Considered in Committee, under Standing Order No. 84.—[ King's Recommendation signified.]
[Major MILNER in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
"That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to amend the Housing Act, 1936, and to promote the improvement of housing accommodation by authorising the making of contributions out of the Exchequer and of grants by local authorities (hereinafter referred to as the Act'), it is expedient to authorise—
A. the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any expenses incurred by the Minister of Health (hereinafter referred to as 'the Minister') in reimbursing to a local authority not more than one half of any loss sustained by them under a guarantee given by them for the repayment of advances made to its members by a society incorporated under the Building Societies Acts, 1874 to 1939, or the Industrial and Provident Societies Acts, 1893 to 1928, for the building or acquisition of houses or flats, being a guarantee as to which the Minister is satisfied that the liability of the local authority thereunder cannot be greater than two-thirds of the principal of, and interest on, the amount by which the sum to be advanced by the society exceeds the sum which would normally be advanced by it without the guarantee;
B. the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any expenses incurred by the Minister in—
(1) making to a local authority or to a corporation established by an order under Section two of the New Towns Act, 1946 (hereinafter referred to as a 'development corporation'), towards the annual loss determined by the Minister to be likely to be incurred by them as a result of giving effect to proposals approved by him for the provision of dwellings by means of the conversion of houses or other buildings or the improvement of dwellings, an annual contribution for twenty years of an amount equal to three-quarters of that loss; (2) making to a local authority, towards the expense incurred by them in making to a person other than a local authority a grant in respect of expenses incurred by him for the purposes of the execution of works for the provision of dwellings by means of the conversion of houses or other buildings or the improvement of dwellings, an annual contribution for twenty years of an amount equal to three-quarters of the annual loan charges referable to the amount of the grant; (3) making to a local authority, in respect of arrangements made by them with a housing association or development corporation for the provision of dwellings by means of the conversion of houses or other buildings or the improvement of dwellings, an annual contribution for twenty years of an amount equal to three-quarters of the annual loss determined by the local authority, with the approval of the Minister, to be likely to be incurred by the association or corporation in carrying out the arrangements;
C. the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any increase in the sums which, under the Housing (Financial and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1946 (hereinafter referred to as "the Act of 1946"), are payable out of moneys so provided, being an increase attributable to—
(1) any provisions of the Act providing that where,—
(a) a flat approved for the purposes of the Act of 1946 by the Minister on or after the twenty-eighth day of February, nineteen hundred and forty-nine, is provided in a block of flats on a site the cost of which as developed exceeds one thousand five hundred pounds per acre; and (b) the number of flats contained in the block and in any other block of flats on the site, in relation to the area of the site, falls short of a rate of thirty to the acre;the standard amount of the annual exchequer contribution for the flat for the purposes of the Act of 1946 shall, instead of being an amount determined in accordance with section four of that Act, be the amount which it would be determined under that section to be if the cost of the site were an amount bearing to the cost thereof as developed the same proportion that thirty-five bears to the rate to the acre of the number of flats mentioned in head (b) of this sub-paragraph in relation to the site;
(2) any provisions of the Act providing that, where a house approved for the purposes of the Act of 1946 by the Minister on or after the twenty-eighth day of February, nineteen hundred and forty-nine, is provided on a site the cost of which as developed exceeds three thousand pounds per acre, the standard amount of the annual exchequer contribution for the house for the purposes of that Act shall be the standard amount of the annual exchequer contribution for the house as ascertained in accordance with the provisions of that Act plus one pound and four shillings for each thousand pounds or part of a thousand pounds by which the cost of the site as developed exceeds three thousand pounds per acre, any amount of the excess over ten thousand pounds being disregarded except where the house is provided under a scheme of development which makes provision also for the erection of one or more blocks of flats on the site.
(3) any provisions of the Act providing that, where the Minister is satisfied that the cost of providing a house or flat has been or will be substantially enhanced by expenses attributable to measures taken in the construction of the house or flat in order to preserve the character of the surroundings, the standard amount of the annual exchequer contribution for the house or flat for the purposes of the Act of 1946 shall be the standard amount of the annual exchequer contribution for the house or flat, as ascertained in accordance with that Act and the provisions referred to in the two last foregoing sub-paragraphs plus such sum not exceeding five pounds as the Minister may determine;
D. the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any expenses incurred by the Minister in making—
an annual contribution for such number of years, not exceeding sixty, and of such amount, not exceding the sum produced by multiplying five pounds by the number of bedrooms contained in the building, as the Minister may determine;
E. the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any expenses incurred by the Minister in making a grant to a local authority or development corporation in respect of—
F. the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any expenses of the Minister attributable to any provisions of the Act empowering him to make contributions in respect of houses and flats which become vested in local authorities and of buildings provided or converted for use as hostels (as defined by the Act) which becomes so vested;
G. the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of—
H. the payment into the Exchequer of all sums received by the Minister under the Act."—[ Mr. Bevan.]
We now come to the Financial Resolution and surely it will be possible, on that, for the Minister to give us some of the details for which we asked during the Debate. We have asked for some perfectly simple information. How much more is he going to make available? The Parliamentary Secretary finished with some words which fell like a dash of cold water on the whole House. He said that this Bill gives an opportunity to plan ahead and, where possible, to proceed with actual work. Earlier he said that it will not be possible to proceed in a great many cases with actual housing, but that they can proceed with plans. That is not good enough.The Minister was asked some perfectly simple questions. He must be able to give us some answer as to what is his estimate of the progress which he considers will be made under the Measure which has got its Second Reading, and with the finance which he is asking the Committee to vote him tonight. These are questions which cannot be dismissed simply by saying, "We think there will here be an opportunity for plans and, where possible, actual work." The House has given a Second Reading to the Bill in the hope that it will lead to some actual construction. The Minister is bound to give the House some indication of what will be accomplished under the Measure for which he has obtained a Second Reading, and for which he is now asking for money.
I do not think that is the question before the Committee. The question is for what purposes will the money be used. That is a proper question to put to the Minister.
Yes, for what purposes the money will be used, and at what rate the Minister expects the money to be drawn upon. The rate of construction will closely determine the amount by which the Executive draws upon the money which it is now asking the Committee to vote.
It has been made plain in the Financial Memorandum to the Bill, as my right hon. and gallant Friend said, that the provisions contained in this Bill will result in a diversion of financial and economic effort from the housing programme in progress under legislation already on the Statute Book towards the purposes contained in the provisions of the Bill, which of course I do not myself regret. But we do now know that, as regards the general housing programme for the coming year, the Government are estimating that the total expenditure will be £375 million, compared with £430 million in the present year and £420 million in 1947. That is, of course, an overall total, including the total expenditure which falls under a number of different aspects of housing.In the Minister's Housing Return of May last year, he gave a revised pro- gramme of what he hoped would be the number of new houses built, and he based that upon the amount of materials and labour available. In view of the fact that this Bill does not purport to increase the amount of economic resources available for housing purposes, it would be useful if the Minister would indicate, on this Financial Resolution, what are his intentions for the future as regards new housing construction, and how much of what had previously been allocated to that will be diverted to the purposes made available under the terms of the Bill which has just received its Second Reading.
The question which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman put to me is, I submit, on examination by him and by the Committee one which it is impossible to answer. The reasons for this impossibility are, I should imagine, perfectly obvious. This Bill does not impose a duty upon local authorities; it is a permissive Measure. They are permitted to do certain things, and individuals are also permitted to apply to local authorities to do certain things. If they do them, the act of doing them means that a certain amount of money is attracted from the rates and from the Exchequer. The extent of the extraction will depend on two things—the energy with which the local authority prosecutes the Measure, and the extent to which at any given moment it will be possible for us to permit that part of the housing activity to he expanded. That, of course, it is absolutely impossible to answer in general terms at this stage.Let me give a further illustration. The Committee will see that it has been impossible for us to repeat for this Measure the terms of the general housing subsidy. There we know reasonably well in advance how much money will be attracted from the Exchequer, because we know it is to be a certain amount of money per house. We know roughly how many houses are likely to be built, so that we have predictable material available. But we have not been able to give a subsidy of that precise kind for the improvement of houses, because we do not know how much money will be spent on a particular scheme. All we can say is that three-quarters of the annual loss borne by the local authority will fall upon the Exchequer. We do not know what that amount of money is to be, because it will vary enormously from place to place and on the particular kind of improvement carried out. Nor at this stage do we know how many individuals will make application to the local authority for the improvement of their houses. Therefore, we cannot tell how much money will be necessary in order to finance those applications. In no set of circumstances could we at this stage tell how much money will be attracted from the Exchequer under the provisions of this Bill when it becomes an Act. I am sure that hon. Members will accept that as a reasonable proposition. I must at once apply myself to the other part of the matter, which is to what extent do we consider, if we did have a large number of applications, we should put on the brake? In other words, what it means is to what extent would it be possible to find labour and materials outside the general building programme? It has been represented to me on many occasions that, especially in the rural areas, there is an amount of labour that can be used on this work which would not be a diversion from the building of new houses in the countryside.
And the right hon. Gentleman did not believe it.
I did not accept it, and I still think I was right, because that labour has not fallen down the grating in the meantime. Indeed, that labour has been engaged, in the last three and a half to four years, on most valuable work in the countryside, in maintaining farm buildings and doing work of that sort—a great deal of which I hope has now been done. Therefore, some of that labour should become available. I hope that hon. Members opposite will not press the point that it is not there. I hope they will adhere to their case that it is there, because if it is not we do not propose that the work under this Bill in the countryside shall mean any substantial diversion of labour from the construction of new houses in the countryside. I hope therefore that the pool of labour, which has always been said to be there, will be there, and to that extent will be an addition.The Committee knows that of these 500,000 to 600,000 building workers engaged on housing, about 300,000, and sometimes more, are engaged upon general repairs. We are hoping that when this Bill becomes an Act, and its provisions are being carried out, a certain proportion of that labour will be used for the purpose, and that therefore labour will not be attracted from the main construction of new buildings. We have not changed our intentions with regard to the main housing programme. That goes on. The announcements I have made about it stand so that to the extent that this is done—
What are the latest figures?
This is strictly irrelevant. We are not really discussing the main housing programme. I did not tax my memory with this, but I think I said that the Government proposed to carry on the main housing programme to the extent of between 180,000 and 200,000 new houses a year. That was the number of houses under construction. We said that we intended to keep 180,000 to 200,000 houses under construction so that we would have that number of houses completed in a year.I hope, therefore, that when this Bill comes to be carried out, it will eat into a certain proportion of that labour which is now being used for maintenance and repair, and will not divert labour from the provision of new housing. But the extent to which that will be done and the cost that will fall upon the Exchequer are incalculable, because it is itself a purely empirical activity. It is only in retrospect that it will be possible to see in a given year how much of this work it is possible to do. I would have been delighted to have given more precise information about the estimate of cost—
The right hon. Gentleman is not very good at estimating.
The hon. Member would have done his reputation more justice if he had not made that intervention. I should like to know how it is possible to estimate what 1,740 local authorities are going to do, and how they will apply themselves to this question. I should like to know how it is possible to spend upon the improvement of houses not yet in the picture. How on earth is it possible for anybody in such circumstances to make a calculation of how much money will be spent upon houses?
I was merely agreeing that the right hon. Gentleman was quite right not to make an estimate. Even if he had made an estimate, it would not have been of very much use to the House.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that I was not very good at estimating. He wants me to do a little crystal gazing. In these circumstances it is absolutely impossible to give the Committee a firm estimate and I would not attempt to mislead the Committee by giving any estimate at all.
I can see the point that it is not possible to give a very close estimate about money, but that does not really deal with the point I made about material. We are all acquainted with works both in town and country that are held up for lack of material—
I do not think that the question of material arises here. This is a question of money. We cannot go into the general circumstances of the building industry and of the material and labour available on this occasion.
Of course, I do not wish to go into it any more than the Minister did and only in so far as the question of material governs the rate at which the money will be drawn upon. There are, so to speak, two cheques which have to be drawn—a cheque on the finance which can be given here, and the permits which govern the rates at which these cheques are exhausted. The Minister said that he was about to answer the question to what extent it would be possible to find labour and materials for an additional programme. I had asked whether this programme was supplementary to or in replacement of part of the original programme. The Minister said that it was supplementary to and not additional, because he did not intend to be diverted from the main programme.Then he dealt with the question of labour. I am sticking strictly to the line of argument adopted by the Minister. He said on labour that he expected to find the residual, which according to the estimate of many hon. Members is in existence in the countryside and, to some extent, in small firms in the towns. I then followed to the next point, the question of materials, because—
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman is quite out of Order. The great majority, if not, indeed, all these payments, are to local authorities for the purpose of making grants in the various directions provided by the Bill, and the proper occasion on which to discuss the matters to which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman refers, if there be a proper occasion on this Bill, would, of course, be on the Committee stage. It is quite out of Order to go beyond the question of payments into the detailed matters of materials and labour and so forth. If I understood the Minister aright, he only made reference to these items in reply to a question in order to indicate that he hoped or believed that the present Bill would not, in fact, interfere with the existing provisions for the building of houses.
I naturally bow to your Ruling, Major Milner, and do not wish to pursue the matter further than it reasonably can be pursued. I do indicate to the Minister that we attach great importance to this question, and that we shall seek every opportunity of elucidating some estimate on that point, because although the Minister—
I am sorry, but I cannot allow the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to pursue that matter, directly or indirectly. If he will forgive me saying so, he is disregarding the Ruling of the Chair, as I have already informed him that he is out of Order to pursue this question. This is not the occasion on which to do it, and I cannot allow him to proceed, unless it is on some other question having regard to money and not material.
I do not wish in any way even to seem to run counter to your Ruling, Major Milner, and I indicate that I am merely dealing with the question of the money which this Committee is 'now being asked to vote. I am merely indicating that the information which has been given as to the rate at which the money will be exhausted is not, in our view, sufficient and adequate, and that we will take every opportunity of pursuing the matter further, because, whatever the Minister indicated about only rough estimates being made in these matters, I think some estimate could be made of the rate at which this cheque will be drawn. The Minister will know very well, however hypothetical the figure may now be, what is the figure which he will have in mind in discussing this matter with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is not in the habit of signing blank cheques for any Minister, however powerful. Therefore, we shall press him further with the object of extracting from him some idea of the figure in mind between himself and the Chancellor—information which so far he has failed to give to the Committee, from which he is asking an indeterminate sum of money this evening
Question put, and agreed to.
Resolution to be reported Tomorrow.