I hope the Government will accept this Amendment as a means of relieving the very sort straits in which many poor people in this country are placed, including many ex-service men. One of the obvious means of relieving the present house famine is taking over these empty houses. These words are hampering and may make the Act very largely a dead letter. Owing to the action of the Government in generously meeting us, with regard to raising the rateable value of houses which may be taken over, this Bill now applies to larger premises than when it came up here. A great many houses rather larger than working-class houses which are not being used for various reasons might be suitable for this purpose but will need slight reconstruction. The hon. Member opposite said that it was ridiculous to talk of reconstructing a house which you were only going to occupy for 12 months. There is a great deal in that, but the question of putting up partitions, providing extra sanitary arrangements, extra ventilating arrangements which might be needed in these houses, effecting small practical alterations which would be temporary, such as might be made in a building used for the armed forces during the War, might be objected to by owners of property who wished to prevent their property being used for this philanthropic purpose. We say that the need is so urgent and the feeling of certain sections of the people is rising so rapidly that no obstacle ought to be thrown in the way of taking over these great empty houses for this purpose. The hon. Member (Mr. Lorden) has built a great many houses and will build many more, and I do not think that this Amendment will affect his operations.
If it did, I am certain that I could appeal to his generosity towards these people. The position is simply tragic. People are living in tents, and the fact that a house requires certain alterations in order that it may be used for more than one family should not be a reason for not taking it over and adapting it. In more than one country in Europe they have had to ration houses. I would rather see everyone restricted to one house than to see a man walking the streets unable to get a house. A little statesmanlike generosity on the part of the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel W. Wilson) may avert serious trouble.
I beg to second the Amendment. I am afraid of what may be construed under the term "reconstruction." If the Clause is left without a better definition of what are the intentions of the Ministry, the supply of houses under this Clause will be considerably restricted. If you are going to take over houses of a rateable value up to £40, you are bound to face some alteration in those premises to enable them to accommodate more than one family. Take the ordinary villa residence. There will certainly have to be provision made for an extra kitchen, extra fires, perhaps extra windows, and drainage accommodation. Some people might hold that some of these items are included in "reconstruction." There is no necessity for this wording to be retained in the Bill. In the Schedule provision is made not only that they are premises which are to be occupied at what I would term a fair rental, but within the limited period of occupation, which may be two and a half years, or even less, they must bear the costs of any adaptation or reconstruction. That puts a limitation on the extent of the alterations which may take place. Some hon. Members may fear that it is intended to take possession of the places of the gentry or landed classes and then to leave them in a dilapidated state. Nothing of that sort is possible. The limitations are such that my own personal view is that very few houses will come within its operations, and those which do come will bear the burden of rent and cost of adaptation, so that there is no necessity for further limitation.
My hon. and gallant Friend stated the case quite clearly for this Clause. The object of the Clause is to provide houses for ex-service men who are in urgent need of them at present. Every hon. Member knows of cases in which housing accommodation is urgently required at once. This Amendment would enable a local authority to hire compulsorily houses which need to be reconstructed before they can be made suitable for occupation. I am afraid that I cannot accept the Amendment. The words "without reconstruction" have a definite substantial meaning. They are used already in the Housing and Town Planning Act. I can assure my hon. Friends that these words will not have the effect which they fear, namely, that repairs and alterations such as they have suggested with regard to partitions, sanitary arrangements, or whatever may be of a minor character, cannot be done by the local authorities. The Schedule of the Bill, Clause 7, states that
in fixing the amount of rent to be paid, regard shall be had to any money which may have been or may be required to be spent by the local authorities in putting the house in a condition reasonably fit for human habitation.
Under the Amendment which was accepted by the House just now, a larger type of house can be taken by the local authority and, considering the fact that it can only be occupied for two or two and a half
years, it would be most unreasonable that the ratepayers' money should be spent on conversion. The minor alterations which have been referred to and which are necessary can be done. There still remains the power with the housing authority to acquire any property, and this would not stop them acquiring the houses mentioned by the Mover of the Amendment. They can do anything that is reasonable in the nature of the minor alterations for the two and a half years.
It has a legal meaning. Reconstruction means to alter the character of the house by addition to it or by such alteration so that the character of the house is changed.
The hon. Member for Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) suggested just now that I had something to do with house building. I happen to be in the building trade, but with regard to house building I am afraid I have done very little of it. The provisions of this Bill do not affect me personally in the slightest way.
I never suggested they did, and I would not think of making such a suggestion. I know that if they did that would make the hon. Gentleman come down on our side.
I am glad to have that disclaimer, but it does not do away with what the hon. and gallant Gentleman said. I happen to know something about building, and when I come to the House I submit I am entitled to use that knowledge in order to arrive at a reasonable and practical solution. This Bill, as it was first drafted, was not practical, but to-day it is practical to carry out its work. The Schedule of the Bill covers the whole of the ground which would be necessary in the case of houses taken for two and a half years. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent sanitation, amendment of drainage, painting, cleaning, repairs to woodwork or brick or slate work or to do what is necessary to make the house habitable. Reconstruction means turning a house into flats. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"]
— from the character itoriginally presented. The hon. Gentleman has a large amount of building knowledge, but there are other hon. Gentlemen who have had some experience, too.
I hope nobody ever thought I claimed to know everything, but I claim to know something, and that is all I claim. Reconstruction might mean turning into flats or turning the house into quite a different character of house from that which it is now. Therefore it is necessary to have these words in. If they were not, some local authority might spend a much larger sum of money in reconstruction than the occasion warranted. As it is, they have full power to put the house into a habitable condition.
I beg to move, in Subsection (1), after the word "fide" ["in the bonâ fide"] to insert the word "residential."
The object is to prevent the use of houses as store rooms and for other purposes and to give the local authorities in such cases power to take them over. I know of several instances in the country where houses are being used as store houses for potatoes and that kind of thing. I know of one case where houses are being used as store houses and if the power to take them over was given there would be three cottages perfectly equipped handed over by a school which now occupies them. There are hundreds of these cases scattered over the country. The word "residential" may not cover the point, but the object is to give the power to take houses which are not now in human habitation. I submit this proposal would inflict no harm on anybody and would do a great deal of good in the housing question.
I beg to second the Amendment. I have also had brought to my observation similar instances of houses being so used. Near a village in the constituency which I have the honour to represent there are seven iron stone quarries and many of the men have to walk many miles to their work. Close to the village there are one or two houses, and of which is used as an apple storehouse for the squire of the village. In this age when there is such a great shortage and when men are being urged to give greater output, there ought to be some regard for these men who should be given every facility to live in close proximity to their work.
I do not quite understand the object of this Amendment, and I am not at all certain that if these words were inserted it would not defeat the very object of the Clause. I suggest that the cases which my hon. Friends have mentioned, with which I fully sympathise, are fully covered by the insertion of the words "bonâ fide occupation" in Committee. I am also advised that the words "residential occupation" have no meaning in law, or if they have a meaning, it is such that it might defeat the ends we have in view.
There are people who have residences in London and elsewhere, and they might not be in one of them for the best part of the year, and I wondered if such a house could be considered to be in boné fide occupation.
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), to leave out the words "three months," and to insert instead thereof the words "one month."
The need of housing in certain parts of the country is so acute that it seems unreasonable to allow any house to remain unoccupied for more than a month. I do not suppose that a person shutting up his house and going away for his holiday would be caught in any case, because no local authority would do that, but in the case of a man giving up his house and leaving it for more than a month, I cannot understand why the local authority should not have power to take it over. The other case I have in mind is the case of people holding up a house for a higher rent. I want to see the rents brought down. I would not suggest this Amendment except that I know from personal observation how terribly acute this question is. I get abusive letters saying: "You pose as a friend of the working classes. Why do you not do something to get us houses? I am living in a barn, or in a workshop," or something of that sort. I believe I shall have the support in this case of even the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), as he must know how terribly urgent this question is in certain parts of the country.
The words in the Bill represent what was clearly considered to be a compromise in Committee, as there were various Amendments down, some for a shorter period and some for a longer period. I would point out that the houses which would be taken first by the local authority would be those which have been unoccupied for some months in times past, and therefore in these cases the three, months' period would already have been covered. We must also remember that cases often arise in the event of death where it would really be a hardship to put in a period of one month. I think the Clause is a very drastic proposal, and that we ought to give as fair a notice to the persons concerned as possible. I cannot, therefore, accept the hon. and gallant Gentleman's Amendment.
There is one very real objection to the period of three months, because it will give to the owner of the property a better chance of holding it up for the purpose of selling the house rather than letting it to what he might deem to be undesirable tenants. Houses have been held up for the purpose of selling, and if you keep three months as the period it would give the owner the right to keep his house empty for three months and three weeks for the purpose of selling, and that means that the most desirable people are not necessarily going to get the house, but those will get it who are in a position, probably, to purchase, as against those who are in a less fortunate position in that regard. If you put in one month instead of three months, the probabilities are that the owner would not be able to sell it in that period but would let it to the local authorities. I had during the War to remove, and I had the utmost difficulty in getting a house, while there were many which were empty. I was told that I could buy a house, and we had to pay £1,000 for a house which cost about £300 or £400 before the War began.
The word "undesirable" has been used with regard to this three months. Surely a man who has means to buy a house cannot be called undesirable, and I should have thought that if the landlord had to let the house under any circumstances, practically to any tenant, there is a good deal more likelihood of the tenant being undesirable.
I think the hon. Member has misapprehended my term "undesirable." I mean undesirable from the point of view that a man might have a mind to purchase the house and to be able to buy it, whereas the other man might not have any house at all and not have the money to buy it.
Surely if a man owns a house, and he wants to sell it in preference to letting it, at any rate, if he holds it for three months, he loses the rental of it. If a man wants to dispose of a house, and it takes three months to do it, this Amendment would be very drastic indeed, and would put a very great onus, and undeserved penalty, upon a man who is leaving a neighbourhood and wants three months' opportunity to sell his house. This is quite a new class of legislation, and surely after all—I am not speaking as a landlord, but perhaps the people harder hit than anyone else under the Bill are the landlords—we ought to be perfectly even-minded, and I think three months is a reasonable time, and should not be curtailed.
I beg to move in Sub-section (1, a), after the word "pur- poses," to insert the words "or to any house which is required for the occupation of a person engaged on work necessary for the proper working of an agricultural holding.'
These words are taken from the Rent Restrictions Act, which is already in operation. They will not require any explanation from me. It is perfectly obvious that it would not be possible to carry on the work of an agricultural holding unless words of this sort were inserted.