HL Deb 20 December 1927 vol 69 cc1157-65

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Cushendun.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF KINTORE in the Chair.]


I do not know if I am in order, but I should like to ask the Government how long they are going to continue the Local Government (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1916, and the Local Government (Emergency Provisions) (No. 2) Act, 1916.


That arises on the Schedule.

Clauses 1 and 2 agreed to.



At some stage I want to have an opportunity of saying a word about the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (Restrictions) Act, 1920. I do not know whether this is the occasion. The procedure has been so rapid that it is scarcely possible for me to know where I come in. I am in your Lordships' hands.


If my noble friend will excuse me for one moment, there is no difficulty about order. The particular Acts which are the expiring laws to be continued are all in the Schedule, and therefore it is upon the Schedule that the discussion should take place. The subject that my noble friend desires to raise is, therefore, quite in order if he raises it now.


I wish to say a word about the Rent Restrictions Acts and their application to the agricultural cottage. I raised this question in the summer and I was then told by a noble friend that we might think ourselves very lucky because there was a process by which the farmer could recover the use of his cottage. I am aware that there is such a process, but it is a very devious one and is not very easy and not always very satisfactory. What the farmer has to do when he wishes to recover the occupancy of a farm cottage is to get an order from the agricultural committee of the county council, and having got that he then has to go either before the petty sessions or County Court Judge, and it depends entirely upon the fancy of the court what period of time must then elapse before he regains the cottage, because in some cases the court takes the view that an alternative cottage must be found. Observe the result. An unfortunate farmer wants an expert hand, and he can find one. The man of course says: "Can you put me into a cottage?" The farmer replies: "Not at the moment, but I hope to get one in a week or two." Possibly the expert hand will wait a week or two, but no more, and the farmer goes on losing the chances of getting an expert hand week after week, because of the lengthy process which he has to go through before recovering occupancy of the cottage.

I am not speaking from hearsay. I know these things. The fact is that agricultural cottages ought never to have been included in the measure. I remember the original Act being passed. It was during the War. It was a very compassionate Act, but it has done immense injustice in many cases. So far as agricultural cottages are concerned the Act was never needed. There was no crowding in those cottages at that time, and why we did not oppose their inclusion I cannot conceive. I repeat that there was no crowding. It does not matter how many bedrooms you put into a labourer's cottage, he will always find room for a sub-tenant, in order to help pay the rent. The application of the Rent Restrictions Acts to these cottages was unnecessary, and so far as farmers are concerned a grave injustice. I expressed a hope in the summer that this Act might be withdrawn from the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, because it was impossible to amend the Act except by Motion to reject the Bill altogether. I rise to express a very strong hope that the Ministry will take this matter up next Session and endeavour by some process or other to exclude agricultural cottages from the process of the Acts, thereby doing a necessary act of justice to farmers.


My Lords, I wish to say one word in support of what has been said by my noble friend. I most earnestly hope that the Government will next year deal with this anomaly of agricultural cottages, and that we shall not again find this Act included in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill.


My Lords, there is a wider aspect of this question, which causes anxiety or uncertainty among those interested in urban building. So long as this Act re-appears in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill it is a bar to a great extent to private enterprise in building, and coupled with the subsidies for housing it reacts on all agricultural building, because the cost of any construction for agricultural requirements is raised to an abnormal level. If you want to carry out any improvements in your farm buildings the cost is now almost prohibitive, and this is largely because of the artificial cost which follows the subsidies and the Rent Restrictions Acts. So long as the Rent Restrictions Acts last one cannot expect the private builder to do the work which he did before the War. We hear that a million houses have been constructed since the Housing Acts were passed and subsidies granted, and I think everyone will admit that at one time there was a strong reason for such an exceptional course, but the time, I hope, will soon come when these subsidies and the rent restrictions provisions can be withdrawn. Then the industry will be once more placed on a natural economic basis, which served for the whole wants of the country before the War, and which I am sure many of your Lordships would wish to see serving the needs of the country again.


My Lords, I have to say on behalf of the Ministry of Health, with reference to the question of the Rent Restrictions Acts, that it was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on July 19 last, and there is really nothing to be added to the answer given by the Government on that occasion. It is considered that it would be impossible to deal with agricultural cottages without raising the whole question. At the same time I am sure that the Minister will listen with great interest to what has fallen from the noble Lord, who has so much experience of this subject.


My Lords, I desire to refer to a matter which has affected London for a considerable period, and that is as to the Local Government (Emergency) Provisions Act, 1916, and the Local Government (Emergency Provisions) (No. 2) Act, 1916. The effect of those Acts roughly was to throw upon the Metropolitan Poor Law Fund the relief of the able-bodied poor. An Act was brought in when there was a great deal of distress, and I dare say your Lordships will remember seeing large processions of unemployed going through London at the time. It was then decided to put a good deal of the cost of the able-bodied on to the Metropolitan Poor Law Fund, which up to that date had been used for the sick and infirm and for the support of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. It is, of course, right and just that those boroughs in London—something like eight in number—which are the richer and wealthier boroughs, should contribute their share towards the aid of the poorer boroughs, but what has always been pointed out is that there practically is no control over the expenditure of the money, and it, of course, does bear hardly upon the poorer ratepayers in the richer boroughs. Year after year we have been promised that some measure or steps would be taken by the Government to adjust those differences of opinion, that is to say, enable somebody to have some control over the money that is expended.

I do not want to trouble your Lordships at any length, but I would like to call your attention to the way in which this sum has mounted up. Take the City of Westminister. I see a noble Lord on the Front Opposition who is a High Bailiff of the City of Westminster, and who takes great interest in its concerns. In 1920–21 the amount expended was £137,000; in 1921–22 it was £272,000; in 1922–23 it was £672,000; in 1923–24 it was £868,000; in 1924–25 it was £789,000; in 1925–26 it was £742,000; in 1926–27 it was £783,000; and this year our estimate is £840,000. The City of Westminster raises about £4,000,000 from rates, and out of that £4,000,000 about £600,000 only is spent on local concerns and to satisfy local needs; the rest of the money is paid over for the benefit of the whole of London. But it is this particular part of the money of which we complain. It is used for the purposes of the police, the fire brigade, the London County Council and part—I do not wish to exaggerate—for the Metropolitan Poor Law Fund as regards that portion which relates to the sick and infirm who come under the Metropolitan Asylums Board, and for the able-bodied poor of other boroughs, over whom we have no control. We do not mind paying a certain amount, but we do object to this large sum being poured out year by year, without any control on the part of anybody. We have been promised time after time that the whole matter would be gone into. It does not affect Westminster only—I have only referred to Westminster as an example because I do not want to weary your Lordships with a lot of figures—but it affects all the other paying boroughs in London.

I do hope the Ministry of Health next Session will take this matter up seriously. It is not good for the poorer boroughs themselves that these men should get relief in the haphazard way in which they do. It demoralises and pauperises them, and there is no doubt that even the Labour Party themselves are waking up to the very grave national aspect of this question. Mr. Snowden the other day, in a very weighty speech, said that it should not be all "take" on the part of the community, but that there should be a certain amount of "give," and that people in every class of life had their responsibility and should not be dependent on the State entirely, or look to the State entirely, for assistance. For these reasons I hope that the Government will seriously take up the matter, not only because of its financial aspect, which is serious, but from the point of view of the moral interests of the people of this country and the welfare of the nation at large.


My Lords, my noble friend is certainly entitled to raise this subject upon this particular Bill, and the Government certainly have no right to complain that he availed himself of the undoubted right of a member of your Lordships' House to ask us a question. But, with very great respect, I think he would get a very much better answer if he would give some indication beforehand that he was going to raise these questions, some of which are very intricate and require careful study in order to do real justice to the subject in reply to a question. I listened to my noble friend, and if the burden of his speech was really to the effect that these rating matters in London require to be overhauled and brought up to date, I feel very little doubt that he is absolutely right. But the rating question is not singular in that respect among political questions with which we have to deal. There is a very large number of matters of local government, and other government indeed, which require to be overhauled.

But when I leave that general consideration and go more into particulars, I confess I was left at sea by my noble friend's complaint. I do not gather that he calls in question the principle, which is pursued undoubtedly in London, that the richer boroughs should share the burden of the poorer boroughs. I gathered, then, that his complaint is really one of degree: how much ought the richer boroughs to bear of the burden of the poorer ones? That, of course is a very intricate matter indeed, and would require very elaborate statistics before it could be dealt with to any advantage. But broadly, I think, we must admit that the principle under which we work in London must be maintained.


There is practically no control.


Does my noble friend mean that there should be representatives of the City of Westminster in control of the expenditure of the Borough of Poplar?




What I mean is that we should have to go very much more elaborately into this question in order to have a discussion worthy of the House. It is quite true that the contributions of the ratepayers of Westminster are larger than are required for the purposes of Westminster, and they are larger because a certain amount of their contribution goes to maintain, let us say, the poor of Poplar. That is quite true. My noble friend says that there ought to be more control. Speaking theoretically, I think that that is perfectly true, and that if the ratepayers of Westminster are to be taxed for the purpose of maintaining the poor of an East End borough, then there ought to be some kind of control. As to whether that is feasible—whether a practicable proposal could be made—is quite another question, and I should not be prepared, certainly at this moment, to pronounce any opinion upon it. But I can promise (and I hope my noble friend will accept this promise) that the attention of my right hon. friend the Minister of Health shall be drawn to this subject, and if any time can be found within the near future for dealing with this intricate topic no doubt my right hon. friend will be the first man to avail himself of it.


I must express my regret that the noble Viscount who replied on behalf of the Minister did not deal with the subject of the Rent Restrictions Acts, and that the noble Marquess has not thought fit to make any promise with regard to next year, or even to extend a word of sympathy to the people who are suffering by the Acts. I say so with some special regret because a by-election is taking place in my neighbourhood within two or three weeks, and it might have been rather useful if the noble Marquess could have extended a word of sympathy to those who are suffering under those Acts.


I must apologise to my noble friend. I am afraid I had forgotten that he required a further answer. Indeed, I hoped he would have been satisfied by the answer of my noble friend behind me. The noble Lord's complaint is that the Rent Restrictions Acts are continued under the present Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. I think it is common knowledge that the Government are very anxious to amend the Rent Restrictions Acts. That has been announced over and over again, and if it had been possible to repeal them altogether, or rather to do without them altogether, that would have been a very simple way. If the Acts had been simply left out of this Bill they would have expired; but unfortunately we find that we cannot altogether do without them. Then the question which the Government had to determine was a very simple one—whether it would be better to continue the Acts, with the bad provisions in them, or to do without them altogether and lose provisions which were still essential. On the whole it was thought better to take the first alternative. But I quite agree with my noble friend, if he will allow me to say so, that the time has arrived when the Acts ought to be amended. Amendment is required in many respects.

At the same time, I ought to say that I do not quite agree with him in his reading of the provisions of the Act which deal with agricultural cottages. It may be that my noble friend is quoting some high authority of the County of Kent, in which case I should be very loath to appear to be so impertinent as to differ from him, but my reading of the Act is different. My attention has been drawn to the Act (and I suppose that every one of your Lordships who owns agricultural property is in the same position), and I should have said that agricultural cottages were placed in a specially favourable position; that is to say, that in their place alternative accommodation has not to be provided if the landlord can show that the cottages are required for the working of the farm. My noble friend shakes his head. I had to go into this very thoroughly not very long ago and, although it was in my private capacity that it arose, I took the precaution of consulting the Ministry of Health as to whether my interpretation was not right and they said it was absolutely right.


It depends what view the court takes.


But the court is not binding on a question of law of that kind, and if my noble friend differs from the county court he can take it to a higher court, and he should do so if the county court has decided wrongly. But I cannot help thinking that if he looks into it he will find that my statement can be reconciled even with the decision to which he refers. At any rate, I am quite clear that that is the law. I see many lawyers here, among them the noble and learned Viscount opposite; generally speaking they are very much in evidence and I am sure they would correct me if I am wrong. But my strong view, not depending upon my own knowledge I can assure your Lordships but upon the assurance of the Ministry of Health itself, is that my interpretation of that provision of the Rent Restrictions Act is correct. I hope my noble friend will be encouraged to return to the charge in his own County and I hope he will receive the assurance there that even the Rent Restrictions Act is not quite so bad as it is painted.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment.