§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, this is a Bill to continue, with certain modifications, the operation of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, 1926, which, as your Lordships may remember, was prolonged until this year by the Labour Party but which, unless it were continued, would expire on June 24 next. I may add that the extension of the modifications that we are proposing follow the recommendations of the Sub-Committee on Rural Housing of the Central Housing Advisory Committee. The Chairman of that Committee, as your Lordships will also remember, is my right reverend friend the Bishop of Winchester, and I am sure the House will wish me to thank him for his services and the services of that Committee on this occasion, as we did a short time ago on another Housing Bill.
The 1926 Act was designed to encourage the reconditioning and improvement of such agricultural cottages as were suitable and capable of being improved. It was not intended, on the one hand, to be used for repairing cottages which the landowner should have kept in a state of repair; nor, on the other hand, was it intended to be used for patching up old houses which were only fit to be demolished. It was generally agreed, I think, that there were a number of houses of perfectly sound structure that could be improved and modernised, and that, if this were done, not only would housing conditions be made more attractive in the country but also the amenities and appearance of the countryside would be preserved. It had a further object which was of particular value to the Government's housing policy. I mentioned the other day, in discussing the Rent Restrictions Act, that the housing policy of successive Governments was to maintain and to enlarge a pool of good working-class houses, to keep the rents of these houses low, and to keep the houses themselves occupied by 821 the working classes and not by other people who could well afford to house themselves. I would point out that this Act has the effect, not only of improving houses, but of maintaining them within the pool for the exclusive benefit of the agricultural classes and other people of the same economic status, because it is only on those terms that the grant is payable.
In return for agreeing to these conditions, the owner is entitled to a contribution towards the capital cost of the improvements not exceeding £100 in all, part of which comes from the Exchequer and part from the local authority. At least one-third of the total cost is to be borne by the owner himself. We are now proposing to continue this grant until 1942, because we believe that, though it has been used to some effect, it still has a great deal of scope in front of it. I shall have something to say about the progress which has been achieved under the Act, but I want for the moment to deal with the provisions of the new Bill. I may just explain that the reason why we have chosen 1942 is that it coincides with a date when all the housing subsidies are being generally reviewed.
Turning to the Bill, your Lordships will see in Clause 2 that there is a small alleviation which follows the recommendation of the Sub-Committee's Report: it permits local authorities to pay grants by instalments during the progress of the work. The object of that is to help more impoverished owners. Clause 3 provides for another change of a little more importance. One of the present conditions under which an owner can get this grant is by agreeing to retain the cottage within the agricultural pool for a period of twenty years, and any breach of those conditions would render him liable to pay back the whole of the grant which he has received, plus compound interest. The length of the time to which the owner would thereby commit himself has, I think, in certain cases deterred owners from using this Act as freely as they otherwise might have done. Therefore under this clause, if they wish no longer to comply with these conditions, they need only pay back that part of the grant which could be apportioned to the period subsequent to the date when the alteration of conditions took place. We hope that this will lead to a freer use of the Act. Clause 4 has particular reference to Scotland, where some 822 difficulties have arisen in adhering to certain conditions. In certain places the authorities are not able to fix the average rent paid by agricultural workers, for the reason that there are no agricultural workers in their district. This new clause merely enables them to fix the rent by taking into account the average rent paid by people of the same economic position.
Clause 5 adds another condition to those to which the owners will have to conform after they get the grant in the future. It is that, having obtained the grant, they must maintain the house in all respects fit for human habitation. The point is that, while hitherto the owners have had to satisfy the authorities that they have reconditioned the house and that it is fit for human habitation, they are often under no obligation to maintain it fit except to the extent to which they are liable under the public health law. By making this requirement a definite condition of enjoying the grant we are tightening procedure generally, and we hope it will have good effect. Clause 6 makes it clear that an owner receiving any grant after January 1, 1935, shall be allowed to charge 4 per cent. on his expenditure. It also makes it clear that this concession granted by the Housing Act of 1935 will only apply retrospectively to expenditure carried out on works of a similar character after 1935. There was apparently some doubt about this. Clause 7, I think, is self-explanatory. It prevents the evasion of the Act when owners charge more for land let with the house than they are prevented from charging in extra rent on the house itself. Clause 8 is a machinery clause. Clause 9 is designed to encourage the abatement of overcrowding. As I have already pointed out, the maximum grant under the 1926 Act was £100, and after that an owner could not obtain any further assistance, but now if he desires to abate overcrowding we give him an opportunity of obtaining another grant on the same terms, but limited in this case to £50. Clause 10 deals in particular with Scotland and authorises an increased rate of Exchequer contribution to owners who are in what are known as the Highlands and Islands districts.
I think that is all I have to say about the bare description of the Bill, but I would like to say a word or two about the progress we have made, and what we 823 hope to do in the future. In the past, I quite admit, progress has been very uneven. In some parts, particularly Scotland and Devonshire, the Act has been used very freely, but in some other parts hardly at all. I understand that up to 1937 about 30,000 houses in Scotland had been improved and only 16,000 in the whole of England and Wales. In Devonshire 1,800 grants have been made, whereas in Bedfordshire no grants have been made. In the eastern end of Suffolk I understand that 800 houses have been reconditioned, and in the western part only 39. It is inconceivable that housing requirements should vary in this peculiar geographical way, and I think it is clear that other factors have been at work, no doubt in part due to the energy, or lack of energy, of the various councils. I have no doubt that the increased publicity which we hope to give to this Act, and the publication of the booklet which is just about to be produced by the Committee presided over by Lord Crawford, which shows the architectural possibilities of reconditioning, will do something to promote progress.
But I think there is another reason. There is a theory, advanced by noble Lords opposite, and indeed I think shared to some extent by some members of the Liberal and even of the Conservative Parties, that there is something immoral or anti-social in giving grants of public money to private owners, particularly if they are well-to-do. We believe that this Act, if properly worked, will offer great benefits to agricultural labourers, and, as we all, I think, desire to improve conditions in the countryside and help to attract more labour back to the land, I suggest that we ought to try to elucidate this controversy and if possible dissipate any inhibitions there may be against the more extensive use of the Act.
We all, as I have said, desire to improve housing conditions in the countryside, but we all recognise that the agricultural labourer, by reason of his low wages, cannot afford to pay any, even a hardly appreciable, increase of rent. Therefore if these improvements have got to be made, and the tenant cannot pay for them, they will have to be paid for by somebody else. The question is: Who will pay for them? Under the recent Housing Bill—the Financial Provisions 824 Bill—the Government, as your Lordships know, are furnishing a large subsidy to enable housing authorities to construct houses to be occupied by agricultural workers at low rents, and nobody has contended, so far as I know, that it is wrong that public money should be used for that purpose, although the object of the Act is designed to help to house workers who, as your Lordships know, are in private employment. In other words, we have agreed to pay this subsidy because we think it is right to improve housing conditions, and not because we hope to get any return from it. This Bill deals with the improvement of existing buildings, and if it is generally agreed, as I think it is, that existing buildings ought to be improved in order to bring about a standard comparable with the new houses we are constructing, then it seems to me that the same principle ought to apply.
I do not argue that the State ought to do ordinary repairs for the landlord, but there are all sorts of safeguards in the Bill and in other Acts against that happening. I agree that if the safeguards are not working properly the procedure ought to be tightened up. I am talking about genuine improvements in accommodation, enlargement of rooms, improved sanitation, and so forth, and I say that if the tenant cannot pay for these improvements, and if Parliament thinks them desirable, it seems to me that public money can just as rightly be used for those purposes as for the other. It seems to me quite irrelevant to take into account the personal wealth of the agent through whom these housing reforms are brought about—whether that agent is the landowner on whose estate existing houses are enlarged, or the contractor who builds the new houses for the local authority. In both cases I say it performs a social service, and it is right that public funds should be used for it.
I know that noble Lords will say that the parallel is not a true one, because after twenty years the residual value in the case of council houses will revert to the public, and in the case of private houses will revert to the owner. If I were here to defend the owner on the charge of exploiting the public, I think I should have something to say about the amount of this residual value—that is to say, what the residual value will be after making allowances for the conditions which the 825 owner has to observe. If I were here defending the Government against a charge of being exploited, I say at once that I do not care whether the owner does make a profit out of us or whether we make a profit out of the owner, provided always that we can show that there is no more effective or cheaper method of bringing about these improvements that we desire.
I should like to invite any noble Lord to suggest how he would propose to improve these existing houses and still let them at low rents in a cheaper and more effective way than we propose. It might be said that we could effect these improvements by laying heavy penalties on owners for not carrying them out. I believe a celebrated headmaster of Eton, Dr. Keate, once exhorted his boys to be charitable to one another, but he added that if they were not charitable he would beat them until they were. I believe that noble Lords opposite have a great belief in the big-stick policy in regard to owners, and of course we might say that no owners should allow any house to be occupied unless it had rooms of a certain height and unless it had proper sanitation, and perhaps electric light. Certainly that would be cheaper, but is it likely to be effective? For surely it is clear that if we endeavoured to force on owners uneconomic conditions, either they would let the houses stand unoccupied, or else they would let them to people of a different class. In either case the agricultural community suffers.
In other circumstances the local authority might purchase these houses by agreement and do the repairs themselves, in which case the public would enjoy the residual value. But I would ask how much would the local authority have to pay for these houses? I think it ought to be remembered that in a number of parts of England these agricultural cottages have two totally different values: they have a low value as agricultural cottages, and a considerably higher value as weekend cottages, particularly if they have any æsthetic pretensions, as many of them have. I am sure the only value which the local authority could hope to get away with, if I may so put it, would be the full market value, and it seems quite clear that if the authority had to pay that value, and also had to pay ordinary landlord's repairs 826 and the whole of the cost of the reconditioning improvements, the agricultural rent they would get for that, even with the small increase contemplated in this Bill, would in no wise compensate them, particularly if one takes into acount the expenses of looking after a large number of houses dotted all over the countryside. Indeed, I think there is no doubt that the loss which would accrue to the local authority in this way would be much greater than that which we hope will be the limit under this Bill. Of course, I am not saying that the local authority never ought to purchase these houses and repair them themselves. In certain circumstances it might be an admirable thing, but as a general rule I think it would work out much more expensively. For these reasons I hope there will be no further hesitation, either on the part of the authorities or on the part of the owners, in making use of the Act, and I hope that noble Lords opposite will not try to damn with faint praise or with many qualifications an Act which after all they themselves did prolong.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Gage.)
§ LORD CRANWORTH
My Lords, I rise to support this Bill, and indeed to give it a hearty welcome because of the good that it will do for the domestic well-being of one of the most deserving sections of the population. When all Parties talk about the decline of the rural population I think they are all agreed, unless political considerations intervene, that it is a deplorable thing that no fewer than 200,000 people should have left agriculture, and I think it is generally agreed, too, that one of the main causes is the unfortunate state of housing conditions in the agricultural districts. I myself think it is probably the second cause, and I have heard it put even higher than that by those who should be well qualified to judge. His Majesty's Government have recognised that, and have brought forward two Bills in the course of the last two months which have met with such general approbation that I think that even the ranks of Tuscany have found it extremely difficult to refrain from cheering. This Bill of course is really almost entirely concerned with the extension of the period. There are certainly amendments to the last Act, but none of them is of really vital importance.
827 There are those who say that surely during all this time such houses as were worth reconditioning should have been reconditioned. I venture to put one reason, which, curiously enough, has not been given either in your Lordships' House or in another place, why this Act must take a very long period, and that is the very simple one that, except in the rarest of cases, you cannot recondition a house unless the occupant goes out of it. Therefore you have either to find him other accommodation, or he has to vacate his house by death or for some other reason. I venture to think that we shall see this Act extended for a very great many years; indeed I believe we shall find ourselves reconditioning the houses that have already been reconditioned, and even some of those houses that have been built in the course of the last two years.
The Party of noble Lords opposite are somewhat divided on this Act, and this Bill too. Some of them dislike it very greatly on the ground that it is putting something into the hands of the bloated capitalist. Others, on the other hand, welcome it on the ground that it is taking something out of the pocket of the bloated capitalist, and I suggest that the second class of people on the whole have far more grounds for their opinion than the other section. Because, after all, the landowner who reconditions a cottage puts his hand into his pocket often for a very considerable sum and, except in the rarest cases, he gets nothing whatever out of it. It is quite true that he is allowed to charge an additional 4 per cent. on his expenditure, but in how few cases is this done! I have had hardly one brought to my notice. It cannot happen in a tied cottage, and if cottages were not tied it would be the rarest exception for it to happen. Indeed I should not have minded in the least or raised any objection if the right to charge 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. had been taken away under this Bill.
There is, or has been, a singular lack of uniformity in the use of this Act. I come from a County, or part of a County, East Suffolk, which has a singularly enlightened county council, of whom I form one; and not only is it enlightened but it is enlightened on all sections of municipal thought, and by a unanimous vote we work this Act to a large extent. As the noble Viscount has said, we have reconditioned 828 800 cottages, which is more than any whole county has reconditioned, with the sole exception of Devon. I find myself at a great loss to understand why more use has not been made of it. I did at one time form the opinion that it was partially due to the option under the Act to delegate powers to a rural district council, and I had thought of moving an Amendment to this Bill to get that right to delegate taken away, but when I made inquiries I found that there were undoubtedly certain cases where, when powers have been delegated, more houses have been built than before. So that motive was taken away from me. All the same I think the county council rather than the rural district council is the right body to exercise these powers. It has a more general knowledge of the subject, and it has usually—I will not say always—the services of a better architect.
I have one criticism to make. I think the grant might have been raised to a rather higher figure and, still more, that the £400 under the old Act might have been put forward to £500. That is merely on the ground that the cost of building has gone up by different figures in different places. In my own county it has gone up by a figure of from 25 to 28 per cent., and I feel that the restriction will have the effect of reducing in some cases the reconditioning that might well have been done and, I would remind noble Lords opposite, reducing the amount that can be taken from the pocket of the landowner.
There is a further point which I wish to bring to the notice of the noble Viscount for his careful consideration, and that is the grave anomaly that exists at the present moment with regard to the rating of agricultural cottages, not only all agricultural cottages, but especially such cottages as have been reconditioned. I believe there is a Committee now sitting to consider this question, but it is now possible for a rating authority to do this—in fact I believe it is their duty to do it. If a pair of cottages, one a tied cottage and the other a non-tied cottage, are reconditioned into a pair of cottages of exactly the same type, one is rated on the basis of 3s. to 4s. a week and the other is rated up to 15s. a week. That is an anomaly which is not only ludicrous but imposes on the landowner, who spends money in reconditioning, a burden which he was never intended to bear. I would 829 ask the noble Viscount to use his influence with the Ministry of Health, where he is such a power, so that that injustice and anomaly may be reduced. I will not say any more, except this. I believe this Bill might have been a rather better Bill but, on reflection, I have come to the conclusion that I have never yet met a Bill in your Lordships' House which I did not think could be better, and it is possible that this Bill is as near perfect as may be. At all events I am certain it will do something substantial for the better housing of the rural population in many cases and, as such, I most heartily welcome it.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
My Lords, I do not rise on this occasion, as I not infrequently do, to challenge the Second Reading of a Bill which the Government have recommended to your Lordships' House, or even to criticise it in principle. I am perfectly certain that all Parties in the State welcome any measure that will do something to improve the housing conditions of those who work on the land by enabling existing cottages to be modernised and reconditioned. It was symptomatic of this state of mind that this Bill, when it reached its Third Reading in another place, was passed without a Division. We were glad to hear, as the noble Viscount told us, that since the original Act was passed there has been a number of houses built both in this country and in Scotland, although the progress that has been made in England clearly compares very unfavourably with the use that has been made of the Act in the northern Kingdom.
We hope, as the Government hope, that in the years to come the 1926 Act, prolonged by the present measure, will be more effective in accomplishing the purpose which it was framed to bring about. But we are not satisfied that the fundamental problem of preventing the drift from the land, which has been increasingly serious in recent years, can be coped with by the provisions of the present Bill. If it is a question of providing decent housing standards for the agricultural labourer, I do not believe that the improvements which a Bill of this kind can bring about will meet the case. There can be little doubt that mere modernising and bringing up to date cottages which have been built many decades ago cannot provide anything like the same standard of 830 comfort and hygiene as is provided by houses which have been built by local authorities in recent years, under plans drawn up by modem architects and with amenities which are regarded as being normal and desirable at the present time. It is a question, I believe, not primarily of improving houses, but of providing new houses with modern amenities and built according to modern standards.
Perhaps that is criticising the Bill for not being another Bill, and I do not wish to go beyond the limits of the subject with which it deals. We have, however, one objection to which the noble Viscount has already referred, and I am not satisfied by the answer he has given in anticipation of the arguments which I would raise. We maintain that it is exceedingly undesirable that public money should be provided for improving and modernising cottages in those cases where the landlords are in a financial position to do the work themselves. We are not satisfied that it is desirable to subsidise the wealthier landlord as well as the impecunious farmer.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
The noble Duke asks what wealthy landlords there are. In answer to that, according to fairly modest standards, a certain number of members of your Lordships' House would qualify as prosperous landowners. I do not say necessarily owing to the fact that their income comes from the land. I want specially to refer to the late Sir John Ellerman, because this was an instance brought up in another place which illustrates the point I desire to make. In this case the late Sir John Ellerman, who, I think everyone will agree, was a man with a very considerable income, had an estate in the County of Aberdeen and he applied to the Aberdeen County Council for a grant towards the reconditioning of some fifteen cottages. I merely give that as an instance of what I mean. I do not think that these landlords who are in a position to be able to do the work themselves should take advantage of funds that are provided out of public money, and if it is said that the administrative difficulties in the way of assessing the income of landlords are insuperable, I think it ought to be pointed out that these difficulties have been overcome in other cases. For instance, when 831 a local authority gives a grant towards a scholarship from an elementary to a secondary or central school, it takes into account the income of the father of the child and it regulates the amount of the grant in proportion to the amount of that income. Similarly, in cases where unemployed men have enjoyed the money accruing from their insured period they are expected to declare any private income or any earned income from other sources before they can receive public money.
I think a more formidable objection is the one mentioned by the noble Viscount in the course of his speech, that in the event of any sort of means test the work would not be done. We want this Bill to be made use of, and we want the Act of 1926 to be used much more frequently than it has been used in the past, and the principal object cannot be achieved if the landlord finds that the disadvantages of doing the work are so considerable that he prefers to leave it undone. But the local authorities have power to purchase compulsorily any cottages that need reconditioning and modernising and to do the work themselves. And, quite frankly, in such cases—and I imagine indeed they will not be frequent because landlords have a very real sense of responsibility towards their tenants in this respect—I myself would wish that the Government would urge the local authorities to make use of these powers. I should prefer to see the local authorities benefiting from any subsidy that was provided by the Government to landlords in cases of this kind, because, as the noble Viscount himself pointed out, the benefit accruing from the expenditure of the money would go in perpetuity to the public in the one case whereas in the other case it would go to the landlord and to his heirs. That is the main criticism of a general kind that we want to level at the Bill. At the same time, as I said earlier, we welcome the prolongation of the 1926 Act, and we hope just as ardently as the Government that the provisions of this Bill when it passes into law will be implemented by landlords and local authorities in a way that has not occurred in the last twelve years.
THE LORD BISHOP OF WINCHESTER
My Lords, I want to say a word or two in welcoming this Bill. The main lines of 832 the Bill were partly suggested by a Committee which was a non-Party Committee, and the Bill has now been welcomed by members of all Parties in both Houses. The objects of the Bill are twofold. In the first place, to keep in existence the number of houses which can be let at a low rent to the agricultural labourer. All of us who know anything about rural conditions are deeply concerned about the shortage of houses within the means of agricultural labourers. Without this Bill, and without the continuation of the present Act, a number of houses which might be used for the rural labourer and let at a very low rent would gradually fall into a state of utter disrepair and would be quite impossible to be used. This Bill, by itself, would not meet the needs of housing in the rural districts. I entirely agree with what the noble Lord opposite has just said on that point. But it is intended to supplement it by other measures, and in this way it will keep in use a number of houses which otherwise might have been demolished.
In the second place, it is a Bill which w ill help to keep in existence a number of picturesque cottages. I quite deliberately put this in the second place, because in the first place we must consider the building of houses which are healthy and sanitary and comfortable; but there are a large number of picturesque houses which can be reconditioned. A great feature of our English countryside is, I am afraid, in some places rapidly disappearing with the destruction of cottages which have stood in some cases almost for centuries, and all their beauty has been ruthlessly swept away. I believe that the policy embodied in the old Acts and in this Bill will do much to preserve some of these cottages which might otherwise vanish. I have, no doubt like many of your Lordships, visited some of these houses which have been reconditioned. I have seen them in various parts of the country and have been greatly struck by the way in which in so many instances their beauty has been preserved, and at the same time they have been made comfortable and healthy for those who occupy them. Your Lordships may have seen some illustrations of this in a little handbook which has been issued by the Ministry of Health.
But our Committee, when it went into this matter, was very struck by the point 833 which has been mentioned by the noble Viscount who introduced this Bill—namely, the different way in which these Acts were used in various parts of the country. The difference is most striking. You find places like Devonshire where a very large use has been made of these Acts, and you find other counties where they have been practically untouched. We tried to find out the reasons for this, and we came unanimously to the conclusion that it was very largely due to the way in which publicity was employed in some cases and neglected in others. The noble Lord who spoke of East Suffolk has told us about the success of his own County in this matter—very remarkable success. We had a witness from that County, and he told us of the very careful arrangements which were made for publicity so that people throughout the County were thoroughly familiar with these Acts, knew how they might apply for them and use them, and as a result they did make a very large use of them. In other counties we found practically no propaganda of any sort or kind. We felt so strongly on this that we asked that an interim Report might be published on this one matter, and this was issued by the Ministry of Health.
The noble Lord who has spoken touched on a very thorny and difficult matter—namely, whether these Acts could be administered more wisely and more efficiently by the county councils or by the rural district councils. Until I was a member of the Sub-Committee I had no idea of the amount of heat which might be engendered by this question. We eventually discovered a formula, which we put into the Report, which I think partially satisfied all the members of the Committee, but the one thing on which we were all clear was that there must be the closest co-operation between the county councils and the rural district councils if these Acts are to be worked efficiently. In our Report there was another suggestion which I hope will be acted upon administratively, although of course it could not find a place in the Bill. We suggested that the rural district councils should take active steps to ascertain for themselves which cottages require reconditioning. We felt that too often this has been left rather to chance and rather to the last minute. It would be of the utmost value if the rural district councils made a kind of census of the 834 houses which might be saved by reconditioning. This would also give various people opportunities of saving houses which otherwise might be condemned. Agitation to save a cottage from destruction sometimes comes too late because those concerned have not understood the opportunities given by these Acts.
There was another recommendation which was pressed on us by some of the witnesses, and although I do not think we embodied it in our Report I should like to support it personally. That was that it was not sufficient to ask only the medical officer of health to inspect a cottage and to depend upon his judgment as to whether it could be reconditioned or not. Many of the witnesses we had before us felt most strongly that an architect ought to be called in, because an architect is better qualified to know whether a house is capable of preservation.
The noble Earl who spoke from the Opposition Benches raised a point which was before the Committee—namely, the possibility of help going to some landlords who could afford to do without it. I would like to say that we also heard a good deal of evidence in the other direction—namely, that certain district councils were so prejudiced against a class of landlords that they refused to give the help which might preserve these houses. We make some reference to this in our Report:Some of our witnesses have suggested that certain local authorities discriminate in their administration of the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts against owners with means. Discrimination of this kind is in our view contrary to the intention of the Acts and likely to result in depriving tenants of agricultural properties of the benefits the Acts were intended to afford them. A local authority has of course complete discretion to decide whether they will grant any particular application but a general discrimination against a whole class of persons is in our view strongly to be deprecated.I think it will be very difficult to apply anything like a means test, although I believe the local authorities in most cases would avoid making the grant to some landlords who could obviously easily afford to put the house in good condition. It is of such vital importance that these cottages should be preserved for the rural worker that I for one should be quite ready to take the risk of an occasional mistake in that matter. I hope that the Bill will pass into law.
THE MARQUESS OF LOTHIAN
My Lords, I should like to support this Bill which I think really has the support of all three Parties. No legislation in recent years has done more for at any rate one section of the agricultural working classes, and that is the women, than this Act. In my experience the introduction of a water closet, running water and a copper, at any rate on the hill farms, makes the whole difference in their lives. From that point of view I think this one of the most beneficent Acts passed for a great many years. My only regret is that it has not been more widely used. I happen to be a landowner in two different parts of the country. In one case the powers under the Acts are used with great vigour and immense benefit and in the other they are not being used at all. I think it largely turns on the attitude of the local authorities whether they are going to use their powers. I think they ought to use their powers drastically everywhere. You do get improved housing conditions extraordinarily cheaply from the point of view of the local authority. In my experience at least two-thirds of the cost of these improvements is borne in practice by the landlord. The contribution made, at any rate by the local authority who presides over my affairs, as a rule is not more than one-third of the cost of improving cottages. When you compare the cost to a local authority of improvements made under this Act with the cost of the local authority building a new cottage or providing a housing estate, they are making a very good bargain.
Finally, although as a good Liberal I have a great deal of sympathy with the principle that you should not subsidise landlords, there is one aspect which is often forgotten and that is that Death Duties on agricultural property are directly charged on the capital in the industry. Their effect is quite different from Death Duties on industrial property, because industrial shares can be sold to pay the Death Duties and the money is not taken out of the reserves of the industry. In the case of agricultural property unless the owner has other forms of negotiable securities it has to be taken out of the capital of agriculture. Therefore to that extent this Bill does put back a small amount of capital into an industry which badly needs it. I am sure this Bill will receive a Second Reading, and I hope the Government will use their influence 836 to secure that it is used as widely as possible.
My Lords, I should like to add a word to what has been said by my noble friend and by the right reverend Prelate. I rather regret the reference made by the noble Earl on the Opposition Front Bench to prosperous landlords. There are not many prosperous landlords who live upon the rents of land in this country. Those who are prosperous do put their cottages in order. This Bill, as I understand it, is designed to help those who are not prosperous, and they form the very large majority. I am not entirely inclined to agree with him in thinking that it is impossible to recondition an old cottage. Very often an old cottage has better walls and better foundations than some of the new cottages put up by the county council. I am not at all sure that we are not more benefiting amenity and hygiene by properly reconditioning what already exists. I think it a pity that it should go out to the world that prosperous landlords are battening on the rents of these cottages, which are usually let for 3s. a week, when a great deal has to be found by the landlord and he is really receiving an uneconomic rent.
My Lords, my noble friend the Earl of Listowel has been doubly attacked for what he said about wealthy landlords, and I hasten to his support. Of course there are wealthy landlords. We are thinking of the city nabob who lives in the Home Counties for amenity purposes and makes money by manipulating the Stock Exchange and the markets. The landlords are not only the impoverished landowners ruined by Death Duties over whom we are invited to weep by the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian. It is only rich men who can afford to keep country estates nowadays, people who have incomes outside their landed property. That is one of the mysteries of this present time. The business of land-owning in this country is in utter decay. I have always deplored it and shall go on deploring it. The whole character of the countryside is changing. But there are a great many wealthy men living on country estates who have income from businesses outside and can afford to put their cottages in order and ought to do so, and my Party objects very strongly to subsidising these people.
837 I find myself in complete agreement with the noble Marquess, not for the first time, over this matter of Death Duties. I have always opposed the raising of the Death Duties, and have done so in another place ever since the end of the War, when they were put up so high. They are in effect eating up the country's capital, and are economically unsound. The Party which the Leader of the House and the noble Viscount adorn are the greatest sinners in this respect. It was under their Governments that these Death Duties were put up to such astronomical heights, and they will have to pay for it. Although I have sympathy for many landlords, I must again support my noble friend Lord Listowel in his objection to subsidising the wealthy man on the land, who has his duty which he ought to do without Acts of Parliament or anything to help him.
My Lords, I have very little to say. I thank noble Lords for the reception they have given to this Bill, and in spite of the note of controversy which the noble Lord opposite introduced, I thank Lord Listowel for taking up a more sympathetic, and what I describe as a more reasonable, attitude than that of his colleagues in another place. He said that there were objections to the Bill but that he could not see how they could be got over. I hope that that means that he and his Party will help to give this Bill encouragement in the country. I think he said that he did not anticipate that the Bill would stop the drift away from the land. That is no doubt true, but it must be considered together with the Housing (Financial Provisions) Bill, which, as the noble Earl knows, gives a very big subsidy for rural housing.
I think Lord Cranworth raised one point which I agree is a very complicated one. I have a great deal of sympathy for the point of view which he expressed on the question of what he described as a rating anomaly. But I must admit that I was filled with apprehension 838 about a possible revision of the rating law, because the whole matter is so exceedingly complicated. I will certainly do what I can to meet this point. I think the answer is that it is one of the things in which the Committee which is investigating the whole question of assessments in connection with the Postponement of Valuations Bill is interesting itself.
I really think that that is all I have to say. I regret that the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, has had difficulty with one of his rural authorities. While the discretion remains, I suppose we cannot put pressure on them, because in that case it does not remain a discretion. We should be very glad to help the noble Marquess to get rid of any unnecessary obstruction, but as he is so extremely persuasive himself I have no doubt that he will meet with success. I think that I have answered the few points that have been raised in the debate, and I hope I have done so to the satisfaction of the House.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.