HC Deb 09 July 1971 vol 820 cc1745-75
Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 2, line 35, leave out '75' and insert '90'.

The Deputy Chairman

With this we can also discuss Amendment No. 24: Clause 3, page 4, line 15, leave out '75' and insert '90'.

Dr. Mabon

The Minister of Housing and Construction, in a rare moment of partisan displeasure, said that if only we had improved the figures of grants while we were in office things would not have been as bad as they are. I am paraphrasing here, of course. It was said almost sotto voce. It was meant to be a mild criticism of us. I have read through the Housing (Scotland) Bill minutes and, as I thought, there is not a single case of the then Opposition suggesting higher rates.

That may be proof of their public responsibility but it does not mean that the Opposition then were keenly aware of what the Minister now knows; namely, that these figures should be higher. I begin my argument with the proposition, on which we are all agreed, that the present levels should be higher. We are grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Chairman, that we are taking these Amendments seriatim because no doubt each has arguments peculiar one to another.

I am disappointed that the Minister, in acknowledging what my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) argued and what I have tried to argue about the experience of both his Department and the Scottish Office in relation to what has gone on since August, 1969, did not answer the point. He satisfied himself with Dr. Johnson. I like Dr. Johnson, but that is not good enough as an argument. We are saying that the rate of preparing to apply is very important. The Minister gave us no indication how this would influence the amount of money spent.

I cannot talk in absolute terms for England because of Clause 1. I have the English, Welsh and Scottish figures for current expenditure. I cannot give the English position because it is too difficult to break up as a result of Clause 1. I will take Scotland, which is entirely within the Bill and the old Acts which we seek to amend. At the moment planned expenditure for improvements and conversions in Scotland, according to the estimates of the Exchequer, in the current financial year stand at £1,644,000.

I include in that a small item for the improvement of environment of residential areas. According to the Under-Secretary of State for Development, speaking in the Scottish Estimates debate in Committee on 24th June, 1971, the amount of money to be taken up by the Bill within that category spread over the three financial years of 1971 to 1974 was £15 million. That was his estimate of the Scottish position. He qualified it by saying that it depended upon the extent to which local authorities and home owners took advantage of the increased grants and how attractive it all seemed.

I return to the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment during last week's debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) asked him if this money was in addition to the money currently available. The answer was loud and clear. The hon. Gentleman said: Yes, I can give that assurance. That is the position. My understanding is that that is exactly the situation. It is an increase of £46 million …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July, 1971; Vol. 820, c. 842.] In short, there will be an increase from £1,644,000 in the present year to £6,644,000. We do not propose these Amendments in a light-hearted way [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary may have been tempted in Opposition to do so but I never would do so. Our contention is that it is doubtful whether the Government can spend all this money in time. As a Minister I used to resent it bitterly if my budget was under-spent. The thought of money going back to the Treasury after all the bitter fights we had in Cabinet Committees to get it used to nauseate me. Therefore, I did my damnedest to make sure that we spent it, because it was much-needed money. I want this £15 million to be spent, and I believe that if we raise the figure in a short, sharp exercise like this there will be the greatest possible uptake.

2.30 p.m.

I asked the Minister whether he had any information about how long it took for proposals to become real applications. He has not given the information, and I regret that. It must be available in the Department. Can he give us the number of applications in the pipeline? That figure, too, must be available. In the seven days since Second Reading I have contacted the local authorities in Scotland, but they are unable to give me any information about their intentions. The Bill has taken them completely by surprise. I admit that it is not an unwelcome surprise, but they cannot give estimates.

If we are to achieve anything by the Bill, we should raise the rates substantially The attractiveness of the Bill would then be even greater than it was when the Minister proposed it. On what basis of investigation and inquiry in the Department has the fiure of 75 per cent. been arrived at? Was this one of the judgments of Solomon? Was it a guess? Is it just a hope? If so, it is not good enough. Both the English and the Scottish Departments have had a year in which to make a judgment. This is a brave Bill in that it hopes to achieve something in two years. It must therefore be brave enough and courageous enough in the money sense to succeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sal-ford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) will later be talking about Amendment No. 21. I do not wish to impinge on that discussion, but I make a reservation about it. I accept that money can be abused. I should not like the Minister to turn that argument against me. I should like him to confine himself to the point of judgment about whether 75 per cent. is right or whether it should be more than 75 per cent., given that it will be impossible to spend all this money in such a short time. It will be impossible to get in the applications in time to make the Bill work. I should like to know what information there is in the Department to substantiate the Minister's claim.

Mr. Thomas Cox

I am in some difficulty about supporting the Amendment. Our main purpose is to seek to improve housing generally for the people most in need.

We are concerned with two distinct groups of people. There is first the owner-occupier, and I am all in favour of the largest grants being made available to him. I have in my constituency people who have sunk all their savings into buying property and have sought to improve it over the years. It is often their only asset. As they improve their house, the whole tone of the area improves. We should encourage this development.

I am particularly concerned about the second group of people. The Bill does not include London, but it is possible to get 50 per cent. grants in London. This has been done in the London Borough of Hammersmith, in which I lived until very recently and which is represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart). Properties have been bought by people who had no great housing need. They obtained a housing improvement grant and in a matter of months the properties were sold for a very handsome profit or were let at a very substantial rent. This is no way helped to solve the appalling housing problem which existed in Hammersmith and in many other parts of London.

The danger of the Amendment is this. People will take the opportunity of buying very dilapidated property, obtaining a 90 per cent. grant and, in a short time, making a very handsome profit by selling it or by charging very substantial rents. This will not solve the housing problems which so many people face, and this should be our principal consideration.

I hope that the Bill will encourage local authorities to enter into the property market and buy and improve properties and let them to people living in their area. I should warmly welcome a 90 per cent. grant made available to them. There are many responsible housing associations. I should welcome it if they were allowed 90 per cent. grants because whatever properties they are able to improve are invariably let to people in housing need, and this will help the people I see each week who ask for my help in their housing problems.

I should therefore be opposed to the introduction of a 90 per cent. grant if, as is my fear, it were abused by what I term speculators in property. I hope that the Minister will give us a clearer indication of the kind of use to which he would wish to see the grant put, assuming that he is prepared to support the introduction of a 90 per cent. grant. I hope he would ensure that it was used for the benefit of people in genuine housing need.

There is no housing problem in London or anywhere else if a person has sufficient money, if not to buy a property, then to afford the rent being asked. If a person can afford to pay £8 or £10 a week in rent, he can go into any estate agent's office in London and obtain a property virtually overnight. We should seek to help the people who are in the majority and who are hard pressed to pay rents of £5 or £6 a week.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I have come in to the discussions on the Bill at a very late stage, but, having listened to part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon), I am inclined to agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) than I am with him, although I think that their intentions are the same; namely, to improve the quality of what we have chosen to invest in a national social service—and that is what it amounts to.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I was not allowed by the Chair, quite rightly, to develop the argument on Amendment No. 21, although I referred to it. I acknowledged that the later Amendment dealt with the question of standard grants. We are not saying that we are in favour of Amendment without any qualification. The present Act is defective in that sense.

Mr. Hamilton

That comforts me a little.

The Government were elected partly on the proposition that people must stand on their own feet. For them to say, "You are not going to stand on your own two feet. We are going to help you as to 75 per cent. In other words, you will stand on one-and-a-half of your own two feet with the help of the Government", is a strange contradiction of the principles on which they operate. But we understand the contradiction.

In this matter some people cannot or will not stand on their own two feet, and the Government must step in. Nevertheless, the abuses referred to by my hon. Friend are very real ones. They are not less real in Scotland than they are in London; indeed, they may well be worse in Glasgow, in proportion to the population, than in London. We have rapacious landlords, waiting to take over dilapidated properties, obtaining these generous grants and then selling the properties off at extortionate prices or letting them at exorbitant rents. Unless the kind of suggestion mentioned by my right hon. Friend is adopted, offering some protection against abuses, I shall have great hesitation in supporting a proposition of this kind.

Far too little housing is provided by non-profit making organisations—whether local authorities, housing associations or co-operative enterprises. I speak with a little family experience of co-operative enterprise. My daughter obtained a house from a co-operative enterprise in South-East London not many years ago. Its houses were newly built. There was no question of a large deposit or of buying the houses, but for tax purposes the rent paid was treated as if it were interest on a mortgage. That kind of co-operative endeavour should be given far more publicity by the Government and other responsible bodies than has been the case hitherto.

In Scandinavia this kind of enterprise is helping to solve the housing problem far more successfully than we have been able to solve it, precisely because there is this co-operative, non-profit-making endeavour. The Government, tied by their own dogma, are seeking to solve the problem by pouring public money into private pockets with far too little protection against the kind of abuses to which my hon. Friend has referred.

I therefore hope that the Minister will tell us exactly what his views are and how, exactly, he will protect the public purse from the abuses of existing legislation which will undoubtedly be indulged in by private speculators.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Everybody in the House has heard of the Mason-Dixon line in America. Not everybody approves of it; some progressive people object to it. We are not speaking of the Mason-Dixon line today; we have the Dickson Mabon line. Not all progressive people will be bursting with enthusiasm for that either. To be fair to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon), I must admit that he stressed the fact that he would advocate an increase in grant only if certain reservations were provided—notably, some protection for tenants.

Let us take this to its logical conclusion. The landlord's contribution used to be 12½ per cent. I can take the Minister to some fine improvements carried out on that basis in my constituency. Under the 1969 Act the grant was raised to 50 per cent. The proposal that we are considering would raise it to 75 per cent. My hon. Friend would like to see a 90 per cent. grant. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) suggested a 100 per cent. grant. Why not a 190 per cent. grant? Where would it stop.

In questions of supplementary benefits there is the keenest, closest and sometimes cruellist examination of the need of the applicant. There is no suggestion of any such examination for landlords. The landlords of whom we are speaking are not usually needy landlords; they are big property companies. They will receive a hand-out of £1,500. I suggest that we should go easy in this matter. There are other ways of tackling the housing problem without unlimited handouts to landlords.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. Amery

The hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) began by taking me to task for having suggested, earlier, that we were doing something whereas when he and his colleagues had the opportunity they did nothing. He said, "Ah, but when you were in Opposition you did nothing". That is true. We waited until we had power to act. It is only when the right hon. Gentleman is in Opposition that he comes along with the offer of a majestic hand-out.

The effect of the Amendments would be to increase the maximum proportion of standard grants made by local authorities to private owners, owner-occupiers and landlords in England, Wales and Scotland to 90 per cent. of the approved cost of the works undertaken. The Bill already provides for an increase from 50 per cent. to 75 per cent. That is quite a generous increase, which will leave the owner-occupier or landlord to find only 25 per cent. of the cost of improving his house. The landlord or owner-occupier would no doubt be pleased if he had to find only 10 per cent., as proposed in the Amendment. I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman should have discovered this new solicitude for landlords. Is this a bid for the landlords' vote in the development areas?

I am glad that the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) took time off from writing the article that we are all looking forward to reading on Sunday to join the debate to help unmask the plot into which the right hon. Gentleman has been leading us. Bearing in mind that the owner-occupier or landlord is having his property improved it would seem reasonable that he should contribute 25 per cent. To go as far as the right hon. Gentleman proposes and increase the grant to 90 per cent. would accentuate still further the disparity of treatment between development and intermediate areas on the one hand and other areas on the other, which has been criticised by some hon. Members.

Mr. Freeson

Before the Palladium closes down—since the Minister has laid much stress on the point about the suggested additional aid to landlords will he indicate the current level of take-up of grants by landlords? I believe that prior to the 1969 Act coming into effect the estimate was that only 22 per cent. of all improvement grants annually were taken up by landlords. Have we any information about the current take-up for tenanted properties, as distinct from owner-occupier and local authority properties?

Mr. Amery

I cannot give the hon. Member that information off the cuff. I am now advised that the proportion is about one-third. If the hand-out suggested by the party opposite to landlords were followed I am sure that they would be very grateful.

It may be argued that the Amendment simply brings the grant to private owners into line with the Government contribution of 90 per cent. of the loan charges incurred by the local authority in paying the grant. That is a false argument. The object of raising the Government contribution towards expenditure by local authorities from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. is to enable them to give the higher level of grant without putting on them a higher burden than at present—and. indeed, enabling them to reduce it.

For those reasons I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will feel that he need not press the Amendment.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I enjoy listening to the Minister, not only publicly, but privately, when he entertains us with his political ripostes, but that was a completely irresponsible reply.

We are all concerned that landlorded properties should be improved. The Tory Party may believe—although it did not do very much when in office before—that it should improve landlorded properties without conditions. Reference was made in an earlier debate to the scheme which we introduced in August, 1969. One of the first duties of a Minister on taking office is to look at schemes for which he is responsible to see whether they ought to be improved. The Minister's only comment about that scheme was that one or two administrative details were wrong, but nothing born of Statute was wrong. It means that the Minister is content with the proposition about grants to landlorded properties.

From a seated position—I do not criticise him for that—the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture at the Scottish Office said that one-third of landlorded properties in Scotland were improved.

The Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I did not say that that was in Scotland.

Dr. Mabon

If those properties were not in Scotland, the hon. Gentleman should make that clear, because he is here as the responsible Scottish Minister. The figure quoted by my hon. Friend was 22 per cent. in relation to England and Wales. He does not presume to speak for Great Britain in this context. I warn the hon. Gentleman that I have the figures for Scotland.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

In that case, why does the hon. Gentleman not give them to the Committee? The question was asked about England and Wales. If the question were asked about Scotland, I should be delighted to answer it. I understand that the take-up for Scotland is about four-fifths by owner-occupiers, and one-fifth by landlords.

Dr. Mabon

That is not quite right, unless the Under-Secretary of State for Development at the Scottish Office is wrong, because, in the Scottish Estimates Committee on 24th June, he said that the figure for private tenemental homes in 1964 was 900, and in 1970 it was 1,100. Everyone in Scotland knows that the vast majority of landlorded homes are in tenemental properties, and that they are the most difficult to improve. They cause all the trouble. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Cullingworth Report, and at the survey for Glasgow, he will see that the figure is devastatingly bad.

I think that we must deal seriously with this issue of giving money to landlords to improve properties. I do not mind the Minister's banter. In fact, I enjoy it. He is good fun at times, and for the kind of Conservative that he is, he can be very enjoyable. But it is not good enough to answer a serious debate in the lighthearted way that he did. He answered the debate on Clause 1 by saying nothing. The strong case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) was completely ignored. The Minister cavalierly dismissed my hon. Friend's argument.

We are told that the figure of 75 per cent. has been chosen in order to stimulate people to act more responsibly. When I ask why we should not make it 90 per cent., the Minister seeks to summon my hon. Friends to his support against the landlords. My heavens—and I am tempted to go further—that is irresponsible.

I am prepared to say that the grant should be given under stricter conditions. If the Minister were to propose a more responsible Bill, we should be able to add various provisos to it. We shall seek to debate this issue shortly when we come to Amendment No. 21. The Minister has not told us why he has chosen 75 per cent. When we ask the reason for its selection, he should not merely sneer at the landlords and say that they do not deserve any more.

The Minister proposes to allow this increase for two years. In Scotland he will have to spend three times as much as he is spending this year. He must, therefore, receive applications three times as fast as they are coming in now, and they must come in very quickly—almost literally immediately—if we are to get this work done.

I cannot believe that the Minister thinks we are content with the simple answer that he has given. I hope that he will not treat us in this way when we debate the other Amendments, particularly when we debate standard grants for local authorities, and we ask to be told the basis on which they are decided.

I cannot believe that, with the army of officials that he has behind him, and with the advisers that he has, no homework has been done on this issue. I cannot believe that there is not a sample survey in the Scottish Office. The civil servants at the Scottish Office are first-class, and I cannot believe that they have not done a sample survey. Nor can I believe that the Department of the Environment has no information whatsoever to guide it in deciding what to do. I find it breathtaking that we are not given any of the relevant evidence. The Minister is hinting that it does not exist, but I just cannot believe that.

I am sure that there must be evidence for the Government's view. I should like the Minister to tell us why this figure has been chosen, and why they are not in favour of a short sharp measure to improve the situation. I am not saying that this figure of 90 per cent. should be permanent. That is purely arbitrary. It could be 85 per cent., 80 per cent., 95 per cent., or almost any other figure. I do not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) suggests, or as far as saying that it should be 190 per cent., but that is not the point. What we want to know is why the figure in the Bill has been chosen.

The Minister may say that it is an entirely arbitrary figure, that he had a dream one night that it was 75 per cent., but I can hardly believe that even this Government govern themselves by imagination, nightmares and dreams. I cannot believe that.

Mr. Gregor Mackenzie

I can.

Dr. Mabon

I ask the Minister to entertain us on some other occasion, and on this to give serious answers to the questions that have been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury and myself. Why has the figure of 75 per cent. been chosen? Where is the evidence to substantiate its selection?

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown

I do not believe that the Department dreamed up £46 million. Nor do I believe that it dreamed up the development and intermediate areas. It clearly had a strategy which led it to think that this limitation was right in terms of development and intermediate areas, and that £46 million was the right sum of money. Furthermore, it would have had to take the argument further. Having decided on £46 million, it would have to consider how long that would last. Having done that, it has chosen a period of two years. Presumably, work in the pipeline would be cut off if it was not completed within two years. Presumably it does not matter if people cannot start until August or September. What is the information on what the Minister bases his conviction that this will satisfy a particular need and that must be 75 per cent.?

People will be inundating us soon with queries about other matters, such as the price of kangaroo meat. Surely we are entitled to know the answers to these questions. Surely the Minister wants the highest possible amount if his object is to encourage improvements. If we took the average cost of conversion of £3,000 the £46 million would stretch to about 15,000 properties. Have the Minister's advisers shown him that an absolute maximum of 15,000 properties will solve the problem? Or does he expect that it will cost half of £3,000–or twice that amount—per unit?

He cannot argue that he does not have to tell us. This is the House of Commons. He chose to bring forward this Bill with the maximum publicity and he cannot now say, "I am very sorry, but I will not tell you anything. I have laid down the figure at £46 million and I will not tell you who will get it. I have told you that the rate will be 75 per cent. and you must make your own arrangements to find out more." That is not the way to treat the House. We are entitled to know why he decided against 100 per cent. and for two years. Did he just flip a coin? Is this the way to rush through an urgent Bill with restrictions on areas and timespan? Does the Minister believe that another 15 per cent. would take him over the £46 billion so much more quickly?

The more I listen to the Minister the more I am driven to think that I should not support the Bill, because there is more behind it than the Minister has said. If he wants our co-operation, he should give us more facts so that we can decide whether he has been prudent.

Mr. Freeson

Are we not to receive a reply from the Minister to the valid points of policy that have been put to him? Are we, not for the first time, to be treated in this fashion? Some specific requests have been made about points that should be taken into account before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament. They must be considered and replied to by the right hon. Gentleman.

I remind the Minister that we are in Committee. We are not indulging in banter. I trust that if this debate were going on in a small Committee room up- stairs a different atmosphere would prevail. I urge the Government to adopt a more serious attitude and to deal adequately with points put to them.

What estimate of grant take-up gave rise to the figure of £46 million spread over three years in terms of expenditure and only two years in terms of grant applications? These are important matters to which my hon. Friends have referred on many occasions. Such an estimate must have been made, even in broad terms. If not, it is an appalling indictment of the way in which the Government are handling the Bill.

On Second Reading the Under-Secretary said that any Bill of this kind would inevitably be "rough and ready". That was an odd phrase for a Minister to use about his legislation. We demand an answer to the questions we have asked because the matter cannot be left like this.

Mr. Amery

The Committee has before it an Amendment designed to increase the proportion of grant from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. I assume when I look at Amendments tabled by the Front Bench opposite that they are serious proposals made in a serious attempt to improve the Bill. I believe that this one is entirely frivolous—[Interruption.]—that it was not tabled with the aim of improving the Bill and that no attempt has been made to produce calculations to substantiate why the figure should be 90 per cent.

It was fair for the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) to question how I had arrived at my calculations and he deserves, and will receive, a serious reply. But when hon. Gentlemen opposite table frivolous Amendments and make no attempt to substantiate the figures contained in them, they must not complain if they receive an answer which, compared with this Amendment and the way it was moved, was charitable.

The hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury has had more experience of local government than I and knows a great deal of the workings of the central government machine. In a matter of this kind a proposal is made and we consider whether it will or will not increase the take-up of improvement grants, and officials are asked to study whether an increase in the number of applications would result from the proposal. They arrived at their calculations by making comparisons of figures. The 1969 Act has not been in force for very long, but they gave the best advice they could, and on that advice, not always united, we tried to form a judgment.

Much the best answer I can give to the series of questions put by the hon. Gentleman, and to the question to which I should have replied earlier put by the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), is that we will gladly, at stated periods, produce figures of take-up between now and June, 1973. I should not like to commit myself to six-monthly, yearly or other intervals. Whatever the period, the House will be able to see whether or not our calculations have been soundly based. This is much the most honourable way of proceeding in the matter, so that we can be judged by our achievement.

I should like to leave the matter there. I hope that the hon. Member for Willesden, East will not proceed with an Amendment, the need for which he has produced no shred of proof and which he has made very little attempt to justify.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman decides that this is the way to conduct himself in a parliamentary debate. I have been in Parliament for perhaps a shorter time than he, only 15 years, and I have been a Minister for six years, but we all know that Front Bench Amendments can always be divided into two categories. The purpose of back bench Amendments from either side depends on back benchers' own capacities, inclinations, and the like. Amendments tabled by the Front Bench are meant to be voted on as being very sincerely put forward or they are what are called probing Amendments. I had to deal with a series of probing Amendments to the 1969 Measure, and those were withdrawn only after long debate and after I had elicited the facts for the hon. Member concerned. That is all I am asking the Minister to do.

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that this Amendment is frivolous, meriting a frivolous answer, and intends to behave in this way on the later Amendments, he really is asking for it. This is an agreed Measure. It is a Bill that we all want, though there are items in it that we should like to improve. This is not the way for the Minister to conduct affairs if he wants to get the Bill through the House of Commons.

I have asked for facts that we do not have. The right hon. Gentleman forgets that we are not the Government, although we ought to be. It is the Minister who has the facts. If he does not have them in his head, and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does not have them, they can be obtained elsewhere. We ask for the facts. Were samples taken or not? If they were, may we have the evidence? We want to know. If the Minister will not tell us the facts, I will tell him some of the facts that we have. Although they are not complete, it is on that basis that we are arguing the Amendment.

Are the Minister's figures correct? We are not just debating the 90 per cent. or 75 per cent. grant to landlords, but a series of Amendments dealing with local authorities and with owner-occupiers. If the Minister treats us so cavalierly on this Amendment, what will our succeeding debates be like?

The situation in Scotland is very bad, although we are the best of the areas affected by the Bill. In 1964 3,900 private owners got grants. In 1970 the number had risen to 5,800. Everyone will agree that the increase should have been greater than that. Does the Minister intend to treat us frivolously on the later Amendment on this point?

3.15 p.m.

Can we have the facts and figures for England and Wales? In the case of private landlord dwellings in Scotland, it is staggering that there was an increase of only 200 in six years. The figure for Scottish local authorities was 890 in 1964 and 17,508 in 1970. These are figures that we have elicited from the Scottish Minister, who is much more responsible when it comes to giving facts. I ask the Minister for Housing Construction to behave in a similarly responsible fashion and give us facts and figures.

When it comes to making a monetary breakdown, the trouble is that the Bill does affects, not the whole of England, but only parts of England. Any figures that I give are those I have obtained from the Library and other sources and are not necessarily accurate in this context. In a Written Answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) the Minister said this: In the 12 months ended 31st March, 1971, standard grants amounting to £7.5 million were paid to private owners. Discretionary grants amounting to £2.6 million were paid for conversions generally. Comparable figures are not available for work done by local authorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th July, 1971; Vol. 820, c. 376.] I have obtained from the Library a figure relating to England, but I am not sure if the figure relates to England and Wales. This is why it is so difficult for us. That Written Answer was given on 7th July. We were given from 2nd July to 9th July to prepare for this debate. The Library has given me a figure of a total of £19,150,000, which includes money for environmental and residential areas of £150,000. We must go through the exercise of deducting the two latter items from the first item to get at the figure.

This is not good enough. I thought that the Minister would at least tell us, "These are the facts about landlorded grants. This is what is happening. This is the general disincentive. Accordingly, we think—we have done a sample in the development areas—that we should raise it, not to 60 per cent., but to 75 per cent. and there is no case for going higher than 75 per cent." That is the argument which I believe would have appealed to us. I may be wrong and that argument might not have gone down well. However, we shall want that answer when it comes to local authorities and owner-occupiers.

The Minister has run into a major snag in getting this Bill through because of his contemptuous and cavalier attitude. We will not have it. In the interests of the House of Commons I insist that the Minister should seek to reply with facts and figures It is not in my nature to go on in this way, but I do not like the Minister's handling of the Bill.

Mr. Ronald Brown

I am concerned to discover whether this increase to 75 per cent. is an incentive which the Minister believes is necessary to persuade those interested to improve their houses. There has always been a feeling in local government that the £100 grant per house for improving the amenities—the environmental grant—is insufficient. In an area improvement scheme it becomes a much greater problem for local government.

Local authorities are to get only 75 per cent. They must provide car parking, open spaces and a whole range of amenities which go well beyond £100 a unit. Local government wishes to know, therefore, whether the improvement from 50 to 75 per cent. represents just an incentive value or a real attempt by the Minister to look at the environmental grant, as he has been asked to do over many months by the local government associations, in order to make a better deal, as it were, for house improvement. Any housing improvement policy depends upon a successful area improvement policy. One is a precursor of the other. He must address himself more clearly to this issue.

Although I am grateful to the Minister for having been generous in trying to discuss the matter in some detail, we must press him for more information. The figures must be available; they must be part of his thinking. Does the increase from 50 to 75 per cent. represent a straightforward financial incentive? Does it take into account rising costs over the two years, and what sort of projection has been made of rising costs of improvement over the two years? What element of the extra 25 per cent. is sheer financial reward, and how much of it is for providing better environmental services which are an integral part of any housing improvement or area improvement scheme?

Mr. Freeson

The Minister said that he would take seriously—I thank him for it—the suggestion that there should be publication of the figures broken down broadly on the lines which I suggested, but I was a little disturbed to hear him say—perhaps it was just an off-the-cuff reaction—that he would consider it on a six-monthly, yearly or some other basis. The Bill operates for only two years in terms of work take-up and for three years in terms of expenditure. In these circumstances, it will not be sufficient to provide this sort of information on the basis of six-monthly or yearly returns.

It should be perfectly feasible to use the quarterly housing statistics for this purpose. The only qualification here—I made it earlier—is that in the very early stages, that is, for the rest of the year and perhaps early next year, it might be found not possible to give quarterly figures because of the need to build up experience. It should certainly be possible, however, to give a set of figures early next year, say, in the February, 1972, housing statistics, and thereafter on the usual quarterly basis one has for other figures.

If that is not done, there will be inadequate monitoring of an important aspect of policy, although the Ministry has the facilities for doing it. There are the regional offices and there is the collation of information at the centre. I urge that this point be taken seriously along those lines.

Mr. Amery

Before coming to the debate today, I had asked that the statistics for the development areas should be shown separately, but the hon. Gentleman will realise that there is a built-in statistical difficulty in establishing exactly the effect of the Bill, in that one has to make a theoretical subtraction of the amount of development grant which would have been taken up anyway. So the figures will not prove absolutely the effect of the Bill. We shall try to show as best we can through the percentage increases and so on how far the figures reflect the effect of the Bill. We are still working on that and considering how best to proceed.

Mr. Freeson

I can well accept that, and the point I was coming to—it is a variation of the point which I made earlier, and it may be helpful to the Minister—is that one might produce the breakdown not just in financial terms but in the number of improvement grants taken up. Although one has to allow for the problem of subtracting different proportions from totals, if one sees in specific areas a marked rise above the 25 per cent. to which the Under-Secretary of State referred on Second Reading a week ago, then, even if one cannot be exact in one's statistics, one can see an effect which could be attributed at least partly, if not wholly, to the impact of the Bill. To the extent that the margins vary, if they are very narrow we can say that the Bill has been of no effect. If there is a tremendous take-up, as the Under-Secretary suggested will be the case, we shall be able to see that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) specific- ally referred to Scotland, which is totally affected by the Bill. Therefore, it is relatively simple to identify the figures there. He has pointed out that current expenditure on improvement grants in Scotland is approaching £2 million, according to figures given in the Scottish Grand Committee. As a result of the Bill we may expect additional expenditure of about £5 milion out of the £46 million. Are we seriouly being told that within a period of less than a year there will be a jump from expenditure approaching £2 million to expenditure of about £6 million, a trebling within the space of a year?

If the figures I quoted earlier are correct—that the expenditure in 1971 for the whole country is about £22 million—and we expect to have an average of more than £15 million extra, according to the Bill, is the Minister seriously suggesting that within one year there will be a rise from £22 million to £37 million, and more? If so, we are entitled to know the broad assessment that has been made in the Department of the increased number of improvement grants as a result of the Bill. I do not expect the assessment to be exact, because it cannot be. But some calculations must have been made by the Department and in the negotiations with the Treasury before that figure of additional expenditure was approved.

A number of important points of fact and interpretation are involved. They are important not for the purposes of our probing Amendment, and not solely to understand the impact of the Bill, but for all of us, of every political party and none, who are interested in the effectiveness of housing improvements policy in total. I again urge that the House should be given specific information on those points.

Mr. Amery

I do not know whether such additional information as I can give is all that helpful, because by its nature it is provisional. Whilst we have made an estimate of £46 million, the most important, and to me the most attractive, feature of the house improvement grants is that they are by their very nature open-ended. They do not stop because they happen to reach a ceiling, because there is no ceiling.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

What does that mean?

Mr. Amery

If the take-up were to be more than £46 million no stopper would be put on the improvement grants being taken up in the two-year period. They are open-ended in the sense that within the individual limitations there is no limitation on the extent of the take-up. Therefore, the figures are bound to be provisional.

3.30 p.m.

I can give a very rough estimate as to how the £46 million will fall out. I will try to give such breakdown as I can. We think that more of the £46 million is likely to fall within 1972–73 than in either of the years before and after—say, £25 million in 1972–73 with perhaps £10 million in each of the preceding and following years. I do not think that that adds very much to the knowledge of the Committee on the subject. The figures are very provisional. We think that the target will be reached. We are prepared to report to the House at regular intervals so that it can judge as time goes on whether the Bill is having the desired effect.

I remind the hon. Member for Shore-ditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) that this is largely an incentive grant. It is not payment to an exact plan either of houses or of the areas which will benefit. The administration of area improvement depends on the local authority itself. We can only encourage, through our regional offices, as and when the opportunity arises. The take-up of individual grants is partly a matter for individual owners and landlords and partly a matter for the local authorities. But any attempt to calculate this in cash terms is more likely to be misleading than not.

Mr. Gregor Mackenzie

If this is a rough and ready figure and an open-ended commitment, as opposed to what was suggested earlier today by hon. Members opposite, why is the right hon. Gentleman being so difficult in face of the request by local authorities to make this scheme on approvals rather than on completions, and sticking to the rigid 24-month period rather than using a 48-month period?

Mr. Amery

I tried to explain our reasons. We chose a two-year period and preferred to do this on improvements rather than completions because we think that this is a better way of getting a head of steam behind the scheme.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

The right hon. Gentleman has answered one question in a very helpful way but he has not answered the question specifically asked by this Amendment. He has said that we were spending in Great Britain on these works £22 million in 1970–71. The Bill will add a further £10 million in this financial year. Thus, if this scheme is successful, the Government will be spend-£32 million this year. He admits that this is open ended, as it should be. So it is only an estimate. But next year they will be spending not £32 million but £25 million or so from what is allowed in this Bill; in the second year they will be spending £25 million; and no doubt in the tapering year, when the guillotine comes down—in June, 1973–the balance of approximately £9 million will be taken up.

The Minister says that because of the open-ended nature of the provision the figures might be bigger. That would be splendid. As Oscar Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess. No doubt the hon. Gentleman's remarks have been noted by the Treasury, but I am glad of them. But that was not what we were asking about. We asked not about the general picture of working year by year, which he has told us about, or even about his high hopes of doing even better—he has told us that too. What we asked was whether the programme was in balance between one category of grant and another and between one type of person and another.

We want to know whether local authorities are doing well enough and whether they need additional help, we also want to know whether owner-occupiers are doing well enough. We want to know the situation in regard to private landlord tenement properties and other properties and what will happen to the people who live in those properties.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Assuming the Minister is correct and he can pay more than £46 million, it is unlikely that the Treasury would agree to supplement that money. Therefore, does it not follow that anything in excess of £46 million will come from some other fund in the Department, and will this not mean that money which could have been given to our areas, to be excluded from the Bill, will be taken away to fund such other expenditure in these defined areas?

Dr. Mabon

I agree with my hon. Friend, and would remind the House that this matter was raised on Second Reading. We were worried that the Amendment would mean that the money which was to be added to would be taken out of the projected five-year expenditure exercise.

Mr. Amery indicated dissent.

Dr. Mabon

The Minister shakes his head. We know that he is a powerful man in the Government, with tremendous influence over the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it may well be that my hon. Friend's fears are groundless. If this is a bonanza and an addition to the projected figures, we have not had the situation made clear. No doubt this will be referred to again on Third Reading. The Minister has said that this is an open-ended commitment larger than £46 million. I thank the Minister for that.

Mr. Ronald Brown

The Minister said it could be.

Dr. Mabon

As my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) says, the Minister said it could be more than £46 million. We must be fair to the Minister, even though at times he is unfair to us. The figure could be more and we are glad about that, but that is not the purpose of this debate. And, incidentally, the Minister seems to have lost sight of Amendment No. 16, which is a poor little lamb that has gone astray. It will have to be rescued and brought back into the Bill, and we will discuss that matter too. We want to know the balance of the grant and how the grant is to work on the basis of present performance.

Perhaps the Minister might have time to look at these matters in the interval between this sitting of the Committee and the next, because it is clear we are not going to get the Bill as fast as we wanted. The Under Secretary of State must accept from me that we want the Bill, but we wish it to be properly discussed. We are not going to be treated with the contempt that seems to be in order today.

The Minister will have time to go to the Department and to the Scottish Office and to get a breakdown of the facts and figures. It is surely not impossible for the Scottish Office to examine the records of local authorities and others and to give a breakdown of the experience of all the campaigns which have taken place over the last 15 months. We have heard Minister after Minister say that it is his immediate concern to launch a campaign and to stump the country to increase the figures of these improvement grants. I believe that they genuinely want to do this. If they are conducting a publicity campaign about raising the grants why not have a unit in the Department monitoring the rate at which these applications come in?

Mr. Ronald Brown

Does my hon. Friend recall a Parliamentary Answer recently to the effect that the cost of building a house has risen in the last 12 months by £1,180? If that is true it must follow that that sort of increase must be added to these grants. Prices have risen inordinately under the current inflation. We need something written into the Bill to ensure that this is a genuine £46 million.

Dr. Mabon

I agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) made this point on Second Reading. This information is available in the Ministry and the Scottish Office. I know this because the right hon. Gentleman encourages his hon. Friends—and I do not blame him, it is a natural part of original sin in any Minister—to table Questions asking how many improvement grants were agreed in the first four months of this year as compared with the first four months of 1970. Then the right hon. Gentleman gets a supplementary question, congratulating him upon having increased the rate by 8 per cent. in the four comparable months.

The Minister should be able to look at the figures from October, 1969, to the latest convenient date. He should be able to divide them into different sections and see which of the three sections is not doing well. He should then be able to give additional incentives to that section as opposed to the others. What he has asserted in the Bill is that all sections are the same. If they are will he please define them? Will he give us a breakdown of the figures showing that they are all the same? What more simple answer could there be?

I do not believe that they are the same. The figures that I was given in the debate on Scottish housing did not suggest that. They are disproportionate. The local authorities are doing more than the owner occupiers and the owner occupiers are doing far more than those who are obliged to live in slums. If that is so there is surely a case for doing something more for one category as opposed to another. The Minister must give us this information. He may be right. My hon. Friends and I are not suggesting that our Amendment is correct, we are asking for information. We are probing the situation just as the Under-Secretary has done many times, to his credit, in the Scottish Grand Committee and elsewhere.

He received answers in the past from the Department, if not at once then by letter. The Minister may not have the answers today but we would like to have them on succeeding Amendments. We would like him to justify these figures. It is an extraordinary doctrine for a Minister of the Crown to get up and say that the only reason why he should accept an Amendment is that the Opposition can prove the need for it. It is for the Minister to assert that it is right, or to agree that his Bill might be wrong and to take it back or to agree on the spot that the Bill is wrong because the case made against it is so overwhelming. It is not for the Opposition to write the Government's Bills. The Minister is quite wrong to treat us in this way. I ask him to respond to us in this way. If he cannot do it now, because he has not got the facts, then on succeeding Amendments dealing with the 75/90 argument will he give us a breakdown for the whole of Great Britain?

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Amery

The hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) has asserted a very intresting constitutional doctrine—that no Opposition Amendments should be regarded seriously.

Dr. Mabon

I did not say that.

Mr. Amery

Probing Amendments are all right, but they should be presented with a certain gravitas in an attempt to show that there is something serious about them. I have tried to give as much information as I could. Clearly, we shall not complete the Bill today. If there is any additional information which I can give when we meet again, it will be given.

I regret that we have not made more progress. The people in the development areas will know exactly where the responsibility for it lies. I shall take every opportunity to make it clear that the Labour Party is deliberately holding up the passage of a Bill which could be of great help and bring great encouragement to many people. I do not think that we have fallen down in our duty to give the Committee as much information as possible.

Mr. Ronald Brown

On a point of order, Capt. Elliot. Is it in order for the Minister to make such an imputation as he has just made? I have tried to represent the views of local government organisations. They wrote to me because the Government refused to discuss the matter with them. I have checked, and that is what I have been told. I tried to represent the views of a vast number of local government organisations. I have attempted to probe the Government in a helpful manner. It is a little much if the right hon. Gentleman is allowed to say that I have deliberately thwarted the passage of the Bill. That is a disgraceful suggestion.

The Temporary Chairman (Captain Walter Elliot)

That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Freeson

I ask the Minister to reconsider what he has just said. He has not made a helpful contribution to our dscussions. Statements of the kind he has just made do not contribute to the housing improvements campaign, which was initiated not by his party but by the Labour Government. I say that not as a matter of debate but as a matter of historical fact. We have constantly said—and we mean it—that we accept the Bill as far as it goes. But we do not expect to be threatened by that kind of smear remark.

The Minister has said that he will make it clear wherever he goes that the Opposition have attempted to thwart the progress of the Bill and any attempt through the Bill to assist the development and intermediate areas in dealing with the housing improvements policy. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not pursue that line and that he will reconsider his view, because we have tried in Committee and on Second Reading, to seek information in a constructive way. If he has not come prepared to give the detailed answers, which cannot be given on Second Reading but which we are entitled to expect during the Committee stage, the responsibility lies with him.

No one on this side of the Committee has attempted to suggest that the Minister is misleading the country or the House about his intentions or that he is treating the development and intermediate areas dishonestly or thwarting the policy implicit in the Labour Government's Housing Act, 1969, to which this is a marginally amending piece of legislation. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks were most regrettable and are in line with the failure to provide the information which was requested. I hope that we shall get a different approach from him in future.

Let me make one objective fact clear. Whatever the time taken during the proceedings on the Bill, the date of benefit is fixed, and nothing we do to probe the Government's intentions or to change the Bill makes any difference to the situation in the development and intermediate areas. I hope that the Minister will not be so taken with his own anger about being probed on these matters as to make that kind of mistake. The people living in the development and intermediate areas who are following the progress of the Bill, particularly the local authorities, will know the position. Nobody loses by our very careful probing of the legislation, because the Government have, rightly, inserted a date in the Bill. We welcome that. Nobody has queried that we welcome it. Therefore, nobody will suffer as a result of the probing that has taken place in Committee.

Mr. William Hamilton

I did not intend to take any further part in the proceedings until I heard the last and very unfortunate remarks of the Minister about the alleged attempt of hon. Members on this side of the House to thwart the passage of the Bill. We all know that the Minister has a reputation for an arrogance and a contempt of the democratic processes stretching over a long family history. For him to talk to us about thwarting the will of Parliament is a bit much.

If we had thought to do that I could have brought along a team of a dozen of my hon. Friends who could have thwarted the Bill until Kingdom come. We need no lessons on ways of thwarting legislation in this House; nor do we need any lectures by that Minister about the needs of development areas, in respect of housing, welfare milk, prescription charges or anything else. We know our problems. We think we know how to solve them. We think that the right hon. Gentleman has no idea how to solve them. So do not let him come here again with that kind of arrogant remark during the passage of the Bill. We know what our people think about the Government. The people of Greenwich have told the Government what they think about them, and other people will get their opportunity in due course.

Meanwhile, whatever we say this afternoon about the Bill will have nothing whatever to do with delaying its passage. As my hon. Friend has said, the dates are fixed in the Bill. It will be operative from those dates, no matter what we do. All the time that I have listened this afternoon my hon. Friends have simply sought to elicit facts which are known to be in the Department. We had this kind of debate on another major Bill when the Labour Government were in power. We were discussing House of Lords reform. We extracted information which Labour Ministers denied existed in the Department. It is only by the kind of persistence now being shown by hon. Members on this side of the House that that information was finally extracted from the Department.

That is what my hon. Friends have been doing this afternoon—and it is a perfectly genuine, perfectly good and perfectly acceptable democratic process. For the Minister to make the kind of remark that he made in his last few sentences is simply to invite trouble.

Mr. Gregor Mackenzie

Few Bills have started off with quite so much good will as the Bill presented by the right hon. Gentleman. I can only assume from listening to him this afternoon, and from some of the offensive things that he said in his last few sentences, that he simply thought to himself, "I will take this Bill on Friday. One or two people will dander in, listen for a few minutes, and then dander out again "—as we say in Scotland. But many of us who are concerned about housing are concerned not just to come here to listen for a few seconds and clear off.

I can speak only for myself, but I think that the points that my hon. Friends have put to the Minister were put courteously. My hon. Friends spoke briefly. I spoke for about six or seven minutes. I made a point that is very much in the mind of my local authority. It has been concerned about it for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) put similar points. I hope that the Minister will withdraw a remark which was offensive not only to hon. Members but to local authorities and local authority associations which have asked us to make these important points to the Minister.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I apologise for having had to leave the Chamber, but it was necessary to do so because I had to make a telephone call in connection with some important constituency matters.

I am disturbed, on returning to the Chamber, to be told that the Minister has suggested that hon. Members on this side of the Committee are trying to delay the Bill. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that had I wished to delay the Measure I could have spoken for three times as long as I did. I deliberately kept my speech short because it was our intention to see whether the Minister could get the Bill this afternoon.

The fact that the Minister has not got the Bill through today is due largely to his own obduracy. I hope he will recognise that, and that when we return to the Bill on a future occasion we shall get the kind of answers that will enable the Bill to go through speedily because, despite its defects, it is a necessary Measure, and we should welcome its becoming law.

Mr. Ronald Brown

The secretary of the Association of Municipal Corporations has written to say: … but I understand that the remaining stages of the Bill in the House of Commons will be taken on Friday 9th July and that there may still be an opportunity of persuading the Government to consider the introduction of amendments to the Bill during its passage. … I have attempted to raise substantial arguments on behalf of the A.M.C. Local government will not take it kindly that the Government are saying, in effect, that if arguments put forward by local government are raised when the Bill is being considered in committee—and this is necessary because the Government have refused to consult local authorities—that is thwarting the passage of the Bill.

I do not mind what the Minister says when he goes round the country, because the facts will be known. I shall take steps to make sure that the A.M.C. understands what the Minister has said. The implication of the Minister's statement is that local authorities are going to get short shrift from this Government, and that if they want to raise matters in the House they must consult hon. Members on these benches because, if they seek to get hon. Gentlemen opposite to raise matters for them, the Minister will stop his hon. Friends from asking questions. The only recourse open to those concerned is to consult my hon. Friends, because we are not going to be intimidated by the Minister telling us about the power that he has, or by his telling us that we have thwarted the passage of the Bill. The dates in the Bill are fixed, and whatever we say can make no difference.

I hope that in the last few minutes available to him the Minister will think it right and proper to rise and withdraw the remarks which I am sure he made in the heat of the moment.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

The Amendment is in my name, and my choice at this stage is to persist with it and seek to get the answers for which I have asked on four occasions. I have been promised some answers at a later stage. There are other Amendments relating to other matters about which we shall require similar information. I cannot withdraw the Amendment until I know the balance of the figures.

The Committee will note that Amendment No. 16 is yet another Amendment of a similar kind, put down at the last minute, and I cannot amend it now. It will have to be amended on Report, if that is allowed. I cannot decide what to do, nor can my hon. Friends, until we know the figures involved.

I thought that Amendment No. 15 would be regarded as a paving Amendment to enable the Minister to give an answer that would deal with these four Amendments. I have no doubt that had I received the figures for which I had asked I should have been able to withdraw the Amendment and advise my hon. Friends not to persist with the other two, nor seek to alter the Amendment in the name of the Secretary of State. But, in the absence of the figures, I could not possibly advise my hon. Friends to adopt that course. It will be absurd for me to withdraw the Amendment unless the Minister says categorically that the figures for the balance mean that his judgment is right. That is my predicament.

The Minister has sat there quietly while a succession of hon. Members have chastised him for his concluding remarks, which I am sure he now regrets. He has had five gruelling hours. We all get tired, and no doubt that is why he is in a bad temper, but I suggest that he should now rise and apologise for his intimidating and bullying remarks. He should say that he will make every effort to provide the figures and to deal with the succeeding Amendments, and allow us to table other Amendments at a later stage. That is what I am inviting the Minister to do——

It being Four o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.

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