Housing (Milner Holland Report)

Part of Civil Estimates and Defence (Central) Estimate, 1965–66 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd March 1965.

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Photo of Mr Richard Crossman Mr Richard Crossman , Coventry East 12:00 am, 22nd March 1965

I was curious to see how the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) would deal with the very delicate situation in which he was placed by the decision of his right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) to establish the Milner Holland Committee and by the Report which that Committee has published.

It is obvious, as the right hon. Gentleman made only too clear in his speech, that any kind of party political approach would have been fraught with disaster. The debate had to be got over under the most favourable circumstances. I noticed, with appreciation of it, the parliamentary skill with which a day was given by the Opposition and so given that no vote could be taken. That was wise, because if the Opposition had put down a Motion to take note of this Report, we should have put down an Amendment which would have deeply embarrassed them if they had tried to vote against it. So there were obvious reasons for doing it this way.

There were obvious reasons, also, for stressing the argument that the Report should be discussed only with the strictest relationship to London. I think that what Sir Milner Holland says is quite true, that his Report is strictly, as an analysis, valid only for London and that it would be unwise to draw deductions about conditions outside London from descriptions of conditions inside London. The drift to the South-East has produced a world of difference between the housing problems in the areas of rapid growth like London and the Midlands and those of the great cities of the North.

There is another reason for caution. Each of the great cities faced with problems of security of tenure and housing shortage, problems common to all the great conurbations, has grappled with them in a different way. One has only to compare how Leeds has handled the problem with how it has been handled in Birmingham or Liverpool to realise that what the right hon. Gentleman said is true, that one should know not only about London but about the rest of the country.

It is also true—I shall say something about this later—that people who were 13 years in government and left us without any knowledge of a reliable sort about the subject such as we get from the Milner Holland Committee have no right to demand that because the information has been denied for years, the evil has to continue until six more investigations take place. That is not at all what we are going to do in dealing with the problem.

I observe that apart from this close attention to seeing this as a specific and unique London problem, we also have to see it from a strictly non-party point of view. Long before he rose here, the right hon. Gentleman was addressing the Conservative Local Government Conference last week. Already, there he was endorsing Sir Milner's plea for a policy purged of irrelevant prejudice, a plea reinforced by a muted thunderclap from Printing House Square. I am not quite sure what Sir Milner Holland meant by the original complaint, but I must admit that its endorsement by the right hon. Gentleman and the editor of The Times fills me with the gravest suspicion.

When I heard the right hon. Gentleman recommending a non-party approach and telling us not to stir up old controversies, I could only draw, because I know him well, one conclusion, which is that in terms of party politics the investigations of this Committee and the study of its Report can be nothing but a devastating disaster to the Opposition.

Just imagine if the Report had given, as it was hoped, a commendation to the policies of the previous Administration. Would we then have heard the right hon. Gentleman say that the House must put it all behind it, that we must eschew party politics and old controversies? The right hon. Gentleman is an old party politician and he knows that one talks in this way when in a fix. He did his best and I congratulate him, but I must say that ever since we took office hon. Members opposite have been busy avoiding responsibility for the difficulties which we have to grasp and denying that these difficulties are legacies which we inherited from them.

The responsibility for the London housing crisis and for the miseries caused by the Rent Act in every one of our great conurbations is something which hon. Members opposite cannot wriggle out of now that the Report is published. Here we have it, the sober, impartial and annihilating analysis of how the tenants in London's privately rented properties have fared under 13 years of Tory rule, seven of them after the Rent Act came into effect.

Although housing can never be removed from the centre of party politics it is certainly possible to endorse Sir Milner's plea for "housing policies purged of prejudice." I watched the right hon. Gentleman opposite and I did not see any attempt to remove the beam from his own eye in order to see the mote in mine. There did not seem to be much removing of prejudice. He took only the points which favoured his prejudices and asked us then to remove ours.

I will talk about landlordism. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. One of the central problems of the Report is how to handle private landlords after 13 years of Tory administration attempting to handle them. I thought that the non-political atmosphere was carried a little far when the right hon. Gentleman attacked the tax system as if he had forgotten that he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury running the tax system and that he was Financial Secretary eight years before. So the right hon. Gentleman has had 13 years to help the landlords and to give them a fair deal and to try to win their support.

The right hon. Gentleman now tells me that it is my chance. I accept the challenge. Let me tell him that I have a natural prejudice against landlords. I share it with many hon. and right hon. Members on this side of the House. Let me also say this to him. This prejudice is so strong in large sections of the community that many Labour supporters jumped to the conclusion that the Rachman story was typical of the behaviour of the big landlords and that they were the villains of the piece. It is perfectly true also that Sir Milner, after careful investigation, acquits not only large numbers of landlords of sensational forms of persecution and exploitation, but tells us that, on the whole, the big landlords are, as far as he can see, the least guilty in this regard and that most of the abuses are to be found among the small landlords, often abusing tenants in their own houses.

Without qualification, I accept that Sir Milner and his Committee have given us an objective and correct picture of the abuses. According to Sir Milner and the members of his Committee there are still, at a minimum, 3,000 cases of vile abuse a year. Let us also agree with the Committee that the abuses, the sensational thing about the landlords, are not what we ought to look at. What we have to study is the underlying trouble in dealing with all private rented property. I agree that it is absurd and also bad theology to think that it is due to original sin in a class of people called landlords. We have to look, therefore, and try to find out what is wrong. This is something which the right hon. Gentleman hardly mentioned. He managed to skirt round those chapters of the Report.

There is something desperately wrong with private landlordism today. Sir Milner shows that misery, vile conditions, overcrowding and persecution by landlords are virtually limited to private rented property. There are no complaints about owner-occupation and council estates. It is only in this realm of private landlordism that all these evils occur. It is not due to original sin on the part of the landlords, so, then, it is due to something underneath. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he agrees with me and whether I am right about Sir Milner's account of the cause? He says that we can attribute it to one simple fact. The service which the landlords provide, cheap-rented housing, is at once unprofitable and in short supply. Before the First World War the provision of working-class housing at working-class rents was an extremely profitable business even for the good landlord; it has become in the last 40 years extremely unprofitable.

Flats at £400 a year or more are still money spinners, and here there is still a free market where the laws of supply and demand can operate and the respectable landlord can earn a fortune. But further down the social scale the only way to make a quick living out of widowers' houses is to scamp the repairs and exploit the tenants' desperate fear of eviction. Hence the willingness of a minority of landlords to exploit and to persecute. Hence the determination of the majority who are not bullies or exploiters to get out of the business altogether by selling their houses and so very often turning the luckless tenant into a reluctant owner-occupier saddled with a decaying liability.

Most of these little landlords, Sir Milner tells us, are perfectly decent people who are desperate because they cannot get any return on the money they invested or the houses they inherited. But then, let me repeat, whose fault is it that this suffering and misery goes on? If the landlords are victims of the system—the housing policies and the tax arrangements under which rented property has been managed for the last 10 years—then the burden is placed fairly and squarely on the politicians responsible for those policies and tax arrangements. It is they who must be prepared to "purge their minds of irrelevant prejudice" and abandon the excuses which they have used for the conditions they have tolerated.

But if it is not the fault of the landlord, whose fault is it that this suffering and misery in rented property has continued for 13 years of Tory administration, and which the party opposite pledged to put right? The answer he gives is that if the landlords are not guilty, the politicians are guilty through their housing policy and tax policy. If they are, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us that he and his colleagues, after 13 years, do not bear some responsibility for what happened during that period?

In one very telling passage the Committee lists what it describes as "four hypotheses" which have been advanced as the cause of London's housing crisis: (a) the deadening effect of rent restriction—we have heard that one; (b) the inefficient use of local authority housing—we have heard that one too; (c) immigration; (d) unused housing standing empty. These, he says, are the four legends and he tells us that there is no truth in them whatever. How many Conservative and Liberal speeches have we heard in the House during the past 10 years using one or all of these hypotheses to discredit the Government's critics.