HC Deb 18 November 1952 vol 507 cc1584-7

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

106. Mr. HURD

To ask the Minister of Works if he has reviewed the effects of raising to £200 the licence-free limit on house repairs and maintenance; and if he will now raise the limit still further.

107. Mr. RAIKES

To ask the Minister of Works whether he intends to raise the present limit up to which a private house owner may repair or construct without applying for a licence.

108. Mr. NABARRO

To ask the Minister of Works whether he will give details of the proposed increases to be allowed in industrial building; the method of licence applications to be followed by manufacturers requiring to extend premises; and what variations are to be made in the current licence-free limit of £500 per annum for industrial buildings.

109. Mr. HOLLIS

To ask the Minister of Works whether he will relax or abolish the £200 limit on repair work to houses.

The Minister of Works (Mr. David Eccles)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement about building licensing limits in reply to Questions Nos. 106, 107, 108 and 109.

I have three changes to announce in the licensing system. Early this year the volume of maintenance work of all kinds showed signs of falling off. From 1st July last the free limit for housing and general work was raised from £100 to £200 in a period of 12 months, but this increase did not arrest the decline. I now propose to alter the licensing period to the calendar year. This change will help painters and other building workers for whom there is usually less work in the winter.

The current licensing period, for which the limits are £500 for industrial and agricultural buildings and £200 for all other buildings, will be brought to an end on 31st December next. This means that the full amounts will be available during the period of six months. For the calendar year 1953 the free limits will be for industrial and agricultural buildings £2,000 and for all other buildings £500.

I propose to discuss with the associations of local authorities how we can take full advantage of the savings in administration which these changes make possible.

Mr. Stokes

As this means virtually no limit in private building repairs and puts up the allowance for industry by 300 per cent. over the present allowance, will the Minister say how much extra labour will be required on each of these two groups as a result of these increases? Secondly, will he say where the labour will come from, and thirdly, whether he is satisfied that the necessary materials, including steel, will be available in sufficient quantities?

Mr. Eccles

I do not think that these increases will do more than arrest the present decline in repairs and maintenance. Taking the housing limit, in July and August the local authorities, who act for me, gave licences under £500 for £3,500,000 and only refused licences for £58,000. There is therefore no point in maintaining this apparatus of control.

On the materials and labour points, it follows that if the volume does not increase, and I do not think that it will, there will not be any more materials used. In any case, I hope that all sections of the industry will economise in the materials which are scarce. Steel is not very much used in this maintenance work.

Mr. Stokes

I understand, of course, that if nothing happens, nothing happens. But I understood the Minister to say that he had come to this conclusion in order to absorb what he considered to be surplus labour. What calculation has he made of the probable absorption of labour and where it will come from? The answer that nothing is going to happen does not help me at all.

Mr. Eccles

The point is that I do not wish more men to fall out of work because there is no balance between maintenance and new construction, and I think that this new step in freedom will just about preserve the balance.

Mr. Hurd

Can the Minister, who has reached a very sensible decision, tell us if he has formed any estimate of the amount of administrative labour and paper work that will be saved in the offices of builders, local authorities and his own Department, because that is very important?

Mr. Eccles

Savings are bound to be considerable. How they will be distributed between my Department and local authorities remains to be discussed with the local authorities.

Mr. Gibson

May I follow up the point made by my right hon. Friend? If the change in the limit means nothing, why bother with it? If, as the Minister has said, it is intended to absorb something, it can only absorb either labour or materials, or both. If it does that, in view of the fact that there is practically no unemployment in the building industry, will it not inevitably detract from the labour and materials which must be used in the Government's housing programme and in the rather reduced amount of factory building which is being done these days? If that happens, is it not a bad thing for the economy of this country?

Mr. Eccles

The change means that we can get rid of an apparatus of control without injuring the building industry. The hon. Gentleman, I am sorry to say, is not quite right about unemployment in the building industry. It is showing signs of increasing, and precisely in this field of maintenance and repair. If we are to get the maximum amount of productivity in this industry, then all sections of the industry must have the prospect of sufficient work.

Mr. Nabarro

While thanking my right hon. Friend for the very substantial increase in the licence-free limit on industrial buildings, may I ask him to bear in mind that the controlling factor in these matters today is the fact that industry is paying 70 per cent. of its gross profits in taxation, and that out of the slender resources then available industry will not Spend one penny on putting down an unnecessary brick at any time, even if we take off the limit altogether?

Mr. Mikardo

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that nothing infuriates a family who has been waiting years for a house so much as to see luxury decorating and alterations being done in cinemas, public houses and departmental stores? Will he bear that factor in mind in any future changes that he may make?

Mr. Eccles

I am quite certain that the building industry is not like a factory. It is not possible to shut down one section of the industry and expect the other parts of the industry to continue a high rate of productivity. If we were to allow the small builder, who is so largely engaged on maintenance and repairs and who trains apprentices, to fall out of work, we should damage the rate of house building and of all new construction.

Mr. Hoy

Is the Minister not aware that he could best help the painting trade over the winter months if he could get his right hon. Friends the Minister of Education and the Secretary of State for Scotland to withdraw their orders to schools to cut down on maintenance painting work?

Mr. Eccles

My right hon. Friends have encouraged local authorities to do as much work as they can in the winter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not in Scotland."] I will look into the position in Scotland, but the difficulty is that it is not so easy to do the work in the Christmas holidays as it is to do it in the summer holidays.

Mr. Hoy

Is the Minister not aware that instructions were sent out by the Secretary of State for Scotland to education authorities to cut down on this requirement and that it has resulted in unemployment?

Mr. Eccles

I will look into that point with my right hon. Friend.