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Volume 465: debated on Monday 30 May 1949

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Amendment made: In line 13, leave out from "amend," to "and," in line 16, and insert:

"other enactments relating to housing and domestic water supply."—[Mr. Bevan.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill now read the Third time."—[ Mr. Bevan.]

8.59 p.m.

I rise for only two or three minutes to seek information. I must apologise in advance to the Parliamentary Secretary, in that I have to leave after I have spoken, but I hope to see his remarks in the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow morning. I understand that the price for a three-bedroomed house is £1,500. The charges for that house are 29s. 5d. per week rent, including rates and water rate on top of that there is £16 10s. Government subsidy, and a £5 10s. local subsidy, which means another 8s. ——

I do not think the hon. Gentleman's remarks have anything to do with the contents of this Measure. If they have,

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made; In page 38, line 33, at end, insert:

perhaps he would indicate where. Otherwise, I am afraid that he is out of Order.

Then may I ask this question? In view of the Debate which has taken place, would the Minister consider a scheme which has been put forward, whereby instead of insisting on 960 super-feet——

9.0 p.m.

I do not want to detain the House for more than a few moments, but I do not feel that I can allow this Bill to pass without calling attention to one very bad blemish in it. In general, I think it is an excellent Bill, excellently devised, which will do a lot of good, but in regard to the matter of grants I think there is something which is a very bad blemish indeed. I and other Members on this side of the House called attention to this matter during the Committee stage. Whereas we thoroughly agreed with the reconditioning of old properties where they were structurally sound as a good policy, and we also agreed it was necessary that some form of inducement should be given so that the matter could be proceeded with expeditiously, we did not agree that this was the best way to pursue the matter. We felt that the proper means was not this method of grants but the method of loans.

It was argued on both sides that there was no essential difference between the two. I think that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) argued that both grants and loans carrying very low rates of interest, were forms of subsidy and were therefore exactly the same thing. We disagreed with that, and I disagree with it very much indeed. There is an essential difference in principle in the matter. I think the Minister agreed that there was such a difference, but his line of argument was that the difference was very obscure because there was not very much being given to private landlords. I have never heard that before as a defence of departing from a principle.

The Minister himself laid down that principle very clearly and strongly in connection with the 1938 Housing (Rural Workers) Act. I have no intention of quoting at length what he said in regard to grants to private owners, but I think I am entitled to call attention to the fact that he referred to it as "shovelling out" public money to landlords. The present Minister of Agriculture also condemned that same method of procedure equally strongly and in equally strong terms.

The hon. Member seems to be going into a good deal of history and I have not heard him relate it to the contents of the Bill.

I hope that I am in Order because I am dealing with the principle introduced in Clause 19, the principle of extending grants beyond local authorities to private landlords. I am attempting to argue that that is a principle which is wrong in itself and is a principle which has been condemned by the Minister himself. The Minister said in 1938 that we wanted new houses and not reconditioning, and he puts that forward apparently as an argument why what was wrong in 1938 is right in 1949.

That seems to me to be a very curious argument indeed. We still want new houses rather than reconditioned houses, and I fail to see that that is justification for the Minister going back on that principle which he condemned so thoroughly in those days. The other reason he puts forward as to why this was justifiable now was that 10 years have gone by, during which owners could not do anything. I think that it is more a matter of repairs than reconditioning. If houses need reconditioning now they probably needed it in 1938. What my right hon. Friend so wholeheartedly condemned in that year he now seems to support. I, at any rate, must condemn that change of front towards this matter of grants.

I could argue at length, though I will not, about properties which are to be reconditioned with the aid of State grants, and the money which will go into the pockets of private landlords. It is inconceivable that properties which have been improved and reconditioned with the aid of State money should not be of greater value, and should not be able to fetch a better price than they would have done without that reconditioning. State money is actually being put into the pockets of private landlords. The Minister has made it clear, however, that where owners are not prepared to go ahead with reconditioning it will be possible for local authorities themselves to acquire and recondition the properties. I call attention to this because I think it is most important that local authorities should be aware of the power which they have to acquire properties under Sections 72 and 74 of the 1936 Act. Where owners are unwilling, in spite of these rather excessive inducements, I very much hope that local authorities will take steps to acquire the properties and recondition them, although I hope the whole process will be carried out gradually so as not to interfere with the building of new houses.

I referred to housing associations hi the Committee upstairs, where I said that the wording of the Bill might not enable these associations to carry out all kinds of housing, including extensions referred to by Section 80 of the 1936 Act. Although the Minister did not amend the First Schedule in this respect, I want to put it on record that he has stated that there are full powers to deal with this matter.

9.9 p.m.

I do not intend to follow for long the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) in the private feud which he has been conducting with great logic and pertinacity for several weeks past——

As a neutral observer in this performance I congratulate the Minister because he bowled out the hon. Member middle stump, first ball, every time. If the hon Member feels miserable because, as he thinks, public money is being shovelled into the pockets of private landlords he should vote against the Bill.

I am neither feeling nor looking miserable. Secondly this is a most excellent Bill and it would be most illogical for me to vote against it because of this one point, on which I hope the Minister will yet be instructed.

I would never insult the hon. Member by saying that he looks miserable, but whether he feels it or not is a matter for him.

We on this side of the House are going to support this Bill in its Third Reading, as we supported its Second Reading. Many of the provisions in this Bill are things for which we have fought day in and day out since the Minister of Health first occupied that office. I only regret that it has taken the right hon. Gentleman so much longer than it should have taken. He should have been prepared to listen to us sooner.

This Bill will enable a large amount of conversion and reconditioning to take place. As I indicated, it would have been better if these powers had been granted both to local authorities and to private landowners in 1945 when there was, in fact, a shortage of material but a reasonable supply of labour. By waiting as long as this it means that the full benefit that we might have obtained from this Bill will be minimised by the alteration in the situation within the building industry. I am sure that our view was right. It was right then, and I am certain that the Minister is right now to bring it in, but it should have been done sooner. Our view was based not only on our own feeling, but on impartial evidence supplied first of all in 1945 by the Silkin Commission dealing with conversion and by the later evidence of the Hobhouse Report.

In the final stages of the Debate on this Bill we must ask ourselves how many people today would be living in homes of their own, if, in fact, the Minister had not been so obstinate in delaying this Bill so long. The reconditioning of houses in rural areas was badly set back when the Minister repealed the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts. In the towns practically little or no permission has been given by the local authorities for this type of work. Therefore, we welcome this provision for the conversion and reconditioning of houses and we regret wholeheartedly that the Minister did not come to this decision very much quicker than he, in fact has.

We also welcome within the terms of the Bill the loans and guarantees for owner-occupiers and owners. We welcome also the fact that amendments are being made to the 1946 Act, and that there will be extra grants for expensive sites, for allowing local authorities to convert in local materials, stone, etc. Local authorities will also be encouraged to carry out new methods of building. I shall shortly speak about the extent of the sums which it is proposed shall be payable under the Bill to local authorities and to individual landowners. We feel that the Minister has overstepped himself in this sudden conversion towards the property-owning democracy, which he has admitted on several occasions just lately, by subsidising people who are prepared to spend as much as £5,000 on reconverting a house, and that it is hardly justifiable, when local authorities and others are only able to spend——

The £5,000 which the hon. Gentleman mentioned is not to be used for reconversion. It is the limit for purchase alone. The limit for conversion is £600.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pulling me up on that point. The hon. Gentleman is quite correct, and I therefore withdraw what I said upon it.

The hon. Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) has overstepped himself, as he suggested the Minister had done.

So much for the terms of the Bill, which we appreciate. The Minister of Health, like all human beings when they do something good, has not done everything entirely to our liking. I must call attention to one or two of the provisions of the Bill which, despite a very great deal of good advice from us, the Minister has insisted upon retaining. The first thing we are worried about is the failure to concentrate money where it is needed most. By allowing loans up to £5,000 we feel that the Minister is granting money to people who would be capable of providing the money out of their own pockets. When public money is brought into the matter we must be satisfied that it goes to the needier sections of the population and that there is no question of the better-off people getting preferential treatment so long as the requirements of the other people remain unfulfilled.

Would the hon. Member say that the better-off people should borrow money at 4 per cent. instead of being loaned it at 3¼? I want to be clear what the hon. Member is talking about.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not know what I am talking about. I know that it is her view that every person in the community, whether rich or poor, has a right to receive subsidised services out of public money.

This point came up in the Committee several times. I believe that every citizen who pays his full rates and Income Tax is entitled to the benefit of educational and health services, and housing facilities, and to have the advantage of them, or to be served according to his needs.

That is precisely the point. That is the great difference between what hon. Members on this side of the House feel and what those who agree with the hon. Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) feel about it. We feel that those benefits should be given to the neediest section first. If there is enough to go round, I should be prepared to consider the hon. Lady's argument.

There will always be enough to go round if we so regulate our rates and Income Tax that all of us pay according to what we are able to pay. Then with a clear conscience we can take what we are entitled to take.

We have not yet moved into the Utopian world which the hon. Lady has in mind. We are dealing with 1949. This Bill will be on the Statute Book very soon. It is no use the hon. Lady using an argument like that. If all were in a position to pay the same Income Tax, we should all have a right to enjoy equal benefits. We feel that there is a danger that money may be spent out of public funds on people who could be helped from other sources than those of the local authorities or the Exchequer.

Is the hon. Member here referring to loans by local authorities at the Public Works Loans Board rates?

There is an element of subsidy if a local authority is able to lend at a lower rate of interest than the ordinary market interest.

We had this point out at great length in Committee, and I know that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends do not agree with us, but we say that there is an element of subsidy in these loans at low interest.

I hope that the hon. Member will make his speech, if he has the opportunity, a little later on.

The next thing which worries us is that the Minister in Clauses 7 and 8, despite every opportunity given to him by us, is definitely going to allow local authorities to compete unfairly with private enterprise traders. I say that advisedly because the Minister has failed to meet us in what we considered to be a just argument, namely that local authorities must compete on equal terms with private enterprise. We have suggested to the Minister that he should insist upon laying down a definite period within which these local authorities should be able to say that they are running their laundries or their furniture selling businesses on a profitable basis.

The Minister has refused to define what he considers "a reasonable period of years" during which these businesses are to be set up. He has not lived up to the pledges which he and his hon. Friends made on Second Reading when they indicated that they did not wish there to be any element of subsidy in either the laundry proposals or the proposals about the selling of furniture. We regret that nothing has been done in spite of the ample opportunity which the Minister has had to create the effect which we wanted.

The next thing is that the Minister in excluding the tied cottage from the reconditioning grant has, whether he likes to admit it or not, and I know he will not, conferred a definite hardship on a great number of agricultural workers who, because of the limitation imposed by the Minister, will not benefit from reconditioning work which would have been carried out if he had not taken the attitude which he has done.

Does the hon. Member mean that landlords, in the countryside, for example, will refuse to enjoy improvement grants simply because they will not allow their tenants to have the reasonable protection of the Rent Restrictions Acts?

I am saying that there will be quite a large number of landlords who will not accept the provisions of this Measure because they do not wish to untie their houses. Whether they are right to do it or not is another point, but the practical effect is that a large number of agricultural workers will not benefit, whereas they might have done so if the Minister had not excluded the tied cottage from the benefits of the Bill.

The tied cottage is not in the Bill and the hon. Gentleman is out of Order in referring to it.

There are a number of good things in the Bill and a number of bad things. On balance my hon. Friends will support the Third Reading, but we utter one word of warning. This Bill will remain just a piece of paper unless productivity in the building industry is increased. The most alarming thing this afternoon was that the Minister did not restore the over-crowded minimum conditions laid down in Part IV of the Housing Act, 1936. That is significant, because one of the great justifications which the Minister gave in introducing this Bill was that housing conditions in this country were much better after 3½ years of his term of office at the Ministry of Health than in the years before the war. The fact that is has been necessary to waive the conditions of minimum overcrowding, laid down as long ago as 1936, when the wicked Tories were in power, shows what an immense amount has still to be done to provide new homes for the people of this country.

We think the Bill will be a small contribution to the general drive to provide modern homes for our people, but even this small contribution does not alter the fact that we need a radical change in the present housing policy, which is giving little more than half the output from the same labour force at three times the cost compared with the period before the war. That is the blunt fact. Fortunately the sands are running out and, within a comparatively short period, it will be possible to have a Government which really will concentrate on providing houses for the people.

9.30 p.m.

The hon. Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) has referred at such great length to the imaginary flaws and blemishes in the Bill that I put it to the Opposition that there remains only one course for them to adopt tonight, and that is to go into the Division Lobby and vote against the Third Reading. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member gave a very qualified approval to the Bill and then began to talk about its disadvantages. The fact is that the Opposition cannot be honest with themselves to the degree of congratulating the Government when they bring before the House a fairly good and substantial Measure which will alleviate the housing troubles of the population of this country, troubles due directly to the maladministration of past Tory Governments.

If as the hon. Member says these housing troubles are really due to that cause, then the right time to have brought in this Bill was 1945, and not 1949.

In the terms used by my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench, matters relating to the Business of the House ought to be addressed to the Lord President, and I take no responsibility for the programme of the Government in relation to their legislative timetable. The fact is that the Opposition cannot for a moment indulge in this dangerous luxury of recrimination concerning the past, particularly in this matter of housing for the people.

I wish to make reference to two matters. First, I want to congratulate the Minister, if I may, on his handling of the Bill and the acumen and grasp he has shown of legal matters. I also want to pay tribute to his realism on two points, first, in resisting the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) who tried to make a case against grants in a most abstract way. They referred to the Minister's previous arguments in 1938 relating to subsidies of public money going into the landlords' pockets without addressing themselves to the realities of the situation. I am very grateful that my right hon. Friend has resisted these arguments, which certainly do not apply today when the need of the public in relation to accommodation is so desperate. Above all, I wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend on resisting the arguments of my hon. Friend to accept as true today the overwhelming arguments which he advanced in 1938. They were irresistible then, but however eloquent and intoxicating they may have been, the Minister was able to resist them today.

The point which arises out of the grants that are being made to private landlords with which to recondition and improve their properties is a real and vital point in this transition period. It is that if we cannot get landlords, by virtue of appeals or by virtue of permissive legislation, to respond to the needs of the public in relation to housing, or anything else, then we have to bribe them and attract them by making a grant in precisely the same way as we have done to hill farmers and to cotton spinners. I maintain that the Minister is being quite logical and consistent in making these grants to private property owners with a view to their improving their properties and thus improving and providing more accommodation for the people who need it.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned my name, I would like to point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) and I, have not resisted the idea that there should be subsidies. What we have said and have tried to make clear is that the subsidies should be in the form of loans at low rates of interest and not as free grants, which is essentially different in principle.

My hon. Friend knows very well that I repudiated that argument in Committee. I pointed out that if it were to be done by way of loans, very few landlords would take up loans whereas we hope that many will take up the grants.

But this is the warning I want to give to my right hon. Friend in this matter. I believe that the effectiveness of this Bill can be undermined if landlords do not take up the grants. Whatever may be the intention of the Minister, if these grants are not attractive enough to encourage private landlords to improve their properties, a great deal of good in the Bill will be undermined. I suggest to the Minister that at the end of a year after the passing of the Act he should review the position and see how many applications have been made, how many have been approved and how much work in connection with improving property has begun. I believe it is a matter of vital interest and importance to the community. Then if the Minister finds that there has not been a satisfactory response, he knows very well, as he has pointed out in Committee, that the local authorities have powers to requisition the appropriate property and put it in order for tenants. I hope these powers will be used if necessary.

This Bill has eliminated the term "working classes," and hon. Members on both sides of the House approve of it. It has also raised the amount of money which local authorities can lend to prospective house purchasers from £1,500 to £5,000. On that issue there is only qualified approval, and that is on this side of the House. It would appear from those two factors that we are attaching a great deal more importance to the provisions of the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts, and for the first time we are giving prospective house purchasers increased scope by raising the limit to £5,000. We are putting them into a position in which local authorities can compete with other resources in the country whose rates of interest are infinitely dearer—4 per cent. as against 3¼ per cent.—and whose standards of building and surveying have been proved to be worse. Hon. Members may dispute this, but there is the classical case of Mrs. Borders v. the Bradford Third Equitable Building Society which illustrates the point.

For the first time we are able to provide facilities financially better than those of other resources. For this to be effective, however, we must ensure that the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts are operated. The position at the moment is that out of approximately 1,400 local authorities in this country only 684 have taken up the permissive powers in the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts, and of the 684 it is very difficult to assess how many authorities are actually operating the Acts. I once spurred one of my local authorities into action by asking them when they were going to operate the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts. Only tonight in this Chamber I saw a letter which referred to the operation of the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts by one local authority, stating that they had passed all outstanding mortgages up to 1933 to a building society, and that from 1933 onwards they had not operated the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts, neither had they helped a single purchaser to avail himself of the facilities provided by the Acts. That is a Lancashire local authority, and that state of affairs might be found to be reflected on very large scale all over the country.

I suggested that the Minister should advertise or ask the local authorities to advertise the provisions of the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts. He has compromised and is going to send out a circular. I have met people who have not known of the provisions of those Acts. There are many hundreds of thousands of people in this country, possibly would-be purchasers of houses, who do not know of the existence of the Small Dwelling Acquisition Acts. I hope that the circular which the Minister sends out will be a very strong one, but if the response is negligible, as I have reason to believe it will be, I feel that the Minister will not be putting this Bill into effect in its most practical and beneficial form unless he takes stronger action to bring to the notice of the public at large the provisions of the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts. With those reservations I wish the Bill God-speed and I hope it will do a great deal to alleviate the suffering of our people in regard to accommodation.

9.41 p.m.

I do not propose to detain the House for very long, but I want to welcome this Bill because of the increased powers which it gives to local housing authorities. I welcome powers to provide such services as meals and restaurants, laundry facilities and the supply of furniture. This Bill makes it quite clear that the local authorities, many of whom have wanted to do these things in the past, will now have power to do them without the fear that somebody will come along and say that they had no legal power to take this action. I am sure that in many parts of the country these powers will be very valuable and will be well used.

I am also glad that the maximum for loans granted by local authorities has been raised to £5,000, but I cannot for the life of me understand how the hon. Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) can convert that into a subsidy. The people who take these loans will pay interest to the local authority granting the loan, and anybody who has had any experience of the granting of loans by local authorities knows that there is no subsidy from the rates at all. There is a facility, a lower rate of interest, but does anyone object to that? It is quite false to suggest that the increase in the power of the local housing authorities to raise loans up to £5,000 is in any way a subsidy. People will have to pay for it.

I might, perhaps, have been more impressed by the hon. Member's argument if he had said that he was opposed to the giving of free grants to builders and private owners who might do some reconditioning or conversion. He was quite prepared to agree to that, which was quite clearly and obviously a subsidy from the State and the local authority. On the other hand, I did not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain), whose argument, it seemed to me, quite easily might have resulted in an even larger grant to the people who took up what he wanted to be cheap-rated loans for reconversion work.

I am glad that the Bill provides for subsidies for conversion and re-conditioning but, unlike hon. Members opposite, I do not believe it will produce very much more accommodation in this country. The hon. Member for Woodbridge referred to London, but already tens of thousands of houses have been converted in London. I forget the exact figure; I have not it with me. I believe, however, that since the war over 30,000 houses have been converted to family accommodation by the housing authorities in the London area. Although this inducement to private enterprise to do some conversion may produce more, it would be a mistake to suggest that it will lead to a very large increase in the total accommodation for the people of this country.

I want, in particular, to welcome the proposals for hostels. I believe that one of the most valuable pieces of housing work that any local authority in a large town can do is to build hostels for its young single people and for its old people. This Bill provides a special subsidy for it and makes it possible for housing authorities to take the matter up with more energy. Already many housing authorities have given consideration to this matter, but they have been rather shied off by the financial implications. I could not for the life of me understand why the hon. Member for Woodbridge talked as he did about the building trade workers' output since the war. It is quite wrong to blame the building trade workers for there being what he called a 50 per cent. output since the war.

That is the same thing, is it not? The truth is, as the hon. Member said, that we need more houses; but if there is to be an argument as to what has been done I personally am quite content to depend on the figures of homes provided for the people of this country by this Labour Government since the end of the war—nearly one million homes for the people—homes in which they are living now and which were not there when the war ended. If a Tory Government can beat that, good luck to them. At any rate, it cannot be said that some very great effort has not been made in the provision of homes for the people since the end of the war in very difficult circumstances—certainly much more difficult circumstances than those with which any previous Tory Government that I can remember had to deal with in the matter of housing. I, therefore, welcome the Bill, and I hope it will be actively implemented by all the local housing authorities of this country.

9.45 p.m.

I do not wish to detain the House for more than a few minutes, but I should like to put a point of view rather different from that of the hon. Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Hare), who began by saying that if we had had this Measure—which is essentially one of reconditioning—a few years ago, we could have had more houses. His case, as I understood it, was that this was a good Bill, or a fairly good Bill, but that it would have been better if we had had it sooner. My fear is based on the opposite view. On all sides of the House we want reconditioning to be done, but my fear is that this Bill may be a bit premature rather than too late.

Now that we have reached the Third Reading we must realise that once the Measure has passed from us to the local authorities, how good it is will depend on how the local authorities operate it. If I could be sure that there were in control of the local authorities everywhere men like my hon. Friend the Member for Kennington (Mr. Gibson) I should feel safe, because I should know that the local authorities would respect she terms of both the majority Hobhouse Report and the minority Report which I ventured to put in myself. Both reports stressed the fact that still the first priority is the building of new houses, and we must be quite certain that there is labour and material available for normal repairs. Reconditioning has to take its place within that framework, and not oust either new building or repairs.

I am quite happy about this Bill in the hands of the enlightened authorities. I am nervous about it in the hands of some authorities, particularly in rural areas, that have shown a suspicious eagerness all the time for grant-aided reconditioning, accompanied by a suspicious reluctance to get on with the building of council houses to rent to working people. That happens to be a fact. We in committee guarded against the position as well as we could. If it is made quite clear, not only to every kind of local housing authority but to all the housing authority officials, that this Bill is not for making condemned property, or property that ought to be condemned, come within the terms of reconditioning, if we see there is no gerrymandering, and that there must be essentially sound work to last for 30 years, then I think the House can congratulate itself on having done a good job.

We have to be a little careful on this side of the House that we do not forget the great good in the Bill, because there are one or two parts of it on which we had some rather strong disagreement. It was, at least, triangular disagreement, because some of us started by saying that as a general principle we did not like public money being given to private landlords. We think it is much safer in the hands of public authorities that can be called to account. We felt that where landlords were able to do a job themselves they should do the job themselves, and that where they were not able to do it financially, they should be relieved of the responsibility. If that were so in a report dealing essentially with rural houses, this Bill, which deals with both rural and city property, makes it much more complicated.

I, at least, congratulate the Minister that in accepting the principle of grants, he has hedged it round with so many conditions that I do not think any hon. Member opposite has any undue reason to be elated. I think that he has taken good care to see that the advantages are going to the tenant. Twenty years on there may be a new side to all this, but I think that housing will not be a problem that will worry this country if we conduct ourselves at all intelligently.

The last thing that I want to say, because it came up again and again in Committee, about whether I am anxious to see Mr. Rank given a subsidised council house is that my answer is "Yes." I do not see why Mr. Rank or any other man or woman of excessive wealth or their children should be excluded from any citizen facilities. If we really want to get a pleasant democratic Britain and real happiness and to get rid of bad manners and the crudities of class distinction—whether this type of school is fit for some and not for others, and this type of house is fit for some families and not for others —we have so to plan our resources, whether in respect of health, education or housing, that we are providing a choice.

Some people may prefer, although they have great wealth, to live in rented houses. They may be doing a mobile job. Other people, although comparatively poor, may prefer to own their own houses. Surely it is an enlightened and democratic thing to present them with a choice. This Bill, by the loans that it is giving, gives that choice. This is not a perfect Bill—there has never been such a thing as a perfect Bill—and I think hon. Members opposite have more reason to be disappointed with some of its Clauses than we have—but in the main it is a very good and democratic Bill, and it will help enormously in the next phase of solving our housing problems and raising our standards. If we take good care to see that our local authorities are enlightened local authorities, that new houses are still first priority, and that normal repairs must not be kept out of the picture, then we can congratulate ourselves on this Bill.

9.49 p.m.

I should like to answer one or two arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Cannock (Miss Lee). When she was speaking I could not help remembering the speech which the Minister made earlier in this Debate. It was at a time when some of my hon. Friends were moving Amendments asking that the local authorities when arranging for the selling of furniture or the hire-purchase of furniture by tenants, should submit trading accounts for a certain period of years. The Minister on that occasion, castigated us for lack of confidence in the democratically elected local councils. The hon. Lady seems to have an even greater lack of confidence that the local authorities will not abuse the provisions of this Bill by giving licences for reconditioning houses at the expense of their housing programmes.

The hon. Lady has greater faith in her own party than I and many other people in this country. Possibly she would give us the same assurance about the running of the trading accounts in respect of the furnishing of tenants' houses by Socialist dominated councils. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will in his reply say something about the housing record of rural authorities during the last three years, because although I have not got the exact figures with me I think that the hon. Lady was wrong, and that—as I have heard the Minister say—the record of rural district councils is just as good as that of any other councils, whether urban or borough, throughout the country. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give that assurance.

I support this Bill for the same reasons as the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Austin), in that it gives a grant to private owners of property to do reconditioning work, although my arguments for supporting it for that reason are rather different from those which he advanced. He, as I understood it, supported these provisions because he said that the grant had now to be given as a sort of bribe to people to do this work. In my opinion, that is an unfair statement. A grant has to be given today because of the very wide gap between the cost of repair work today and the rents which can be charged, or the increases which can be made, under the Rent Restrictions Acts.

I hope that owners of property are as philanthropic as anyone else. Indeed, there is nothing to stop the hon. Member himself, if he is so minded, using his money to recondition property for no financial return. I would remind him and others that although we often hear about the exorbitant returns which come from the ownership of this particular type of property, these rents are subject to Income Tax, maybe Surtax, and certainly last year to the Special Levy, and today some encouragement is required, if rents are to be kept low, to induce people to repair this property. I think that most fair-minded people would admit that the greatest benefit from these grants goes not to the owner but to the occupier who pays a low rent.

I wish to conclude by saying that on the whole I support this Measure. I, like the hon. Member for Cannock, agree in hoping that it will not stop the new housing programme, because that is more important. Unlike the hon. Member for Stretford, I do know that a great deal of reconditioning is being done today without any grant. I am certain that we can put our faith in local authorities, whether they be Tory or Socialist, to see that the Bill is worked in a proper manner.

9.59 p.m.

In this Third Reading Debate we have had a further presentation of very many of the arguments that we have heard throughout the progress of this Bill. That is, of course, not surprising. We have had put forward from different sides of the House the main objections to as well as the reasons for supporting the different provisions of this Measure. Both my right hon. Friend and I have been pleased at the, on the whole, friendly reception which this Bill has had and at the constructive discussions that have taken place upon it, both in Committee and on Report today. I think we would agree that the Measure we now present for Third Reading is an improvement on the Measure originally introduced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) has again raised the issue which he has put forward on many different occasions: his strong and vigorous opposition to the payment of direct grants of any kind to private owners of property. At the same time he goes on to insist that he would prefer to cloak these grants in the different name of loans at privileged rates. As my right hon. Friend has insisted on many occasions, such privileged rates of interest are nothing more than a grant in a different form.

I wish to make it clear that the reason why I prefer a subsidy in the form of a loan at a low rate of interest is because the State retains the asset, whereas if there is a direct out-and-out grant, it is lost to the State.

One of the great dangers about an indirect subsidy of the form my hon. Friend has suggested is the fact that it is indirect; it is not always clear that the subsidy is being provided. There is a great deal to be said for a direct grant, because everyone knows it is being paid. Furthermore, as my hon. Friends have remarked, these grants have been hedged around with very careful safeguards to ensure that the value inures to the benefit of the tenant, who has been our concern all the way through, rather than to the landlord.

The hon. Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) has raised a series of points which he and his hon. Friends raised during the Committee stage. He has again said that it would have been far more preferable to have introduced this Measure some years ago. We take the view that it would have been highly dangerous to have brought in these proposals before this date. I have some sympathy with some of my hon. Friends who have expressed their doubts as to whether this will not syphon off a great deal of labour and materials which still ought to be concentrated upon the prime and most vital job of providing new houses.

It is true that we must be very careful in the administration of this Measure to ensure that it does not have that effect, because it is still true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) has mentioned, that our most urgent need is for new houses. This Measure will test whether or not there is that pool of labour and materials available in some quarters that can be used for this very valuable work of improving houses, which otherwise might fall into bad condition, to the great benefit of the tenants concerned. My reply to the hon. Member for Woodbridge is that we are convinced that had we introduced this Measure some years ago it could only have resulted in a reduction in the number of new houses that have been built.

I am glad to pay a tribute to the work of local authorities, both in the rural and urban areas, for what they have been able to do. It is perfectly true that there has been a very real development in house building in the rural areas throughout the country. That is clear to anyone who cares to travel about the country today. It is a very encouraging feature, and it is something that offers a real prospect to the agricultural worker to get over his most serious remaining grievance. It is in direct contrast to the new building done in the rural areas in past times. I am very glad indeed that this has been possible in these areas, and I hope it will be possible to continue this concentration upon the building of new houses both in the rural and urban areas. The Bill gives us an opportunity of going further and finding out whether, in certain areas at any rate, it might be possible to do a good deal of useful improvement work without in any way interfering with our prime and most urgent need.

The hon. Member for Woodbridge also, to my surprise, took some objection to our ensuring that loans can now be made by local authorities, either under the Housing Acts direct or the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts, up to a total of £5,000. As my right hon. Friend said at the time, this appeared to him to be a desirable change which he thought hon. Members opposite would wholeheartedly welcome. Instead of that we have found that they are prepared to support loans of £3,000 to £4,000, but not beyond that limit for some curious reason that still to some extent escapes me.

There is also on the benches opposite some objection to proposals that local authorities should undertake the provision of desirable ancillary services which, in my view, make all the difference between monotonous, unimaginative housing development and imaginative and creative housing development. Laundry services, refreshment facilities, the provision of furniture and suchlike are all a natural part of modern housing provision, a necessary and useful part of the social service of housing which the Government are tackling so energetically. We can assume that Members opposite are so anxious to defend the private interest of normal trade channels in the provision of these services that they are prepared to forget very often the needs of tenants of houses and the value that can come from a local authority undertaking the provision of these services in a properly planned way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Austin) referred to the question of advertising the facilities of the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts. He will recognise that not only can local authorities lend money under these Acts, but they can also lend it direct under the Housing Acts. It is our desire to ensure that everyone shall be acquainted with the facilities which these Acts provide and, by administrative action rather than by changes in the statute, we shall see so far as we can that people throughout the country are well informed of the new facilities that are open to them. I do not think they are so ignorant of them as my hon. Friend imagines. Indeed, the great interest shown in this part of the Bill as soon as it was introduced and the great amount of discussion there has been about it show that the public are well informed about the matter.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) that we must keep careful control administratively of this Measure to ensure that the facilities that are made available to private owners of property shall not be abused. We shall certainly ensure that in the administrative measures we take local authorities will be fully advised of the Ministry's attitude.

The Measure itself is inspired by a real imagination and desire for a new constructive drive. The Bill has been welcomed in all parts of the House, for many of its Clauses, and I am quite sure that the provisions of this Bill will do a great deal in future years to ensure that very many people, who would otherwise have to endure very bad conditions in their houses, will have brought to them much needed improvement. This is a constructive Measure, which should be taken together with the general housing provisions that have been made by this Government, and is a continuing sign of our concern for the welfare of the general public and of our continuing understanding of their prime need. I am glad to give this Bill my support in its Third Reading, and I hope it will not be long before it reaches the Statute Book and provides benefits for the general public.

10.12 p.m.

I wonder if my hon. Friend would be good enough to deal with one point, which is disturbing the minds of many Members and the majority of local authorities. I refer to the present interest rates for money lent to councils for housing purposes, and I wonder whether some steps might not be taken to revert to the cheap money policy of 2½ per cent. interest rate on loans, which would have a beneficial effect on the whole housing activities of the various councils. It is obvious that if an increased interest rate is to be borne by local authorities, especially in the areas where they cannot raise a large amount of money on a penny rate, considerably increased amounts will have to be borne, and if the Government will give assistance to these authorities, which need not necessarily be incorporated in this Bill but adopted as general policy devised by the Cabinet, it would be greatly to the benefit of the country.

This is a matter which cannot be discussed tonight, but must be raised on a more suitable occasion. We are not dealing with general interest rates.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.