HL Deb 06 August 1924 vol 59 cc472-9

Page 5, line 39, leave out ("in the aggregate ").


The next Amendment is also one on which a very strong line has been taken in the other House, It is in Clause 3 (1) (e). As it came before your Lordships' House that paragraph read as follows: —

"(e) that the rents charged in respect of the houses shall not in the aggregate exceed the total amount of the rents that would be payable if the houses were let at the appropriate normal rents charged in respect of working-class houses erected prior to the third day of August, nineteen hundred and fourteen…"

Your Lordships struck out the words "in the aggregate," and later inserted the words "of a similar size, type and amenity' so that, with a consequential Amendment the paragraph as it left this House read as follows:—

"(e) that the rents charged in respect of the houses shall not exceed the rents that would be payable if the houses were let at the appropriate normal rents charged in respect of working-class houses of similar size, type and amenity …"

those last words your Lordships inserted—

"erected prior to the third day of August nineteen hundred and fourteen …"

Your Lordships objected to the phrase "in the aggregate," apparently for two reasons, (1) because the phrase seemed to you to be ambiguous, and (2) because you considered that it might be open to abuse.

It is essential to the scheme of the Bill that the rents to be charged shall be fixed, not by comparing house with house, but by reference to the total amount of the rents that may be charged for the new houses as compared with the total amount of the rents that would be charged for pre-war houses, otherwise local authorities would be required to charge the same rent for houses of all types. It is essential that they should have power to vary their rents so as to make proper allowance for houses of different condition and amenity. The view emerged in the course of the discussion on the Amendments that a local authority might build a row of twenty houses letting the first three houses at preposterous rents and would then find that it had to let the remaining houses at very much lower rents until it came to the last house which had to be let without any rent at all. This would perhaps be true if the houses were let on perpetual lease, but as a matter of fact, they will as a rule be let on weekly tenancies and the rents therefore can be adjusted at any time.

The other point made against the clause was that it might be open to abuse inasmuch as a local authority might be tempted to let some of the houses to their friends at unduly low rents and charge higher rents to others. There is really no ground for this suspicion. Local authorities under previous Housing Acts had the power, if they wished, to do the same thing, but no case of the kind has ever been brought to the notice of the Ministry. So long as there is local government, local authorities must be trusted; and there is no more reason to suspect abuse in the matter of rents than in the case of charges made by local authorities for, say, water or gas. That is the objection to the striking out of the words.


Might I suggest to the noble and learned Viscount that we should take the Amendments in their order?


The noble and learned Viscount is dealing with the Amendment in line 39, I take it. The Amendments in line 12, line 17, and line 18 of page 5 have been agreed to?


They have all been agreed to.


I do not propose to go into the Amendments which the Commons have accepted or to give their reasons for so doing. The noble Lord may take it from me that the Commons have accepted those Amendments. The only reason why I referred to the others was because the answer was inseparable from the argument I am reading; that is to say, these words affect the uniformity of the pattern of the houses. The object of the Bill, as I said before, is to enable the working classes to have better houses for the same money, and unless you leave a certain amount of latitude to the local authorities the matter is likely to be very serious. We want to get rid of paying high rent for bad houses. That is the very reason why a subsidy is given both by the Government and by the local authorities, and to put these words into the Bill and change the principle would be very unwise. A similar Amendment was moved in the other House, and was rejected by 216 to 116.

I ask your Lordships' attention to this. On that Amendment Mr. Neville Chamberlain, who is supposed to know something about this matter, said he quite agreed with Mr. Wheatley that this Amendment, if it were carried, would wreck the Bill, and that he was not going to try to kill the Bill by a side wind. I hope the noble Lord will not press this. It is an Amendment about which the other House took the strongest view, and, as I have pointed out to your Lordships, the House in that was supported by Mr. Neville Chamberlain. I beg to move that the Lords do not insist on the Amendment.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on the said Amendment.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, the real fact of the matter is that your Lordships are in this difficulty. In the first place, the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, for some reason best known to himself, has mixed up these two Amendments which, with great respect to him, have nothing whatever to do with one another. The House will, of course, take them in their order. We have to deal, in the first instance, with the Commons refusal to accept your Lordships' Amendment that the words " in the aggregate " should be left out. That is the first Amendment with which we have to deal. It may be taken with that leaving out the words " total amount of the " because those two were consequential one upon the other. As your Lordships sent the Bill to the House of Commons it was intelligible. The House of Commons has restored the words, and so far as we know the result is unintelligible. If it was only myself making that assertion to your Lordships you might wonder that I had the hardihood to make such a. remark.

It is the great quality of your Lordships' House that we have amongst our numbers lawyers of very great distinction, and one of them who sits behind me has given it as his opinion that the drafting of the clause in respect of these particular matters is unintelligible. I am mot dealing with the question of " similar size, type, and amenity," which is a different point. But as regards these particular words which we are now considering the noble and learned Lord behind me, Lord Sumner, says that the drafting as it stands is unintelligible. Here you have a very high authority making that assertion. We do our very best. We improve the drafting, and we send it to the House of Commons. They do not attempt to meet our point. They simply put it back as it was originally. I really do not know upon what principle we are to accept a piece of bad drafting which is really unintelligible. What is the good of having a revising Chamber if it is never allowed to .revise? The only reason why there is a certain hesitation in my voice is this —Is it worth while, in the face of the persistence of the House of Commons in insisting on putting unintelligible drafting in the Bill, to send the Bill back? I really do not know whether it is worth while or not.

If the noble and learned Lord who sits behind me still thinks there is no means of construing it, I do not know how we can leave the words in. It is not a matter of principle;? do not pretend that it is; but I think that for a revising Chamber to leave an unintelligible phrase in a Bill is asking us to do something which is almost without parallel.


I would ask the Lord Chancellor whether it is not a fact that the point of privilege was raised by the Speaker in the House of Commons on these Amendments?


Yes, I I might have mentioned privilege here. One of the Reasons for the Commons objecting to the Amendments was that this House was interfering with their financial arrangements.


My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships at this late hour. I can only repeat what I said yesterday, that the words " shall not in the aggregate exceed the total amount of rents that would be payable " appear to me to have exactly the meaning which we objected to yesterday, and I am still unable to understand how these words can be appropriate for the purpose of enabling a local authority to build different "kinds of houses for different kinds of people instead of building the same kind of house that was built before the war. It does not touch the question at all. It deals with the total amount of rents they are to get out of the total number of houses we are dealing with. As to the next Amendment, which we have not come to yet, I understand that there is a more satisfactory answer, but if the Government press for these words, and is in a position to secure them, with the idea that they will enable local authorities to build a variety of houses and let them at the old rents, then I am unable to understand the position. The words have a meaning, but not apparently the meaning which the Government attaches to them.


My Lords, I should like to add one word on this point. There appears to be a curious misapprehension in the mind of the Government. The omission of these words will in no way restrict the possibility of building houses of different classes. That is an entire illusion. The Lord Chancellor said they would not be able to do it because they would be forced to charge the same rent for all the houses they build and that, therefore, they would be restricted, without these words, to one kind of house. That really is not so. That point may arise on the next Amendment, but on the question of "in the aggregate " it is not so. If the Lord Chancellor will look at the subsection to which he has already referred, subsection (3), of this clause, he will find that power is reserved, in charging the normal rents —a most confusing method of nomenclature—to have different sets of normal rents according to the different classes of house that are built.

Therefore, if a local authority, in building ten houses, desires to build five houses with five rooms and five with four rooms there is nothing to prevent it charging a different rent for the five houses with five rooms from that which they propose to charge for the five houses with four rooms. If you leave out these words there is nothing to prevent a local authority charging a different rent for the same house to different people: and that, to my mind, is an exceedingly objectionable power. It is a most objectionable thing, if you have ten houses all of precisely the same character, to charge a different rent for these houses according to the kind of people who occupy them; but that is the only power that these words " in the aggregate " give to the local authority. No other power is given. I do not know whether it is worth while your Lordships insisting on the Amendment, but so far the Government have not given even the shadow of an answer to the case made out.


I am not speaking what has been conveyed to me. I assure your Lordships that I have gone most closely into the drafting of this subsection with the draftsman. I am satisfied that, if the words " in the aggregate " were omitted, it would lead to a very great amount of doubt in the minds of those concerned. It was said that they make no difference. Very well; if they make no difference, why leave them out?


They do make a difference.


We think they do.


So do I.


The difference is, not that you can charge different rents for the same house to different people, but that you can differentiate the houses. What we want is that the total rents—though for some houses they may demand more than for others— shall be within the total. We think that this is the best policy, and it is the policy of the Bill, upon which the Minister has insisted with all his strength. This is not an Amendment which has been taken lightly in another place. I will not speak of the effect of insisting upon it, but I can only say that it is a very serious matter.


My Lords, may I ask this one question of the noble and learned Viscount? I understand part of his argument—whether it is correct or not I do not know—regarding the difficulty which these authorities might have in building different types of houses, but what I want to ask is whether, in his opinion, it would be possible, if these words are put in, for the local authority to build, say, a row of twenty houses and to let them at different rents to different persons. That is really the point on which we object. I put aside the question as to whether or not local authorities would do this, or whether they have in the past used their powers properly or improperly. I do not think that that point is relevant. The point is whether they can or cannot use the power of differentiating.


I think that, if the local authorities were disposed for personal reasons to differentiate, no doubt they could do so, but at the same time your Lordships must remember that they had exactly the same powers under the other Housing Bill and with regard to gas and water, and it has never happened. Not only do the local authorities not do it, but public opinion would round upon them if they did do it. I do not think there is the smallest risk, but it is far better to run a theoretical risk than to destroy the scheme of the Bill. That is the view of the Government, and that is the answer to the noble Viscount's question.

On Question, Motion agreed to.