§ Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.
§ THE UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (LORD STRATHCONA AND MOUNT ROYAL)
My Lords, in moving that the House do resolve itself into Committee 606 on this Bill, I will with your Lordships' permission make a short statement which should, more correctly, have been made on the Second Reading stage of the Bill. On that occasion I was unable, owing to a mistake on my part, to give as full an answer as I and the noble Earl should have wished to several questions addressed to me by Lord Leven and Melville, and it would therefore seem to be both courteous and convenient if I took this opportunity now to refer briefly but more fully to the points he raised then, although the noble Earl himself has indicated to me that owing to duties in Scotland he cannot be here this afternoon. On the Second Reading the noble Earl called attention to the lack of time allowed to individual local authorities in which to consider the terms of the Bill before it was submitted to Parliament, and the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, referred to the fact that the negotiations about the financial arrangements embodied in the Bill had been confidential and therefore the negotiating committee representing local authorities were unable to consult their constituent authorities. The Government appreciate the importance of giving local authorities all possible opportunities for considering proposed legislation which affects them so closely as does this Bill.
Your Lordships will recall that I explained on Monday that the financial arrangements embodied in the Bill had been the subject of discussion with representatives of local authorities for about a year. These discussions were conducted with a small committee of experts appointed by the Associations of local authorities for the purpose. It is only by such means that complicated negotiations of the kind in question can possibly be carried out, and while the discussions were confidential in the sense that they could not have been made public in the Press or elsewhere without causing embarrassment before agreement had been reached, the representatives of local authorities were at liberty to approach such persons as they thought it necessary to consult. The negotiations ended in October, and the Secretary of State met the Associations of local authorities as soon as was possible thereafter—on the 28th October—and explained the proposals to them. I can assure your Lordships that the Secretary of State would 607 have wished to have been able to give local authorities longer time for this purpose, and had he had any doubt about their attitude he would have hesitated to introduce the Bill at the beginning of the Session. Having met the Associations, however, he was confident that the proposed arrangements would be welcomed by local authorities as a whole, and in these circumstances he felt justified in proceeding with the Bill in order that he might honour his pledge to make the new subsidies available from January 1, 1939.
The noble Earl, Lord Leven and Melville, pointed out during the Second Reading debate that the Bill recognised the increased cost of building new houses, and asked, in effect, whether it was proposed to increase the grants under the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts to meet the increased cost of improving houses for agricultural workers. The whole question of the grants under the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts was considered a few months ago when an Act was passed continuing the period of their operation until September, 1942. That Act, in addition, authorised local authorities to give an increased grant of £50 in certain cases where the owner proposed to enlarge his house for the relief of overcrowding. Apart from this, while the normal maximum grant under the Acts is one of £100 per reconstructed house, the information in the possession of the Department of Health shows that the average grant paid by local authorities amounts to £87 per house. This does not suggest that the existing grants are insufficient for the type of reconstructions which owners are undertaking.
The grants under the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts are not, however, the only assistance that is available to private owners in rural districts for housing purposes. Where the condition of a house on a farm is so bad that it could be reconditioned only at heavy or unreasonable expense, towards which the grant under the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts would be an insufficient contribution, the proper course may well be to replace the house by a new one. For this purpose the Housing (Agricultural Population) (Scotland) Act, which, too, was passed only a few months ago, makes a lump sum grant varying from £160 to £200 available 608 to private owners for each new house provided. Let me add that I was interested to note that the noble Earl was happy about the uselfulness of this measure, and I should like to assure him in his absence that the Government are anxious that full advantage should be taken of the available Exchequer assistance for the continued improvement of housing conditions in rural districts. With regard to what Lord Leven said about the submission of applications of grants under the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts to the Department, I would like to explain to your Lordships that the Secretary of State regards the arrangement as an experiment, and that he is carefully watching its effects. The noble Earl may feel assured that this scrutiny of applications is not permitted to cause delay. The Secretary of State has taken special steps to obviate this danger, and in the majority of cases the Department dispose of the application in the course of a few days. Where it is necessary to correspond with the local authority about particular proposals, this is done as expeditiously as possible, and the Department are frequently able to suggest improvements in the plans.
The other matter to which the noble Earl referred during the Second Reading debate was the need for private houses at rents which the tenants could afford to pay. In the limited time available to me on that occasion I explained that local authorities must, in fixing the rents, take into consideration the rents ruling in the locality for working-class houses, and that they have power to give to any tenant whose financial circumstances so warrant, rebates from rent to enable him to occupy the accommodation which he requires. That is the general statutory position. I think, however, that the noble Earl had particularly in mind the position in rural areas. I should explain that, apart from the power to grant rebates in particular cases, provision has been made for special subsidies in rural areas where only limited rents are obtainable. In the first place, the present Bill proposes to continue the special subsidies payable in remote areas. In these areas, which are mainly areas in the Highlands and Islands, building costs are frequently high because of the remoteness of the sites from supplies of building labour and materials, and additional Exchequer assistance is given according to the circumstances of each particular case to 609 enable the houses to be let at rents approximating to those payable in the district by persons employed in agriculture or fishing. Where such additional subsidies are granted from the Exchequer, no additional rate contribution is asked for from the local authority, and the Bill makes the assistance available not only for the relief of overcrowding as before, but also for the building of houses for slum clearance purposes. In the second place, the Housing (Agricultural Population) (Scotland) Act makes generous subsidies available for the rehousing of persons of the agricultural population, and the low rents normally obtainable for the houses built for this class are taken into account in determining the amount of the subsidies to be paid by the Exchequer.
Finally, Lord Saltoun asked whether the Government were sure that the granting of the new subsidies in the Bill would not be followed by a new increase in building costs. I would like to assure your Lordships that building costs have for some months shown a tendency to remain relatively stable and it appears that the peak has been reached. There is no general shortage of building materials and the Secretary of State hopes that the supply of skilled labour available for housing work will increase. In these circumstances it would be reasonable to expect that building costs would tend to fall rather than to increase. Housing contracts are, however, subject to the approval of the Department of Health, and the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, may be assured that the Department would not approve any increase in cost which they did not think was justified. Apart from this the local authorities themselves keep a close watch on building costs and are disinclined to enter into contracts which they consider involve too much expenditure. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.)
My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend very much for the statement he has made, and to apologise that I was not here in time to hear the commencement of it. I did not realise it would begin so soon.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly: Bill reported without amendment.