Mr. David Adams:
In the matter of house-building we have reached a national crisis. A considerable number of local authorities, the larger ones in particular, have petitioned the Ministry of Health for protection against the rise in costs, and there is no diversity of opinion that the Import Duties Advisory Committee are in a large measure responsible for the present situation. Dear housing is having a serious effect on the cost of living of the working classes. A house built next year is bound to bear a heavier rental than one built before this rise took place, and that means that during the existence of that house, possibly a period of 60 years, the tenants will be called upon to bear this heavier charge because of the lack of protection afforded to the municipalities by the House of Commons.
The Parliamentary Secretary has directed attention, apparently to his satisfaction, but certainly not to the satisfaction of Members on this side of the House, to the instrument whereby all that we desire can be achieved. He tells us to go to the Import Duties Advisory Committee and, if there is a case in favour of the reduction or abolition of these duties, to present it to them. We know what ensued in the matter of steel, which he particularly mentioned. You had to have a situation which was positively alarming so far as our manufacturers were concerned. On Tyneside ships' plates were unobtainable, many works were shut down for two or three days per week, and it is common knowledge that our export trade, for lack of cheaper steel, has almost disappeared in certain directions. Indeed, certain manufacturers, on the North-East Coast in particular, have intimated that it was useless attempting, under the conditions in which steel was obtainable, to do any export trade whatever. A situation of that sort, in the nature of things, was bound to appeal to the Import Duties Advisory Committee and the pressure of national opinion compelled them to make a concession as far as steel is concerned.
What possibility is there of local authorities going to the Import Duties Committee and presenting to them a case for a reduction on the very diverse commodities used in house building? They could not possibly succeed in any such campaign. What might be reasonable in the case of timber might not be reasonable in the case of other commodities. It might be easy to demonstrate that the duty on tiles should be removed and the duty on something else should continue, and only the influence of the Government itself, by the measures suggested in the Clause, would be efficient for dealing with the present position. Some progress has been made with the abolition of slum property, but few, if any, authorities have made any serious start in the matter of building to lessen overcrowding. Their work is being arrested because of the high cost of building materials.
If the Government are serious in the matter, they are bound to deal with the situation. Local authorities are suffering from two things, high costs and the influence of combines and trading associations which are artificially forcing up prices and restricting the use of certain commodities. The Newcastle Corporation recently invited quotations for material required for the erection of house property and there were no fewer than 10 identically similar quotations, clearly indicating that the combine was at work. The only sound reason that has been advanced against the Clause is that there would be difficulties with the Dominions, but difficulties with the Dominions have been overcome before and could be overcome now. The problem confronting municipalities and the Government can only be dealt with by the drastic measures suggested in the Clause.