HL Deb 23 March 1965 vol 264 cc551-64

5.12 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill to extend by three years the period during which housing is provided for the Services under the Armed Forces (Housing Loans) Acts and to increase the amount available under those acts by £45 million. The first of these Acts was introduced by a Labour Government in 1949 and covered five years ending in March, 1955. Extensions of the period were made by subsequent Acts in 1953 and 1958, and the total sum of money available under those Acts up to the end of March this year was £95 million. Your Lordships will appreciate that the additional £45 million made available under this Bill for the three coming years represents an appropriation at a much higher annual rate than the £95 million for the previous fifteen years.

The main object of this legislation, including the present Bill, has been to see that the provision of Service housing took a fair place in line with the provision of civilian housing by local authorities. It applies only to housing in Great Britain, and as a matter of practice the houses provided under these arrangements have been such as would be acceptable to local authorities, if their use for the Services was no longer required. A change in the disposition of the Forces may result in a surplus of Service housing in some areas, and in fact such houses are from time to time passed over to local authorities, although not in any large quantity.

The appropriations authorised by these Acts and by this Bill do not represent the full building programme for married quarters. Married quarters abroad and in Northern Ireland are financed out of the normal Votes, as are some in Great Britain which do not meet the criterion I have already mentioned. At home there has since March, 1964, been a three-year programme for the United Kingdom; that is, a programme including the quarters in Great Britain which are the subject of the present Bill. An extension of the programme to cover a further year (1967-68) is now being agreed. The programme for the three years 1964 to 1967 is about twice what was spent in the three years (1961 to 1964) before the present programme was instituted. In the last complete financial year—that is, the financial year ending on March 31, 1964—just over £8 million was spent in this way on Service housing. Similarly, when one looks at the number of houses (or, more correctly, married quarters), about 15,000 are expected to be completed in the three years beginning on April 1, 1965, and that figure is about twice the rate of completion during the preceding three years.

In short, whether we look at the provision of money or its expenditure, or at the rate of completion of married quarters, there has already been some increase, and a further marked increase in now contemplated. I feel sure that your Lordships will agree that it is only right, having in mind the intention of the legislation and of the programme, that the provision of married quarters for the Services should improve in line with such improvements as have been made and such further improvements as are contemplated in the provision of civilian housing.

There is little I need add. There are minor procedural changes, in that the Treasury loans for which the Bill provides are to be made to the Ministry of Public Building and Works, instead of, as hitherto, to the Service Departments. In 1963, the Ministry became responsible for the actual building, with the result that since then loans have been made to the Service Departments who have reimbursed the Ministry. There is no need for this roundabout—hence the present change. The rate of interest payable used to be described as "the appropriate rate", but under this Bill it is "such as the Treasury may determine". The reasons for this change of language were explained fully in another place, but in fact the rate will be the same—that is to say, the rate at which the Exchequer itself borrows. The period of the present extension is three years instead of five years, as in previous Acts. The purpose of the reduced period is to allow an earlier review of whether the loan procedure needs to continue or whether the wider arrangement for a three-year programme in the United Kingdom makes it unnecessary.

I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, for his kindness in letting me know in broad outline the points which he wishes to raise on this Bill. I think it will be more convenient if I leave him to develop them in his own language—in fact, it was too good a prospective speech to interfere with it by trying to answer it beforehand. So I have outlined matters quite shortly, and at the end of any discussion, I will answer to the best of my ability any questions raised. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Mitchison.)

5.18 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, for the very acceptable way in which he has presented this Bill to the House this afternoon and for the kind but, I am afraid, untrue things which he has said about my few words in advance. I realise, of course, that this is a Money Bill, so that your Lordships must tiptoe around it with a certain circumspection. Nevertheless, there are a number of points that I wish to explore a little.

Before going any further, I would make it clear to your Lordships that I warmly welcome this Bill on my own behalf and also, I trust, on behalf of my noble friends. I do so the more willingly, having pressed the noble Lord to use his influence with his colleagues to secure a Bill of this sort. I need not dwell long, any more than the noble Lord has done, on the cardinal importance, if we are to secure adequate, efficient and therefore contented Armed Forces, of doing all we can to make certain that the Service man, his wife and his family are really well housed. The Grigg Committee drew attention to this some years ago, and everything which I saw in the past year as Service Minister, whether ashore or on the ocean wave, reinforced the view of the Grigg Committee.

I believe that Service men have to put up with a great many things, quite inevitably, and not least the factor of separation from their wives and families. But I believe that they are prepared to be quite realistic about this. They are prepared to accept, albeit with regret, that the circumstances of their calling mean that there are times in peace when they must inevitably be separated from their wives and families. But one way of making this separation tolerable and ensuring that it does not emasculate recruitment for the Service and erode the re-engagement rate, is to do all we can to make certain that the Service man's family is well housed, not only when he is on home service and when he is on what is called a company tour abroad, but also, in my view, when he is posted abroad and is unable to take his family with him. That is why I am glad that the Government are now seeking powers to renew this particular legislation yet again.

That said, I should like to put four main questions to the noble Lord. First, can he assure us that the construction rate for married quarters is really adequate to meet the future need? I should welcome, if possible, an explanation about a point which was made in another place and which, so far as I know, was not satisfactorily answered there. A year ago, the then Minister of Public Building and Works said that for next year (that is, the Budget year 1965-66) a sum of £16 million had been agreed, and for the year thereafter (the Budget year 1966-67) a further sum of £18 million. The noble Lord in his opening remarks referred to the marked increase contemplated in the Government's programme. I am not making a political point here, but I should like to remind your Lordships that this marked increase was equally contemplated by the previous Government, as the figures I have just quoted show. But the programme envisaged for these two years called for, as I remember, the sum of £34 million.

We understand from the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, that the Government are now discussing the rate for the third year, the year 1966-67, and I assume—and I am certain I am right in assuming this—that they plan to build married quarters at a rate not lower than that contemplated a year ago. But if this is so, will they not need another £18 million or £19 million for the year 1966-67; not the £45 million provided in this Bill, but at least £52 million or £53 million? There may be a quite simple explanation for this which has escaped me. I did not see it satisfactorily answered in another place, and I should be grateful for any explanation which the noble Lord can give.


Would it be convenient for me to give it now?




I am obliged to the noble Earl. The explanation is that the figures he has given, which are quite correct, cover more than the housing contemplated in this Bill. This is simply in Great Britain, and it is in the terms of the original Armed Forces (Housing Loans) Act, which has been carried on and repeated in this Bill. The other figure is a comprehensive figure that covers, for instance, Northern Ireland, and covers types of accommodation in Great Britain that are not intended to be covered by these figures. It is therefore only a part of the total £52 million which the noble Lord took, I think correctly—I did not follow the third figure, but, at any rate, the total—of what was called in another place the "rolling programme". A "rolling programme" sounds very formidable: I think it means making provision three years ahead and keeping it up to date year by year.


I am grateful for that explanation, which I think removes my uncertainty in this respect. It certainly would completely remove it if the noble Lord could assure me that for the year 1967-68—I know that the Government's views on the precise programme are not yet formed—there will be as many completions and as many new starts in that year as in the previous year. If I am right in thinking that the tempo of completions and new starts will not be less, and the £45 million will cover this, then I shall be quite happy.

While I am on the question of adequacy, may I refer to the fact that the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Building and Works said in another place that at least 40,000 more married quarters were required by the Armed Forces in this country. I suspect that this was a conservative (with a small "c") estimate, and I should like to know a little more about it. Miss Lee said, I think with some exaggeration—but I would not quarrel about this—that far too many of the existing quarters were pre-war slums. If these so-called pre-war slums have been included in this estimate of 40,000 new quarters required, have the Government allowed in making this estimate for the fact that we have a disproportionately lame proportion of our Armed Forces abroad at the present time? If more are brought back, then more married quarters will be required in this country.

Finally, what criteria about the eligibility of a Service man for a married quarter underly this estimate of 40,000? It would be quite wrong for me to beat the drum for any particular Service, but let me say that I am certain that in the longer term we must make it much easier certainly for men in the Navy, and possibly for men in the other two Services, to qualify for married quarters. Too often at present, as I know to well, we have the heartrending position that when a rating is, for example, posted to the Far East, his wife may find in a short space of time that she and her family are no longer eligible for a married quarter. This is not a by-product of inhumanity; it is merely a reflection of shortage. But can the noble Lord tell us anything about this? Are the present Government intending, as I hope, to liberalise the eligibility requirements?

By the same token (and this is my second question) can the noble Lord tell us anything more about the reasons the Government have for prolonging the period of the present Act by only three years? I listened carefully to what the noble Lord said about this point, but I was not entirely satisfied. We all know only too well how long it takes from the moment a button is pressed in Whitehall to the moment when a married quarter, or for that matter anything else, is ready. We all know, with regard to housing, the time taken up in land acquisition, planning, and all the rest of it. In view of this, is the noble Lord quite happy about the fact that the renewal period has been cut from five to three years?

My third question to the Minister concerns the security and stability of the whole programme. It has always been my belief that the loan procedure envisaged by the 1949 Act gave greater security to the housing programme for the Services. I know that the sums have to be voted annually and are included in the Service Estimates, the Defence Estimates or in the Estimates of the Ministry of Public Building and Works. Nevertheless, the mere fact that Parliament has approved specific sums for Service men's married quarters for a specific period seems to me to give the whole programme some insulation and some protection, not only from the Treasury chopper and the Services themselves, but, at a pinch, when Treasury pressure is on they may be prepared to opt for guns rather than for butter, for battleships rather than for bathrooms. That is why I was a little surprised and, indeed concerned, to read in the Report of the proceedings in another place in Committee that the Minister had said: I know that the Service departments believe that they are insulated by the Bill and I take responsibility for it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 707, (No. 65), col. 738, February 25, 1965.] Immediately preceding that he said: I do not think they are insulated. I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell us anything more about this matter of insulation? Can he resolve this apparent dichotomy within the breast of the Government and within the breast of the Minister himself?

My final and leading question to the noble Lord is to ask him whether, in his view, the present ministerial organisation in this respect is a good one. As he knows, the Government of which I was a member introduced the organisation whereby the separate Service works departments were taken over by the Ministry of Public Building and Works: and that Ministry therefore handles this programme for the Services as an allied service. There are advantages behind that method, and also disadvantages. I do not think I need recite them now, but can the noble Lord tell us whether he, for one, is satisfied with the present arrangement, and whether it is satisfactory to the Service departments and to the Ministry of Defence.

Those are my four main questions to the noble Lords. May I, in conclusion, put three supplementaries, as it were, to him?


My Lords, can the noble Earl summarise his four main questions again?


The four main questions are the adequacy of the programme: the degree to which this procedure insulates this programme from possible Treasury cuts; whether the present ministerial set-up for handling this matter is correct; and the wisdom or not of cutting the renewal period from five to three years. Those are my four main questions.

My three supplementaries are as follows. The first concerns the quality and the cost of these married quarters. I gather that they are estimated to cost about £3,000 each, which, of course, seems on the face of it—because land does not come into this—a little on the high side. A lot depends on the standards at which the Government and the Services are aiming. Many of the new married quarters are quite excellent. However, so far as I know, the Government have not yet adopted the Parker Morris standards for married quarters, although they have commended them to local authorities. As I see it, the Government should take the lead, not only in experimenting with new building techniques and industrialised techniques, but also with quality. On the face of it, it seems wrong that they should commend standards to local authorities which they are not themselves prepared to adopt. I should be grateful for anything the noble Lord could say on that point.

My second question again bears on industrialised building techniques. Many of these new Service estates are to be very large indeed. A start has been made, as was mentioned in the Defence White Paper, on an estate at Gosport, the first slice of which will amount to 1,000 maisonettes. I think it is eventually intended that this should be expanded to 3,000 to 4,000 maisonnettes. In effect, it will be a small New Town. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, can speak on this point with far greater authority than I. I believe that one of the lessons of the New Towns was that, in our natural desire to give priority to housing, we gave too little priority to the provision, in the early stages, of what are called community services—perhaps not schools, but playgrounds, swimming pools, community centres, pubs, bowling alleys, dance halls and, not least, churches. These Service housing estates are likely to contain a particularly mobile community, and I should have thought that, in planning them, early attention should be given to the provision of these community services.

I should like to ask the noble Lord what the Government's intentions are, and whether they are thinking of ways in which a more settled population could be introduced into these estates. I have a couple of suggestions to make in this regard. The first is that there could be provision—in my view, there should be provision—to enable Service men to buy their accommodation before they retire, or even beforehand, on these estates. Secondly, I should like to suggest that the Government should consider introducing housing associations on to these estates from an early stage. A start has been made along these lines with the Victory Housing Association at Gosport, but I think it is possible that this could be extended.

My third and final supplementary is not, I fear, directly related to the Bill, but it is specifically related to Service housing. During the not altogether satisfactory discussion on this Bill in another place, the Government were more than once asked about the impact of the Protection from Eviction Act on the Services. This has, or could have, as I see it, quite an impact. The late Government were encouraging, and the present Government, I am glad to see, are encouraging, Service men to buy their own houses. This is good in itself. It is good also because it adds to the pool of houses which may become available, because when a Service man is posted abroad he can let the house which he owns, which very often can become part of the official pool of hirings. Will the Protection from Eviction Act make it more difficult for that Service man to regain possession of his house when he is posted back from abroad? I noted what the noble Lord had to say on this matter on the Second Reading of the Protection from Eviction Act. Anything more which he can add on that specific point I, for one, shall be glad to hear.

I have spoken at some little length on this Bill. I make no apology for that, because I believe that good housing and, above all, the right number of married quarters of the right quality, in the right places, is a major factor in our ability to secure the volunteers we need for our Armed Forces and, what is equally important, having got them, to retain them. All that said, I should like once again to say how much I welcome the Bill in general.

5.38 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise to the House for not being present at the introduction of the Bill, nor for most of the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe. Perhaps the right thing would therefore be for me to sit down. But I had given my name as a speaker, and unfortunately, I was called away at the last moment. I had intended to raise two questions, just two, because I thought the noble Earl was more familiar with the background of this question than I was. I wanted to ask how it comes about that we require £45 million to be spent in 3 years when we have provided £95 million to be spent over 15 years. I was going to ask whether this £95 million has already been spent. Judging by the expenditure, it looks as if there is to be a great intensification of the provision of housing for the Armed Forces over the next three years.

The other question concerns the rate of interest. The rate of interest, of course, determines the rents which have to be charged. Under the Bill, the rate of interest is to be settled by the Treasury. I should like to know whether the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, can tell us what will be the rate of interest that will be determined by the Treasury. Unfortunately, in these cases the rate of interest is determined for the next 20 or 30 years according to what is the prevalent rate of interest at the time when the loan is granted. At the moment rates are very high and we do not know how long they are going to remain high. Is there any provision for special rates of interest in connection with this particular service, or will the rates charged be the normal one?—in which case rents will, of course, be very high indeed.

Those were the questions I meant to ask, but the noble Earl has put a question to me about the services that will he made available for officers and men in the camps, and whether or not I agreed that in the New Towns we were a little slow in providing facilities other than housing. I think we were. Possibly we might have been a little faster. In our desire to build houses we concentrated on them: but there is a danger, as I am sure the noble Earl will agree with me, of going too fast in providing things which you think are going to be suitable for the people who are going to occupy your houses but which turn out to be white elephants. My own inclination has always been to wait until the demand comes from below. When people really want a thing, then you provide it. But if you provide it in advance you find very often that it is not appreciated. So one has to hold a balance, providing things in the early stages which one is quite sure about and waiting until the demand develops for others. That is all I want to say, and I hope noble Lords will forgive me for not having been present to hear what he said.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, if it is not too unorthodox a beginning, I would say that my noble friend did not miss much. I should like, if I may, to answer as succinctly as possible the points which the noble Earl has so courteously and clearly put, to begin with on adequacy. There is always this difficulty about any housing programme: that you build what appears to be suitable at the time—I am now talking about the quality of the housing—and as standards rise (and they do rise) you find that the buildings of 20 or 30 years ago are no longer what you would build nowadays.

On number—if I may turn to that aspect of adequacy—the object of these Acts, as I see it, is to provide machinery for keeping Service housing in line with the improvements and additions that are being made in civilian housing. Obviously you do not want to turn the whole of your available building labour and building resources on to the provision of housing for the Services, any more than you want to neglect them in any way. They have to keep in line with the civilian housing programme, and at present it is perfectly obvious that in many places there is a severe and urgent need for more new housing. We are hoping therefore, and we intend, that housing programmes taken as a whole shall increase. We also intend that this particular sector of it shall increase, too.

I gave figures which really indicated a very marked improvement. As my noble friend Lord Silkin has just pointed out, there is a great deal of difference between £95 million spent over 15 years and £45 million spent over 3 years. The exact equivalent, if my arithmetic is right, would be £225 million over 15 years instead of £95 million; and I concede to the noble Earl at once that that improvement was begun under the last Government. We are carrying it on and, in view of our intentions with regard to the general housing programme, we are accelerating it a little more.

I am afraid that I cannot give any definite figures about the third of the three years of the present rolling programme—that will be year 1967-68—because those are the figures which I mentioned in my first speech as being under negotiation at the moment with the Treasury. I can therefore give no figure and no pledge of any sort. But I think I may say that, with the picture as it appears up to 1967, it would be surprising if 1967-68 showed any diminution. But I always want overtime for prophecy, especially three years ahead. Therefore, I think that is as far as I can go.

Before I come to the minor points, as the noble Earl put them, the next point is the question of cutting to three years and how far I am satisfied with the insulation (I know exactly what he means) that is intended to keep this kind of expenditure a little out of the ordinary run of annual budgeted expenditure. That was the intention of the original Bill. The period of three years really has the object, as I indicated in my opening remarks, of providing an opportunity of reviewing at a rather earlier stage. As I pointed out, too, there have been changes—changes in the position of the Ministry of Public Building and Works; and, of course, a major change in the fact that the Ministry of Defence has now taken the place of the three separate Service Departments—so that it seemed wise to ensure a review at a rather earlier stage.

There is a further reason. The rolling programme—I rather dislike the words but they have been used—goes in three-year waves, as it were, and it is probably better that these Bills, which represent a part of the rolling programme total, should also go in three-year periods. But it is not intended to make any serious change in policy, and there are no dark intentions behind it. I see that the Prime Minister on March 11, 1965, answered some questions, with which I will not trouble the House in detail at this stage, in Col. 618 of Hansard in another place. They make it quite clear that this did not signify any broad change of policy.

I am asked whether I think it is the best way of doing it. I hesitate to put my own views to the noble Earl—I think he knows more about this than I do—but it seems to me a sensible arrangement at present, provided that one does not forget the rolling programme as well as this statutory limit. After all, though a limit is given in a Statute, it does not follow that the money is obtained, year by year, from the Treasury. So far, however, the system has worked very well, and I hope that it will continue to do so. If I might pick up a point which my noble friend Lord Silkin made, I think that the £45 million has substantially been spent, but I should not like to say exactly the kind of thing on which it has been spent. I can find out, and if I am wrong—though I would doubt it—I will let my noble friend know.

I hope that I have answered the major points. I turn now to the minor ones. I am not sure that it was in connection with these minor questions, but I was asked about slum clearance figures, as it were, and the 40,000 houses. The present position is that 60,000 married quarters are now in existence (I am speaking in rough figures) of which 40,000 have been provided since the war. But the bottom 20,000, the ones that were there before, do include a great deal of reconditioned property, and probably it is inevitable that they should be so, without undue waste of buildings that could be made suitable. One has to remember, as the noble Earl himself indicated, that one never catches up with the full demand. In that respect it is like any housing programme, and therefore one has not to waste anything that is properly usable without causing discomfort or affecting recruitment and re-engagement.


My Lords, the programme of the House makes it necessary for me to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until the Royal Commission at 6 o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.