I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity of addressing the House for the first time. I crave the indulgence of hon. Members on this occasion. I will endeavour to earn the gratitude of the House by being brief and please my hon. Friends by promising not to mention even once the Selective Employment Tax.
I have the honour to represent Stoke-on-Trent, North. People ask, "Where is Stoke-on-Trent?", or, more often than not, they say, "That is the Black Country, is it not?" With all due respect to my colleagues from the Black Country, that is the beginning of an argument. These people never follow the question, "Where is Stoke-on-Trent?" by asking, "What do they do in Stoke-on-Trent?" Hon. Members will know that the names of our manufacturers are known all over the world. The things that we produce in the potteries are synonymous with beauty and quality wherever those virtues are admired. Our coal industry has played a vital part in the country's economy in days gone by and is still doing so. It would be an odd house that did not possess at least one thing which was made in the City of Stoke-on-Trent.
We are proud that two of our firms were awarded the Queen's Award to Industry for their export achievements and that another firm was given an award for technological achievement. If all industries had an export record equal to that of the pottery industry, we should not have a balance of payments crisis.
I have the honour to follow as Member for my constituency Mrs. Harriet Slater. My distinguished predecessor was a most able and conscientious Member who attended to her constituency duties most diligently. One tends to think that perhaps she, in common with so many Members on both sides, was too good a Member and was too conscientious, because I am certain that the work that she put in here and in her constituency was responsible for the breakdown in her health which caused her to retire at what might be considered to be a comparatively early age.
I know from conversations with Members of the House and with officials that Mrs. Slater has left her mark here permanently. Indeed, her name will go down in the history books as the first woman Whip, an honour of which I know she was very proud. I sometimes wonder whether the previous Parliament would have lasted for 17 months if she had not wielded that whip so effectively on some of her colleagues. She performed many tasks ouside the normal calls of duty, which helped to keep this Parliament in being.
I am conscious of her devotion to duty, and of the high standard that she set for herself and expected from other people. If I could but approach her standard during my stay in this House, I should be more than satisfied.
It is the duty of any civilised society to provide for its people decent houses and education. It used to be bandied about that it was no good giving better homes to people who lived in slums, because they would not know how to look after them anyway. Time has shown that when one improves a man's environment his whole being usually begins to improve at the same time and to take on something of his new surroundings. This is good not only for the individual, but also for the nation.
I am pleased that the Government are conscious that we must plan our housing programme ahead. This has not always been the case, but I hope that in the years to come we shall know exactly where we are going. The supply industries and the construction industries are entitled to know precisely what targets the Government have in mind, so that they can make their long-term plans accordingly.
We are concerned because in the pottery industry, which is a supplying industry for the builders, we have come across short-time working in the sanitary supply industry. With a record number of houses produced last year, we are a little mystified as to why this should be. Perhaps it is that the sanitary industry and the brickworks industry have not taken into account sufficiently the impact of new materials and that we have not realised what this will mean in terms of production.
I would hope that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government could perhaps forecast a little more accurately in future the extent to which it expects new materials to overtake the old ones. Can it do some research and tell us what traditional materials will be replaced, how long it will be before that happens, and by what percentage? This would prevent the personal hardships of short-time working as it is being experienced in Stoke-on-Trent at the moment and would also prevent the consequent loss of production and the wastage of skilled manpower.
I am quite certain that all right hon. and hon. Members, on both sides of the House, want to see more housing provided. We shall not be satisfied until all the slums have been cleared. But we want to be absolutely certain—and I think that the hon. Member for Paddington, South (Mr. Scott) was right in this—that we are not building today the slums of the future; that when we have knocked down houses that are 80, 90, or 100 years old we do not have to start to knock down those that are only 30 or 40 years old. Our aim should be to build quantity and quality. I would, perhaps, even suggest that if we had to choose between having a smaller number of houses of quality and a higher number of houses of inferior materials—perhaps even bad workmanship and bad design—we should go for quality and not quantity.
Houses are an expensive commodity. We do not want to find that when we have paid for them we have immediately to knock them all down. Councils spend public money on houses, people spend hard-earned savings on buying their own houses, and it is not right that they should, perhaps, be faced with a big bill in a very short time for repairs and renovations. There are still, unfortunately, far too many jerry-builders, and I hope that the Government will press ahead with their plans for voluntary acceptance of good standards of building. If they cannot get this by voluntary action, I hope that they will not hesitate to introduce legislation so that we can have good standards of building and thus protect the people who buy those buildings.
Two of the biggest headaches of local authorities and private citizens are the high interest rates and rising costs. Most right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House, despite what some people think, are keen on home-ownership, and it is because of this that we hope that the Government will soon be able to introduce their scheme for lowering the mortgage rates for private purchasers. The Government have introduced higher subsidies for local authorities, and this should assist the councils to build more houses more cheaply in the future, and, perhaps, at the present time, also.
I cannot help reflecting, however, that this probably helps the backward authorities. In Stoke-on-Trent we have built about 30,000 council houses, and we are now approaching the stage when we have to decide, not how many more thousand houses we need for our present population, but, rather, whether we need any more houses, or whether we must now concentrate on specialised building for old-age pensioners, and so on. The fact that we built so well, so early, rather seems to mean that we shall not qualify for the increased subsidies, or that only a very small proportion of the houses that we have for rent will now carry the bigger subsidies. It sounds as though those who have been kicking their heels, who failed to solve the problem earlier, are those who will profit most. It looks as though the first shall be last in this instance.
In an authority such as ours, in those circumstances, we shall not be able to use the extra subsidies to alter the pattern of our rents for council houses, as the Minister has suggested in one of his White Papers. I was glad to hear him say this afternoon that there is no truth in the rumour that he will introduce a national rent policy. But, when he is discussing rents, I hope that he will bear in mind the fact which I have just pointed out, and that he will also remember that many areas do not enjoy the very high wages that some of the more affluent areas enjoy.
My city is one of the former, and what would be a fair rent in London, Birmingham or Coventry would be a disaster in some of the industrial areas of the North. I hope that the Minister will bear this in mind. The necessity of having to increase rents continuously—periodically is, perhaps, a better word—is a problem which is in need of the most urgent solution and to which I hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government will give most careful consideration.
It is the duty of the nation to house all people decently. We need an adequate supply of the right kind of accommodation for a particular stage in a person's life. A person may start with a three-bedroom house for a family, then have a two-bedroom house, and later a bungalow. This is something that we should be planning now. There is no proper balance between rented and owner-occupied accommodation. I hope that when we build we shall build wisely build well, and build to last.