HC Deb 27 October 1955 vol 545 cc384-8
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. James Stuart)

Hon. Members may recall that in June, 1954, I informed the House that I had decided to postpone any review of Scottish housing subsidies until the Government had reached conclusions on the recommendations of the Sorn Committee on valuation and rating. In June, 1955. I announced that the Government had decided to accept the Sorn Committee's Report in principle and to introduce legislation to implement its main proposals, including the abolition of owner's rates. I hope to be able to bring this legislation before the House shortly.

The abolition of owner's rates would, of course, involve a major change in the financial position of local authorities as house owners and would eliminate what in the past had been a substantial factor in the calculation of Scottish housing subsidies. I propose to put in hand, in consultation with the local authority associations, a review of the amount of housing subsidies. This review will be a comprehensive one and will take into account not only the effect of the abolition of owner's rates but also all other relevant factors. For example, it will be necessary to have regard to the fact that the present level of local authority rents is low and that increased rents could be charged which would not be beyond the means of the majority of tenants if the subsidy on all local authority houses—pre-war and post-war—were pooled. Hardship in individual cases could be avoided by the local authorities operating a system of rent rebates.

Legislation will be necessary to give effect to the revision of subsidies but this will have to be deferred until after the Sorn legislation. In the meantime, subsidies will continue at their present level.

As hon. Members are aware the housing position in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales in certain respects. In considering the structure of future Scottish subsidy in connection with new legislation the Government will have regard to special Scottish needs. As the Rent Restrictions Acts extend to the whole of Great Britain, what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has said today about these Acts applies to Scotland as well as to England and Wales.

Mr. Woodburn

While regretting the implied threat that the measures which are to be applied in England will be applied in Scotland, may I say that I welcome the statement of the Secretary of State that he will consult the local authorities? I hope that in that consultation general conclusions will not be arrived at. One of the general conclusions announced by the right hon. Gentleman and by the Minister of Housing and Local Government is not accurate, because places like Clydebank have no pre-war houses left on which to spread the burden. I hope that the variation from local authority to local authority will be taken into account in whatever decision is come to. Can the right hon. Gentleman say when the Sorn Committee legislation is likely to be presented to the House? We cannot discuss these matters, or put questions properly, until we know when that is likely to happen.

Mr. Stuart

I did state that conditions were different in Scotland in certain respects. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that all those relevant factors will be taken into account in discussion with local authorities. I hope that it will be possible to present the Bill within the next two weeks, approximately.

Mr. Elliot

I understand from my right hon. Friend that housing subsidies in Scotland will continue to run at their present level until further notice. In the review which he is to have with local authorities, will the special Scottish features, such as the high degree of overcrowding and the health statistics, be taken into account, and the present policy continued until those features are at least brought down to the level which at present runs throughout England? Further, may I congratulate him on his efforts on behalf of housing in Scotland, particularly in the present Session?

Mr. Stuart

I thank my right hon. Friend for his closing remarks. I assure-him that the factors to which he has referred will be very carefully borne in mind.

Mr. Rankin

It was rather difficult to hear at this end of the Chamber what the Secretary of State for Scotland said. His statement did not get the same attention as was given to the English statement. Is it the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to apply in Scotland the treatment which, as we have just heard, is to be applied in England, either now or in the future?

Mr. Stuart

I tried to make it clear that we cannot review subsidies in Scotland but that a review will be carried out. For the present, in the present Session, it will be the occupation of hon. Members who adorn the Scottish Standing Committee to deal with the Bill on rating and valuation arising out of the Sorn Committee.

Miss Herbison

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement on rent restrictions and all the shocking details that have been given to us by the English Minister—which, possibly, will eventually apply to Scotland—will be regarded, so soon after a General Election, as the greatest piece of political hypocrisy and treachery ever known?

Mr. Stuart

Let me make it clear. I have just said that it is not our intention to handle this matter at present. My right hon. Friend said that the question of rent control will have to be considered and will be considered later, but we are not acting at present.

Mr. Hoy

What does the Secretary of State mean when he says that the Government do not intend to deal with the matter at present, but will deal with it at a later stage? The House would like some elucidation of that point. Does he mean that the Government intend to go ahead in England and Wales, but not in Scotland, or is it not the intention that the other Ministry should deal with it at the present time?

Mr. Stuart

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said towards the end of his statement that since most of the houses to which he referred … are subject to rent control, it will clearly be necessary for us to review the provisions of the Rent Acts. This we shall now do; and shall announce our conclusions in due course.

Mr. Bevan

It was very difficult to understand what the right hon. Gentleman was saying. Does he mean that the same principles are to apply immediately to Scotland as have been announced for England and Wales in regard to housing subsidies?

Mr. Stuart

No, Sir. I hope I made it clear that, owing to the legislation on rating and valuation with which we have to deal this Session, arising out of the Committee known as the Sorn Committee, the subsidy arrangements which prevail in Scotland at present will remain.

Mr. Bevan

Perhaps I may follow that up, because it is very difficult for the House to understand this. There is no reason—no legislative reason—why Scotland should not follow in the same pattern. Are we to understand that the policy is to be postponed for Scotland but applied to England and Wales? If that is so, it will be received with great enthusiasm in Wales.

Mr. Stuart

The whole basis on which our subsidy structure is built in Scotland is to be altered materially by the Rating and Valuation (Scotland) Bill. It is, therefore, not possible to keep in step with my right hon. Friend.

Sir R. Boothby

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the difficulty in hearing his original statement was due largely to the animated conversation of hon. Members representing England and Wales on the benches opposite? Further, is he aware that the decision of the Government to implement the recommendations of the Sorn Committee will be welcomed throughout Scotland?

Mr. McGovern

In connection with this vicious class war that has broken out, with the moneylenders and the landlords against the tenants, can the Secretary of State assure the people of Scotland that he will come down on the side of the tenants and against the landlords and the moneylenders?

Mr. Stuart

I certainly have no desire to come down against the tenants, but I think it is a fair and reasonable proposition that those who can afford to pay an economic rent should do so.

Mr. Bence

If I heard the right hon. Gentleman aright, there is to be some delay before the presentation of a Measure introducing in Scotland the new financial stringencies in regard to the tenants of municipal and private houses. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will go into the matter thoroughly—take his time—and not introduce the Measure until the dissolution of this Parliament?

Mr. Stuart

I have already said that we must first concern ourselves with the Sorn legislation. Thereafter, I will concern myself with the other.

Mr. Ross

Can we be assured that no subsidy changes in Scotland will be made until the Bill arising from the Sorn Committee's Report becomes law? If the right hon. Gentleman gives that assurance it will give us something to look forward to in the Scottish Standing Committee. May I add that we will be very glad to see him there occasionally? Secondly, will he tell us whether the vicious attack on tenants of privately-owned property is likely to take place before the subsidy changes that will follow on the Sorn Committee's Report? Does he anticipate that that will come into force before the other?

Mr. Stuart

I think I made it quite clear that the question of rent-controlled houses must follow, but at present the existing subsidy rates in Scotland remain. The Sorn legislation must be got through first.