I desire to call attention to a matter which is giving a great deal of concern to a class of the population who cannot very well air their grievances by a strike or a revolution. Next to the question of food, nothing troubles the people of this country more than the question of housing—what sort of houses are they going to live in, and when they get into them how long will they be permitted to stay there? I remember very well during the last two or three years in the previous Parliament how we tackled the question of the increase of rent, and what a stir the measure made in the House and in the country. I am not in any way desirous of attacking the Government, but I do want them to act and act quickly. That will be the only way to satisfy people outside who are suffering from the tension of having eviction orders hanging over their heads. I am not here to attack the landlord, who has as much right to live as any Member of Parliament. I do not attack any of those who have invested their money in house property, but I do feel that this House does not yet realise the seriousness of the position in which thousands of people, who voted for us at the last election, are, owing to the fact that they are getting notices to quit and have no houses to go into. I have letters from several soldiers to-day, in which they say, "We have been released ten days; seven of these ten days we have spent in house-hunting, and we cannot find either houses or premises." Do you wonder at men who come back from France, after four and a half years, getting out of hand when they cannot find a place for their wives and families?
In addition, these men, when they apply for houses, are told by the landlord, "We cannot take you because you have children." We shall eventually see in the new garden cities notices saying, "Anyone with children need not apply." I wonder very often whether the landlords of these properties were ever children in their lives, or whether they were simply dropped down from the skies? And this is at a time when the nation is dependent, more than it was ever dependent before in its history, in order that it may be rebuilt and remoulded, on the children of the day and on generations yet unborn. I ask the Government to take some speedy step to deal with the matter. Otherwise, amid all the industrial unrest in the country, they will be face to face with another kind of unrest, because these people will not tolerate being sat on as they are being at present. I have to-day a letter from a certain place, which the Minister who is to reply to-night on this matter can see for himself, in which the writer says:
I notice in the Press that the question of shortage of houses is going to be raised to-night. May I draw your attention to the fact that in this town alone over 300 tenants are under order of eviction.
One would not mind being evicted from some of these houses if people could get somewhere else to go to. That is the trouble all the time. I have also the case
of two men who were demobilised a fortnight ago coming home after four and a half years in France to find that the whole row of houses in which their families had lived had been condemned by the sanitary authority. Here are these men who have risked their lives and spent their energy in France come home to find their wives and families with every prospect of being turned into the street.
This is no fairy tale. There is no Member of this House who did not promise at the election that one of the things he would try to get done would be the re-housing of the people of this country. That letter is only one of scores of such letters that Members of this House are receiving. I notice that in many different districts landlords are selling houses over the heads of the tenants, or they are endeavouring to get them out by putting an increase of £30 a year on some of these houses. Not only are the residents of these houses which I have mentioned being called upon to pay increased rents, but even Members of this House are not exempt from the possibility of eviction. I know one Member of this House who has a very fine house, for which he has been paying £167 a year rent, who received a notice last week stating that another Member of this House was trying to buy the House and asking what arrangement could he make about getting out. Possibly it is only right that this kind of thing should go on, but if this House does not wake up to the fact that a housing scheme has got to be not merely a matter of promise but a matter of accomplished fact then we shall be up not only against industrial strikes in the commercial world, but landlords will go for their rent and will not get it. The sooner the better.
I say that this matter is more general than possibly the House cares to realise. I know for a fact that in my own district, poor though that district may appear to be, landlords are refusing to take tenants if they have got one or two children. That is a sore point which the Government will have to tackle and the country will have to face. After all, you cannot have children born in a field like cabbages, carrots, or potatoes. It is all very well to have promises from the Front Bench that they are considering the matter and that they hope that the Report will be speedily brought forward in order that the country may see something done. Let us have something done at once. Let the Government act and show that they mean business and mean to redeem their pledges, if we are to have a happy and contented England. This country is only safe as long as its people are contented and happy, and it is only prosperous as long as its people are happy and contented. This country is only fit and worthy to live in so long as its people can get justice and equity from the House of Commons, in which they are supposed to be represented. It is a matter of indifference to me whether hon. Members laugh or smile or sneer. They can do what they like. I say that this question outside is a very serious one, and is not a matter to be laughed at or sneered at. I do not want hon. Members to imagine that there is any Member of this House possessed of all the virtues or alone conscious of the rights of the people. We have all our equal share of responsibility and power, and none of us can shirk our responsibility to the people. I want the House to realise that we are not here to play or dream; we have hard work to do. Let us shun not the struggle, however difficult the task may be. I know it may not be very pleasant for Members to put questions to members of the Government and to be told that the thing is being considered. I know that it is being considered, but the same thing applied to the Increase of Rent Act, when we were told from the Front Bench that our facts were not correct and could not be substantiated. The Ministers then in charge found to their dismay that the facts were correct. We are prepared to substantiate to-night every statement we make on this question of housing, which is next in importance to the question of the food of the people in this country. I have here a pile of letters from officers and soldiers, who ask that their names be not divulged, because of the positions they hold under the War Office. In those letters they say that week after week, district after district and hour after hour their wives have tried and cannot get houses.
I desire to render to the Government in this matter all the support in my power, and I have not the slightest wish to injure or hinder them in getting on with their work, but I raise this question because I feel it is a very serious one, and one which demands the immediate practical attention of the Department concerned. I would ask them to wake up and get into their stride, and show the country that our platform and programme are not mere platitudes and idle words, and, if they do, we shall go a long way to undo a good deal of the unrest that is seething and is very deep and very sinister in more directions than one. I do not wonder at men sometimes seeing red. I have a letter here from an officer who after four and a half years in France comes home, and his wife and two children are unable to get apartments or a house, except they buy it. If this House does not care to realise this serious position, it will sooner or later have to do so. We have had a heritage handed down to us and we should make up our minds that the position we leave behind us is better than that which we found. I would ask the Minister in charge, whose whole-hearted sympathy is in accordance with the wishes of the House, to show to the people of the country that we do desire to house them properly and to give them every facility and opportunity for getting houses. The House must make up its mind that there must be some protection added to the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest Act in order to save this wholesale eviction in London and in the provinces, which is staring thousands of middle class people in the face. If the Government does not take some steps speedily, then it will have to face more trouble than it can tackle.
The question which my hon. Friend has raised is, as he pointed out, one of great magnitude. I think His Majesty's Government must be rather sorry now that they were not able to bring in the Bill that was promised to myself over and over again dealing with one phase of this question. The magnitude of the housing question is realised we know by the Government and by everyone who has taken any interest in our social conditions. We are all aware that we are, roughly, five years behind in our building of houses. For the last five years there has not been anything approaching sufficient houses for the workers, and we have seen from many Reports that the shortage has reached hundreds of thousands, a shortage which ought to have been kept up under the ordinary condition of things. I should not be inaccurate I think in stating, and the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, that that shortage did not commence with the War alone, but had commenced five years previously. If you take the figures for the five years previous to the outbreak of war you will find that the number of houses built was some 30 or 40 per cent. less than had been built previously. We fully realises that the Government is alive to the necessity of a big measure dealing with the housing question. We have had it explained over and over again, as for instance in the Gracious Speech from the Throne and in other quarters, and we know that the Local Government Board has been in communication with the local authorities throughout the country and inquired of them as to what is the amount of housing required in each particular locality. I believe the right hon. Gentleman's Department is in possession of a large number of returns from municipalities and urban and rural councils stating what they desire—that is the great question of housing. But what I wish to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to to-night is not exactly that in connection with the big Bill, which must necessarily take some time to pass through this House and still more time before we get a large number of houses built. What I particularly desire to call the Government's attention to is this fact, that owing to the shortage in the quantity of houses there are a number of greedy landlords who are threatening to evict their tenants unless they purchase. I am not classifying the whole of them. Some people say they have been instigated to do it by their agents, and, if so, I repeat that never was more disastrous advice given by an agent to his superior. They are serving notices not only on small houses, but on large houses; indeed, the smaller houses are rather more free, as they come within the scope of the Act of 1915, but on houses which do not come within that limit they are serving notices to the effect that the tenants must clear out in March, or June, or September, unless they like to purchase the house, in which case they may remain. What are the terms upon which the purchase is to take place? It is to take place on the terms and conditions of the landlords, and I have instances of houses just outside the centre of London where the terms asked for on a moderate-sized house are at least some £200 more than the market value of that house.
What are the tenants; going to do? They cannot get other houses. I know instances that will arise in March where people have tried without success to get other houses, and apart from anything else it is a great inconvenience to the smaller middle class people with their children going to school in a particular neighbourhood. These people will not voluntarily go outside their houses and put their goods and chattels on the wayside. They cannot be expected to do that, and, if not, the landlords will have to apply for ejectment orders, and you will have hundreds and hundreds of these ejectment orders. I know of cases where they are already prepared to meet those notices when they are served upon them, and they intend to fight, and while I am not a lawyer I can say that they hope to be able to get some relief under the Courts (Emergency Powers) Act. That is a case that has to be dealt with totally apart from the question of the great housing scheme for building. I do not know that it can be met entirely, but still it would give some relief if there was an extension of the amount of rent now confined in the Act of 1915. I think the Government will have to consider whether they cannot devise some means whereby an appeal can be made as to whether it is just that the tenant who is paying his rent and keeping up all his engagements to his landlord should be turned out. This is not a case that concerns London alone. I have an enormous amount of correspondence over the questions I was asking last autumn about repairs and dilapidations, and I hold in my hand at tins present time, amongst many other letters, one from Cambridge, so that it is not confined to London. Mixed up with this question is the other question as to whether relief cannot be given to some of the people who have leases with regard to being called upon to carry out their covenants. We are not out of the War yet. I wish we were, but even if we were it would be some little time before materials and labour could come down to the level that we require. It was on that point that the Government promised—and did try. I believe, but the time was not sufficient—to bring in in the autumn of last year a measure giving relief to those people. I could show to the right hon. Gentleman sheaves of cases which have been brought to my notice in reply to my letters to the Press and to my questions in this House at that time, and although I do not want to use violent language the case is so strong and so serious that I am sure it will appeal to my right hon. Friend, and that he will put as strongly and as urgently as he can before his colleagues the necessity of doing something and not waiting for the grand housing scheme before they meet this difficulty. It arose mainly with regard to the short leases in the autumn, but it has arisen in the last few months over this question of "go out" or "buy"—that is, the placing of a revolver at the head of the tenant by the landlord. I put these facts before the right hon. Gentleman and ask him to impress upon his colleagues, busy as they may be in other directions, the necessity of dealing at once with this grave and serious problem.
I am quite unfamiliar with the procedure, and I hope any transgression on my part will be overlooked. I am in rather a fog as to the time this Debate can last, but if there is time at my disposal I will claim the indulgence of the House to urge upon the Government the very grave necessity of extending the protection given to those under the Rent and Mortgages Act. This problem in itself is one that affects very seriously the whole community, and more particularly those who happen to be fortunate enough to be the parents of large families. I speak with a good deal of experience in that direction, being born in London, and a member of a family of sixteen, my wife being a member of a family of fifteen, myself being the proud father of sixteen. Therefore, I think I may presume to talk upon the difficulties of the housing question. The difficulties have been personal as well, because I find that I very often must resort to subterfuges to get a reference of any kind at all. But, quite beyond that, during the course of this unfortunate War, I myself have been the subject of notice to quit, and I have very often asked myself what really are the provisions made for families who suffer eviction without having any homestead to go to. I find usually that the first symptoms of the grave social problem commence—overcrowding in different habitations. I suggest that the bad housing, because of the insufficient supply of sanitary dwellings, is largely responsible for the early bad environment and for the growth of rather a narrow, cramped and bad conception of what life is and of what life should be. I attribute, rightly or wrongly, to the insufficient supply of houses and to the lack of attention in making these houses sanitary, all the grave fear and doubt as to how long one is to be permitted to live in the house and occupy the home in order to welcome back the lads whom we have sent to defend this kind of property for the property owner who so freely gives notice to quit. I rather feel that with this bad early environment you can expect to find nothing else but the seedlings and a fomenting ground for all such things as Bolshevism, and for epidemic diseases, such as the the recent very serious visitation of influenza. I really do gravely express the opinion that the preventable epidemic diseases are more virulent because of the bad and indifferent housing in this country of ours. There is no sadder sight for anyone with a healthy mind, and no sadder sound can fall upon the ears of those who listen than to hear coming from some innocent baby lips some vulgar expression, which is the first articulation they have learned because of the herding together and the bad environment in the narrow courts and alleyways of the country. You are going to accentuate that unless the Government does something immediately. Already large numbers of people throughout the provinces have had served upon them three months' notice to quit. The notice is to expire at the end of March, and they are wondering what is going to become of them. There is no provision at all, if you go into the poorer quarters and if you go into the slum areas. A friend of mine told me of seven houses, with only three rooms in each house, and with just one public sanitary convenience for the whole of the seven houses, harbouring one hundred and eleven persons—children and adults.
I myself rather dread the end of March coming for fear that I shall be a victim again of three months' notice to quit. It is no use the landlords blaming their agents and saying that the agents have preferred this advice to them. The men who went from these homes and left their wives and children behind; the parents who sent their sons did so in defence of the homeland and of the homes of England. They did so in defence of the womankind, not expecting that the Government, by its inactivity, was going to make all their fighting in vain and to hand their womenfolk over to the greed of the landlord who with all his avaricious desires, will sell the house over the head of the tenant, no matter how long he has regularly paid his rent, or else will give him the alternative, when the period of notice expires, of continuing by paying an increased rent. I do urge, with all the power of which I am capable, that the Government should not only extend the operations of the Rent and Mortgages Act, but that they should secure a return from the local health authorities as to the number of visitations for the purposes of sanitary inspections which have taken place and as to the state of the existing property. I can assure, the House that very few of the landlords have spent a penny-piece during the whole of the War period on property which, as my friends in London would say, has to have seven or eight layers of wallpaper to keep the partition in an upright condition; and they have neglected even any repairs of the general sanitary arrangements of the House. I would urge that we should have some Return, showing not only the shortage and what schemes there are for making good that shortage, but also what is the state of the existing property. You cannot judge your shortage of houses on the number you have at present standing. Fully one-half of these ought to be pulled down, because they are danger spots where epidemic disease strengthens and becomes virulent, to the sad loss of many throughout our country. I would ask the Government to take this matter in hand, otherwise I cannot see how you can logically, as Englishmen, advise against organised opposition to eviction. If you once have that state of organised opposition to eviction you are going to have a spirit of unrest far different from that of to-day, because these men will say, "We have fought for our homeland and our country; we are now going to fight for the right to live whilst we pay rent in the homes in which we have lived for so many years."
It is obvious to all that there are really two questions raised by the speeches we have heard to-night. One is that dealt with by the Member for West Nottingham in a very direct and informing way, as to the general effects of the housing scarcity. I agree with every word he said as to the evil effects of the existing deplorable state of affairs in many places. The other point, referred to by the hon. Member for Poplar, of course brings us face to face with a very big issue, which is quite other than housing, namely, as to how far we ought to interfere with the rights of an individual in respect of the disposal of his own property, because, as the hon. Member is aware, it is not limited to houses. For example, a very large amount of land has changed hands during the past couple of years, and in a very large number of cases the tenants have purchased it, having been given the first option because they wished to remain the tenants. It is exactly parallel with the case of the man with the £160 a year house which is to be sold, who, if he is to continue to be the tenant, must buy it himself. It is exactly a parallel case, and, as the hon. Member for Poplar suggests, this extends even to the £160 a year house. He will see it—in fact, he said himself that he came face to face with the proposition there. He told us that one Member of this House was in treaty—I understood him to say—for buying the house now inhabited by another Member of this House, or something of that sort. He did not quire undertake to say that he was accepting the responsibility of preventing him buying it. That is the question with which you are really confronted, and which is quite other than that of the Restriction of Rent and Mortgages Act. [An Hon. Member: Is it not profiteering?"] It is profiteering; there is no doubt about that. It is taking advantage of the existing housing scarcity. On that point, I would say that proposals are at this moment being considered by us, and we will report to the House what the decision of the Government is on the particular points raised by the hon. Member for Poplar as soon as possible.
Oh, yes; before that! With reference, however, to the continuance in some other form, or in a modified form, of the Restriction of Rent Act, definite proposals for that also are being prepared, and I have no doubt we shall be able to announce them also to the House very shortly. But the whole of this arises essentially from the scarcity of houses. The case so well known to all of us of people being hard pressed to find accommodation arises because of the scarcity of houses. During the War there has been little building. Materials have been dear and diverted to other purposes, and permits have not been allowed, and all the rest of it. That has only accentuated what was previously a shortage. The hon. Member for Poplar quite rightly said that he expected the Government to make good its pledges. I accept that expectation in the letter and in the spirit. We mean to do so. I may say that last week we issued to local authorities our scheme of finance with reference to the general housing provisions, and if the hon. Member has had an opportunity of looking at that proposal, I think he will have seen it does not err either on the side of indefiniteness or niggardliness, because we look to the authority to seek to make good by various ways the shortage in housing accommodation or the unsatisfactory character of housing accommodation in their area, and we undertake for a term of years that is set out in the circular, that the charge falling upon them of any approved arrangements shall not exceed the proceeds of a penny rate. It is quite evident that in any rural district that means a very large measure of assistance. In wealthy areas it would not mean quite so much where the yield of a penny rate is a big figure. However, throughout the length and breadth of the country, it would mean a large and generous State contribution to houses, and it is very definite and precise. Every authority now knows where it is. [An Hon. Member: "Does it extend to Ireland?"] No; the proposal I sent out extends to England and Wales. Another sent out by my right hon. Friend applies to Scotland, and the Irish Secretary is in charge of the matter as it relates to Ireland.
I am afraid I cannot. The hon. Gentleman must ask that question of my right hon. Friend. I know he is working at it, though he has not had the same opportunity that we have to devote the amount of time to dealing with the question. So far as the scheme of State assistance is concerned, it is quite evident the proposals already sent out are generous and definite, and I believe they are being widely taken up by local authorities. One hon. Gentleman pointed out that there is a vast number of houses verging on the dilapidated which are still occupied, and that closing orders are not issued, because everybody knows that if they were issued there would be nowhere else for the unfortunate tenants to go. We have got to deal with the unsatisfactory houses, and it is quite clear that no adequate provision for the housing shortage can wholly be made good by the provision of new houses. You must make the best also of what houses you have got that are worth making anything of, and I can only say that proposals dealing adequately with that matter will be found in the Bill which we hope to present to the House in a very short time. I may say, too, without anticipating that measure, that several of the matters mentioned to-night will be found in the Bill, and I am quite sure of this, that when the House sees it they will not say we are not living up to our pledges. It will be found to be very drastic, and it will be intended to provide houses. I entirely agree with the hon. Member that we have talked about houses long enough, and that what we want to see is some bricks going up. Last week, for example, we placed orders in advance for 300,000,000 bricks in connection with housing schemes, and let me say here, because it affects the general question of unemployment, that it is not intended that the Government is going to monopolise all the bricks and all the building material. We must give a chance to other builders to obtain the necessary material, if they like to do so, for housing.
There are many points raised by hon. Members in their remarks which relate to a general discussion on the housing provisions rather than the limited point raised by the hon. Member for Poplar, and it would not be proper, perhaps, at this time, on a Motion for the Adjournment, to go into them. I wish it were, because I may say we are hard at work at it, and we mean business in this matter. But the House will recognise, I am sure, that the preparation and the passing of plans, the elaboration of brickyards, the supply of materials, and the hundred and one practical questions to be dealt with before you can begin to build a house are not matters you can deal with in the course of a week. I only give one specific instance as showing the kind of steps we are taking. We have surveyed every brickyard in the country. We have sent in a return of all the men who are wanted to start these brickyards, and where they are short of machinery. For all these men that are wanted we have applied to the Demobilisation Department, and I may say we are making ourselves a continual nuisance to that Department [An Hon. Member: "It is necessary."], in order to get these men to the brickyards. Then we have divided the country in respect of the priority of material and the production of housing material into eleven convenient areas, where you can deal with it in a practical fashion in the centre of production. We have ordered in advance a very large number, although not so many as we shall require in the near future, of bricks and other materials for the provision of houses. I am sure practical men in the House know perfectly well that with the present condition of the brickyards, with men scattered all over the earth on military service, and the machinery in its present condition, it is bound to take time before we can get matters started even with the best will in the world. I am sure, however, the House will give us credit when they see that we are really trying. I believe that when hon. Members see our housing proposals in the form of the new Housing Bill they will acquit us of any desire or disposition to lack earnestness or zeal to proceed with this very important national work.
I do not want to refer to the general subject, but to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question. In his remarks he stated that the result of certain matters which are now under consideration would be stated to the House "as soon as possible." I would invite him to be a little more precise as to what he means by "as soon as possible." What has been said to-night on the part of every Member who has spoken is perfectly true as to the intense anxiety on this question. It would be a very great satisfaction to all concerned if, instead of saying "as soon as possible," the right hon. Gentleman could be more precise so that we may expect the result to come within a certain definite period. If the right hon Gentleman can satisfy us on this point we shall all be very pleased.