§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (LORD MARLEY)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Perhaps I had better explain very brie fly how this measure arises. The Bill is intended to extend for a further period of five years the Housing (Rural Workers) Act of 1926. There are a considerable number of houses in rural areas in a bad state of repair which are capable of being repaired and reconstructed, and while it is quite clear that it is better to build new houses, and in the end perhaps far cheaper in many cases to build new houses, yet there are houses which can be reconstructed, and the object of the Act, and of this Bill which is extending the Act for a further period of five years, is to enable the reconstruction of these houses to go on assisted by grants from the State and the local authorities.
The arrangement is that the cost of the reconstruction of a house is paid for in equal thirds by the local authority, the Government and the owner of the house. In the past five years, it has been found that the average share paid by each of these three in England has amounted to £39 and in Scotland to £42 10s. I might say in this connection that the Act has been very much more used in Scotland than in England, and I propose in a moment to explain for the information of your Lordships the extent to which the Act has been made use of in Scotland and in England, so that we can compare the two. The improvements generally, consist of adding additional bedrooms—many of the rural cottages contain only two bedrooms; that is insufficient either for morality or decency—the putting in of water supply, the building of sculleries, the putting in of baths and, where possible, w.c.s, the repair of defective roofs and defective floors, and doing away, where possible, with dampness and poorly constructed or damaged windows. The grants are given subject to specific conditions—that is to say, the owner of the house must guarantee that the house shall be occupied either by a rural worker, or by a worker of approximately equivalent economic status, during a period of twenty years.
39 One other point in this connection. Arrangements are made under which the owner cannot seriously increase the rent of the house except in so far as his third of the total cost of reconstruction is concerned. I may say that in Scotland there is practically never any increase of rent, because the houses are tied cottages. In England, where the powers of increase are made available, they are very seldom actually used. I am informed that the average possible increase is In the neighbourhood of one shilling a week, and that the actual average increase as a rule is only a few pence, so that the cost to the occupiers of the houses has not been very great.
The extent to which the Act has been used is the justification for proposing that it should be continued. It took a long time to get any use made of the Act by local authorities. It was passed in 1926, and in 1927 we only had 281 certificates of approval in Scotland and 150 in England. Scotland, with a population one-tenth that of England, used the Act to nearly twice the extent of England. In the following year, 1928, there was an improvement, and 1,100 houses were reconditioned in Scotland and 1,100 in England. In 1929 the Scottish figures rose to 2,100, while the English remained at 1,100. In 1930—last year—the Scottish certificates of approval granted numbered 3,400 whereas in England the number granted was only 1,500. It is quite clear that the Act is being used in Scotland to a very considerable and useful extent, and therefore I want to make it clear at once that it is mainly on behalf of Scotland that this continuation is being urged, but that we do not despise at all the extent to which it is being used in England. In Scotland all the 33 counties have made use of, or have offered to use, the Act. In England the proportion of counties was not so great, as the figures will have indicated to your Lordships, but it is possible—and I think we ought to provide for the possibility—that there may be an increase in the use made of the Act, particularly because the Ministry have during the past two months by circular and by action of their general inspectors urged local bodies to use this and every other means to improve housing in rural areas.
I told your Lordships that the cost of these improvements was divided into three parts, one being paid by the Gov- 40 ernment, one being paid by the local authority and one being paid by the owner of the house. The total cost of the improvements is limited as far as the payments by the State and the local authority are concerned to £100. In other words, if the cost of an improvement is more than £150 everything beyond £100 will be paid by the owner of the house. I may say that assistance can be given either by grant or by loan, but the loan method of obtaining assistance has scarcely ever been used. It is clear that landlords feel that the grant method enables them to re-condition more easily than the loan method, or at any rate the loan method as regards loans from local authorities.
§ LORD MARLEY
The grant is a gift. With regard to the cost—this, I have no doubt, will interest the noble Lord, Lord Banbury—the payment by the State is made in the form not of a cash grant but of an annual payment for twenty years, and this, of course, will tend to become less after we have reached the peak of the number of houses being re-conditioned; that is to say, in 1947, twenty years from the date when the first grant was made in 1927. The total annual Exchequer liability up to September 30 last year was £33,000 a year. It is estimated that this will reach a total of £51,000 by September 30 this year under the existing Act as it stands, and if your Lordships agree to continue the Act for a further five years it is estimated—it is only an estimate, because it is impossible to know to what extent the Act will be used—that we shall have a further 25,000 houses re-conditioned, which will increase the Exchequer liability to a, peak of £133,000 a year, which will decline from 1947 onwards. I think one may say that these statistics of the number of houses being re-conditioned do show that at least in Scotland some fair use is being made of the 1926 Act and that there are signs of an improved use of the Act in England. I think therefore that your Lordships will agree that in view of the growing rate at which the Act is being made use of it would be unfortunate that it should not be allowed to continue. I therefore move that the Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Marley.)
§ LORD TEMPLEMORE
My Lords, the noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State has explained this Bill to your Lord-ships with much lucidity and I merely rise for a few moments to assure His Majesty's Government that we on this side of the House do not offer any opposition to the Bill. Why should we? This is our Act which His Majesty's Government—in their wisdom, as we think—are continuing for another five years in spite of the gloomy prognostications indulged in in this House and in another place in December, 1926. We are not, in this House, accustomed to make use of violent diatribes as regards Bills of which we do not approve and we were fortunately spared the violent and extraordinary language which the present Minister of Health used about our Bill when it was brought in in another place five years ago, but I would remark that I have read the debates in this House when the Bill was introduced by my noble friend Viscount Gage on December 10, 1926.
I observed that the noble and learned Lord who now leads the House and who I am sorry to see has left his place, made what I can only call a rather funereal and gloomy speech. He and his then colleague, Lord Olivier, while not opposing the Bill, damned it, I may say, with faint praise, and the noble and learned Lord wound up by saying that although they hoped for the best they were afraid that the Bill would do very little. I am quite sure that the noble and learned Lord in the goodness of his heart is feeling pleasantly surprised at the great success which has attended this measure. I have been supplied with certain figures as regards the use made of this measure, but the noble Lord has read to your Lordships figures which are even better than the ones I have. From the figures he gave us, I gather, after doing a hasty sum in addition, that some 10,000 houses in Scotland and England have been dealt with under this Act. I do not call that a very small result. It means that counting the tenants of the houses and their families probably 40,000 or 50,000 people have been made more happy and comfortable than before.
§ LORD TEMPLEMORE
I quite understand. The larger number of dwellings dealt with under the Act of five years ago has been dealt with during the last two or three years, and I think the reason for that, as my noble friend who introduced the Bill in 1926 said, is that this did not pretend to be more than a minor measure. I think that in the case of these minor Acts of Parliament it takes local authorities a certain time to realise what are their implications and what are their responsibilities and powers under these various measures. That, I think, is why progress under the existing Act has been more rapid during the last two or three years and that is why I am sure greater progress will be made under the new Bill in the future.
There is one protest I should like to raise and that is with regard to circular 1197 issued by the Ministry of Health on April 27 last, just a few days after the Bill had received a Second Reading in another place. This is a circular issued by the Minister deploring the slow progress which has been made in the provision of houses in the rural districts, and one would have thought that the Minister might have pointed out the advantages of the existing Act and asked local authorities to interest themselves in the matter. Instead of this, the only reference to it is in the appendix, where there is a space at the end of the form headed "Scope for action under the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, 1926." I really think that if His Majesty's Government wish the existing Act, and this Bill when it becomes law, to work properly, they ought to take a little more notice of it. I think it is a point which my noble friend might bring before the Minister of Health whether another circular could not be issued drawing the attention of local authorities to this new Bill in somewhat plainer terms. His Majesty's Government have had a fortunate day in this House, and I congratulate them—I am glad to be able to do it—on having brought forward a Bill which will not annoy anybody but, on the contrary, will make a great many people in this country comfortable and happy. I hope the Bill will get a Second Reading, and will pass rapidly through its remaining stages and become the law of the land.
§ LORD DANESFORT
My Lords, I should like to take up a moment of your 43 Lordships' time in asking the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of this Bill a question. The noble Lord called attention to the great disparity which exists in the extent to which this Act has been used in England as compared with Scotland, and I should be very glad if he were able to tell us what, in his opinion or that of his experts, were the reasons for this.
§ LORD DANESFORT
I would suggest that, if there is some special reason which he can discover why the Act is not operating as well in England as in Scotland, he should introduce an Amendment into this Bill which would facilitate its operation in England. I remember that when the Act was brought in it appeared to me a most admirable measure for repairing cottages in England at very small expense and making them suitable for labourers and people living on the farms, and I was astonished to see that it was not used in England so much as one would expect. Perhaps when the noble Lord comes to reply he will be able to tell us if there is any reason why the Act has been used less in England than in Scotland, and whether he would be willing to introduce some Amendment which would make it more easily operated in England than at present.
THE LORD BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK
My Lords, I was anxious to raise a point, not only with regard to the disparity between the use made of this Act in Scotland and in England, but also as to the very different use made of it in various counties in England. Some counties have used it largely and others have hardly used it at all. I have more than once asked the reason for this, and I am told that it has been largely due to the fact that in certain counties the Act has been popularized, and in some counties which have used it most actively there has been co-operation between the rural councils and the county councils. I believe that Devonshire has used this Act more than any other county in England, and I am told that at the very outset the Devon County Council got into touch with the various rural councils and asked for their full co-operation. The result is that in 44 that county the Act has been used much more fully and beneficially than in any other county in England. I believe more could be done with this very useful little Act if some methods were adopted to popularise it and to make the various local authorities much more familiar with its contents and with what can be done under it. I hope very much, therefore, that if this Bill passes steps will be taken to circularise still further and more fully the various local authorities. I congratulate the Government on this Bill, and I hope it will pass.
§ LORD MARLEY
My Lords, I will snake a few very brief remarks in reply to the very kindly criticism that has been put forward. With regard to the circular referred to by my noble friend who followed the debates so carefully in 1926—I am sorry he did not get more from them in this House; he could have got a great deal in the other House—the Minister has instructed his general inspectors to bring to the notice of the county councils the possibilities of this Bill. I do not, know why it is—it may be the personality of the inspectors, or it may be the personnel of certain county councils—but some counties use the Bill and others do not. It is thought that generally speaking the South is less quick in coming forward than the North, but here we have Devonshire, right in the South, well ahead of many Northern counties. I confess that I cannot explain the problem. In Scotland I think perhaps the reason that the Bill has been more used is that there are rather worse houses and bad housing conditions are more numerous, and also that the walls of the houses are often very much stronger than the roofs so that you can often repair the roof and the walls will take the new roofs. It is easy to find many small houses and crofts in Scotland with walls two feet thick. You will see broken-down cottages in Scotland without roofs but with walls that have perhaps been standing for two hundred years. I think that perhaps that may be the cause of the greater use of the Act in Scotland. I am sure that this country will learn from the Scottish example and, if this Act is continued for a further five years, will, as the noble Lord, Lord Temple-more, said, make greater use of it in the future.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.