Sir Herbert Butcher (Holland with Boston)
Every hon. Member who has participated in the Debate has stressed the great urgency of the housing problem, and to add anything on that point would be unnecessary and a waste of time. I think it is worth while, for a moment, however, to realise that, even yet, we have not felt the full impact of the demand for houses. That will only be felt when the men start returning from overseas, and we face a great danger that, unless we are very careful, those who have been overseas will be those left without houses. I know the Minister of Health is sympathetic on this matter. I have put questions to him, and I know the difficulties he has to meet. I know it is difficult to write these things into Statute law. But I do ask the people of this country to write it as a debt of honour in their hearts, and to remember it in every council chamber, so that, other things being equal, preference shall be given to ex-Servicemen. The hardship of service overseas is separation from the family, and, to get family life re-established, we must help our men to get their homes as speedily as possible.
Now I come to the White Paper, and I am sorry to find such a lack of urgency evident in its paragraphs. It is an unsatisfactory White Paper. I turn to paragraph 4 and find that 750,000 families still need a home; to paragraph 5 which states that rapid completion of slum clearance will require 500,000 houses. That makes a total of 1,250,000 separate dwellings, which, I think, is an optimistic estimate, to say the least. Then we come to the proposals and the Government's plans, and, in the first two years after the end of the European war, the completed permanent houses are going to be 220,000, and the temporary houses 145,000, a total of 365,000, which is about a quarter of the urgent demand with which the Government tells us we are confronted. May I say in passing how glad we are that that horrid phrase "built and building" has disappeared; the statement that 220,000 completed and 80,000 in course of construction is very much more satisfactory, and we are particularly grateful to the Government for that.
I have been seized during this Debate with a sense of frustration, a feeling that we have not anybody and are not likely to have anybody speaking from the Government benches who can deal with the question of labour. According to the White Paper, at the end of the first year after the cessation of European hostilities, we are going to have four-fifths of the pre-war labour force, but according to paragraph 10 there are these additional demands for certain war purposes:
building for the export trade and essential civil requirements, the rebuilding of bombed premises and essential repairs and maintenance.
Labour is the key of this problem and it is a great misfortune that the Minister of Labour cannot be here and tell us frankly what the position is in terms of manpower. In reply to a question I put to him yesterday he told us that at this stage of the war, there were 90,000 people in other civilian employment who in 1940 were engaged in the building industry. We ought to get those people out of other civilian industry immediately. The Home Secretary told us that certain personnel of the National Fire Service were engaged in work. If they can be spared from duty in the National Fire Service, we ought in the present emergency to take the risk of demobilising those few men from the National Fire Service and allow them to return to the building industry. Labour is the real bottleneck with which we are faced and we in this House will be failing in our duty if we raise optimistic hopes such as were raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Horabin) who talked in terns of 750,000 houses a year. May I retail to the present solitary occu-
pant of the Liberal benches opposite that, on two successive days, Members of his Party claimed the nationalisation of the railways, and then made a claim for the nationalisation of the land?
At the beginning of the war the system we had in building, both for local authorities and for private enterprise, was simple. The Ministry of Health was in control of the whole show. They worked through the local authorities, and private enterprise was unfettered. Can anyone say that it is any better with the present galaxy of Ministers, the exuberance of Ministries and the frustration of local authorities? Let us see what are the views of people experienced in these matters. Sir Miles Mitchell, of Manchester, a great expert in these housing matters, says: "Give the job to the Ministry of Health and let the Ministry get on with that lob and that job alone." I believe that if we return to the well-worn path of our experience, we shall press forward more quickly with this housing job. As I have said before, it cost the country a lot to educate the Ministry of Health between the last two wars. How efficient and invaluable it is now. Let us regard the Ministry of Works as a useful Department, with great responsibilities, and let us leave it free to press forward as a separate Department on material, on the one hand, and to deal with the useful temporary houses which we all expect.
I want to deal, for two minutes only, with the question of control. The hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell), who speaks with such reason and authority on these matters, was not quite fair to the manufacturers of cement yesterday, when he pointed out that the price was going up. This is one of the commodities which is under severe control. These controls, which should, according to the White Paper, act to keep prices down, are, in fact, going to keep prices up. Look at bricks. The intention in keeping all the brickyards in existence in this country was, that they would be able to meet whatever the demand might be and have the maximum amount of production. But, as a result of the operation of controls, we are putting the section of the industry which is most economical in labour and in fuel out of business. The industry can be divided into two kinds, well known to those with experience as the "non-Flettons" and the "Flettons." The Fletton industry, which was the supplier in that connection for the London area, although it has delivered all over the country, is now only producing 16 per cent. of its pre-war output. That is bad enough, but of that 16 per cent., or roughly two-thirds, is being dumped on stacking grounds, and the industry is only selling five per cent. of its pre-war output.
What is the result? Under control, last month a brickyard went out of production that was producing 120,000,000 bricks a year. There are ample bricks in the country, as the hon. Member for Brigg said. There are 600,000,000 bricks alone stacked, to the embarrassment of about six firms. They are not allowed to be brought to London. There is a price control. What is the effect of that price control? The price control means that in the area South of London, we are paying about £25s. a thousand more for bricks on site, than could be obtained in face of competition were restriction removed. On the basis of 20,000 bricks to a house, if my arithmetic is correct, it is £25 a house, and on 10 houses to the acre, it is £250 per acre, and the cost of that has to be borne by the tenant eventually.
I am not going to detain the House longer because I know how many hon. Members want to speak on this matter. We are driven back to the question of labour, and really, nobody knows where we are in terms of labour. I was approached in my rural area to try to get the release of a man who is a skilled plumber. I took the matter up with the very courteous Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. I received a letter from him. He has agreed to help me, but apparently, if that plumber can be found a job by somebody who wants to employ him in London, they will ask the Army for him, but if he is wanted to mend burst pipes in Boston he must not come home. I really cannot see that that makes sense or makes for comfort. I am glad to hear that private housing is to start again. Before I finish I am going to say a ward on the question of rural housing. It is easy, as I saw last night in South London, to visualise the terrible damage and the need there is for temporary houses in our cities. But as you go round the countryside—and after all it is only known to the local doctor, the local health visitor and the local Member of Parliament who takes the trouble to go and look into these things—you see that overcrowded conditions in the rural areas are even worse than those in some of the London areas. I will give three examples and allow the House to draw its own conclusions. In one room, in the heart of the most fertile part of England, lives a woman, age about 40, her mother, a boy of 17, and a girl of 12, and there is a husband serving overseas who is entitled to leave and will be returning to join that household very soon. Are those the conditions under which our people ought to be living? In another case a man and a wife and four children were living in one room. In another case an old couple were living in a house so old and so worn out that tarpaulin and sacks were hanging above the bed to keep the rain out.
These conditions cannot be prevented at the moment. The key to the solution of all these problems is labour. I believe that this House will not be satisfied with this Debate. We cannot be satisfied with the present exposition from the Government of its housing policy until we have had, certainly a Member of the War Government, and, preferably, the Minister of Labour to tell us how he is viewing the release of men from the Forces and from civil employment, the training of new entrants into the industry, new methods of application, pressure upon employers to secure and assist them in every way, agreement with the trade unions to relax any restrictive practices that may still remain on these people with great experience. We must ask at some later date for another Debate in which we shall have the advantage and the assistance of the Minister of Labour, who alone can really solve this problem. The admirable Ministers who have taken part in this Debate can only move, if I may say so, on the circumference of the problem, where the Minister of Labour is right at the centre.