HL Deb 21 July 1908 vol 192 cc1671-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


This is a Bill, as its name implies, to improve the housing of the working classes in Ireland. Parliament in recent years has so often confirmed this principle in legislation that I think it is hardly necessary for me at this late hour to deal with that point. But there are special reasons why legislation is urgently needed at this time in Ireland to deal with this matter. First of all, whilst in England in recent years Acts of Parliament have been passed, and whilst, as your Lordships are aware, there is a Bill in another place which will affect housing in England, yet the last important Act that was passed for Ireland was so long ago as 1890; it is true there was a minor Act in 1896 but that of 1890 was the last of importance. Therefore it seems to me that Ireland has some cause for complaint of being excluded in this particular direction. Another reason is that many Irish towns are poor and are highly rated, and unless they are able to receive such financial assistance as is contemplated in this Bill they will be unable to adopt any efficient housing scheme. Thirdly, some Irish towns are—it is regrettable but it is, I am afraid, too true—in a decaying condition. Houses which were formerly occupied by well-to-do people are now occupied by people much less well off and are used as tenements, and are inhabited, I am informed, in some cases by as many as twelve and thirteen families. This brings me to the question of overcrowding, which is a serious evil in the towns of this country, but is, I venture to say, a far more serious evil in towns in Ireland. I would like to quote one or two figures which deal with this point. In Manchester, for example, the per-percentage of one-room tenements occupied by five or more persons is .04 per cent., in London .57 per cent., and in Dublin, 8.69 per cent. You will gather from those figures that in this respect Dublin is about fifteen times worse off than London; and as we all know the condition of some of the slums in London leaves very much to be desired, these figures give some idea of what the slum areas in Dublin must be. Again, according to the 1901 census there were in Ireland 79,149 tenements of one-room, and in 5,587 of these one-room tenements seven or more persons resided. In Dublin 40.6 per cent, of the population occupied overcrowded dwellings. These, my Lords, are, I think, rather terrible figures and themselves make out an urgent case for legislation to deal with the question. Another point is the alarming increase in Ireland of the disease of tuberculosis, and although, no doubt, a great deal maybe clone, and is being done, by the erection of sanatoria and hospitals, by open-air treatment and other methods of combating the disease, yet prevention is always better than a cure, and it is far better to prevent this disease, which must be spread by the slum areas such as I have just described, at its source than to rely on the remedial measures of which I have spoken. Those are only a few reasons why this Bill is needed in Ireland. Now I come to the objects of the Bill. The objects are two-fold. The first is to give financial assistance to local bodies to enable them to provide better housing for the working classes. The second is to amend the procedure to be followed by those local authorities under the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890. The first of these objects is attained by getting the sum of £80,000 in cash and £100,000 in Consols from the dormant, portion of the Irish Suitors Fund. This is to form an Irish Housing Fund which is to be invested, and the interest will be given to local authorities to help them to meet the cost of carrying out schemes. The second object is attained by extending the provisions of two English Housing Acts, the Acts of 1900 and 1903, to Ireland. I should like to remind the House that this Bill received the unanimous assent of all parties in another place; that Ulster Members and Nationalists vied with each other in giving it a warm welcome and, I understand, in claiming credit for it. There were, it is true, some criticisms passed upon the financial clauses of the Bill, but those clauses have since been remodelled in Committee. They are now of a much more modest character than as originally introduced, and I hope that they may meet with the approval of the House. If, as we continue the discussion of the Bill, difficulties arise I hope they will be such as are capable of being easily adjusted. There has been an example of what can be done in Ireland, and that example has been furnished by a Member of your Lordship's House, Lord Iveagh, in erecting dwellings for workmen. Not only has Lord Iveagh erected, I believe, excellent dwellings for the workmen employed by his firm, but he has gone further, than that and in Dublin he has erected many dwellings for the working classes generally. What we hope to be able to do by this Bill is to give local authorities and possibly private persons facilities which will enable them to follow the, example which has been set by the noble Viscount to whom I have just alluded. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(Lord Denman.)


I am sure that everyone who knows Ireland will sympathise with the object of this Bill, for although something may have been done within the last few years, everyone who has travelled much in Ireland must have been struck, in the smaller towns especially, with the condition of the dwellings of the working classes. That condition cannot be characterised as anything less than deplorable, and everyone who is acquainted with such dwellings must wish that steps could be taken to remedy this great evil. But in this, as in all Other matters connected with the relief of distress among the lower classes, care must be taken that necessary economy is practised and that no undue burden shall be thrown on the rates, a great deal of which is paid by people in very narrow circumstances. It hardly seems to me that His Majesty's Government have taken this consideration duly into account in accepting the Bill now before the House. There are several provisions in it of rather a striking character. In Clause 2 the limitation imposed on the borrowing powers of local authorities for the purposes of the Housing of the Poor Acts, by the Public Health Act of 1878 has been removed, and, therefore, it would appear that the local authorities, for the purpose of this Bill, are able to borrow to an unlimited amount. To borrow on easy terms is, no doubt, a great temptation to local authorities in Ireland as well as in other countries. It is, therefore, very much to be feared that local authorities would be induced, partially by the most praiseworthy motives, and partially by pressure put upon them, to put an undue burden on the rates. I think we ought to be furnished with a statement in the case of these local authorities as to what amount has been already borrowed, what the limit imposed was, and what balance now remains on which they could borrow. There is another matter which requires attention. In Clause 9 there is a provision exempting all premises, for the purposes of this Bill, from the payment of rates. A proviso to that clause was, I think, inserted on the motion of the Attorney-General for Ireland that this could only be done with the consent of the Local Government Board, and that is, to a certain extent a safeguard. But I would point out that the Local Government Board cannot have the accurate local knowledge needed, and exempting any people or any premises from the rates appears to me to be a very novel and a very strange proceeding. It also appears to me that it would not be to the ultimate benefit of the members of the working classes who happened to occupy a house so exempted. If such a house had been built by some speculative builder on land held from the local authority, the fact of the tenant being exempted from paying rates would probably seem to him a reason why that tenant should pay a higher rent. Therefore, he would gain, and the rates would suffer. With the principle of the Bill I am in the warmest sympathy, but I think it requires amendment on the points to which I have called attention.


I have nothing to say to the manner in which the noble Lord introduced this Bill, but I have something to say as to the manner in which it was introduced in another place. The Bill was introduced by Mr. Clancy, and was taken up by the Government, and is what is called a starred Bill. Some of the arguments which the noble Lord used with regard to slums in Dublin, I notice by reference to Hansard, were used by Mr. Clancy. But I must remind the noble Lord of what he said with regard to everybody consenting about a Bill. I put forward that argument the other day when talking of the 1903 Land Act, and I was met by the noble Earl who leads the House by the statement that when everybody consented we have to be somewhat sceptical as to the working of a measure, and we on this side of the House from Ireland begin to be a little sceptical upon that point in regard to this Bill. The noble Lord talked about the financial assistance that was to be given under the Bill. With regard to the Fund of Suitors in the Supreme Court and other funds, the real truth is that it amounts to between £5,000 and £6,000 a year. I do not think that will help the local authorities very much to build houses. I should like to draw attention to another point in the Bill. I do not think in this matter valuation ought to enter into the question at all. I may point out that under Clause 7, where a local authority has adopted Part III of the Act of 1890, they may for supplying the needs of their district, either establish or acquire lodging-houses for the working-classes outside their district. Now what would that enable the local authorities to do? It would enable them to build labourers' cottages in Rathmines and Pembroke, which are townships outside Dublin. I do not wish to say anything that may be in the back of the minds of Nationalist Members of Parliament, but the real truth of the matter is that if that were allowed to take place it would alter the Parliamentary representation of the South Dublin constituency. That is rather an important point. There are some other points that require consideration. I should like to draw your attention to Clause 9, which proposes to enable the very person who created the rates to get themselves excused from paying them. I think, my Lords, that would require amending. For instance, I should say that the rate should not be imposed on the owner interested in the premises if he could prove that he was not to blame for their becoming occupied by persons not belonging to the working-classes. Again, it seems quite unfair that the local authority should be enabled to impose such a liability without there being a right of appeal from their decision. I think that that argument is understood by the noble Lord opposite. I quite recognise that the Local Government Board will have a say in this matter. We all respect the Local Government Board very much in Ireland, but when they have the power to build labourers' cottages under this Bill outside Dublin, and that fact alters the status of the voters in the Parliamentary division, I begin myself to think there is rather more in the Bill than that which the noble Lord impressed so much upon us in his opening speech. For that reason I should like, now that I have the opportunity, to move for a Return for the loans contracted by the local authorities in Ireland. I have given notice to the noble Earl, the Leader of this House that I should make this Motion. Such a Return, dealing with England and Wales, was moved for by Mr. Forster on 14th April this year, in the House of Commons, and the Return was presented and ordered to be printed yesterday; therefore, I think I have a precedent for this Motion. I trust, if I am in order, I may move for it to-day, and, if not, I give notice that I shall, at some future date, move for the Return.


My Lords, anyone who knows anything about Ireland and about the progress of this Bill and debates that have taken place in reference to it, and has listened to the speech of the noble Lord who presented if for your Lordships' acceptance, will realise that this is not only a subject of interest and importance, but one that must command the sympathy of every person who approaches the question with the desire to remedy what is a grave evil. It is impossible not to desire to benefit the working-classes who are subjected to the necessity of living in unhealthy and overcrowded residences, and one would naturally welcome any Bill that proposed to give relief and to remedy such a state of things. Therefore, everyone will recognise that it is not likely that there will be any opposition offered to the proposal to read this Bill a second time. Of course, when we come to another stage it will be necessary to examine some of the clauses to see whether they have been framed with adequate caution, and whether some safeguards and prudential considerations should not be borne in mind before the measure finally leaves your Lordships' House. There is no Treasury aid given to this Bill, which causes, of course, a difficulty about its finance. Usually one expects to get some little assistance from the richer partner, and that some monies will be forthcoming to eke out our more scanty resources; but in this Bill all that is done is to give a power to pass without check the borrowing powers that exist in towns in Ireland—without check and with very little security. Of course, this is a matter requiring examination in Committee. The method of finance is not wide, yet I do not know that it is wide enough. I have no doubt that the present Lord Chancellor of Ireland has seen that the clauses as to the Suitors' Fee Fund were framed in such a way as to safeguard the monies to be taken. I assume that he has been consulted in reference to this matter, and that he has made such suggestions as he thinks right to see that the advances made are duly guaranteed by the Consolidated Fund. On that assumption I say no more about it except this: I am not aware—I do not say it is an objection of serious importance, but it is a matter to be noted—that the Suitors' Fee Fund has ever been called upon to make advances of this kind for such purposes. The other matters referred to by my noble friends who have spoken are matters which I have no doubt we shall hear of in the Committee stage, but having regard to the hour and the further opportunities, I pass them by. I see that Clause 9 has naturally attracted attention. It gives a novel power which everyone would like exercised in his own case of dispensing with the obligation to pay rates for nine or ten years. No doubt that will require attention. If you allow buildings, and give the people who build the power themselves of deciding that the buildings that they own, and have the control of, shall be free from rates—I admit subject to the control of the Local Government Board—it is obvious that that is a matter which needs caution and requires examination, and, therefore, the noble Lord in charge of the Bill will understand that although a Second Reading may be accorded the Bill, that does not imply that some of the clauses will not be fairly and reasonably examined when we come to a further stage.


If I may say one word in reply to some of the criticisms made, I should like to say that Clause 2, to which Lord Clonbrock took exception is similar to a clause in the English Act of 1903, and that Clause 7 is, I understand, identical with one in the English Act of 1900. With regard to Clause 9, which has come in for some criticism, I should have thought that its provisions were safeguarded by making it necessary to obtain the consent of the Local Government Board, and I was glad to hear form the noble Earl, Lord Mayo, the high tribute which he paid to the administration of the Department. With regard to the return for which he asked I think I can promise that we shall be able to give it to him.


My Lords, I think it is quite clear that this Bill is one which deserves the very close attention of your Lordships' House before we allow it to become law. It is not a Bill which owes its origin to any action on the part of his Majesty's Government. It is a private Member's Bill which they have taken up, and I venture to think that at many points it shows signs of insufficient consideration. The Bill was, as so many Bills are now, dealt with in the Standing Committee, and our opportunities of making ourselves acquainted with the arguments used for and against it are consequently limited. That the objects of the Bill are commendable objects I do not for a moment attempt to deny, and I am sure the House will do all it can to facilitate the efforts of His Majesty's Government to deal with the question of overcrowding in Ireland. But, when you come to the financial machinery, I think there is much that justifies uneasiness. The Bill, as I understand, enables these local bodies to borrow money outside the limits imposed on them by the Public Health Act. That is a considerable innovation. Unless I am mistaken, in the case of the Labourers (Ireland) Act there are strict financial limits, which borrowers are not allowed to exceed. In this case the councils to which this power of borrowing is given are in most cases dominated by members of the working classes. These bodies are given an unrestricted power of raising money, and, as has been pointed out, in Clause 9 of the Bill we find the extraordinary provision that these councils are allowed to relieve some of the very people who are instrumental in raising these loans. I do not desire to oppose the Second Reading, because I think that would be to create a mistaken view of our action in regard to this question; but I hope your Lordships will come to an understanding that further progress with the Bill shall not be made until after the holidays. The matter cannot really be one of extreme urgency. There is no prospect of very much business coming before us when we reassemble in October, and I think His Majesty's Government would do very well to consider in the meantime some of the criticisms which have been offered. I hope they will not only do that, but that they will supply the information for which my noble friend has asked—I mean information bearing upon the financial position of the local bodies concerned in this Act. If, therefore, we agree to the Second Reading, I hope it will be upon the understanding that the further stages of the Bill are not to be taken before the adjournment of the House.

On Question, Bill read the second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.