Orders of the Day — Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th December 1965.

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Photo of Mr Robin Chichester-Clark Mr Robin Chichester-Clark , County Londonderry 12:00 am, 8th December 1965

I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which represents a permanent return to Socialist controls and makes no contribution towards restoring the confidence, already undermined by the policies of Her Majesty's Government, of the building, construction and allied industries. I do not propose to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's point about Londonderry, which is not included in the Bill, except to say that the people of Northern Ireland and the Government of that province are doing everything in their power to bring about an improvement in what as the right hon. Gentleman said, is in some places a tragic housing shortage. Indeed, I should have thought, if I may get away with being pompous for one second, that it was too serious a situation to use as a party political point across the Floor of the House, where nothing can be done about it.

At the beginning of the Minister's rather long speech—I shall try not to emulate it in length, because there are many hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate and I shall be as short as possible—he gave us a very gloomy story of all the various shortages he found—bricks, and even bricklayers. Incidentally, there has always been a shortage of bricklayers. He told us about all the skeletons that he thought he found hanging in various cupboards, and all the rest of it. It was a gloomy beginning.

We can judge the Minister only by what he has said. He had something to say about this when he came into office. By then, to use his own words, he was not gazing into the crystal; he was in a position to read the book. What he said was that he found, in the industry which we are discussing, "a generally satisfactory state of affairs". I never thought to hear anyone speak of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) as not having even a nodding acquaintance with the industry, but this expression trips naturally from the Minister's tongue. I find, on looking through HANSARD, that it is used on many occasions whenever the Minister gets into a tight corner. It is his last refuge. What I think we shall demonstrate before the end of this debate is that the right hon. Gentleman may have a nodding acquaintance with something, but it is not with what is going on inside his own Government. I shall come to that later.

I thought that, apart from many such agreeable passages in his long speech, the Minister's reference to the Amendment was a little uncharitable. But, of course, we expected that. What I thought wholly unconvincing were the reasons which the Minister gave for the introduction of the Bill. Depending on which way one looks at it, the Minister either gave none, or he gave so many as to convince no one. Was it lack of skilled labour? Was it shortage of building materials? The Minister has persistently said in the House that the last has not given him great concern, in recent months at any rate, though his hon. Friend said recently that there had been a shortage of plasterboard. Was it overheating? We will come to that. Was it—unworthy thought, perhaps—just an expensive sop to an over-eager Left Wing? Or was it a combination of that and a desire to begin an attempt to establish control over the industry?

The Minister quoted The Times. I do not know whether he has read it through. If he had, his confidence in his Bill and the reasons for it would have been a little further shaken, because the leader this morning says this: The purpose of the Building Control Bill, to be debated in the Commons today, is to equip the Government with the power to license 'inessential' private building projects in order to allow the limited capacity of the building industry to be employed on 'essential' projects. Put thus, which is the way it is put on political platforms, it sounds fine. Every rational person knows what to say if asked what should receive priority, the essential or the inessential. The snag is in the translation of the maxim into administrative practice … This is exactly the point.

I must confess that I felt that the Minister was a little unhappy with the introduction of his Bill. I did not think that he exhibited any signs of proud parenthood of this offspring.

I do not want to deal with the question of retrospection, nor with the apparently inappropriate penal sanctions which are in the Bill, as I understand that tonight we are to have the services of the Solicitor-General to tell us about those aspects of the Bill.

I want to go back and look rather more closely at the birth of the Bill and how it came about. We may perhaps doubt whether it is fair to hold the Minister responsible for its paternity, but we do want to know what happened between 19th January and 27th July which caused the right' hon. Gentleman to change his mind or have it changed for him.

Let us go back to November, 1964, those heady days of first and somewhat careless rapture—in fact, to 20th November of that year. I think that it was the 20th. If I am wrong, the Minister will correct me. In that period of post-election euphoria the right hon. Gentleman gave an interview to the Builder. Asked in that interview whether it was his intention to introduce further controls to go beyond what had already been announced he said—I can but quote him here—"No." and then: It is not the Government's intention to impose further conrols, because we see the industry in a positive not a negative way. Two months later he was back at it again saying the same thing, at a luncheon given by the London Master Builders Association on 19th January, where he told a no doubt incredulous audience: This Government is all for free enterprise, provided it really is free as well as enterprising. Nor, are we in favour of controls for their own sake. The House would do well to note the words "for their own sake" because of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's grave statement on 27th July which followed the so-called third Budget.

It was in that so-called third Budget that the House, and a somewhat startled world, after the Minister's earlier pronouncements, heard for the first time that building licences would be introduced. The question which we must pose to the Government is what connection existed in their minds between the temporary crisis which brought forth those July measures and the permanence of this Bill. Surely the Government do not believe that the economic crisis is permanent, and for that reason I am waiting to hear some member of the Government telling us why this Bill is a permanent Measure. Temporary crises do not require permanent crisis Measures, but perhaps I am wrong and the Government believe that they have a permanent crisis on their hands. If so, I must repeat, we and the country should be told about it.

Is it the shortage of building materials which has caused this Bill to be produced? Is it the shortage of skilled labour, or is this in reality the first stage of trying to win control over the industry as a whole? One must have a certain sense of sympathy with a Minister who seems to have set out as a crusader against controls but has now succumbed, a Crossman convert, to the concept of controls for their own sake. We must presume that for some months the right hon. Gentleman padded round the Departments of Whitehall trying to persuade them—no doubt with all that tact and humility which we have come to expect from him in this House—that, firstly, they should be against controls and, secondly, if he could not prevail with that, they should be against the permanence of controls.

In one quarter at least, even if too late, the right hon. Gentleman seems to have had some success. For while the right hon. Gentleman in his speech to the quantity surveyors during the week ending 20th November had hauled down his colours and surrendered, the Chief Industrial Adviser to the D.E.A., with commendable determination, was still fighting this Whitehall battle and telling the National Joint Consultative Committee that The Government do not want licensing and will get rid of it as soon as possible. Perhaps in his own small way the right hon. Gentleman got himself entangled in something a good deal bigger—perhaps in a struggle between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the infant D.E.A. The right hon. Gentleman should go back and make common cause with the D.E.A. against the rest of the Government.