HL Deb 15 July 1935 vol 98 cc363-70

Table II.

Where the floor area of a room is— (a) 110 square feet or more … 2.

LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH moved to insert before the Annex: Provided also that in computing for the purposes of Table I and Table II the number of persons in a house which has more than two rooms one of such rooms shall be regarded as the living room and shall not be counted.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we now approach what is really the most formidable matter which we have to discuss this afternoon. In Committee your Lordships may recollect that I moved and withdrew an Amendment to substitute a different Schedule for the Schedule in the Bill. The system of calculating population for the purpose of overcrowding which I advocated was one which I thought would give greater elasticity in allowing rather more people in the small numbers of rooms in a house and rather fewer where one living room has to serve as living room for a house with more rooms.

I would like to state the case against the Schedule as it stands in respect of counting the living room because I think there has been a good deal of misconception, not from one angle alone in this matter. I think confusion has arisen from the fact that the Bill attempts to impose one standard on the whole country irrespective of the very different conditions which prevail in different parts of the country. The difference of habit of the working-class population in the matter of beds in the living room is very marked, and the difficulty of finding a suitable standard which will apply all over the country is very largely due to the fact that in London the congestion is such that the living room has almost invariably to be occupied as a sleeping room; whereas in the provinces, particularly in the North—I am thinking of places like Leeds, Bradford and Manchester—it is universally the habit not to have beds in the living room, and the overcrowding consequently is very severe in those rooms which are used as sleeping rooms.

One of the fundamental points in the standard of overcrowding which must not be exceeded and is laid down by this Bill is the point which occurs in an early clause of the Bill, that the accommodation must be such as to permit the proper separation of the sexes. It is admitted on all hands that one of the greatest evils that occur from overcrowding is the fact that adolescent children of different sexes are all too often forced to share bedrooms; and while the Bill lays down, quite rightly, that the accommodation must be such as to permit the separation of the sexes, in point of fact, owing to the non-exclusion of the living room, the Bill is going to have precisely the opposite effect in the North. Take the case of a three-roomed house that has a living room and two bedrooms occupied by five persons. It is sufficiently large to permit of the separation of the sexes, and therefore there is no overcrowding in the sense of the Bill. But your Lordships know very well that, habit being what it is, those people will not sleep in the living room, and therefore there will continue to be the sharing of bedrooms by the different sexes, and that will be legal in the terms of the Bill.

The Association of Municipal Corporations takes a very strong view on this subject. It so happens that the Housing Committee of that Association has had a meeting since the Committee stage of this Bill, and the view there was expressed unanimously by representatives of many different local authorities all over the country that the Schedule, as amended by the Amendment I proposed in the Committee stage, would have offered no greater difficulties of administration than the Schedule which is at present in the Bill, and it would have had this great disadvantage of setting the standard of no beds in the living room. If it had only had to do with the Association of Municipal Corporations I think it is fair to say that something on these lines would have been in the Bill from the start. But there came very strong opposition, an opposition which is very comprehensible, from the London County Council.

The fact is that it is quite impossible to have one standard in the Bill which will suit everybody. You have either to have a standard which will be opposed for some parts of the country—I have in mind London and possibly Scotland—or else you will have to have a differing standard for different places. The Government have taken the view that it is quite impossible to have differing Standards for different parts of the country; therefore they have the standard which is in the Bill. The standard, it is true, is a penal standard. I shall be told that I am seeking unduly to tighten up the standard, and that if my Amendment were accepted it would indefinitely postpone the arrival of the appointed day. There is some truth in that objection as far as London is concerned, but I believe none as far as the rest of the country is concerned. What the Government are doing if they insist on retaining the Schedule in the Bill is to sacrifice the standards in the rest of the country because no immediate improvement can be effected in London.

That that is not a valid reason I venture to submit to your Lordships for this reason. In the Committee stage in another place when the clause defining "suitable'. alternative accommodation" was under discussion an Amendment was made. The definition, as it originally stood, laid down that any house belonging to a local authority might be suitable alternative accommodation. It did not have to be suitable as regards the three specific points which I have already mentioned to your Lordships. Any house belonging to a local authority might be suitable, and the house belonging to a private owner would be suitable if it complied in those three respects. An Amendment was made in the Bill to make those three specific requirements apply also to houses belonging to the local authority. And this is the point: when that Amendment was made the representatives of the London County Council on Standing Committee A, representative of both the political Parties, expressed the view that if you did that, if you so far widened the definition of "suitable alternative accommodation," you might as well put in a clause saying "This Bill does not apply to London." The London problem is so immense, and the 'prospect of having an appointed day within the near future is so remote, that I venture to say that to hold up the rest of the country and to oppose the wishes of the Association of Municipal Corporations on this point is really rather letting down the rest of the country for the sake of an object which cannot be achieved.

I have asked over and over again when the Government expect the appointed day to happen in London. I find it very hard to get a mental picture either of when the appointed day will come or of what will happen when the appointed day does come. The first Amendment on the Paper to-day, which I moved, would have produced a series of changes leading up to the appointed day. I am rather afraid that some people think that one fine morning there is going to be a miracle, and suddenly everybody living in small overcrowded houses is going to burst forth and find himself in a large and spacious dwelling. I am not very optimistic about the appointed day and I would welcome any assurance that I can have from the Front Bench as to when they expect the appointed day to come in London. I feel that unless we can be told that without my Amendment the appointed day is going to come quite soon, and that with my Amendment the appointed day will be indefinitely postponed, and unless very good reasons can be given for supporting that view, this Amendment is one which ought to be pressed. It is an Amendment which I offer to your Lordships and I hope I shall receive some support. I should not think of pressing the Amendment to a Division unless I received general support at his late stage in the Bill. If I did receive general support I should be willing to go to a Division.

Amendment moved— Page 76, line 20, at end insert the said proviso.—(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)


My Lords, I am afraid again I have to oppose my noble friend's Amendment because I think this is an attempt once more to drag in the elimination of the living room as a room which must be counted in assessing accommodation for a family. This point has been raised over and over again by the Socialist Party, but without success, and some people seem to forget that there are thousands of people living in bed-sitting rooms and in two rooms whose comfort and convenience would very seriously be restricted by an Amendment of this nature.


My Lords, we again return to this question of standards, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, has very much at heart. I must point out that it is regarded by the Government as one of the most important matters in the whole Bill, and has been considered so throughout the proceedings. The noble Lord says that this Amendment is supported by the Association of Municipal Corporations, but I can only repeat what I have said before that, throughout, the Government have been in the closest possible consultation with the Association of Municipal Corporations.


The noble Viscount will not dispute that there have been fresh representations within the last few days from the Association of Municipal Corporations.


That is so, but it is somewhat late in the day to seek to make a change of this magnitude in the Bill. I must also remind your Lordships that this Amendment was only submitted, I think, on Friday morning. The noble Lord pointed out the difficulty, as to which I think everybody will agree, of having the same standard all over the country. It is obviously a very difficult thing to apply this standard all over the country, but there are also very grave difficulties in applying more than one penal standard in various parts of the country. I do not think I need go into them, but it is clearly a matter that demands the very closest attention if you are proposing to make a change of that sort. I would also remind the House that this question has not only been closely considered by the Association of Municipal Corporations and local authorities generally; it has also been debated at considerable length both in another place and in this House. And I think those debates have shown two things. They have brought out the point that the noble Lord himself admitted—namely, that insistence on a higher standard would produce very great difficulties for the authorities, and great delays, and the problem we are trying to solve might not be so easily solved by insistence on these high standards. They also have brought out the point that it is not so very easy to suggest alternatives which carry into effect the intention of those who wish to insist on a higher standard. We had a fairly good example of that on the last occasion, when my noble friends Lord Balfour of Burleigh and Lord Dudley, no doubt with the great knowledge they have and after very careful consideration with their advisers, put down Amendments which, as was conclusively shown to your Lordships, would have very anomalous results. I think the noble Lords themselves admitted that the Amendments would have those results.

The present Amendment gets over some of the anomalies arising from the point in his original Amendment that the number of people allowed in a house should be determined by the size of the living room. This is a variation of that Amendment, and it does meet some of the objections we put forward. But there are still anomalies in the present Amendment. For instance, a house of three rooms would, under this Amendment, be allowed the same number of tenants as a house of two rooms, which is a somewhat surprising provision. It also leads to other anomalies, because, although a house of three rooms containing four persons would be overcrowded under the noble Lord's present standard, that overcrowding would be got over if one of these rooms were let to a different family separately. That is an illustration, I think, of the extreme difficulty of drafting Amendments to bring about a situation that might be desired. Apart from these anomalies, we consider that to insist that not more than three persons should inhabit a house of three rooms is too high a standard for general application. I quite agree with what the noble Lord said as to the undesirability of persons sleeping in the living room where it is not necessary, but it is an exceedingly difficult thing to define a "living room." As I have said on a previous Amendment put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, all classes would resent very strongly the degree of inspection, inspection into the minute details of family life, which would be necessitated before we could say definitely that one room is habitually used as 'a "living room." Although we sympathise with the objects of the noble Lord's Amendment, we think that the broad effect of this very high standard makes it impossible for the Government to accept it.


My Lords, I am sorry that even at this late hour the Government are not prepared to accept this Amendment. I have always thought that "Better late than never" had a great deal of truth in it. I would rather like to have said a word about our discussion on the Committee stage, for the noble Viscount rather twitted me with having produced an anomaly. He overlooked the fact that the square feet provision did apply to the smaller house as well as to the larger. I did not debate the point at that time. Now he has produced another anomaly, to which I have no doubt, when I submit it to my advisers, I shall find there is a complete answer, if only I were clever enough to think of it now. The only consolation I can derive from the present position is that I hope—and I hope the noble Viscount will be prepared to say—that the present position may be regarded as experimental.

If the present position may be regarded as experimental, I hope I can have an assurance on the point—as I am sure I can have, because it is not committing the Government to anything—that the working of this Bill is going to be very closely watched, and that the local authorities will be consulted on the subject, so that the anomalies, if and when they arise, which we all fear, and also the failure to lay down a proper standard, about which I am apprehensive, will be closely watched and amending legislation, if necessary, introduced. That is as far as we can take the matter to-day. I recognise that the noble Viscount has been extraordinarily kind. He has made a. number of concessions, and I like to think they have all been in the direction of improving the Bill. The fact that the noble Viscount has accepted these Amendments, I think, shows that there must have been some force behind them, and I should like to express my gratitude to him. I ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.


My Lords, I do not think my noble friend would expect me to give any assurance as regards amending legislation before the legislation it is desired to amend has reached the Statute Book, but I can say this, on behalf of my right honourable friend the Minister of Health, that he will obviously have to keep a very close eye on the working of these provisions, and if, at any time, a case were made out for further reference to Parliament, that reference should certainly be made.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Fourth Schedule: