it up in HANSARD, or elsewhere. I am not an academic politician. I try to keep my feet on the ground.
I was saying that several local authorities have been successful in settling some of these people in older houses which they have acquired and which they have a perfectly legal right to acquire if they so wish. That has certainly been done in the Boroughs of Paddington and St. Pancras. I do not say that it has been done exclusively for the purpose of housing coloured people. It has been done for housing people who are in need. Clearly, that is a possible avenue in which progress may be made in this matter.
Some of the larger employers of these people, especially transport undertakings, have been very helpful in providing these workers with housing accommodation or lodgings of a suitable kind. That is true of the London Transport Executive. I certainly hope that anyone, whether a large or small employer, who is taking advantage of the services of these coloured immigrants will be prepared, as a matter of social duty, to do what he can to assist them to get decent housing or lodgings, whichever suits their circumstances.
I was asked about the arrangement with the Cyprus Government by which, before families emigrated to join a mem- 776 ber of the family in this country, the local authority in whose area accommodation existed was notified. That arrangement undoubtedly did exist, but I am sorry to say that it broke down in practice because, as members of families came here and overcrowded the rest, undesirable results flowed. That arrangement no longer exists and there has been no recent suggestion that it should be revived.
A further possibility may offer the promise of progress. I understand that in one provincial centre a housing association has been formed primarily to provide accommodation for immigrants by converting existing old houses for their use. I hope that this small start will be emulated by comparable societies in other parts of the country.
§ Mr. A. Evans
The hon. Member will agree that that scheme is at present only on paper and that nothing has been done about it. It is obvious that some time will elapse before any building can be done through that scheme. Any such initial step will be on a very small scale and not sufficient to meet the size of the problem.
§ Mr. Bevins
I entirely agree. I was simply mentioning it as a possibility which offered a hope of some sort of provision, if not on a major scale.
I regard the discussion today very much as an exploration of the problem. That it is a difficult problem has become clear from speeches by hon. Members opposite. Indeed, the Metropolitan Boroughs Association set up a committee about two years ago to consider the problem, but the committee became bogged down because of the difficulties. I hope that I am not being offensive in saying that.
I conclude on this note: there is a problem and we certainly intend to scrutinise it most carefully in the light of what has been said today and in the light of information which is available to my right hon. Friend. When we have done that, we will consider the wisdom of initiating discussions with the interested local authorities and perhaps with other Ministries to see whether we can make a contribution towards the solution of what I admit to be a very human problem.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at half-past Two o'clock.