§ 3.1 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.
§ LORD MANCROFT
My Lords, on behalf of the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, I now ask your Lordships to accompany me into the calmer and less controversial waters of the Housing Repairs and Rents Bill, of which we now seek a Third Reading. This is the fifth day upon which the House has devoted its attention to this Bill, a Bill which the Government rightly regard as of major consequence. In the course of these five days we have seen upon the Order Paper something, like seventy Amendments. This Bill has received most careful and expert scrutiny from all quarters of the House. It is now an even better Bill than it was when it first came before your Lordships some weeks ago. Of the seventy Amendments, quite a few have found their way into the final printing of the Bill—although I expect not so many as would have pleased the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, opposite. But if we have not been able to improve the Bill in the way he would have wished, at least I can assure him that the skilful, searching and good-tempered examination which he himself directed to the Bill has done nothing except improve the already high political standing which he holds in your Lordships' House.
Luckily, therefore, there is little left for me to say upon the Bill. There is little of principle which still divides us. Unlike the major nationalisation measures, this Bill is not a measure of which the principles are at fundamental issue. Surely there can be no division of purpose on the Bill—only, perhaps, of method. After all, the purpose behind this Bill is something which I should have thought no man of good will could readily contradict. In one sentence, the object of the Bill is to put more good roofs over more people's heads. I would emphasise that this Bill is not to be taken as an isolated measure; it is not to be regarded by itself. It is part and parcel of the housing policy of Her Majesty's Government; it is part and parcel of the Government's vigorous and, if I may say so, successful drive to put more good roofs over more people's heads. Therefore, surely we are not divided on its 1133 purposes. Surely too we are not divided upon the Government's insistence upon the urgency of this matter.
We have been questioned once or twice upon the matter of redundancy. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and his noble friends have asked us more than once, "Why have you put this in the Bill? It is redundant." We maintain the need for insistence upon the urgency of this measure. Surely too we need not quarrel any longer upon the definition of fitness, which caused the House to differ a little, both in Committee and on Report. I think this clause is the first time any attempt has been made to define fitness or unfitness for habitation of a house. The only quarrel I have with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and his friends, is that they, in their definition, were building for Utopia, and we are building for something a little more practicable. We think it better to have a standard which can reasonably be attained, rather than their standard, which, ideal and splendid though it may be, is not really capable of practical attainment. Surely we are no longer going to quarrel over the need for provision for modernisation and conversion. We have sought to make the grants more effective. We have reached agreement with noble Lords opposite on the question of minimum life. It is this portion of the Bill that we consider so important, because it seeks to provide for the prohibition of new slums. We seek elsewhere in the Bill the quicker pulling down of existing slums. We also seek to prevent the creation of new slums. That is a most important feature of the Bill. So much for the first Part of the Bill, which, now that we have threshed it out, I think has won more or less the general approval of the House.
Part II has been more controversial, but upon one thing at least we are agreed. We are agreed, surely, that the increased cost of repairs to-day, of which we are all too well aware, has made controlled rents inadequate to keep the nation's stock of houses in good repair. In Part II of the Bill we make a sincere and, I think, courageous attempt to deal with this admittedly difficult problem. When he introduced the Bill, in a masterly speech upon Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor expressed the gentle hope that we should hear not too much talk about a "landlords' ramp" or "mouldy turnips." We 1134 have luckily had no such excursions into the finer aspects of the English language. On the contrary, there has been no accusation—certainly not from this side, nor from the opposite side of the House—that landlords are attempting, or will be enabled, to "make a good thing" out at this Bill. If I may say so, your Lordships have been more "turnip-minded" than "ramp-minded," for many noble Lords, especially those sitting behind me—the noble Lord, Lord Broughshane, and those who think like him—have made the point more than once that the incentive is not really such as to encourage the landlord to get on with his job. With respect, we do not agree with that point of view. The Government feel that the incentive here is just enough. They feel that the balance has been neatly struck, to such a degree that the landlord will be encouraged to carry out his responsibilities as a good landlord. Conversely, the tenant's rights have been fully protected under the Bill. Indeed, more protection has been inserted in the Bill in Committee in your Lordships' House.
I must add that it is not intended that houses that demand an enormous amount of money spent upon them should be benefited under this Bill. In that respect, I have considerable sympathy with the views put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, upon the low-rented agricultural cottage. Here I must advance the same argument that I advanced a moment or two ago on Lord Silkin's Utopian standards. Of course, there will be houses which this Bill will not benefit—we fully appreciate that. But we think it better to tackle the position in a practical way, rather than try to produce a plan which will be effective for every house and every condition which can possibly be envisaged. That being so, what are the alternatives that face us, if we desire to solve this problem of increasing decay to our houses?
There are three courses open to us, I submit. We can do nothing; we can sit back and let our slums grow and let existing slums go down into worse decay. Secondly, we can do what the Government have sought to do in this Bill, to do that which I suggest to your Lordships as a practical and sensible solution to this difficult problem. The third solution is one with which we have seen a certain amount of political flirtation, 1135 though not in your Lordships' House. We have seen members of the Party opposite suggest that the correct solution to the whole of this problem is to hand over all houses to municipal ownership. I had hoped to draw the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and his friends to give us their views on that question, but fortunately for them, and unfortunately for me, they proved to be too wise politically and too sensible practically to give their views on this extremely tendentious and, I should have thought, extravagant and impracticable scheme. So we are forced back on the only thing possible, the scheme put forward in the Bill of which I am now seeking a Third Reading.
There are only two things left. The first is to make quite certain that everybody concerned—landlords, tenants, local authorities and others—is fully aware of the principles contained in this admittedly complicated Bill. We are, therefore, in response to requests made here and elsewhere, seeing that when the Bill, as we hope, passes into law every effort will be made to explain its provisions to those by whom it will be carried into effect. The last thing needed is the good will of those who genuinely seek to put more houses and more good roofs over more people's heads. In the five days' debates in this House we have been singularly free from political or Party prejudice. The Bill has been threshed out on its merits, and the Government are grateful to noble Lords opposite, and to noble Lords in all parts of the House who have participated in the debates, for the manner in which they have devoted their attention, their skill, their knowledge and their experience to this complex matter. We only hope now that the sensible and unbiased approach which was directed to this Bill in this House may be carried beyond the walls of this House, where perhaps a certain amount of unscrupulous Party political capital may be made out of this Bill—and, indeed, is being made out of this Bill. That, I feel, is not the way in which this Bill should be carried into law, and from law into practice. After all, it seems to me, and has seemed to me throughout the length and breadth of the discussions on this Bill, that roofs and houses are a great deal more important 1136 than votes. I beg to move that this Bill be read a third time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Mancroft.)
§ 3.13 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I had not intended to deal at any length with the merits of this Bill to which we are about to give a Third Reading, but the noble Lord who has just spoken has made every possible attempt to draw me, both by flattery and by challenge, and I feel that to a limited extent I must succumb. I made my speech on Second Reading, and I then pointed out what I thought were the defects of this Bill. I still think that those defects remain. In spite of the charming way in which the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has explained what happened during those five laborious days, this Bill is, in essence, exactly what it was when it came here.
The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, who was in charge of the enemy on his left, was most courteous, friendly and clear in his explanations; and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, who dealt with the enemy behind him, was equally friendly and helpful; and, of course, the discussions on this Bill were conducted in a spirit of good temper throughout. But the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, who is going to follow me, will speak for the enemy behind the Government, and he may indicate what satisfaction they have derived from the long discussions we have had on this Bill. Speaking from memory, I think that the noble Viscount achieved one minor victory: I believe that now that it is proposed to allow increased rents on account of increasing rates the procedure is going to be a little simpler than it has been in the past. That is a great feather in the noble Viscount's cap, and he can flourish it in those quarters in which he moves as something which he has achieved. But I think that is all.
So far as we on this side of the House are concerned, we objected to the reduction from thirty years to ten years of the period for which a house required to have an expected life to justify public money being spent on it, and we have been met by an increase of five years. We have had one word added to the Bill—namely, the word "repair," which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack explained could not matter less. 1137 Other than that, we have had one minor concession. A large number of Government Amendments have been introduced. I make no complaint about that. I have no doubt that those Amendments have improved the Bill, and that when the noble Lord spoke of the great improvement to this Bill he had those Government Amendments in mind—he could not have had in mind the Amendments accepted or introduced as a result of argument in this House. The Amendments which have been made are the sort which every Government introduce in this House when they have not had the opportunity of introducing them in another place; they are the results of undertakings given in another place, of second thoughts, and of the draftsman's polishing up. And I am sure that if the Bill remained in this House for another twelve months it would still be possible to introduced a few further Government Amendments to polish up the Bill in various ways. But I repeat that, in essence, this Bill is still as it was when it came here, and the objections which I and my noble friends raised to it on Second Reading remain.
In deference to the noble Lord who introduced this Motion, I will refer to only two points in what he said. The first is on the question of standards. I give the Government credit—and I gave them credit—for having made an attempt to define "good repair" in this Bill. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mancraft, that this is the first time that anybody has attempted this task. But the definition I sought to insert was by no means idealistic; it was based on the Report of a hard-headed body of people, appointed by a former Minister of Health, under the chairmanship of a person who is not a member of my political persuasion, and including members who are not of my political persuasion, who unanimously arrived at a certain definition. If I am idealistic in asking that Her Majesty's Government should accept that definition of "good repair," then we are all idealists—indeed, I hope that we are—and I make no apology for that at all.
The other matter dealt with by the noble Lord was the question of the protection of the tenant. I still feel that the tenant is inadequately protected against improper demands for increase of rent. I am not for a moment suggesting that 1138 increases of rent are not justified; that is not and never has been part of my case. Noble Lords will remember the debate that we had about eighteen months ago, initiated by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster. I expressed my views then, and I adhere to them: that if we can attach an increase of rent to repair, that is the right thing to do. Houses all over the country are getting into a bad state of repair, and I accept the fact that in many cases that is due to the inadequate return that landlords are getting on their property.
I expressed the view in that debate, and I adhere to it, that an increase of rent is justified to enable a landlord to carry out necessary repairs. This Bill, however, does not achieve that. It rewards landlords who have already expended a certain amount of money, and whose property is in a good slate of repair. But I agree with noble Lords opposite who say that the inducements, the incentives, in this Bill are quite inadequate to induce landlords of properties that are in a bad state of repair to put them in a good state of repair. While the motives of Her Majesty's Government may be quite sincere—and I have never challenged people's motives; I think it is far too difficult a proposition to enter into people's minds, hearts and souls and find out what their motives are, and I am prepared to accept that the motives of everybody are excellent until the opposite is proved—nevertheless, I have maintained and still maintain that this Bill will not achieve what noble Lords opposite desire to achieve. It just will not work. If the object is—and I accept it—to provide a good roof over the heads of as many families as possible in this country, then I say that this Bill will not achieve it.
§ The noble Lord asks: what are the possible alternatives? He says that we can sit back and do nothing. Nobody suggests that. There is this Bill which, in my opinion, does virtually nothing, or very little. I submit that that is not a real alternative. Then there is the alternative to which the noble Lord referred and which he rather travestied—the alternative put forward by my political friends. I submitted on the occasion of the Second Reading, and I submit again, that, whether we wish it or not, events are moving in the direction of public ownership of the type of property which 1139 is under consideration in this Bill. It is an inevitable process. Just as to-day it is recognised that private enterprise cannot economically provide new housing for the general public at rents which they can afford to pay, so I submit that noble Lords opposite sooner or later will have to come to the inevitable conclusion that, by and large, private owners cannot carry out necessary repairs to their properties and let them at rents which people can afford to pay.
§ Consequently, we shall be driven sooner or later—gradually, if you like—to a process of public ownership of this type of property, and my political friends have all taken the view that this has got to be a very gradual process. And so have noble Lords opposite, because what does this Bill do? Does not this Bill provide for an increasing degree of public ownership of this type of property? It facilitates the acquisition by local authorities of this type of house; it facilitates their acquiring these houses, putting them into repair and retaining them in their ownership. Why does the noble Lord, who has been at such pains to demonstrate how much in agreement we are, want to maximise the difference on this particular issue? I would prophesy that in twenty years' time it is a thing which will be accepted universally as the only way of dealing with the housing problem. However, here we are, and there is the noble Lord. As I said, we have spent five laborious days on this Bill. I have spent more than five laborious days on it, because a certain amount of preparation and consideration of Amendments is involved, however bad they may be—and possibly the worse the Amendment the longer time is needed for consideration and preparation. I am wondering what has been the outcome of these five days that have been taken out of my life. I submit it is exactly nothing, or precious little.
§ One begins to wonder what is the function of this House. Is this House a revising Chamber, or is it merely a Chamber which registers the decision arrived at in another place by a body of people who come to certain decisions and impose those views on their Ministers, who then impose them on noble Lords in this House? Because, with great respect to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, they were not in a position to accept any 1140 of the Amendments that we put forward. All they could do was to say that they would consider them without commitment, and then go back to their masters—I say that in no offensive term, because I have been in exactly their position myself—and tell them what had been said in this House. In any case their masters are able to find that out for themselves, because presumably they can read and are in a position to see Hansard. They then come back and say that there is nothing, or very little, which can be done.
§ The question arises—and I submit this quite seriously—what is to be the function of this House? It is conceivable, of course, that all the twenty-four Amendments that we moved from this side of the House were absurd Amendments which were not worthy of serious argument and could not possibly be accepted. That may be so. I would submit that they were put forward in all seriousness. Having given noble Lords opposite credit for sincerity and for the purity of their motives, I hope they will do the same and accept the fact that we put forward these Amendments not in the sense of trying to frustrate the Government in the work they are doing, but because we genuinely believe that they were improvements on the Bill. They were put forward, and admittedly there was a conflict of view. May I say this—and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will not be offended if I remind him of it. However small our numbers in this House may be, we do represent as large a proportion of the population of this country as he does. There may be fractional decimal points of difference from week to week according to the Gallup polls, but, by and large, I would say it is true that we represent—and this can be judged by the General Election—a larger number of people in this country than do noble Lords opposite. Therefore, the views that we put forward are, I submit, entitled to a certain amount of respect. Even if noble Lords cannot see their way to agree entirely with what we put forward, is there not room for some kind of compromise?
§ At the moment, we are the victims of something which is novel in our political life, and that is of Governments coming in and completely undoing the work of their predecessors. There is a bill totting up to-day of work now being done, which it has been hinted will be undone. I want 1141 to say frankly, speaking for myself, that that is a deplorable state of affairs. We believe in evolution, we do not believe in revolution; and the upsetting by one Government of the work of another is legislation by revolution. But how is it to be avoided? I submit that it can be avoided by due regard being paid by the Government in office to the views of the Opposition. That does not mean that they must accept blindly whatever the Opposition choose to put forward—of course not. But it does mean that they have to take into account the views which the Opposition strongly hold and possibly meet those views half-way. In this case, with all the courtesy, with all the good will and good temper with which the stages of this Bill have been conducted in this House, as stages of Bills generally are, I feel that that has not been the case. We have been met with a reasoned case but with a flat refusal on every Amendment, even when there has been a suggestion that the matter should be looked at again without commitment. I must and do assume, in favour of Her Majesty's Government, that they have looked at it again, but I have no definite knowledge of that. Even the normal courtesy of a discussion between the Committee stage and the Report stage, which sometimes takes place and is, I think, a most profitable thing to happen, and which took place almost invariably when we were in office, was not accorded on this occasion.
§ I felt it my duty to speak frankly about this matter, because it does make one wonder what is to be one's own position. Of course, I can speak only for myself, but is one really justified in devoting so much of one's time and effort for so little result? Other Bills are coming along and one wonders what is the right thing for one to do if that is going to be the attitude in future. There is a pretty full programme in front of us, and if the result is going to be that we are to be told, "We have considered it somewhere, somehow, sometime, but there is nothing we can do," in however charming terms that refusal is couched, it will not encourage the work which this House is designed to do. I am a believer in the need for this House; I believe it has a great part to play. But that part can be played only if the voice of all sides of the House is listened to and treated with 1142 respect and a genuine effort is made on both sides to arrive at a conciliation. Having said that, I am not going to stand in the way of this Bill's receiving a Third Reading. Let it go forward. I have hardly ever known a Bill which has been received less joyfully by its so-called supporters. I shall listen with great interest to what the noble Viscount has to say in its favour.
§ 3.33 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BUCKMASTER
My Lords, I always enjoy the friendly exchanges which I have been fortunate enough to have with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. To-day, I am not quite sure whether he is seeking to disarm me by placing a feather in my cap or my helmet, whether with gentle shafts of irony he is trying to pierce my armour, or whether, as a leader of rebels, he is trying to win me over to his side. Whatever may be his purpose I have greatly enjoyed what he has said. I will attempt to answer, if I may, shortly, one or two of the topics to which he has alluded. He will understand that to those of us who have not his wide knowledge of housing, to answer across the Floor of the House, at a moment's notice, without figures in one's possession, a complex point may not be easy. In any event, I shall he short.
The first thing I think the noble Lord said was that we were passing into a phase of public ownership of, if not all anyhow a large part of rent-restricted property. That involves finance. It involves not merely the capital finance but continuing finance. I shall be grateful if the noble Lord will follow me and correct me if I am wrong, but I believe I am right in saying that at this moment subsidies on council houses are reaching the £100 million pounds a year mark; and that figure, as all noble Lords who understand the subject appreciate to the full, is not a static figure. It is going up slowly, not at the speed of a jet-propelled rocket but, none the less, at a steady climbing rate; and with the best will in the world I am unable to see how the noble Lord could suggest, first, that the vast sums of capital needed could be found and, secondly, how we could control that ever-rising figure of annual expenditure.
The noble Lord referred to a number of Amendments, and in his usual happy and genial way pointed out the lack of success which has attended my own 1143 efforts. I have no quarrel with that (perhaps I am more fortunate than some people) but what is more important is this—and I know that the noble Lord has always been good enough to accept absolutely what I say as being most sincerely meant. I was, and I make no bones about it, in sympathy with many of the Amendments which the noble Lord put forward. On one occasion, he will recollect, I did not attend a Division, but I applied myself to these Amendments—in particular the one about which he has spoken—and I am going to say frankly that the one with which I had most sympathy was that which placed on the landlord the onus of producing a certificate of good repair. I have been anxious, and I am sure the Minister is anxious, lest small people living in property controlled by these limited resources shall be called upon to pay an increase which they are unwilling to dispute and which cannot, in justice, be demanded. The legislation to-day is the same as it was before. A certificate of disrepair has not always proved effective, but let it not be forgotten that, if it is effective, the landlord loses not only the present increase but also the 25 per cent. granted under the Act of 1920. To come back to the noble Lord's point, I simply do not believe (I went into it very carefully and discussed this with the noble Lord) it to be a practical proposition to ask every landlord to produce such a certificate. Had I felt that it was, I should without hesitation have supported the noble Lord's Amendment.
I have already spoken longer than was my intent, but I felt it would be discourteous to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, if I were any shorter. Moreover, I wanted him, and, I hope, others of your Lordships, to feel that the Amendments proposed by him and by other noble Lords opposite have received sincerely careful and conscientious consideration, not merely from the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, but from those of us who sit behind him and who, whether we were wearing feathers in our caps or not, whether we were rebels or not, would not have hesitated to tell him if we were, on reflection, in disagreement with him. This Bill is a first attempt to deal with that to which no agreed solution can be found. Unfortunately, the Bill is complex. It is a disappointment to me, not in regard to the rewards which it offers but in regard 1144 to the fact that it takes us no nearer to the goal of the revision of the existing law and consolidation, a goal towards which most of us who have applied ourselves to the subject have striven. It is true that in some cases the Bill, unavoidably, may still permit hardship and injustice, though of course it levels out many anomalies. But if the hardships and injustices in some cases still exist noble Lords opposite will agree, as they have done so generously, that it is certainly not the intention of the Minister that that should be so. I should like to add this: should this Bill in any way leave open a door through which the landlord may abuse his position, I trust that it will be speedily closed. It may be so, and there may be flaws in the Bill. I would go even further and say that if, as a result of the passing of this Bill, in exceptional cases the landlord is enabled to impose an increase which inflicts hardship, I hope that in such case the landlord will be temperate.
The main purpose of the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Mancroft has said, is to see that the people of this country have houses in which they can live fitly and for which no unduly expensive rent is charged. If it is to achieve that purpose, all those who are involved, and particularly the local authorities, must be ready to share their responsibility for the task. As I see it, a particular burden rests on the local authorities, not only in the first Part of the Bill but also in the second Part, in seeing that houses are kept in good repair. This Bill must be judged solely as a part of a great constructive plan for rehousing our people; it must not be judged in isolation. Judged in the way I have suggested, and judged also as an attempt made, with no small courage, to accomplish something that no other Government have attempted to achieve, I venture to congratulate the Minister upon the Bill.
§ 3.42 p.m.
My Lords, I think that very few noble Lords opposite who know me well and are my friends—I do not see many who are not—will ever accuse me of signing too willingly on the line dotted by the Conservative Party or any other Party. It has always been my contention—and noble Lords behind me know that I am always fighting for it—that this House is not a lit de justice for the Conservative Party; we ought to criticise the Conservative Party when 1145 they are in power just as strongly as we do the Socialist Party when they are in power. In that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. But I should like to say that when he stood up and said how many people he represented and how many people we represented, the noble Lord was bringing to this House just that topic which I always hoped and wished would be banished for ever to another place. After all, this House had its origin in the heads of families, and when we in this House criticise Bills it is in accordance with tradition that we should criticise them on how they are likely to work, the political battle having been fought out elsewhere.
But how this Bill will work is another matter. The reason why I voted against a number of Amendments put down by noble Lords opposite was largely because it seemed to me—and your Lordships will pardon me if I am mistaken, or possibly I may be prejudiced—that not only were they Socialist Amendments, but they were argued on the political line and not in relation to the question of how the Bill was going to work and how the matter would pan out in practice. When noble Lords opposite argue on the line of how the Bill will work in practice they will always find me very willing to entertain what they say.
I will say only a word on the Bill, and how it will work out in practice. Noble Lords opposite and on this side of the House say that the inducements in this Bill are not sufficient to lead anybody to invest capital. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has said that he is always willing to allow extra rent to compensate for repairs. Probably the difference between the noble Lord and myself on this matter would be that when you allow extra rent for repairs you have also to allow for the amortisation of those repairs, because no repairs last for ever and you must put back the money that the repairs cost as well as pay the interest on the money. That has always seemed to me the weakness of allowing an increase of rent to compensate for repairs. I do not think that the inducements given under this Bill are sufficient to lead anybody to invest money on repairs; it merely means that he will lose less than he would otherwise lose. What I think will happen is that, perhaps in a year's time, the Government will be forced to bring in an amending 1146 Bill, increasing the remuneration in return for repairs which people are induced to make. This seems to me to be the weakness of the Bill; but so far as its machinery is concerned I am wholly in support of it.
§ 3.46 p.m.
My Lords, unfortunately, through circumstances outside my control, which included my own house, I was unable to be present during the five days occupied with the passage of this Bill. I should like to assure your Lordships, however, that through the Press, I watched the passage of the Bill with the greatest interest. Three points emerged and they have stuck in my memory. First, the Bill provides for local government possession and clearance of slums, which to my mind is a most important matter to-day. With reference to the question as between landlords and tenants of repairs, I can only say that in my own experience of the last few weeks, smaller tenants have been showing eagerness to acquire their own properties. That is my experience as a result of sales put forward by myself in the past three years. I feel strongly that the question of repairs should be gone into under the following headings: first, there is the actual clearance of present slums. That is going to occupy the attention of local authorities long enough, without their acquiring more properties. Secondly, I think the smaller tenants will during the next four or five years become more keen to acquire their own properties, and, with Government backing, through building societies, will acquire money to do their own repairs, the balance being done by the landlords under conditions agreed with the tenants. There, as shortly as I can make it and as time allows, you have a précis of the possible first steps that this Bill will provide.
I wish to deal with one other point—namely, the conversion into multiple habitations of buildings which in the past have been single habitations. It is not so long ago that the association in your Lordships' House known as the Independent Unionist Peers had a meeting with the right honourable gentleman, the Minister in another pace, at which this subject was discussed. In answer to a question put to him he promised to see that Government help will be vouchsafed 1147 through financial institutions, to enable capital to be acquired for the conversion into flats and maisonettes of houses no longer suitable for single habitations. I can assure your Lordships that the lack of facilities to obtain capital is a great factor in restricting the number of such conversions to-day. It is a fact that the Minister was not aware of this impediment.
Therefore, in spite of the numerous observations made that this Bill is only a beginning and cannot be looked at as anything else, I feel that it is a ray of sunshine where dark clouds have been overhanging the horizon. I feel also that, as time goes on, the Government will find themselves in a position to hand out help more liberally to landlords and tenants alike. I feel we must make this Bill work, in the hope of better things in the not far distant future.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships very long. I think my first observation must be that this Third Reading of the Bill has displayed once more what a wealth of knowledge and experience on this subject matter there is in this House, and I am sure that your Lordships will regret with me that the noble Viscount, Lord Portman, who has just made such a useful contribution, was not able to be here during the other stages of the Bill.
There are one or two specific points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in his speech with which I should like to deal before I come to the somewhat broad generalisations in which he indulged on the standing duties and functions of this House. The noble Lord commented, in particular, on the fact that Her Majesty's Government had not been able to make the concession which he asked for in regard to the definition of "good repair," and he cited in support of his argument the Report of the Committee—I think it was called the Mitchell Committee—from which the definition of "good repair" emanated. But the noble Lord, if he will forgive me for saying so, repeated once more the error which he had made in Committee upon the Bill, for that Report was careful to add in a paragraph that, while the definition of "good repair" was not definitely laid 1148 down, that could be done and they were looking forward to a distant date. This Bill deals not with a distant date but with to-morrow, and accordingly it was impossible to give full effect to the definition which the Mitchell Committee postulated. That was the answer which I made then and venture to make again to the noble Lord to-day.
Another point he made was in regard to protection of tenants against improper demands. I can only repeat to-day what I said both on Second Reading and in Committee, that this is the aspect of the Bill which has caused us most anxiety and to which we have given most consideration. And I say, with all the emphasis that I have, that, having given it that consideration, Her Majesty's Government believe that they are giving a fair deal both to landlord and tenant in this important matter. I do not believe that in this Bill there will be any loophole for unjust demands to be made by landlords upon tenants. I am very sure of this: that if there is a landlord who is so foolish, so wicked and so reckless as to make demands which the Bill does not [...]ntitle him to make, then he may well find himself the subject of criminal proceedings. That is a safeguard which, to my mind, is very important. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, also spoke of increased rent as a reward for landlords who have kept their property in good repair. But it is more than that, for the Bill prescribes that the increased rent can be paid only while the building is maintained in good repair; and therefore if at any time it falls into disrepair, and the landlord does not put it back into good repair, the tenant will have the same remedy. The increased rent is not only a reward for keeping the property in past repair, it is an incentive and a condition that the property shall continue to be kept in good repair.
Then the noble Lord referred to the fact, or he made the suggestion, that nothing would come of this Bill. Well, we have challenged him as to what he would do. He said that he would not sit back and do nothing. Well, the noble Lord sat back and did nothing for six and a half years—but, still, I take it from him that he would not indeed sit back and do nothing. But what would he do? The noble Lord answered Lord Mancroft's challenge, and he nailed his flag securely to this mast: he said that 1149 this kind of property (that is to say, property subject to the Rent Restrictions Acts) should gradually be nationalised and, sooner or later, should be the subject of public ownership. That is far too large a question for me to discuss on the Third Reading of a Bill which does not propose nationalisation, but at least we know that the noble Lord, speaking for his Party, claims that the remedy to-day is public ownership of rent-restricted property. Now we know. That is not, of course, the remedy proposed in this Bill. We hope, on the contrary, that this Bill will enable the system of private ownership and private enterprise to be maintained.
The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, strayed into a much wider field. He began by complaining that this Bill is, in essence, the same now as when it was brought to this House. Well, how should it be otherwise? Details may indeed be changed, but in essence, surely, the Government are entitled, if they can, to see that it leaves this House in essence in the same condition in which it arrives here. But I think the noble Lord did not really mean the essence of the Bill; he meant that Amendments dealing with details had not been accepted. I do not think the noble Lord was quite fair to us. I accepted more than one Amendment, and many of the Amendments which were brought forward by the Government, and in particular what I regard as a most important safeguard for tenants, were introduced because of suggestions made from the other side in another place. In fact the Bill as it will be read a third time contains many important Amendments, and I say frankly improvements, which we owe to the suggestion and to the industry of noble Lords opposite.
When the noble Lord went into the wider field and spoke generally of the functions of this House as a Revising Chamber I felt that was perhaps rather a matter for the Leader of the House to deal with than for me. But for myself I will say this: so far as this Bill is concerned, there was not one of the Amendments which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, put forward which was not most earnestly considered. I should not like him to think that when I said—as I more than once said—that I could not commit myself but that his point would be considered by my right honourable friend, that was the 1150 end of it. On the contrary, we did consider very carefully every Amendment in regard to which I had made that observation, and I know that the noble Lord will forgive me if I say this: if I had to do the same thing again I should come to just the same conclusion. We cannot give Amendments merely for the sake of giving Amendments. We must be satisfied that the Amendments improve the Bill.
This was a Bill which—although the guillotine fell in another place—was subject: to the closest consideration, and I do not think there is an item which has not been carefully examined. It arrived in this House, as we venture to think, in a pretty perfect condition, as Bills go. Of course it would be possible for us to bring Bills to this House in a condition in which we could make concessions—we could do that deliberately. But that is not the policy we have, and accordingly it is not, I think, fair to say that this House does not exercise its proper function as a Revising Chamber because, in regard to this particular Bill, having given the matter all the consideration it deserves, we were unable to accept more Amendments than in fact we did. I say that all the more because he and I know that this is only the first of several Bills in regard to which we have to play leading parts on one side or the other. Having made those observations—and I think there is nothing else specific to which I need refer—I will conclude by thanking noble Lords, as my noble friend Lord Mancroft did, for the assistance which they have given to us in the framing of this Bill.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, I must apologise for detaining your Lordships for a few minutes. I hesitated to intervene previously because I thought that a statement was to be made. That was why I did not rise to speak earlier. We on this side of the House are greatly interested in this Bill. I think my noble friend was right when he gave full credit to both sides of the House for their interest in social questions of this kind, and there has been a real attempt to deal with at least part of the problem which the Bill seeks to cover. Nevertheless, when the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack refers to the Mitchell Committee in relation to the definition of "good repair," I think it should be recollected that the Mitchell 1151 Committee Report has been in existence for ten years, and, in considering what should be done now in this Bill, it is not just to turn and say that in this and other matters the Government to which I belonged did not do anything about it for six and a half years. We had a great many other tasks to perform, but we certainly made a considerable contribution to the remedying of social ills which were affecting us in general, and indeed we made no small contribution to housing the people.
I need detain your Lordships only on one other point, concerning the case which my noble friend has put with regard to the consideration of Bills. As the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack has said, this is largely a matter for the Leader of the House. As your Lordships know, the noble Marquess has shown, on more than one occasion in the present Session, his anxiety that the size of the Opposition should not be regarded as indicative of the amount of consideration which should be given to the representations they make. If this House is to be a Revising Chamber it is essential that the fullest consideration should be given to such representations. In the case of this Bill, detailed representations have been made by my noble friend on the matter, but we feel very strongly that there has been practically no move at all. We find ourselves in a very different position with regard to such a Bill from that which we were in in the two previous Governments. We were then a very small minority in the House acting on behalf of a Government with a majority. We have always fully recognised the political wisdom of conferring with the Opposition on those occasions, and on every Bill we did, generally speaking, consult between the stages of the measure with the leading members of the Opposition as to the manner in which Amendments could be dealt with, how far the other side could be accommodated and so on. But so far as I know—
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, would quite agree with what the noble Viscount is now saying. We had most friendly correspondence as to what steps would be taken by Her Majesty's Government in regard to his Amendments, and I should have been most 1152 happy to see him at any time if any useful purpose could have been served by my so doing.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
That is the essence of what I am putting. I agree with my noble friend that there has been a great deal of courtesy shown in the debates, and in the correspondence which has passed between the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and my noble friend. But, of course, if it is a question of consultation only if you can see any benefit coming from it, that is really saying to us, in effect, that there is a Conservative Government in office; that we are supposed to come here, be good boys and put in a good attendance merely to see a rubber stamp put on the work of the other place. That certainly was not the position when we were, as I have said, in a small minority, acting on behalf of the Government, and noble Lords opposite were able to muster a large attendance of critical Peers. All we want is a reasonable understanding as to what should be the course of Bills of this kind in the future. We acknowledge—I think my noble and learned Leader and all my Party are agreed on this—that on occasion there has been such consultation, and not least when the Bill under consideration has been in the hands of the noble Marquess the Leader of the House. That is what we should like to see preserved in the future of the House, because if the House is to continue for any great length of time in the history of this country it is certainly not well that the impression should be given to the very large proportion of the population who happen to agree with our point of view that our representations are not being sufficiently considered in relation to legislation.
§ 4.6 p.m.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I had not intended to intervene in this debate, but in view of what the noble Viscount has just said, perhaps I might say a word or two, though I think he will know already pretty well what I am going to say. I have never concealed my view that in this House we should, so far as possible, act as what has been called a Council of State—the noble Viscount has called it a Revising Chamber. I believe that we should pool our wisdom and experience to improve legislation; 1153 and so far as lies in my power I shall continue on that basis. I do not think it would be true to say that since this Government have been in office there have been no Amendments accepted. I remember, in connection with a Bill for which I was responsible only a short time ago, that Lord Silkin put forward a very important point. We discussed the matter, and as a result he put down an Amendment which we were all glad to accept and which I think, if I may say so, was a very great improvement to the Bill. It does, of course, happen that on some Bills we do better in that respect than in the case of others. All I can say is that I will bear very much in mind what has been said, both by Lord Silkin and by Lord Alexander of Hillsborough; and I will try to see that, so far as is in any way practicable, we do get concrete results from all the considerations we give to these measures.
§ On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments.
THE LORED CHANCELLOR
My Lords, certain Amendments have been put down for Third Reading, but I do not know whether Lord Carrington wishes to make a statement now.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and I both have statements to make. Would it meet the convenience of your Lordships if we should make them now before the House proceeds further with the Bill?