HL Deb 16 July 1885 vol 299 cc889-97

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said: The Bill, of which I have now the honour of moving the second reading, I do not present to your Lordships as a Member of the Royal Commission, although it is a Bill which has been drawn up with the unanimous consent of the Members of that Commission, and in concert with its Chairman (Sir Charles W. Dilke). The composition of that Commission was one ranging over a large field of political opinion; and it is, no doubt, a surprise to those parties who look at the names and the Report that the Commission came to any conclusion at all. I think, however, the Commission have made a very considerable number of very important recommendations, and the result is very largely due to the tact and conciliation with which the deliberations of the Commission were conducted by the Chairman. Of course, anybody reading this Bill must read it with the knowledge that it is, to a certain extent, a compromise. Various Members of the Commission, no doubt, would have liked to go further, each in his own direction; but perhaps they occupied ground that was all the safer and sounder, because they had had to agree with one another in regard to the provisions of this measure. No one need expect to find that it contains any magic formula which will cure all the evils of which this House and the public have heard a great deal, and there is nothing startling, sensational, or extreme in its provisions. We are hoping to cure those evils by slow and gradual steps, by the application of remedies apparently not far-reaching in their character, but still judiciously directed to the precise difficulties which arose in each department of our inquiry. There is, as I have said, therefore, nothing sensational or extreme in the measure which we recommend your Lordships to accept. I will just go through the various portions of the Bill, only saying that it must not be considered to be the whole outcome of the deliberations of the Commission, for there are some very much larger and more difficult questions behind, which the circumstances of the Session do not permit of our dealing with now, but which I hope will be dealt with at some future time. The evils which this Commission was appointed to remedy consisted of two very distinct branches, which must not be confused, but must be kept apart by anybody who will apply the remedies rightly, but which there is a great tendency in the public mind to confuse. There are evils of a strictly sanitary character—namely, those evils which arise out of material causes, the bad structure of the houses, bad drainage, insufficiency of water, and so forth; and the evils which arise from overcrowding, due to the excess of population in one particular place. These evils are different in their nature, different in the remedies which it is requisite should be applied to them, and different, above all, in respect to the hope with which we can look for their speedy cure with the prospects of remedy which we have before as. The sanitary evils—and this is the result of our investigation—although they exist, are in process of fairly rapid cure. In truth, if the law, as it exists, was fully carried out, these evils would hardly remain. Our task has principally been to suggest alterations that would secure a more ample and rapid execution of the law; and we believe if that can be done the sanitary evils will altogether disappear. But the most cheering point with respect to them is this—that with the increase of civilization and with the progress of the community these sanitary evils tend to vanish altogether, and they essentially differ in this respect from the evils of overcrowding. The more our prosperity increases the more sanitary evils will vanish; but the more our prosperity increases, the more there is the danger that unless remedial measures are taken the evils of overcrowding will also increase. The sanitary part of the measure consists of a number of details which we cannot well discuss without the Public Health Act in our hands; but, in the first place, it may be said that we give the Sanitary Authorities power to put into effect bye-laws all over the country, giving them the right of supervision as to tenement houses. At present, I think, there is only power in the Metropolis, and there only power where the Local Government Board give their previous authority. The Sanitary Authorities, by this Bill, receive power to bring these bye-laws into effect at once. They are bye-laws which permit the proper inspection and supervision over tenement houses— that is, over houses in which numbers of rooms or floors are inhabited by several distinct families, and where, therefore, there is great danger of sanitary evil arising. The next point that we deal with in respect to that subject is an alteration of the Artizans' Dwellings Act. Under that Act, the Local Authority has power to clear these places, popularly called "slums," and substitute better buildings. But the Local Authority is not always inclined to do its duty in that respect, the expense being very considerable, and local interests of a formidable character having often to be met. This Bill gives power to the Local Government Board, where the officer reports that the premises are unfit for human habitation, to authorize the Local Authority to put in force the provisions of the Act, and then it becomes the duty of the Local Authority to comply with the order for the removal of the premises. Then there is another provision which will tend largely to increase the health of the Metropolis, and, in fact, of all houses in large towns. Anyone who has had a house built is acquainted with the speculative builders or the builders who are not speculative. They have a habit—I do not know under what part of their business it comes, perhaps from some uninstructed workmen —but they have a habit of conducting all the drains into the centre of the kitchen and leaving them there. If anything occurs in the house it is said—"It cannot be the drains, because it is a new house." The children die; typhoid fever has done its work, and then it is found that all the mischief has sprung from preventible disease. At present, under the law, a man who lets a furnished house is compelled to enter into a contract that the house is healthy; but, by a curious peculiarity of the law, that does not extend to an unfurnished house. By the provisions of this Bill that anomaly will be removed and the evil will be met. Any person building a house and letting it, and not taking proper and reasonable precautions that it shall be healthy, will be held to have broken the contract, and will be held liable, just as the Railway Company is, for the illness or death of any person living in it, so far as it is due to his own negligence. I believe that will be a provision of considerable value, which will put a stop to the somewhat reckless disposal of unfurnished houses, from which so many lamentable evils have arisen. I need not tell your Lordships of the evil in this end of the town; but it is ten-fold worse in the small houses, which are run up in the suburbs at a cheap rate, and the building of which has often been exceedingly disgraceful. No one who has examined into the matter can doubt that there is a great deal of scamped work, which has greatly increased the death-rate. I look to this clause more than to any other to diminish the death-rate that is caused by insanitary dwellings. But we must not imagine that it is anything we can do in this House, or in the House of Commons, that will remove all these evils. It must be done by that stirring up of public opinion which these investigations cause; it is to this that we must look for any real reform; it must be from the people themselves, from the owners, builders, and occupiers, when their attention is drawn to the enormous evils which past negligence has caused— it is from them that the cure of the sanitary evils which have so largely increased the death rate must come. I think we should be deceiving ourselves if we imagined that any impulse would be sufficient to cure an evil so widely spread. But with regard to overcrowding there is something more we can do. In the main, the worst features of overcrowding are to be found in the Metropolis, where the chief difficulty lies in the enormous distance which the circumference lies from the centre. In other places it is possible to meet it by building cottages on the outskirts of the town; but that cannot be done in London, because of the distance being so great. We must, therefore, find some mode of stimulating the provision of houses in places where the workpeople have their work to do, or in the immediate neighbourhood thereof. We propose to give facilities in the Bill for using certain open spaces, which have been cleared in the Metropolis and elsewhere — for instance, the sites of prisons in the Metropolis — which, in consequence of recent legislation, have ceased to be necessary. The recent alteration of our prison-house legislation has made it expedient that many of the old buildings shall cease to be used for the purpose for which they were intended and to which they are now applied. It is proposed with reference to Millbank Penitentiary, Coldbath Fields, and Pentonville Prisons, that the sites shall be sold to the Metropolitan Board of Works at prices which will enable the Board to let them out, either to Trusts like the Peabody, or other similar Companies, under, of course, proper restrictions that they shall be applied, and solely, to the purpose of erecting dwellings for the working classes. I cannot help hoping that in connection with that provision some effort may be made to obtain working-class dwellings that shall be, while still healthy and useful, somewhat cheaper in their construction than those which the Peabody Trustees have erected. I believe that the Peabody buildings have done an enormous amount of good; but they have not struck at the lowest and most necessitous class. They are built on a scale that renders necessary a rent higher than that class can pay. The people must be housed; and we must make an effort to see if we cannot, without disregarding the laws of health, produce buildings sufficient to house them, without asking a rent which is beyond their means to pay. As far as we have gone at present I do not think that the problem has been sufficiently approached. I believe it is possible to grapple with it, and do more in the way of cheap buildings than we have done. I hope that the Metropolitan Board of Works in dealing with these sites, if it shall please Parliament to place them in a position to do so, will make a serious and earnest effort to see that that great difficulty is more completely removed than it is now. Another change which we propose with respect to London is a change dealing with private and corporate property. Your Lordships are aware that very commonly in settlements it is provided that land shall only be leased at the best price that can be had. The result of that is that though the tenant for life may be perfectly willing to let the land for building working - class dwellings upon, and though it is for the public interest that he should do so, and every man living may desire that he should do so, yet he is forbidden by this provision to let the land for such purpose. Of course, it is more profitable to let the land for the purpose of large and rich buildings, shops, or private houses, than it is for poorer class houses. At all events, that is the case in many parts of the town. There are large properties in this part of the town which are bound up in that way; and I believe that if some legislation of this kind were introduced we should find a great deal more land set free. We do not, of course, wish to do anything contrary to the wishes of the owners; but we want to give liberty to use land for working-class dwellings in towns just as a man is at liberty now to use his land in the country for farmhouses and cottages, without considering whether it is the most profitable purpose for which the land could be used. I think your Lordships will feel that no injury is done to any interest by conferring powers upon town owners of providing for the wants of the population similar to those which already exist in the country. There is a curious peculiarity in the Settled Land Act, which enables trust money, or the money belonging to Corporations, to be expended in erecting buildings for the country population. It enables farmhouses and cottages to be built out of the money belonging to the trust or Corporation; but the Settled Land Act stops short, and gives no such facility for building these working-class dwellings in towns. I do not understand on what basis this exception is made. I was anxious that some such clause should be introduced into the Settled Land Act while it was passing through this House; but it was thought better that the Act should pass without the introduction of matter which would lead to unnecessary conflict. I hope, now that it is recommended by the Royal Commission, it will commend itself to your Lordships. There is only one other provision of importance to which 'it is necessary I should draw your Lordships' attention. It may be that, after all these facilities are given, cases will occur in which room cannot be provided for the population. These cases occur principally in places where industries have suddenly sprung up, and where a large population has suddenly gathered together, and where there is no local capital to come forward in order to supply the necessary accommodation. I may illustrate what I mean by the case of the town of Camborne, in Cornwall, which occupies a considerable place in the evidence taken by the Commission. In that case, there were local difficulties which prevented the proprietors from selling the land, and there was no one who was willing to build. The consequence was there was most frightful overcrowding, accompanied by great misery, for which no possible remedy could be found. I do not think that in these cases there should be an exceptional remedy; but it so happens that we have, on the Statute Book, a law designed to meet cases of this kind, which is, perhaps, not so wholly applicable as it might be. The noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Argyll) made use of a striking observation the other night, that the history of social movements in this country was very nearly the history of the life of my noble Friend (Lord Shaftesbury). I believe that is a very true representation of the facts. Among-the measures which my noble Friend, in his long and active life, was the means of passing, was one for increasing the number of lodging-houses in places where congestion of the population had taken place. He passed it in 1851, first through the House of Commons, and afterwards, owing to the death of his father, it was his singular fortune to pass it through the House of Lords. But it does not fulfil the expectations which he entertained of it, owing to certain technical difficulties that have arisen. We propose to use that Act with a little more freedom, for the purpose of meeting such exceptional cases as I have referred to. The Act of my noble Friend enables a parish or Local Authority to build lodging-houses in cases where the necessity has arisen. The Act is safeguarded by a number of provisions, requiring certain majorities to be obtained. The result of these precautions is, that the Act does not work at all. We prefer to apply it in another way in requiring no special majority of the population, but providing that an examination shall take place by the Local Government Board; and if the Inspector reports these two things—first, that the accommodation is wanted, and is not likely to be obtained in any other way; and, secondly, that the parish may provide it without any risk to the ratepayers—without imprudence as regards the ratepayers—then the Local Government Board may issue the necessary authority to enable the work to be carried out. At the same time, to clear up certain legal doubts as to whether my noble Friend's Act, and the Acts founded upon it, apply to separate tenements as well as to lodging-houses, the Bill provides that it shall be applicable to cottages as well as lodging-houses. My impression is that it is applicable to the building of cottages at the present time; but we have introduced a Proviso to clear up any doubt on that point, and also to give power, in suitable localities, for the provision of not more than half-an-acre of garden ground for each cottage, the annual value of such garden not to exceed £1. Where such provision is made by the Local Authority it is, of course, desirable that it should not take the form of long rows of buildings; but, as far as possible, they should erect cottages separated by gardens. It may not be possible to apply this provision in many cases; but I think the carrying of it out will have a double effect; it may relieve cases of great congestion such as those to which I have referred, and it may, by its very existence, operate as an incentive to those who have the power to build cottages, to do so without bringing the Act into operation. I have now gone through all the principal provisions of this Bill, and your Lordships will perceive that there is nothing in it of a very large or sweeping character, yet I am not without hope that, if adopted by Parliament, it will exercise considerable influence over the happiness of those whose lot in life is difficult and who have many sorrows and troubles in store for them. I feel that the condition of the lowest and poorest of the working classes in the most crowded parts of the community is one which, more than any other, deserves attention both outside and in both Houses of Parliament; because it is by the character of the English race, and the nature of those produced from generation to generation that you carry on the traditions of the country, fill its armies, perform its public services, and maintain its prosperity, and uphold its ancient reputation; and their fitness for this electing must depend upon the physical causes which attend their birth and nurture. Among those physical causes none is more powerful, or more prominent, than the condition of the houses in which they and their parents dwell, and therefore there is none that deserves more earnest, careful, unflagging, and yet circumspect, attention both of the philanthropist and the statesman.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2ª "—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2ª accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Monday next.