HC Deb 18 February 1959 vol 600 cc441-68
Mr. McInnes

I beg to move, in page 12, line 18, to leave out "shall" and to insert "may".

We are debating here our old favourites "shall" and "may"; in other words, whether the provision will be obligatory or permissive. I confess that I can argue with equal emphasis the case for whether it should be "shall" or "may". It depends entirely on the circumstances of each case. In this case we are dealing with housing. I regard local authorities as responsible, democratically elected bodies capable of facing their responsibilities and carrying out the duties which Parliament may impose upon them.

I think there is a degree of justification for the deletion of "shall" and the insertion of "may". I do not think we ought to advise local authorities in relation to housing matters. I think the Minister will agree that in this legislation, no matter how we may attempt to add this or take away that, or safeguard every conceivable angle in relation to the improvement of houses, there are certain circumstances that even Parliament in its wisdom may not be able to provide against or to safeguard. Therefore, it is desirable that local authorities, the people who will actually handle and give effect to this legislation and who have intimate knowledge of local problems, should have the power, the liberty and the responsibility of deciding. After all, they will be faced with problems and aspects of this matter which we cannot envisage this evening.

I am speaking here on behalf of the largest local authority in Scotland. Glasgow Corporation holds the view that as a responsible and democratically elected body it should have the permissive power. I think the Minister will agree that although in other pieces of legislation we have insisted on the word "shall", in housing legislation the permissive form should be used. I hold in my hand the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1950, the consolidating Measure. In this there are over 200 "mays". Local authorities may do things, the Secretary of State may do things.

On page 71 the Act deals with Exchequer contributions towards losses incurred by local authorities. There the Secretary of State may approve proposals in that part of the Act for improvement proposals submitted to him by local authorities. Again, in the case of Exchequer contributions, the Secretary of State may approve any proposals for the improvement of dwellings. Again, too, a local authority may refuse to approve an application and the Secretary of State may give directions. Also the amount which may be paid by way of improvement grant may be approved by the Secretary of State.

Housing Acts, more so than any other Government legislation, have always given permissive power. In these circumstances I seek the deletion of "shall" and the substitution of "may" so that local government shall have the permissive right to grant or refuse applications.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I support the contention of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Mclnnes) in this Amendment. I, too, admit that normally, depending on the circumstances, I should want to keep the word "shall", bearing in mind some of the things with which the Government themselves have to contend, such as the fact that the local authority may not be too anxious or too willing to meet the spirit of the Bill. On the other hand, under subsection (1) of the Clause there are only two matters to which the local authority must have regard. They are the matters referred to in subsections (2) and (3).

Glasgow is anxious to have the permissive term, because in its experience it has had other factors to consider in dealings of this character. One of its great problems, as the Joint Under-Secretary of State knows, is the man of straw, the fellow who wants to do a quick deal. I know that financial standing is not specifically mentioned. The factors mentioned are the period during which the building will remain fit for human habitation and the provision as to the applicant being the owner or lessee of the land. The corporations of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee are responsible bodies, housing or having within their confines a great proportion of the population of Scotland. Since they are responsible organisations, I feel in this instance that the balance might come down on the permissive term rather than on the word "shall". I hope that the Government will accept the Amendment.

Mr. J. N. Browne

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Mclnnes) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) have spoken for Glasgow primarily. I felt especially that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central was speaking perhaps a little more for Glasgow than for himself, because he said that there was a degree of justification for "may".

This is an absolutely key Amendment. It will not escape the attention of the Committee that we have not provided in the Bill, as we well might have done, that applicants for ordinary improvement grants should be entitled to grant, provided that they satisfy the relevant conditions. Under the existing scheme applicants for ordinary improvement grant do not always know where they stand. That is inevitable, because many points have to be considered in the greatest detail by the local authority and often the application for ordinary improvement grant is quite a complicated problem. This is not the case with the five standard amenities. They are so obviously essential that it is difficult to envisage any circumstance in which their provision would result in a misuse of public funds.

What is a local authority to do to satisfy itself before approving an application? The hon. Member for Maryhill mentioned subsections (2) and (3), but there is a stage before that. The local authority has first to accept that the application is a valid one. It has in this matter a decision to make. If I put in an application for a grant to provide satisfactory facilities for storing food, the local authority has to accept that that application is within the terms of the Statute. Therefore, it has a degree of control before it accepts the application as a valid one. Having considered the application and accepted it as valid, the local authority can turn it down only on the two grounds specified in subsections (2) and (3) of the Clause.

7.15 p.m.

Therefore, for the standard grant scheme the application can quite properly be handled on a much simplified basis. The whole basis of the Bill is to make what is quite a rough and ready instrument so that it will be as easy as possible to get houses installed with the standard amenities.

I do not think that anyone would suggest that the standard amenities are not essential or that, to encourage their installation, it is wrong for the applicant to know, as far as possible, exactly where he stands. If it is simple to apply for the standard of facilities, if the applicant knows exactly where he stands, then we will overcome the difficulty of improvement grants where one has to do a great deal of work and then does not know whether one will get a grant. With the standard improvement scheme the applicant knows that, if he fulfils the conditions, he will get the grant and, if the local authority does not approve his proposals, then it has to say why and it must be for a definite reason.

On the ground of simplicity and on the ground that these standard amenities are necessary in any case to a suitable house, we feel that we should not consider departing from the principle of the Bill, which is quite different from the ordinary improvement grant, in that the local authority, subject to the specified conditions, "shall approve" and not "may approve".

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

I can quite well understand the arguments of my hon. Friends who moved the Amendment. I know that there is the difficulty that, if the wording is altered from "shall" to "may", certain local authorities may not carry out their duties. I can see the danger of that happening. When we have argued the respective merits of "shall" and "may" in the Scottish Grand Committee we have always been told by either the Lord Advocate or the Solicitor-General that "shall" and "may" mean exactly the same thing. Here is a very reasonable case, where the word "may" is proposed in substitution for the word "shall", to test the logic of the legal department of the Scottish Office. The Joint Under-Secretary has now told us that "shall" does not mean "may", and we shall bear that in mind for the future. We know now that we must not give very much credence to any opinions that come from the legal department of the Scottish Office.

A mendment negatived.

Miss Herbison

I beg to move, in page 12, line 20, to leave out "and (3)" and to insert "(3) and (4)".

The Temporary Chairman

It might be for the convenience of the Committee also to discuss the Amendment in line 21, at the end to insert: (2) The local authority must be satisfied that it is reasonably practicable to carry out the works specified in the application and t hereby to improve the dwelling.

Miss Herbison

The Amendment I have moved is a paving Amendment for the next Amendment. It goes back to some of the other Amendments which we have tried to get the Government to accept. As a result of the decision by the Government on the last Amendment, the local authority has a duty imposed on it to give a grant if a grant is asked for. We want to ensure that a grant is given only if there will be an improvement in the dwelling. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), during the discussion on a previous Amendment, drew attention very forcibly to the kind of dwellings where a grant might be made and where, as a result of it, there would be many other dwellings left without improvement at all. Indeed, he went so far as to say—and I agree with him—that, if money was spent on one dwelling, other dwellings might go into disrepair. The local authority must have the right to decide whether there will be an improvement of the building. If there will not be an improvement of the building, the grant ought not to be given.

Mr. J. N. Browne

The hon. Lady will see in Clause 19 the words: … if an application in that behalf is made by that person to the local authority and approved by them before the works are begun and the works are executed to the satisfaction of the authority. The hon. Lady will see that the works must be approved by the local authority, that the application must be a valid one for standard grant and that the works must be carried out to the satisfaction of the authority. Therefore, we feel that we have already written into the Bill the object which the Amendment seeks to attain. The works would not be to the satisfaction of the authority if it were not reasonably practicable to carry them out. I appreciate the intention of the Amendment, but I feel that it is for the local authority to ensure before accepting an application that the application is within the meaning of paragraphs (a) to (e) of Clause 19.

Therefore, I cannot accept the hon. Lady's Amendment, which might give rise to too wide an argument, but I think she will see that the Bill provides for exactly what she has in mind.

Miss Herbison

The Joint Under-Secretary suggests that if our Amendment were accepted it might lead to too wide an argument. I am in favour of standard grants. However, it seems to me that all the Government's argument is on the side of the landlord and little or none of its help is going on the side of the local authority. I am all for widening the argument if it will safeguard the local authority and public money 1 suggest that we should be making doubly sure on these points if the Government accepted the Amendment.

We realise what the previous Clause does and we are not satisfied with it, and I again ask the hon. Gentleman to consider accepting, if not the words of my Amendment, words which would ensure adequate protection for the local authority, the taxpayer and the ratepayer. The Government ought not to have so much regard for some of the landlords.

Mr. Browne

I can assure the hon. Lady that we have given this matter very serious consideration. She is not right when she says that all the argument is on the side of the landlord and there is none on the side of the local authority. What we want to do, and what the Bill does, is to obviate any element of argument as far as practicable. We want each party to know where it is. The whole conception of the Bill is that a grant shall be given in certain conditions, and this would be endangered by acceptance of the Amendment.

The local authority has considerable powers in rejecting or declining to consider an application on the ground that it does not fulfil the statutory requirements. That having been decided, after proper discussions with the applicant, we feel that the operation should be as rigid as possible and that there should not be further grounds for argument.

It is with some regret that I have to tell the hon. Lady that I cannot accept her Amendment. We have considered the matter most carefully.

Amendment negatived.

Miss Herbison

I beg to move, in page 12, line 23, at the end to insert: not be overcrowded (within the meaning of section forty-nine of the Act of 1950, which defines overcrowding) and will". We consider that this is an Amendment which ought to be taken seriously by the Government. We want to ensure that no grant will be given for standard amenities if it leads to overcrowding. Section 49 of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1950, contains very specific provisions against overcrowding. It is no wonder that a Scottish Act should have specific provisions against overcrowding. In Scotland we have the worst overcrowding not only in the United Kingdom but almost in the whole of Western Europe. We want to make absolutely certain that nothing under this Measure will lead to greater overcrowding than we have at present.

Section 49 of the 1950 Act reads: A house shall be deemed for the purposes of this Act to be overcrowded at any time when the number of persons sleeping in a house either—

  1. (a) is such that any two of those persons, being persons ten years old or more of opposite sexes and not being persons living together as husband and wife, must sleep in the same room; or,
  2. (b)is, in relation to the number and floor area of the rooms of which the house consists, in excess of the permitted number of persons as defined in the Fifth Schedule to this Act."
In the Fifth Schedule we find the specific numbers which are allowed to each room.

We must always come back to this duty which is imposed on local authorities. We want to make sure that the local authorities have the right to turn down an application if the granting of it would lead to overcrowding.

Mr. J. N. Browne

I agree with the hon. Lady that we have to face the fact that far too many people in Scotland are living in overcrowded conditions. Without any party politics at all, all the resources and energies of Governments and local authorities have been trying to cure this legacy of the past. Our second three-year phase in slum clearance schemes has now started, we have higher subsidies in Scotland, and we have also the new towns and the housing and town development Measure. All these things are designed to help.

We feel that it would be unjust to deny to some families the chance of a standard improvement which is available to other families. We realise, however, that it may well happen that in some houses, because of overcrowding, there will be no room to accommodate the standard improvements. We feel that we can do no more than leave it to those concerned, the local authorities, to judge each case on its merit in relation to what can or cannot be done by standard grant, deciding whether an application for a grant is a valid one or not. As a housing authority, the authority must do its best to find new homes for those who are in the greatest need.

In any case, the hon. Lady's Amendment is impracticable, because at any time before or after an improvement grant has been granted a grandmother may come to live with a family, a daughter may need a separate room or a married son may find a home for himself. We cannot draw a line at any time for any home as between overcrowding and not overcrowding. Basically, we should not mix up the problems of overcrowding with those of providing grants for standard improvements.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Ross

I fail to understand how we are mixing up this matter with overcrowding. The essence of what the Government have sought to do is that in every house, irrespective of size, there should be a bathroom. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, he cannot make a bathroom without taking up space. The same applies to a water closet and other things.

The curse of Scotland is the fact that most of our housing accommodation consists of one or two rooms. It should be explained for the benefit of English Members that when we say one room, we mean one room, a family living within the four walls, having to eat there, sleep there, and live there.

Mrs. Alice Cullen (Glasgow, Gorbals)

And die there.

Mr. Ross


These improvements will not be applicable to one-room houses, and they may not be applicable to two-room houses. It is those houses in Scotland which are presently overcrowded, and yet the Under-Secretary gaily says that we should not worry about that, and that, if making the improvements causes overcrowding, it is for the local authority to rehouse the family concerned. That amounts to providing a bathroom with a wash-hand basin and a bath at the cost of building a house at £1,700. That is an expensive way of providing these standard amenities.

Yet that is the argument of the hon. Gentleman. He says that another family should be overcrowded and have to go on the council waiting list, and that the council should provide a house. He has been so helpful about this. He has said that Scottish housing subsidies are higher than those in England. In England there are no subsidies and those in Scotland are lower than they were and are not related to the size of the house. Subsidies do not relate to overcrowding. A local authority in Scotland gets the same subsidy for building a two-room house as it gets for building a three-room house. Such a system encourages overcrowding and perpetuates what we are seeking to remedy.

In the circumstances, improvements which we all want cannot be introduced without reducing the living space available to a family. Does the hon. Gentleman think it right to make yet another family overcrowded? Neither I nor my hon. Friends think it right. What do the local authorities feel? It is the job of a local authority to get rid of overcrowding, but with these provisions, even though they know they are committing the crime of overcrowding another family, local authorities will have to agree to applications for improvement grants.

Surely that is not the Governments intention. Surely they will allow local authorities discretion so that they will not be compelled, even with the best intentions in the world, to aggravate one of Scotland's worst problems, overcrowding.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) tried to make out that these standard amenities would have to be installed within the existing curtilage of the building.

Mr. Ross

That is so.

Sir J. Duncan

He said that that would take space from existing living space. Let us examine that contention. The first words of Clause 19 are: A local authority shall give assistance in respect of the improvement of any dwelling … I cannot believe that any local authority will consider it an improvement to a dwelling to build a bathroom inside a one-room house.

Mr. Willis

The local authority has no-choice. The Clause says "shall", not "may".

Sir J. Duncan

It says; … in respect of the improvement of any dwelling… The hon. Member must read the words carefully. There then follows a provision: … in respect of the cost of executing the works, if an application in that behalf is made by that person to the local authority and approved by them … I cannot see that any local authority will approve the installation of a bathroom inside the existing curtilage of a one-room or two-room house. That would not be an improvement and no sensible authority could regard it as such. The argument of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock is misconceived.

Mr. Ross

Do I understand that the hon. Gentleman's entire argument is hinged on the interpretation of the word "improvement"?

Sir J. Duncan


Mr. Ross

If a local authority has discretion to interpret whether what is to be done is an improvement, then if it decides that what is to be done is not an improvement it will have the right to turn down the application. That is what the hon. Member is saying. I should be very happy to hear that that was correct, and I hope that in due course the Under-Secretary will give us his view of that.

Sir J. Duncan

I cannot answer for the Under-Secretary. I am reading the Bill merely as a layman, but it seems that there must be an element of improvement before a grant can be given.

It is impracticable to date overcrowding from the date of the application. As my hon. Friend said, the house might be overcrowded one day and not overcrowded another day. If the Amendment were accepted, the landlord might press the tenant to evacuate a daughter of 17 who might have to live away from the family in order to ensure that the house was not overcrowded, thus permitting the landlord to get a grant. We do not want to split up families to get grants to improve houses.

I have no knowledge of conditions in Glasgow, but I assure hon. Members that in rural areas the Amendment would not work. There might be a house accommodating a farm worker with a small family. Farm workers move around, and the next farm worker to arrive at the house might have a large family. Between times, the improvement might be carried out. The landlord would have broken the terms of the improvement even though when he applied the conditions were correct. The next tenant might be a cattleman with five children—and most cattlemen seem to have large families. His tenancy would amount to a breach of the law.

I completely agree with the ideal behind the Amendment, because in Scotland we are a long way behind England in dealing with the problems of overcrowding and slums. We are all in favour of what the hon. Lady for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) has in mind. We want to get rid of overcrowding, and I believe that the Bill will be a great help towards that end.

Mr. McInnes

I wish that I could place the same interpretation upon the Clause as does the hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan). He seems to think that a local authority would be justified in turning down an application for an improvement grant if giving effect to the improvements as enumerated in the Bill would further restrict the accommodation and create a degree of overcrowding. If he feels that way, why does not he accept the Amendment, which makes provision against contingencies of that kind?

Sir J. Duncan

Because it is impracticable.

Mr. McInnes

The hon. Member says that it is impracticable, but he speaks exclusively from the rural point of view. Let us consider the general position in Scotland and admit that we are far behind England. No one knows better than the Joint Under-Secretary that in Scotland there are about 1 million private houses which are either owner-occupied or rented, and that almost 600,000 of those are between 80 and 130 years old, being mainly the kind of house to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) has referred—the one- and two-apartment house. We can visualise an application being made for an improvement grant in respect of a two-apartment house.

In some two-apartment houses even the provision of a wash-hand basin would considerably restrict the degree of accommodation. The Joint Under-Secretary has said that the local authority would decide, but less than half an hour ago 1 appealed to him to give local authorities permissive powers rather than to place an obligation upon them. I pointed out then, as I do now, that this is the sort of application which the local authority will be able to appreciate and understand much more than we can, and which it will be able to deal with in the light of the existing circumstances.

The hon. Member is fully conscious of the degree of over-crowding in our large cities. There is justification for the Amendment, because it clarifies the situation and gives a lead to the local authority. 1 cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman attempts to defend his case with a lot of nonsense and refuses to face the realities of the situation. He must recognise as well as any other hon. Member the degree of overcrowding in our cities, and he must appreciate that we ought specifically to stipulate that no improvement grant will be given if it creates a degree of overcrowding as defined in Section 49 of the 1920 Act.

That is a reasonable proposition, and I am sure that the Joint Under-Secretary would not argue on behalf of overcrowding and say that it does not matter so long as the standard amenities of the house have been improved, even although there may be seven, eight, nine or ten people living in the house, which is not uncommon in the City of Glasgow. We appeal to the Joint Under-Secretary to agree that if the making of an improvement grant in order to provide the standard amenities laid down in the Bill will create overcrowding in terms of the 1920 Act the local authority will be justified in refusing the application.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Hannan

I support the Amendment. I ask hon. Members opposite, especially the hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan), to believe that I speak in no spirit of rancour or anger on this matter when I suggest that many hon. Members opposite do not appreciate the circumstances under which many of our people have to live in Glasgow.

You come from Scotland, Mr. Hynd, and you will appreciate that a two-apartment house, in the context of this debate, means a two-apartment house; it does not mean a two-bedroomed house with a kitchenette and living room thrown in. It means that the house consists of two apartments in which a family consisting of a man. his wife and three or four children of school age. or even of working age, reside.

Miss Herbison

Those conditions could apply in a one-apartment house.

Mr. Hannan

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to make my own speech. In the case of a one-apartment house, the housewife has to pull down a bed-settee every night because of the mixed sexes. She has to push it back up during the daytime, and even when it is closed up she has to walk round it in order to carry out her duties. I am trying in these few words to paint a picture of the exceedingly circumscribed space in which so many of our people have to live, in order that the Joint Under-Secretary may see the merit of the Amendment. After what I have said I hope that he will at least agree to reconsider the question. It is not good enough for him merely to advance the argument that it is for the local authority to decide, whenever it suits him, but to place obligations upon local authorities on other occasions. That will not do. We want to improve the awful conditions in which our people have to live, but we do not want to make overcrowding worse because of such improvements.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

My hon. Friends are trying to give local authorities a little more elbow room than the Clause at present provides. Local authorities will be exceedingly circumscribed in view of the conditions they must take into account in deciding whether or not they shall make these grants. There are only two conditions. The first is that after the execution of the works specified in the application the dwelling will be in such a condition as not to be unfit for human habitation and the second is that it is likely to remain in such a condition for fifteen years hence.

We all recognise that the term "not unfit for human habitation". in the legal sense, is an extremely wide one.

Mr. J. N. Browne

The hon. Member may not realise that there is another Amendment on that point.

Mr. Hannan

Then I will leave the matter there.

Miss Herbison

There are many points that we must have cleared up. The Minister has praised the Government for what they have done for housing, and has talked about Scotland having higher subsidies than England. Will the hon. Gentleman state the subsidies as they exist at the moment and also tell us what they were in October, 1951? We find, upon examination, that houses built since 1951 are of a much smaller size—and this in a country where more larger houses are desperately needed.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to push on one side the question of overcrowding I find that Part IV of the 1950 Act is headed, "Prevention of Overcrowding" In fact there are 11 Sections referring to it. No wonder hon. Members on this side of the Committee are worried about overcrowding. The Minister said that if overcrowding resulted it was the duty of the housing authority to find another house for the family. Would not that be a grand situation for the landlord? His house would be put in better repair by a grant from the local authority, although it would be a smaller house. Then the local authority would have a duty to rehouse the people who had been living in that house and who had become overcrowded. So the family would be rehoused and the original house left vacant.

This would enable the landlord to sell it, because it would be uncontrolled. To hon. Members on this side of the Committee that seems wrong.

The Minister has said that though a house is not overcrowded at one time there is no guarantee it may not become overcrowded at another. It may be that a grandmother or someone else may come to live with the family. We are concerned with what has happened to the house immediately these amenities are provided. The local authority in my constituency, and, I expect, every other local authority which rehouses people, provides three-apartment houses for families of a certain size. On many occasions local authorities have accommodation available which they cannot give to a particular family because of its size. A local authority has a duty to ensure that a family which is rehoused is not overcrowded as a result. If the Minister is really concerned about improving our pool of houses and at the same time ensuring that overcrowding is not made worse, he should accept this Amendment.

The hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) said the Amendment was impracticable. He gave no reason to support that view. He felt that a local authority had sufficient power. But the Minister did not use that argument because he knows that it is one which he cannot use. A number of my hon. Friends have supported this Amendment. They speak from experience, particularly of the overcrowded conditions existing in Scottish cities. The Minister ought to have the same experience. I ask him to give further consideration to this Amendment, and I hope he may tell us that he will accept it.

Mr. J. N. Browne

It would not be proper for me to deal with details of subsidies or the size of houses as that does not come within the terms of this Measure.

Miss Herbison

But the Minister introduced the subject.

Mr. Browne

Yes. I made a passing reference, but I did not go into detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) is incorrect in his interpretation of the word "improvement", but what he has in mind is more correct than hon. Members opposite may believe. The local authorities are the judges of what constitutes a bathroom or any other kind of amenity. They have to accept or reject an application, and to decide whether it is valid under the terms of the Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Amendment is impracticable. The Opposition wishes to say, "You cannot have a standard grant unless grannie goes"—that would be the effect of the Amendment. On the other hand a standard grant may be given because a room is available on one occasion. But what happens when, after the standard amenities are installed, the young daughter grows up sufficiently to need a separate room? We cannot mix this problem of overcrowding and the problem of standard grants. The two do not go together.

It may satisfy hon. Members opposite to recall that by accepting an Amendment moved by the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) we have overcome the problem. If a house is badly overcrowded it will almost certainly be a tenanted house, and a tenant must give written approval for the provision of amenities. I cannot visualise any tenant giving written approval for something which will cause him a greater degree of overcrowding.

The Committee must exercise a sense of proportion. No one wishes to increase overcrowding, but there may be cases where it is better to find room for a W.C. than to make do without it. The situation that obtains in Scotland is better than it was, however bad it was before. At least we have built 300,000 houses since the war to house almost one-third of our population.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. T. Fraser

I beg to move, in page 12, line 24, after first "be" to insert: in good and tenantable repair and". It may be for the convenience of the Committee if we also discuss the Amendment in line 25, after the second "that" to insert "repair and".

I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will accept this Amendment. In most of our housing Statutes where we pay heed to the state of the house we are concerned not only that it shall not be unfit for human habitation but that it shall positively be in good and tenantable repair. The two things go together in the 1957 legislation and in the Housing (Repairs and Rents) (Scotland) Act, 1954, and I should have thought it the wish of the Government that those two conditions be fulfilled in this Bill. Surely it would be wrong were a local authority obliged to give a standard grant to the owner of a house, notwithstanding that the house was not in good and tenantable repair and, so far as the local authority knew, was not likely to be put into such a state.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State may take the view that if the house were not unfit for human habitation it would be in good and tenantable repair. But he can hardly maintain that view because, as I have said, in other Statutes these two sets of conditions are constantly brought together.

8.0 p.m.

I hope it will not be said that the standard on which it would be proper for the local authority to be obliged to give a standard grant is that the house is not unfit for human habitation notwithstanding that it was not in good and tenant-able repair, because that is something to which the owner could, perhaps, turn at some other time. Desirable as the standard amenities are, it is doubly desirable that they should be provided in a house that is, in other respects, in good and tenantable repair.

When we were discussing the previous Amendment, the Joint Under-Secretary talked of the grannie being evicted. I have in mind a case in my constituency only last week. A young couple, who now have two children, have been living with the wife's grandparents for the past live years in a room-and-kitchen house with no amenities at all. The grandfather died three years ago and the grandmother died last month, so that the young mother and her two children will have to be out of the house next month because it is now completely decontrolled.

The house is totally lacking in amenities—it is certainly not in good and tenantable repair—and it would be very bad to take the view that the owner should now be able to demand from the Hamilton Town Council a grant to improve the amenities of a house in respect of which he can claim any rent he likes to—and that, with no security to the future tenant. It would add insult to injury were we to allow the law to stand as it would be if the Bill was not amended; to put on the local authority an obligation to accede to such a request for a grant in respect of amenities, notwithstanding the fact the house continues to be in a state of disrepair.

I feel that this is an Amendment to which the Government would not find it possible to object. I therefore hope that they will find themselves able to accept it.

Mr. J. N. Browne

This Amendment seeks to enable the local authority to require that before the standard grant is made the house shall be brought to a standard higher than, as the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) has said, that of being not unfit for human habitation. On the other hand, there are so many houses that need money spent on them that we feel it is clearly wisest—and I think that the hon. Member, who moved the Amendment very moderately, will agree—to use the money first on houses lacking standard amenities and not to seek to bring them up from the minimum standard as a pre-requisite to the w.c, the bath, etc., being installed. We are bringing them from the minimum standard to a much higher one by the installation of the standard amenities.

If the hon. Member will break down his thoughts on this matter he will realise that there are three types of houses to which the Amendment would apply. First, there is the house of the owner-occupier. Why should we now seek to put additional burdens on the owner-occupier? If the owner applies for a standard grant he obviously takes an interest and pride in his home. Its condition is his affair and not that of this House.

Next—and here, I know, hon. Members opposite will not join with me—there are the decontrolled properties. Decontrol has worked quite well. Hon. Members opposite have their own views about its wisdom, but I am sure they will allow it to be our philosophy on this side that the condition of the house is best left to agreement between owner and tenant.

The third type of house can only be the decontrolled property, and here, as the hon. Gentleman knows much better than I. the existing Statutes give the tenant his rights about the condition of the house. They are the rights that the Amendment requires. On those grounds, we feel that the Amendment is unnecessary and that we would not be right to accept it.

Mr. McInnes

What does the hon. Gentleman mean by the tenant's rights?

Mr. Browne

The tenant can apply to the local authority for a certificate of disrepair.

Mr. McInnes

But the Under-Secretary must be fully conscious of the fact that in Glasgow no less than 100,000 applications are made every year by the medical officer of health in an effort to compel owners to carry out these repairs. And he also knows perfectly well that the owners just ignore the local authority's notices.

Mr. Browne

We want to get the standard amenities in, and if we set too high a standard we shall fail in that.

Mr. Lawson

This is the point to which I was referring earlier. My hon. friends are trying to give the local authority more elbow room than the Clause allows. The term "not unfit for human habitation" is so wide that many of us, when we are told that a certain room or house is so regarded, sometimes stand aghast at what is covered by those words.

I can think of a house—so-called, because it is actually a shop that has been converted into a house. The front room is the front shop, and the other room is the back shop. According to the measurements of what comprises a room, the front and back shops make up two rooms. That place is regarded as not unfit for human habitation, but to my mind it is very unfit. However, as it is so classified, if the landlord were to make an application to the local authority for a grant towards the standard amenities, then, unless the place is not to be available fifteen years hence, the local authority cannot refuse the application.

A variety of factors must enter into a local authority's consideration of whether or not to make a grant. If the term "not unfit for human habitation" were much more precise, if it meant a house that we here would regard as being fit for human habitation, if it meant a common-sense standard, there might be some justification for this Clause being drawn so tightly, but we all know of the sort of places there are that can be and are regarded as not unfit for human habitation.

That being so, the local authority will have almost no choice at all. If it cannot say, specifically, that a house is unfit for human habitation then, apart from the fifteen-year provision, it has no room for refusing to make the grant, and will be put in a most invidious position.

I should like the local authority to be put in a position to judge whether or not certain houses could, with advantage to a neighbourhood, be improved. A certain group of houses in a certain area might be an eyesore. The local authority may have plans for getting rid of them, while having good reasons for not announcing its plans. But the Clause gives local authorities no scope at all. Unless they can say that the house is unfit for human habitation, they have to agree to make a grant, and I think that is very unfair indeed on the local authorities.

Mr. T. Fraser

Would the Joint Under-Secretary tell me if I am right in thinking that his argument against this Amendment is that it is right and desirable that, in the case of a house which has a leaking roof, or the gable end of which is allowing water to permeate and run down an inside wall, or of which the chimney top is disintegrating, and in respect of which the medical officer has already served a notice upon the owner to carry out repairs and the owner has declined to give effect to the direction of the medical officer, if that owner says "I want a grant to put in a water closet," or "I want a grant to put in a bath, "the local authority is to be obliged to give him some of the ratepayers' and taxpayers' money for the purpose simply because the owner will not carry out the duties which Statutes have already put upon him to carry out those repairs and bring the house back into "good and tenantable repair"? Am I right in thinking that what the Joint Under-Secretary is arguing is that that is a desirable state of affairs, which we should do nothing to disturb by this Amendment?

The Solicitor-General for Scotland (Mr. William Grant)

I had intended only to reply to the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson), but, if the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Fraser) will allow me, I will speak also on behalf of my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary. The points are very similar.

The question raised is what is meant by the words "unfit for human habitation," and I would say that this is a very wide phrase. It goes back to the Act of 1950 and even to 1930, if we want to find the original definition, which is not really a definition, but a so-called definition. It is incorporated in Clause 29 (2) of this Bill, and takes us back to Section 184 (2) of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1950, which provides: In determining for the purposes of this Act whether a house is fit for human habitation, regard shall be had to the extent, if any, to which by reason of disrepair or sanitary defects the house falls short of the provisions of any building regulations in operation in the district. That gives the local authorities considerable elbow room, and I think that in certain areas they have taken advantage of it.

Accordingly, in a number of the type of cases which the hon. Member for Hamilton mentioned, a local authority would be justified in saying that the house was unfit for human habitation. If the repairs needed are minor, they would not, but, surely, if a house does need a certain amount of repair, and the tenant cannot get the landlord to do them, is that an argument for depriving the tenant of a bathroom if the landlord is willing to put it in? What the hon. Member's argument comes to is that, if a landlord will not do the repairs and help the tenant that way, we must either stop or discourage the landlord from helping the tenant by putting in a wash hand basin or a bathroom.

Mr. Hannan

May I ask the Solicitor-General for Scotland this question? Does his argument amount to this—that a man who has no soles in his shoes should carry an umbrella?

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Willis

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has not really answered the point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), which was quite a simple one. My hon. Friend asked him a question. Is it not rather ridiculous that a local authority cannot compel a man to make a house habitable, as many of us would wish to see it made habitable, but can be compelled to pay a grant to the same man in order to provide a bathroom?

I am bound to say that in some houses I have seen, in which water was pouring through the roof, I could hardly see the need for a bath at all. The tenants could get one at any time, because the landlord would not repair the roof. Does not this place the local authority in a very difficult position? It cannot get the necessary improvements done, but it is compelled under this Clause to pay to get something done which we all think is necessary. Surely, the local authority ought to be able to get both things done, and that is what my hon. Friend has been saying.

If the public are to be asked to provide money with which to provide these amenities—and we are not against that—surely the public have a right to say that the houses in which these amenities are provided will at least be put in "good and tenantable repair." That is a perfectly reasonable request, and I should have thought that it was the duty of Parliament, in looking after the taxpayers' money to ensure that it was, in fact, spent in this way. I cannot see the need for putting in bathrooms in some of the houses I have seen where water was pouring through the roof every time it rains, and that is perfectly true.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) knows properties in Edinburgh where that is the situation, and of other cases where conditions were so bad that one could never see across the room because of the smoke filling it. In plenty of tenement houses in Edinburgh, the top flats are so bad that one can hardly see across the room for smoke. Surely the local authority ought to be compelled to do something about that if, at the same time, it is compelled to pay others to provide these amenities? What is proposed in the Amendment seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable request, and I should have thought that the Government would have accepted it.

Mr. T. Fraser

I am sorry to take up more time, but this is rather an important Amendment. The Solicitor-General for Scotland, I thought, pushed this aside much too easily and carelessly. He gave us his definition of a house fit for human habitation, but he did not say anything about a definition of the words "good and tenantable repair" in the Amendment, or what is normally meant in Statutes by those words. If he had done that and had looked up the Statutes to see what these words really mean and had given us a definition, it might have been very difficult for the Government to resist the Amendment.

May I ask the Solicitor-General or the Joint Under-Secretary if, under this definition, a local authority has to be satisfied that a house is not unfit for human habitation, and also that it is likely to remain in that condition and be available for use for a period of not less than fifteen years? Would the Solicitor-General say that the town clerk of Hamilton, or the town clerk of any local authority, would be entitled to say to an applicant for a grant, notwithstanding that the house is not unfit for human habitation, but because, in fact, it is not in "good and tenantable repair," that in the view of the local authority it is not likely to remain fit for habitation for fifteen years? If the house is not in "good and tenantable repair" now and there is no offer to put it into good and tenantable repair, it is reasonable to assume that the house will not survive in this condition for another fifteen years. Would not the Solicitor-General agree to that? If he does not, I should be surprised, but if he does, I do not know why he resists the Amendment.

Mr. Woodburn

I gather that what the Solicitor-General is saying is that we ought to realise, from a practical point of view, that there is more likelihood of getting a water closet or a bath put in if we do not insist on the house being put into "good and tenantable repair" as well. That is the first point, is it not?

The second point which arises, if he rejects my hon. Friend's Amendment, is that there is no more hope of the landlords doing it if they are asked to do both. If both those points are correct, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman please advise all his colleagues and the Tory Central Office not to talk such nonsense when they are discussing Labour's programme of handing over these properties to the local authorities, which will both repair them and keep them in good and tenantable repair?

The Solicitor-General

To deal, first, with the point made by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), there are cases where the disrepair is such that it would be perfectly clear that the house. if not repaired, would be unfit for human habitation in fifteen years. In that sort of case, the local authority can say so. There are, however, cases where there is disrepair of a minor character, and on the available facts it could be said that, even so, they would still be fit for human habitation.

With regard to the points raised by the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), my argument was that it seems to me illogical to stop a local authority helping a tenant to get a bathroom or some other amenity merely because his landlord, in some minor respect, has not carried out certain repairs.

Mr. Willis


The Solicitor-General

The effect of the Amendment would be that if the property has to be and has to continue to be in good and tenantable repair, then minor disrepair is enough to take it out of that category and prevent the grant being given. In the cases to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred—rain falling through the roof and making the house a bathroom already, and that sort of thing—a local authority would be justified in saying that that is unfitness for human habitation and the houses would not qualify.

As regards the final remarks made by the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire, I have no doubt that the persons to whom he referred will see his remarks in HANSARD tomorrow.

Amendment negatived.

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

Mr. M. Clark Hutchison

Under Clause 20, standard grant shall be given where it is established that the house will be fit for human habitation and will last for fifteen years. I realise that, under the Clause, if there is a conflict, the local authority will have to give in writing its reasons for refusing grant, but, in my view, that is not good enough. In all these cases where Government Departments, local authorities and administrations generally impinge upon the individual, the individual should have a definite right of appeal to an independent tribunal or court.

In this instance, the local authority might be quite willing, in its heart, to give a grant but might feel that the building would not last fifteen years. The applicant might be sure that it would last for fifteen years. What happens in this conflict? In my view, there should be a right of appeal to an independent tribunal. In this case, I suggest the sheriff. I should be very glad if my right hon. and learned Friend would look into this point and see that the citizen will not be put at a disadvantage or be bullied or deprived of a right which is part of the birthright of every British subject.

Mr. Lawson

I am concerned with subsection (4) but from rather a different angle. I do not at the moment say that I quarrel with it, but I should like some explanation of it. In the situation here, a local authority can now be compelled to make a standard grant, if the conditions are fulfilled. Where a local authority, for one reason or another, considers that the grant ought not to be made, it can be compelled also to give the reasons in writing. There may be very much to be said for this, but I am curious to know why, in those circumstances, a local authority should be compelled to do what it is not usual for authorities to have to do.

For example, we have had a case brought to the notice of the House during the past few days which arose because a member of the Government refused to give an explanation why he took a certain decision. It is characteristic of Ministers usually that they refuse an explanation even to Members of Parliament who may seek to question them on various matters. I myself asked a Question only yesterday on a certain matter regarding ambulances in Scotland, and I was refused an answer on the ground that no details could be given. Here we have a situation where a Member of Parliament can be refused information by a Minister on matters of very great concern to himself and his constituents. A member of the Government may absolutely refuse, and be upheld by the House in his refusal, to say why he arrived at a certain decision. There is no question of challenging this. ft is right, and I understand that the practice will remain.

Where a landlord or owner of property makes an application for one of these grants and the local authority turns it down, the authority must give an explana- tion if the person asks for it. That may be a good thing, but I should like to hear the justification for it in this case. Why the local authority, and why in these circumstances? I can think of instances where it might be quite advantageous or quite right and sensible that a local authority should refuse to give the information. For instance, an application might be made in respect of a block of houses which were at that stage habitable and were considered reasonably good structurally, but which within the next five or six years, perhaps, the local authority might wish to condemn.

There must be a very great deal of property which local authorities have earmarked, without doing it publicly. In such a case, the authority would quite justifiably refuse a grant on the ground that, within fifteen years, the property would not be available for letting; but it may not wish to say so. If it said." It is our intention to condemn this property in five or six years' time", a situation may arise which is all too common, namely, that the landlord may regard the property as no longer worth putting money into and it may be allowed to deteriorate.

That is the kind of position which may very well arise. A local authority may wish to withhold information, but by being compelled to give the information a seal, in effect, is put on property which otherwise might have five or six years more life ahead of it had minor repairs been done to it so that it was kept reasonably fit for habitation. Once an advance notice, so to speak, goes out that this is the intention of the local authority, a large number of landlords will treat that property as no longer worth bothering about and we shall find that not even minor repairs will be done.

That is the kind of situation in which local authorities may, judicially and wisely, refrain from giving information If this is one case, there can be others I should be grateful if the Joint Under-Secretary can give an explanation on this matter.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Willis

In subsection (2) we find the words, not to be unfit for human habitation. Why must we have this double negative? If there is a standard by which the words "unfit for human habitation" can be judged, surely the same standard can determine whether a house is fit for human habitation. That being so, I cannot see any point in cluttering up the Clause with this double negative.

Mr. J. N. Browne

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), I should like to take advice. If the Bill should be amended in any respect, we still have opportunities to amend it.

We have given careful consideration to the question of appeal, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. M. Clark Hutchison). The whole essence of the matter is that an appeal procedure would be inconsistent with the practical operation of the standard grant scheme by local authorities and also with the principle of local authorities' responsibility for expenditure from the rates.

There are two steps towards the granting of the standard grant. First, the application has to fall within Clause 19 (1, a) and (1, e) before the local authority can even consider it for grant. Before the local authority considers it for grant, it must judge, for example, what are satisfactory facilities for storing food.

Secondly, having cleared the first hurdle that the application is a valid one, the local authority must be satisfied about the ground of unfitness after completion of the work, about availability for at least fifteen years or, if the applicant is not the true owner, that he is a fifteen years lessee. If the local authority had in mind that the house would be condemned by it within a shorter period than fifteen years, it would say so and that would be the ground on which it could turn down the application. The house would not be available as a house for fifteen years.

In some cases there may be ground for honest disagreement. There is nothing to prevent the applicant from seeking to start a court action on the ground that the local authority was not fulfilling its statutory duty, but an element of discretion must be given to the local authority, and if the local authority had honestly applied its mind to the matter it would seem doubtful whether the applicant could establish a case. It is not for me, however, to say what view the court would take in any particular case, but if the applicant could show that the local authority had acted injudiciously or from improper motives or had evidence to the effect that it had not applied itself to a consideration of the matter on which, under the Bill, it is required to base its decision, then the court may declare its decision void. Again, my right hon. Friend has default powers, but I have complete confidence, as I am sure has the whole Committee, that he will never have to use them under the Bill.

The real practical remedy, as with so many facets of local authority life, is to discuss the matter with a responsible official and, if necessary, to make representations to local councillors. The sums involved are not large. A local authority whose expenditure is 75 per cent. grant-aided will, doubtless, more than offset its one-eighth share in the total expenditure through increased rateable value. In any case, local authorities are responsible bodies and have every interest to see that improvements to houses are made.

In coming to our conclusion, we had all these considerations in mind. Furthermore, there is the necessity to give a written statement. This is imported from the present improvement grant conditions. In the recent Bill, we had the provision that the local authority should give its reasons in writing. I regard this as a good thing. It is at least an element of fair play and it places a tool or a weapon, whichever way one likes to look at it, in the hands of the applicant to use either to put matters right by bringing democratic pressure upon the local authority or, in the last resort, to consider whether action is worth while.

The Government are willing, as we have shown, for example by the Building (Scotland) Bill, which we discussed last week, to write in an appeal to the sheriff, but as I have explained, it is not appropriate in this instance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.