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 Thomas Urwin Mr Thomas Urwin , Houghton-le-Spring 12:00 am, 8th December 1965

I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), who clearly displayed a good knowledge of the construction industry and its many and diverse problems. I remind myself of the words of the right hon. Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) shortly after his election as Leader of the Opposition. He said that it was the Opposition's firm intention to mount severe attacks against the Government at every conceivable opportunity. I think of the manner in which this threat was applied in the recent censure debate on housing which was opened by the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). I am sure that my right hon. Friends must have quaked in their shoes when they heard the ominous words of the Leader of the Opposition.

The only signs of an explosion, even a verbal explosion, in this debate have been the numerous interruptions in the very good and objective speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister in introducing the Bill. It is to his everlasting credit that he maintained his equilibrium with a good deal of equanimity and refused to be drawn into being discourteous to right hon. and hon. Members opposite, which I am sure he could easily have been. My right hon. Friend was the acme of courtesy in the way in which he conducted himself.

A good deal of unnecessary fuss has been made about the Bill by right hon. and hon. Members opposite. We have heard alarmist talk about the future of the industry being threatened and that the employers in the industry will lose confidence in the Government because of the policies which they seek to introduce. The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark), in opening the debate on behalf of the Opposition, used the old clichés about political dogma, Socialist ideology and doctrinaire politics. These phrases are somewhat overplayed. He went on to say that the Bill is intended as a sop to the Left Wing of the Labour Party.

I find it difficult to determine what is implied by references to the Left Wing of the Labour Party. I have always had difficulty in trying to define what a Left Winger is. However, I am sure that a real Left Winger in the Socialist Party would not address himself very long to a Bill of this kind as being the best instrument for dealing with the manifold problems of the construction industry and housing. My right hon. and hon. Friends, in unofficial discussions, express themselves in much the same way. The Bill has no bearing on this subject. I am no arbiter with any authority in such matters as this, but my opinion, for what it is worth, is that the private sector of the construction industry, to a very large extent, coupled with the mismanagement of right hon. and hon. Members opposite when they were in power, has been responsible for the failure to meet the pledges made during election campaigns about housing progress.

The hon. Member for Londonderry went on to ask, "Why treat an economic crisis which is deemed to be temporary by introducing a permanent Measure?". Is it a temporary situation? We can be optimistic in feeling that the economic situation is temporary, but the situation in the building construction industry is certainly not temporary. What a fallacious argument this is. Anybody with any knowledge of the industry accepts that there is a marked shortage of craftsmen. Figures have been quoted showing the shortage of skilled carpenters and bricklayers.

We know the difficulty concerning the supply of materials which my right hon. Friend the Minister faced when he took office last October. There has been reference to the proliferation of firms. I use the word "proliferation" deliberately because I know from practical experience of the industry that there are far too many employers in it. The hon. Member for Londonderry said that there were 90.000 of them. My information is that there are 85,000. These are the people who are using and eating up the valuable resources of the industry on expensive projects.

I wish that the Bill went further and controlled building of a value less than £100,000 because this is where a good deal of wastage takes place. The hon. Member for Londonderry also said how unfortunate the Bill would be for some employers, especially as they would have difficulty in recruiting and training apprentices. May I refer to what I said in col. 450 of the OFFICIAL REPORT during the debate on 11th November when I spoke about the same problem? I said that there were 85,000 contractors in the building industry and that on this basis each contractor would be responsible for four houses a year. I pointed out, however, that of the 85,000, 20,000 were only what might be called one-man firms, which could not make any financial contribution to the industrial training board for the construction industry because they employed fewer than five men or had an annual wages bill of less than £5,000, and of course many of them do not employ apprentices.

What is the reason for the crocodile tears which we have had from hon. Members opposite? They tell us that it is our intention to reintroduce controls as part of our political philosophy and ideology. But is not almost every Act of Parliament to some extent a measure of control? Are not the lives of almost every man, woman and child controlled very largely by Statutes? What about the controls that right hon. and hon. Members opposite imposed upon the people during their 13 years of Government? What about the controls they introduced in the White Paper of February, 1961, Cmnd. 1290, when they revolutionised the whole system of housing subsidies as it had existed for many years?

Remarks were made this afternoon about the inference of the circular recently issued by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on direct labour tendering. Did not the Minister of Housing and Local Government of the Conservative Government, when he introduced his White Paper, impose a large measure of control on direct labour departments?

Among the many that I know, I could quote a very efficient labour department. I refer particularly to my own local authority, which consistently, not merely since the war, but since 1919, has carried out building by direct labour. In latter years, because of the insistence of the Tory Minister of Housing and Local Government to put out every third contract to tender, the first result was that a quantity surveyor had to be employed.

A quantity surveyor must be paid a professional fee, even for small contracts. The increase in rent as a result of the employment of a quantity surveyor had of necessity to be borne by the subsequent tenants of the council houses.