I desire to draw the attention of the House and of the Secretary for Scotland to a, matter which requires, I think, careful consideration. Two men and their families were evicted from their homes on Wednesday last by the Lochgelly Iron and Coal Company, Fife, and others, we fear, are threatened. In April, it may be remembered, the mining dispute took place, and since it was settled, a number of men in more districts than one, unfortunately, have been unable to obtain work. In Lochgelly there are a number of men who have been unable to resume employment, and these two to whom I refer were among the number. Notwithstanding that the company have been unable to employ the men, they have taken the extraordinary proceeding of applying to the Sheriff for their eviction, and the. Order was put into operation on Wednesday last. Under those circumstances it is a cruel method of treatment to these men. Not only does this apply to the two cases I have mentioned, but that same company have intimated to others in similar circumstances that they should take the same course and apply for evictions which in all probability will be carried out in the same way. These evictions have been applied for on the ground that the Lochgelly Iron and Coal Company are in need of houses for their workmen. I do not say that this company are in the position of being able to house all their workmen. In many mining districts there has been a shortage of houses and it has been the custom for the men to take in their fellows and let some of their rooms.
Notwithstanding that fact this company have never before sought evictions to provide houses for their workmen. It is only after we have had a dispute such as that which took place last year, when evidently feeling has crept in, that action of this kind is taken, and this form of victimisation is resorted to. We are told that such is the position of things in this country that we require labour and capital to draw more closely together in order to bring the country through the difficulties that surround us industrially and economically. Actions of this kind; I am sure, will have the opposite effect and will cause a tremendous amount of feeling. The Government ought to take up this matter with the parties concerned at the earliest possible moment. I have already drawn the attention of the Secretary for Scotland to this matter and he agreed to come down to the House to-night in order that we might have a discussion upon it. Unless some step is taken that will influence the policy of this particular company and similar companies, we are going to have a serious situation in certain districts of the country. Not only are these two men involved, but others have had intimations, and I believe, unless some check can be put on a policy of this kind, very nearly 100 people will be involved before these proceedings are ended. Under these circumstances I seriously suggest to the Secretary for Scotland that if he has not the necessary powers to deal with a difficulty of this kind, he should undertake that it shall be seriously considered by the Government. To put men's wives and children out of their homes under any circumstances is treatment of a brutal character, but under the conditions that prevail at the moment, it being the middle of the winter, it is more brutal still. When one adds to that the severity of the weather and the fact that there are 2 families where there has been no work for the husband for nearly 10 months, with the result that there is the direst poverty in the home, such action amounts to treatment which ought not to be allowed either by the Government or by the House if there is power to prevent it.
Housing under existing conditions is one of the gravest problems the people of this country have to face. This method of facing it is no cure. It is all very well for the Lochgelly Iron Company to go to the Sheriff and say there is a man who wants a house and therefore another man must be put out of his house. You are thus simply shifting your trouble round: you are not curing it by a policy of this kind. You are only causing increasing trouble and discontent. It is all very well to talk of trying to cultivate a common feeling between labour on the one hand and capital on the other. This is the way to prevent effectively anything of the kind. I appeal to the Secretary for Scotland to deal with this matter at the earliest possible moment I know it is not free from difficulty, but if his powers are so limited under existing conditions that he cannot deal with the question effectively. I hope he will consider the question of getting those powers extended, so that we may be able successfully to prevent a recurrence of this kind of thing. I trust it will be found possible to do something to secure the re-establishment of these two families in their houses, and to prevent others being affected by exactly the same set of circumstances. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman when he comes to reply will hold out some hope that a stop will be put to acts of this kind. If this policy of the Lochgelly Iron Company is permitted, and if other industrial concerns in the country follow suit, there will be considerable trouble ahead of the country, because the circumstances of the times are far too serious for a policy of that kind to be carried out in connection with the housing of our people.
My right hon. Friend has left me only four minutes in which to reply, and I think I am not only entitled, but bound to rise and explain. My right hon. Friend has said quite truly that he has been in communication with me on this subject, both by interview and by letter, and I have told him what I am afraid I must repeat to-day, that I regret that I have no power to intervene in the matter. I can give him neither encouragement nor help in the view that he has presented, and that for several reasons. In the first place, I have only heard one side of the case, and I should be bound, before taking any effective action, to hear both sides. But even if I heard both sides, I still have no power under the existing law to interpose in a purely domestic question between a landlord and his tenant. That has been settled by the terms of the Rent Restriction Act which was passed by this House. Fortunately, however, there is someone who has the right to intervene, and who has heard both sides of the question, namely, the local sheriff substitute, and the Act passed by this House interposes between the landlord and his tenant, for the protection of the tenant, a hearing before the sheriff substitute, who has the fullest right and duty to investigate the whole of the circumstances, and, in the exercise of the widest possible discretion, to decide according to law between the parties. My right hon. Friend speaks of altering the law, but I do not know in what direction he suggests that it should be altered. I can conceive his wish to be that the tenant, in such a case as he has in mind, should be non-evictable so long as he pays his rent. That would place the landlord in a serious position. Another possibility is that the landlord should have the power, by his own deed, to evict his tenant according to his own caprice. That would put the tenant at the mercy of the landlord. The law has very wisely stepped in, with the full consent of both Houses, and interposed between these two parties the local Judge, who knows the circumstances, saying, "You, the landlord, shall not do anything by your own deed in the way of eviction; and you, the, tenant, shall not make any claim which would hamper and restrict the landlord in the exercise of his legitimate right; the Sheriff shall decide between you." That is the existing law, and, on the information before me, I cannot see in what direction it could usefully be altered.
I am reluctant to intervene, and shall only do so for a single moment. The complaint referred to by my right hon. Friend comes from Lochgelly, which is in my own constituency, and while my right hon. Friend refers to the difficulty of reconciling the interests of Capital and Labour, might I suggest to him that he is not taking the best means himself to do that? I think that a complaint of that sort, reaching him, might have been referred to me. He knows how willing I have always been to deal with cases of hardship in my own constituency. We might then have made a combined representation to the Lochgolly Iron and Coal Company, which might have had a good effect. It does not, however, have a good effect if I am here as the representative of the particular constituency from which the complaint comes, and am ignored by the leader of the Labour party in Scotland; and I cannot help saying that, considering the relations which have always existed between my right hon. Friend and myself, it is somewhat unfortunate that he should bring the case forward in this House without giving me an opportunity of collaborating with him and making representations in the proper quarter which might achieve a better result than his sole intervention at the present time.