Government Policy

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th October 1947.

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Photo of Mr John Hare Mr John Hare , Woodbridge 12:00 am, 29th October 1947

I think we have all been most interested in the youthful reminiscences of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) who, we are delighted to hear, is a great believer in thrift. One of the difficulties of getting people to save is that one has to give them confidence in the Government of the day and, until we have a stable Government, in which the people can have confidence, it is not going to be easy to try to urge them to be thrifty. The hon. Member also appears to be somewhat anxious about the future intentions of his own Front Bench. He has given a great deal of advice to the Minister for Economic Affairs and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and doubtless the Minister of National Insurance," who is the senior Minister now on the Front Bench, will have taken note of those recommendations; but, if he has not, I hope the hon. Gentleman opposite may perhaps be less firm in his belief in the efficiency of his Front Bench if his wise words are ignored. As to the concluding remarks of the hon. Member's speech, I think I might say that the majority of hon. Members must have felt they were in rather bad taste. I think that few hon. Members would deny that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), irrespective of party, is a national figure and I think the hon. Member would have done well to have been a Member of this House rather longer before he used such rash and intemperate words about my right hon. Friend.

I wish to confine myself to one subject of very great importance, upon which great stress has been laid by Members on both sides of the House. It is the subject of housing. We have had various mentions of it so far, but there are three important points which I wish to put before the House. First of all, I feel that the position of the Minister of Health, with regard to his past achievements and his likely future intentions, should be examined fairly closely. Secondly, I feel that the actual effect of the proposals put forward by the Minister for Economic Affairs should be made very clear so that the nation understands what is to be the likely trend of the housing programme in the next two and a half years. Thirdly, as we are going to suffer a drastic curtailment in housing, and as it is the intention to give certain priorities to rural areas, I would like to say a word or two as to how the Government might most efficiently pursue a policy of providing additional homes in rural areas for the new labour force which they wish to attract to farming.

My first point is the position of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health. When this Debate was opened, my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) referred to housing, and pointed out the inadequacy, and the grave disappointment that the Government's housing record has proved to the nation as a whole. He referred, in particular, to a speech which the Minister of Health made on 21st July, 1946, in which he said: But I can give this promise. When the next Election occurs there will be no housing problem in Great Britain for the British working man. Maybe the right hon. Gentleman genuinely thought that at the time, but, even if he did, he should have realised that he was a responsible Minister, and that there are many unfortunate families in this country today who genuinely believed him and who are now grossly and tragically disappointed.

That was a year and three months ago. I will now tell the House what the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health said in this House only three months ago. He said: There is no single problem from which more heartaching arises than from this lack of housing accommodation, and I resist the suggestion that has been made in some quarters that it is necessary for us to reduce our housing programme. I believe that if we did that, we would gravely jeopardise national progress. There is nothing which creates a sense of alarm and despondence more than not to see new houses springing up all over the country. How can we expect the nation to reinvigorate itself if it throws its hands in the air and says it cannot provide decent homes for its own people? I reject that suggestion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th July, 1947; Vol. 441, c. 89, 90.] That is what the right hon. Gentleman said three months ago. Maybe he is right; I am not arguing whether he is right or wrong. It may be that the Government have made a real error in deciding to cut down their housing programme, but where does the right hon. Gentleman stand? If he disapproves of what the Minister for Economic Affairs has decided to do, surely, he ought not to stay for one moment longer in his present position. So much for the Minister of Health. I hope that he will not remain in his present position, and I think that, if he has a sense of integrity and really believes in what he says, he would not wish to remain in his present office.

Let us examine the actual effect of the announcement made by the Minister for Economic Affairs. He said that out of the 260,000 houses which we have in the course of construction, and of the 90,000 houses which are under contract, but not yet begun, we are to press forward and complete those houses as soon as possible. I hope that it will be as soon as possible. He then went on to say that by June, 1949, we hoped to have 140,000 houses in course of construction, and that in the year 1949 we could hope to complete 140,000 houses. I think it is important that we should try and work out what actual progress is likely to be made in housing between the period September, 1947, to June, 1949. Roughly, it seems to work out like this. During this year, including the four months from September to December, we should complete about 120,000 houses—I am talking about new permanent houses. It is hoped to complete a larger number than that next year, and I suggest that the figure will be in the neighbourhood of 140,000. That leaves 70,000 to be completed in the first half of 1949, making 260,000 in all to be completed up to June, 1949.

If 140,000 houses are to be in course of construction by June, 1949, in addition to the existing contracts, it means that it will only be possible to allow licences for 50,000 additional new houses during the whole of the period up to June, 1949, and that covers the nation as a whole. That is a very serious and alarming position in which to find ourselves. To give the House some idea of rates of completion and starting, I would point out that it means, roughly, that, in July, which is the best month we have had this year, we completed 12,426 houses, and we commenced, during that month, 19,000 new houses. Working it out on the basis of the figures which I have given, it will mean that we should be completing during the next 22 months an average of 11,800 houses a month, and only starting slightly more than 6,000 houses.

If possible, I would like some confirmation of those figures, because I believe that local authorities, as well as hundreds of thousands of families waiting for houses, would like to have some idea of what actual effect the Government's new housing policy is going to have on them. I also feel that some guidance and information should be given to the building industry as to how they are to organise themselves during these coming 22 months. If we merely cut down on the commencement of new houses, it will mean that we shall seriously reduce our labour force engaged on the clearance of sites and on the laying of foundations and services; it will mean also that the rest of our labour force will still be employed in completing houses already started.

Thus, by the end of the period for which the Government have planned, June, 1949, we shall have the greatest possible difficulty in restarting the housing machine, because the labour which we have so carefully accumulated in order to start houses will have been dissipated, and will have gone to other industries. It will have a very serious effect on any Government which hopes to make a start on properly fulfilling the housing needs of the nation. Those are all points on which I think the industry should receive some guidance. They are still left in the dark, and the sooner some help is given to them, the better it will be for the nation as a whole.

My final point is on the proportion of the new housing effort that the Government are prepared to give to the rural areas. Rural housing has a sad history. I am afraid that the Minister of Health and his deputy, the Parliamentary Secretary, come in for really serious blame. They have done all they conceivably can to sabotage the efforts of the Minister of Agriculture to provide an increased labour force on the land by repealing the Rural Workers Housing Act and by their refusal to grant licences to landlords and farmers who are prepared to build cottages for their workers. They have concealed the truth that rural district councils were not, in fact, making a big enough contribution towards the housing of agricultural workers. By maintaining this fallacy for at least nine months, they have done immeasurable harm to those who were really genuinely interested in housing the agricultural workers.

We have the figures. Out of 23,000 houses produced by rural district councils and private enterprise, only 1,819 houses have actually been allotted to agricultural workers, 1,000 of which have been provided by the private enterprise builder. What can be done by the Minister of Health to accelerate the provision of houses for rural workers, and what can be done to improve the conditions of existing houses? I would like to make three suggestions. First, let us forget prejudice against reconditioning. Let us go ahead with modernising those 100,000 houses which, as long ago as October, 1946, the Minister was informed by the Hobhouse Report were suitable for such a purpose. Secondly, let us insist that rural district councils and local authorities in rural areas are compelled to give at least 80 per cent. of their new houses to agricultural workers.

Having done that, let us also insist that those houses which are allotted to agricultural workers are tied to the industry, so that the worker who has a house in, let us say, the neighbourhood of Ipswich is not allowed to change his occupation and work in a factory in Ipswich itself and still retain that house. My third point is that it would not be too much to ask the Minister of Health to forget, for a period at any rate, his prejudice against the landowner and the farmer who are prepared to erect houses at their own expense for their farmworkers without any assistance from the Minister of Health. We should then create a greatly increased number of houses. It is so pitiful at this time to maintain these party political prejudices.

I hope the Minister of Health will agree to the suggestion that the agricultural areas can expect a very fair share of the available prefabricated temporary houses which are in the general Ministry of Works pool. By doing these things, so far as the rural areas are concerned, the Minister of Health can undo some of the untold harm which he has inflicted on the rest of the community.