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Orders of the Day — Housing and Town Planning (Scotland) Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 5th May 1919.

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Photo of Mr Dugald Cowan Mr Dugald Cowan , Combined Scottish Universities

I have to ask that indulgence which the House so generously extends to those who address it for the first time. I need hardly say that, like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I heartily welcome this Bill, and after what has been said there is really little reason for my intervention at all. I intervene because, in the first place, when I elected to support this Coalition Government, I did it very largely on the strength of the social programme which they put forward. I intervene also because the subject matter of this Bill touches very closely upon, and is inseparably connected with, a department of work in which my life has so far been mostly passed. I do not mean in any way to enter into the details of this Bill now. It is a long Bill, and a complex Bill, and that makes it the more necessary to be clear as to the means by which the object of the Bill is to be secured, and as to the principles to be observed in carrying it out. I take it that the purpose of this Bill is, to some extent at least, to redeem the pledge contained in the words of the Prime Minister, that this country should be made a country fit for heroes to live in. I should be at least among the last to cavil at the Prime Minister's superlatives. I gratefully recognise that very often we have found his imaginative superlativity quite a tonic in our national life, when the tone was rather low. I think this part of it will be satisfied by means of this Bill if it makes this country a country fit for decent people to live in, and gives a chance to the people of the country to be decent. Whether this Bill will accomplish this object, or even that part of it, which it is intended to accomplish, will depend I think upon three main considerations. Those considerations are, first, the provisions of the Bill itself, second, the methods by which those provisions are carried into effect, and third, the accompanying schemes of social amelioration, because a housing Bill by itself cannot bring about that betterment in the conditions of the people, which we all wish to see. It must be accompanied by measures of health such as we have already dealt with, of temperance, of education, and of, I hope and believe, a minimum wage like what has been referred to by an hon. Member opposite, because I do believe that nothing gives more self-reliance to the people than the payment of sufficient money to deal with for themselves. If we do not. carry out this proposal of a minimum wage, then these houses which are given over at less than an economic rent, will morally be little better than glorified poorhouses.

As to the method of the Bill, we have heard of the arrangements whereby the State, as represented by Parliament, is to work by a Department, and in connection with the local authorities. I do hope that it will be kept in mind that while it is permissible for the State to make use of the local authorities, the sole and final responsibility for the housing of the people rests with the State, and of that responsibility the State cannot divest itself. Therefore, I hope that in this Bill ample powers will be taken, and if necessary later on exercised, to make certain that no local authority which is backward will be allowed to remain backward, but will be either forced to go forward or have the work taken out of its hands altogether. With regard to this whole matter of housing, we are all agreed in Scotland. Scotland has many traditions, of which it is justly proud, but as has been indicated here this afternoon, her record in connection with housing is by no means fragrant. Thomas Carlyle, who is not quite so much read now-a-days as he used to be, and perhaps will be again, brought an indictment against Scotland in his "Past and Present." Things have improved since that, but the present conditions are still sufficiently appalling. I believe that this country at the present time is determined that the Government shall fulfil to the utmost the pledge of better social conditions upon which it came into power. We have had housing schemes before now, and little has come of them. We have had before now the West End craze to go to the East End slums, but that craze passed away while the slums remained. We wish to make sure that is not going to happen again. I will not enter into details of this Bill, but I should say meanwhile, something drastic is necessary, if we are to have a really stable State. And for this among other reasons.

The War, among many other things, has given us a new plutocracy, a plutocracy that to some extent, at least, is founded upon the plunder of the nation in its time of need, and it is not to be expected that the people in this country will stand aside and see one limited class able to live in a riot of luxury while others are left without the bare necessaries of life. And, therefore, I believe that in its own interest the State must make this Bill a real Bill, a Bill which may break economic laws but will, at least, house the people properly. We have heard a good deal about the economic law, but I think that some of the laws which have been regarded as sacrosanct for a long time are really requiring resetting and some Christianising. It may be that the housing scheme is in some senses uneconomic. That being so, still it is not for this Parlament to cavil at it on the ground of uneconomics, when it is being invited by its Chancellor of the Exchequer to discard Adam Smith, Cobden, Gladstone, and all the others.

I wish that the proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer had taken a wider sweep and that he had devised some means for getting back those war profits for the good of the nation, and particularly for this matter of housing. I said at the beginning that I intervened on this question on two grounds, and the second was that it touched upon the department of work with which I had been all my life connected. I mean the department of education. Last year, under the pilotage of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland, we got a Bill which restored to Scotland that supremacy which Scotland, without doing violence to its modesty, had always claimed for itself, a supremacy which had been challenged by the Education Act of England of that year. But I think that the right hon. gentleman will agree with me that that Bill cannot be really made operative until we have radically changed the housing conditions of our people in this country. We have raised under that Act the age from fourteen to fifteen. That in itself is all to the good, but unless we make the condition of the home such that that year of additional schooling will really be beneficial the Act will not certainly accomplish the purpose which it has had in view. We bring the children to school. We teach them, or try to teach them, the Ten Commandments, and then we send them back to homes where it is almost impossible to keep a single one of those Commandments, and therefore I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman will add to the great services which he has already rendered to Scotland by forcing this Bill as far as it can possibly be forced. We are very proud of the record of our youth and our manhood in the late war, but I think a feeling of humility will mingle with our pride as we remember that many of those who died were in their days of helplessness the waifs and strays of our streets, and that they died for the ideal of a homeland in which they never knew a home; and I do hope that in the memory of those whom the poet has called "the rich dead," who were rich not by reason of what they received but by reason of what they gave, we will do what we can to make this Scotland of ours, this Britain of ours, this Empire of ours, something better and nobler for the generations that are to come than it has been for the generations that are gone.