HC Deb 19 June 1969 vol 785 cc813-23
The Chairman

Mr. Speaker has not selected the Motion in the name of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), that the Bill be read a Second time upon this day six months.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

It is regrettable that when promoting private legislation the G.L.C., which is the largest local authority in the world, certainly in that part of it which is the most progressive, does not have the courtesy to circulate to hon. Members who represent constituencies in the administrative area of Greater London copies of the Bill or an explanatory memorandum to it when it presents it to the House.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the majority of local authorities, when they promote Bills, generally show the courtesy of circulating all Members, whether or not they are immediately concerned?

Mr. Wellbeloved

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not only for supporting me in the Lobby just now, but, after that splendid victory, for elevating me to the position of a right hon. Member. Many large corporations, when presenting Private Bills, are courteous enough to inform Members representing constituencies in the area. I am merely drawing the attention of the G.L.C. to the fact that it should be equally courteous.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

Would my hon. Friend agree that if the burgesses of the G.L.C. have the good sense at the next council election to elect Labour councillors who know how the job should be done properly, this difficulty will be obviated?

Mr. Wellbeloved

I agree.

The point which I am about to make may be controversial. It may even provoke an hon. Member opposite to spring to his feet and say something. This is the occasion on which a warning shot should be put across the bows of the G.L.C. Let there be no doubt that if it introduces doctrinaire party political housing policies for the citizens of London, this House will want to examine in very great detail any future money Bills which are presented to it. If it does not indulge in doctrinaire housing policies, the tradition whereby money Bills go through unopposed can be maintained.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I wish to draw attention to the inadequate provision in paragraph 28 of Part II of the Schedule to the Bill. It makes provision of £20 million for loans to persons or bodies of persons under the Housing Act, 1957. We cannot amend the Bill now and increase that sum, but we should place on record that £20 million in a year for loans to housing associations and individual owner-occupiers and for the improvement of housing is inadequate. London is the great capital centre of the world and it should have a great deal of money available. The G.L.C. could easily lend twice that amount.

I agree that the Government must put some restraint on public expenditure. There is no reason why this money should come from public sources. I regret that the G.L.C. has not shown sufficient imagination to raise this money from private sources. There are almost 8 million people in the G.L.C. area. Countries with populations half that size are able to run their own housing banks and make their own provision for lending to owner-occupiers and housing associations. It is a matter of regret that, in the midst of so much money about in London, so niggardly a sum should be provided for purposes urgently needed in the metropolis.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

On the question of raising money, has my hon. Friend heard the rumours going about that the Greater London Council is dragging its feet on the scheme to build the National Theatre? Would it not be right for an hon. Member opposite, perhaps, to give us some assurance on that point?

Mr. Fraser

My hon. Friend will, no doubt, have a chance to make his own speech if he wishes.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. McNamara

I do not wish to make a great speech on a Measure which does not immediately affect the City and County of Kingston upon Hull, but it is important that hon. Members representing places in what is known euphemistically as the Provinces—though we in Yorkshire know that we lead the rest of the country—should be aware of the attitudes and policies being followed by the present Greater London Council and should be careful lest we tend to follow some of the precedents set by the G.L.C. in the legislation which it thinks necessary to bring in.

The Greater London Council, in the way it treats its council tenants and the way it treats people generally—owneroccupiers and people seeking loans—does badly in comparison with many cities in the rest of the country. Having now accepted on a Division the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), we should be careful not to follow the Greater London Council's idea of proper precedent.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), having kept his hon. Friends here on a Thursday evening to afford them the pleasure of twisting the tail of the G.L.C., which, of course, was the whole object of the last exercise[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—must now afford them a few further moments' entertainment; so we had from him an impassioned few seconds about the so-called doctrinaire attitudes of the Greater London Council. Terms of that kind come ill from the mouth of Socialists. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] On the whole question of housing finance—

Mr. McNamara


Mr. Rossi

No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman has had his fun.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)


Mr. McNamara


Mr. Rossi

I will not give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) has not given way.

Mr. Rossi

If there is any doctrine to be followed in this matter, it is that the local authorities ought to be able to arrange for their own affairs without interference from the central Government. The electors of Greater London elected an authority with an overwhelming majority, to follow a particular policy which was promulgated at the election, and those ratepayers have clearly expressed their views on this matter.

Mr. McNamara


Mr. Rossi

All right. I shall give way now.

Mr. McNamara

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that that was a dangerous occasion of sin to which they succumbed?

Mr. Rossi

I shall not enter into matters of theology with the hon. Gentleman, although our views are not so dissimilar on these.

If we are to have a doctrine on matters of housing policy, it must be that this should be left to the local authority without doctrinaire interference by hon. Members opposite.

After all, what we are quarrelling about is the fact that the G.L.C. has sought to bring up its council rents to a fair rent level. It was the Labour Government who introduced the fair rent system. In the private sector, where fair rents operate, the level of those fair rents is 70 per cent. above the rents of council property. All that the council has been saying in its housing policy is, "Give us leave to raise our rents to the fair rent level for comparable private property, the level which is being fixed by rent officers appointed under an act promulgated by the present Government. If we are allowed to raise our rents to a comparable level, we will try to reduce the appalling deficit of over £10 million which has to be met by our ratepayers."

It is argued that the tenants of council property are not on average economically worse off than the occupiers of flats and houses in the private rented sector who are paying rents on an average 70 per cent. above the council rent structure. Therefore, the suggestion was that over a period of three years, so that the impact would not be too harsh, the level of rents of the Council would be raised gradually so that they would reach the comparable level of the fair rents being brought about by the rent officers.

That would have tremendously helped to reduce the rate burden. It would not have caused hardship, because side by side with that proposal was the proposal for the introduction of a generous rent rebate scheme which would have benefited one tenant in three and produced rebates and benefits to the extent of £6½ million.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is it not true that there is no real need for the increase? Is it not a mere doctrinaire increase? What the council is trying to do is to place upon its own tenants a burden which should be properly shared by all London's ratepayers.

Mr. Rossi

This is not so. There is a very real need for this, because at this very time the council is considering a mid-year increase in its rate because it is unable to balance its budget, taking this situation with the other financial strictures the Government have imposed upon the council.

This is to some extent recognised by the Government. On 2nd April, 1969, the Minister, when he declined to sanction the increase in rents sought by the council, suggested that the way the Council should meet its deficit was by borrowing. It would have to borrow, amongst other things, to pay the salaries of its staff. There are many hon. Members opposite who have great experience in local government affairs.

How many of them before now have heard the suggestion that a revenue item such as that of the salary of staff should not be paid out of current income, but by way of capital borrowing? That is the suggestion which the Minister made to the G.L.C. in his letter 2nd April, when the council pointed out clearly the extent of the deficit that ratepayers would have to meet if it was not given this rent increase. What would be the effect of this capital borrowing? It will merely postpone to a date in the future the payment of the debt and in addition add to its current interest rates of perhaps 9½ per cent. or 9⅝ per cent.

This suggestion is economic nonsense. It is purely doctrinaire policy which is opposing these reasonable proposals of the G.L.C. This is where the doctrinaire element enters the argument.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is it not the case that what the G.L.C. is up to is seeking to place upon its existing tenants the cost of future developments of new estates, which should be carried by the whole body of the ratepayers?

Mr. Rossi

We are talking about the current deficit which we are seeking to meet. These rate increases will merely help to bridge the present gap without taking future expenditure into account. The budget is not being balanced now, it has a shortfall of £10½ million. Either the tenants or the ratepayers have to pay, it must come from one pocket or the other or from an admixture of both.

When we are faced with the situation that the tenants in this kind of accommodation are paying, on average, 70 per cent. below what is considered to be a fair rent, then the question arises that if they are able to afford a fair rent why should they receive this subsidy from others who are perhaps having to pay a great deal more rent than they are? We are talking of rents of £3 10s. a week for three-bedroomed accommodation. This, I would have thought, was a very fair rent. It is the sort of rent that the G.L.C. is asking to charge these people who can afford to pay it. If they cannot, they will get a rent rebate under the generous rent rebate scheme.

There is nothing doctrinaire in that, the doctrinaire element comes from hon. Members opposite who, having forced on the country a prices and incomes policy, having tried to peg wages, have to justify that by saying that they will stop people paying justifiable increases out of frozen income. I have ranged further than I had intended—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Those cheers encourage me because they mean that what I have said needed to be said to answer the nonsense that has come from the other side of the House.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Albert Murray (Gravesend)

We have heard an interesting argument from the other side of the House which seems to suggest that the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) does not want the G.L.C. to get the Bill. He has introduced many doctrinaire Conservative policies, particularly on rents, and has adduced the peculiar argument that if there are bad landlords charging unfair rents the G.L.C. should do the same. He mentioned that G.L.C. tenants were paying 70 per cent. less in rents than people in ordinary rented accommodation. That is as good an argument for bad conditions and high rents as one is ever likely to hear from the Conservative Party.

Mr. Rossi

Either the hon. Gentleman has not listened sufficiently carefully or I did not explain myself sufficiently well. I was trying to say that the level was 70 per cent. below the fair rent level as fixed by independent rent officers appointed by this Government, not 70 per cent. below rents fixed by private landlords.

Mr. Murray

The hon. Gentleman has picked from the air the arbitrary figure of 70 per cent. Would the fact that an independent rent officer has lowered the rent, as has happened, justify a reduction in G.L.C. rents? It is completely unfair for the hon. Gentleman to snatch this arbitrary figure of 70 per cent. from the air and say that is a case for the G.L.C. to put up rents.

During the campaign before the G.L.C elections we were told extravagantly as it now turns out, that the G.L.C. would produce efficiency, reduce rates and do all manner of things, but this is not what they are doing. What they are doing, as many Conservative-controlled councils are doing, is holding council-house tenants to ransom and blaming them for all the problems which individual councils face.

In view of the doctrinaire Conservative arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Hornsey, we might have to consider whether it is judicious to give a Third Reading to the Bill.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Roebuck

I share the misgivings of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Murray). Until I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) I thought that we might let this Measure go through I had not realised what lay behind the Measure until the hon. Member for Hornsey drew the House's attention to the deplorable doctrinaire thinking of the promoters.

The hon. Gentleman argued that the Government were wrong to take certain actions with regard to local authorities. Many hon. Members feel that it is entirely appropriate that local authorities should be allowed to pursue matters which have a purely local significance, and that when local authorities are doing their work properly it is oppressive for the Government to seek to intervene.

As the hon. Member for Hornsey suggested, there are some local authorities, in Greater London in particular, which organise their affairs not so much for the benefit of the local burgesses but in such a way as to set themselves up as rivals to Parliament, and it may be that by passing this Measure we shall be sustaining the Greater London Council in that foolish and unworthy notion. It would appear from the speech of the hon. Gentleman that we are being asked to give the Measure a Third Reading to enable the Greater London Council to pursue certain policies by giving them extra-parliamentary powers. There was no suggestion at the time of the election of the Greater London Council that it would come to Parliament to seek these powers. The candidates said that if Conservative councillors were elected everything in the garden would be lovely, rates would be reduced and services would be increased. There was no word then about the need to come to the House to seek greater powers.

Since the election, the Greater London councillors have found that they cannot fulfil their election promises, and, instead of going back honestly to the electors and saying, "We misled you, we made promises which we cannot fulfil", they are now, by the Bill, seeking to say that it is the fault of the Government, and that Parliament should put matters right by giving the council certain powers. I am not satisfied that Parliament should do this.

Mr. Frederick Silvester (Walthamstow, West)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the G.L.C. is under a statutory obligation to come to the House annually with this Bill, and that it is therefore not seeking powers which were not foreseen at the time of the Greater London Council election?

Mr. Roebuck

I am obliged to the hon. Member, but I am seeking to follow the argument advanced with tremendous skill by the hon. Member for Hornsey. I am following almost exactly the points which he made.

Mr. Speaker

This is not an argument which should be pursued further. All I am interested in is that the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) should relate his remarks to the Bill which is before us.

Mr. Roebuck

May I assure you with great respect, Mr. Speaker, that we are at one in that. I was hovering on the brink in deciding whether I should accept the arguments put so cogently and at such great length by the hon. Member for Hornsey. He suggested that if the House did not give a Third Reading to the Bill the Greater London councillors would be in breach of their election pledges, and I was seeking to show that at that time there was no suggestion that the Bill would be necessary to enable them to fulfil their election promises. We are being asked to approve an excuse for these councillors who have so miserably failed.

In my constituency I remember supporters of the party opposite saying to my constituents, "Return us to the Greater London Council and you will have to pay only an extra 10s. a week and you will be able to own a house." That was the sort of taradiddle that was put round the council estates in my constituency. The hon. Member now seeks to redeem that promise by asking Parliament to pass this Measure.

Mr. Anthony Berry (Southgate)

Would not the hon. Member honour the promises he gave at the time of his election?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will not permit a debate tonight on the last Greater London County Council election.

Mr. Roebuck

Certainly there will be other opportunities for us to engage in that matter. Before I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Hornsey I was disposed to say that we should give this Measure a clear run, but having listened to him—

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

For the sake of accuracy, and since the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) has referred many times to the Bill's being given a Third Reading, we shall not have that opportunity tonight since we are debating the Second Reading.

Mr. Roebuck

The discussion certainly seems to have gone on as long as that because of the meandering speech by the hon. Member for Hornsey. As a result of that speech, before we agree to the Bill being committed my hon. Friends and I should consider the matter very carefully.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I am always glad to rescue my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) from the brink. I should hate to see him do something that he might regret. Despite what has been said, if the Bill were not passed it would not be possible for the Greater London Council to borrow any money for schools, parks or anything else. Some hon. Members might feel that that might be used as an excuse to cut down the services. Certainly it would not enable them to be expanded. I would say to my hon. Friends that in the interests of good government they should allow the Bill to go to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and Committed.