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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 13th March 1922.

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Photo of Mr Joseph Johnstone Mr Joseph Johnstone , Renfrewshire Eastern

The Committee must have listened with very great interest to the comprehensive speech of the Minister of Health. In reference to his concluding observations as to slums, I would like to point out that the condition of the houses themselves is not alone responsible for slumdom. The surroundings have equally to be taken into account, and no mere tinkering with slum houses will have the desired result. The only thing is to pull the houses down and get the inhabitants away from the surroundings. I can quite understand the Minister's difficulty in regard to the shortage of houses, and I think he will have to face the necessity, if people are to be properly housed, for another scheme to make an ample provision of houses. Anyone acquainted with our large cities must realise to the full that, notwithstanding all that has been done to improve existing houses and to erect new ones, there is evidence of a shortage which will have to be dealt with. I quite sympathise with the attitude which the right hon. Gentleman has taken with regard to the corner in the building trade. The country is justified in desiring to see substantial progress made under the present scheme before launching into any great extension of it. But the scheme was launched under costly conditions and carried through under the worst possible organisation for building houses.

I agree with the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) who deplored that private enterprise had been knocked out of housing work owing to the proposals brought forward in the so-called "People's Budget" not long ago. Up till that time private enterprise was able to supply nearly all the houses that were required, and no public body, no public Department could compete with efficient private enterprise. It produced moderately rented houses well within the reach of the comparatively small wages paid in those days. I had the privilege of going over a housing scheme carried out by a local authority recently. I found that the rents varied from £25 10s. to £30 per annum and that they were going to be increased to £27 10s. and £32 10s. Now it is very difficult for the working classes in these days of less employment, falling wages, and increasing rates—it is almost impossible, indeed, to pay these high rents. Yet on these houses there is an annual loss because they are let for less than an economic rent. Take one class of houses which I inspected. The present rent is £30, it is to be increased to £32 10s., and yet the economic rent required for that particular class of house would be £87 per annum. We have run up a heavy burden for these housing schemes which will press heavily upon the country for many years to come. I suggest that if the Minister is to face an extension of his housing programme he should scrap the whole of the present scheme and 'bring forward proposals by which he will be able to do the work more efficiently and at a lesser cost.

I did not rise for the purpose mainly of speaking on the housing question. I wish to call the attention of the Committee to something which I believe has not yet been referred to in the Debate to-day, and that is the recommendation in the Geddes Report with regard to medical referees. So far as I can judge from the Estimate placed in our hands, the Minister has only reduced the number of medical referees by two—from 30 this year to 28 next year. The Geddes Report says that these medical referees are a luxury that ought to be given up at once, and where the engagements of the medical men cannot be terminated, then they should be transferred to other Departments, and that the approved societies should themselves provide for the medical referees. I am aware that in a large county where the Insurance Committees have an organised system of medical referees with the concurrence of the approved societies, they have instituted a method whereby any society which desires a member to submit himself to the referee pays the fee and thus covers the cost. The system works well, and in one large county area the cost is less than £100 per annum There is no doubt whatever that if the system were properly organised and set up all over the country it could be efficiently carried out and the State would be saved this very large cost. I am afraid it is symptomatic of Government Departments that they are cheese-paring in small things and glide very easily into large expenditure. I do not know what influences may have been brought to bear on the Department in this matter, but I certainly do not think sufficient thought was given to the matter when this medical referee system was set up.