I beg to move, in page 5, line 7, at the end, insert:
Provided that no offer or agreement to sell or let taking effect at or after the expiry of the period of four years beginning with the passing of this Act shall, if made within three months of the expiry of the said period, constitute an offence.
We would like to see this proviso included in the Bill. It is an attempt to draft accurately the substance of a suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) during the course of the discussion of Clause 7 in Committee. What was indicated at that time, and what I would suggest again to the House, is that, supposing there is a lease on one of these controlled houses for four years— which there might well be—or any tenancy, not necessarily for the whole of the four years, but a tenancy expiring at the end of the four years, it might be a lease for the fourth year, there having been a three-year lease, and then a lease for another year. The Bill, as it is drawn, would make the owner or the person negotiating for a lease for the fifth year a criminal if he made his offer a day before the expiry of the four years. That would seem to be a fantastic, farcical and extraordinarily cruel situation to bring about by an Act of Parliament. Accordingly, this Amendment suggests that there should be a period of grace at the end of the time of control during which such negotiations, or indeed, agreements, should be perfectly proper. In the course of the Debate the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, whose absence from the Debate today I entirely understand, because he was good enough to intimate to me that he had an important engagement in connection with the housing campaign, made observations which suggested to me that he had not really appreciated this point, and the importance of it to houseowners and prospective tenants. The right hon. Gentleman said:
On the strict interpretation, if he started negotiations "—
and that is the landlord—
before the end of the four years, and the tenant offered a higher rent than the permitted one, he might be committing an offence, but he would not do so it he waited a few days until the lease expired. Would he suffer any hardship by waiting for a week or a fortnight?"—[Official Report, 4th December, 1945; Vol. 416, c. 2174.]
That is not a very satisfactory answer, unless there is some other one, to this idea. Here we have a lease running out and the actual two people who are concerned with the house—the owner and the tenant—wish to make an arrangement for it to run on beyond the period. It is all very well to say, "Why not wait a few days; why not have an interval and a period while the tenant would be accessible, and, if he goes out, must take care he does not open his mouth before he goes out and become a criminal? "Accordingly, we suggest that:
No offer or agreement to sell or let taking effect at or after the expiry of the period of four years beginning with the passing of this Act shall, if made within three months of the expiry of the said period, constitute an offence.
I cannot accept the Amendment. It displays a great eagerness on the part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman to make it certain that people are going to jump in immediately to get what he anticipates to be an increase in rent or an increase in price. There is nothing in the Bill which prevents the people concerned from entering into a new lease which falls within the permitted price. Therefore it is possible for them to go on with the lease, which, is not more onerous than the one that has lapsed.
What the right hon. and learned Gentleman desires is that they should be able to jump in immediately and increase the price. We are saying that the Bill gives this protection for four years. We see no reason whatever why it should not run its full four years. Any tenant or landlord who desires to make a new lease after the one that lapses on that one specific date, might easily continue it for a period afterwards falling within the permitted price and then make sure that any lease after that is certified.
I am very disappointed with the answer of the Government. There was nothing whatever in the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) —and I listened to it with
great- care—which an ordinary thinking individual could interpret as being a
I, too, regret that the Government cannot accept the Amendment. There are two offences under this Clause: (1), either selling or letting the house beyond the permitted price or rent, and (2) offering for sale or to let. The offer itself will be an offence under this Clause. Even if the offer were not accepted, it would be illegal and would be a criminal offence. The limitation based upon the offer, or sale, or letting is a small limitation. In my opinion the Amendment should have gone further. Even with that small limitation, it limits the selling or letting, of the house, which clearly would be an offence, but the mere offer to let or to sell should not be made a criminal offence after the four years, if the sale or letting did not itself take place. To that extent it is a limitation upon the mere offer which is not accepted, and, therefore, the Government should reconsider the Amendment.
I beg to move, in page 5, line 37, after the second "the," insert "financial."
Until persuaded to the contrary, we feel that there should be a clarification of the word "benefits." There is always a difficulty, as I gather the Government have felt, in considering the wider question of the control of the selling price of houses in keeping pace with the complication that may arise by reason of associated transactions. In this Bill, it is sought to provide that ingenious people do not evade the intended control, with which we all concur, on the new houses built under licence at a time of great shortage. An attempt has been made to see that, where the house is sold with something else 'in one transaction — that is dealt with in Subsection (3) —or where there has been some transaction associated with the sale though not in the same contract, the seller or the lessor docs not get away with something that the Bill did not intend him to have because what he is restrained from having on the swings he secures on the roundabouts.
The drafting is a little curious. Does the word "benefit" include moral benefit, emotional advantage, convenience and matters of that kind? Are they to be brought in? They would seem to us to be very much too vague to be brought in. Ought we to look to see whether the lessor was pleased wish the result of some other associated transaction, and ought that benefit to be taken into account in seeing whether lie was really getting more than he should? And yet pleasure is undoubtedly a benefit to the person, though, on the other hand, we have slightly changed our view on what is the appropriate phrase. In Committee, we suggested that the legal word should be "consideration," as it is in the earlier Clause. An associated transaction might not be another contract, but may be a gift, and, consequently, it has been suggested to me that the word "consideration" might not be the appropriate word. Even so, I respectfully suggest to the Government that it would be an improvement in the Bill if there were excuded any possibility of the court taking the view that the marked difference between the words "consideration" and ''benefit" meant that the widest possible interpretation was to be given to the word ''benefit," and that all sorts of considerations, such as convenience, pleasure or spite, or anything else which is thought to be a benefit, are to be taken into account.
I must ask the House to reject this Amendment. The word "benefit" is designedly chosen in order to use a term which is wide, because what it is intended to include by the word "benefit" in Subsection (5) which we are discussing are what are referred to as associated transactions. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite has just said, these associated transactions may be associated contracts, but they may equally be transactions which are really in the nature of a gift. Therefore, it would, in the first place, be inappropriate to use the word "consideration," which was suggested by hon. Gentlemen opposite during the discussions in Committee. That would exclude the type of transaction in the nature of a gift, so that the word "consideration" will not do. In the Amendment now proposed, the word "financial" is used, but, if I might reply to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that will not do, either, because that, again, is imposing a restriction which would defeat the; object of the Subsection—I do not say entirely, because the benefit may not be financial, but to some extent. The kind of associated transaction which the Subsection is designed to deal with would include those in which there is a gift which does not take a monetary form at all—a gift which it is difficult to assess in terms of pounds, shillings and pence.
One can well see that persons who desire to evade the provisions of the Act might arrange that, by an associated transaction, which is a word designedly loose and general in meaning, there might be some' advantage conferred on the lessor, not in terms of cash, but something in the nature of a gift. To use a random example, I will take a case of bottles of champagne. That would no doubt confer the benefit of happiness, but would also constitute the substantial and material benefit of a case of champagne. That, perhaps, is a rare case, but it is a possible case, and I simply adduce it to illustrate the kind of thing I have in mind—the case where we might get a benefit which did not take any financial form at all. If we introduce the word "financial," and qualify the word "benefit," by putting before it the word "financial," we would exclude that kind of gift which is not a financial gift. It is true that one could estimate and value it in money, but that does not make it a financial benefit. For that reason, I ask the House to reject the Amendment. Admittedly, "benefit" is a wide word, designedly so, and is intended to include; anything upon which, on a fair and common sense point of view, a value can be put. We put a value upon it and say that it is something of substance which the lessor was getting out of the transaction, and I therefore ask the House to say that the subsection, as it stands, is appropriate.
The Government's refusal to accept the Amendment is indicative of their doctrinaire approach to this matter and their utter and complete repudiation of human nature. How ridiculous will be the scene in the courts of the future, as conducted under this Act. Instead of producing before the assembled magistrates a document showing that the house has been exchanged for a certain and definite sum of money, they will now, after what the Solicitor-General has said, go into the most ridiculous considerations. Has a pound of butter been contributed by the tenant to the landlord from the local farm in the last five weeks? Who gave whom a case of cigars the week before last? Has there been any gift of petrol for the vendor's car by the house-purchaser in the last six months? The most fantastic kinds of cases will be brought before the courts. Here we have a quite simple Amendment which is designed by the Opposition to produce a serious set of circumstances in court in determining whether a house was to be sold or let for a certain sum or not, and, immediately we get the hatred of the profit-motive, which is so characteristic of the present Government, used in rejecting a simple Amendment of this kind and producing what will be a. wholly laughable situation in the courts of the "future.
I think that the two right hon. and learned Gentlemen who opened this Debate seemed rather tied up in their own words. Because the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite objects to the word "financial," he then proceeded to give an illustration which obviously sprang from an idea that would be naturally foremost in the mind of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite—the gift of a case of champagne. That would be valuable, though, in my own case it might possibly be a cup of tea. But does anyone suppose for an instant that what the hon. and learned Gentleman put forward would not be considered as something in the way of a financial advantage in any court at the present time? The hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head and says "No," but, like most lawyers, he is subject to making many mistakes in the course of his life. I am not one, and I assume that the word "financial" has an ordinary meaning and, quite likely, most people would imagine that, if we inserted here, it would probably rather strengthen the Clause than otherwise. For practical purposes, it would mean any sort of advantage got by any other means, and I think it is very necessary in these days, with a black market going on, that we should be actually clear and definite, and I am quite sure that the Opposition Amendment is not only clearer and more definite, but is much more likely to be understood outside and avoid such legal misinterpretations as I am almost sure we have had from the Government Front Bench.
The Government are entirely right to resist this Amendment, not only for the reasons' which the Solicitor-General has given to the House, but also for some others, of which I will adduce two. The first is that the Amendment is not conducive to making the Clause clearer. The word "financial" is a word of many undefined and vague meanings, and might lead to endless disputes and trouble on what is the interpretation of the Clause. The second reason is that the Amendment, in any case, is entirely unnecessary to achieve the object which the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned in moving it. The object of the right hon. and learned Gentleman was that the benefit should be something capable of being assessed in monetary terms, and with that I think we all agree, but that must, of necessity, follow, be. cause of the way in which the Subsection is drafted. The concluding words are:
that consideration shall be deemed to be increased by such sum as fairly represents the excess.
One cannot increase a monetary consideration except by adding on to it another monetary consideration, and the use of the words "such sum" makes it perfectly clear that the benefit of the transaction has to be capable of assessment in terms of pounds, shillings and pence.
The Solicitor-General has stated that the benefits to which he refers are, in fact, assessable in terms of money, and that, therefore, the limiting word "financial" is not required. The point seems to me to be that the sort of matters to which my hon. Friends have referred as possible forms of benefit are precisely those which cannot be definitely evaluated because they have a different monetary value in accordance with the circumstances or the people concerned. The hon. Member who has just sat down says that the terms of the Clause show that we must be able to quantify the monetary value of the benefit. If I may take the example of the case of champagne, referred to by the Solicitor-General, I would ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman what is the monetary value of a case of champagne today? Surely, it depends very much on the circumstances? I am myself the fortunate possessor of some champagne, which I was able to bring back with me from the city of Rheims, where I was stationed for a short time.
That champagne cost there 145 francs, which is 14s. 6d. plus 6s. paid to the Customs, or about 21s. Now, is the value of that champagne one guinea a bottle, or is it the price which I could get for it in the black market if I were so immoral as to wish to take it? You cannot quantify these things in the conditions existing today, and if this Clause is not limited by the word "financial," you open up a series of transactions which it will be impossible to define or keep track of. This Government which, if I may respectfully say so, has signally failed so far to curb the effects of the black market, should not require any emphasis on the difficulty which here arises. In view of that, the Solicitor-General should think again and accept the Amendment so lucidly put for- ward by my right hon. and learned Friend.
May I ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman whether he is suggesting that the black market only started in July of this year, and what part the previous Government played in trying to stop it?
I beg to move, in page 6, line 2, at the end, insert:
(7) Where proceedings are taken for an offence against this Section the court shall have the following powers, that is to say: —
During the discussions on the Committee stage of this Bill, the question was raised as to whether there should not be provision whereby a landlord who had charged too much, or a vendor who had exacted an excessive price, should not be compellable to repay either the whole or some part of the excess to the lessee or to the purchaser of the house. A further point that was raised, I think, by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) was whether there should not be some power, in the event of a lessor or the vendor of a house being convicted under Clause 7, to readjust the terms of the lease or tenancy agreement,
or of the conveyance of the house, so as to bring it in accord with the permitted rent or the permitted price, as the case might be. The object of this Amendment is to achieve both of those purposes.
Might I say in passing that it is designed, as I see it, to achieve precisely the same object as that embodied in the other Amendment which stands in the name of the right hon. and learned Gentlemen the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink). What does the Amendment which I propose effect? Hon. Members will remember that when a person is convicted under Clause 7 of the Bill, he can be ordered to pay a fine not exceeding £100, and also such amount of money as will, in the opinion of the court, secure that he derives no benefit from the offence—in other words, if he charges too much, either on a letting or a sale, he can be ordered by the court to pay over the amount of the excess, so that the result will be that he gets no benefit from the improper transaction which is the subject of the prosecution. That was the point made by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and that is the point which it is designed to deal with in both the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Amendment and the one which I am now proposing.
The Amendment proposes to effect that in this way: it enables the court, before which the transgressor is convicted, to direct that so much as they think proper of the amount paid over by way of wrongful excess as the culprit is ordered to pay shall be paid over to the lessee or to the purchaser of the house, so as to ensure that he has not been overcharged. Now that, of course, can only relate to the excess that has been paid over by the man charged. As a corollary to that, it must be competent for the court to direct that the terms of the tenancy agreement, or the lease, for the remaining period of the interest created by the tenancy agreement or the lease, shall be adjusted so that it provides for payment of a rent not in excess of the permitted rent, so that you have that effected by paragraph (b) of the Amendment. If hon. Members look at paragraph (c), they will find a corresponding power in relation to sales of houses.
Hon. Members may ask why that is necessary in the case of the sale of a house because, in the case of sale, you have a price fixed, and it may be difficult to see exactly why the court should be entitled to adjust that price if the vendor of the house has already been ordered to pay over the excess. The answer to that is that that paragraph is designed to provide for the case where the price of the house is payable in instalments. If there were not that power, the remaining instalments would still be at the excessive amount, and therefore in paragraph (c) the court is given the same powers in relation to the sale of a house—in relation to the adjustment of the contract for sale —as it is under paragraph (b) in relation to the terms of the tenancy agreement. The Amendment achieves those three objects, each of which is necessary and complementary. They are the same ones as are designed to be effected by the Amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I ask the House to say that they are necessary and salutary and that this Amendment should be made.
We on this side of the House are grateful to the Solicitor-General for his lucid explanation of this Amendment and appreciate, though with perhaps slightly wry faces, the attitude of the Government with regard to it, because, when we suggested that the Bill as presented was grossly unjust to those who might have been tricked into paying more than the permitted price in ignorance, or more than the permitted rent in ignorance, we were told, "Why, everybody can go and look at the register." That was a very formal attitude, and the reception given to our proposals was very far from appreciative. I am glad, therefore, that second thoughts have been better. However, there are one or two points of slight obscurity on which I should be grateful for a little further assistance. The Amendment provides in a very convenient form for the court being able to deal with the situation, not only from the point of view of the Crown, and the penalty which is imposed upon the vendor, but also as between the vendor or purchaser, or lessor and lessee, as the case may be. But what is referred to in this Amendment is the position when there is a conviction of an offence of letting a house at a rent in excess of the permitted rent."
It has occurred to me—and I think it may occur to other hon. and right hon. Members—that there is some slight ob- scurity in the whole of this provision. I do not know whether clear directions have been given as to the conditions on which these licences are given by local authorities? It is, as I understand it, by the local authority that the licence is given. Are the Government intending to link up the conditions of the licence with the new offence that. is being created under this Bill? In other words, are licences able to be given by local authorities with a wholly indefinite extension in time? The building of a house is authorised for which a licence to build has been requested. It must cost not more than £1,200 and it must not be sold for more than £1,200. Are licences being given in those terms, and is there a kind of perpetuity apparently put upon that house? If so, as I understand the Bill, it is a curiously ineffective kind of restriction, because the offence only consists in selling or offering to sell the house at a greater price or at a greater rent during the period of four years from the passing of this Bill and it is the intention of all of us, I imagine, that if a licence has been given in those completely indefinite terms, it is something which the original owner or the original tenant can just defy. Is that not an unsatisfactory position, and should the Government not make sure that the licences that are given are at any rate in tune with the legislation which they are introducing? Otherwise I think a very unsatisfactory and vague and difficult situation will be bound to arise.
So far as the actual proposals are concerned for effecting what we consider justice as between the three parties concerned—the Crown, the offender, and the person who is to pay, or is bound under the contract to pay too much, I think the Amendment with its three headings is apt and suitable, and I am very glad that it has been introduced into the Bill.
May I ask the learned Solicitor-General who initiates the proceedings when an offence has been committed under this Bill? May I submit a hypothetical case—about which we heard so much yesterday? There may be an agreement between a vendor and purchaser that a higher price than is permitted by the Bill should be given. On whom is laid the responsibility of initiating proceedings in a case like that? I believe I am correct in saying that every sale of a house has to be registered with the District Valuer. Supposing no proceedings are taken by any other person, would the District Valuer be able to initiate proceedings on behalf of the Government? I am rather afraid that in some cases there may be this covert agreement made between the vendor and the purchaser, or between the vendor and the person who is to rent the house. I think we shall all agree that whatever steps can be taken to see that this is watertight shall be taken, and if possible, made very clear in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) raised a point which has brought to the minds of many of us a great deal of thought in connection with this Bill. I think I could answer his point, but I would not like to risk my reputation on that. His point shows clearly that there are many of us in this House who do not know precisely how this will work. I thank the Government for having gone a small way to helping us in this respect, not quite as far as they might have done, either in clarity or in any other way, but this Amendment—which is a very complicated one, for most of us at any rate—shows what a very bad thing it is that a Bill of this complication should pass through the House with so little discussion and that it should have been so terribly rushed by the Government.
With the permission of the House, I will answer the last two speakers and the right hon. Gentleman. Clause 8 (2) of the Bill says that local authorities are under a duty to take steps to secure the enforcement of the provisions of the Bill. The Bill, as a whole, does not limit the right "to institute proceedings to any particular person or classes of persons. The institution of proceedings stands on exactly the same footing as the institution of other criminal proceedings. Normally, it is the police who, on information being put before them—and, no doubt, the local authority would do so—take the necessary proceedings. The last speaker said that we had gone a little way to meet his aspirations. That, I gather was not the view taken by the right hon. and learned Gentleman who spoke first, and who, if I may say so, may possibly be in a slightly better position than the last speaker to express a view about that. This complaint of lack of clarity is made the occasion of a makeweight in so many arguments by people who have never attempted to make clear provisions themselves. They say that we have not met their desires and, therefore, we are being obscure. It is very difficult to be both.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way to me. It may be that I have not drafted very many Bills, but I have had to go through a great many Bills in detail, long before the hon. and learned Gentleman was ever heard of in this House, and shall be doing so probably long after him, and I submit he is not accurate.
Be that as it may, the best endeavours of those charged with these matters have been expended, I can assure the hon. Member, on making this as clear as it can be made. If there is any obscurity, I would endeavour to clear it up for him, but I do not think there are the obscurities of which he appears to be so much afraid.
This Bill, although short, covers a remarkably wide area. Indeed, although it has only 12 Clauses they are so varied in their content that after its passage through Committee it has been necessary to set them out, apart altogether from the supplementary collection of Clauses, under the three different chapters. It is a Bill, as we see it, of very varied quality. I am thankful to know that, as it stands, it has been definitely improved on four matters, entirely owing to the initial efforts of His Majesty's Opposition. The cohorts on the other side, with the exception of the hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Douglas), showed no disposition to improve the Bill as first presented. It has been made both clearer, and, with regard to acquisition, more generous and helpful, to those who desire to own their houses, and it has been made substantially more equitable.
From the beginning, this Bill, with all its parts properly applied, and with proper undertakings by His Majesty's Government with regard to the scope and purpose with which they intended to use it, could well have been a Bill entirely satisfactory to the whole House. There were matters included in it, particularly in the important first chapter, which contains Clauses 1 to 5, which we all appreciate were necessary; for instance, with regard to the Minister of Works' operations in connection with the purchase and arrangement for production of factory made houses. I am bound to say, on behalf of the Opposition, that apart from a helpful attitude on matters of drafting and detail, an attitude which emerged sometimes at a very late time, we have been disappointed on major matters, and, I think I may say, affronted by the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman who, unfortunately, is not here to-day, and to a minor extent by the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman who is here today.
I must indicate three or four points on which we believe that the silence and refusal of the Government to answer questions, indicate an approach to this question which will be grievously harmful to the progress we want to see in housing. Clause 1 is an example. We had no sort of indication from the Government of the extent to which they regarded it as necessary to go in for bulk purchase, either of building material or permanent equipment for building. Even more serious, as I thought, was the entire absence of an answer to the contentions that the existing production and distribution facilities in this country were ample, at any rate, for the first two years, to meet our needs on the basis of production agreements and agreements with the trade, without this duplication which, in the case of production, will leave existing factories short of men and orders and producing below capacity, and therefore, producing at unnecessarily high costs. So far as distribution is concerned, there was no attempt to explain or justify the setting up of alternative distributive arrangements. Finally, and most surprisng of all, there was the complete change in the character of the Bill which was made without any warning in the course of the Second Reading Debate, and seven days later, when we were rushed to take the Committee stage, as we have been rushed throughout the progress of this Bill.
There may be hon. Members here who do not realise that, whereas this House, when the Bill was last before it, was considering it on the basis of operations for two years—a period justified and explained by the Minister of Health—the Bill was extended, without the slightest warning or indication in that Debate and in the course of that week, to a period of five years, without any reasonable explanation as to why these competitive and distributive Governmental measures would be necessary in the latter part of that period. This was an extraordinary example of the heads of two Departments, well equipped with Parliamentary Secretaries, on a matter which had already been considered under two previous administrations, coming before the House to move the Second Reading of the Bill, with no careful thought in advance of what sort of Measure it was that they wanted. It was a shocking example, as we on this side of the House thought, of ill-prepared and undigested legislative proposals. I do not believe that they know today why they need this sudden extension of the Bill. I think that perhaps they may have been saying that, as they want two to five years for the Supply and Services Bill, the Building Materials and Housing Bill had better go from two to five years. This is one more curious example of the disturbance and anxiety which will undoubtedly be caused over the whole range of production and distribution of building materials and components by the proposals brought forward. No answer was given as to how it was going to be decided who was to do the work, which was done by those who have done the work for us in the past, if labour is to be detached for Ministry of Works flying squads when building labour is short in every town and village in the country. We have no answer to the statement that production will be slowed down, instead of speeded up, by the tooling and manning of at least 20 ordnance factories at a time when labour is short in the whole field of building component production. In consequence, we on this side of the House look forward to the operation of this Bill with anxiety and apprehension.
Looking forward in that way, which causes us distress, I must comment on another matter upon which the Govern- ment have been singularly unforthcoming. When are we going to know how the Government business in a big way, in these two ways, is faring? When are we going to know what burdens are to be placed on the taxpayer by the unlimited power of subsidy which the Minister of Works is getting under this Bill? We suggest that in matters of such novelty, and in view of such urgency, the Government should be anxious to take new measures for informing the House fully as to how things are going. They might well have said to themselves, "It will be very good for our Department to have to produce accounts earlier than was done before the war on matters comparable, or not strictly comparable." But that is not the answer we get. They say: "It has always been the custom of Government Departments for accounts of this kind to take eight months before submitting them to the Comptroller and Auditor General. The House has always been willing in the past to wait twelve months before seeing the reports on such matters, and we will rest on precedent. The House can whistle for such information except such as it can get by Parliamentary Question and answer."
The suggestion that we can get a true picture of the Government's distributive organisation and productive organisation for building components and houses of all kinds in that way is really quite fantastic. We were fobbed off and told that requests of this kind were impudent, and very abusive language was used. We were not given any indication of how we should be informed as to the extent which the Government were thinking right to subsidise the production and distribution to local authorities of factory made houses —
If I am wandering outside, I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and the House most profoundly. I shall endeavour to try to keep myself strictly within the limits of Clause 3, the arrangement of the subsidies which the Minister of Health is authorised to make. We feel that the arrangements and subsidies which are provided for in the Bill are lamentably wide as they stand, and we are gravely disappointed at the fact that the Govern- ment have insisted on this Clause remaining as it is. We cannot and do not wish to oppose a Measure of this kind in toto, because there are important elements in it which we regard as of value. But we have great apprehension as to the effect it will have very soon, because it is during the months immediately ahead that we desire to see every man and every piece of plant being used in the best possible way; and we believe that this Bill, in view of the explanations, such as they are, of the Government's intentions, is certain to result in wasted effort, wasted manpower, wasted plant and wasted material. So it is with sad hearts that we see a Bill so little improved passing into law.
In the first place, I would like to say "Thanks" to the House for the way in which this Bill, admittedly difficult, and admittedly big, as the right hon. and learned Member suggested, has reached its Third Reading. I was a little surprised at being charged with having at least in some degree affronted the Committee in the Committee stage. I was waiting for some argument, some explanation or some attempt to show where the affront had taken place. The right hon. and learned Gentleman admitted that the Bill covered a wide area. In spite of that he managed to get outside it. I hope I shall not. He suggested that it had not been improved. To the extent that it has been improved, I am glad. That is the purpose of the House of Commons and the Committee. It is the purpose of the Opposition to look at a Bill with a view to improving it. If there had been any question of affront, all I would say about the Committee stage is that I would have liked to think that all the Amendments had been put down with the object of improving the Bill. The right hon. and learned Gentleman stated that it has been made more equitable. To the extent that this is so I think we all agree, because that is the object and purpose of the House. Every attempt to make the Bill more equitable has been looked at, and where we thought it possible we have attempted to meet the case made.
When he came to the purposes of the Clauses, the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that the Bill was so widely drawn that it had to be put into four chapters; and that the powers to be exercised by the respective Ministers under those four chapters were so great that we ought not to have attempted to bring them before Parliament until we had gone a lot further into the matter than he seemed to suggest we had done. I would remind him that if this was ill-though out legislation, if this was part of the ill-digested schemes of the Socialist Government, as he seemed to imply in his speech, the biggest portion of the Bill was drafted while he was still a Member of the Government and it should have been brought in during the period of office of the "Caretaker" Government. They could not, however, find time for it, inspite of the fact that it was very necessary, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows.
He suggests that the House was affronted because no definite mention was made of the extent to which bulk purchase was to take place, and the extent to which this was to be used other than production agreements. I put it to him, as an ex-Minister of Health, and as an individual who has been in an administrative job of this kind for a long time, that neither he nor anyone else could tell which section of that particular Department would be used, and which would not. If bulk purchase is required, it would obviously not be in a particular section of industry in which it was possible to make satisfactory production agreements. He must know sufficient about this business to realise that bulk purchase may be most satisfactory in one case, while guaranteed production of something else in another case may be the sensible thing to do. I hope he will give us credit for knowing sufficient not to indulge in one when we can get results from the other.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman was full of apprehension as to the effects of this Measure, so full that if it happens to succeed I am afraid that he will be the most disappointed man in the House. I would ask hon. Members opposite to cheer up. The industry is not nearly so despondent about this Measure as is the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Before the Bill has become an Act of Parliment, when it has not passed its Third Reading, one of the largest associations in this country has been to see me, wanting to know how it could help to imple- ment it. That is the spirit we are asking for right through the building industry. That is the response we are getting. I am afraid that all these moaning Jeremiahs we have heard in the last few days will be disappointed when they find that the Government can go into business and carry it out, in spite of the fact that there happen to be some doctrinaires in the House. The discussions that have taken place on this Bill have convinced me that all the doctrinaires are not on one side of the House, and that there is some advantage in having a doctrine which is up-to-date.
I will not go over the arguments again. I believe this Bill is a good one. For the extent to which it has been improved both in Committee and this morning, I want to thank the House and I want to ask for their co-operation in making it effective when the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament. If the Opposition are half as concerned about seeking to implement the powers in the Hill in the interests of the country as they have been in seeking to implement the private interests of individuals who are affected, we shall get on very well with the job.
The Minister of Works says that the job of the Opposition is to improve this Measure. I am far from accepting that as the proper duty of the Opposition. We do not seek to make Socialism more efficient. It seems to me that our job is to oppose Socialism by every possible means in this House and throughout the country.
The Minister says that industry is happier about this Bill than we are on this side of the House. I wonder whether the flying squads he is to organise will like the treatment to which he is to subject them—sending them all over the country to do jobs of work at his direction.
There is to be, as I understand it, an enormous new organisation with a capital of £100,000,000. Will it not embrace thousands of workers? Are they not to be subjected to some kind of direction and control by the right hon. Gentleman? He has talked about the building industry being delighted. We will wait and see what the workers say when he sends them flying round the country to work to which they do not want to go. My right hon. and learned Friend said that the result of this new Bill would be to create an organisation which would be competitive with industry. That is entirely true. The right hon. Gentleman is creating this great new organisation, backed by £100,000,000, which will compete with industry and compete unfairly because it is buttressed by a vast subsidy gathered from the taxpayers, and from what practically amounts today to enforced loans. Every supplier to the right hon. Gentleman's organisation will be paid more highly than 'he can be paid by private enterprise working on strict terms of profit and loss. It is in the Minister's interests, with a £100,000,000 revolving credit at his command to push up the prices of goods which he calls in from the rest of the country.
Likewise, every purchaser supplied by the right hon. Gentleman will be supplied more cheaply. Using this weapon of subsidy he can wreck the law of supply and demand in this country, he can ruin the normal operation of private enter prise, because he can pay highly on the one hand and sell cheaply on the other. How can industry, operating according to established practices, possibly stand up against that kind of organisation? As to the extent and nature of the subsidy, the Minister refuses us access to the facts and figures upon which we can determine whether the subsidy is being used for open or secret purposes. We asked for some quarterly statement to be made. It was refused. One of the things that amazed me most was the Minister's admission in Committee that he knew nothing about finance. He is to be the head of a great organisation —
The implications of what the right hon. Gentleman said in the Committee stage will surely find their way through this Bill into the administration of this organisation. What great commercial chief at the head of a large enterprise in this country, a man who has risen from the lower ranks, and has great financial knowledge and experience, the head of any bank or industrial concern, would use words like this? The right hon. Gentleman had better study figures, and very quickly. But whether he educates himself or whether he does not, I believe this Measure will produce alarm and despondency throughout the country.
I wish to mention a rather important aspect of this Bill, which I would like my right hon. Friend to develop a little more fully, if he possibly can. The Bill provides him with wide and comprehensive powers to deal with our housing problem, which we all know is serious and urgent. The powers in the Bill are ample for him to deal with it. They are confined to the production, manufacture and development of roughly two categories of housing accommodation —prefabrication and the traditional house. It is admitted by all competent authorities that there is no better house than the traditional house. There has been nothing devised so far to supplant it in meeting our problem, but I am anxious to know from my right hon. Friend whether he accepts that view, that the main policy of the Government should be directed to developing and expanding and going ahead as quickly as possible with that kind of development which will provide our country with the maximum number of traditional dwellings, in the shortest possible space of time?
The Bill provides for the manufacture of prefabricated dwellings, but I believe that those who are competent to judge say that prefabrication can never be a substitute for the traditional house. The only justification for a policy of prefabrication is the emergency that exists and the great urgency for putting up some dwellings as quickly as possible. I am anxious to hear from my right hon. Friend that it is not the intention of the Government to allow prefabrication development to overshadow the development of the traditional house and the traditional housing scheme. I should like to know the place of prefabrication in the general housing policy of the Government. I would like my right hon. Friend to assure the House that it is accepted as an immediate emergency only and that it is the Government's intention to develop traditional housing schemes as a long-term policy for the solution of this great problem. We are all aware of what that problem is. Four million houses in our country are over 80 years of age, and 2,000.000 have been destroyed by enemy action. In 1939, according to the Barlow Report, 530,000 dwellings were needed for the relief of slums and overcrowding. In addition, there has been a vast accumulation of repair and maintenance.
It is a great problem, and I do not believe it will be solved to complete satisfaction this side of five years. We may solve the emergency and the urgency of the problem within that period, but I believe that we have to make our plans on the basis of a long-term contribution to the problem as a whole. Therefore, I would like to hear what the Government's policy is with regard to prefabrication on the one hand and the development of traditional housing on the other. It would not, taking a long view, be in the best interests of the country if the Government allowed prefabrication to overshadow the development of the traditional house. My local authority contains an almost built-up area, and if it is to do anything to solve the housing problem it has to build flats; the house is not an economic proposition. We were considering at the last meeting of our housing committee plans and designs submitted by the Minister of Health for multi-storey prefabricated dwellings. We were concerned because those plans were totally inadequate for such a built-up area, and we were warned by our technical officers that, apart from the inadequacy of the structure, there would be considerable maintenance costs within a short period. That is the weakness of prefabrication. We all know the cost of that process. The estimates of the temporary dwellings that are already in course of erection have had to be considerably increased, and it is doubtful whether the cost of a prefabricated house will be lower than that of a traditional house.
Therefore, we should see that the money we are about to spend is spent in the best way to create the most lasting results. I do not want it to be thought that I am condemning prefabrication lock, stock and barrel, because I realise that in some areas, particularly in the provinces where land is available, it may be equal to traditional building. There is, however, a problem in the built-up and semi-built-up areas where nothing but the traditional house will be effective and acceptable. I would, therefore, ask my right hon. Friend to give some idea of the contemplated balance in the Government's policy as between pre-fabrication and traditional building. Is it the policy of the Government to rely mainly upon the traditional house and to use prefabrication as a supplementary aid, so that, as their plans develop and get organised, they will rely more upon the traditional house? Is it their intention that prefabrication shall gradually recede as traditional housing emerges as the main scheme for solving this problem on a long-term basis? If my right hon. Friend would throw some light on these aspects of his policy, it would be helpful to the local authorities.
I rise because of words which were used by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works when he said that he had the impression that this side of the House, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) in particular, would be disappointed if this Bill were a success. That impression should not be allowed to go from the House uncontradicted. This side will be surprised if the Bill is a success, but it will certainly not be disappointed. It has been made clear, time and again, that we regard the question of housing as of infinitely more importance than party advantage. If this Bill is not the success that the right hon. Gentleman claims that it will be, we shall accept whatever party advantage flows to us from that fact; but we shall accept it as very poor consolation for the failure of the scheme. We genuinely hope that this Measure will be a success, and it was to that end that we endeavoured to improve it. It is regrettable that only one Amendment has been accepted on the important chapter contained in the first five Clauses.
I must, in all honesty, say that we will be surprised if the Bill is a success because we do not feel that its provisions are best designed to meet the emergency of the housing of the people. We believe that the provisions of Clause 1 will lead to uncertainty among existing agencies both of manufacture and of distribution. We believe that Clause 1 (1c) is cast too wide and will allow the intervention of the State into the field of the traditionally built house; and that any intervention of the State under the powers of that provision will not materially assist in the erection of traditional houses. We are concerned, too, at the provisions of Clause 3 because we believe that the words are calculated, if not designed, to cloak any increases in costs. Experience shows that an increase in cost means a decrease in efficiency. If the right hon. Gentleman thought that by spending money Under these Clauses he was likely to build more houses, we should be less satisfied than if he built houses cheaply; but, at least, we would see that the Bill was calculated to provide something that the people want. But we believe that the refusal to make provision for the disclosure of costs will lead neither to economy nor efficiency. We have therefore regrettably to place it on record that, though we genuinely Wish the Bill well, we cannot conscientiously disguise our opinion that it is not calculated to achieve those great objects which are claimed for it by the right hon. Gentleman.
I rise because I think that one of us might be allowed to say-something about what the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill said when he asked that the Opposition should not be so gloomy about the Bill. I have never been in the least gloomy about it. I have realised from the beginning that there was a chance that some good might come out of the Bill, because I realise that, in the main, it was the work of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor and that the right hon Gentleman had added little to it except to put some bad eggs into the basket. The only gloomy speech we have heard about the Bill was that of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks). It was a speech of considerable ability, and I only wish that more people would make speeches of that kind. In dealing with a Bill of this sort, under which the Government will expend vast sums of money and under which there will be a considerable amount of interference, we must be sure beyond doubt that we shall ultimately get houses and stop profiteering and excessive prices. I believe that that is the aim of this Bill, at any rate.
I am not concerned whether the results are prefabricated or traditional houses, for any of us will support anything which will get on with solving the housing problem, because it is the most vital thing in the lives of our people. If the result of this enormous expenditure and this great increase of interference with the ordinary person is to get houses, I shall be very glad. I do not think that the Bill has been greatly improved in Committee. I feel it is regrettable in a House of this kind, composed of so many Members with great experience, that when it is dealing with a fundamental problem like the housing of the people, almost all the constructive talk comes from the Conservative Party and nothing, except in one interesting speech which we heard today, comes from the other side. I hope that the Bill will be a great success.