§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, this is a Private Member's Bill introduced in another place by Mr. Robert Jenkins. At first sight it may appear involved, but it is in fact quite simple in its effect. Its object is to restore a useful public health provision enabling local authorities to close insanitary basement rooms which fall under certain conditions. This was a power originally granted to them in 1936 which has inadvertently slipped out of their hands. I think I can best explain the position to your Lordships by going briefly through the past history. The Housing Act, 1936, was the first to 789 authorise local authorities to close insanitary underground rooms which failed to satisfy a simple formula, and this was largely due, I believe, to the efforts of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh. The main provisions that had to be satisfied for the closure to be made were either that the average height of a room from floor to ceiling was less than seven feet, or that the room did not comply with local by-laws for securing proper ventilation, lighting and sanitary conditions. This was found to he a useful provision and was used by many local authorities to good effect.
In 1954, however, there followed the Housing (Repairs and Rents) Act, which contained in Section 9 a definition of matters to be taken into account when local authorities were determining whether a house was unfit for human habitation before serving a demolition order. This section was never meant to affect in any way the 1936 Act formula for dealing with underground rooms; nor, indeed, was it ever taken to do so until in 1957, in the ease of Critchell v. The Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth, in the Court of Appeal, the Master of the Rolls gave a judgment which, to all intents and purposes, meant that these general provisions of Section 9 of the Housing (Repairs and Rents) Act superseded the provisions of the 1936 Act with regard to underground rooms.
There is one further piece of history with which I must trouble your Lordships, because at the same time as this judgment was given, a consolidating Act, the Housing Act, 1957, was passed which included both the underground rooms provisions of the 1936 Act and the general provisions of the 1954 Act. The underground rooms provisions became Section 18 of the 1957 Act, and the general provisions of the 1954 Act became Section 4 of the 1957 Act. Moreover, in close accord with the judgment given in the Court of Appeal, Section 18, the underground rooms section, was specifically made subject to the operation of Section 4. It has been as a result of that that Section 18 has since 1957 been wholly inoperative, and instead of local authorities being able to deal with the problem of underground rooms in a simple way, they have had to go through the more cumbersome procedures of Section 4. It is proposed, therefore, in this Bill, to 790 remedy the position by simply restoring to local authorities the previous powers they had under the 1936 Act.
Clause 1 (1) of the Bill states specifically that Section 4 of the Housing Act, 1957, shall not affect the operation of Section 18; that is, the underground rooms section. Subsection (2) repeals specific words which were added in the consolidating Act of 1957 subjecting Section 18 to Section 4. I think there is only one other point I need draw to the attention of your Lordships, and that is that nothing in this Bill extends to Scotland, for the reason that the Housing (Repairs and Rents) (Scotland) Act, 1954, did not contain any of the same provisions in a general way as were contained in the English Act.
To sum up, this short Bill seeks to rectify a defect in existing public heath legislation which has arisen unintentionally. Its scope is narrow, and in practice only a minority of local authorities are concerned. These are mainly in London and in certain other urban areas where there are many properties with underground rooms of the defined type. The Bill is supported by the Association of Municipal Corporations and can, I think, be recommended to your Lordships as a simple measure which is urgently needed to ensure that unhealthy underground rooms can be closed with the minimum of delay. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Aberdare.)
§ 5.13 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has given to your Lordships a satisfactory explanation of this Private Member's Bill, and I do not think there is need for much comment from me on so simple a measure. It has been introduced, as the noble Lord explained, with the intention of restoring to local authorities a useful public health provision which was unintentionally lost in 1957 as the result of a Court of Appeal judgment, owing to a legal interpretation of an Act of 1954. This Act apparently did not apply to Scotland, and therefore this Bill need not apply to Scotland either. Nobody can be aversely affected by the Bill, and therefore I can recommend it 791 to your Lordships as a simple and useful measure which is needed in order to ensure that unhealthy underground rooms, such as dungeons, but not, I hope, wine cellars, may be closed with the minimum of delay.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, may I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, on the manner in which he has discharged his function as a legislator. I hope that on suitable occasions we shall hear more of him in that capacity. This Bill becomes necessary because somebody has blundered—because the Housing Act, 1957, which is a consolidation measure, was not properly dealt with, and because words crept in which should not have crept in. It should normally have been the function of the Government to put right its own mistakes. No doubt the noble Earl will tell us why it is that they have not come forward themselves and put right this mistake, and why they have put up the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, to put it right for them. Is it because they had not the face to admit that they have blundered, and that they have put this Bill forward quite innocently as an improvement? Of course, it is not an improvement; it is merely the rectification of a blunder which has been made. However. I am all in favour of rectifying the blunder, whoever was responsible for it. The cause is right, and we will certainly not put any difficulties in the way.
I recognise the purpose for which the Bill has been introduced, but I am bound to say that I find the utmost difficulty in reconciling the purpose with the language which is now being used to achieve that purpose. I read this Bill in the morning and I read it at night, and I am blessed if I can make head or tail of it. I must take the noble Lord's word for it that it does put matters right and achieves the object he has in mind. I hope he can put his hand on his heart and say that he is satisfied it does the trick, but I must say I am not. I should have thought that to achieve his desire could have been done in very simple language indeed. It did not need all this paraphernalia and legislation by reference, and all these sections and subsections. I say this as one who is quite familiar with legislation 792 by reference, and with complex legislation. As the noble Earl will remember, we had some on Tuesday with the Town and Country Planning Bill.
Nevertheless, if we can be assured that this Bill does what is desired, that there will be no more litigation about it, that it removes the ambiguity beyond a peradventure, and consequently that local authorities will no longer be involved in the trouble and expenditure in which they have been involved in fighting these cases in the courts, then we will certainly let it go through in the language in which it is. But I should be happier if somebody looked at it again to see whether it could be put in much clearer and less ambiguous language than this.
§ LORD AMULREE
My Lords, I should like briefly to support the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has introduced. It is one in which I am particularly interested, because these extremely insanitary and uncomfortable rooms are quite frequently occupied by elderly people who have moved there because the rent is a little cheaper. They live in dark and damp rooms with most dangerous staircases, and I am sure that anything we can do to make it simpler for the local authorities to shut these rooms is a good thing.
I share the worry of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, about whether the Bill says what it is said to say. I am afraid I accepted Lord Aberdare's word for it, and if he tells me it does what he says I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, may I reply briefly to what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has said about the complications of the Bill? I am perfectly satisfied that it does achieve its object. The complications arise because since the two original Acts became law they have been consolidated into the consolidating Act of 1957. The net result of passing this Bill is that in the 1957 Act which is now applicable there will be one section, Section 18, under which local authorities will be able to close insanitary underground rooms if they fail to satisfy simple conditions. Quite independently, there will be Section 4, which applies generally when local authorities are considering demolition orders for whole 793 houses or the closing of rooms in them. I should like to thank the noble Earl who spoke for the Government for his support, and also the noble Lord, Lord Amulree.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.