Wednesday, 1 July 1942
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister for Local Government and Public Health (Mr. MacEntee): The main purpose of this Bill is to extend the time for the completion of new houses which are in the course of building by private persons and public utility societies in rural areas and the reconstruction of existing houses by small farmers and agricultural labourers,  under the system of grants established by Section 5 of the Housing (Financial and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932. Under the Act of last year, grants were payable for houses which were erected or reconstructed before the 1st April, 1942. The present Bill extends that period to the 1st April, 1943.
Section 3 of the Bill does not relate to the construction of houses, but is intended to enable local authorities to appropriate houses provided by them under the Housing of the Working Classes Act or Labourers Act, for the purpose of accommodating persons who may be rendered homeless by reason of bomb damage, explosions, etc., caused by any foreign agency. As the House is aware, in the letting of such houses the local bodies must comply with certain statutory provisions, and the purpose of this section is to enable them to waive compliance with those provisions in the particular cases which I have mentioned.
Section 4 of the Bill will validate certain grants paid or promised in respect of the erection or reconstruction of houses to persons carrying on the trade of small shopkeeper. The Labourers Act, 1918, extended the definition of the expression “agricultural labourer” so as to include any person not working for hire but working in a rural district at some trade or handicraft without employing any persons other than members of his own family. The interpretation of the expression “trade or handicraft” to include a shop has been held to be unduly wide, and it has been decided that thenceforward a grant could not properly be made for the reconstruction of a shop or shopkeeper's residence. Prior, however, to this decision, grants had been made and undertakings to make grants had been given to persons such as I have described.
The purpose of Section 4 is, firstly, to validate the grants already made and, secondly, to permit us to fulfil our undertakings in the limited number of cases in which such undertakings have been given. I may say that the section will not operate to permit of grants being allocated in any similar case in the future.
Mr. Hawkins: I think that the Seanad, in a general way, welcomes this Bill providing for the payment of housing grants. As one interested in this work, I would also welcome an amendment by the Minister to make it valid for a person carrying on a business or shop to be entitled to receive a grant. I have met a number of cases where people carry on business in a new house, more or less of the workshop type. I have in mind dressmakers, tailors and shoemakers—local people in country districts who carry on those trades. As the Act stands at present, they would not be entitled to a grant if they employ persons other than members of their own families. They would not come within the definition of an agricultural worker and, therefore, would not be entitled to receive a grant. I know one or two cases where there is great hardship— one where a local dressmaker had a new house erected on the understanding that she would be entitled to £80 of a grant. When the inspector came, she was informed that, as she happened to employ one person other than a member of her own family, she was not eligible. I would ask the Minister, if possible, to amend this Bill in the Seanad now, by inserting the word “shop”, so that persons of that kind would be entitled to receive a grant.
We all know very well the great strides that have been made, since the present Government came into office, in housing, particularly in rural areas. On various occasions in this House we have heard talk about the flight from the land. I trace that back to the lack of proper housing. If we look at the question, we find that a young agricultural worker employed by a farmer, when he makes up his mind to get married, finds that the only place he can take himself and his wife into is some slum room in the city, as there is no housing accommodation in the country, for rent or otherwise, to be got. Although in a number of districts the boards of health have made great strides in the erection of labourers' cottages, I can safely say that there is not a county in which a sufficient number  of these cottages have been erected. We know that owing to war conditions it is very difficult to procure housing materials at the present time, but I would ask the Minister to bear in mind the need for cottages and for improved rural housing in general.
The Minister has made a concession to people who have set aside portion of their houses for shops. In that connection there is one question which I should like the Minister to answer. Prior to this, if a man erected a house with a shop attached, it would be necessary to have a separate entrance for the shop. I should like to know if that condition still holds, in order to obtain a grant under this section. In addition to people who were deprived of grants because they set up shops, there was also a number of people who lost grants owing to the restrictions imposed as regards floor area. When the 1932 Act was passed the floor area was fixed at a maximum of 1,250 square feet.
That was afterwards reduced to 875 square feet. Meanwhile a number of people who had begun to build their houses were caught out, because they found that the new regulations prescribed that the floor area should not be greater than 875 square feet. They were informed when the houses were completed that they were not entitled to grants. Quite a number of people had incurred debts and had contracted for the building of these houses on the assumption that they were entitled to the usual grant. As a matter of fact in a number of cases, approval certificates were issued by the appointed officers and on the strength of these certificates people contracted debts. They were later informed after the prescribed floor area had been reduced from 1,250 to 875 square feet that they were not entitled to grants. They found themselves in a very awkward position indeed. I would ask the Minister to consider whether it would not be possible to make a concession in regard to those people. They would not amount to a very large number. I think that at least the people who started work after the approval certificates were issued by the appointed  officers should have their claim for a grant reconsidered. So much for rural housing.
Coming to the question of housing in urban areas, under the 1932 Act a person or a public utility society erecting a house in an urban area was entitled to receive a grant of £70 It was subsequently reduced each year until it was brought down to £45, and for a number of years now these grants have been suspended entirely. While there may be very few people who undertake the erection of houses in urban areas at present, I think it would be a very good thing if these grants were renewed. The Minister perhaps might be able to make a stronger case if the numbers were much greater and the demands on the Exchequer correspondingly higher. I think personally that those who would avail of these grants at present would be very few but, even so, those few should get some assistance by way of a grant. We have undoubtedly made great strides as regards housing, but if we examine the position I think it will be agreed that much still remains to be done. In Galway City, for instance, a number of houses have been erected by the local authority and by private individuals under the Small Dwellings Act. The houses erected by the Galway Corporation were almost entirely given over to people removed from slum areas. That of course is a policy with which we all agree but, at the same time, we find that the young labourer who gets married has no house available and he is compelled to go into a room for which sometimes he pays double the rent he would pay for a house. He remains there until a tenant is removed from the slum area and then he does his best to get into the house vacated by the former slum tenant so that in due course he will be entitled to be regarded as one who should be removed from the slum area to a newly-erected house.
We should endeavour to rectify a position of that kind. To my mind the only way we can do it is by encouraging enterprise or utility societies to undertake the building of houses for people with incomes sufficient to  enable them to pay an economic rent. It is for that reason I urge that the Minister should reintroduce the scheme under which public utility societies or private individuals received grants for the erection of houses for the accommodation of people such as I have referred to. If we leave it to the local authorities, it will be years and years before the problem is dealt with. What we see happening in Galway must be happening on a larger scale in Dublin. As the slums are being cleared, they are being as quickly reoccupied, and this process will go on until the housing problem is tackled vigorously instead of leaving it entirely to public bodies. A question then arises as to the ability of the prospective tenants to pay the rent charged.
I think that we could do two things at the one time in helping to solve that problem. If we undertook the development of housing sites by means of relief schemes, employment would be provided on the one hand and eventually the cost of the house would be reduced, on the other. If we look round our cities and towns we see a number of old derelict ruins. I think that as an emergency measure these old buildings should be demolished and the sites cleared. If there were any trouble in this country, invasion or an upheaval of any description, I hold that these places would be a source of great danger and great hindrance. In cities like Galway and Dublin one sees many old ruins on the point of falling asunder. I think that if we tackled the problem of pulling these down and clearing the sites, we would be providing much-needed employment and, at the same time, we would be preparing for rebuilding when building materials became available. We would be giving useful work at the moment and we would be giving hope to those people who are anxiously looking forward to the time when they may have a home for themselves.
Coming back to this Bill which deals principally with rural housing, I have on several occasions here urged that the question of rural housing should be a matter principally for the Land Commission. After all, the Land Commission  is, as it were, the landlord of rural areas. Yet we see many houses in the country which are no better than the slums in the city. These houses are occupied by small farmers for whom the grant of £80, given by the Department of Local Government, is very little use to enable them to erect new houses, and because of the low valuation and the low value of the land they find it difficult to get a loan. If they get a loan the repayment of it would be a heavy drain on their income, and therefore they are not anxious to undertake the liability. In cases like that, the Land Commission should be either compelled, as a tenant in any house in an urban area would be compelled, to put such a house in order, or, at least, to make the means to do so available to the tenant. I know one or two cases where out of society funds in consideration of the applicant's position and the number in his family, advances of from £10 to £15 were made so that an advance might be secured from the Local Government Department. I suggest that that was done to overcome a difficulty of this kind, and that the Minister or his inspector should be empowered to go with the county medical officer of health and report whether or not an applicant should receive special consideration.
Bad houses have been the cause of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, and if we are going to wipe them out in country districts we cannot do it with hard and fast rules, but if power were given to the medical officer and housing inspector to recommend, in such cases, a larger grant, or instruct the board of health to have a residence built for those people, it would meet the situation. In the case of small holders of land they find that the £80 grant is not sufficient, and as they have not the necessary means at their disposal they cannot get a house under any conditions.
Mr. Cummins: In reference to the extension of benefits under the Housing Acts there is one thing I wish to point out and it is that the county authorities and the board of health  are pushing too far the question of building houses around suburban areas for workers in rural areas. They have the benefit there of sewerage and light and other amenities of the town, but there are many handicaps. There are rural workers living in those houses who are paying as much as 4/6, 5/6 and 6/6 a week for such facilities.
They are not able to pay that rent and there are, consequently, difficulties about it. In most cases they are prohibited from keeping either fowl or pigs. The rural worker contributed very largely to the pig supply in this country, and that has been done away with in the neighbourhood of towns. I know whole families of farm workers living in an urban area who do not rear a hen or a pig. They have in some cases half-an-acre or a rood of ground that could be made available for such purposes, but is lying idle. I think rural workers should have something after the style of the provision made in the West of Ireland where four or five families live in villages, within a short radius of each other, and where they have the social life that is so much prized. I know that there are difficulties in the way and that some farmers do not wish to have many cottages on their land, but that could be overcome.
Much has been said about repairs to houses, and in some counties particularly the local authorities are very much in arrears in that respect. One of them, Wexford, seems to stand out on its own. We have reports that conditions there are very bad. I do not know who is responsible for it, but it is a matter that should be attended to. In the allotment of new cottages power seems to be vested entirely in the county medical officer of health. This, no doubt, relieves the members of the board of health very much, and possibly works out very satisfactorily, but while not due to abuse on the part of an official, but rather to the system, it appears that families may live in a condemned house for a considerable period, and after applying from time to time for new cottages, they find that comparative strangers have come in and got houses. In some cases although a  man is six months resident in a place preference is extended to him over a man waiting five or six years. The local authorities seem to have no say in the matter. I wonder if that is because the county medical officer of health has all to do with the appointment of a tenant. I have complaints from some counties that men have been brought out of the towns and put into the cottages in preference to local applicants.
Mr. Cummins: It is sometimes hard to know when one is in order. Take the houses built by the utility societies. I think that utility societies should be circumscribed in their activities, and that the sites should be approved. I wonder if there is sufficient supervision exercised over those societies to justify the amount of money given them.
Mr. Johnston: I welcome this amending Bill brought in by the Minister for Local Government, because I consider that it is very necessary, and there are very few points I want to make on it. I have some experience of the work of building houses under the Housing Act of 1932. I have been chairman of a utility society since 1930, and we have built over 1,100 new houses under the 1932 Act and amending Acts. I know that there is a limit to what we can discuss or recommend or ask for under this amending Bill, but I want to say— I have already called attention to this matter—that farmers who want to reconstruct their houses are handicapped by the fact that there is a valuation limit of £25. A farmer with a valuation of over £25 cannot get a reconstruction grant at the present time. I want to ask the Minister if it is possible, under this amending Bill, to increase that valuation limit.
In the county that I come from, there are quite a number of farms on the mountain sides with high valuations and very poor land. Those farmers cannot put £100 into the reconstruction of their houses, and I hope it will be possible for the Minister to increase the valuation limit. As a matter of fact, I would recommend doing away with the valuation limit altogether in the case of reconstruction, because farmers with very high valuations will not look for reconstruction grants. If their houses need reconstruction, they will be in a position either to carry out that work or to build new houses.
There is also another case which has come to my notice in my own county. There is one town in County Monaghan ruled by town commissioners. A farmer who has his residence inside the borders of that town is held not to be entitled to get a grant for reconstruction or for building a new house within the borders of the town. He must go outside the town, and build his house out on the farm. I wonder would the Minister consider whether that provision  can be amended? I would very strongly urge the Minister to have amendments inserted to deal with the two matters to which I have referred.
Mr. Tunney: I welcome this Bill. I feel that it is very much justified, because in every county you have a certain section of people who did not heretofore come within the category of the agricultural worker, but what I would be particularly afraid of now is that, by the introduction of this Bill, you will have in every county what happened in County Dublin, where many of those people are already housed, and where the agricultural labourer, who has a very small wage, has to pay the self-same rent. In Garretstown, where the agricultural wages are 33/- a week, the board of health put the same rent on those unfortunate people as on the people convenient to the city who are in receipt of £5 or £7 a week. In my opinion, that is most unfair, and I do hope that the Minister will make some provision to ensure that those who are wholly engaged in agriculture will get some preference over people who are fortunate enough, through a trade or otherwise, to be in receipt of twice, or in many cases three times, the wages of the agricultural labourer. I do not for a moment say any of them is receiving too much.
The next point to which I should like to refer is in connection with the type of individual referred to by Senator Hawkins, that is the person whom the Land Commission does not consider sufficient security for a building grant, and who at the same time does not qualify for a house from the board of health as an agricultural worker. You have in County Dublin, and I am sure in other counties, quite a number of those people who are not able to get sufficient security to erect a house for themselves, and there is no other body in a position to erect a house for them. I should like if something were done to bring in that type of person.
In regard to utility societies, I should like to say to Senator Cummins—I am speaking now as one who has been chairman of a utility  society for ten years—that we have got nothing from anybody. As a matter of fact, we have got very poor grants, and have had certain difficulties placed in our way by other people who might have a personal interest in building houses. I can assure Senator Cummins that at any time he can send along anybody he wishes to inspect the books, and he will find them in order.
Mr. Honan: Under the Principal Act, grants for the extension of small farmers' houses were refused in certain cases. Quite a number of the houses were thatched, and the extensions which were erected were also thatched. They built an additional room on to the house and thatched it in the same way as the main portion of the building. The whole building turned out very symmetrical, but when the inspector came along he deemed that, because the extension was not of stone, slate and tile, the grant could not be awarded. I think that is very irregular, because, when the main portion of the house is thatched, if you add on a room which is roofed with slate or tile, the whole thing would be a most ridiculous structure. In any case, those people were refused the grant. I think the Minister's predecessor at one time promised that the matter would be looked into, but I do not know whether or not that has been done. I would ask the Minister to look into it now, and, if it is decided to give the grants in such cases, I think it should be made retrospective. The matter should be looked into even now, because the refusal of those grants was a great injustice.
Mrs. Concannon: Although the shadow of the emergency lies across this Bill, as we are reminded in Section 3, still it is a very helpful Bill and one in which every woman should be interested. The Minister has reminded us that it is of limited scope but, no matter how limited its scope, it is a step in the right direction. We all welcome the extension of the facilities accorded to private individuals and to public utility societies to assist in the  solution of the housing problem. That is the root of our social well-being. If you have not houses, as Senator Hawkins reminds us, it is very difficult for young people to marry. It is very important that houses should be provided capable of accommodating a family under decent conditions and at such a price that people will be able to pay for them. It is regrettable— this is the point which I wish particularly to make—that persons who have got public grants for the building of houses have set these houses at exorbitant rents, rents that make a heavy demand on tenants. I know several instances of these excessive house-rents. When public grants are given for the building of houses, conditions should be attached to them which would prevent public money from being used by the recipients for profiteering from the necessities of their poorer neighbours. There are many things which I should like to discuss in connection with the construction and reconstruction of houses, but they would not be germane to this Bill. Therefore, I refrain from discussing them. I hope we shall have an opportunity later of discussing housing generally.
Mr. Corkery: A good deal has been done since the passing of the 1932 Act to improve housing conditions, but there are still a great many slums in town and country. In some of the small towns, the slums are, at least, as bad as, if not worse than, those in the big cities. We have done a good deal to improve the conditions of the slum dwellers in the urban area to which I belong and I regret that the Minister has not seen his way—perhaps he would—to increase the amount on which the two-thirds subsidy is payable from £350 to about £400. The cost of building has gone up considerably since the war, but the houses must be built. It will be impossible in urban areas to let houses at a fair rent if all the cost between £350 and the present cost of building has to be met by the council. Building is now costing £50 a house, at least, more than it did. If the two-thirds grant were given up to £400, it would improve the position in  most urban areas. A great many of the urban district councils did not put the Housing of the Working Classes Act into operation, but we did. Unfortunately, some of the people who reconstructed their houses under that Act and who, through a clerical error, were not notified by the clerk of the council at the time, were deprived of the grant. It was no fault of theirs and, perhaps, it was no fault of the clerk. Probably, he had not got a copy of the Act at the time. If the Minister could see his way to change that clause in the Act, he would be doing justice to these people. I appeal to him to increase the amount on which the two-thirds subsidy is payable at present from £350 to £400.
The McGillycuddy of the Reeks: The Preamble to the Bill says that it is designed to “amend and extend” legislation relating to housing. I think that I am relevant in suggesting that the whole of our policy of housing, particularly in the agricultural districts, has been greatly spoiled by the fact that, for financial and political reasons—to get so many houses built at the minimum cost—the three-room house has been the stock article. From the point of view of social betterment, I think that there is nobody here who does not realise the results of this policy. You have your kitchen, sleeping room and one spare room. You have a big family of boys and girls and, as they grow up, it means discomfort for the parents and want of social uplift, if I may so describe it, for the children. The girls are brought into the room of the father and mother or the boys and the father sleep together in one room and the girls and the mother in another. That is not right. It never has been right. When this housing campaign was initiated— when Deputy Mulcahy was Minister for Local Government—I raised this question. I recollect well pressing the matter. It was a question of the finances available at the time. If the Minister cares to look into the matter he may find that this Bill gives him an opportunity to avoid the perpetuation of what I consider is a state of social existence which should not be permitted  longer than is absolutely necessary.
Mr. MacEntee: As I pointed out, the scope of this Bill is very limited. It is intended mainly to extend for another year the time-limit originally fixed by the Principal Act for the building and reconstruction of houses in respect of which grants could be given to private persons or public utility societies. I could not do justice to all the points raised here without going into a very full review of the housing situation and the difficulties which confront us. There are, however, one or two points which I should make clear, because they may, if allowed to go uncorrected, lead to misunderstandings which might result in loss and hardship to the persons concerned. Senator Hawkins seemed to gather from what I said that Section 4 of this Bill enlarges the definition of “agricultural labourer” so as to include shopkeepers living in agricultural districts. The contrary is the fact. It does not so enlarge the definition. It is intended only to validate what has already been done under a misinterpretation of the statutory definition of “agricultural labourer”. It was found, on examination made at the instance of the Committee of Public Accounts, that grants made to shopkeepers under the Labourers Acts were ultra vires.
It has become necessary to introduce Section 4, in order to relieve persons to whom those grants were made, and to relieve persons who had reconstructed their houses upon an undertaking that grants would be made and to validate what has already been done owing to misinterpretation of the law. I would like to make it very clear that people cannot proceed on the assumption that shopkeepers in rural areas reconstructing their houses, and involving themselves in expenses will get a grant under the Labourers Acts. They will not. The definition does not include shopkeepers, whether those shopkeepers employ only members of their own families or whether they employ persons outside their own family circles.
 I should like to deal with the point made by Senator Honan who stated that persons who had enlarged their dwellings by building an additional room and who, to conform with the general structure of the house, had roofed the extension with thatch, were excluded from the benefit of the reconstruction grants. Again, that is done under statutory authority, and I have no power under this Act to amend it, and I doubt whether I would find it possible to approach the Minister for Finance, even in normal circumstances, for his agreement to the promotion of legislation making it permissible to give grants in relation to thatched houses.
The general view of the Department is that, from the point of view of public health, thatched houses should not become general again throughout the country, and whether that is a well-founded view or not, it is, at any rate, the principle upon which we have been proceeding. It must be remembered that one of the main purposes of the housing programme has been to improve public health and the health of the individual citizens by providing them with dwellings which are generally regarded as being sanitary, and, at any rate, a preventive against the spread of disease. I am afraid—again I am speaking in this matter as a layman—that the prevailing medical opinion is that a thatched roof dwelling is not the best. I am not saying that in particular circumstances, where the thatch is well maintained, and the house is properly looked after, it does not make a sanitary roof but, we have to look, not at particular cases, but at the general situation, and to base our opinions upon facts derived from general experience.
A number of other matters were argued by Senators but, there, in relation to those I have to say this, that at the present moment, due to a variety of reasons, the principal of which is that supplies of building material available are strictly limited and have, in fact, been mainly appropriated for national uses—purposes of defence and ancillary purposes — it would not be possible to go ahead with a large-scale  housing drive. We have also to bear in mind in that connection that the Exchequer is passing through a very difficult time. The demands which are made on it are numerous, and the demands made on the taxpayer to keep the public purse filled are also very heavy. It is very unlikely therefore that the Minister for Finance, whose consent to public expenditure is an essential prerequisite to the introduction of a Bill, would agree that I should in any way amplify or extend the very wide provisions of the existing housing code.
Of course, there are many things it would be desirable to do, but we cannot, in that connection, leave out of account the fact that for all the houses that have been built during the past ten years the burden is now falling with increasing weight every year upon the Exchequer. This year, under that subhead, Subsidies to Local Authorities for Housing Grants, the Estimate for my Department amounts to over £600,000 more than the whole cost of the Department of Local Government and Public Health, when the then Minister for Local Government and Public Health, the present Minister for Finance, took over that Department ten years ago, and these liabilities, even without the additional houses, are going to increase from year to year. In addition, we have to provide for many other social services, for the reconstruction of our schools, the maintenance of our hospitals, and make provision to deal with all these diseases which undoubtedly may be fostered and fed by existing housing conditions, but which, at the same time, seem to be not entirely conditioned by these things, and which affect all sections of the population alike, and for the proper treatment of which demands are beginning to be made upon us in increasing numbers, to an increasing extent.
All these matters have to be attended to. We have done a great deal for housing. When times are more propitious, we will do still more, but we must remember that this is only one of a number of demands for social improvement and social amelioration that have to be considered,  and that the public purse and the taxpayers' and the ratepayers' ability to meet all these demands is strictly limited. It is much more limited now than it was in 1938, and I, personally, hold the opinion, whether well-founded or not, that when this war is ended and peace is restored, our financial and economic ability to deal with these matters may be still further diminished. Accordingly I have to look at these things in that light. It may, perhaps, be that these apprehensions of mine will turn out to have been not well-founded, but still I think these are doubts which I think must be present in the minds of all of us and I am suggesting this to all our people: it would be better if we really tried to realise that probably all the things we think desirable and all the social ideals we wish to realise may be very much more difficult in the future than they have been in the past. However, I suppose when the future comes we will know better the extent of our resources, and we will be able to shape our policies accordingly.
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