HL Deb 25 July 1890 vol 347 cc857-64

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, it is not my intention to take up very much of their Lordships' time in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, because the subject must be quite familiar to all your Lordships. In order to show what the necessity for this Bill is it may be useful, perhaps, just shortly to touch upon the history of the legislation upon this subject. Many years ago the late Lord Shaftesbury, who was the pioneer in this branch of legislation, succeeded in passing the Labouring Classes Dwellings Act, under which not much was done for a long period. More recently, in 1868, the late Mr. Torrens brought forward a measure to enable Vestries and District Boards to deal with healthy houses in their different localities, the provisions of which have been recently very strongly put in force, to the great advantage of the country and of the Metropolis itself. It was my duty in 1875 to re-consider this question. The former Acts, both Mr. Torrens's and Lord Shaftesbury's, only applied to small localities and to individual houses. Shortly before 1875 I had had an opportunity of seeing what had been done in the City of Glasgow, and I was very much struck with the Act which they had there, and which enabled them to deal not simply with individual houses, but with large unhealthy areas; and coming back to London, and finding that such areas existing very extensively in this country I introduced the Act of 1875, which eventually became law, and which enabled the Metropolitan Board of Works to take possession of large areas, if they were found to be in a certain condition, for the purpose of pulling down houses which were unfit for human habitation, and of building suitable working class dwellings upon their sites. At the time that measure was, I remember, described in two words by a noble friend of mine as "communism and confiscation." I certainly am not in the least ashamed of that Act, nor do I think it deserved the character which those two words attributed to it, because its object was to get rid of those unhealthy areas covered with insanitary houses, incourts, and alleys, which by reason of the want of light, air, ventilation, proper conveniences, or from other causes were unfit for human habitation, and where fevers and diseases were constantly generated, causing loss of health not only to the inhabitants of the courts and alleys themselves, but also to the other parts of the cities or boroughs in which they were found. There was another fact which pressed very strongly upon me and the Government of the day at the time; and that was, that it was not in the power of owners or of occupiers who lived in those courts and alleys to remedy the defects existing, because there were so many owners and so many people concerned that it was absolutely not in the power of any them acting individually to put matters straight. The result was, that that Act was passed, and all those Acts have been considerably amended from time to time. It was found necessary to pass another Act in 1879 in order to defeat the mischievous practice which had grown up among the owners of those unhealthy, insanitary houses. The moment they found they were scheduled, and that the matter was coming before Parliament, they immediately put them in the best repair they could, not for the purpose of making them more healthy, but for the purpose of extracting larger compensation from the public than they would otherwise have been able to get. A Committee of the House of Commons sat in 1881–2, of which I happened to be Chairman, which re-considered those Acts, and further Amendments were made; and the House will remember that later on, in 1885, a Royal Commission sat to consider the whole subject, upon which His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales sat as a member and took the greatest interest in its proceedings. That was done at the instance of my noble Friend the present Prime Minister. The result has been that there have been a great number of Acts passed; and we think the time has come when those Acts ought to be consolidated, so that they may be made intelligible to the ordinary reader, who will not be obliged to hunt up a dozen Acts of Parliament in order to find out what the law is upon the subject, but that the law shall be placed in one single plain Act of Parliament. Perhaps, before I point out a few Amendments which have been made in the law and allude to the Bill at present lying on your Lordships' Table, I might be allowed, as a matter of interest, to state a few figures to show what has been done under the Act at present existing, because they have been by no means allowed to lie dormant. A great deal has been done under a great many of them. I will take Mr. Torrens's Act first. There was a Return moved for last year, 1889, to show how much had been done under this Act; and be it remembered that this Act of Mr. Torrens related to such houses as were dangerous to health so as to be unfit for human habitation. That was a very good description of them; and when we look at the number of houses which have been put in order, we find they amount to no less than 1,633. So that, as far as one can see, these Acts of Mr. Torrens's have done very good work, when we find there were 1,633 houses dealt with under them which were absolutely unfit for human habitation at the time they were taken in hand by the Local Authorities. Under the Act which I had the honour of passing afterwards a good deal has been done also. This measure, as I have stated, embraced large areas, and no less than 23 areas in London have been dealt with under these Acts. The persons displaced numbered 28,850, and the persons who can be rehoused on the ground which has been re-built upon number 30,715. The areas dealt with by the Metropolitan Board—there have been one or two schemes since, but during the period that the Metropolitan Board was in existence the areas dealt with included over 4,000 houses, and, besides that, there were 16 acres of land also dealt with, but the uumber of houses on those 16 acres I am not acquainted with. Those figures show that those Acts have done a considerable amount of good. There is no doubt whatever that the proceedings under these Acts have been taken at a considerable cost to the ratepayers. The net cost, I believe, of the 22 schemes which were passed by the Metropolitan Board of Works after the sale of the land which they were obliged to take has amounted to very nearly £1,500,000. But you have had 30,000 people properly housed for that money, and you have done a great deal more than that—you have stamped out the sources of fever and disease which were polluting many parts of this Metropolis, both in Westminster and in East London, in almost every one of the large districts which were the sources of disease, and from which disease spread into other parts of the City to the enormous disadvantage and danger of the inhabitants. I should not like to weary your Lordships with any lengthened extracts to show the effect of what has been done by taking these large areas; but perhaps your Lordships will allow me to read a few short sentences from one of the Reports which have been made to me by several Medical Officers of Health. I do not propose to refer to them all, though I have them all here. I am now going to read from the Report made to me the other day by the Medical Officer of Health for the St. Giles's district. Tour Lordships probably know well that St. Giles's district was one of the most unhealthy places in the whole of London. I will take one block which was dealt with, called Great Wild Street, and the adjoining streets and courts in the neighbourhood of Drury Lane. The condition of that area when taken in hand by the authorities is thus described by the Medical Officer— When I inspected the houses in this area in 1875 the squalor of the neighbourhood was plainly visible. The courts and passages were very narrow and close together; the houses built back to back with very small yards, and in many no yards at all; consequently, the sanitary arrangements were in the basement or under the stairs; the ventilation was most defective, and rendered the air impure and noxious. The Report states that the death rate, which, of course, is one of the greatest tests of the health of a district, was between 50 and 60 per 1,000, being double the rate for the whole of the St. Giles's district. That is an enormous death rate to exist in any portion of any City.— The infantile mortality was very great. It was a veritable fever den, for typhus, the most malignant and fatal form of fever, was scarcely ever absent from the locality. As a proof of the improved condition of the health of the people in the buildings now erected on the same area, the death rate for 1889, instead of being between 50 and 60 per 1,000, fell to 17.7 per 1,000, and no case of typhus fever has been reported since the old houses were demolished. That is a result, at all events, worth attaining, and shows that yon must not measure the matter simply by the cost to the ratepayers of the removal of the old houses on such an area, and the building of new dwellings. The only other scheme to which I will call the attention of your Lordships is also in St. Giles's district, close to Drury Lane, the Shelton Street area. The Report states that— If anything, the houses in this neighbourhood were more faulty and worn out than those described in the two other areas; the rooms, passages, staircases, were small and dark, and the impure air which did reach them came from well-like back yards, where the water-closets and other arrangements were situated. The fatality in this area was alarming, the death-rate of one street (Shelton Street) being more than 60.0 per 1,000 and a birth-rate of 29 per 1,000. The infantile mortality was 30.4 per 1,000, and the zymotic death-rate equalled 12.9 per 1,000, against 4.3 per 1,000 for the whole of St. Giles's district. That has also been reduced to about 17 per 1,000. Then be goes on to say— I have no hesitation in stating that, in my opinion, the clearing away of these insanitary houses and the re-housing of the people in improved model dwellings have been of the greatest possible benefit not only to this district but to London generally. In conclusion, I will refer you to the Lancet of March 26, 1887, which states, in reference to the clearing away of fever dens under the operations of the Artisans' Dwellings Act, 1875—'To the steps already taken by the Medical Officer of Health and the St. Giles Board of Works is greatly due the freedom from typhus fever which London now enjoys. In past years St. Giles was again and again the centre from which this disease spread to other parts of the Metropolis, and the money spent in improvements of the districts has already made ample return in leading to the disappearance of this serious cause of mortality.' That means, of course, the disappearance of a serious cause of mortality for the whole of London. Now, that is only a sample of what has occurred in other districts as well; but I think I have said enough to show that it is worth while for Parliament to see how they can improve these Acts which have already done so much good, and how, by consolidating them, we can simplify proceedings under them so as to make everything more plain and open than before. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board has given great and unceasing attention to this subject, and I think the course he has pursued in the other House of Parliament was a very wise one. He brought forward an Amending Bill to amend all the defects which the Government thought existed in the Acts as he found them, and then he brought forward also a Consolidation Bill. Those two Bills were referred to the Standing Committee; and after they had approved of the Amendments, or had altered them as they thought best, they were then incorporated in the Consolidation Bill, which is the only one that comes up before your Lordships' House. If I persuade your Lordships to read this Bill a second time, as I hope I shall do, I shall then propose to refer the Consolidation Bill to the Standing Committee on Law, and I will present to them the Amending Bill. It was presented to the House of Commons in the first instance so that they might see what Amendments were proposed in the Consolidation Bill instead of having to wade through a mass of pages to hunt them up for themselves. The Amendments proposed are not very numerous; and the first Amendment to which I would allude is the Amendment in those Acts which bear my own name. There has always been great difficulty in persuading the arbitrators not to give too much compensation, and I will only take one instance. If you find a place which is absolutely unfit for human habitation, and which cannot be made fit for human habitation, what is the value of the houses for that purpose to the owner, and what compensation ought to be given to him for it? Of course, it cannot be allowed to stay as it is. The houses would be immediately shut up under the existing law. They could not be used by the owner for the purpose of habitation, and the value of that property, therefore, seems to be the value of the land—very valuable, no doubt, because of its situation, and the owners seem to me entitled to get that—and the value of the materials which are upon the place at what they would realise to sell. That, I think, is about the only Amendment of the Acts of 1875. As to Torrens's Acts, they are several. In the first place, it is made distinctly the duty of the Local Authority and officials to at once close all dwellings which are found unfit for human habitation. That seems to me to be a step quite in the right direction. An order may also be made for the demolition of houses if they are found to be absolutely dangerous and unfit for human habitation, or if they are found to be so obstructive to the light and air that the neighbouring courts and alleys cannot possibly get that light and air and ventilation which they ought to have, without the removal of the obstructive building, on payment of due compensation, but not otherwise. Then I think it is quite right that such buildings should be removed, for the public safety, upon full compensation, of course, being paid to the owners of the houses. It was found there was considerable difficulty, as there were two sets of Acts, in saying under which set of Acts a particular area ought to be dealt with. The Metropolitan Board of Works was always saying that areas in question were too small to be dealt with under the Acts bearing my name, and the Local Bodies were always saying that the areas were too large to be dealt with under Mr. Torrens's Acts—and, therefore, between the two stools a suggested improvement fell to the ground, and was not carried out. I think in the last amendment of the law, made in 1885, a clause was introduced giving power to the Home Secretary to receive evidence upon the point, and to decide which Authority should proceed in order to make the improvement required. But it has appeared to my right hon. Friend, and, as I think, wisely, that there ought to be an intermediate proceeding as regards those places which are too large to be dealt with as individual houses, and too small to be dealt with as an unhealthy area; and, therefore, he has proposed a scheme by which, under a more economical system, larger areas can be dealt with, and the health of the district preserved as it ought to be. I do not think I ought to take up more of your Lordships' time in asking you to give a second reading to this Bill. I am quite certain your Lordships will agree with me that you cannot have a more impor- tant subject to deal with than that, seeing that you ensure the means of housing properly the working classes of this country. If you were to propose that the State should provide dwellings for them, that, I agree, would be subject to the charge of Communism; but there is no Communism in the State, saying that places shall not continue to exist which are let for human habitation, and which are unfit for human habitation; there is no Communism in saying that these unhealthy areas which produce disease, not only in the districts where they exist, but elsewhere, shall not be allowed to continue; there is no Communism in saying that the working man has yet to be, not provided with a wholesome dwelling for himself and his family, but placed in a position in which he can provide himself and family with decent and wholesome accommodation. It is simply then for the purpose of enabling such dwellings with proper sanitary arrangements to be obtained, not only in London, but throughout the country, that I am so anxious this Bill should go forward. When I had the honour of introducing my former Bill in 1875, I ventured to call the attention of the House of Commons to one of the earliest of God's laws—"Let there be light." Light has been let in upon many of these places; light has been let in for thousands of people who could not get it before, and I have to appeal now to your Lordships' House, as I appealed then to the House of Commons—let there be more light. I hope your Lordships will read this Bill a second time.

Bill read 2a (according to order), and committed to the Standing Committee for Bills relating to Law, &c.