HC Deb 24 July 1963 vol 681 cc1611-21

10.48 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I am glad of this opportunity because, for the first time, I am speaking in a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill at a reasonable hour of night and, secondly, I am sure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be glad to hear I am not fighting a battle. The battle has been won already. I am concerned only with finding how the detail of the policy affecting people of limited means as laid down in the White Paper is to be put into operation.

I straight away congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on at any rate giving consideration to a section of the community who, I think, have been neglected by all parties and all Governments. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary have imaginative and creative minds, and I am glad to pay them this tribute.

But I want to get clearly on record how my right hon. Friend proposes to implement the rather sketchy plans outlined in the White Paper. I want my hon. Friend to dot the i's and to cross the t's, so that when I fight an election I may be certain that the community realise what they owe to the thinking which has gone on since my right hon. Friend took over the Department of Housing and Local Government.

On 16th July I asked my right hon. Friend a Question to which the Parliamentary Secretary replied: I asked the Minister, whether he will devise a special housing programme for elderly people of limited means who could pay an economic rent without coming under local authority or benevolent society or National Assistance control, planned so as to provide supervision essential to those who are not able to live alone without some care and attention. My hon. Friend replied: I would refer my hon. Friend to the White Paper on Housing (Cmnd. 2050), published in May, which contains proposals for both an increase in subsidised housing for the elderly and the provision of housing at cost rents by housing societies. I have every reason to suppose that the schemes brought forward by housing societies will include some suitable for people of the kind my hon. Friend has mentioned; this is something that my right hon. Friend welcomes."—[Official Report, 16th July, 1963; Vol. 681, c. 39.] I am therefore pleased that tonight I need not fight a battle. I immediately rushed for the White Paper, because I had already seen a summary of its proposals and of all that would be done to help housing a variety of people, including the elderly. I hoped to find a specific paragraph giving details of how this difficult problem would be tackled. I will mention a number of paragraphs but hon. Members need not fear that I shall quote them all; they can all read them for themselves. A number of paragraphs make some reference to the problem, but not in sufficiently precise terms to suit my purpose. I have noted paragraphs 33, 38, 41, 49 and 50.

Paragraph 50 is sub-headed "The Elderly". The White Paper having outlined what will be done for the elderly, the paragraph continued: This is still not enough. Many more houses for the elderly will have to be built, and in greater variety than now to meet their special needs. Many old people find it difficult to live without help in bungalows or flats of the orthodox kind. They may be better suited by grouped flatlets; small places which are convenient and in which whilst still living behind their own front door with their own belongings, they can enjoy the benefit of some communal services maintained by a warden for the whole block. That is very pleasant indeed and it would gain acceptance among people throughout the country.

In all these paragraphs there is no mention of the central organisation which will be charged with the task of finding out the people to be dealt with under these proposals, people who will be only too delighted to learn that my right hon. Friend has thought about them. I was speaking the other day to a friend of mine, a widow of limited means. She lives in a small house of her own. She cannot find anybody to cut her hedge. She cannot find anybody to help her with cleaning the house. She is becoming worried about what will happen in the future. Many people are faced with the same problem. My friend said to me, "The trouble is that everybody thinks that it is sufficient to offer those living on limited means, who do not have to have recourse to the taxpayer, money or tax relief." This is not the solution.

I am very grateful for the fact that my right hon. Friend has thought about this matter. However, it is very important to know how we are to begin to organise life for the people referred to in the White Paper. In all parts of the country there are single persons, widows and married couples living in their houses who are uncertain about how they are to lead happy, contented and secure lives. No guidance is given in the White Paper, except the statement that this will be the responsibility of housing societies. In villages, small market towns, and even large towns, what body will start to find the people who need housing provided for them without recourse to the taxpayers and for which they can pay an economic rent? This is what my right hon. Friend can help me about tonight.

There are masses of retired professional people. There are a large number of people who worked in industry and who saved. There are nurses, schoolteachers, university professors and lecturers. There are widows of Service officers. All sorts of people would like to know how, when and to whom they can make representations with a view to obtaining the benefits of the housing referred to in the White Paper.

I fully realise that the major problem must be dealt with by local authorities, or even by benevolent associations, or even by mutual household organisations. The point about the mutual household organisation is that the people for whom accommodation is provided find themselves isolated in the country, a long way from any town centre. Therefore, the accommodation is not necessarily suitable for them. Benevolent associations will build blocks of flats, and subsidies can be obtained from various sources to maintain the people in reasonable comfort on a subsidised rent. There is local authority Part 3 accommodation. There are aged people's bungalows, which have been so welcome. However, it is difficult to say where one would begin to find an organisation in a town or a village which would seek the people who would welcome accommodation of the type referred to in the White Paper. One does not know whether housing associations would have the time to devote to this section of the community.

I have had the advantage of discussing this matter with my right hon. Friend and I have found him understanding and enthusiastic. I hope that I interpret his view correctly when I say that he seems optimistic. However, I am not one of those who always believes in the optimism of Ministers. I have had far too much experience of the activities of local authorities. I have in mind the situation where a housing association has been set up with the agreement of the Minister and where money has been collected for the purpose of establishing housing accommodation for the elderly, with the assistance of Government grants. Even then local authorities have not met the requests of the housing association. Having been in the unfortunate position of having to press my right hon. Friend on such matters, he has told me that he has no power or that there is nothing he can do to impose his will on a local authority if it fails to play the game.

Now that we are developing this new housing policy, I do not want to find the position of those about whom a great many people care left in the hands of, perhaps, a housing council which devotes most of its time to the other problems that come its way. Despite all the advantages in the White Paper, even if they are all carried to a satisfactory conclusion, I cannot decide what type of body or individual will carry out a survey and then start the ball rolling by providing the essential housing accommodation which will be no charge on the taxpayer or ratepayer but which will bring immense benefit and satisfaction to those who look to the Government for housing security.

I have been concerned about these people for many years. When the White Paper was; published I thought that it contained imaginative proposals. I want to be able to go to the citizen's advice bureau or other body in any area and be able to show that there are concise statements on how to set about getting applications from people, remembering that many of the folk with whom we are concerned are of a retiring nature. They do not like to make a fuss. Often they suffer in silence. Thus the initiative must come from someone, and tonight I want to get this matter cleared up.

I am prepared to accept that my right hon. Friend has this matter in mind. I am proud of my party. When I saw the pocket edition of the housing proposals in a Conservative Central Office booklet I did not find in it a single reference to this section of the community. It occurred to me that if they were not in that booklet, how could anyone expect the various bodies and organisations to which I have referred to delve into the White Paper proposals to find them; that is, with the certainty of being able to build up an organisation which could be of such immense benefit to those living on limited incomes?

I therefore want to be told precisely how my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend visualise this development, so that the details can be circulated to the citizens' advice bureaux and all the other organisations that are interested in these people. I have given my hon. Friend an easy task. The battle is won, and I know that he, my right hon. Friend and all of us feel very deeply on this subject.

11.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) has raised this question, because the White Paper had of necessity to condense some of the details of its projects. Indeed she may be interested to know that the first two or three drafts were about twice as long as the White Paper, which is itself a fairly long document.

My hon. Friend has asked for guidance about how the White Paper's proposals are to be put into practice, and the type of body or individual envisaged to carry out the survey to which she has referred, and so get the ball rolling. My hon. Friend is clearly not concerned with the local authority aspect which, basically, is subsidised housing, or with the benevolent or charitable organisations, such as the Guinness Trust and others, which have for many years made a considerable contribution towards housing those who cannot afford an economic rent. She has rather in mind those who can afford such a rent, even though they are not particularly wealthy.

The clear answer is, as my right hon. Friend has very much in mind, the whole idea of the housing association movement. There are two basic methods by which a housing association can go about its task. One is the co-operative method, where the tenants and the members of the association are the same people. This is probably less attractive to elderly people than it is to younger people because, very often, elderly people will not wish to be concerned with the management of the housing whereas younger people may well be able to take part of this task on themselves.

The housing association method clearly has considerable advantages for old people very largely because they can borrow on their collective security, in which case the age of the tenants becomes of minor importance, whereas this is not so with a building society.

I think that the agency which my hon. Friend has in mind is the National Federation of Housing Societies, which employs a development officer for old people's housing. The development officer is concerned to help the various bodies—nearly all voluntary, such as the Rotary Clubs, the W.V.S. and so on—which are interested in forming associations with a view to meeting the need to which my hon. Friend has referred. The development officer's main task is to try to help these bodies, to put them on the right lines, help them over procedure, raising the necessary finance, and so on, and in bringing together the various people who are interested in helping to meet the needs of the elderly in appropriate ways.

I can tell my hon. Friend that the progress which is being made is encouraging, but of course, as she will appreciate, we have, to date, experience only of schemes under Section 7 of the 1961 Act, under which the sum available was limited to £25 million, and the approach was not specifically directed towards the elderly, largely because at that stage we felt that to give any specific direction with regard to the housing of the elderly might have the effect of making local authorities feel that we were setting up something which would relieve them of the obligation to carry on with local authority housing for the elderly which, of course, is so important for those who cannot afford an economic rent. I am glad to say that, each year since 1950, the number of houses suitable for elderly people as a proportion of the total number built in the country has steadily risen. In 1951 it was about 7 per cent., and in 1962 it was just over 30 per cent. The curve has been even throughout.

In 1962, there was a record number of new housing associations, 85 in fact, and about half of them were aiming to build exclusively for elderly people. In addition to these associations already formed, a number of experiments and pioneer schemes are being worked out, and some of them are very promising. For instance, one proposal is for a housing association to buy up houses which have become too large or too expensive for elderly occupiers and owners to maintain. When a house has been bought, a self-contained flat is given to the original owner, and other units of accommodation are made available in the same house for other elderly people, usually, except in very large houses, single people. This, of course, has a double benefit in that it relieves the owner of the expense and worry of trying to maintain a house which has become over-large, and it also ensures that the house is eventually fully occupied.

Another association is thinking of building blocks of flatlets and of offering tenancies in them to owners of houses which have become a burden to them in one way or another in return for an annuity, and then use the houses for conversion into units for other elderly people. But I think I should perhaps warn my hon. Friend that these ideas have certainly not come to the stage at which an approach could be made to my Ministry. Nevertheless, I think it does illustrate that people are very much alive to the possibilities; they are not being content simply to go on the time worn track of the old charitable societies. They are looking for new ways, and in many cases exciting ways, to help these people, and I am sure that with encouragement and support they will grow into something quite formidable as the new scheme outlined in the White Paper takes over, with more money available and with a central body to help still further.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

My hon. Friend has mentioned these various housing associations. There are, in addition—for instance, in my own constituency, two—elderly people's homes which have been opened by voluntary effort assisted by the local authorities. Is there any means by which all these associations and voluntary efforts are drawn together, so that what exactly the problem is may be known, and people can be accommodated?

Mr. Corfield

There is the National Federation which exists for that purpose of giving individual housing associations a forum where they can exchange experience and at the same time publicising the experience of individual societies which will be of value to others or to the movement asa whole. There is not a national survey of needs in the sense I think perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend had in mind, because housing needs are matters for the local authority, and I do not think there would be much object in duplicating the survey side.

Dame Irene Ward

This is exactly what I do want my hon. Friend to get on to. It is not a question of the local authority. All these people have no desire that it should be.

Mr. Corfield

With due respect, my hon. Friend is taking me up on something I did not say. What I am saying is that the local authorities should be—and in most cases are—the main source of local knowledge. I am not suggesting that it is necessarily for the local authority to house the people she has in mind. I have been trying, indeed, to outline to her the function of the National Federation of Housing Societies in helping to produce this kind of house, which will be managed by the housing association entirely free of the local authority. All I am suggesting is that I do not think it would be the most productive use of the money available to carry out a survey which would largely duplicate the knowledge which we can already get from local authorities. It is a question of the number of old people in housing need. Then, within that, the housing societies and associations will, I have no doubt, be able on a local basis to build up their local associations with fairly full knowledge of the sort of need which exists locally.

But the great thing is to get the associations off the ground, and, as I say, encouraging progress has been made, and I have no doubt that more progress will be made more rapidly as each housing association's experience inspires others to follow. I would remind my hon. Friend of the background and some of the recent history. There are powers in the Housing Act, 1957, whereby local authorities can assist housing associations, and under that Act a housing association may qualify for the subsidy which is available to local authority housing. This is probably, I think, what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) has in mind, that his association, to which he referred, was in receipt of a subsidy, in the same way as local authority housing. This is a means which can be of value, but, clearly, it is not what my hon. Friend for Tynemouth has in mind. I know that the association with which she has been concerned in the past has stood to benefit under the 1957 powers, and I know that she has had an unfortunate experience with it. But this is something quite different from what we have been discussing this evening and from what she is mainly concerned with.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Would my hon. Friend help me on one point at this stage? Has a local authority statutory powers to give what amounts to a mortgage to a housing association of this kind in the same way, particularly on elderly property, as it has power to give a 95 per cent. or even 100 per cent. mortgage to an individual?

Mr. Corfield

The short answer to that is, yes.

Perhaps I may elaborate a little on what has been done up to date. I am informed that of the 2,500 odd dwellings which are to be provided in 44 schemes which have been approved under the 1961 Act, about 10 per cent. are houses which by their size and accommodation and so on are suitable for old people, and they include 214 one bedroom flats and 54 bed-sitting room flats with estimated rents between £3 and £5 a week. There is the W.V.S., which is building a block of 33 bed-sitting room and one-bedroom flats without subsidy for letting to pro- fessional people, which my hon. Friend has in mind. Another association is providing a group of 36 bed-sitting room and one-bedroom dwellings for old people. This will be with a subsidy, and it will be part of a more general scheme including 118 accommodation units—to use a rather unfortunate expression—of all kinds.

So the lesson is being learned that old people do not want to be secluded. I agree that some of the homes that my hon. Friend has in mind are now sometimes rather isolated in the country. Nevertheless, they serve a very valuable purpose. There are many country people who would prefer to live in the country during their retirement and benefit from the additional conveniences there, despite the isolation, rather than in the town, particularly where there is a warden and someone who can provide transport. In some cases these houses have available to them their own cars and chauffeurs. I think they fulfil a very useful purpose, and I hope that we shall not dismiss them as making no valuable contribution.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the general problem which she has in mind is being met. The whole movement is inevitably to a large extent in its infancy. We shall have to see how it develops. But there is no reason to believe that it is not going to get off the ground in a satisfactory manner, and that, indeed, can be seen from the examples which I have quoted, which have come about in the very few years in which loans have been available and the National Federation has been in a position to give the lead that it is giving today. It is a separate organisation from my Ministry, but we help to some degree in financing and staffing it. We keep in very close touch, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to do so, and I shall be only too happy to keep her in touch with developments as time goes on.

The actual formation of a housing association depends on voluntary effort in our villages and towns. I doubt if there is a more valuable social service that any hon. Member could do than to try to encourage and help people to form them and to put them in touch with the National Federation. If they can do so, I can assure them that they will get every help and encouragement from my Ministry. It is something we would very much welcome. The faster is goes the better we shall be pleased.

It is not often that a Minister, albeit a junior one, stands here and asks people to spend Government money but in this case the sooner that £25 million is bespoke, and a good proportion bespoke for this particular class of people, the more pleased we shall be.

Dame Irene Ward

In view of what my hon. Friend said about the National Federation, has he in mind to appoint representatives from the associations to the proposed housing council? Would not he agree that that would be a way of getting this off the ground?

Mr. Corfield

I do not quite follow what my hon. Friend means by "housing council". Does she mean the local authority housing committees?

Dame Irene Ward

I was under the impression from the White Paper that there is to be a housing council of some sort to operate this whole thing and that people would be appointed to it.

Mr. Corfield

My hon. Friend is referring to the central body which will be responsible for the loans to housing associations. That body will no doubt work very closely with the National Federation. I am quite sure that they will work together to their mutual benefit.