HC Deb 04 February 1960 vol 616 cc1232-304

Order for Second Reading read.

3.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a Bill with a definite and limited object, designed to wind up the long process of derequisitioning, which, under the 1955 Act, is due to end on 31st March next. By then, over 98 per cent. of the total task of derequisitioning will have been completed. The Government now seek power to allow limited extra time to those few local authorities where the job is not quite over.

The Government, naturally, intend to deal as fairly as possible with all the interests concerned, that is, with the owners, who counted on getting their properties back at the end of March, with the families, who, if nothing were done, would be left as trespassers on their accommodation at the end of March, and with the local authorities, both the vast majority who have faithfully fulfilled the task set upon them by Parliament and the very few who have not yet quite finished the job.

Requisitioning has a long history starting in August, 1939, when unused accommodation began to be made available for the evacuees and soon after for the bombed-out. The requisitioning powers were extended during the war in 1943 and again in 1946 to provide accommodation for those who were inadequately housed as well as for evacuees and the bombed-out.

The number of properties under requisition came to a peak in 1948, when no fewer than 98,000 properties were providing homes for over 150,000 families. After the war, a number of properties began to be released and as the pace of new building quickened so also did the pace of release of requisitioned property. By early 1955, the number of properties had fallen to 62,000 and it then became possible to prepare the orderly winding up of the whole system to restore properties to owners as soon as possible without any hardship to tenants

That was the purpose of the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Act, 1955, which set 31st March this year as the terminal date. Since the passage of that Act, the process of derequisitioning has gone steadily on so that it seems, on local authority figures, as if by the end of March between 98 and 99 per cent. of the entire job will have been completed.

An enormous task has been carried out, because since 1955 no fewer than 50,000 properties have been released and 76,000 families resettled. This is a tremendous achievement and reflects the greatest credit on all concerned, because it has been carried out in conditions of decreasing although, in some parts, intense housing stringency. I should like to pay tribute to the local authorities who have carried it out and also a tribute to the owners who, involuntarily or not, have made their property available to the nation, and particularly to owners who have co-operated by taking licensees as statutory tenants under Section 4 of the 1955 Act.

The House may like to know that of the 76,000 dwellings released since 1955, over 80 per cent. will have been handed back to private owners. Of that 80 per cent., however, 28,000 dwellings now house licensees who, by the acceptance of owners under Section 4 of the 1955 Act, were turned into statutory tenants. In 34,000 cases, full vacant possession was restored to the owners and in 14,000 cases, the local authorities either leased or bought the property from the owners.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

Has the hon. Gentleman any information about the number of derequisitioned houses still standing empty?

Sir K. Joseph

No, I have not. If the hon. Lady would like to put down a Question, I would certainly like to look into that.

Proportionately, the job still to be done is minute. That is to say, by the end of March we predict that there will be an extremely small number of houses still under requisition. We have the end-1959 figure as a guide. At that time, 7,608 properties were still requisitioned by 156 local authorities. Although this seems a relatively large number, over 61 of those local authorities had only one or two properties still under requisition and 43 more had fewer than twenty each. The core of the problem, therefore, was in the areas of 52 local authorities, of whom all but seven are in Greater London.

Since 31st December, 1959, all these 156 different local authorities have been busily pursuing their derequisitioning task and the position is changing daily. For a forecast of the position at the end of March, we can only depend on the local authorities' estimates of what they think they will still be holding under requisition at that time. The best estimate we can build up on their own forecasts is that by that date about 1,500 properties with probably not more than 2,000 dwellings in them will be held by ten or eleven local authorities, nearly all in London. This constitutes about 1½ per cent. of the total number of properties or dwellings requisitioned.

Those authorities who have solved the problem, or will solve it, by the end of March, have used admirable vigour and energy. Those who will need a little more time are not all those with necessarily the worst problems, although they are certainly among those with the most difficulties to solve. Whatever the problems, they will know that when March ends, the overwhelming majority of the other authorities, some of them with just as bad difficulties as their own, will have succeeded in the time set by Parliament.

It will be seen by hon. Members that the Bill has to be read in conjunction with the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Act, 1955. In Clause 1, subsection (1) gives the Minister power to authorise by order for a limited time, not more than twelve months in any case, the retention by local authorities of properties still under requisition at the end of March.

Subsection (2) lays down that the order can be applied to all or to some of the properties in any local authority area that are held at the end of March and lays down, further, that the properties retained can be varied by a subsequent order by the Minister at any time during the period of twelve months. This is, therefore, not in any way a blank cheque. Each property that is retained much be identified and justified to the Minister's satisfaction.

Subsection (3) of Clause 1 sets out that the orders must be made by Statutory Instrument and instructs local authorities, authorised by an order, to give written notice to each owner of property retained setting out the time for which the property is authorised to be retained.

Clause 2 deals with the financial arrangements and in subsection (1) it permits an increase of 50 per cent. in the rental compensation, but not, of course, in the rates and repairs or other service charges paid to owners. This is some recognition, on an admittedly rough and ready basis, of the deferment on the part of the owner of legitimate expectations.

If I am asked why owners were not permitted to draw a market rent for the limited period of retention by the local authority, I would remind hon. Members that these owners are the very small residue of the large number of owners whose property has been under requisition and that we must be fair to those many thousands of owners who, by co-operating during the period of requisition and accepting licensees as statutory tenants, have found their rent limited to twice the gross value. There must be fairness to all concerned.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)

Will that mean that, in effect, the rents of these houses will be at the level of three times the gross value?

Sir K. Joseph

The rents of these individual houses are nothing to do with the Bill. They are entirely at the discretion of the local authorities. I am saying that the owner of a house which is retained by order of my right hon. Friend will receive 50 per cent. in addition to the rental compensation which he now receives. The rental compensation which he receives bears some relation to gross value, certainly, but I cannot in any way reconcile what the hon. Member has said—namely, three times gross value—with the rental compensation now received plus 50 per cent. The hon. Member must have got his sums wrong. I would say, if I were asked, that on the average the owners now are getting on average about 11/6th of gross value. If 50 per cent. is added to this, then the average will come out at something just under twice gross value, but certainly not three times gross value.

Clause 2(2) deals with contributions of the Exchequer to the cost of running property still remaining in requisition after the end of March and it reduces the Exchequer contribution from 75 per cent. of the deficit to 25 per cent. of the deficit. Here again, while judging that local authorities with a problem still to solve deserve some help from the Exchequer, we have had to bear in mind that the vast majority of local authorities have had an extremely hard struggle to finish the job at the end of that period and it would not be fair to them if those who did not complete were to continue to get the same help as though none had completed.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

Has consideration been given to the fact that some local authorities, particularly in London, have had geographical limitations which they could not escape and which have made it utterly impossible for them to complete at the end of March? Why are they being fined for something over which they have no control?

Sir K. Joseph

The hon. Gentleman will have noted, I hope, that no word that I have used reflected any moral blame in any way on them, but the fact is that Parliament has set down a date, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there would be a tinge of unfairness if 99 per cent. of the local authorities were to find that, despite all their efforts, they might just as well not have bothered, because those who did not succeed would get the same treatment.

Clause 2(3) deals with the Exchequer contribution to the cost of purchasing or leasing property after the end of March to provide accommodation on a secure basis for any family now in requisitioned property, and here the Bill reduces the Exchequer contribution from 75 per cent. to 25 per cent., but my right hon. Friend is not expecting much additional buying or leasing to be necessary after 31st March since most local authorities, even those with the very last few requisitioned properties, will have dealt with this by then to the extent that no further property is needed.

Clause 2(4) removes the power of my right hon. Friend which still exists under the 1955 Act to make a discretionary grant, where there was special reason, to any local authority.

Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)

Under Section 10(2) of the 1955 Act the Minister had power to make a supplementary grant. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the fact that some local authorities could receive up to fifteen-sixteenths of their deficit under those proposals and that under these proposals they will receive 25 per cent., roughly 5s. instead of 18s. 9d. in the £ of their deficit?

Sir K. Joseph

Yes, but the fact is that my right hon. Friend in considering the discretionary grant under Section 10(2) of the 1955 Act has always made it dependent upon his satisfaction with the progress achieved by the local authority. Therefore, it would be most out of keeping to maintain it in this Bill.

Clause 3 applies to properties retained after 31st March the provisions of the 1955 Act, subject to the modifications set out in the Schedule. I must apologise to the House for the time I shall take to take the House through the Schedule, which makes a number of detailed alterations to the 1955 Act. If I may, I will now direct the attention of the House to the Schedule.

The first part varies Section 2 of the 1955 Act so as to preserve the power to hold requisitioned land for the three extra months needed between the end of December, 1960, when they lapse, to the end of March. 1961, when, the extra period of retention ends. That, therefore, is a consequential amendment of the extra time being given in some cases.

Section 3 of the 1955 Act is a fairly long Section and a number of alterations are made in it. Subsection (1) covers automatic releases of property after the lapse of a licence. The Schedule sets out that this must occur in 14 days and not four weeks after a licence lapses, but not so as to oblige the owner to take back part of the property of which the local authority retains the rest. Subsections (2), (3, a), (3, c), (4), (6) and (7), the Schedule sets down, shall no longer apply. These gave various powers to the local authorities to grant fresh licences and are conveniently summed up in subsection (5), which is amended consequentially. As a result of all these changes the local authorities are no longer, after the end of March, entitled to grant fresh licences on the Minister's authority under subsection (2), to a former licensee under subsection (3, a/), under subsection (3, c) in pursuance of an arrangement for an exchange, and under subsection (4) to the same licensee within three months of the end of the licence, when the licence is needed either to carry out repairs or because of his failing to pay his rent.

As a result of all these changes the only element in Section 3(5) of the 1955 Act which is left unaffected is the local authority's power under subsection (3, b) to grant a fresh licence to a statutory successor to the licensee on his death. Subsection (6) falls out completely because authorisations under subsection (2) which it forbids while court proceedings are on have themselves been abolished. Subsection (7) ceases to apply. The Schedule says that Section 4 shall no longer apply. This ends the special inducement to owners to which I have referred, by way of payment of compensation for loss of vacant possession, as some return for taking licensees as statutory tenants. Owners have had ample chance to do this and have done so in very large numbers.

Section 5 is excluded except where an application is made before 31st March, 1960, and Section 6, as modified, replaces the power of the owner to apply to the county court for release of his property in the case of hardship, by giving the Minister power to order the local authority, in cases of severe hardship, to release property with vacant possession but without the option to purchase given by the 1955 Act.

Finally, under the Schedule, the Schedule abolishes the power in Section 7 of the 1955 Act since it is no longer required.

The Bill provides for that small residue of cases where property will still be held under requisition at the end of March, and for a short extension of time to be justified individually by each local authority, only for such part of its requisitioned property as may be necessary and only for sufficiently long to ensure proper arrangements for licensees who would otherwise, after 31st March, become trespassers. Twelve months is the absolute limit.

The Bill seeks to raise the rent compensation to owners as some consolation for further delay in restoring their property. It continues some Exchequer support towards the costs of local authorities concerned, though not on the same scale as was given during the five years which sufficed for the vast bulk of local authorities to dispose of requisitioning. It is a short, sharp, mopping up operation to deal with the small outstanding problem and to bring to an end a vast emergency system. My right hon. Friend will be writing to the local authorities which still hold requisitioned property to explain the Bill.

It is essential that local authorities should realise that the Bill is the signal for a final spurt, so that the country may be finally rid of a service which was essential in war time and in the post-war transition but is no longer appropriate.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

Will the Bill apply to houses on which local authorities have already made a compulsory purchase order but on which, through the delays of the Department, the transactions may not be completed by 31st March.

Sir K. Joseph

I think that it would be better if the hon. Lady were to write to me, when I will answer in detail about a particular case.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

It would be even better, perhaps, with reference to the last remark of the Parliamentary Secretary, if the Minister replied later in the debate to the point just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler).

The Parliamentary Secretary made it clear very early in his speech why the Bill is necessary. It is necessary because if it is not passed there are bound to be a number of people who will be legally trespassers; and if they are they will be liable to be evicted. That, of course, was exactly the point which a great number of my hon. Friends made with vigour and emphasis when the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Act, 1955, was passed. They said that that Act would have the result of making a number of people liable to eviction in March, 1960.

At the time, that proposition was strenuously denied by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Aviation, who was then Minister of Housing and Local Government, and also by a number of his hon. Friends. But this is now established and, consequently, the Government, having at least heeded under the pressure of the facts the warnings which were not heeded when the 1955 Act was passed, have been obliged to introduce this amending Measure.

I should like to make it clear that we have no quarrel with the idea of extending the time available to local authorities. Indeed, it would not be much use our quarrelling with it because hon. Members on either side of the House who have studied this matter knows its absolute necessity. The only difference is that we on this side have known it rather longer than hon. Members opposite.

I was, therefore, pleased to hear the Parliamentary Secretary say that the local authorities had worked hard at this problem. I was hurriedly jotting down and trying to keep pace with him as he added one encomium after another to the work of the local authorities. "They deserve the greatest credit." "They have behaved with admirable vigour and energy", and so on. I wondered how one reconciles those phrases with some of the financial provisions in the Bill. I wondered, too, how one reconciles them with something which the Parliamentary Secretary said about the Order to be made under Clause 1.

It is important to notice that this is not a Bill that simply extends requisitioning for another twelve months. It could do it. Its maximum power extends requisitioning for another twelve months to houses still requisitioned on 31st March this year, but it could do very much less than that. It could make the extension for a much shorter period and could restrict it to certain categories of houses. But from something that the Parliamentary Secretary said I had the impression that local authorities would have to be prepared to justify to the Minister each individual house. The hon. Gentleman said that the Minister would circularise local authorities explaining the effects of the Bill.

Will that mean that in each case the local authority will have to say to him of every property it holds: "Here is a property and this is the reason why we wish to retain it", and that we shall then have an Order including or excluding such property according to the judgment which the Minister makes? If that is to be done, it seems to me to be imposing a great deal of paper work on what could be a much simpler matter if we had had a straightforward extension for what is admittedly a small number of properties which will be still held on 31st March, 1960.

Let us, however, take the question of how hard the local authorities have worked. The Parliamentary Secretary gave certain figures. I understand that it comes down to this—that in December, 1954. there were approximately 90,000 families living in requisitioned properties. I shall use statistics of families rather than of properties, because it is the number of families that determines the size of the local authority problem. By December. 1959, that number had shrunk to 13,500. The local authorities had worked hard to the extent of solving the problem in the case of 76,500 families during those five years.

How had they done it? We are told that 28,000 were dealt with by agreement with landlords and 14,000 by leases or purchase of property. It is interesting to find how this fact illustrates in a limited field a point which we in the Labour Party have been making in the general field—that if one wants to solve the housing problem at all one must have a greater measure of municipal ownership of house property of this kind. Indeed, in this field we have had the curious spectacle of a Conservative Minister in some cases encouraging the local authorities and being willing and eager to sanction more purchases and leases of property than they were willing to undertake.

This is one indication, of which we could find many more if we were examining the housing problem generally, that local authorities cannot deal with the housing problem today unless they can extend the number of properties over which they exercise the rights of ownership. There have been 28,000 agreements and 14,000 leases or purchases. They make a total of 42,000, but, in addition, during the last five years local authorities, somehow or other, have managed to find accommodation for the remaining 35,000 families.

Some of these problems no doubt may have been solved by the death of the licensee or by his moving to another district, but when we consider the whole figure of 35,000 there is no doubt at all that many of these people must have been accommodated out of the whole pool of council properties at the expense of people on the ordinary waiting lists.

This has been a very heavy burden and a difficult task for the local authorities concerned, because sometimes people in requisitioned property were adequately accommodated; but under the pressure of derequisitioning legislation the local authority had to move them into its own council houses and flats, sometimes over the heads of people who were bitterly ill-accommodated.

There were some arguments during the 1955 debates as to whether that occurred or not. Once again the present Minister of Aviation, then Minister for Housing and Local Government, was quite confident that the local authorities would not need to do this and that there would be no rehousing at the expense of people on the housing lists. But the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), who was then the Parliamentary Secretary, with that engaging candour which makes him so attractive a Member of the House and perhaps so unsuitable as a Parliamentary Secretary, spoke of … normal provisions now being made to allocate part of every waiting list to a number of people in requisitioned houses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1955; Vol.537, c.202.] He knew that people in requisitioned houses formed part of the demand on housing accommodation assigned to people on the housing lists. During those years the local authorities have achieved the success on which the Parliamentary Secretary congratulates them and they have had to achieve it, often against their will, at the expense of people on the ordinary housing lists whose need in some cases was bitter and intense.

I have looked at the list with which the Minister provided us in answer to a Parliamentary Question of mine and at the names of the local authorities which still have or still had last December a considerable number of families living in requisitioned properties. I have compared that in some instances with what I know of the number of families on the waiting lists in those areas. One authority still has 600 families in requisitioned properties and an ordinary general waiting list in its housing department of 8,000 families. It has been able to get its figure of families in requisitioned properties down to 600 or so only at the expense of a long waiting list containing some very urgent cases. If it were suitable on this occasion one could find examples of that in the case of every authority that has had a serious requisitioning problem.

I have been making these points for the reason that whilst we welcome the extension of time in the Bill, we consider it most unsuitable that it should also contain what are in effect penalties on those local authorities which still have families living in requisitioned houses. The Parliamentary Secretary was not quite happy on this point. He said that if we did not impose financial and other penalties on local authorities which still have houses on requisition after March this year, it would be unfair to those local authorities who have completed the job. I really cannot accept that argument.

If we took, as an example, in 1954, two authorities which at that time had the same number of families living in requisitioned property, we could not possibly conclude that because they had the same number of families their problems were equally difficult. Also, one could not conclude that because one of them had disposed of all such families by March this year, and the other had not, any blame attached to the latter. Indeed, at one stage the hon. Gentleman said, "I do not wish to attach a word of moral blame to anyone in this matter". If no word of moral blame attaches to any authority which has families still living in requisitioned properties, why is it to be subjected to penalties? That was the question which the Parliamentary Secretary did not answer, and, on the basis of his own comment about the excellent work of the local authorities, could not answer.

We know why local authorities still have families living in requisitioned properties. It is not because they like it. It is not an attractive way of solving the housing problem. It involves legal and administrative difficulties. If they still have families living in requisitioned properties now it is because it has been literally impossible for them to do anything else. We should remember all the time that this problem springs from a national disaster.

The disaster hit some parts of the country in this respect worse than others, but it was a national disaster, and any costs arising from it should properly be shared over the nation. It is not right, even at this stage, to put a part of the burden on to those parts of the country where the enemy hit hardest, which is, in effect, what we are doing by the financial section and by certain other sections of this Bill.

What are the penalties? Let us look first at the penalties other than the financial ones. I call them penalties, because the Minister is saying in the Bill, "I will let you keep some of the houses for a bit longer, but just to make it difficult for you I shall add certain conditions and take away certain advantages which belonged previously to requisitioning."

What are they? First, local authorities will not be able, if they are left with any requisitioned houses after March this year, to solve any part of the problem by making agreements with the landlords of the kind made under the 1955 Act. Why not? I concede that probably the number of landlords who would wish to make such agreements would be small, since the powers are to end in 1961. Yet if it were only one landlord who wanted to do it, why should it not be done in that fashion? I cannot see why a method of dealing with this problem, which has accounted for 28,000 families, should be arbitrarily cut off at this stage.

Secondly, the local authority has to clear out of properties that fall vacant within 14 instead of 28 days. Why? The Parliamentary Secretary told us most carefully and accurately what was in Section 3 of the 1955 Act and the Schedule to this Bill. If I may say so, we were aware of that before the debate began. What he did not tell us but what we hoped he would tell us, was why the Government are proposing these changes in the law. Why this little extra difficulty over the time the local authorities are to have after premises fall vacant?

Next, they cannot vary the terms of the licence. Occasions have arisen in which it has been desirable to do so, and which they have done legally, I understand, by ending the existing licence and immediately making a new one. Apparently, that cannot be done any longer. A local authority cannot make exchanges for the benefit of tenants in requisitioned properties. Why not? The power to make exchanges is an important one in the hands of local authorities which are trying to make the best use of all the housing accommodation at their disposal.

Then again, if the licensee simply fails to pay the rent, and the arrangement comes to an end for that reason, the local authority is to lose control of the property. That is a most unfair provision. I see the Parliamentary Secretary looking worried, but if he will look again at the Schedule to the Bill and at Section 3 of the original Act of 1955, I think he will see that it is so. He will see that during the period from 1960 on, if premises fall vacant because the licensee has failed to pay the rent and has been turned out, the requisitioning power will end there and then under this Bill. This means that the local authority will have its difficulties increased by something over which it has no control. Although this is only a small point, it seems to me to be a wholly unnecessary and vexatious restriction.

Before I come to the financial penalties, mainly involved in Clause 2, there is one special financial point to which I draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister. The Minister will know that local authorities sometimes engage on repair work of houses which they have leased or purchased to accommodate tenants from requisitioned property, and that if they do so they get from his Ministry a grant for such repairs. It is quite a generous grant but it is given on the condition that the repair work must be complete by 31st March, 1961. In some cases it is not easy to arrange that. I wish that the Minister would look at the point again to see if, independently of the Bill, he can make a more generous arrangement with the local authority in that regard.

Turning now to the financial penalties, I was particularly struck with one phrase used by the Parliamentary Secretary. After telling us about the admirable vigour of the local authorities, the hon. Gentleman said he wished to pay a tribute to them. Actually, what he is doing in Clause 2 is to exact a tribute from them rather than pay a tribute to them. The Minister is doing it in the first place by requiring that the rental compensation shall be increased by 50 per cent.

I do not regard that in itself as by any means an unreasonable arrangement. I concede that the owner of the property could fairly say, "I was given, and have been given for the last five years, a reasonable expectation that I should have my property by 31st March, 1960, or earlier. That reasonable expectation is now being upset". One could not reasonably object to some compensation being put in for that. What I can concerned with is why an increasing proportion of it should come from local rather than from central Government sources.

That increase of 50 per cent. in rental compensation means that the expenses of management of requisitioned properties are so much the greater, and of this expense of management, the local authority, which previously had to meet only 25 per cent., now has to meet 75 per cent., while the provision in the 1955 Act, whereby the Minister could give further help if in special cases an unreasonable burden was imposed on local rates, now disappears altogether.

Further, when a local authority, struggling to meet the problem by buying or leasing houses, incurs expenditure on that head, it will in future have to meet 75 per cent., not 25 per cent., of that expenditure out of its own pocket. The old ratio of 75 per cent. from the central Government and 25 per cent. from the local authority was justified by the hon. Member for Ashford, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, in 1955, when he said: The House will have observed that this and other financial arrangements are based upon the present housing ratio of three to one—that is to say, three parts by the Exchequer and one part by the local authority."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1955 Vol.537, c.196.] The Government apparently then regarded that as a quite reasonable arrangement. I fail to see—and I do not think that the Parliamentary Secretary gave us any reason—why we should depart from that ratio now.

How big a burden is it likely to be? If we measure it in the total number of pounds, it does not seem very great, compared with the numbers of pounds that we often vote in this House, but it is, of course, concentrated on a very limited number of local authorities. It will be a real burden to them, and it will only come down to the figures mentioned in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill on the assumption that nine-tenths of the housing still requisitioned at the end of last year are derequisitioned by 31st March this year. That will not be easy if the Minister is not co-operative over the compulsory purchase of houses where necessary.

It has been brought to my attention recently that the Minister has refused to confirm such an order in the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, involving, I believe, one block of 37 properties and about a dozen properties elsewhere. This has upset very considerably the hopes of the Greenwich Borough Council of being able to deal with this problem. If local authorities are expected to deal with the problem so quickly that the total burden for the Exchequer is only £11,000, plus the other £12,500 mentioned in the Memorandum, it will be necessary for the Ministry to be extremely co-operative in matters of that kind. One must regard this as yet one more addition to the general difficulties for local housing authorities created by the whole trend of Government policy over a number of years. I do not propose to rehearse all those difficulties now. Other opportunities will no doubt arise on which we can do that.

I believe that the general picture of housing—and this is particularly true of the greater conurbations—is this. For some years now, the Government have been steadily discouraging the provision of houses by local authorities. It has been done, presumably, in the belief that the activities of private enterprise could solve the housing problem, and as each year has gone by, it has become more and more apparent that that belief will not be borne out by the facts.

In the light of that, the Government ought now in their housing policy to be considering how they can reverse what they have previously done, and how they can lighten the burden on the local authorities. Instead of which, the Government have taken the opportunity of a Measure to extend derequisitioning, the necessity for which has been forced upon them, to add—not very much, but not an inconsiderable amount—to the burdens of the local authorities, without whose efforts it will be absolutely impossible to solve the housing problem.

4.35 p.m.

Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)

I should like to join with the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) in saying how glad I am that the Parliamentary Secretary paid a tribute to the energy which so many local authorities have shown in recent years in derequisitioning properties which they had under their control.

If I understand correctly the position as described to the House by the Parliamentary Secretary, only about 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. of houses that were requisitioned have still to be derequisitioned, and there are 156 local authorities which have only one or two houses still to be derequisitioned. I understand that that leaves ten or eleven local authorities with special problems to handle. Could we be told which these local authorities are, because, as the hon. Member for Fulham said, it might well be that, because of the effect of the war, some local authorities have worked perhaps even harder at derequisitioning properties than others have done.

The House ought to know whether, indeed, that is the case. It may well be that these local authorities have not perhaps pushed on as hard as they might have done with derequisitioning. I would not know, but the hon. Member for Fulham may be quite right in what he says. Equally, it may be that what he says is not borne out by the facts of the case. It would be helpful if the House could have from the Minister later in the debate further information about this position.

Mr. H. Butler

Before the hon. Member goes on with that supposition, may I tell him that if he looks in HANSARD for 2nd February he will see there all the figures that he requires?

Sir W. Wakefield

I am much obliged; I have not seen them. If they have already been before the House, and I have missed them, it is unfortunate.

The point that the hon. Member for Fulham made was that he did not see why there should be penalties in the Bill for those local authorities Which have not carried out the necessary derequisitioning. Surely, when Parliament lays down requirements for local authorities to carry out, they ought to carry them out. If they do not it seems to me to be only right that they should be penalised. Quite frankly, I do not see why the taxpayers should have to subsidise local authorities which may have been inefficient, or slow, or which may not have pursued the policy of derequisitioning as energetically as other local authorities.

I do not see why there should be any need for the Bill. I know that if it is not passed people in requisitioned houses will be legal trespassers, but that is the consequence of the local authorities concerned not having acted with sufficient speed and energy to carry out the duties laid upon them by Parliament in 1955. After all, there have been a good many years, after the war and more recently, when they could have got on with this business of derequisitioning.

The Bill creates a dangerous precedent. If, in future, local authorities do not carry out the requirements of a Statute they can say, "It does not matter. Another Bill can be brought in to extend the facilities for us." That is not good. If a requisitioned house is burnt down, the local authority has to take emergency action to rehouse the displaced residents. Emergency action ought to have been taken, and could have been taken, had the determination to do so been there, to derequisition the mere 1,500 houses that, we are told, are still controlled by the local authorities—

Mr. A. Evans

Is the hon. Member quite sure that the St. Marylebone Borough Council is in a position to rehouse the 150 families at present living in requisitioned property in the borough?

Sir W. Wakefield

It may not be in a position to do so at the moment, but I say that it should get busy, and see to it that, somewhere or somehow, those people are rehoused. As I say, if those houses were burnt down the local authority would have to rehouse those people.

Mr. Evans

According to the figures given in the OFFICIAL REPORT, at the end of last year there were 195 families living in requisitioned houses in St. Marylebone. Let us say that there are now 150 such families. Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that if his own borough council is not in a position to rehouse them, those people will be thrown out on the streets—his own constituents?

Sir W. Wakefield

It is the responsibility of the local authority to find places—that is my point. The council must get busy and find them places, just as it would have to do if the property were burned down. Emergency action is necessary. That is the essence of what I say.

I welcome very much the provisions in the Bill for putting extra financial responsibility on those boroughs that have not taken action quickly enough to have carried out the requirements of the 1955 Act—

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Including St. Marylebone?

Sir W. Wakefield

The council has been busy in St. Marylebone, but not busy enough.

I hope that the Minister will not exercise the powers given to him by Clause 2(3) to make contributions for houses leased or purchased, and that he will assure us that in no circumstances will there be any extension of the Bill beyond the prescribed maximum period of twelve months. If we could have that assurance, some of the danger of the precedent that I see being created by the Bill might be removed. In carrying out the provisions of this Measure, I hope that the Minister will think very carefully indeed before he uses his discretionary powers.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

I am in the unfortunate position of being a constituent of the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield) and, having listened to him, I feel particularly unfortunate. My objection to the Bill—and I welcome it, so far as it goes—is that it is introduced in this way, at this late stage, without a single word of apology from the Minister. That is disgraceful. If we look at the history of this matter, the Minister's conduct stands condemned in no uncertain way.

In the main, this is a London problem. I feel very bitter about it. As a London Member, I know some of the real facts behind the scenes. In introducing the Bill now, the Minister, like his predecessor in office, has shown a complete lack of foresight, and I suggest that his conduct is of a piece with the way in which he dealt with the Rent Act. The House will recall that, having brought in the Rent Act, and having been forced to recognise the justice of the criticisms from this side, he was compelled to bring in the Landlord and Tenant (Temporary Provisions) Act in 1958 to mitigate some of the consequences of his Rent Act.

The right hon. Gentleman now does much the same thing. I would remind the House that when the 1955 Act was brought in we warned the Government and the Minister, again and again, that the task of derequisitioning could not possibly be accomplished by 31st March, 1960. Again and again. the Minister refused to take that advice. In 1955, he said: I wish to make clear that my opinion, which remains unchanged, is that no extension of any kind is necessary. It should be perfectly possible, without undue strain upon the staffs of local authorities, to complete the necessary procedure for leases and purchases within the five-year period laid down in the Bill—and probably long before that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th March, 1955; Vol.539, c.422.] The right hon. Gentleman also said that he thought that the pool of derequisitioned houses would disappear long before 31st March, 1960—

Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman make it clear that his reference there to the Minister is not to the present Minister of Housing and Local Government, but to his predecessor?

Mr. Weitzman

I believe that I said that the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor introduced that Measure. It was his predecessor who, in introducing it, said that he thought that the pool of derequisitioned houses would have gone long before 31st March, 1960.

The right hon. Gentleman was clearly wrong in that, but not because of any lack of efficiency on the part of the local authorities, as has been alleged by the hon. Member for St. Marylebone. A wonderful tribute has been paid to the work of the local authorities. Indeed, on 15th December, 1958, the Minister said: If local authorities take this matter seriously, as the great majority are doing, they will be able to comply with the law by 31st March, 1960."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1958; Vol.597, c.939] It has not been suggested that the local authorities have not taken the matter seriously. They have taken all the action possible and, in a moment, I shall show that they have not only done that, but have taken it to their own great loss and discomfort. What has been exasperating, and what has caused great hardship, has been the obdurate attitude of the present Minister.

On 13th February, 1959, almost a year ago, the Minister said: There is a little over a year in which those remaining 28,000 must be derequisitioned. It must be done. I have no power to extend that final date of 31st March, 1960. Indeed, I am at this moment considering issuing a circular to local authorities which still have dwellings under requisition urging them to review their programmes afresh and to make absolutely certain that they are taking the necessary action so that they will have the whole of the derequisitioning process completed by that date."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th February, 1959, Vol.599, c.1615.] The Minister's attitude at that time was, "no extension whatever."

The Bill is a complete surprise to local authorities. They never anticipated this step.

Mrs. Braddock

Liverpool told the right hon. Gentleman on 22nd July, 1959.

Mr. Weitzman

Local authorities have strained every nerve to solve the problem by 31st March, 1960. on the understanding that the Minister's attitude was "no more time." So much for the criticism made by the hon. Member for St. Marylebone.

Because of the Minister's attitude local authorities had to adopt what I would call panic measures. Let me give an example of what happened in Stoke Newington, which is part of my constituency. The borough council worked on the basis that there would be no further extension of time. I hope that the hon. Member for St. Marylebone will pay attention to this, because it shows the way in which the borough council tried to deal with this problem. It tried to get landlords to accept Licensees as statutory tenants. It succeeded to some extent. The council inspected requisitioned properties with the intention of purchasing them. Many of the properties were seventy to eighty years old. Some of them were a hundred years old.

Some of the houses were in bad condition, but to solve the problem the council had to buy them. In the ordinary course of events it would never have done so. When the Minister told the council that it had to complete the programme by 31st March, 1960. it was in the position of having to purchase property which it would never have dreamt of buying under ordinary circumstances.

The borough council spent large sums of money on purchasing houses and on repairing and converting old houses. The cost of maintaining these properties in future—and I hope that the Minister will remember this, because this will remain as a blot on his administration for a considerable time—will be colossal. Because of the Minister's attitude the council now has a headache which will last for many years. The cost of repairs will prove to be a constant drain on the resources. The repair fund built up to deal mainly with the maintenance of council properties will suffer considerably from the need to maintain these old houses. In addition, the council has had to go into the market to buy properties from private individuals. We all know how difficult that can be. The council has to depend on the sum allowed by the district valuer.

The council also had to put licensees into accommodation that was inadequate. Some of those who required four-bed-roomed houses were put in three-bed-roomed houses. Others who required three-bed-roomed houses were put into houses with only two bedrooms. In some cases licensees had to be put in accommodation that was quite inadequate.

The council has also had difficulties with its housing list. Because of the need to complete the programme by 31st March, 1960, the rehousing of applicants on the housing list came to a stop. In Stoke Newington, the housing list has been static for several months. The council had to supply all the accommodation that became available to licensees instead of to people on the ordinary waiting list. When the council houses somebody it likes to give the new tenant satisfaction. It likes to give him some choice of selection. It has been impossible to do that because it has been a case of compulsory removal.

At a council meeting last December the chairman of the Housing Committee of the Stoke Newington Borough Council summarised the position. He said, "Vast sums of public money are being spent on converted properties and the future financial burden will be vast. We have been driven into a corner and we have no other course of action. It is greatly to be regretted."

Those are the circumstances in the borough today. The Bill has been introduced by the Minister without a word of apology. If the Minister had not been so obdurate and had acted reasonably, if he had not up to the last minute continued saying, "No extension, get on with the job", if he had given even six months' grace, we might have had a chance of doing something in an orderly way. The local authorities might have been able to introduce plans to achieve the programme more effectively.

If the Minister had dealt with this reasonably there would have been no need for panic measures. Unnecessary expenditure of large sums of public money could have been avoided. In addition, many licensees would have been spared considerable personal hardship and suffering. The council acted on the assumption that the Minister meant what he said. Licensees will now learn that he did not mean what he said, and I suppose they will blame the council for taking precipitate action.

There is a particular difficulty which occurs in the Borough of Stoke Newington, and it may occur in other boroughs. To protect itself, and in the belief that the Minister would grant no extension, notices to quit were served on licensees who could not be accommodated by 31st March of this year. Unless special arrangements are made those licensees will have no subsisting licences on 31st March and, therefore, an order cannot be made in their favour. Licensees can be granted a new licence but the Minister may take the view that he is powerless to do that before the notice expires, and after it has expired his power may have gone. I hope that the Minister will look into that.

Why is there an extension for only one year? Why are the financial provisions so ungenerous? We have had one answer from one hon. Member on the other side, that this is a penal Measure devised deliberately to punish local authorities. If that is so, I hope that the Minister will say so explicitly and we will know where we are.

The grant has been reduced by two-thirds and at the same time the deficit has been substantially increased by raising the rental compensation by half. It appears that the Minister is inflicting a punitive Measure on those local authorities who, despite every effort, have found it impossible to complete the task in time. The provisions in the Bill which deal with the reduction of the grant and the financial measures run counter to the offer made by his predecessor on 30th March, 1955.

I would remind the right hon. Gentlemman that his predecessor then offered to extend the period by two years, in cases of difficulty. He said that as far as expenses beyond 1960 were concerned he would give the Committee an assurance that they would be dealt with in a proper and generous way. I hope that the Minister will remember that promise made by his predecessor. I know that it was conditional upon whether we were good enough—or bad enough—to vote on Third Reading. But if the Minister could give an assurance in those terms in 1955—when he was saying that all the difficulties would have disappeared by 31st March, 1960—now that the Government recognise the justice of the case made against that argument and the truth of the Opposition's case, surely they will at least honour the promise made in 1955 and extend the period as well as being generous with regard to the financial provisions.

By the time the Bill becomes law we shall be very near 31st March. Local authorities have enough difficulty in planning when they definitely know what is intended. It is important that they should be told at the earliest upon what principles the Minister will act. They have very little time to obtain information and to make applications. I am glad that the Minister has relented to some extent, but I regret that he has done so so belatedly that councils and licensees are placed in a very difficult position. I hope that the Bill will be amended in Committee so that the much more generous treatment promised years ago will be forthcoming.

5.2 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) said that he suffered from a disability in that he was a constituent of the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield), who had some harsh things to say about the activities of councils, although I am sure that he spoke out of ignorance and not from malice. I suffer from the disability of being represented by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, although I contribute my small share to try to rectify that position at each succeeding General Election. It is as a constituent as well as a Member representing a constituency which is one of the 10 or 11 which have not completed their task that I ask him why he is being so harsh. Why has he been so unreasonable in the past, when on many occasions statistics were provided for him making it quite clear that the task imposed upon local authorities was in some cases impossible of achievement?

In the early part of last year it was obvious that several London boroughs, mine included, had not the resources to dispose of all their requisitioned property by 31st March of this year. Those of my hon. Friends who represent London constituencies are only too familiar with what I have called the geographical limitations placed upon constituencies which are already over-built, where no vacant sites are available and it is impossible to tear down properties to provide replacement sites.

On 23rd March of last year the Minister received a deputation from the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee, which produced statistics showing the impossibility of the task that he had imposed. He was implacable in his refusal to extend the period after 31st March, 1960. On 20th November last year officers from the same Joint Standing Committee interviewed the Minister's officers, producing statistics once again to show the impossibility of the task, and once again, the request for an extension was refused. They were told that there was no possibility of an extension.

Let me tell the House what happened in my constituency last year. In that year 142 requisitioned properties were released, the number of families occupying those properties amounting to 216. I should like to know what progress was made by the St. Marylebone Borough Council. Deptford Borough Council went out of its way to try to fulfil its obligations. The result was that last year practically nobody on the housing list was accommodated in the new houses and flats built in Deptford.

People come to me, as they come to other hon. Members, saying, "I have been on the waiting list for ten or twelve years. I am living in rotten conditions, or overcrowded conditions. I fought for my country in the war. My wife has nerves." We all receive pathetic letters to the same effect. But in reply we have to say, "You don't stand a chance, chum. There is no hope at all for you, because what we have to do is find accommodation for people living in requisitioned property, even though they may be living in conditions far superior to yours, and even though you have been on the waiting list far longer than they." We have to give that answer over and over again. We could not even get on with the job of slum clearance because of the incubus put upon us by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor.

Now, simply because its geographical position is such that no significant accommodation is available, Deptford must pay the penalty for being unable to complete the task it was set, without its acquiescence and without any consultation. This has meant that people living in rotten conditions have not been able to get better accommodation, because people living in sometimes superior requisitioned properties have had to be dealt with first. Now, if the rent of such tenants is not increased by the addition of 50 per cent. of the present payment to the owner the charge will have to be borne on the rates, so that by reason of the imposition of this 50 per cent. the licensees must pay their share of the extra rates, although their prospects of being rehoused are not improved.

The Parliamentary Secretary has said that he does not place any moral blame on anybody. If that is so, why should a borough like Deptford be called upon to find more money after making the best contribution it could towards dealing with this problem? The Minister knew that this situation would arise. If he had listened to what was said last March and had moved swiftly, the situation would have not become so aggravated. There would have been fewer worries for councillors, licensees and landlords.

The hon. Member for St. Marylebone hoped the Minister would make it quite clear that this was his final word and that there was no possibility of a further extension. The Parliamentary Secretary made it quite clear that this was as far as the Government were prepared to go. I am advised by the town clerk of the Deptford Borough Council that even now it is questionable whether the extension of one year will provide sufficient time even to be able to rehouse all the people that we are called upon to rehouse. What will happen? In those circumstances, people will have to be evicted, which is exactly what we told the Minister previously. He is once again evading this question. I beg him not to close his mind to the possibility that because of unique and particular circumstances it may still be necessary to make exceptions in the case of local authorities who have been placed in a situation similar to that of Deptford.

I want to make a few observations about inequitable treatment. If London boroughs had not answered the Government's call to requisition houses during and after the war; if they had been impervious to the demands imposed upon them by the national emergency, this situation would not have arisen. But local councils did answer the Government's call, because they had to look after their citizens who had been bombed out of their homes. The Minister is equating their problems with those of local authorities in safe areas. Indeed, he is saying, "Because you did not do it as well as areas from which people left to go back to London and other great cities, we are now going to penalise you under the financial provisions of this Bill."

I must make two comments on Clause 2(3) of the Bill—the proposals to reduce the 25 per cent. contribution towards the deficit incurred in respect of requisitioned and other properties purchased to house licensee families. The Minister must know very well that the requisitioning of property is a prolonged business, especially in cases where the district valuer has difficulty in reaching agreement upon the terms of purchase with the owner. Furthermore, the majority of the properties in the Borough of Deptford are leasehold, and this entails the acquisition of two, and in many cases three, separate interests where the unexpired term of the lease is less than twenty years. I am advised that it seems most unreasonable that a local authority should be penalised in so far as it may not be able to enter into formal commitments to purchase properties before 31st March, 1960.

As for Clause 3(1), it will impede progress in getting rid of requisitioned houses to some extent if Section 4 of the Act of 1955 is no longer to apply. At the end of March this year we shall have 185 properties providing homes for 297 families. Have 185 separate applications to be made to the Ministry so that each one of these cases shall have his separate and particular consideration? Does it really mean that? Is the council to be engaged day after day in the laborious process of making applications to the Minister, of filling up the application forms, of interviews, answering questions and the rest of it? Is that what is meant by getting rid of form filling and generally setting the people free?

The Minister in producing the Bill in this form is really dealing a blow to the local authority which has done its best to meet the requirements of the Act and which is in a particular position of difficulty, which should be recognised by the Minister. I suggest to him that it would be much better if he would give blanket permission to councils such as mine to derequisition what they can between now and March of next year and not close his mind to the possibility that they may well have to come back to him next fall and ask for yet a further extension of time in which to complete the job.

5.13 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

I indicated during the comments made by the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield) that Liverpool had some interest in this matter. Liverpool is one of the local authorities which has a very difficult problem in relation to housing. It has on its ordinary housing register, irrespective of those houses which are still requisitioned, over 40,000 applicants. Approximately 3,500 of those applicants for housing accommodation are in what we know as Category I, which means that they require houses as soon as possible. Many of those applicants have medical certificates and are living in shocking conditions.

We in Liverpool have repeatedly been in touch with the Ministry about the date for the final derequisitioning of houses and we have been informed on every occasion that there was no possibility of the date being altered from 31st March, 1960.

The Minister was in Liverpool recently. The Liverpool housing department, by a resolution, had written to the Minister stating the very grave difficulties that it would have in connection with the derequisitioning of houses by 1960. It was asked specifically in that letter that the local authority should be given some guarantee that if it could not complete the derequisitioning of the houses by that date, in view of the extensive ordinary housing list, the time should be extended.

Peculiarly enough, the reply to the town clerk's request was received in a letter dated 22nd July, 1959, which happened to be the day on which the Minister of Housing and Local Government visited Liverpool to see for himself the progress being made in slum clearance. I am certain that, after seeing what he did, he must have been ashamed of the political party to which he belongs and which had allowed such a state to exist and continue in Liverpool during the many years when it had control there.

A reply was received on that day. The chairman of the housing committee was told in reply to the council's resolution asking the Minister to introduce legislation to extend the period of possession: I am to say that he is convinced that, given one final and determined effort, it is well within their capacity to end requisition once and for all by the date set by Parliament. I am therefore to ask the Council to review their resources with that purpose in mind and to act on the suggestions made in this letter. That was on 22nd July, 1959. The chairman of the housing committee, when the Minister was in Liverpool, gave him the full facts and showed him the list of housing accommodation required on the ordinary housing register. The leader of the Liverpool City Council told him in no uncertain terms and in language which he quite obviously understood what the situation was in Liverpool and the difficulties he would create there unless some alteration were made on the date on which derequisitioning took place.

Many times in my office in the centre of the city people have come to me in desperation because they had been told in the housing department that they could not have accommodation by the date they were supposed to get it because the Minister of Housing and Local Government had said that the first thing to be done was to get all houses derequisitioned. The peculiar position is that when houses are derequisitioned they very often stand empty for a long time before anyone occupies them. People say that this accommodation which they have left in order to go into local authority accommodation is in many instances a thousand times better than the accommodation in which people are living who are in Group I on the register. They have to wait in order that the private owners may have the benefit of selling their houses, when they are empty, and make a profit out of them.

We have done our best to deal with this problem in Liverpool, and we have even put up with the grumbles against a Labour local authority, when the responsibility has been that of the Tory Government. We are still in the position that we have 122 families to be accommodated from requisitioned houses, and if the Minister had refused to change his mind they would have had to be accommodated by March, 1960.

I am glad that Liverpool, at any rate, has a Labour local authority which has been able to put its foot down and make the Minister change his mind in relation to the date. I am entitled to say that what was said to him in Liverpool seems to have convinced him that Liverpool and some ten or eleven other local authorities which are in exactly the same position of very great hardship have been having to buy property which it should not have been possible for them to buy at all and which they should not have been allowed to purchase. Even with the extension of the twelve months, the situation is still going to be very difficult. Many people in Group I on the housing register who would normally be entitled to be housed right away will have to wait still longer because in Liverpool we still have 122 families living in 114 requisitioned houses.

The comments of the hon. Member for St. Marylebone show his complete lack of knowledge of the situation and of what a limited number of local authorities have been trying to do, and, indeed, have had to do. Liverpool has got on with the job as fast as possible. We have already bought 67 houses. At the moment there are 40 houses in the process of being looked at to see whether negotiations to purchase them can commence. We have purchased seven houses completely outside of requisitioning them in order to try to find accommodation for families still in requisitioned properties so as to carry out the Minister's requirement by 31st March.

Because Liverpool has done all this and because it intends to go on trying to do it, it is to be penalised financially. It seems to me that the Minister still thinks that the only possible way to get anything done is by placing monetary penalties on people if they do not carry out what he wants. I certainly believe that some very grave comments will be made by the Liverpool Housing Committee. I am not speaking on behalf of that committee because I am not a member of it, but I am a member of the Liverpool City Council and represent a constituency which has some of the worst slums in the country. Many people in Liverpool have been waiting a long time for housing accommodation, but they are now being made to wait even longer because of the Ministry's insistence that derequisitioning should take place on a certain date.

I hope that the comments made by my hon. Friends, some of them on the Opposition Front Bench, with reference to the financial position will be studied very carefully indeed. Liverpool will attempt to do the job, but we do not think it possible to do it even with the extended time. We know that it is not possible at the present time.

I hope that when the Money Resolution is discussed it will be drawn widely enough to allow for some Amendments to be made so that the financial restriction being placed upon local authorities can be altered. On the other hand, I am glad that Liverpool has been able to convince the Minister that he is wrong. I am certain that if he ever comes to Liverpool again we will take definite steps to prove that he is wrong with, I hope, the same results that we have obtained this evening.

5.24 p.m.

Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)

It would be extremely churlish not to say to the Minister that we are very glad he has introduced this Bill. We have been pressing for this extension of the date. In the debate on 25th June last, when housing conditions in London were discussed, the Minister was asked to consider an extension because of the conditions then operating.

It is very curious that even if at times the Tory Party does the right thing it has to go through the motions of leaving people in a state of anxiety and with the threat of eviction hanging over them. The Minister has been trying to kid himself in the face of the facts that it would be possible for local authorities to deal with the problem. I am not going to deny that many local authorities have been able to deal with it, and we were not suggesting to the Minister, even in the debate of June last year, that every local authority would find itself in difficulty. All we said was that he should really consider whether he could do something for those local authorities who were bound to find themselves in difficulty.

I do not wish to traverse the ground so effectively and thoroughly gone over when the 1955 Requisitioned Houses Bill was being debated. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) says, it is true that local authorities who themselves suffered to a great exent, but who were in the position to act as hosts to other people who had suffered and who took in people from Poplar, Stepney and South London are being burdened with excessive financial expenditure because of a national situation. We pointed out to the Minister at that time, and earlier to his predecessor, that it would be unfair to saddle these local authorities with that responsibility. That situation has gone and the Bill has become an Act.

Had the hon. Member for St. Marylebone studied c. 106 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of 2nd February, be would have seen how many properties were still requisitioned at the end of December, 1959. As far as the Borough of Hackney is concerned, the situation is very much like that of the borough which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) represents. At the end of December, 1959, we were left with 693 properties—1,314 dwellings.

The local authority, of which I am still a member, is very proud of its record with regard to its social activities. It has done so well that almost since 1934 the electors have decided that a 100 per cent. Labour council was what they desired. I am not claiming that that is necessarily a true indication of the council's activities, but I would say that as far as housing is concerned its record is one of which anyone can be proud.

We in Hackney have found it very galling indeed, with a housing list at the moment of nearly 7,000 people, 2,000 of whom are in category A and, therefore, in urgent need, to have to take people out of requisitioned properties and house them before people who are living in exceedingly bad conditions, just because we have been ordered to dispose of these requisitioned properties.

In spite of all our activities—I have said this in the House before—and whatever the political complexion of the Government may be, we are concerned with meeting the requirements of the citizens in our borough. It is computed that on 1st February—it is difficult to give figures up to 31st March because we are weekly taking steps to mitigate the terrible circumstances under which some of our people are living—we shall have 648 premises, accommodating approximately 1,098 families, still requisitioned.

As I have intimated before, many of these properties are part requisitioned. Some of the accommodation may be over shops and in parts of houses which have remained requisitioned and which it is impossible for the local authority to purchase. Many of them are not suitable for purchase because their price is too high and because the cost of adapting them would be too great for the local authority to undertake. On top of all that. this Bill now takes away Section 4 releases.

I felt sorry for the Parliamentary Secretary, because, quite obviously, he was reading his brief and getting over it as quickly as he possibly could. I do not blame him for that. He will have to see and live in such properties if he wants to understand what the situation is. One has to face these problems week by week. One has to go into the local pub and meet the boy who knows the situation firsthand or into the chapel and hear the hard-luck stories before one appreciates the difficulties.

The Parliamentary Secretary paid tribute to local authorities and said that they had done a wonderful job. In return for having done that wonderful job, they are to have their grants reduced by two-thirds and, as the deficit is increased. compensation is to he raised by one half. Local authorities have been receiving 75 per cent. of the deficit plus special grants under Section 10, making about 18s. 9d. of each £ deficit, but the Bill will reduce that amount to 5s. in the £. That is not the way to treat local authorities who have done what they could to remedy the difficulties under which their people have suffered.

I understand that the Minister is to circularise local authorities to give them some indication of what the procedure is to be. The problem for local authorities will he made more difficult if they do not have guidance before the Bill passes through its various stages, even taking advantage of the twelve months' extension. I hope that the Minister will circularise local authorities giving them guidance on what the procedure is to be.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that this matter has caused much heart burning and great difficulty. Notices have been sent out calling public meetings and drawing attention to what are called "the forgotten families". If we can get some direct information from the right hon. Gentleman, we will be able to tell him that we are thankful for the Bill and that we shall do our best to free requisitioned property under our control, but that we hope that the financial assistance which he gives local authorities—a matter which we should like to discuss with them—will be such that they will at last receive proper recognition of the work they have done.

5.34 p.m.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)

We have waited for some years for this Bill to appear. Although the Minister wrote to Liverpool Corporation last July to say that such a Bill would not be required, we have known ever since the 1955 legislation that an extension Bill was inevitable. We knew, and I suspect that the Minister knew, that some authorities would find it impossible to complete derequisitioning by 31st March this year. When the right hon. Gentleman introduced the 1955 Measure, we told him that he was placing an impossible task on local authorities within the time limit. This Bill proves quite clearly that all the Minister's protestations were unfounded, that what we predicted was correct and that the time was insufficient for many authorities. We were also told in 1955 that derequisitioning would not block the chances of those on the ordinary housing waiting lists, but we are now told that that has proved to be inaccurate.

The Parliamentary Secretary gave us some helpful figures about the size of the problem. He said that in 1955, when the original derequisitioning legislation was passed, 62,000 properties, 90,000 lettings, were under requisition. Of those 90,000 lettings, 75,000 were in London, where there was the bulk of requisitioned property. The hon. Gentleman agrees that over the last five years local authorities have done a splendid job. They have implemented the wishes of the Government with vigour and have not let the Government down.

After all, the Government thrust the problem on local authorities. It was originally the Government who were responsible for requisitioned properties, but in 1955, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government kindly thrust the problem on local authorities. Both sides of the House admit that local authorities have undertaken the work very well, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman admitted that they deserve praise for their efforts. Perhaps the Minister will add his thanks to them for having done this difficult and thankless task.

The main method used by the Government to push local authorities in this business has been financial pressure, and they have unquestionably applied financial pressure to local authorities since 1955. The Bill now makes that financial pressure even more severe. We are told that local authorities must accept that and that it is the normal financial relationship between local and central government that central government grants should flow most easily to those authorities which implement the policy of the Government.

However, in a matter which is peculiarly a national responsibility, some other financial yardstick should have been used and local authorities should not have had placed upon them the financial pressure which the Government have exerted over the last five years and which they are now increasing. In a matter of this kind, one would have thought that the Government would not have placed the heaviest financial burden on those authorities where bombing was most severe, yet that is what the Bill amounts to.

There remains a sense of unfairness in the minds of some local councils about the way in which they have been treated. There may be only a dozen, or perhaps ten or eleven, authorities which will carry on with this requisitioning problem beyond the end of March, but I can assure the Minister that some local authorities feel a sense of grievance. They feel that financially they have been very hard done by. In Islington, part of which I represent, we have done extremely well. I hope the Minister will send a special letter of thanks to my local authority. The council of that borough hopes that by the end of March all the requisitioned properties will have been cleared. Then the council will have carried out fully to the letter the requirements of the Minister and the Government.

My council has been hard put to it to do this. It has not been an easy task, and it has been forced to put aside other housing questions in order to complete derequisitioning. Although Islington, in which I live and part of which I represent, has completed its task and fulfilled its responsibilities under the Act, that does not mean that I am not concerned about other boroughs where the task is more difficult and where the financial hardship will fall more heavily. Any injustice to any local authority is an injustice to the whole of local government. Therefore, whether it be a Conservative or a Labour council, if it is treated unfairly financially by the Government I protest, even though my local authority will not suffer so much as others.

I reject the philosophy of "I'm all right, Jack, and your concern is nothing to do with me." If a single local authority suffers financial injustice under the Bill we must protest, because we must regard it not only as injustice inflicted on that authority but on the whole of local government. I know of a particular Metropolitan borough council, which happens to be controlled by the supporters of the Minister, which will find its task will not be completed by the end of March. That council will not receive justice from the Government supported by the councillors. Although it is a Conservative council, I think it wrong that it should have to suffer financially because of its derequisitioning problems.

The point is that the conditions vary considerably in each locality. We cannot apply the same yardstick to all localities. The bomb damage was different in amount. Some places suffered more destruction than others and, in addition, the conditions in the localities vary. The Conservative authority which I have mentioned has difficult conditions. It has requisitioned property in flats, middle class property of a kind for which the landlord will not agree to accept the licensee as tenant and which the local council could not acquire and maintain.

In that area some of the requisitioned properties are old shops of a kind that a local authority cannot acquire. There is unfairness because of the local conditions over which a local council has no control. It is regrettable that the Government are to become even more severe in their financial penalisation than they have been in the past. If a local council has got behind in its programme that is not its fault. It is unfair that boroughs like Wandsworth, Hackney and Clapham should have to bear more of the burden than places such as Oxford and Bath. In the administration of the Bill, when it becomes an Act, I hope the Minister will make up for the financial injustice which results.

Many councils have had to purchase numbers of requisitioned properties. In many cases the owners would not agree that the licensees should become tenants. The local authority is then obliged to operate under that Section of the Act which permits it to purchase. As a result of that process of requisitioning and purchasing property, the municipalisation of rented houses has been pushed forward by the Government. We know that in some circumstances that policy is inevitable. We know it must come, but we did not want enforced municipalisation arising from derequisitioning. My council has acquired 595 of these houses. Many of them are below the standard which a local authority accepts and they are scattered all over the area. As a result, they are costly to maintain. The policy of the Government on requisitioning has pushed forward municipalisation of rented houses—certainly in the London area. We do not welcome it, although we know that that policy in the circumstances of housing in large towns is inevitable.

The most serious thing about the policy of the Government and the most serious consequence of derequisitioning is the setback in the opportunities of those on the waiting lists. We were told by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1955 that those on the waiting lists would not have to wait any longer because of derequisitioning We now see that he was quite wrong.

It is a common experience of any council which has had to tackle the problem that because it has to concentrate on derequisitioning it has to put back people on the ordinary waiting list. We were told by another Minister in 1956, when the Rent Act was going through the House, that there would be considerable opportunities of obtaining empty properties for rent in London as a result of that Act. We were given to understand that that might help us to solve our derequisitioning problems. We were told by the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, on 21st November, 1956: In London alone, as I have informed the hon. Member, 190,000 houses will he decontrolled at once. In addition, there will be a number of houses which will have come into possession since,—indeed. before the publication of the Bill—which will all be on the letting market at the same time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1956; Vol. 560, c. 1770.] All that proved to be nonsense. Instead of the Rent Act helping councils with their derequisitioning problem, in fact it made their general housing task more difficult. The housing position in London as a result of derequisitioning, which is almost complete, is very serious indeed. Now that he has seen the end of derequisitioning, the Minister should turn his attention to the housing position which now results in the great cities and conurbations.

In my borough there are 1,400 people on the waiting list. We have had to stop helping those people while we have been doing the Minister's bidding and derequisitioning property. These 1,400 people know that for years their chance of accommodation is exceedingly slim. The London County Council has reduced its housing list and brought it down from about 120,000 to a net figure of 54,000 people, most of whom represent pressing cases waiting to be rehoused immediately. The L.C.C. has stated publicly that of the 54,000 persons on the reduced waiting list, only 3,000 can expect to be rehoused within the next three years. At that rate of progress it will take half a century for the L.C.C. to meet the needs of the people on its reduced housing list.

The Minister knows about the over-crowding in the London area. He has admitted to the House that the over-crowding problem in the London area is severe. On 25th June he said: We must all give very serious thought to how we can tackle, as soon as we can, the problem of overcrowding in London, because it is this, I believe, which is at the root of the housing problem."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th June, 1959; Vol. 607, c. 1523.] That was said by the Minister who now sits on the Front Bench.

Now that requisitioning is coming to an end, will he acknowledge the statement which he made that overcrowding and the general housing position in London and the other great cities need careful thought? Will he go one step further and tell us his intentions, because the problem of housing in the great cities and conurbations rests upon his shoulders?

5.53 p.m.

Mr. G. W. Reynolds (Islington, North)

The fact that I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) only serves to emphasise that we have a ghastly housing problem in the Borough of Islington. We have not been helped in it in any way in the last few years by the action of the Minister in insisting on the derequisitioning of property. I will come back to that in a moment.

First, I must completely disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), who claimed that her authority took a great deal of the credit for putting the Minister in this position. Only three weeks ago the Acton Borough Council, of which I am a member, passed a resolution asking the Minister to introduce legislation on this subject. We think that he has reacted very promptly to our request. Having said that, I must make it plain that the borough council will not be very pleased with the legislation which the Minister has introduced, although the speed with which the Minister has acted after receiving our request has surprised us. I think that we can take some of the credit, too.

As other hon. Members have said, this is the second time in a comparatively short period that the Government have reversed their policy on housing. We have been reminded of the Rent Act, which we said would result in a large number of people being homeless and which was later amended to avert that catastrophe. About the derequisitioning procedure, we said that on 31st March a large number of people would be homeless, and, again, after many protests, the Minister proposes to amend one of his own Acts to avert what would otherwise be a disaster for many people.

The speech which has surprised me most this afternoon is the only speech that we have had from a back bench Member on the Government side of the House. I might add, in passing, that the Parliamentary Secretary and, presumably, the Minister will be the only two people who have unreservedly supported the Bill. We on this side of the House have criticised it considerably, particularly the financial aspects. The only hon. Member from the Government back benches who has spoken has asked virtually for the Bill to be withdrawn and for local authorities to be told to get on with the job. I do not know where the Minister is deriving his support for the Bill. Only the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have had the courage to stand up in the House and give unanimous support to this piece of legislation.

I agree with the idea behind the Bill of giving the local authorities longer time to do the job, but I cannot accept that the financial provisions in it are necessary. I am glad that the Minister praised local authorities in the work which they have done, and I wholeheartedly agree with him in that. At the same time—and I make this remark particularly with reference to the speech of the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield), who is no longer in the Chamber—local authorities have been operating under considerable difficulties imposed upon them by the Minister working the 1955 Act. They have had to bear 25 per cent. of the cost of derequisitioning.

It was not felt desirable at the beginning of the derequisitioning programme to offer the "sweetener" to landlords, where the amount would run into several hundred pounds, as an inducement to them to accept licensees as their own tenants. In the first couple of years of derequisitioning the Minister, generally speaking, was not prepared to allow local authorities to purchase requisitioned houses unless the financial loss on them would be exceedingly small. He was not too keen on their leasing houses. In the first two years of the period in which they were trying to derequisition property the local authorities were hampered because they were not given anything like full co-operation by the Minister.

It was only when it became apparent to the Minister that it would be very difficult to deal with the problem within the time limit set in the Bill that there were two upgradings in the amount of the financial loss on the purchase of requisitioned property or of property in lieu of requisitioned property. The Minister was then prepared to accept a higher financial loss limit. The limit which the Minister first laid down was impossibly low and did not allow local authorities to purchase. There was at first a small increase and later a considerable increase.

I think I am right in saying—and the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—that the majority of the 14,000 premises which have been purchased by local authorities in order to cease requisitioning were purchased during the last eighteen months and not during the earlier years of the derequisitioning procedure, because it was only during the last twelve months, or less, that the financial formula, on which the calculation of the permissible loss on such properties was made, was at a level which made it economically possible for local authorities to purchase property in lieu of derequisitioning.

The Minister has hampered local authorities, particularly those local authorities with a large number of properties requisitioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West mentioned that by a superhuman effort the Islington Borough Council hopes—and I will put it no higher than that at the moment—to have solved the problem by 31st March of this year. The Acton Borough Council, of which I am a member, has undertaken a great deal of activity in the last eight or nine months since the financial limit was raised, and it also hopes to be able to solve the problem by 31st March.

In so doing, both these authorities have distorted their normal housing programmes and disrupted their administrative activities. They have incurred considerable expense, a substantial proportion of which will have to be borne on the rates. The hon. Member for St. Marylebone felt that local authorities which had not been able to do this job by the end of March should not expect further financial assistance from the nation and that financial assistance should not be provided to those authorities which have been unable to derequisition these properties. I suggest that the total amount of financial assistance which the nation has had to provide to help those local authorities which have been successful in derequisitioning property is very substantial. Very often sums of £300, £400 and even £600 have been paid, 75 per cent. of it from the Exchequer and 25 per cent. of it from the rates, as an inducement to landlords to accept the former licensees as their tenants. Very substantial sums of money have been spent.

The formula for the permissible loss on requisitioned premises acquired or premises acquired in lieu of derequisitioning permits an annual loss of up to £150, a large proportion of which for the next twenty years will be borne by the Exchequer. The hon. Member for St. Marylebone ought to be aware that those local authorities which have derequisitioned their property by purchase, by a "sweetener" or by other means will probably put a very much greater financial strain on the nation than the more unfortunate authorities which are being dealt with in the Bill. I hope that in Committee it will be possible for us to do something about the financial allowances which are being made.

I was interested to hear the figures given by the Parliamentary Secretary and to note that 14,000 requisitioned houses have been acquired by local authorities. The hon. Gentleman went through his figures rather quickly and I was not able to take them down as fully as I should have liked. I understood that 14,000 requisitioned properties had been purchased by local authorities. I wonder whether the Minister could give us the number of other properties which have been purchased by local authorities in lieu of requisitioned properties. The figure must be quite substantial. It may be included in the 14,000, I do not know, but I got the impression that the 14,000 were houses which were requisitioned and which are now owned by the local authorities.

Some 35,000 people have been rehoused in some way or other out of requisitioned property. Obviously, some of them have become owner-occupiers. Others have probably suited themselves in some way and many thousands have gone into local authority accommodation over the heads of more deserving cases waiting for accommodation. A number have been rehoused by local authorities in properties purchased specifically for the purpose of dealing with requisitioning, so that I imagine there are hundreds of other properties which have become municipally owned as a result of requisition in addition to the 14,000 mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary.

On the whole, and especially during the last few months, the financial arrangements made to assist local authorities to acquire this property and, what is perhaps more important, to improve it, have been fairly reasonable. The Borough of Acton is fairly satisfied with the current financial arrangements and is purchasing property and carrying out improvements and conversions to much of it.

I wish to ask the Minister one thing. He knows that it is not contained in this Bill, but it is germane to it. At the moment, work on property acquired against requisitioned property or property acquired in lieu has, if it is to qualify for grant from the Ministry to cover the cost of essential repairs and improvements, to be carried out by 31st March, 1961.

The majority of this property has been purchased during the last eight or nine months—at least that is my assumption and it applies to authorities of which I have fairly detailed knowledge. These authorities are not equipped suddenly to deal with the preparation of plans, the surveying work and the mass of other administrative and legal work which is involved in carrying out major improvements or conversions to the houses which they have purchased. Suddenly, these local authorities have not one or two properties to convert, but hundreds. The work must be done in a period of about eighteen months in order to qualify for a grant, and that grant will make a big difference to the financial position of the housing revenue accounts of the authorities.

In my view, the Minister and his Ministry have been pretty helpful in dealing with this problem. The amount of detail which it is expected local authorities shall submit has, I know, been scaled down to the minimum. This information must be submitted before prior approval is secured for the carrying out of the improvement and repair work. The Minister has gone a long way to meet the difficulties of the authorities in this respect, but I suggest to him that as this problem applies only to houses purchased up to 31st March of this year, in all of those cases he will have achieved his main purpose of getting them out of the requisitioned class and into the ownership of the local authorities. Therefore, if he could see his way clear—in consultation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, I understand, is also concerned in this—to make the grants available provided that the property is converted or repaired within the next two or three years, that would be a great benefit to local authorities. These authorities are particularly hard pressed to find the technical staff needed to do this kind of work.

So far as I can see, such an arrangement would involve no extra charge on the Exchequer. It would simply mean that instead of paying the money out in twelve months it would be spread over a period of two years. That would ease the burden on many local authorities faced with a tremendous amount of conversion work of this nature. I hope the Minister will be able to do something about that during the next few weeks so that the administrative burden may be eased and local authorities enabled to get the work done without dislocating other work which must be carried on at the same time.

My main complaint about what has been done in the past, and what has still to be done in the future, is the effect it will have on the general housing waiting lists. We were told by the Parliamentary Secretary that 35,000 families have been rehoused in some way or other. A large number have been rehoused in local authority accommodation which would otherwise have gone to people on the normal waiting lists for houses. That fact is undeniable.

In common with most other hon. Members who represent constituencies in London, I have had a large number of constituents coming to me with their housing problems during the last three or four weeks. May I quote one example, that of a husband and wife with four children, two boys aged 9 and 5 and two girls, aged 3 and 6 months? They are living in two rooms, one 10 ft. square, and the other 13 ft. square, They have a water supply and a gas stove in an outside lean-to through which 14 other people who live in the house have to pass in order to use an outside toilet. Those are the sort of conditions in which many families in my constituency have to live.

I have details of another case of a husband and wife with a girl aged 8½ and a boy aged 2½ who live in two rooms. One of the rooms measures 9 ft. by 8 ft. and the other is 12 ft. square. They have to share an outside lavatory with two other families in the house. I could mention a number of other examples, but I will not weary the House with them. During the last few weeks the families which I have mentioned, and another half dozen of which I have particulars, have received a letter from the London County Council telling them that there is no hope of their being rehoused within the next two years. They are on the borough council housing list, but the council can do little for them because of the work of derequisitioning which it has to undertake and other matters of that kind.

Only one family has received a letter saying that it will be rehoused during the next three years. The family consists of a husband and wife and two boys, aged 7 and 3, who live in one room which is 13 ft. square. Those are the sort of conditions in which a family has to live in order to stand a chance of being offered council accommodation. The borough council is hampered by shortage of land and financial difficulties, and the same thing applies to the London County Council.

In view of the existence of such conditions, I am surprised that the Minister is still pressing some of these unfortunate councils, such as the Hackney Council, to reduce still further the pool of local authority dwellings. This is delaying for an even longer period the possibility of such families as I have mentioned getting decent accommodation.

There is one other matter I wish to mention. It is a problem which affects a few local authorities, but it will add to the burden imposed upon them by derequisitioning. I hope that the Minister may be able to do something about it. There are a number of local authorities which still have temporary dwellings—"prefabs" we call them—on public open spaces. In some cases the legislation permitting the authorities to leave these dwellings there comes to an end in a few months. My own council, which has the problem of dealing with the derequisitioning of houses, hopes to have solved it by he end of March, but at the same time it should demolish and remove a number of "prefabs", and will be faced with the problem of rehousing the families which occupy them. I hope that during the next few months the Minister will be able to do something about that matter. Some of these "prefabs" are in a much better condition than a large number of privately-owned dwellings in the Greater London area.

6.9 p.m.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

It is only fair to remind oneself on an occasion like this that the Minister has been carrying on a policy which he did not initiate. I frequently have to take myself aside when faced with the exasperating and frustrating situation familiar to London Members of Parliament in relation to constituency housing and assure myself that the Minister must know the real facts of the housing situation in London. He has been told often enough, and he must have gone to see for himself. Therefore, he must be sustained not only by a dogged loyalty to those who have given him the duty of carrying out the job, but also by a faith that he has an alternative policy which will work itself out in due course.

The right hon. Gentleman was told today, as he was told in the days when the original requisitioning Bill was being discussed, of the dangers and difficulties. He has been told of the appalling effect upon the people on the general waiting lists in the boroughs. I hope that he realises that it was an error of judgment, to put it no higher, to insist on so large a proportion of the general list of dwellings belonging to local authorities being allocated to the people from requisitioned dwellings. He has been told again and again how boroughs have rehoused no one while the 1955 Act is being implemented.

The majority party on the Paddington Borough Council was a little indignant when it was said that it had rehoused no one from the general waiting list. After careful research, the council was able to establish that it had rehoused two families over the period. That conceals the very high price which has been paid for the success of this administrative move of the Minister.

It is fair to say, however, that the difficulties have been greatly increased by the fact that the Government have been trying to implement at the same time their policy of refusing leave for council building for general needs. If the two programmes had not coincided, the result might not have been so disastrous in terms of human misery. Councils have been left with no room for manoeuvre for the emergency priority cases. If it had been only a question of changing a policy—a change to which we on this side should in any case have been bitterly opposed—and saying that councils were not in future to be encouraged or permitted to build for general needs but only for slum clearance, there would have been a little delay before the effects were generally felt. In that case, councils would have had a little more room for manoeuvre in respect of the priority cases. They have now lost that, because they have had to fill up all their vacancies with tenants from requisitioned properties. That is the situation which has produced such an enormous number of individual cases of hardship.

Those on the waiting list divide themselves into two classes. The first class represents those who are not adequately housed by any civilian standards. They are overcrowded. They have not the amenities or the sanitary arrangements. They are well able to afford better accommodation if it was available for them. There is that very large section, on the one hand.

The second class contains the recurring individual cases which happen every day of every week. I refer to cases where some kind of family calamity has made it urgently desirable that the family should be rehoused. Such cases frequently come to the notice of Members of Parliament. One instance is where there is a child at home, being cured of poliomyelitis, who has to be carried up and down the stairs, but the mother has an ailment which makes it impossible for her to carry the child, so that the child is a virtual prisoner at the top of the house. Another instance is where there is a twin pram for which accommodation cannot be found.

Another and very distressing instance is when a man has come home having had treatment for tuberculosis with a certificate that he is cured. He has to return to the damp and overcrowded accommodation. Every time he coughs in the winter there is the awful fear that the other lung is going. They are conditions which any humane council, irrespective of general issues of policy or who controls it, would wish to deal with as part of the ordinary administration of its housing department. Councils have had no chance to deal with such cases in these years.

I have considered it worth while repeating this to the Minister at this stage only because I have a hope that he will have come to some conclusions about it and will be aware that he can administratively do much to help councils get out of this difficulty. I also have a fear that we shall all find ourselves in similar or greater trouble as the slum clearance campaign gains momentum. That presents the problem that more people must be moved than can be rehoused on the same sites. The people in slum properties, some of which have not yet been acquired, are increasing by the ordinary process of marrying and having children. The problem is becoming worse. We have had a taste of the difficulty where councils have found themselves in the very detestable position of having to impose a type of rule or formula about rehousing, as they have had to do in the case of rehousing people from requisitioned properties. The councils have made rules about this.

The Paddington Borough Council has made a rule that it will not rehouse married children. I hope that that is not a rule which any council would wish to apply if it has elbow room in its general housing accommodation. I will not develop that from the human point of view, because it must be clear to everyone. Sometimes the application of such a formula has landed the council's officials in a bureaucratic and ridiculous situation. It is always difficult to give examples in detail, because I would not wish families to be identified. However, I recollect a case in my constituency where the married daughter, who was the housekeeper, was refused accommodation to go with her widowed father. Therefore, the widower and two unmarried children were rehoused in a flat, with the warning that should they attempt to take the married daughter and her husband with them they would be evicted.

Everyone, including the council's officials, knew that the two unmarried children intended to leave within six months, one to be married and live elsewhere and the other to take a job in another part of the country. There the council was obeying its own rules and giving a flat which would be under-occupied in a matter of months. It was, at the same time, evicting the married daughter who had lived at home all her life, apart from her fortnight's honeymoon. It was not a question of coming back to cheat the waiting list and establish her qualifications. That is one example which happened under the working of the Act.

We have had recent and rather distressing examples where the council has been trying to rehouse people from properties which are to be pulled down under a slum clearance scheme. The same formula has been applied where married children are not rehoused. They are people who were born in the houses concerned and grew up, married and had their children there. Because they have married without the permission of the council, because they were not given a separate rent book, and sometimes by the accident that they did not marry just before the council acquired the properties years ago, they find themselves deprived of any entitlement to rehousing on anybody's list or under anybody's scheme.

This is not the first time that I have recited these cases, but I hope that it will he the last. I do so in the hope that the Minister will be able to say that he has watched this with his heart working as well as his head, that he has to come to certain conclusions, that there were, perhaps, certain errors of judgment in the combination of the two policies of ending derequisitioning and stopping building for general needs at the same time, which produced more hardships than had been expected, and that he hopes to be able to encourage local authorities to use the existing powers to continue to acquire properties and give themselves that room for manoeuvre which they so desperately need if they are to deal with the emergency priority and hardship cases which at present can be met only with a monotonously repeated negative.

I hope that we shall soon be glimpsing a new constructive approach in the Ministry. The present Ministers have had a very heavy burden in carrying out the policies of their predecessors, but we must hone that soon we shall have a glimpse of new thinking on the problem of London housing and where people are to be put when they have to live in London because their work demands it and they work for a modest wage. Let us hope that we shall soon have indications of what the Ministers think about high building, about density ratios and about mixed user.

Let us hope that soon we shall hear that we are to have applied the imaginative notion of partnership between the local authorities and developers, the sort of thing which has been very profitably and successfully done, I think, in partnership between the Church Commissioners and certain property developers. Why should not local authorities have a share in a development scheme which enables one to provide shops and offices on the lower floors of buildings which produce a substantial income as a result of which the site for housing, for the high towers of flats which one may wish to build, costs nothing?

These ideas are tossed about from time to time. I am sure that somewhere in the Ministry someone is getting down to brass tacks and that we shall soon have a hint from the Minister that he is formulating a policy. I hope that we shall find ourselves at the end of the purely negative and we shall move towards a positive policy, a policy which we on this side of the House may not entirely agree with, but a policy, at least, through which the Minister will be able to look for co-operation in working out any new ideas which offer promise for the future.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

It is unprofitable at this stage of the debate on the Bill to say, "I told you so," but the fact remains that every estimate of what would happen in the future which was made by the present Minister of Housing and Local Government and his predecessors has been proved wrong in the event. We told the Minister in the House many times that it would be quite impossible to conclude derequisitioning by 31st March, 1960. I myself have on more than one occasion said so, but the Minister and his predecessor were adamant in the mistaken belief that the problem of derequisitioning would have been solved by that date.

In March last year, the Ministry was pleading with local authorities to get on with the job of derequisitioning. One of the requests it put to local authorities at that time was that they should give licensees the benefit of generous allocation in council lettings. That was one of the problems facing Metropolitan borough councils which had long waiting lists of deserving cases. As a matter of fact, it has been impossible to say what the practice of councils generally has been in giving licensees council tenancies. The practice, has, no doubt, varied greatly. Several authorities had even stopped taking people from their waiting lists for years and had used new buildings for licensees. Other authorities had given nothing from their own resources. There was no uniformity of action in the matter.

The Ministry was in such a panic about the situation in Wandsworth that it virtually had to bulldoze and blackmail the Wandsworth Borough Council into embarking upon a very expensive programme of buying houses to deal with the problem and enable derequisitioning to come to an end by 31st March, 1960. We had the ironic spectacle of a Tory Minister of Housing and Local Government almost threatening a Tory local authority, saying, "Get on with this business at almost any cost and finish by 31st March, 1960, the derequisitioning of properties." As a result, the Tory councillors of Wandsworth, in the pathetic belief that Tory policy was to encourage private enterprise and private building, found themselves in a position of having to embark on a most expansive and expensive programme of municipalisation.

This happened in other Metropolitan boroughs, also. The Borough of Lambeth, with which I am best acquainted, was faced with the task of finding alternative accommodation for about 3,400 licensees who originally occupied requisitioned properties. The published figures show that the Borough of Lambeth has responded reasonably well to the Government's request and, at 31st December, there were only 330 dwellings still requisitioned.

The carrying out of this programme has been effected only at very considerable cost. I am disappointed that the Parliamentary Secretary did not tell the House how much this business of de- requisitioning has cost. All I do know is that in the Borough of Lambeth, which is only one of 28 Metropolitan boroughs—I exclude for the moment the other local authorities in the outer London area—the cost of making available accommodation to occupiers of requisitioned property who otherwise would, legally, have been trespassers on 31st March has been about £2½ million.

That is expenditure incurred by one Metropolitan borough. I know that the council is entitled to claim assistance under Section 11 of the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Act, 1955, but, whether the money is found by the local authority or by the Exchequer, it has to come from public funds. The House is entitled to know not only how much extra expenditure will be incurred by agreeing to this Bill now but how much the operation has cost since the 1955 Act reached the Statute Book. It will be found to be staggering.

I am quite sure that, if the Borough of Lambeth had been authorised to spend £2½ million on providing new accommodation we should have had very much better value for money than we have had in buying a lot of property, some of which is very sub-standard and will have to be converted. In Lambeth, the average cost of converting property into self-contained units is about £1,000 a unit. Where property is held only on a short lease which would not justify expenditure for a full conversion improvements have been carried out at a lower cost, but we have not been able to provide tenants in such property with self-contained accommodation. In some cases, the Borough of Lambeth had to buy short leases—as short as two or three years—and then try to acquire the freehold simply to satisfy the Minister's requirement that all property should be derequisitioned by 31st March, 1960.

We are not absolutely certain, although Lambeth's record is fairly good, that by 31st March all the people living in requisitioned houses will be provided with alternative accommodation. On existing information, it is possible that there may be about 150 families for whom no alternative accommodation may be provided by the end of March, although every effort was being made to persuade the owners to carry on for a little longer before we knew that it was proposed to place the Bill before the House.

As a result of all this activity having to be concentrated on the problem of derequisitioning, what has happened in Lambeth has happened in many other Metropolitan boroughs. The increase in the number of urgent cases on local authority housing lists has been a marked feature of the past year. In Lambeth, there are at present 5,400 families on the waiting list, 2,000 of whom are extremely urgent cases. Another 1.500 cases are classified as being in varying degrees of need. All these people have had to wait because they have been told that there is no possibility whatsoever of their cases being dealt with until the problem of derequisitioning is out of the way.

That problem will not be disposed of by 31st March, because there will be a period of another year, if not longer, during which conversion and acquisition will be still going on. This means that housing for general need will be delayed even further than it is at the moment as a result of Government policy and consultation on the slum clearance programme.

When the Rent Act was forced on to the Statute Book, we were told that within twelve months or so the difference between the need for new houses or additional accommodation and the supply of additional accommodation would be met. The Government soon realised that in Lambeth that would not be the case. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that, in many respects, the housing problem in London is as bad now as it has ever been, if not worse. Responsibility must lie to a very considerable extent with the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his predecessors. It is an ironical thought that the boroughs in London and local authorities in other parts of the country which suffered the heaviest punishment during the war are suffering the heaviest punishment now. That cannot be just.

The Bill represents a belated concession to the inevitable facts of the situation, about which we warned the right hon. Gentleman on so many previous occasions. We are faced with the problem of derequisitioning. We have still the problem of prefabricated houses which were never intended to last for more than ten years. They have been up for fifteen years and some of them are in a most unsatisfactory condition. There is not the slightest prospect of the people who have put up with prefabricated houses for so many years being found alternative accommodation.

That is the price many thousands of decent people are having to pay, have had to pay for so many years and will continue to have to pay in areas like London because the Government will not realise that housing must be regarded as a social service in the same way as other social services for which they must accept responsibility.

It is no use saying that by allowing private enterprise a freer hand we shall solve the housing problem in London. The only extent to which private enterprise is solving it is the provision of bigger and better opportunities for takeover bid merchants and for the letting of flats at anything between £300 and £500 a year and over. Such rents, of course, are quite beyond the pockets of ordinary people who have to live in London on present rates of wages.

The time has come, I think, for the Government to think again about the problem of housing in London, which is quite different in so many respects from the problem in other parts of the country. I know that there is a shortage of sites, but I think that, even within the present limitations, very much more could be done if we had a Government really determined to make housing the urgent priority in the Metropolitan area which it should be.

6.38 p.m.

Mr. Percy Holman (Bethnal Green)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. H. Butler) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) have admirably put the case for the Hackney Borough Council and their local needs. 1 can only say that I endorse every word that they said about the southern part of Hackney, which comes within my constituency.

In the Borough of Bethnal Green the problem of requisitioned houses is not quite so serious. There are odd ones here and there still to be dealt with, and there is one difficult patch on the borders of Stepney, where the Ministry is to hold an inquiry this month in connection with slum clearance. We were in a bit of a quandary to know what to do, because the inquiry may not be completed and the result known before 31st March. For that reason, I welcome the Bill. It will give us a breathing space. I trust that the Minister will ask the borough councils for the necessary information even before this Bill reaches the Statute Book so that the councils may know the position with regard to the remaining requisitioned properties. The problem is not great in the Borough of Bethnal Green, because it has been given priority over what are known as normal housing requirements.

In my post only this afternoon I had a letter from a man who has a wife and six children. They have been on the housing waiting list for many years. They have one bedroom, a living room, a box room, a kitchenette and no amenities. They had notice to quit from the landlord. Three times they have been before the court and they have to be out by 10th February. The local authorities can do nothing for them. What can the London County Council do? It is even necessary to have a printed pamphlet to drive home the fact that in the County of London only cases involving urgent medical need, at the rate of about 1,000 a year, can be rehoused under existing conditions when slum clearance takes absolute priority.

Under the Tory free-for-all as applied to housing, what is happening when rack rents are being demanded for any vacant premises? The worst case to come to my notice within the last fortnight in Bethnal Green is that of a 12-roomed house condemned by the council as unfit for human habitation but let out in one-room lettings to families. Over 40 people are living in the 12 rooms. The landlord is taking between £27 and £30 a week for rooms which are unfit for human habitation, unfurnished and have no amenities. There are two toilets in this condemned property. That is rack renting as we see it in the area of London. The rehousing of our local people has had a setback as a result of the efforts that have been made to derequisition houses and to purchase all possible houses whose price was not too unreasonable from the district valuer's point of view.

I ask the Minister to adopt that human attitude towards this problem which has not been manifested in the only two speeches made this afternoon from the Tory benches. I listened with astonishment to the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary. Perhaps his look of triumph and his gay appearance was due to the fact that he was pressing ahead so rapidly that some of my hon. Friends could hardly take note of his statistics. Possibly that was the cause of his animation. Or was it because additional financial obligations are being imposed upon those authorities which have the biggest proportion of working-class population in London and, therefore, the most difficult problem of derequisitioning is being imposed upon them in the next twelve months?

Then we had what I regarded as the sad speech of the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield). Even he rapped his own council over the knuckles and said that, although it had been doing a good job in derequisitioning, it had not done enough, it had not done it quickly enough and it ought to have done more. The hon. Member hoped, therefore, that the Minister would withhold from St. Marylebone, and, I presume, London in general, some of the benefits of the Bill.

As a visitor in the old days, I looked down upon this Chamber occasionally in 1918 and 1919, the Chamber of hard-faced men. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary and the hon. Member for St. Marylebone are not within that category and I hope that when we reach Committee the Minister will be forthcoming in regard to the financial provisions and will give local authorities more reasonable time to put into good order the many old houses that they have purchased lately to help them out with derequisitioning I make this appeal to him and, at the same time, I ask him to begin the necessary process with local authorities even before the Bill goes through the House.

6.46 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

It is becoming a quite familiar occasion for us to be somewhat mournful spectators at the great word-eating celebrations of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. We had the Rent Act and the dogged determination which ended in retreat with the amending Bill. Last Session, we had his painful burial of the Prime Minister's Town and Country Planning Act. Now we have the Minister of Aviation's Requisitioned Houses a id Housing (Amendment) Act, 1955, being again retreated from and substantially amended.

Our attitude must have been clear from the debate. In so far as the Bill extends the period for requisition, we welcome it. In so far as it proposes increased rental compensation, we are suspicious of it. We would like to know a little bit about what is involved and in particular, we would like a more accurate reply from the Minister than the explanation which the Parliamentary Secretary was able to give of how rental compensation with the 50 per cent. increase under the Bill will compare with rental compensation being paid under leases and other agreements which local authorities have already made with owners of requisitioned property.

If the right hon. Gentleman cannot give us a disquisition on that tonight, I hope that at least, in Committee, he will he able to put before us substantial and detailed information of the kind of calculations that are involved and what multiple of the gross value the new proposal in general amounts to.

The third question—the reduction of the Exchequer contribution—is one which we strongly oppose and it will be our intention in Committee to move Amendments. I would, however, like to ask the right hon. Gentleman, if not, perhaps, in his capacity as Minister of Housing and Local Government, at least in his capacity as "shadow" Financial Secretary to the Treasury, whether, in his opinion—I appreciate that the decision is not his—Amendments designed to propose increases in the Exchequer contribution up to the amounts laid down in the existing Act will come within the terms of the Money Resolution.

When we look at the main proposal of the Bill—the extension of time—our complaints are fairly clear. They are twofold. Our first complaint is that in so far as the problem of derequisitioning has been solved at all under the existing Act, it has been solved at a terrible price, a price which the House never intended to be paid and which never should have been paid.

The second point is that to secure something like a solution of the problem, the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor have bluffed the councils into carrying out a policy in which most people did not believe without any regard to the cost at which that policy would be carried out. They have bluffed and bullied the councils into carrying it out. They have treated them up to the very last moment as if they would be faced with the appalling situation of having large numbers of licensees as trespassers in requisitioned property.

In spite of all the deputations which have been to see him, in spite of all the pressure which has been put upon him, only at the last moment has the right hon. Gentleman come forward with the Bill. For anyone who stands in the position that he does in relation to the local authorities, the position of their confidential adviser, of the Minister in whom they expect to be able to have confidence and trust, I think that it is a shocking way to treat them.

I want to come to what I think is the gross misrepresentation which was made in order to get the 1955 Bill through the House in the first place. I think that there are two things which everybody agrees with about requisitioning. The first is that requisitioning was essential to solve the desperate post-war problem, and, secondly, that in the long run requisitioning is expensive and is and has been a very great burden on the Exchequer. I do not think that anybody would deny that. I think that undoubtedly there is a difference of interest, a conflict of interest, between the local authorities, which valued requisitioned properties which they were using for housing, and the Treasury which was paying 100 per cent. grant on them. I do not think that that was disputed when the Bill of 1955 was discussed.

What was disputed was the timing of the Bill and the length of time which was to be allowed for the operation. It was said that the effect of the Bill, if it was to solve the problem at all, would be that its solution would be done at the expense of the general waiting list. That was the point which was made again and again on Second Reading and also in Committee on the Bill. On that, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys), now Minister for Aviation, really could not have been more definite and specific than he was in dealing with that criticism.

This is what the right hon. Gentleman said, and I quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT of the proceedings in Standing Committee: It is quite incorrect for hon. Members to suggest that the Bill will result in lengthening housing lists. The hon. Member for Clapham and others said that if we proceeded with this and did not extend the period for another five years, housing lists would be longer in 1960 than they are now. I assume that he meant that would be so, because people now living in requisitioned houses would be given priority in the allocation of new council houses. Because I recognise the problem which confronts local authorities, particularly in the Greater London area, I have been very careful in any remarks I have made not to put any additional pressure upon them to allocate more council houses than they are doing at the moment. There are authorities which might be able to allocate an increased number of new council houses for the rehousing of families who are now living in requisitioned houses. MR. BUTLER: Where? MR. KEY: Which are they? MR. LEWIS: Name them. MR. SANDYS: Might I finish? … Then he went on: I should like to make it quite clear that the Bill does not rest round the date of 1960. It does not rest upon the assumption that there will be any great increase in the allocation of new council houses for the purpose of rehousing the occupants of requisitioned dwellings. That is not the basis of the Bill. Therefore, all this talk about blocking slum clearance and lengthening the housing lists, and all these objections are entirely beside the point. They have no relevance to the Bill or to discussion of the date of 1960."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 3rd March. 1955; c. 43–4.] That is what the right hon. Gentleman said.

As soon as the Act was through pressure began on local authorities from the right hon. Gentleman's Department to get a move on in carrying out the Act, and nothing was ever said to the local authorities about the pledge given by the Minister that it was not to be done at the expense of the general waiting list and that it was not to be done at the expense of slum clearance.

I tried—and I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you will sympathise with me—to table a Question on this, because I knew what was going on behind the scenes, and I had considerable difficulty in finding a Question which would get past the Table, because the responsibility of allocating housing accommodation was a responsibility of the local authorities, and, therefore, to ask the Minister about it was out of order. Behind the scenes, of course, the Minister and his advisers, on the telephone, were putting all the pressure they could on the local authorities to use up their permanent new house building.

Eventually, I did manage to get one down, and on the general principle that one can always get into a supplementary what has been ruled out of order in the Question of which one has given notice, I asked, in the supplementary: When the Minister is considering these applications, will he make certain that no local authority is compelled to use for rehousing licensees new building which ought to be used for slum clearance and other purposes, and will he make sure that local authorities clearly understand his undertaking when the Bill was being considered that this would not happen? This is what the right hon. Gentleman, now the Minister of Aviation, replied: The hon. Gentleman, who took an active part in the debates on the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Bill, must know as well as I do that the Act provides a number of methods. It does not rely primarily upon new construction for winding up requisitioning."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th July, 1955; Vol. 544. c. 964.] All this afternoon we have been listening to speeches being made from this side of the House pointing out the price which has been paid in terms of the waiting list. If, in some cases, the waiting list today is not as high at it was, it is not because it should not be high: it is because the local authorities have closed the waiting list in desperation. It is not that people have been rehoused.

I was very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) took part in the debate, because she gave a reminder to us all, and particularly to me, a Lancashire Member, that this is not just a London problem but is a substantial problem in other parts of the country. The problem in London is more concentrated than it is anywhere else in the country. and the people who are mainly aware of the problem are bound to be on the whole people with experience of London conditions.

That is why, in all charity, I forgive the Parliamentary Secretary. I thought, when he had to get up and read out that brief, full of happy little pleasantries about how nice everybody had been and how well the problem had been tackled and how everything was going so smoothly, that if he were to compare that with what has really been happening in terms of human tragedy, he would have been ashamed of what he had to say. But I do not think that he knows. I do not imagine that he has had to face at first hand these problems. But other people have had to face them.

For instance, in Hampstead. Hampstead has not done so very well. Hampstead, according to the Minister's answer, has still 273 families in requisitioned property. Hampstead has not been able to get them rehoused. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Streatham has direct knowledge of what is going on at Wandsworth. That is probably why he was so insistent that we should not cut into the waiting list. Wandsworth has got 861 licensees in requisitioned properties. Lewisham has 612. I thought, as I listened today, what a speech Mr. Niall MacDermot would have made if he had been still in the House, what a devastating analysis he would have given us of the desperate situation there is in Lewisham at present.

Mr. H. Butler

What about the hon. Members for Lewisham?

Mr. MacColl

Unfortunately, we were not honoured by them.

I do not think that any Member needs to apologise for using constituency information and arguments on this subject, because it is when we have a general debate on broad, general principles that the right hon. Gentleman can get away with it, and it is when he is pinned down to individual cases that the complete hollowness and the real tragedy of his policy comes out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) cited some of the problems which have faced Paddington Borough Council, and I make no apology, as a member of that body, for dotting one or two of his "i's" and crossing one or two of his "t's." The situation in Paddington is an interesting one, because most of the requisitioning was done by a Labour council and all the derequisitioning has been done by a Conservative council, so that the policy carried out there is a policy of which the Minister must approve.

I thought that the hardest cut made against local authorities was made by the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield), who scolded them for not having been keen enough on derequisitioning. I thought that that was very hard indeed, because my criticism of local authorities, and I have made it on my own, is that they should have been much tougher with the Minister and should have refused to be bluffed. If they had said, "We shall not carry out a policy in breach of the pledges given by your predecessor" the right hon. Gentleman would not have been able to stand up to it and he would have had to bring in a Bill giving a further extension of time.

I should like to recall what happened in Paddington, which has a large waiting list. It is densely populated and heavily overcrowded, but a comparatively typical Metropolitan borough. After the Bill was passed, in 1956 in the first year before the right hon. Gentleman's Department got going, off the general waiting list Paddington rehoused 34 people. Those were all that were rehoused up to the middle of 1959. Since then a few have been rehoused. One could count them on the fingers of one's hand. No rehousing was done at all for general needs in the borough and that has been typical of other councils.

That point has been explained and deployed throughout this debate, but the position is worse because during that period the council built 296 permanent dwellings and used post-war flats for accommodating 313 licensees. In other words, not only was the council not taking people off the waiting list, but it was biting into the existing stock of postwar houses. It was using more postwar houses for accommodating licensees than it was replacing with its housing programme, and, as a result of the operation of requisitioning alone, 17 houses were lost on the transaction.

On top of all this, there are slum clearance and redevelopment schemes, and so on. The result of it all is—and this is typical of London—that following the Minister's policy and the Act which we are now discussing there has been within London practically no accommodation at all available for overcrowded families and for the young family, the people who have just got married. In other words, the people who have the impertinence to get married without the permission of the housing department of the borough council. As I said in a council debate, it seems to me that the only way in which one can carry out this policy is to have a kind of municipal chastity belt which would be applied to all the daughters of licensees and the key kept in the town clerk's safe. If one did that, one might be able to keep the needs of the licensees within the terms of the housing accommodation available.

The Bill must go through because the need for postponement of derequisitioning is desperate, but it is a shocking thing that the House should have been played with in the way it has. If the House had been told quite honestly and plainly in 1955—before the 1955 election it is worth pointing out—that the derequisitioning policy would stop all building for general housing needs and would stop the removal of people from the waiting list, the House would have had great reservation and reluctance in passing the Bill. But the House was given a positive and definite assurance from the Minister of the day that the Bill would not be used to make local authorities go beyond the accommodation they were already using for rehousing licensees.

The whole of this policy, of which the Parliamentary Secretary has been so proud, has been carried out regardless of the human suffering which it has been causing, regardless of the absolutely desperate housing situation which it has created in London, and in direct disregard and in breach of promises given again and again by the present Minister of Aviation. Therefore, although we shall pass the Bill, we do so, I hope, registering our disgust at the way the policy was carried out and our utter disrespect for the way in which the right hon. Gentleman has treated the local authorities.

7.5 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I have listened to every word of the debate, and, in so far as it has helped to bring home to people living in more comfortable parts of the country the acuteness of the housing shortage that still exists in parts of London and the severe overcrowding which is the curse of a large number of houses in multi-occupation, it will have done good. But there is no need to exaggerate the situation or to use extravagant language. I must warn the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) that if he thinks he will be able to persuade the British people that the Labour Government would have handled housing better he is eight years too late.

The difficulty we had here was to carry out the programme of derequisitioning when most of the problem was in the Greater London area, that being one of the big cities where the housing situation was most difficult. As hon. Members may know, out of 90,000 families who were still licensees in requisitioned property in 1955, no fewer than 75,000 were in the Greater London area. My quarrel with the Opposition in its criticism today is that it has shown far too little appreciation of what I would have said was the fundamental principle—that this wartime expedient of requisitioning should be brought to an end as soon as possible.

Hard words like "disgust" and "shame" have been uttered in the Chamber today, but I have not heard from the Opposition any practical indication of the steps that hon. and right hon. Members opposite would have taken in the last five years, except to leave requisitioning to drag on and on. I cannot really believe that that would have been their wish, and I do not suppose that they think that Parliament could have acquiesced in wartime devices such as requisitioning and rationing continuing indefinitely. Yet if they were not to continue, action had to be taken to end them, and the 1955 Act was an attempt to do that.

I am familiar enough with the problem, because in 1955 the borough of Hampstead, which I represent, had over 1,300 families in requisitioned property and I was still at that time a member of the borough council. I can say that that borough council has its plans made for complete derequisitioning before 31st March, in common with a great majority of other local authorities. We are legislating now for that handful of local authorities who did not look ahead sufficiently early—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] —and did not make their plans sufficiently quickly in order to fulfil by 31st March, 1960, the obligation placed upon them by Parliament.

Mr. MacColl

Surely those are the authorities who took the present Minister of Aviation at his word, because if one took him at his word and believed what he said one could not solve the problem in that time.

Mr. Brooke

I should like to deal with that point. My right lion. Friend the present Minister of Aviation said that derequisitioning could be completed by 31st March, 1960, and so it could have been. The evidence of that is that 98 per cent. of the dwellings then under requisitioning will have been released by 31st March, 1960. The argument of the Opposition is that somehow there was a barrier against coping with the last 2 per cent., and that it is the 2 per cent. which presents difficulties of a magnitude not comparable elsewhere.

Let us examine this point. I will take three Labour-controlled boroughs in London in order not to bring in any political argument. By 31st December last year the borough of Islington, two of whose representatives have spoken in this debate, had succeeded in derequisitioning 88 per cent. of all the dwellings they had under requisition at the time of the 1955 Act. The borough of Battersea is represented in this House by the two opposing political parties, but there is a large Labour majority on the council which had by that date derequisitioned 93 per cent. of all the dwellings it had under requisition in 1955.

I was called on to name those boroughs which would fail. I am reluctant to give a list because clearly there is an element of uncertainty here since there are still some weeks to go and a number of boroughs cannot yet be sure if they will have finished this work. However, it seems to me that 10 or 12 out of the large number which have requisitioned property may not succeed in wholly derequisitioning it by that date.

I will name one of them because the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), who opened the debate for the Opposition with a forceful speech, represents a borough which I should have thought would have no greater difficulties than Battersea and Islington. Certainly in 1955 it had a smaller number of dwellings under requisition. Yet by 31st December it had derequisitioned less than 60 per cent. of the total, as against 88 per cent. in Islington and 93 per cent. in Battersea. There must be some local explanation of this fact. It must relate somehow to the policy which the respective borough councils have carried on, and that is, of course, the truth. In the case of Fulham it has been largely because not until May, 1958, despite more than twelve months of pressure from my Department, did it even submit proposals for leasing or purchasing property which it was clear it would have to do.

Mr. A. Evans

Does it not occur to the right hon. Gentleman that, apart from policy, the type of property and other conditions may be quite different in one borough from what they are in another?

Mr. Brooke

Yes, the hon. Gentleman and I have both served on the London County Council and we are well aware of that. Certainly I will not underestimate the severity of the housing problems of Islington, even if the hon. Gentleman argues that they are less than those of Fulham.

The hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) also spoke in the debate. Deptford acted earlier than Fulham. It was in November, 1957, that Deptford submitted a plan, and in that month I authorised the borough council to lease or purchase up to 350 properties which it might need to complete its derequisitioning. So the borough council has had that authority for more than two years, and two years later it was exercised only to the point of acquiring eighteen. This must be due to some view that the Deptford Borough Council took, unlike the view taken by a number of other London and Greater London authorities, Socialist controlled as well as Conservative-controlled, who set themselves seriously to finish the job.

Sir L. Plummer

Has the Minister considered that there are not only geographical differences in London boroughs but also differences resulting from the age of the property? Deptford happens to be a borough which was one of the first to be developed at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the houses are totally inadequate and are of sub-standard quality. The Deptford Borough Council was loth to spend money on acquiring property which would not be in existence much longer.

Mr. Brooke

The Deptford Borough Council may have applied a higher standard in this matter, but I cannot help thinking that it was gambling on the Government taking action to defer the terminal date. That I was reluctant to do, though I have had most reluctantly to introduce this Bill in order to ensure that nobody shall be a trespasser and liable to eviction on 1st April.

The hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) intervened in our debate. If I may say so, I think it is a good thing that there was someone contributing who was not a London Member—

Mr. M. Stewart


Mr. Brooke

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I was not thinking of contributions from the Front Bench opposite. The Liverpool City Council started its task of derequisitioning slowly, but I believe it will be found by 31st March that I was right when I said on my visit to Liverpool last summer that, given one final and determined effort, it would finish the job. That remains to be seen, but I am prepared to test my statement in the light of after events.

Mrs. Braddock

The bombing created a very bad situation.

Mr. Brooke

I know there are problems. I said at the beginning of my speech that the task of derequisitioning has been particularly difficult because most of the requisitioned houses were in those towns which had been bombed or had otherwise suffered during the war and, therefore, it was one more burden piled on all the other burdens. Yet I submit to the House that something had to be done about it. We could not let requisitioning drift on indefinitely. This task could never be easy. It demanded determination if it was to be carried out, but the alternative was to let that wartime emergency measure continue endlessly.

In the three years I have been at the Ministry, by circulars, by speeches and by replies to a number of deputations I have received, I have sought to maintain the pressure on local authorities to fulfil the duty Parliament had laid upon them of completing the task of derequisitioning by 31st March. I sent out a circular in April, 1957. I sent out a further one in October, 1957. May I say that it was as long ago as October, 1957, that I made clear in the circular what would be the grant arrangements for authorities which were proposing to purchase or lease properties. So they have had more than two years. In that circular I also mentioned specifically the possible necessity of making compulsory purchase orders if it were not possible to complete the task of acquiring by agreement the property that was needed.

Finally, in March last year I sent out another circular indicating that only twelve months were left, that a number of local authorities had much to do, and I urged them—as I urged a little later in Liverpool—that they should make one final effort and finish the job.

A number of questions have been put to me about compulsory purchase orders. I am sorry that the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) is not in her place because she put a question at the end of the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. The answer to her question is that requisitioned houses which are included in a compulsory purchase order, on which a decision may not have been given by the Minister before 31st March, will be included in an Order under Clause 1 of this Bill.

In that last circular of March, 1959, I urged local authorities, if they thought it would be necessary to exercise powers of compulsory purchase, to make and submit those orders not later than July, 1959. That left eight months—none too long if there was a rush of orders. The fact is that almost every compulsory purchase order submitted to me, not by the end of July but by the end of October last, has now been settled. In fact, they have been confirmed in respect of, broadly, five out of six of all the houses contained in them.

We are now dealing as expeditiously as we possibly can with the compulsory purchase orders which local authorities chose to submit more than three months later than the date which, by circular, I asked them to do so. Ever since that first circular of mine went out I have been watching the position very carefully. I knew that it might be very tight at the end. I could not judge, and no one could judge, what individual authorities would do in the last year or so. As I have explained to the House, so much depended on the attitude and the degree of determination which individual authorities showed.

May I, in passing, answer a question put to me by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) about the 14,000 houses which have been acquired. The answer to his question is that approximately 12,000 of these were houses that were under requisition before, and the remaining 2,000 were non-requisitioned houses purchased in order to move licensees into them.

I said that I have had to watch the situation carefully. Had I held out last year expectations of an extension of time beyond March the determination of local authorities would have flagged, because it is a hard job, and anything which I had then said to lead them to think that the Government were going to give them a general extension beyond that date would, I tell the House, have resulted in not as many houses being derequisitioned by the end of 1959 as have actually been derequisitioned. I waited until it became quite clear that a few councils—a handful of councils—would not finish the job, and then I introduced this Bill to make sure that the pledge that my predecessor gave that nobody should be left either a trespasser or homeless would be fulfilled.

The details of the Bill will be gone into in Committee. There has been no serious criticism of the proposal to increase the rental compensation by 50 per cent., but the hon. Member for Widnes asked me to justify it further. The information we have is that the existing rental compensation is equivalent to 1⅓ times the gross value, and 50 per cent. will bring it up to something under twice gross value. I think that those people who have not been willing to accept licensees as statutory tenants should be treated a little less well than those who have cooperated by doing so.

The hon. Member for Fulham asked me about certain points on the Schedule, and he will agree that they were mainly Committee points, but the general explanation is that this is a small, tapering off problem that we are now tackling with this Bill. There is no case now for continuing to offer special inducement to owners to accept licensees as statutory tenants when they have had five years in which to accept them and have not responded.

I was also asked whether local authorities would have to justify each individual house of the 100 or 200 houses which they still held. Emphatically no. I have nothing of that kind in mind, though there may be marginal cases. In general, if there is a house that will not have been derequistioned by 31st March an order will be made to cover it for some time beyond that date. There will be exceptions, no doubt, and the power is here to make exceptions if there is a case of hardship. If it comes to light, for instance, that an owner had entered into a binding contract to sell with vacant possession on 31st March, there will be provision for that, and we shall be able to deal with all these things successfully.

I agree thoroughly with the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. H. Butler) about the need to give early guidance to local authorities. I will see to it, as far as I can, because this is a difficult task—the final tapering-off—which may be as difficult as any. Local authorities are entitled to as early guidance as possible, just as I want to see that all owners who are affected are informed by the local authorities that their houses may be retained and for how long they will be retained.

The main clash in Committee seems likely to be about the reduction of the grant from 75 to 25 per cent., and, in reply to questions asked by the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange and others, perhaps I may say that the Money Resolution is so drafted that Amendments can be freely moved to that figure in Committee. I must demur to the suggestion that local authorities had to adopt panic measures in this matter. I think the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) used that phrase, and it was true that the local authorities which did start in good time to fulfil their obligations had to tackle substantial difficulties and to do a variety of things which, but for the need to derequisition, they would never have wanted to do. It would be unfair if those authorities which worked so hard to fulfil the duty laid on them by Parliament were to find that those who had not made an equivalent effort and had not worked so hard to do that could now use the extra time they are gaining by this Bill on just the same financial terms as the rest. That is the case for the reduction.

Mr. Weitzman

How does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that a borough council could have avoided the purchase of old houses, involving a tremendous amount of money being spent on repairs, which in ordinary circumstances it would not have contemplated buying?

Mr. Brooke

I am addressing myself to the reduction in the grant. If a local authority had completed its purchase in good time, there is no reason why it should not get the full grant settled under the 1955 Act. This view has not been expressed in the debate today, but there are those who take the view that the Councils which have failed to complete derequisitioning by 31st March should get nothing by way of Exchequer grant thereafter. The Government have not taken that austere view, but every local authority that even now presses on and in the remaining weeks completes the job by 31st March will avoid suffering any reduction of the Exchequer grant. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said, those local authorities which will have finished derequisitioning by 31st March will have done well indeed. We have to provide only for the very small minority which may not just have finished, and it is to that purpose and that purpose alone that this Bill is directed.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).