HC Deb 27 January 1960 vol 616 cc172-5

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable local authorities to issue a closing order nisi in respect of houses which are not reasonably fit for human habitation and which have become vacant by the re-housing of the occupants. In the course of my researches I have not been able to find out who was the distinguished and thoughtful personality who pointed out that there are more ways of killing a cat than by stuffing it with cream. The Irish have, unfortunately, made this discovery in connection with horses, and it applies with greater force to Public Bills introduced by private Members.

The methods of killing or cessation of life are many and various. If it is an important Measure of high principle it may be accorded the benefit of being executed at this stage, rather on the ground that those who have to share the ignominy of voting against it may share it equally. On the other hand, it may be quietly throttled in Committee. We all know it can survive that process only by the limited number of Beta rays imported by the beneficence of the Minister.

I am in the happy position of asking leave to introduce a Bill to which the Minister himself, doubtless because it was December, gave a wintry smile. He said that he had no objection to the Measure, but that he did not think there was any need for it, and that it hardly merited the trouble and difficulty of the statutory process. I feel, therefore, that I perhaps ought to thank someone yesterday for the fact that, in relation to another Measure, I was spared all the difficulty of constant nursing on Fridays, with the provision of oxygen tents, which so rarely enable a Measure to survive. I am hoping that on this occasion I shall be able to introduce the Measure without undue difficulty and that the House will appreciate the difficulty under which I labour. In view of the fact that there has been this slight demonstration of friendliness from the other side, I must speak with excessive caution and delicacy.

I say at once that I greatly respect this honourable House and its decisions. As a neo-democrat I abide by the decision of the Whips. I believe that this House is now a more truly representative microcosm of modern society than ever before. It represents all classes of society. We have very many able men on both sides of the house—mostly below the Gangway. The House may be called truly representative, and I heartily abide by its decisions.

In view of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I took the opportunity of seeking some information about the welcome that might be accorded to this Measure. What is proposes is not new legislation; it is merely an amending Measure. I am not much in favour of legislation. I venture to suggest that if we repealed every Statute that has been passed, with the exception of Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and about 15 major Measures passed by the Labour Government of 1945, it would clear the way to sensible reform.

All I suggest is that we should embody in the most recent Housing Act a simple procedure whereby we could postpone until after the next meeting of the appropriate local authority the consideration of rehousing where there is reason to think that an alteration should be made in the Housing Act, for purposes of reconstruction, repair or closing, or for some action to be taken. That is my proposal.

I was greatly heartened when the Rural Councils Association wrote to me, quite unsolicited, and said that it cordially welcomed the Measure. Then, greatly daring but rather reckless, I sought the opinion of other bodies, who have not been so approving. No one disapproves of my proposed Measure, but no one gives it a hearty welcome. I suggest that it is worth considering. I intimated that, if I got leave to introduce the Bill, I proposed to set it down for Second Reading on Friday, 4th March, which would give me an opportunity of considering it further with the Minister and of having his view.

What we have to consider in this connection is not merely what is the right measure of the need now, but whether that need is likely to increase in the Future. Here I have to speak with excessive delicacy because, as I say, I do not want to raise any opposition in this rather uncontroversial atmosphere. I have no desire to introduce into this mausoleum of calm any air or breath of controversy. But there are nuances, as Mr. Gladstone said. There is a difference of approach.

If I may, I will take what is, I think, a very non-controversial example from today's newspaper, and say to the House that we do look at things in different ways. I can understand and sympathise with the desire of the former Colonial Secretary to ascertain whether a cannibal had eaten his uncle Benjamin. For my part, I should like to know the physical and political effect of that rich diet upon the cannibal. In the same way, we have a different approach to many questions.

Will there be more need for rehousing and for closing orders in the future? I can well understand the thesis that building houses increases accommodation and provides a source of change. Nevertheless, it is a fact, of course, that building a large house at Bournemouth does not provide additional accommodation for Oldham.

The Minister went to Oldham and I think he came back convinced that Oldham has a problem. Oldham is a town in which there is a great deal of tolerance, co-operation and understanding between different classes of people. Landlords have been found by the corporation to be co-operative and agents willing to play. But, in particular, the corporation found one large firm of agents which never co-operates, which gives rise to difficulties. In winter time when people who are seriously ill have to be rehoused in a hurry, the situation can be difficult. Unless it is possible to hold up matters for a week or two a house will be relet to another family in circumstances in which the corporation has to rehouse them, too.

The very great increase in the cost of housing in the last eight years has rendered the problems of the local authorities much more difficult, and I think that it is also the fact that the somewhat streptococcic nature of the Bank Rate chart—with "Thorneycroftians" cheering at one end and "Heathcoat Amoryans" at the other—does add an air of uncertainty to rents of houses and housing costs. It makes the position a little more insecure. Although I appreciate the political force of having a system in which we can say that one step is taken to prevent an uptrend and another is taken to secure a good one, and cheer ourselves either way, it does add grave uncertainty to the situation of housing authorities. I therefore suggest that this humble Measure ought not to be strangled at birth or executed formally on the Floor of this Chamber, but that it should be allowed to go to a Standing Committee and receive a little further consideration.

The Bill may well be very helpful in dealing with a comparatively small number of very serious cases. It may be useful to amend the Act and enable those local authority officials who have to take decisions in a hurry, and in difficult circumstances, to provide for further and more careful consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Leslie Hale, Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr. Fernyhough, Mr. Harold Lever, and Mr. Paget.