Orders of the Day — Housing (Agricultural Population) (Scotland) [Money].

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 16th November 1937.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

I am exceedingly glad that the Government have accepted the proposition which we on this side put to them last week that there should be a widening of the terms of the Bill so as to remove the hardships which would inevitably have arisen had the Bill remained as it was when first introduced. Despite the fact that the Under-Secretary of State refused to accede to our appeals last week, it is now obvious that the Government, on second thoughts, have decided to give us an opportunity in Committee to bring in under the benefits of this Bill farms in the landward areas of the burghs. Under the Bill as it originally was, and indeed as it still stands, the benefits accrue only to farm workers and proprietors in the counties.

It is obvious that the city of Edinburgh, which has a large number of farms within its boundaries, would have found itself in the position that farm workers inside its area would not receive the benefits of this Bill, whereas farm workers on the other side of an imaginary line in the county would receive the benefits. A week ago we submitted that that was an untenable and unjustifiable distinction, and I am exceedingly glad that the Government have so drafted the Money Resolution that it will be possible for us on the Committee stage to make Amendments in the Measure which will enable farm workers all over the country to receive whatever benefits are possible under this Measure.

We are still waiting for an explanation from the Government—I am sorry that the Lord Advocate did not give it to us to-night—as to why they entitle the Bill in such a way as solely to provide better housing for the agricultural population. Doubtless the Lord Advocate will have turned up the definition that was given in the 1931 Act, the only rural housing Act of which advantage has been taken in rural Scotland. The Committee on Rural Housing reported that our Act of 1931, although it was on the Statute Book only for a few months before financial necessities caused it to be stopped, succeeded in having built nearly 500 houses and that—I speak from memory—about 1,700 or 1,800 applications were sent to the Department of Health by the local authorities under that Measure. Under no other Act have the counties of Scotland found it possible to build houses in any number at all for the rural population. The 1931 Act was deliberately defined as being an Act to provide better housing for agricultural workers and for persons whose economic condition was substantially the same as that of such workers.

I beg the Government, even at this late hour, to consider whether it would not be better to adopt our definition of 1931 rather than the limited definition which still remains in this Bill. As it now stands, the Bill will exclude from the benefits of this better rural housing such workers as rural postmen, roadmen, and so on, persons who cannot be said to be agricultural workers or to be in an industry mainly dependent upon agriculture. They will be excluded under this Bill, whereas under the 1931 Act all those classes of workers were brought in by the title and terms of the Measure.

There are other details in the Bill which we find it difficult to understand. Our experience prior to 1931 was that there were rural areas, particularly in the far north, where county councils, owing to high prices of material, cost of labour, difficulties of transport and so forth, found it impossible to get contractors to build houses for the rural working classes at reasonable figures. Particulars were given in last week's Debate of extraordinary disparities in prices. We were told by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir A. Sinclair) that a three-apartment house had been built, I think he said quite recently, in Sutherland at a cost of £680. The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) gave figures to show that houses were being built in an English district at £352, while in the Midlands of Scotland the same type of house is costing £492.

In face of these disparities it is obvious that the provision which we imported into the 1931 Act, giving the Department power, at the request of the local authorities, to build houses, to purchase materials, to employ labour, and to go over the heads of the contractors, was a very wise provision. It was welcomed by most, if not all the county councils concerned. I regret that the Government have not seen fit to take advantage of that provision, having regard to experience prior to 1931. Before 1931 there were 14 counties in Scotland which had not built a house with Government assistance under any Act. They had been unable to do so. We created a graduated financial arrangement and the local authorities accepted it gladly. They built houses under it and it was only the financial crisis of 1931 which checked the operation of that Measure. Now the Government are offering subsidies to county councils varying from £10 10s. to £15 per house, but the subsidies which the authorities are already receiving average from £13 to £15 per house. On the average, they will gain nothing under the terms of the bill.

I repeat what I said a week ago that it would be more profitable for an authority to build new houses under the 1930 Slum Clearance Act where it is replacing dwellings in which there are more than four units. If there are more than four units, it would pay a local authority to build under the 1930 Act instead of under this Act. I do not think that there is anything unjust or unreasonable in our request. We are at a loss to know how the Government propose to define the persons who are to benefit by this Bill. The questions which were addressed to the Government on this subject a week ago cannot be dodged. Will the Lord Advocate or any representative of the Government tell us what they mean by people who are mainly dependent upon agriculture or were so dependent in their last occupation? Is the auctioneer at the market, for instance, who is perhaps a wealthy man, to be given a subsidised house under this Measure? He is employed in an occupation mainly dependent upon agriculture.