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Housing.

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

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Photo of Lord Robert Cecil Lord Robert Cecil , Hitchin

I am sure the whole Committee will be at one with my hon. Friend who has just spoken in his desire to put a stop to what evidently is a very serious evil. This is a subject which, as he knows far better than I do, has been discussed inside the House of Commons and outside for many years now, and I cannot help thinking, if he will allow me to say so, that scientific men have been partly to blame for the want of progress that has been made. If I remember rightly—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—the history of this question, it was begun by putting the case too high. There was a demand that all cows that reacted to tuberculin should be killed, and the result was that every farmer, and, indeed, a great many other people besides the farmers, were up in arms. They said, "Either you are going to compensate us for the destruction of the cows"—which was not proposed, in fact,—"and if you do that, it will cost a great deal of money; or you are going to ruin us," and there was a most violent agitation. I do not remember exactly how the legislation on the matter stands, but it was because of the case being put so high that nothing was done. I am convinced that there would be no difficulty in enforcing a law that no cow should be allowed to go on giving tuberculosis milk. That is a proposition which is so self-evident and so righteous that no one would resist it. Whether the State ought or ought not to give compensation for cows so destroyed is a different matter, but that adequate measures should be taken in that regard I am sure we should all agree.

I should like to say one word upon the Estimate itself. An hon. Member said just now, with a great deal of plausi- bility, if we could spend so much on the War, and if the War had gone on a little longer we should have gone on spending, why cannot we spend a very much less sum on peace? There is, of course, a certain force in that, but I think my hon. Friend will agree, on reflection, that you must not press that too far. After all, we are suffering very severely from the expenditure that we did incur on the War. A great many of the evils from which we are suffering are directly traceable to the necessary extravagance of the War. No one really thinks that taxation ought to be as high as it is, and there are many of us who believe that the Government have not taken the best way to lower that taxation. Undoubtedly, however, whatever they might have done, the vast expenditure on the War must have made the years which succeeded that War difficult, and most difficult of all for the poorer classes of this country.

Therefore, I myself am of opinion that in all legitimate ways we ought to save money at the present time, and I do not quarrel with the Minister of Health or anyone else who has tried to save money, provided, of course, that he has done so without sacrificing interests which are of such importance that they ought not to be sacrificed, at any rate until everything else has been tried. But when I look at this Estimate, I wish my right hon. Friend would explain to me exactly how it is that he has said that economies have taken place. As I understand the Estimate, the gross total proposed to be spent on the ordinary services this year is about £1,750,000 higher than it was last year. It is £20,957,000, as against £19,284,000. That is for ordinary services. I am told, and no doubt it is quite true, that to that £19,284,000 must be added some £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 spent on Supplementary Estimates, and that when you have added that—I will come to the extraordinary expenditure presently—there is an economy as compared with last year. That would be very well if we could be sure that there would be no Supplementary Estimates this year, but there is nothing to guarantee that there will not be Supplementary Estimates at least as large as those of last year. Therefore I do not think the Government are entitled to take any credit in comparing the proposed Estimate next year with the proposed Estimate plus the Sup- plementary Estimate as well. But then it is quite true that when you turn to the services arising out of the War there is considerable economy, and the economy is in two respects. There is a very large economy under the head Purchase of Housing Materials. Last year £4,800,000 was spent and this year only £240,000 is to be spent. But you have to set against that that last year there was an Appropriation-in-Aid, which the note tells us was derived from the sale of housing material, which amounted to close upon £5,000,000. This year it is only estimated to be £1,000,000. So that last year, on the whole transaction of purchasing and selling housing material, there was apparently no loss. This year it is hoped there will be a gain. When all that has been allowed for the two things practically cancel out, and taking the Appropriations-in-Aid and the purchase and sale of housing material together, there is no economy this year as compared with last. There is an economy in compensation to contractors, which is something but not very much, and there is a really big economy in the subsidy paid to private builders. That is an economy of £2,500,000. I do not quite understand how that comes about, because I understood the Minister's policy to be rather to encourage private building and not to rely so much on building by local authorities. At any rate, I would direct the attention of the Minister to this figure, because I think it is right to point out that after all the considerable reductions which, I understand, he has made in the building programme of the Government, he does not, so far as I read these figures, appear to have made any economy on balance on the ordinary expenditure and only a small one relatively taking ordinary and extraordinary expenditure together.

I listened to the right hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest and a considerable degree of admiration. But does he not think, on reflection, that he put the case for the Government a little too high? He denied emphatically that the Government had ever made a promise to build 500,000 houses. I have not the actual statement, but I am sure he would not not deceive the House as to the actual words that were used. But the broad fact was that at the beginning of that year the Government went to the country and said, "We are going to regenerate this country. We are going to make it quite a different place." There were all sorts of phrases used. They then called particular attention to the housing difficulty as one of the main things they were going to deal with. They put the lack of houses at 500,000—some put it higher—and undoubtedly they held out to the country—no one can doubt it—the expectation, whether it was a promise or not, that they were going to provide 500,000 houses, because they thought that was the number necessary. My right hon. Friend now says the whole of the estimate was utterly unreliable. He said it depended on the returns of local authorities, elicited in a way which he thinks was very unsatisfactory. He says, I understand from an interruption, that the figure which was so elicited was not 500,000, but 800,000. He says he does nor think that was worthy of serious attention. My recollection is that the estimate did not proceed merely on the return of local authorities. I have a strong recollection that there was a committee appointed which investigated this matter, not indeed with the same care and skill as the right hon. Baronet displayed in investigating it later, but they were a committee appointed by the Government, and they did their best. I do not remember the figure they arrived at. I rather think it was 300,000, but it was certainly very much in excess of what the Government are proposing to provide as it is. Then there was another much more rough-and-ready calculation. There was the broad proposition that there was a lack of houses, as was undoubtedly the case, before the War. Certainly in some country districts, with which I am better acquainted than with industrial districts, there was a considerable lack of houses even before the War. Then there were five years during which no houses were built. Then it was said with a good deal of force that the ordinary number of houses which were built in every year was, I think, 80,000, and therefore in five years, since no houses were built, you would expect a shortage of 400,000. Add to that the already proved shortage, which I say and many of my hon. Friends opposite say, was due very largely to the unfortunate experiment in land taxation—but whatever it was due to, which is not the point for the moment, there was a shortage of houses before the War. If you add to that shortage the 400,000 which were not built during the War, you come very near the 500,000 which the right hon. Baronet regards as such a ridiculous figure.