Debate on the Address.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am ar 6 Tachwedd 1928.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Sir Francis Fremantle Sir Francis Fremantle , St Albans

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee (Mr. Scrymgeour) has mentioned a point that naturally comes home to all of us who are keen on the health of the nation. It is the question of the Factories Bill. I think we are bound to consider that we are dealing with it on non-party lines because of the encouraging words which we have heard from the Prime Minister, who, definitely recognising the fact that he had made a pledge and acknowledging it with all that straightforwardness that we are accustomed to expect from him, points out at once the fact that he has not been able to find time for the Bill. I cannot help still hoping that, by the help of all those well-wishers of factory and workshop legislation on both sides of the House, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, who from the very bottom of their souls are keen on getting this legislation through, may yet be able to find time for this much-needed Measure before the end of the present Session. Hon. Members on the opposite Benches, no doubt, recognise that a great deal of the congestion of business depends naturally enough upon the amount of congestion which is caused by the Opposition. Although one does not want to rub it in too strongly, I am sure that hon. Members must recognise that the whole of the programme of social legislation during this Parliament has been upset by the days of the coal stoppage and the general strike, which put back the hands of the clock as regards time for years and years and, as regards money, the recovery and financial possibilities of this country, for an indefinite time. It may have been necessary for hon. Members on the opposite side of the House to take the line which they took in support of the general strike at one time and of the coal stoppage at another, but they must recognise that their attitude proved to be one of the strongest obstacles in the way of helping social reform in Parliament that any Government has had to encounter.

I am quite certain that hon. Members opposite are sincere in their wish to help housing reform, but I want them to recognise the equal sincerity which exists on this side. From that point of view, I want to mention two or three points that occur necessarily to anyone who is in the position that I am of being Chairman of the Medical Committee of this House with regard to the position created by the Gracious Speech to-day. We have had in the Gracious Speech no reference to matters of health and no references to housing. It is proposed in the Gracious Speech that the Measures to be introduced for local government will enable better provisions to be made for the health of the people. This is not an encouraging feature to those who are keen on this or that particular measure of progress, still less as there is no mention of the question of housing. Therefore, I hope that I may deal briefly with the position, especially as it has been amplified by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister in his statement just now. The Prime Minister referred in a passing sentence, of which, no doubt, some hon. Members took notice, to the fact that we should have to deal with the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. That Bill includes provision far the continuance or non-continuance of the position of rent restriction. Rent restriction goes to the very bottom of our difficulty in connection with slum property and slum treatment. It was recognised as being such a serious impediment to progress at one time that in 1923 the Government appointed a Departmental Committee, and, on the Report of that Committee, acted there and then, with the result that the Act of 1923 was put on the Statute Book. That has been postponed again and again, although the Act of 1923 was a very moderate Measure resulting from a study of the conditions of the time. It proposed that straight away there should be a certain change and that, as soon as you get rent decontrol, there should be a further period of five years of modified control.

Now what is the position? Year after year, because of the difficulties, because of the objections of one side or another, this matter has been postponed. What is happening with regard to houses? Development of estates is being delayed because of the exceptional instances of control in the hands of people, whom even the hon. Member who laughs would have no excuse whatever in defending. The present state of affairs is causing in- equalities to owners and it is causing unjust profiteering on the part of tenants against sub-tenants. The Departmental Committee that dealt with this matter represented the Labour party as well as the other parties in the House, and the Report, if hon. Members will refer to it, recognised—even if hon. Members over there do not yet recognise—the inequalities of rent restriction and control and the need of decontrol. The minority of the Committee pleaded for a longer continuance of control than did the majority Report and they proposed that the control should last until 1930. 1930 is approaching us. I am going to ask for the concurrence of the different parties in this House in getting back to normality, which must be gradual, in the matter of housing and estate development; in the matter of decontrol on one side and desubsidising on the other, and in dealing with the slums in the third place. I believe that we have a consensus of opinion on all these matters, which obviously have to be carried out gradually.

We have heard nothing to-day with regard to the question of the removal of the subsidy. It is vital to the housing movement to economise our resources, and there is no question about it that a great deal of the subsidy on houses let at over £1 1s. a week is being thrown away at the present time. There is an abundant reason why the subsidy should be further knocked off houses of higher rateable value. I have asked that we should see to it that decontrol and desubsidising should march simultaneously. Keep your subsidy for houses of, say, 15s. a week rental, but above that level we should not waste our money and should not keep on control. If we did this there would be a considerable amount of money set free to be used for purposes for which it is wanted. By relieving the subsidy on the more expensive houses, which are being adequately provided by private enterprise, there would be set free more money with which we should be able to subsidise slum clearance and to embark upon schemes for providing cheaper houses.

We have had this promise again and again—no reference to it is made in the Gracious Speech—to deal with slum clearance. It is a pledge and a promise upon which we have been relying. The Prime Minister said in December, 1924, within a month of this Parliament being elected, that we have to get rid of two things—the shortage of houses and the disgrace of the slums. That is a perfectly genuine feeling on his part and on the part of right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House and of hon. Members in other parts of the House, and yet the solution tarries. I believe that we can have a solution of these matters if we will keep together these measures of decontrol and desubsidising, and if we realise that along with these measures we must get down to the actual building of houses for the people for whom they are wanted.

There are two other matters which have been left over until this last Session of Parliament for which we have been asking for legislation and for which legislation is urgently required. The Report of the Lunacy Commission which came out, I think, three or four years ago, dealt with a system which is insufferably hard upon a large number of mental cases. Many of us have intimate knowledge of the unfortunate cases which require to be dealt with. The subject was dealt with thoroughly in the Report of the Royal Commission and I believe there is no question as regards the kind of provision required to be made. It is requisite that we should be allowed to treat the early cases of mental illness like other cases of illness, without the necessity of certifying them for ever as lunatics. On that point I hope that we may find time for legislation in this Session or, at any rate, that we shall be pledged to do it before another Parliament carries it through.

There is one further point. I do not think hon. Members realise sufficiently, and therefore it is our duty to remind them of the fact, that the country is suffering at the present time from a vast outbreak of a preventable disease which could be prevented at any time and which, according to law, should be prevented but which has not been prevented—a disease which may at any time land us in disaster. I refer to the exceptional outbreak of smallpox at the present time. Owing to one factor or another the outbreak has been of a very mild kind and we are banking on the idea that it is a mild type of the disease and that it is not going to flare up into anything serious, like the small pox outbreaks of the past. But we of the medical profession can give no such assurance. We as a community are sitting on a volcano which may flare up at any time. The matter in its technical aspect was referred to a Committee which reported early this year, but the result of the Committee's findings necessitated further research and investigation, and still we are sitting on the volcano, waiting. I am afraid that it has been the history of many diseases in past times that people have laughed and smiled and did not realise the seriousness of the situation. When the volcano bursts they turn upon us and say: "Why did not you tell us in time?" We tell you now.

Before we can be sure of what action is to be taken I am glad to say that the powers that be are consulting in the widest possible way, as should be the ease, under the aegis of the health organisation of the League of Nations. A Committee has been formed to study this matter internationally. This country, which generally prides itself on its pre-eminence in the matter of health, is damned as regards smallpox. We are, of the chief civilised countries in the world, at the present time one of the countries most infected with smallpox. Other countries know that we are most behindhand in the application of vaccination and in that they recognise disaster for themselves and the necessity of keeping up thir quarantine measures against us. I hope that we may be able to find them some proper solution of this matter very soon. I am not one of those who believe in compelling people to take measures that are good for themselves unless they definitely refuse to look into the evidence and accept it, and do what is necessary. The public have to be considered.

In this connection, I think we have reason to be encouraged by the proposals that have been foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech with regard to local government reform. Up to the present time, due to a strange anomaly, the matter of vaccination has been left in the hands of the Poor Law Guardians and that of small-pox in the hands of the sanitary authorities. In future, under the proposed reform of local government, vaccination will fall into the hands of the larger authorities, the county and county borough councils who, I hope, w ill be able to look at the matter in a fresh light and possibly find some means of getting over the trouble. That it will require legislation is a certainty, and that is one of the necessary pieces of legislation which we hope to see carried through before the end of this Parliament. I hope that this measure of local government reform which is foreshadowed may be, as it should be, of immense value in improving the machinery of our public health organisation. Amongst the difficulties foreseen, however, is that by the abolition of the Boards of Guardians we may be losing an immense number of persons whose experience and good will has been invaluable in the past and may still be and should be invaluable in the future. I hope that in the Measures which are to be passed we shall retain all that is of great value in the present Poor Law Guardian system and that at the same time we shall help forward that co-ordination of the machinery which has been long delayed and is most vital for the efficient working of the machinery for improving the housing of the people.