HC Deb 26 June 1969 vol 785 cc1857-60
Mr. Lubbock

I beg to move Amendment No. 111, in page 42, line 10, at end insert— 'but where any such payment is made after the commencement of this Act, that payment shall be a charge on the property registered in favour of the local authority in the Land Charges Register and shall be set against any subsequent application for improvement grant by the person who is entitled to an interest in the house, where that person is not the same as the person to whom the payment was made'. This Amendment would be of particular interest to my new hon. Friend who has just been elected for Birmingham, Ladywood—he was declared elected in a poll which represented a 33 per cent. swing to the Liberals, about 55 per cent. of the poll, and I would be the first to express in public my congratulations to him—since it deals with the problem of redevelopment, which has been of great importance in that constituency. We want to see everything possible done to facilitate redevelopment, but do not want to see public money being wasted, as it seems to us is happening under one particular aspect of the Clause.

I wish to explain this matter quite briefly. If a demolition order, closing order, or clearance order is made, a payment is made to the occupier under Sections 30 or 60 of the Act of 1957, or of Schedule 2 of that Act or Schedule 5 of this Bill. After the commencement of the Bill, the order will be determined under the provisions of section 27(2) of the Act of 1957 on the local authority's being satisfied that the premises have been rendered fit for human habitation. It can happen that the local authority is paid compensation in the first place and then has paid a grant of £1,000 or up to £1,200 to render the house fit and is not able to set off the amount of the compensation originally paid against the £1,000 or £1,200 of ratepayers' or taxpayers' money.

The Clause provides that repayment of the compensation should only be made where the owner who received that compensation is still in possession at the time the improvement grant is made. But supposing a person buys a condemned house and then carries out work on it to make it fit with the aid of an improvement grant, then, under the Clause as it stands, the new owner will not be obliged to pay back one penny of the public money originally paid in compensation.

We are greatly indebted to the Town Clerk of Marple Urban District Council, who drew the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) to this potential abuse. He had some correspondence with the Ministry, following which he drew the problem to our attention. To quote one passage from his letter, he says: A possible danger of the proposed changes in housing legislation is that the owner; occupier of the unfit property may accept compensation as an alternative to improving his property; there is nothing to prevent him then selling his property to a third party who is quite entitled to come forward with proposals for improvement with grant aid. The local authority would then incur expenses on a conflicting basis, and he went on to describe how this could constitute a double payment.

We drew the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to this, and he stated in a letter dated 28th March: It is true that an authority may be called upon to make a double payment by way of compensation and improvement grant, but in the nature of things, such cases are likely to be rare and the amount involved in compensation would be quite small". How does the hon. Gentleman know that the number of cases "would be quite small"? I do not know, also, what is meant by "in the nature of things", because there are plenty of "sharks" who would be very ready to acquire properties, have work done on them, and then obtain improvement grants and cause a serious drain on public funds.

The Minister should not write so recklessly of public funds. This reminds me of the housemaid's baby. It did not matter much because it was only a small one. It is an important matter that, if we are to improve properties, we have to ensure that public money is properly spent and that it does not go into the wrong pockets.

I am a little disappointed with his attitude I hope that he will make use of this simple Amendment, which we have put down in an attempt to prevent this abuse from taking place.

Mr. MacColl

If we find, after further consideration of the Bill in another place, that there is evidence of the sort of abuse to which the hon. Member refers, then we would look at it; but my present attitude is this. First, having for the whole of three days been bruised and battered through not having provided for the expenditure of enough money, it is a little disappointing to find that we are now scolded because, in a rather complicated Clause on a fairly narrow point, we are said to spend too much. My own attitude is that I do not think that this will be a very serious abuse.

The object of the Amendment is to ensure that public money is not spent both in compensation for taking a house out of occupation, and for assisting its return to a state suitable for occupation. As we are drawing narrow lines, and there is the case for sticking to a particular point where hardship is said to occur and the local authority is said to gain by not paying so much in compensation, I think we are illustrating the point about the roundabouts and the swings.

If what we propose here is wrong, then I think that my noble Friends elsewhere would see whether they could do anything.

Mr. Graham Page

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for drawing attention to this apparent defect in the Bill. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that if he found evidence of great abuse he would have this corrected in another place. Why "great abuse"? If there is any abuse it should be corrected. As the hon. Member for Orpington said, it is no excuse to say that there may be only a few cases and that it is only, perhaps, a little loss of public money. If any abuse can be proved over it, the Amendment should be made.

This is not a complicated provision. It is simple. All that the hon. Gentleman is asking is that there shall be knowledge to the country that there is this charge on the property merely by registering it as a land charge and then it is taken into account if someone comes along and asks for an improvement grant. It would be a simple procedure, with nothing complicated in it. Even if there are only one or two cases it is worth while putting a simple Amendment like this into the Bill.

Amendment negatived.

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