HC Deb 19 April 1962 vol 658 cc769-98

3.37 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

It is fitting that before the House rises for the Easter Recess it should discuss what many of us regard as the greatest social crime in our society, the blackest spot on our civilisation. I would say that the housing shortage, of which the evictions and the homeless are the symptoms, is the cause of the greatest unhappiness, of ill-health, of nervous strain, and of the breaking-up of families and is a large contribution to the problem of juvenile delinquency which we have just been discussing.

The overcrowded conditions of so many of our people bring frustration—particularly among the younger folk who are shot out into the streets if they are to have any opportunity of expression—to such an extent as to be a real factor in the increase of crime. In opening this debate I am thinking particularly of young married people with no oppor- tunity to obtain a house and often having to live in crowded conditions with their "in-laws" with the strain upon their nervous systems which that causes.

I should like to see a census taken of the subjects which are raised by correspondence and in political "surgeries" with Members of Parliament. I am quite sure that if such an examination were made it would be found that Members of Parliament received more letters on the subject of housing than upon any other single subject. I have made a careful analysis of the individual cases which have been brought to me while I have been the Member for Eton and Slough during the last twelve years. Two thousand of those individual cases referred to housing. Two out of five of the persons who have approached me about their difficulties have been faced with this problem.

That is really quite extraordinary when one thinks of the broad issues that are raised in this way—old-age pensions, widows' pensions, injury and sickness benefits, national insurance, and the problems of military service. That has been my experience and, I am perfectly confident, the experience of many hon. Members.

Hon. Members representing London constituencies have already raised, with admirable vigour, the conditions of thousands of homeless who are now in the Metropolitan area. I am opening this debate because I want to emphasise that this is not only a problem in London. Many constituencies outside London have the same problem. I would not disagree that perhaps there are particular reasons in the case of Slough. It is an expanding industrial town in my constituency. It is comparatively prosperous and workers pour in, but when they pour in there is no accommodation for them.

I have forwarded to the Minister a document about 24 eviction cases within a period of one month, which were submitted to the tenancy committee of my borough council. I propose to cite only four of those cases because of limited time. There is the case of an aged widow and daughter. They lived in a three-bedroom house. They received notice to quit under the Rent Act. So obsessed with worry was the old lady that she had a nervous breakdown. She had the alternative of being cared for by a daughter-in-law or entering a mental hospital. She has been placed under the care of the daughter-in-law. But her son and his wife now have the additional worry that, in housing them, they dare not allow their landlord to know because they have no permission to house their own mother. She lives in an attic. The toilet is on the ground floor. The council has no accommodation for her and is unable to act.

The second case is that of a man of 64 who is still working. His wife is 67, and has recently had a major operation and has had to give up work. They have a son of 36 who is mentally retarded and under the supervision of the county welfare department, which considers that he will never be able to work again. That man has had notice to quit under the Rent Act. The council can say only, "When accommodation is available, we will try to find some for you."

The third case concerns a man of 56 and his wife of 57, who have been tenants of their house for twenty-seven years. During that time they have probably paid in rent as much as the house cost to build originally. They are given notice to quit under the Rent Act and asked to buy "he house for £3,150. Their combined savings would not amount to the deposit on the house, nor could they afford the weekly instalments necessary for purchasing the house when the man is 56 years old.

My fourth instance concerns a service tenancy of a man with a wife, a daughter of twenty, and sons of 22 and 16. The elder son is in the Army. The man has been evicted because he has ceased to be employed by the farm in whose tied cottage he has lived. The man now sleeps in one house, the daughter has to sleep in another house and the wife and son are left to occupy a wooden hut 12 ft. by 9 ft.

So I could go on through the 24 cases occurring in my constituency within a month. They are stated in a formal and factual way. I am not ashamed to say that I found it difficult to go on reading them as I passed from one case to another and understood the human suffering which they represented. What happens to these families which are separated, the man dossing down with friends in one house, the woman taking refuge with friends in another house and the children taken from their parents and placed in the residential centres of the Buckinghamshire County Council? This is an intolerable cruelty which our Parliament, our Government and our public opinion ought no longer to accept.

I have had correspondence with the Minister of Housing and Local Government about how far the Rent Act is responsible for these cases. I care very little what is the single cause of these conditions—it is the conditions themselves that I want to end—but the Rent Act has been a major factor because it has destroyed the security of tenure and increased rents and the cost of housing so that tenants cannot meet the demands of their landlords which lead to their eviction.

Even the service tenancies are a reflection of the Rent Act. I am old enough to remember the historic campaign in our Labour movement against the tied cottages on farms. Service tenancies have been extended far beyond that today. To secure their managers, multiple firms opening shops in expanding towns must provide them with accommodation. They then become service tenants, and they or any other employees of the firm who lose their jobs are immediately given notice to quit. That necessity to provide accommodation by private companies—a bribe for the job—is largely the result of the Rent Act and the fact that it has made security of tenure ineffective and has so sent up rents and the price of houses that employees seeking these jobs are prepared to take service tenancies.

I admit that the evicted and homeless are only a symptom of the housing shortage, but I charge the Government with having made far more difficult the obligation of local councils to provide the housing which the people in their areas need. They have made it more difficult by their financial restrictions, the high rates of interest for housing loans and by the precipitous increases in the cost of land in recent years.

The Government may say that house building has increased. It has, but private building has not satisfied the needs of those whose needs are the greatest. I can give an instance of this in Slough. We have private houses going up and the largest private building company in this area states that 90 per cent. of the privately sold houses are being occupied by people who have neither lived nor worked in Slough. The houses were advertised for sale in the national Press and the people living in them commute to and from London. They also come from the North because they want to live in the South and the wretched overcrowded people of Slough have not been relieved by the private houses that have been built, many of which, anyway, they could never afford to buy.

This leads me to an extremely important issue. The housing shortage is dangerously increasing the racial feeling in this country. My constituency of Slough contains a number of West Indians, Indians and Pakistani workers who are employed in the expanding industries. There is nowhere for them to live, so what is the result? Often a Pakistani will buy a house at an exorbitant cost on a short lease and then let it to coloured people at appalling rents. Overcrowding inevitably results and, arising from those conditions, disquiet, ill feeling and racial prejudice develops.

This is one of the most deplorable developments taking place in our community and the Ministry of Housing bears a heavy responsibility for it by its failure to deal with the problem. To solve this problem is the greatest task of any Government. All our progress, our affluent society, television, motor cars, the achievements of science, the conquest of space and the millions of pounds expended on nuclear destruction have failed to assure the right of our people to a home. This right is a priority, no less than employment, health, education and security for old age. The provision of a house for every family and security within it should be regarded as a social service incumbent upon the community. There is a deep gulf, a deep gap, in our Welfare State until that need is met.

I plead, without much hope, to the Government, but I hope that before long we will have a Government which will fulfil this need.

3.55 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

This week I received a letter from one of my constituents who said: I am writing to you in the hope that you can do something to help me. I have been on the housing list for some years now and I am so badly in need of a home for my wife and daughter that I would take any kind of flat and do any building or decorating that would be needed. I have to be out of here soon before the end of the year. I do not want to be homeless. I read that because it is typical of the letters which I receive. My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) said that two out of every five letters which he received dealt with housing. I find that nearly four out of every five letters which I receive deal with housing.

Tonight at six o'clock I will be in my constituency holding my "surgery" which will go on for two and a half hours. During that time there will be a constant stream of young and old and middle-aged people coming to see me, as a last resort, and saying, "Please can you help us to get a house; please can you find somewhere where we can live; please will you do something to prevent us from being evicted?" This is a human problem which becomes an absolute nightmare for a London Member.

I do not find that my life is happy because I live in a comfortable house warm and in no danger of being evicted, when I know that over hundreds of my constituents there always hangs the fear either that they will not be able to find a place to live, or that they will be turned out of the place in which they are now living. All we get from the Government is complacency. Listening to Government spokesmen talking about housing one would not believe that there were Deptford citizens facing the possibility of being turned out into the streets.

I read this morning that one of the reasons for some of the Liberal successes is that young married couples in fairly high income groups are disgusted with the Government's housing policy. But it is the people in the low income groups who are disgusted with the Government's housing policy. Young people come to me and say that they want to get married—and in some cases it is absolutely essential that they get married—and they have nowhere to live. I tell them to go to the L.C.C.'s surveyors who are extremely helpful and who will advance them a considerable mortgage on their own valuation of what they want to buy. They ask, "Where will you buy a property in Deptford and how much will we have to put down?" When I say that they will have to put down £200 or £300 they say, "Chum, we have been wasting your time. We do not have £200 or £300." It is a property-less democracy which exists in our Metropolitan boroughs, and particularly in mine.

Over and over again I find young couples whose marriages are busting up. Nothing will break up a marriage more quickly than the sharing of a cooker with another family, and that is what so many young couples are having to do. They move in with "Mum" and rows start and they get nervous attacks and so it goes on piling up, misery upon misery upon misery, with broken marriages, broken homes and all the ghastly consequences.

The Government do not seem to understand this. They point to the increased figures of houses built for sale. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to break his conventions and read the current issue of the very important magazine, Universities and Left Review, which contains one of the best analyses of the housing situation which I have ever seen, analysing the growth of houses for sale in this country. Where are they? They are in Henley, in Orpington, and in places where land is available and where people have the necessary incomes. It is not possible to go to Islington, to Willesden or to Deptford and find a site on which to build a house. It just is not on.

Between the wars Dr. McGonnigle was the Medical Office of Health at Stockton. He wrote a book "The Stockton Experiment", and I wish that the Parliamentary Secretary would read it, because in some parts of the country we are approaching the conditions set out by Dr. McGonnigle. He pointed out that the local authority in Stockton had built a new model housing estate, influenced no doubt by the benign interest of the Prime Minister who was then the Member for that constituency. It was discovered that the people living on this model housing estate were suffering a higher infantile and maternal mortality rate than the people in the slum areas from which they had come. Was this due to the drains? Was it perhaps due to the soil? Was there some constitutional reason for it? Not at all. The reason was that rents were too high, and that people were having to pay out so much for rents that they were unable to eat adequately. They were suffering from malnutrition because of the high rents.

I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that this state of affairs is being repeated in some parts of the country today. People earning £10 to £12 a week are having to pay £6 to £7 a week for two furnished rooms. They have to go without the necessities of life. They are not able to lead decent lives, and to tell these people that the housing problem has been solved, or that we are on the verge of solving it, is absolute nonsense. I wish that the Minister would pay attention to the problems that exist in dormitory suburbs such as the one that I have the honour to represent, because I am sure that if he saw what was happening he would alter his views considerably.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough dealt with the racial problem. Many of us have experience of it. I experience a good deal of it in my constituency because we have an untold number of West Indians who are buying houses in the area for fantastic prices and then letting rooms at equally fantastic prices. I should like to see price control put back on some of these houses. These fellows go to usurers and borrow money at 10, 12 or 15 per cent. to buy ramshackle and rotten property which would have been pulled down by the council had it been possible to provide alterative accommodation at rents which people could afford to pay.

The position is so bad that as one West Indian gets out of bed and goes to work another comes off the night shift and occupies the bed that has just been vacated. The beds are never cold. This is a most insanitary state of affairs. I am, however, prepared to put up with a certain amount of insanitation, but I am not prepared to put up with the racial feeling and real bitterness which is being engendered by the housing shortage in my constituency as a result of the Government's fiscal policy and high interest rates which make it extremely difficult for the council to build houses to let at rents which people can afford. The introduction of the Rent Act has brought untold misery to the ordinary people of this country, and almost countless wealth to the landowners who have the support of the Tory Party.

During the next few weeks the Government will be on trial not only in the Parliamentary constituencies but in the municipal elections. This will be one of the issues, and I know what will happen. The Government will get one of the biggest pastings that they have ever had, but even this will not make any difference to them. They will go on with their callous neglect of the housing needs of the poorer sections of the community in the interests of the property-owning class.

4.5 p.m.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) on raising this subject during this series of Adjournment debates. He said that in his correspondence, and in his visits to constituents, at least two out of every five cases he had to deal with concerned housing. My experience is much closer to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer). At least four out of every five visits that I am paid by my constituents in my "surgeries" on Monday nights are connected with housing, and the "me proportion applies in the case of my correspondence.

Having spent ten years on the housing committee of a local authority—Acton—on the west side of London before entering the House, I thought that I knew something about housing problems. The housing situation in Acton is bad enough, but I realised, as soon as I moved and became the Parliamentary representative for North Islington, that what I had thought to be a bad situation in Acton was nothing like so terrible as it is in north London, and especially in Islington. The population of that borough has fallen by 60,000 in the last sixty years, but the housing situation there today is unbelievable. What it must have been like at the beginning of the century I dare not think. At that stage it must have been very much worse than it is now, but even today, in the middle of the 20th century, I say without hesitation that the housing conditions of a large proportion—probably the majority—of my constituents, are an absolute disgrace to the United Kingdom.

The problem falls into many different sections. There is the terrible problem of gross overcrowding, with families forced to live in one or two rooms, even though there may be three, four or five children. In many oases these people have been on the council's housing list and on the London County Council's housing list for 10, 12 or even 13 years, because the London County Council has to carry out other important work such as school building, and a whole range of other projects. Despite the terrible circumstances in which people to whom I have referred are living they are not so bad as the conditions of other people, to whom the London County Council must give priority. The Borough of Islington was forced to close its housing list five years ago, because it has absolutely no land on which to build. In effect, it can deal only with relets as existing property becomes vacant, and with a very small number of units of accommodation on sites in the area.

A new factor has arisen in the problem of overcrowding in the last twelve months, owing to the provisions of the Rent Act, 1957. As a landlord obtains possession of part of a house, that part becomes decontrolled, and he can let it at whatever rent he can get. What actually happens is that a landlord obtains possession of one floor, which he lets on a monthly tenancy. It may be merely two rooms and a little box-room, called a kitchen, plus a toilet which has to be shared with two or three other families. The landlord may let that floor to a husband with a wife and children at £3 or more—usually more—per week. He then sits back and waits until another floor becomes vacant, or perhaps the remainder of the house. Under the Rent Act he is then permitted to give notice to the decontrolled tenants, and he does so with the sole intention of selling the whole house with vacant possession.

When the Rent Act was passed we were assured that it would make more property available for letting. That has not happened in my constituency. Landlords are still selling their property as fast as they can obtain vacant possession of a large enough proportion of it to be assured of a good capital profit at the present high prices. Decontrolled property is beginning to build up in my constituency. People who, twelve months or two years ago, thought themselves fortunate to be able to get two or three unfurnished rooms at £4 or £5 a week are now receiving notice to quit, so that their landlords can sell the property with vacant possession. All that they can do is to take the matter to court, secure in the knowledge that the judge may be able to give them a few months' grace, to try to find somewhere else, before they have to double up with a relative or with friends or go into accommodation provided by the L.C.C. for homeless persons.

As for furnished property, I am amazed at some of the fantastic rents families in my constituency pay. Ordinary families, with the husbands earning £13, £14 or £15 a week, with a wife and two or three children, are somehow or another finding £6 or £7 a week for two furnished rooms. Even then they are given notice because the landlord finds that by letting the two rooms separately to two families instead of to one family he can make another £1 a week out of them. These people come and see me. They have already seen the advice bureau, the local authority and the poor man's lawyer and they are at their wits' end to know what to do.

There is also the problem of basements which ought to be closed and which are unfit for human habitation. Local authorities would like to put closing orders on these basements, but because they have no alternative accommodation to offer the people who would be dispossessed if they did so, these basements are still being used years after they ought to have been closed. The medical officer of health and everyone else considers these basements quite unfit for human habitation, but the local authorities can deal with only a limited number of them every year. Because there is no legal obligation on the councils to rehouse people living in basements this limits the opportunity.

Then there is the problem of immigration. When I talk of immigration in this context I mean anyone who comes into my constituency from anywhere else in the world. That is the immigration position so far as I am concerned. People are moving into my constituency from the West Indies, Hackney, St. Pancras, Birmingham, Scotland, Ireland and everywhere else. This pushes up the price of the available accommodation in the area. These people are attracted by the large number of jobs available in the London area. I do not think that the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill will make the least difference to the problem because it is based on immigrants from the Commonwealth having jobs to come to, and there will always be jobs for them in London. Therefore, the Bill will not slow down the number of people coming into my constituency from the West Indies or anywhere else.

I do not think that there is any colour prejudice as such in my constituency, but I must utter the warning that if the number of people coming in from overseas keeps increasing and if these people continue taking the scarce housing accommodation when the people born there are living in overcrowded conditions, a great deal of resentment will be built up which, in due course, will develop into a colour prejudice. It will then take many years to eradicate that prejudice from London or from anywhere else.

It is easy enough for most people to purchase a television set or a secondhand car on hire purchase, but it is still almost impossible for the vast number of my constituents to purchase a house or flat, even if it is available at a reasonable price, because while they are paying the present inflated rents they cannot save the £300, £400, £500 or £600 required as a deposit. The main thing that must be done, although I will not labour it at the moment because one does not expect the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with that matter today, is to get cheaper rates of interest. However, there are other things at which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to look.

We are running into a position where the new town programme is gradually coming to an end. I am reluctantly convinced that my own constituency can solve its housing problem only if several thousands are moved out of the area in order to make better housing accommodation available for those who remain. This can be done only by an expansion of the new towns scheme and by greater action on the part of the Government in securing the expansion of other towns outside the Greater London area. As far as I can see, this is the only way in which the housing problem in my constituency can be solved, and I earnestly hope that we shall see action taken in this direction by the Minister.

I would commend to the House the suggestion of the Bow Group to have new towns about a hundred miles from London. That is primarily concerned with trying to overcome the overcrowding in the London area. I would also ask the Parliamentary Secretary to look at the question of the assistance which can be given to people by local authorities to purchase accommodation. The Labour Party suggested some five years ago that local authorities should give 100 per cent. mortages, and about twelve months later the Government introduced legislation to enable that to be done. But at the moment local authorities have considerable difficulty in raising capital for their own needs.

We are told that it is Government policy to encourage owner-occupation. The facilities provided by the Public Works Loan Board are not to be available to local authorities for normal capital requirements, and I suggest to the Minister that if the Government wish to see an expansion of owner-occupation the tap of the Public Works Loan Board should be at the disposal of local authorities who wish to give mortgages of up to 90 per cent. under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act and other legislation. If the financial problems of the local authorities in carrying out this work could be eased we might have a much more generous approach from local authorities to the provision of assistance to people who wish to purchase their own housing accommodation.

I hope that the Minister will take further action and will try to draw the attention of local authorities to something which many local authorities seem to have forgotten, and that is that they have the power to take cases before rent tribunals where they consider that excessive rents are being charged for furnished accommodation. In many cases it is almost impossible for the tenant concerned to go to a rent tribunal, because he knows that as soon as he does so, or perhaps a month or two later, he will be evicted from the accommodation. There is always someone else only too pleased to pay rent at a similar level in order to secure the accommodation. I should like the Government to inform local authorities that they expect them to use the powers which they possess to bring these cases before rent tribunals so that the onus for doing so does not rest on the tenant and he cannot be affected.

I should like to say a great deal more on this subject, but I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. In my constituency the housing problem is the greatest problem confronting the local authority. In my view nationally it is greater than most problems affecting the country. To a greater extent efforts being made and money being spent on the provision of new schools and new social services of one kind or another will be wasted unless we can make provision for the better accommodation of the people.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) for delivering his speech so quickly, because it has left a little time in which I am able to speak. What has been said by my hon. Friend and by my hon. Friend the Member for Dept-ford (Sir L. Plummer) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway)—to whom we are all grateful for raising this matter—will find an echo in the heart of every hon. Member Who represents a constituency like mine in Middlesex, or, indeed, any hon. Member who has a similar problem in his constituency. Today we are speaking not only for ourselves, but for those hon. Members who sit opposite, and who are not present today, but who have similar problems in their constituencies.

I am extremely sorry that the Minister of Housing and Local Government is not present. I have been hammering at the right hon. Gentleman ever since he took office, trying to convey to him the urgency of some of these problems. I have found myself, as it were, up against a solid brick wall. The previous Minister has been referred to as one of the toughest Ministers in the Government. Yet my constant stream of letters received replies which, although they never gave much help, at least revealed an understanding of the situation. In spite of the fact that the same problems seem to be increasing week after week the replies I get from the present Minister show no understanding at all. I should like to confirm the figures mentioned by previous speakers of constituencies approached as being four out of five rather than two out of five.

When I put these questions to the Minister the answers which I get become more and more "dusty". If this debate does nothing else I hope that it will enable the Minister to show some understanding of the terriffic pressure under which hon. Members labour. In my own constituency there are eight families under notice at this moment and the local authority has not yet been able to provide other accommodation for them. Until 4th April the number of evictions under the Rent Act and rehoused by the Willesden Borough Council amounted to 105. The last figure available—it is six months old now—is that £156,000 has been spent by my Council in rehousing these families, mostly in old properties that have had to be bought to give a roof over their heads.

It is absolutely unfair to the rest of the community that the provisions of the Rent Act should operate in this way. It means that the local authority has an undue burden to bear. It means that ratepayers have to foot the Bill and it means that many members of the community live with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads and others in decontrolled houses never knowing when the axe of eviction will fall.

One aspect of unfairness to which I draw the attention of the Minister is the fact that, because a house is decontrolled the owner can immediately give notice of eviction and that ranks as vacant possession, but the local authority, when it seeks to buy that house, must pay the price fixed by the district valuer. This is the vacant possesion price. Because a family is already in the house, the local authority receives the house with the family and it adds nothing to its available property. It pays vacant possession price for an occupied house.

I wish to bring two cases to the attention of the Minister. As so many other hon. Members have done, I have previously raised cases of broken families. Now I wish to raise two cases affecting old people. I have a letter from Miss Olive Springall, which says: I am writing to ask you if you would help me as my landlord is taking me to court on 30th of the month. Could you help me?… He wants to get us out. My sister and me have been in this house for 40 years. Will you come and see me? I went to see her and found that she was over 70 and living with her sister of about the same age who was an assistant in the meals service. They are facing this problem over Easter, with nowhere to go, and the council cannot help them. It is a sad case for which the council has no remedy.

Another typical case is that of a man who has pride and will never ask for help from anyone. Never before has he been to the Citizens Advice Bureau or any organisations like that. George Wyers, 72, lost his right arm in the First World War. He is proud to have brought up a family and in spite of the fact that he has no right arm has never been a burden on the community. He reached the stage in 1957 when living with his wife who is aged 70 and the family having now left home his house became decontrolled.

Under the Landlord and Tenant (Temporary Provisions) Act he found another place with a three year lease, but the lease expired and he has been given notice to quit. He came to see me one Friday night, in tears, and asked what he could do. He went before the court and got a three months stay and then a two month stay. Why should that man whose family has now grown up and with families of their own, suddenly at 72 years of age become a burden on the community and have to come cap in hand to his Member of Parliament to ask for help?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough said, this kind of case can be multiplied time and again. This section of the community comprises people who have been hit most by the Rent Act. It is a form of legalised blackmail. First, they are given a three years' lease, which takes them to the extent they can possibly afford. They say that somehow they will manage, but when that lease expires they are offered a further one year's lease and the rent is raised still further. As under any form of blackmail they are living under a constant threat. Because of shortage of accommodation and the need for accommodation they have to pay what the landlord demands knowing that each year the ante will be raised.

Then there is the human problem, which is not one of overcrowding, where there are two rooms lived in by a husband and wife with only two children, a boy of 13 and a girl of 15. The "kitchen" is a stove on the landing and they have to use a bathroom downstairs. The man says that his married life is being broken up because nothing can be done about the problem of children of opposite sex in a small family living in two rooms. I ask the Minister to do something in those cases.

In my area there are 2,900 people on the housing list, 550 slums to be cleared, 397 war-time "prefabs" to be cleared and 191 statutorily overcrowded people seeking fresh accommodation. In those circumstances we are more than grateful that we are able, even during these last minutes before adjourning for Easter, to raise this matter with the Minister with a view to seeing whether something might be done about this problem.

The urgent need is to restore security. A family must be able to live under its own roof and get its roots down. It is also extremely necessary that councils should again be provided with cash in order to make the 95 per cent. or 100 per cent. mortgage available again; in my area we have had to stop offering such mortgages ever since we had a 7 per cent. Bank Rate, because the Council has been unable to raise the necessary funds. Above all, we want the Minister to take heed of the deep feeling there is on this side of the House that family life is far more important than landlords' profit.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Michael Cliffe (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

What my hon. Friends have so far said could be repeated by every London Member in the House, because I cannot imagine that conditions in some parts of London can be very different from those in others. Even in such places as Maida Vale, Westminster and Holborn it is possible, without looking very far, to find people who are affected in the manner that has been described, and my constituency is in very much the same position as most of the Metropolitan areas. What has been said today, has been said before, and we shall probably have to say it again and again.

It is often said that we seek some political propaganda advantage by making these statements, but the Government themselves must know by now that they are true. They must have seen some of the things that have taken place in London. They must know of the torchlight parade, in which some hundreds of homeless people took part on what was probably one of the coldest nights of the year. There was nothing political in that; those people were in desperate need of accommodation. Despite all the efforts of the London County Council, there are still homeless families in the Metropolis.

It has been said that hostility is growing against the coloured people because of the accommodation they occupy in areas of housing shortage, but I can truly say that although, to some extent, people are critical when they see the coloured immigrants there, a measure of common sense prevails.

People feel particularly badly when they see families whom they have known, families that have lived in the same borough, and in the same accommodation, for thirty, forty or even fifty years, suddenly made homeless because of the rateable value of the property. One lady, who had worked at the Mount Pleasant Post Office, who had been decorated, and who had said that no one would drive her out of London during the bombing, was, in fact, driven out as a result of the Government's policy. That is one of the tragic cases.

It is damnable that any Government, knowing that people are desperately in need of homes, should so legislate as to give the landlords the right, merely on the basis of rateable value, to evict their tenants and then advertise the property as being for sale with vacant possession. That, to me, is almost criminal. The local authorities, and particularly the London County Council, were blamed for not acting more quickly on behalf of some of the homeless in the recent debate, and it was the Minister of Housing and Local Government himself who said that the L.C.C. could rehouse many of these families, because it had the powers to do so. What nonsense. When people have been for ten or twelve years on a housing list, thinking that they would be rehoused, because they had been left homeless as a result of legislation passed by this Government, which gave the landlords the right to turn them out, can we imagine what a local authority could do when faced with a situation like that? The L.C.C, I know, was doing every thing it possibly could do with its limited resources.

One of the things that is very much resented is that it is necessary sometimes to take the children away from the parents and put them in lodgings in other places. The parents found that while they were having to provide money for the care of the children by the L.C.C, they were also having to pay £3, £4 or even £5 for furnished rooms for themselves, and, therefore, could not save any money for a house and so bring themselves together again as a family.

To relieve some of the serious pressure that exists at present, it is absolutely necessary, from a purely humanitarian point of view, to restore security of tenure, and not operate on the principle of the rateable value. Secondly, I think that powers must be given immediately—and I hope that the Government will seriously consider this—to enable local authorities to acquire certain properties. There are houses in central London in which there are thousands of people who have been on the waiting lists for years, where there is no land for development, and where the rate of rehousing is about ten families a year, and yet, in some areas, for instance, City Road and other places, there are houses, with eight, nine and even ten rooms, which are to let with vacant possession. It is high time that powers of requisitioning were given to local authorities to deal with this kind of situation. They should be able to make financial arrangements to acquire some of these properties, and thus relieve some of the existing pressure.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I spoke recently to a young married man who is in regular employment and earning a good wage. He was married after the Rent Act was passed, and so, when he got his accommodation, it was a decontrolled tenancy from the start. He was a good tenant; it was not a low rent, but was within his means. He was saving in the hope of one day becoming the owner of a house. Then, his first child was born, and he was immediately told, "Out you go. We do not want any children here."

This man had to live in furnished rooms, at the kind of rent which has been described by some of my hon. Friends, and this has eaten up his savings. He is still in good, regular work, and if he could get over the initial problem of buying a house, he would be able to complete the mortgage payments. A year or two ago, he had the money which he would have had to put down as a deposit, but now that has gone into the pockets of the landlord of the furnished rooms, who was empowered to take it from him by the Rent Act which the present Government passed.

This man was placed in that position because he was turned out of his home for having the impudence to have a child, and the fact that he could be so put out is solely due to the operation of the Rent Act. Now, he is on the edge of homelessness all the time, and may well end up in a hostel.

I have the case of another young man who is paying rent for rooms on the ground floor of a house at about five times the gross value of the premises. Up above are an elderly couple who have been there for years and whose rent is still controlled, but, of course, at the maximum which the Rent Act allows. He has a year's agreement, about half of which is gone.

The house is in a shocking state, but, very prudently, he has never been to the sanitary inspector himself because he hoped that he would get his agreement renewed when the time ran out. He has spent a great deal of time, trouble and money on keeping the house in proper condition. Now he is asked to buy the house for three times what it could conceivably be worth in any valuation. When he protested at the price, he was told, "Look at the old couple upstairs. They will not last another five years and when they are dead you will be able to rent their rooms for £4 10s. a week." That young man said to me, "How could I do a thing like that? I know what it feels like paying £3 10s. for what I have. How could I treat someone else in like manner?" He will be put out.

That is the jungle in which people are living in in a great many areas today. My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), to whom we are greatly indebted for this debate, quoted a number of different causes which can put people in the position where they are looking for accommodation.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

It is happening all over the country.

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough stressed that this was not only a London problem. But the Minister, with that flippant pedantry which characterises his handling of the problem, is careful to say, "These cases did not arise because of the Rent Act, but because of another reason." Will the Government get it into their heads that, while it is always liable to happen anywhere that certain numbers of people will have to leave their homes—that is a chance of life which cannot always be avoided—the question is: why is it that the people to whom that happens cannot find accommodation at rents which they could reasonably be expected to pay? Even if they can find it they have no security of tenure.

The reason, as we all very well know, is the Rent Act, which has created the position of the two young men which I have just described. They stand on the edge of being pushed into a hostel in a few months' time. It is the position of thousands of people. That is the nature of the problem we are discussing. There are things that local authorities can do to deal with it. If I mention the L.C.C. now, it is not because I am under any illusions that this is merely a London problem but because the L.C.C. has had it on the biggest scale and has shown what a local authority can do.

From the benches opposite has often come the suggestion—although those benches are significantly empty now—that the L.C.C. has not tackled this matter in good time. Let us look at the facts. The L.C.C. knew very well that, while this problem had been serious for some years, there was one thing which would create a crisis and that was the expiry in 1961 of the Landlord and Tenant (Furniture and Fittings) Act. 1959.

The Government were warned that that would happen from these benches. They were urged to extend the Act and the limited measure of security which it gave to some tenants. They refused to do so and, therefore, a crisis of home-lessness burst on us in the autumn of 1961.

Fortunately, the L.C.C. was ready, otherwise we should have had people homeless in the most literal sense of walking the street with no roof to put themselves under at night. It is worth while taking note of some of the measures adopted by the L.C.C. There was the extension of hostel accommodation, like that at Morning Lane, which was in time for the crisis. There has been modernisation of old buildings such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish).

There is a constant process of the encouraging of tenants living in premises too large for them to make transfers accounting for about 8,000 families a year. There is the diligent purchase wherever possible of empty properties. All this has been going on. No doubt, any local authority, according to the size of its resources, can do this sort of thing, though it is an expensive business and by no means easy to do.

What local authorities, or some of them, are faced with today is this. In the situation which the Government have allowed to grow up they are being asked to turn this service of providing for the families, which ought really to be an emergency welfare service for the homeless, into a sort of additional housing service. Frankly, they cannot do that with fairness to the people who are already on their housing lists and who have been waiting for some considerable time.

What sort of things might the Government do in this matter? We cannot advocate legislation in a debate on the Adjournment, though if the Government have not grasped by now what we think they ought to do with the Rent Act I do not know whether they ever will grasp it. Here, at any rate, are certain administrative measures. One remedy that local authorities can apply if a landlord is unreasonably threatening eviction and demanding an unreasonable rent is that of purchasing the property and, if necessary, applying for a compulsory purchase order. The Minister can begin to look at this rather differently.

A few months ago I was drawing the right hon. Gentleman's attention to one case where he had refused a compulsory purchase order, although the landlord was asking for a rent four-and-a-half times the gross value, which, the Minister said, he did not think was exorbitant. The Government ought to be urging local authorities to use their compulsory purchase powers and to see that tenants are as fully informed as possible of what their legal rights in this housing jungle are. When I asked the Minister to circularise local authorities, urging them to inform tenants of their rights under the Housing Act, 1961, he would not do it. He thought that possibly the citizens' advice bureaux might help. We want a much more positive attitude to this sort of thing from the Minister.

The Minister can make it a bit easier for local authorities to give help to intending house purchasers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) suggested. That means making it possible for local authorities to borrow money at lower rates of interest than they can at present. I beg the Joint Parliamentary Secretary not to produce the usual answer to that suggestion. We know that one by heart. The Government will say, "We will not do that because it would mean sheltering housing from the economic strains of the country." I see from his expression that the Parliamentary Secretary remembers it. He ought to. He has repeated it often enough.

What does it mean? When the Government say that we cannot have a specially favourable rate of interest to help solve the housing problem, what they are saying is that providing people like those we have been talking about this afternoon—many of them solid, respectable citizens and good tenants—with a home is no more important than any kind of building in the country—any office or any petrol station—no more important than any venture in the economic field, however trivial and luxurious. That is what the Government's doctrine on interest rates means—that housing is no more important than any other of these things.

The other thing that the Government must do is to step up the rate of council house building. When, two or more years ago, I first began to speak from this Box on housing matters I drew the attention of the then Minister to the alarming decline in council house building. The Minister said, "Oh, but the hon. Member will notice that it has gone up in the last quarter." It had—infinitesimally. We are now entitled to ask what is the Government's policy on council house building, which was down 10 per cent. in 1961 compared with 1960. Do the Government think that that is moving in the right direction? I beg them not to tell us that this problem could be solved if we had a differential rents schemes.

Some of the stories of eviction come from Harrow, a solid Conservative borough. This is the policy that hon. Members opposite would like. If the Conservative Party thinks that such a policy has solved the problem, why are there no Conservative Members here today to tell us how it has worked in Conservative-dominated localities? We all know that in Greater London, and all over the country, that sort of thing is a triviality. We must have a greater rate of council house building.

Lastly, we must plan the location of industry and ensure that the Metropolis and certain other centres in the country cease to be magnets, making the housing problem insoluble. Again, that is something which we have told the Government time and again. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary's hon. Friends are not here and a representative from the Liberal Party is not here, but a number of my hon. Friends are here and the hon. Gentleman is here, not as a volunteer, but as a conscript. Let us hear what he has to say about this matter.

4.47 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

I assure the House that I am a willing conscript on this occasion. I assure the House too that my right hon. Friend well understands the difficulties which face many hon. Members, particularly in the London area, in dealing with the problems which their constituents bring to them. No one can doubt that home-lessness, whether it arises from eviction or from any other cause, is a social problem of the greatest importance which must be tackled with sympathy and vigour by the responsible authorities.

I agree with the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) about the ways in which housing and welfare authorities could and should be dealing with these matters. But I do not think it helps to refuse to look at the problem objectively. It is no good just reiterating the old political arguments about the Rent Act, 1957. The hon. Member for Fulham repeats them every time he speaks. All problems, whether they concern furnished accommodation, or accommodation which has nothing to do with the Rent Act, are all, according to the hon. Member, due to the Rent Act. If I may turn round the observation which the hon. Gentleman made about my right hon. Friend, I am afraid that sometimes the hon. Gentleman expresses flippant thoughts in a pedantic way.

I think that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) looked at the matter in the right way when he said that we may argue about the reasons for evictions, but what we must really face is the problem. That is what we should be concerned with this afternoon. We have analysed very carefully the 24 cases to which the hon. Gentleman directed my right hon. Friend's attention. Four of them concerned service tenancies, which have always been outside the Rent Act. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) referred to tied cottages, which have existed for a very long time. They are very necessary in many cases. Even before the Rent Act, 1957, it was not easy for people to take jobs and rent houses in London. If the Rent Act has not made the position much easier, it certainly has not made it worse. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways.

In two of the other cases to which the hon. Member for Eton and Slough referred, the tenants had moved in since the 1957 Act. In another case, the tenant, apparently, had had a row with his father-in-law. One family, which admittedly was badly housed, was not in danger of eviction. Three people had made other arrangements, and in another case there was a dispute over the payment of rent.

The fact that the London County Council has thought it necessary to initiate an inquiry into the causes of homelessness shows that it is, perhaps, not wise to be too dogmatic about the causes of this problem.

It is right that the whole problem of homelessness should be seen in perspective against the considerable housing progress that has been made in recent years, both by public authorities and by private enterprise. In the London area since the war, 427,000 new units of accommodation have been provided, 299,000 by the local authorities and 128,000 by private enterprise.

As, however, the hon. Member for Islington, North said, we cannot look merely at the provision of housing accommodation in the London area. Because London is such a magnet and people are getting married younger and are looking for separate accommodation at a much earlier age and we have rising standards in a more prosperous society, we know that we cannot meet the housing problem of all the people of London within the county or Greater London area. Therefore, it is important that we go ahead with new and expanded towns.

In the new towns, 68,000 new houses have been completed, most of them for Londoners. Under town development, at the end of 1961 there were 10,200 houses completed, 3,000 under construction and another 48,000 in schemes agreed. It is fair to say that considerable progress is still being made with town development. The London County Council deserves congratulations for the way it has dealt with this matter.

In Slough, in the constituency of the hon. Member who initiated this debate, the population has increased by about 14,000 in the last ten years. The hon. Member recognises that this has created a special problem. There has been growth in the trading estate and Slough is particularly well situated for commuting to London. Therefore, in spite of the fact that a great deal has been achieved in the building of new housing in Slough—3,720 local authority houses and 2,740 private enterprise houses—there still remains this continuing heavy pressure, Although the council now has 6,000 houses, it is still unable to cope quickly with all the problems that come before it. What the hon. Member for Eton and Slough said about racial feeling being increased by the shortage of houses shows, as the hon. Member for Islington, North said, how immigration from any quarter adds to these difficulties.

Slough provides a fair example of the nature of the problem that we have to face. As far as we can ascertain, 127 cases of threatened eviction have come before the courts since 1st January, 1961. Not all of these threatened evictions actually materialised. As far as the council is aware, 40 orders for possession were obtained during that period, not by any means all of them due to the Rent Act. The council itself has obtained eviction orders from time to time. No doubt it would be severely abused for this by the hon. Member for Fulham. The council itself has rehoused 31 families against whom court orders were obtained. It has made no representations to us about difficulties arising from the rehousing of evicted families.

Where a housing authority cannot immediately help, it is, as the hon. Member for Fulham pointed out, the responsibility of the welfare authority to provide temporary accommodation. At the end of 1961, Bucks County Council as welfare authority for the county was providing such accommodation for 33 persons, including 19 children. At the end of March, 1962, the number was down to 21, including 13 children, and including only two families who had been evicted. Both of these evictions were due to loss of service tenancies. These figures of persons provided with temporary accommodation relate not only to Slough, but to the whole county. No one would deny that in London the problem is more difficult.

Although the number of families in temporary accommodation under the auspices of the London County Council as both welfare and housing authority has risen, many of these stay only a relatively short time. Some find their own accommodation, some return to their own homes and some are rehoused by the council itself. A similar problem, although smaller in extent, exists in Middlesex, Kent, Essex and Surrey and in some other parts of the country as well. In none of these cases has the problem gone beyond the capacity of the welfare authority to deal with it.

The hon. Member for Fulham said that representatives of the London County Council came to see my right hon. Friend. They got some advice about the action they could take. He said that they were doing that already. I do not know how far that may be so, but certainly we indicated to them the action which any local authority which has these powers can and should take. It should look, if necessary, to the purchase of empty houses. It should, perhaps, consider the use of a larger proportion of its relets for this purpose, though I recognise the difficulty the local authority has in giving priority to these people over those who have been on its waiting list, as the hon. Member pointed out.

Sir L. Plummer

That was exactly what my borough council had to do. When the Government insisted on all requisitioned properties being returned to the owners, my council had to take people off the waiting list.

Mr. Rippon

I am quite sure that is right. I am also sure that it is far better that this property should be purchased than that it should be returned to requisitioning.

Another thing we have to do is ensure that temporary and short-stay accommodation is provided. My right hon. Friend told London County Council that he would entertain compulsory purchase orders for vacant premises if necessary. None has so far been made, but we know that the Council has purchased a number of existing properties.

Another thing he said was that he thought that the Council had not done all it could to make better use of vacant sites for providing temporary dwellings. A hundred have now been purchased and the first families have now been installed.

We in the Ministry recognise that we have got to be careful about urging local authorities to provide all this additional accommodation for the homeless. It might be possible to create a situation in which families turned up on the council's doorstep declaring themselves to be homeless and thus hoping to jump the queue over families who have been patiently on the waiting list and whose cases are, perhaps, more deserving. In certain cases, however, there may be need for more co-operation between housing authorities and welfare authorities in dealing with those evicted families who have a particularly good claim on their attention.

There are a number of other ways in which the matter can be dealt with on the long-term basis. We can give encouragement to families in council houses to move out to the new and expanded towns. We certainly should have wider use of differential rent schemes and loans for house purchase, because we want to give encouragement to the better-off council tenants to make their own arrangements and so house themselves. Many of these terribly bad cases referred to by hon. Members on both sides of the House are of the sort of people who ought to be in council house property, while some of those who are there already are in a position to make their own arrangements.

As far as house purchase is concerned, the amounts advanced by local authorities have risen very sharply indeed over the last few years. It is inevitable and right, I think, that councils which are housing authorities and also welfare authorities should be concerned particularly with families who are evicted or homeless for any reason. They should be concerned with old people or with larger families who have a particularly difficult problem. They ought to be trying all the time to make better use of their accommodation and trying to encourage people to move out of accommodation they no longer need—accommodation, perhaps, too large for their requirements now. This would allow more of the larger families who represent a particularly difficult problem to be allowed to move in.

I am quite sure it is not sensible to base consideration of this question on the Rent Act. We ought to bear in mind that one real difficulty is that rents were so distorted that accommodation has unnecessarily deteriorated in places like Islington over the last forty years. Our attention is naturally concentrated on the position of those who moved out, but we should also consider the position of those who move in, taking care to strike a fair balance. Before the Rent Act it was impossible—

It being Five o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, till Tuesday, 1st May, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 12th April.