Lords Amendment No. 27: In page 39, line 26, at end insert:
(6) This Part of this Act shall come into force at the expiration of a period of one month beginning with the date on which this Act is passed.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)
I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this Amendment, I understand that it will be 1616 convenient to discuss Lords Amendments No. 31, No. 39 and No. 102.
§ Mr. Anthony Crosland (Grimsby)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are you in a position to tell us how many Amendments there are involving Privilege? That surely will affect our voting at 2 a.m.
§ Mr. Eyre
I understand that the Opposition wish to have a wide-ranging debate in respect of this group of Amendments. I deal with them with near formality in order that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction may reply fully to the debate.
The Amendments have the effect that, with the exception of Parts III and IV and a minor provision in Schedule 8, the Bill will come into force two weeks instead of one month from Royal Assent.
Part III of the Bill willcome into force one month after Royal Assent, and so also will Clauses 37 and 47 in Part IV, dealing with local authority applications and succession rights. Clause 41, dealing with the cancellation of registrations, will come into force on 1st January, 1973, at the same time as the rent agreement provisions in Clauses 42 to 45.
§ Mr. Dick Leonard (Romford)
Can the hon. Gentleman enlighten us as to the bloomer that his right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction must have committed to bring the non-playing captain on to the field at this stage?
§ Mr. Eyre
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to deal with this Lords Amendment, we shall be able to move on to a useful debate rather than waste time.
The Bill requires certain housing authorities to increase the rents of their housing revenue account dwellings in the first rental period beginning on or after 1st October, 1972. It requires all housing authorities to introduce a rebate scheme not later than 1st October, 1972. The period between Royal Assent and coming into force is to be reduced to give the authorities concerned more time to make the necessary preparations to enable them to comply with the duties imposed by the Bill. In particular, most 1617 authorities are already required by law to give tenants on weekly or fortnightly tenancies four weeks' notice of any rent increase.
The one-month's gap between Royal Assent and the coming into force is being retained for Parts III and IV of the Bill. In so far as these Parts relate to the law governing the position between private landlords and private tenants, it is right that the full month should be allowed.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Crosland
The Under-Secretary of State was rather sharp with my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard). However, I, too, want to welcome the Secretary of State to our debates and thank him for taking time off from giving interviews to The Guardian, writing to his friend Mr. Hyams, and other critical activities like that, to come here to attend to the nuts and bolts of housing policy.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker): I so missed the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) throughout our debates on the Local Government Bill that I wanted to see him.
§ Mr. Crosland
Unlike the Secretary of State, I attended the Committee stage of one out of two of the Bills. I was prevented from attending two out of two only by my physical incapacity to be in two Committee Rooms at the same time.
As the Under-Secretary of State has said, Lords Amendments No. 27and No. 31 make no difference to the Bill. However, Amendment No. 102 is a crucial one which was introduced at a very late stage in another place, taking both Labour and Liberal Oppositions completely by surprise. It brings forward the date on which the central provisions of the Bill applying to the public sector come into force from a month after the Royal Assent to a fortnight after it. So far from giving authorities more time, it brings further pressure to bear on them to comply with the rigid time table laid down in the Bill. I say flatly that this time table is quite impossible and will lead to complete chaos. This Amendment, seeking to tighten the screw still further, is wholly unacceptable.
1618 We do not know when the Royal Assent is to be. It could be any time from tomorrow onwards. Let us assume that it is tomorrow. The Bill will come into force a fortnight later, on 9th August. During that fortnight, the Bill must be printed with all 169 Lords Amendments and any others which may be made tonight. The Bill must be distributed to local authorities, unless the Government's industrial relations policy has caused even more strikes in the meantime. The Bill must be considered carefully by officers and elected representatives in authorities.
The Bill comes fully into force, assuming the Royal Assent tomorrow, on 9th August. By 1st September the basic decisions must be made—whether a Section 62(4) application has to be made, though that may have been decided already, what the rent increase is to be on 1st October, and whether the 10 per cent. margin on rent rebates is to be exploited; the rent rise notifications must be printed and dispatched, the rebate forms must be printed and dispatched, and the explanatory leaflets must be printed and dispatched—all, in effect, between 9th August, by which time the Bill will scarcely have been received in local authority offices, and 1st September.
The fact is that it cannot be done and will not be done. The Minister must accept the fact. It will not be done as neither councils nor officers will have time to digest and comprehend the Bill before they take these final decisions.
Lord Drumalbyn, in the House of Lords on 12th July, said that this argument was not important. Discussing this precise point about the timetable, he said:what would be a reasonable time—admittedly a minimum reasonable time—for the consideration by the local authorities, bearing in mind the very close way in which, of course, they had been following the Bill and the legislation.Later the noble Lord repeated that the Billhas been very closely followed….Some"—authorities—are very familiar with it: others perhaps not so much so.I should say they are not. I shall return to this point.So I do not think this is an impossible task."—[Official Report, House of Lords. 12th July. 1972: c. 264–5.]1619 I wholly disagree. One cannot closely follow, let alone act on, a Bill which is being continuously amended as this has been, starting with the famous Newcastle Amendment in February and concluding now with no fewer than 169 Amendments coming from the House of Lords. Authorities have not even now got the Bill in its final form. Even hon. Members, if they go to the Vote Office and ask for a copy of the Bill, are liable to be offered one of two versions, and not only a single one. It is a waste of time for local authorities to study the Bill, or any Bill, which is not in its final form. To act on a Bill not in its final form and to take decisions on it is foolish in the extreme, to put it mildly.
One has only to consider the sad cases of those authorities which decided, anticipating the Bill, on a 50p increase in April before digesting the implications of Clause 62(4). So it is wrong that authorities should be asked to rely on an unamended, uncompleted Bill.
Many, perhaps most, authorities wisely have not done so, and for another reason: that every local authority association, even looking back to the days, a few months ago, when the AMC was Tory-controlled, has persistently hoped and argued for major amendment of the Bill.
As late as 23rd June, the AMC wrote to hon. Members generally saying:As you know, the Association has always maintained that in this Bill the Government are attempting to do too much too quickly. Or, more correctly, they are asking too much of local authorities and particularly their staff. I need not tell you, of course, that it is not only a question of the Housing Finance Bill. Local government accepts and is prepared for the implementation of major reforms at different periods in its history. But to impose upon staffs a major reform in housing at the same time as major reforms in the organisation of local government itself, health services and the water and sewage services, is to place upon local authority staff unreasonable burdens and stress.If Lord Drumalbyn doubts all this and thinks that all local authorities are fully prepared, having followed the Bill through all its stages, he should get out of London and go round the country. He has only to talk to councillors and officers, particularly of smaller authorities, to find that they are still in a state of confusion about the Bill. He has only to read the article by Muriel Bowen in last 1620 week's Sunday Times, the Local Government Chronicle or the Local Government Review. I will not read them out. I can pick out hundreds of articles in the local government Press One, from the Local Government Chronicle, talks about the unreasonable burden this timetable imposes on local authorities. In any case, even if these authorities had been following the Committee stage of the Bill day by day—God help them if they had to do so—and had studied it as closely as Lord Drumalbyn thinks, it would still be hopeless to choose August as the month in which these crucial decisions have to be taken. After all, very few councils meet between 9th August and 1st September. A large proportion of local authority staffs are on annual leave during this period. Incidentally, as I have already pointed out, these are the same staff as are trying to follow the intricacies of the Local Government Bill and prepare for a smooth local government reorganisation. Do the Government seriously intend to disrupt and dislocate the whole of the summer leave programme of both officers and councillors throughout the country? Apart from the impossibility of the time involved, this surely shows a typical lack of consideration and courtesy.
However, even if none of these matters I have mentioned was of any reality or relevance, there would still be complete confusion over Clause 62(4). I said in the debate on the timetable Motion that not a single borough treasurer in England or Wales knows where on earth he is in consequence of Clause 62(4).
I will not go over the history of Clause 62(4). We had the Newcastle Amendment starting at 10 per cent. Within a few hours that was amended to make it 2 per cent. We then had the Birmingham application and the rather Delphic utterances of the Minister for Housing and Construction on Third Reading. Things were confused enough already by then, but now they are even more chaotic.
I will summarise the position for the convenience of hon. Members. I understand that 21 inquiries under Clause 62(4) have been made public. I am told that in total 50 inquiries have been made. We have had 11 replies to such diverse places as Birmingham, Newcastle, Hammersmith, Seaham, Seaton Valley, Fulwood, 1621 Islington, Bromley, Brent, Huddersfield and Dudley; but those replies, so far as I have been able to read them, make confusion worse confounded. The replies are extraordinarily vague about the criteria which the Minister has adopted in making his decisions. There is a lot of vague discussion about the relationship between gross rateable values and public and private rents, what it is, and what it should be.
The letter addressed to the director of housing in Birmingham was ambivalent on the significance to be attached to the level of wages. However, I was glad—I underline this—that Lord Sandford in the House of Lords made it clear that the level of wages in the locality was a relevant factor within the terms of the Bill.
Apart from the criteria, the amounts awarded appear utterly arbitrary. I will give some examples.
First, Birmingham. Why did the Minister turn down Sir Francis Griffin's carefully argued case for 35p and attempt to impose a larger increase of 65p at a time when Birmingham's housing revenue account surplus is running at £3½ million? I cannot believe the Minister would wish to concede less to a Labour council than he would to a Tory council. Assuming that not to be the reason, it would be agreeable to know what the reason was.
Next, Newcastle. The council's proposal for 35p was accepted, even though it was lower than the figure for Newcastle proposed by the rent officers there who paid close attention 10 the private rented sector. But for Newcastle 35p bears no relation, from what I can discover, to the figure for Newcastle quoted by the Minister in Committee on 9th February. Again, I am certain that the only consideration which was never in the Minister's mind was that Newcastle is now the only major Tory-controlled city in England, and marginally controlled at that.
Hammersmith is another curious case. Hammersmith was awarded, if I may use that term, an increase of 75p, but a little later Brent was given an increase of 55p. I have discovered that the existing rent figures in Hammersmith and Brent are almost equal. It is therefore difficult to see why one should get 75p and the other 55p. I gather that since Brent has been 1622 awarded 55p Hammersmith has decided to re-apply under Clause 62(4) saying that the 75p awarded to it is much too high.
Huddesrfield is a curious case. After great correspondence and, I imagine, great study, the Minister wrote back saying that Huddersfield need not have £1; it could have 98p. It is not clear to me what the object of the exercise is in chopping 2p off. At any rate there are many arbitrary decisions which must greatly have puzzled the recipients of these letters who know their own local conditions.
§ 7.30 p.m.
The state of mind of those who have not yet submitted an application—and there are many of these councils, among them my own Borough of Grimsby, must be one of total confusion. There must be many additional councils intending to apply if I am to judge from the figure quoted by the Secretary of State in a speech on 9th July. The right hon. Gentleman said that half a million tenants would have smaller increases than £1 because their rents were
so close to fair rents already that their councils will be given a directive to increase their rent by less than the statutory amount.
There are 500,000 tenants, even on the Secretary of State's definition, but the figures for council tenants of the authorities which have received an indication add up to very much less than that 500,000, so I imagine that there is a good deal left in the pipeline.
§ Another difficulty is that local authorities must have a considerable problem in discovering the text of the letters. The first three, Birmingham, Newcastle and Hammersmith, were published. None of the others has been widely publicised, and the only way in which local authorities can gather what is going on in the Minister's mind is from a brief summary in the current Local Government Journal by Mr. Crispin Derby. There is almost total uncertainty about the Bill.
§ Three things, however, are certain. First—and I am delighted at the fact, such as it is—we are not to have the universal £26 this year, still less the universal £26 next year, and still less again the increase forecast for the year after. The mandatory statutory increases, the "closely integrated arithmetic," in the words of one of the Ministers in the other place, the careful calculations that 1623 we went into in Committee are out. One thing that is absolutely clear is that all the "closely integrated arithmetic" has gone.
§ The second thing that is clear is that the whole new elaborate basis for rent fixing, so closely argued in Committee, as also out. We spent hour after hour arguing about the criteria, the concept, the definition of fair rents, and now, instead of the just, logical explicit principles on which fair rents were to be based, so frequently explained by Ministers upstairs, we have an entirely new and arbitrary definition of fair rents. Fair rents are what Mr. Ulrich decides they are. I say this in no critical sense of this officer, who put up an outstanding performance during the Committee stage of the Bill.
§ Mr. Ulrich has become the boss of British housing. He is effectively the Minister. He decides what rents shall be paid up and down the country. How he does this I find it difficult to comprehend. He must sit somewhere in the middle of a huge web of telecommunications networks, and after a quick glance at the map he rings up the town clerk of Seaham UDC and says "Your increase is 60p."He then rings up another town clerk on another telephone, perhaps the town clerk of Seaton Valley, and says "Your increase is to be 80p." On another telephone he rings up Fulwood in Lancashire and says "You can have 40p." To Brent he says "You can have 55p."
§ It is a miraculous performance. He must suffer badly from telephonitis. It is possible that he is only a puppet, or the name at the bottom of a letter, and that it is the Minister himself who is taking these profound and detailed decisions. If he is, he must combine the analytical intellect of an Einstein and the decisiveness of Napoleon—he would like that—the talent for communications of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). I doubt any of those things, but at any rate it is a nice thought.
§ That is the second thing that is clear about the Bill; namely, that rent fixing is totally arbitrary and is carried out in a little room by Mr. Ulrich and his colleagues, and that is the end of this 1624 marvellous new structure of fair rents which we were promised and bitterly opposed.
§ The third thing that is clear and highly relevant to the Amendment is that since there must be many Clause 62(4) applications, either in the pipeline not having received an answer, or which have not yet been made to the Minister, we shall have a stream of new Ulrich directives going on certainly until 1st September, and possibly until 1st October, and redoubling the confusion that exists. It is possible that we could get the absurd situation of some authority putting up rents by £1 or 65p in October and subsequently receiving a directive from the Minister that those rents are to go down. That would typify the confusion that we have got into.
§ The situation in the local government world is one of utter chaos. We have a new and different Bill, but nobody knows in detail what it means. To the extent that this confusion reflects the partial retreat that has occurred on rent rises I welcome it, but it makes the timetable of the Bill, which is worsened by the Amendment, wholly impossible. A local authority will not have time to do everything after the Bill has come into force on 9th August. And it cannot anticipate the Bill before then, contrary to what Lord Drumalbyn said, because it does not know what is required of it. The Bill says only what is required of an authority if it does not make a Clause 62(4) application. But if an authority does make an application, the Bill does not tell it what to do and there is no way in which it can anticipate the Bill, however closely it has followed our debates. It can only wait for the reply to come from the Minister. The whole thing is an utter shambles. Amendment No. 102 makes the shambles worse, and that is why we shall vote against it.
§ Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)
Would the effect of the Opposition Amendment to Amendment No. 102 be that the operation of the Bill, including in the private sector, would be delayed for one year.
§ Mr. Crosland
I should dearly like to answer the question. Unfortunately, I understand that Amendment is out of order and has not be selected.
§ Mr. Leonard
I should like to follow the incisive criticisms of my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) with some illustrations from my own local authority, the London Borough of Havering. This authority is a striking example of the impossible position into which the timetable enshrined in the Bill is putting local authorities.
I take no pleasure in reminding the Minister that I predicted these difficulties, both in general and in regard to the London Borough of Havering, when he descended on the Standing Committee with the Amendment which is now Clause 62(4). I said:Unless this concession by the Minister is paralleled by another concession…to postpone the implementation of these increases by a year, I do not see that it is of any value at all to the London Borough of Havering or to any other local authority which might benefit from this concession, if it was given with the proper time."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 24th February, 1972; c. 2470.]The Minister then refused to make the concession that was asked for by the Opposition. I hope that in the intervening period he has gained in wisdom and that when he replies to the debate he will announce that he is prepared to give some respite to local authorities in the position of my borough.
The London Borough of Havering is writing to the Minister setting out what I believe to be an extremely strong case for increases of less than £1 under the terms of Clause 62(4). It will probably propose an increase, on average, of 50p from 1st October. The letter has not yet been sent, but it ought to be in the Minister's hands by the end of the week. I wonder how long it will take the Minister to reply. If he takes his responsibilities seriously, and if he checks the assertions that will be made by my borough, I do not see how he can possibly take less than two weeks in which to reply.
Indeed, if the Minister did reply within two weeks, my constituency would regard it as a great courtesy for the Minister to reply to a complicated letter on such a difficult subject in that short time.
But if the Minister takes two weeks to reply, we shall already be in the middle of August. If in his reply he agrees to a lower figure for the increase in Havering—every local authority so far which has received a reply from the 1626 Minister has been awarded a lower figure, though not always the one it asked for—there will be just two weeks left for a large number of important and essential decisions and actions to be taken by the elected councillors and the officials of my borough. As my right hon. Friend has said, by 1st September of this year every tenant must be informed of the increase which is to be imposed upon him by 1st October.
There are 14,000 dwellings represented in the housing revenue account of the London Borough of Havering. When the Minister's reply is received, my council will have to decide how the average figure is to be spread across the 14,000 dwellings. When that has been decided, 14,000 notices of increase will have to be prepared and delivered to tenants; 14,000 ledger entries will have to be altered; the rent cards for 14,000 tenants will have to be altered. The official responsible told me this afternoon on the telephone that this will involve the altering of 80,000 figures. All this will have to be done in the last two weeks of August.
On previous occasions when there have been rent increases in my borough, this whole activity has taken 4½ months. As I said in Standing Committee on 24th February, the town clerk reported to the council that if the normal procedures were to be gone through on this occasion the London Borough of Havering would have had to have known by 17th May the level of increase which would be required on 1st October. A responsible official told me today that this is just not possible in practice to do all these things in two weeks. Another official described it to me as an administrative nightmare. These are the words not of elected councillors who may be suspected of having a political axe to grind but of responsible professional officers who say that it will be impossible to carry out what will be their duty under the law if the Bill is enacted.
It may be suggested that it would have been more prudent for the London Borough of Havering to have written to the Minister some time ago and made an earlier application under Clause 62(4), as other authorities have done. It was open to my authority to have done that, but it does not lie with Ministers to say that the boroughs should have done so. The Billhas been extensively amended 1627 in all its stages. If the members of my local authority were to take full account of all the relevant provisions of the Bill and ensure that they were putting forward an application which had the maximum chance of acceptance, they had a responsibility to wait to see what the final shape of the Bill was. They are, in fact, making an extremely speedy application. They will have their application in probably by the end of this week and it may well reach the Minister before the Bill receives Royal Assent. Therefore, my borough cannot fairly be accused of dilatory conduct.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ I have spoken of the impossible administrative burden which will be placed predominantly upon paid officials. Then, there is the question of who is to take the political decision in the borough when the Minister's reply comes. When it arrives in, say, mid-August, who is to take the responsibility of shaping the policy which my borough will implement in the light of the Minister's decision?
§ The next meeting of the housing committee will be on 5th September. The next meeting of the full council will be on 11 th October. Is it suggested that one man alone should take the effective decision? Is it suggested that the chairman of the housing committee should take the responsibility on behalf of 250,000 residents for what the policy should be? Which hon. Member would relish taking such a responsibility on his own shoulders?
§ It is likely that the chairman of the housing committee will want to consult at least the leader of the council before taking a decision. The leader of my local authority is going on holiday on 11th August and will not return until 1st September. Is he to be expected to cancel his holiday or not to go on holiday at all? Is it suggested that on 11th August, possibly the very day when 630 hon. Members will take off for 2½ months' holiday, the leader of my council should cancel his holiday to be at hand to make this decision?
§ Mr. Neil McBride (Swansea, East)
Is not my hon. Friend aware that the Government are not too sure of much in relation to the Bill when one considers the whole proposition?
§ Mr. Leonard
My hon. Friend points to the total muddle which the Government are in, not only on this issue but on many other matters.
Councillors and aldermen are very responsible and hardworking people who are unable to take their holidays in any month but August because of their responsibilities as elected members of local authorities which keep them busy during the other 11 months. The leader of my council talked to me on the telephone this afternoon and made this caustic comment: "The Government have laid this egg and they expect councillors to sit on it during the month of August and hatch it."
If the House allows the Bill to reach the Statute Book in its present form and with the wholly unrealistic timetable it contains, it will be guilty of an act of consumate irresponsibility and it will show that the welfare and convenience of both paid local government officials and elected councillors are of as little consequence to this most reactionary of Governments as are the interests of council tenants which the Bill is designed to attack.
§ Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)
If I understood correctly from the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), we are not discussing the Amendment tabled by him and his right hon. and hon. Friends but are talking about the difference between one month and two weeks. We are making heavy weather of this. I cannot see how with the most careful of deliberations on this we shall help the person who is going on holiday on 11th August or any other person who may not be in the country for 2½ months. If the Opposition would like to debate this point, surely the Amendment should be to make it at least three months.
If we face the reality of saying "Is it to be one month?" or "It is to be two weeks?", obviously there will be many local authorities in difficulty. Clearly, many local authorities have held back. In view of the peculiar situation, with inflation and all the things that can weigh with a Government, many local authorities have thought that possibly the Government will draw back from the brink and and not implement the Bill. I advise 1629 most local authorities that they are making a grave error. At this time they should be concentrating on making the Bill as great a success as they can. They are able to refer to the Department, to apply under Clause 62(4) and to implement the Bill in the early stages at the 50p, as many local authorities have already done.
In the past, a local authority has had to move within three months to implement any normal rent increase put forward in its own council. Local authorities have been ready to do that. There is no difference between this rent increase and any other.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)
How is a council supposed to implement what the Government claim to be absolutely basic to the Bill, that is, the rebate provision? Does the hon. Gentleman imagine that local authorities have had sufficient time for that? Was there any obligation upon a local authority to make provision for that until the Bill became law?
§ Mr. Hill
The same would apply to rents. There is no reason to apply any increase in rents until the Bill becomes law But authorities which think ahead and look to the amount of work which, perhaps, they will have to do before the summer will obviously aim for their rent rebates in October, and for the private sector in January. One cannot put all the blame on the Bill. We spent months—many months, it seems—discussing it in Committee as thoroughly as the Opposition would allow us in the circumstances—
§ Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)
Did I hear the hon. Gentleman say that he and his hon. Friends discussed the Bill as much as the Opposition would allow? Let him read the Official Report of our proceedings in Committee and count the number of times that he and his hon. Friends spoke. In spite of the adequate time which they were offered, they refused to get to their feet to talk about the Billat all, although we invited them to do so on many occasions, especially in the middle of the night.
§ Mr. Hill
The hon. Gentleman's intervention is a typical example of what we had to put up with in Committee. An intervention became a speech, a speech 1630 became a tirade and a tirade became three or four hours of stultifying nonsense. [An Hon. Member: "The hon. Gentleman was not there."] Indeed I was. If we had to resort to a little sustenance at times, the reason can be readily understood.
We are here discussing the difference between four weeks and two weeks. Surely we can dispose of that in a very short time and get on with the real meat of the matter.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
I shall not spend too long referring to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill), but I recall thast he was one of the Government back benchers who occasionally took part in debates in Committee. On one occasion he regaled us with details of rents paid by Southampton tenants and on the following day he had to come back and apologise because he had given wrong information.
The Minister said that Lords Amendment No. 84 gave some teeth in that landlords would have to provide accounts to justify service charges where these applied. It is gratifying that the Minister can recognise teeth in that Amendment since he does not, apparently, recognise the teeth in the general levels of rent which will result from the Bill. A week or two ago I asked him at Question Time whether, at a recent local government conference, he had said that the Housing Finance Bill was the Government's weapon against inflation. His Undersecretary of State loyally defended him and spoke of the anti-inflationary character of the Bill. He added that a lot of people would be paying less rent and that rebates would be applied in many hundreds of thousands of cases.
That is true, but what the Minister failed to mention then—I suspect he still does not understand it—is that very many of the people who will qualify for a rebate are already paying no rent whatever since their rent is covered by supplementary benefit rent allowance. Also, he fails to understand that many hundreds of thousands of those who may qualify for rebate will still pay more rent than they are paying now, even after the rebate is granted. The number of tenants who will qualify for rebate, even if all of them apply—there are doubts about that, of course—will be dwarfed by the 1631 millions who will be paying very much more rent, and that result will be extremely inflationary with a far greater impact than any alleged anti-inflationary character which the Under-Secretary of State saw in the Bill when he answered my Question.
The Bill will lead to an annual leap in the rents of millions of tenants. This is bound to be reflected in higher wage demands. The CBI realises this. The TUC knows it. Tenants are well aware of it. Both officials and elected representatives in local government are aware of it. Everyone in Britain, apparently, is aware of that inevitable consequence of the Bill, except the Government themselves.
In many areas—this certainly applies in mine—the effect of the Bill will be such that wage demands in the next two years will need to be for £2.50 not to bring a penny of greater purchasing power but merely to cover the extra inflation which the Government will be inflicting upon tenants.
That situation cannot easily be borne. It will add to the sort of confrontation which we are already witnessing in our society as a result of the Government's measures. We shall see, so to speak, a little of the breath of Ulster brought into Britain, and it ought not to be. It would be wrong to exaggerate or over-emphasise the confrontation consequences of the Bill, but they are serious and should be carefully considered before we go further.
Like the Government, the Bill is abrasive. The Government should not bring it in until they have considered the abrasive aspects of it. It will greatly anger, as it has already angered, many millions of people. It will be particularly annoying since it will take power from local government, from the people, and pass it to the centre, to the bureaucracy. Rents will be determined not by the housing chairman and his committee after they have been elected by those whom they represent. They will be determined by officials, perhaps responsible and able men but officials none the less who have no allegiance to the electorate in the area concerned. Perhaps more nastily, rents may be determined neither by able civil servants nor by elected local representatives but by gentlemen, who may well stand to benefit, sitting on rent 1632 scrutiny boards and drawing a considerable income as a result.
If the Government and the Conservative Party wish to reduce the temperature in British society, if they wish to show that their claws are retracted, they ought to accept that some delay in the implementation of the Bill is desirable. The Minister is not a cautious man—we have seen little evidence of prudence or caution in his attitude to the Bill—but even he has accepted that the Measure which he presented originally was not perfect and he has brought in the 2 per cent. arrangement, which will cause a great deal of bother politically in both national and local government over the months ahead. He has brought that in, however, and it is a sign that there is a ray of hope that the Government may be prepared to accept that the Bill at this time will be a real disadvantage.
We are suspicious about the 2 per cent. arrangement, especially since it seemed to be brought in more to hold the Conservative municipal line than to be of great assistance to local authorities generally. It does not assist the safe Tory areas, which obeyed the Bill already in the spring. As it happens, their obedience was premature since they might well have stood to benefit under the 2 per cent. arrangement.
A few authorities which cannot be classed as safely Conservative decided after some consideration that they should obey the Bill at the beginning of the current financial year. One authority which I know quite well decided in March that it would begin to implement the Bill. The officers of that comparatively small authority worked very hard, working overtime, to prepare all the necessary arrangements to increase the rents by 50p and introduce the rebate scheme. Two or three days after they had completed the task, the Minister during the Report stage changed all the details of the rebate scheme and they had all that work to do again.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Many of the 1,200 or 1,300 housing authorities do not employ large staffs. The demands already made by the Government's vacillation have brought many officers to the verge of breakdown as a result of the overwork that has been imposed. If the Government wish to be a little more charitable to the staffs of 1633 our local authorities, they should seek to reduce some of their haste and impetuousness over the Bill. Many housing authorities are to disappear as a result of local government reorganisation. We should not accompany excessive demands on the staff and the injustices inevitable in this Bill with the partial political gerrymandering associated with the Local Government Bill. The smaller authorities are in great difficulty, and this will be compounded because of the time at which the Bill is to be introduced.
§ The Government continue to protest that their intentions are kind and that they wish to see all authorities, no matter what their political character, accepting the Bill. I must subscribe to the view that laws should be obeyed. I think that the authorities in my area will implement this nasty Bill on 1st October. The chairman of one housing committee in my constituency told me that he thought the Bill was appalling but that he believed that the law should be obeyed and that therefore the Bill should be implemented on 1st October. But he took the principle of the Birmingham Amendment and said "We shall be submitting an application under Clause 63(4) that the rent increases in our area should be less than £1." He can refer to the fact that wage rates, if below average, are possibly relevant.
§ I am concerned about what will happen if that application is dismissed with contempt, if the response it elicits is rather aggressive. The responsible councillors in that authority, who now seem to be looking favourably upon the idea of implementation on 1st October, could decide to meet the Minister's attitude with an aggressive response. The Minister will then send in the housing commissioner. That could lead to a greater measure of confrontation. The Minister may well feel that he has covered the arrangements for the introduction of the housing commissioner, but what happens if the housing commissioner, having reached the local government offices, having selected his office and having begun his work, is then told that that office is required for redecoration or the heating breaks down? The councillors may do what I did when I was chairman of a local authority and visit the office frequently to remain fully in touch with what is happening in the town hall. If every member of the local 1634 authority decided to call regularly and frequently upon the housing commissioner to keep an eye on what he was doing—
§ Mr. Raison
On a point of order. I know that we are going through a very confusing procedure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I should be grateful if we could be told in what respect, if any, the hon. Gentleman's speech bears on the subject under discussion.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)
The hon. Gentleman must give me a little time. I shall watch the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) carefully to see whether he is out of order, but I do not think he is out of order now.
§ Mr. Hardy
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), who delivered five Second Reading speeches, at every possible opportunity, without ever going into the detail of the Bill, is hardly the person to know whether hon. Members are in order now.
We suggest that there should be a little less haste and a little more prudence over the Bill. The Government cannot claim that the matter is so urgent that immediate, decisive, prompt and panic action should be taken. After all, the tenants are not doing so very well, but the land speculators and the house profiteers certainly are. It is not the council tenant who is making his fortune but the house and land speculator. If the Government can sit idly by and watch the scandal of the sort of increases there have been throughout the country, including house price increases of 15 per cent. in a three-month period in my constituency, they need not rush to introduce this sort of obnoxious Bill.
§ Mr. David Stoddart
It has been a source of great amazement to me to see the Government's actions as the Bill has progressed. It has been a source of amazement, too, that they hold local government in such fantastic contempt, as has been proved every time we have had a discussion on the Bill.
It has been shown that the Government, who before the General Election were preaching that they were the Party who believed in more freedom and responsibility for local government, are now 1635 showing that they have nothing but contempt for local government and the people who serve it, at both member and officer level. By the Bill, the Government are prescribing a very important activity of the local authorities. As we go along, it is becoming even more plain that local authorities are becoming mere rent collectors for the central Government. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Grismby (Mr. Crosland) showed in his opening speech, rents will now be fixed not by the local authority but by an official in a Whitehall office. Nothing could show the Government's contempt for local government more than that, because local government has felt, and feels now, that Whitehall is on its back, and that Whitehall should be taken off its back. The Conservatives promised before the General Election that that would be done. It is yet another promise which has not been honoured. I believe that at the next General Election Conservative Members will pay for the contempt they are showing.
The Government have not considered the situation of local authorities in any respect. They have not considered the additional staff that will be needed to implement the Bill, and the additional office accommodation required. They have not considered whether the existing officials will be able to train the additional staff required to adminster the Bill. They have not understood the difficulties that local authorities will encounter when the Local Government Bill becomes law.
Many district councils which will be the housing authorities have no idea yet of the powers available under the Local Government Bill until the Lords Amendment is made to Clause 101. They are, therefore, quite unsure about precisely what they will be doing when the Bill becomes law. They are also completely unsure about what they will have to do under this obnoxious Measure. There will be an administrative nightmare for the local authorities. To my sorrow and chagrin, my local authority implemented the Bill in April. The administrative chaos which followed it had to be seen to be believed. The tenants in Swindon suffered because of inadequate preparation and inadequate knowledge of the implications of the Bill,
§ Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)
Will the hon. Member explain that part of the changes which caused this great administrative nightmare? Was it the partial increase towards a fair rent, or was it something else which is apparently yet to be explained?
§ Mr. Stoddart
There were several reasons. If the hon. Member wants me to go into them I shall. The tenants were unsure whether they should apply for a rebate because they did not previously have to apply for a rebate if they had been drawing a rent allowance. Under the Bill anyone drawing supplementary benefit must make his application for rebate in the same way as any other tenant. Many tenants were completely unaware of this, and there was, therefore, misunderstanding leading to complete chaos between the local authority and the Supplementary Benefits Commission. There was so much chaos that the offices of the local authority were inundated with inquiries and flooded out with people trying to discover where they stood.
It was not long after the provisions were implemented that the Bill was amended in order to raise the level of allowances under Schedule 3. That, of course, caused an additional administrative nightmare for the local authority. There was a further aspect which people certainly did not understand. The local authority did not understand it either. Many people, far from paying 50p increase, found they had to pay up to £2 more because of the differences between the rent rebate scheme in the Bill and the rent rebate scheme which had been operating previously. There was also the difficulty of getting sufficient staff in sufficient tune to deal with all the rebate forms which came in and required to be processed as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Gower
The hon. Member has explained that there was an overlap between the arrangements between supplementary benefit and rebates. Under legislation passed by previous Conservative and Labour Governments, however, people are entitled to claim rate rebates, and local authorities are experienced in dealing with the overlap between rate rebates and supplementary benefits.
§ Mr. Stoddart
I do not believe that there is any overlap. The rent rebate is quite a different thing from drawing supplementary benefit in respect of rates, and anyone who draws supplementary benefit is not entitled to a rate rebate. The local authorities, therefore, do not have experience of this sort of thing, although many local authorities have experience of administering rent rebate schemes. Because of the administration of the previous rent rebate scheme, many people, including old-age pensioners, found themselves having to pay not 50p extra but an increase of as much as £2 per week. A completely chaotic situation has been created, and I hope it will be ironed out.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ In addition to the difficulties for the local authorities, there are also difficulties for the tenants. Many tenants are confused as to what they can and cannot do under the Bill, and with the rapid implementation of the Bill they will be unable to obtain sufficient information about their rights or make suitable application for a rebate if they so desire. I would have thought the Government had learned their lesson about doing things too hastily.
§ Mr. Stoddart
As my hon. Friend says the Government seem to learn nothing from their past mistakes. They continue to make the same mistakes and to compound them with even worse ones. One would have thought they would have learnt from their experience in preparing Bills too hurriedly the dangers of too much haste.
As the Bill has progressed the Government have retreated on one point after another. Had they considered the situation and had they done research, they would never have included a provision for a 50p increase in April and they would not have provided for a £1 increase in October. Had they done their research properly, the Bill would surely have been drafted differently. But they have not done their homework to discover the real situation. They are relying upon the political propaganda that they fed out to the nation before the last General Election. They really believed that council tenants were the pampered pets of 1638 the Socialist Party and were almost getting their housing for nothing. The Government were the victims of their own propaganda. Now a little man in the Department of the Environment will have to look at each area separately and will have to decide at a stroke—about the only thing that is done at a stroke—whether the figures should be 35p, 65p or £1 in October.
As in so many other cases, the Government have broken faith with the local authorities which implemented in April. Those authorities have already imposed a £26 increase per annum on their council tenants. Had they waited, as Birmingham waited, and applied under Clause 62(4) for exemption they might have got away with a 65p increase from 1st October. In those circumstances, instead of paying £26 per annum extra in 1972–73, those tenants would have been paying only £16.90. The local authorities which implemented these increases in April at the Government's behest have had the wrong end of the stick.
After what we have heard about the man from the Ministry setting rents in Birmingham, Newcastle, Brent and many other towns, I should like to hear about the future of the rent scrutiny boards. Somewhere in the Department there must be criteria for use in fixing new rents by the man in the Department. If this information is available and if decisions are being taken in the Department, what is to be the future of the rent scrutiny boards? Are they to override the man from the Department? Will they be able to say that the man from the Department is wrong and that a rent should be higher? People will need to know these things, because we do not want even more confusion about the Bill.
I urge the Minister to reconsider the Bill even at this late hour. If the Government want to do anything to rehabilitate themselves with the electorate—I suppose that I should not be giving that sort of advice, but I am a little sympathetic to them at the moment, because they have practically no support—they should go away and say that they believe that in the interests of the country and in the interests of reducing inflationary pressure they will defer the operation of the Bill for 12 months. Our Amendment has been ruled out of order, but it would still be in order for the Minister 1639 to have eleventh-hour thoughts, almost deathbed thoughts, about the Bill and defer its operation for 12 months. By doing so, he could gain himself at least a few friends, and he has none at the moment, as I think he realises. I hope that he will do it for the good of the country and of all tenants.
§ Mr. Raison
The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) concluded by making a plea for a delay of one year in the implementation of the Bill. That is the burden of the Opposition Amend-that was ruled out of order. The House and the country should try to understand what would be meant by delaying the Bill for one year.
The debate this evening, as many others we have had, has been treated as an occasion for a wide-ranging attack on all sorts of aspects of Government policy. The attack on the Bill by the Opposition has centred on the one ingredient, admittedly the controversial ingredient, of the fixing of council house rents. It should be recognised that there are many other important aspects of the Bill, all of which would be deferred for a year if the hon. Gentleman's recommendation was adopted and the Bill were delayed. It would do grave damage to many people and the House should be reminded of some of the things that would be delayed.
One consequence would be that the national rebate scheme would be deferred for one year. Many local authorities have rebate schemes, some of them good. Many local authorities since April have been implementing the national rebate scheme. Nor would the hon. Gentleman's proposal allow only the national rebate scheme to be referred until next year. Among authorities such as those which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—alas not with us at the moment—is so fond of quoting we should never have a rebate scheme because, as the hon. Member has said again and again, such authorities are against such rebate schemes. Thus, the first consequence of delay for one year would be to defer the national rebate scheme, which will bring substantial help to many tenants throughout the country.
Delay would also defer the rent allowance scheme. The House knows that, to the shame of the Opposition, during the 1640 years when they were in office they did nothing to implement a rent allowance scheme for private tenants. The Milner Holland report came out in 1965 and contained a good case at that stage for some sort of rent allowance scheme for private tenants. The Labour Party was then in power for five years but did absolutely nothing to implement that proposal. Further delay would defer the rent allowance scheme even more, and if the Labour Party were returned to power I doubt whether we should ever see that scheme.
Another effect might have more appeal for hon. Members on the Opposition side. It would be that the decontrol of the higher rateable value controlled tenancies would be delayed. But I would have the House know that it would be only those properties of the higher rateable value, with a rateable value of more than £80 in London and more than £45 elsewhere. Decontrol for other tenancies would go ahead as prescribed. But where the case for decontrol is most overwhelming there would be delay. As a result, much hardship would be suffered by many small landlords of one kind or another, and no one with any close knowledge of this subject would feel that that would be for the general good.
Another effect would be that the new pattern of subsidies for housing associations would be delayed. In Committee my right hon. Friend sensibly made a number of concessions to housing associations, so that by the end of those proceedings they were fairly happy with what they had got.
§ Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The housing association additional subsidies have already come into effect and do not depend on the Bill.
§ Mr. Raison
I am doubtful that what the hon. Gentleman has said is true. If I have said something wrong, of course I withdraw. My right hon. Friend says that I am right, so I am reinforced.
§ Mr. Freeson
I believe that a few weeks ago an order was laid by the Minister affecting the provisions we are talking about and bringing them into effect, but it has nothing to do with the Bill.
§ Mr. Raison
A large part of the Bill is concerned with housing associations. I 1641 cannot but believe that the provisions are of benevolent effect to housing associations and I know that they are happy about what has been done.
The hon. Member for Swindon complained about the Bill being amended during its passage. What is the point of Committee proceedings, Report stage and proceedings in another place if there are not Amendments? I have no doubt that the Bill is better than it was when we began last autumn, and that is the whole object of parliamentary procedure.
§ Mr. David Stoddart
My objection is that in Committee the Government refused Amendments put forward by the Opposition and then came forward on Report with their own Amendments. Thus we were wasting the time of the House.
§ Mr. Raison
I think I have been a Member of the House for the same length of time as the hon. Gentleman and I will not lay down the law to him about the traditions of the House of Commons. Time and again in every piece of legislation it is apparent that the Government will not immediately accept Amendments in Committee but will accept them later in the proceedings. Apart from anything else, they must have time to consider the purport of the Amendments. What has happened on this Bill must be the same as has happened on many other Bills over the years.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ To go back to what I was saying, all those are respects in which the hon. Gentleman's attempt to delay the Bill would be damaging. Finally there is the damage that delay would cause to the whole new subsidy structure which is a very important part of the legislation, although it is not often mentioned by the Opposition. To delay the Bill for one year would delay the slumclearance subsidy, the transition subsidy, the operational deficit subsidy, the rent allowance and rebate subsidies and the town development subsidy. That whole new pattern of subsidies which has been widely accepted by the experts would be delayed. There have been quarrels about particular points, but generally speaking the Opposition recognise the value of this new subsidy pattern.1642
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I do not recognise the value of anything from the Government side of the House.
§ Mr. Raison
The hon. Gentleman would be incapable of recognising anything good that was put in front of his eyes, but his colleagues know that the slum clearance subsidy, for example, is of great value and importance, and the effect of the suggestion of the hon. Member for Swindon would be to delay important parts of the Bill.
Hon. Gentleman opposite have been arguing often in a purely destructive framework. The intermittent constructive proposals they have put forward have often been absorbed by my right hon. Friend, but the barrenness of much of their case has been exposed once again.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
Earlier in the debate a complaint was made that an hon. Member's speech was out of order. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) has spoken at considerable length about an Amendment which has been ruled out of order and which he should not have been discussing. Before leaving the Amendment which is apparently out of order, it occurs to me that if the Minister wanted to move an Amendment to postpone the coming into effect of the Bill for 12 months it would probably have been in order.
The serious aspect of the point now before the House has been before the House and the Committee during the whole passage of the Bill. Implicit and explicit in the Government's defence of their case has been the idea that it is up to local authorities to watch what is happening in the House and to take preparatory steps to implement Bills before they are passed by Parliament. That is a despicable and completely unacceptable practice. There is no reason why a local authority before a Bill becomes law should be required to take steps which will be required only if it becomes law.
In effect the Bill was intended to have retrospective effect in that the Government have said to local authorities "If before we manage to get the Bill through the House you do X, after it comes into effect you will not have to comply with the text of the Bill in exactly the same way as you otherwise would". It is a serious thing to start introducing that kind 1643 of principle into legislation. We do not expect any better from the present Minister for Housing and Construction but I would suggest that there ought to be, and if we think about it there probably are, a number of hon. Members on the Government side—at the moment they may not be in the House—who would object in principle to this.
§ Mr. Cunningham
If the hon. Gentleman would try to follow me, he would understand that what I am saying is that the Bill provides that if a certain increase has not been introduced in the period before the coming into force of this Measure, a higher increase will have to be introduced afterwards. That is a form of blackmail. That is something which, if we had a constitution in this country—and it is high time we had one to stop this sort of nonsense—it would not be permitted to put into a Bill. People would have to wait until a Bill had passed through Parliament before there was any need to implement it.
The Minister's case in supporting the Lords Amendment was that local authorities had been watching what was happening and had been reading the endless discussions in Committee and that although the time between Royal Assent and the coming into force of the Measure would be only a fortnight, that did not mean that the implementation of the Bill would have to be squeezed into that time because before the Bill had received Royal Assent it was up to local authorities to assume that it would get Royal Assent. If local authorities have to assume that every Bill introduced by the Government will pass through unamended, we might as well pack up this joint and all go home. That is not the way in which Parliament should operate. If more Government Bills and parts of Bills came a cropper in going through this House, we might make more of a reality of the proceedings in this place than we do at the moment.
My own Borough of Islington is one of those which did not implement in April but took advantage of Clause 62(4) and has had correspondence with the 1644 Minister. That was a sensible precaution. In the light of decisions which have been made and which might be made in respect of other areas, Islington, like Romford, might also have second thoughts. It too might seek a reduction in the level in the increase so far agreed. If the Bill is to be brought into force after this ridiculously short period of a fortnight, the time during which it will be possible to look at the various figures which have been fixed and the background to local situations against which they have been fixed will be reduced to such an extent that we will not be able to make a sensible assessment of whether the implementation is being rationally applied.
I cannot help wondering what would be said if a Labour Government were doing this kind of thing. We would be told that we were riding roughshod over the rights of duly elected local authorities, that we were behaving in a dogmatic manner, a typically Socialist manner, showing no understanding of the technical difficulties of doing all this administrative work in the height of summer. It would probably be mentioned in passing that this was attributable to our lack of business experience—and of course we know the relevant business experience which the housing Minister has. Might I remind the House of his relevant experience. It is probably the first time in our history, thank God, that we have had a housing Minister who has been in his own personal right a slum landlord.
§ Mr. Neil McBride (Swansea, East)
My hon. Friend did not have the distinction which I and others of my hon. Friends had of serving on the Committee. May I tell my hon. Friend that we were appalled by the Minister's lack of knowledge? I say that in the right hon. Gentleman's presence and he knows that it is true.
§ Mr. Cunningham
My hon. Friend does not surprise me in the least. I have been appalled by the Minister for Housing and Construction on many occasions on other subjects.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
During the time the Labour Government tried to keep rents down in 1968 and 1969, the Islington Borough Council, which was Tory-controlled, deliberately fought against the Government and wanted to put the rents up.
§ Mr. Cunningham
I recall the record of the Islington Borough Council under its thankfully short period of Conservative rule.
§ Mr. Raison
By fairly general consent, the Conservative administration of Islington was remarkably good.
§ Mr. Cunningham
The Conservative control of Islington brought great changes in many respects. I am familiar with the situation before and after the period about which the hon. Member for Aylesbury is thinking. I know what the people in Islington felt about the increases in rent which resulted from that change of control. I know what they felt about the greater encouragement given to the colonialisation of the area at the expense of the 10,000 people on the waiting list. I know what they feel about the vast increases in improvement grants which the Minister insists on encouraging, which also is to the disadvantage of the 10,000 people on the waiting-list. I could speak on the subject for a long time, longer than you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would like me to take, especially since all this is out of order.
There is no reason why any local authority should take anticipatory action on these provisions. For the Government to come forward and say, on a Bill of this size and complexity, that within a fortnight of its being passed, within a fortnight of the time when all doubt about what the text will be is removed, it must be implemented throughout the country and proper action taken in the town halls, is a contempt not only for this House but for the democratically elected local authorities. I hope that when we on this side return to power we shall have learned some of the lessons which the Minister for Housing and Construction is teaching us.
§ Mr. Gower
The speeches which we have heard this evening have not been complaining of delay or anticipation, or about a fortnight or a month. They have been once again directed against the basic principles of the Bill. Most of the hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) who preceded him in this debate brought forward the arguments, which were advanced during the earlier stages of the Bill, against the very prin- 1646 ciples under which there is to be an increase towards fair rents. Those arguments have called not merely for some delay but, by inference, for annulment of the proceedings. The hon. Member for Islington, South-West is not submitting that the timing is the only thing which perturbs him. I am sure that he shares the view of his hon. Friends that it is a matter not only of timing but of the very principles of the Bill.
However unpleasant it may be to the Opposition, and however much individuals among them may object, the bases of the Bill in varying degree were brought forward in legislation by the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Freeson indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Freeson
I do not want to enter into a long argument with the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower). I merely refer him to the Committee proceedings, where we went through this matter point by point and Clause by Clause, showing the disparity between the present Billunder the heading "Fair Rents Procedure" and the procedures which were established in the 1965 and 1968 Rent Acts. The fact that the label is the same does not mean that the procedures are the same. In fact, they are not.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) resumes his speech, I ask him to relate his remarks more closely to the Amendments. He is going very wide of them now.
§ Mr. Gower
Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But we have heard a whole succession of speeches by hon. Members opposite complaining about the basis of the legislation. Apparently, they want an extra period in which to accommodate these changes, but I share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) that the loss involved would be considerable. The Opposition do not appear to attach a great deal of importance to the advantages and benefits of a rebate which is 1647 applied across the board throughout the country.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
What would the loss be by bringing the Bill into force after a month instead of after a fortnight?
§ Mr. Gower
I suppose that the hon. Gentleman is now suggesting that a fortnight is not very considerable, but other hon. Members opposite have been suggesting that the period should be far longer. They have been arguing in some respects for a much longer period and in other respects for complete annulment of the Bill.
The benefits and advantages of a rebate scheme which can be implemented throughout the country are very considerable. It is within the experience of many of us that there are many advantages in those areas which have a reasonably well worked out rebate scheme. My own experience is that with such schemes rent distortion has been far less than in those areas which have tried to manage without such a scheme. Of course there is inequality with the schemes now in existence. Some are first-class, others are moderate, and others are badly worked out. If we have further delay, it will mean simply continuing with schemes of varying quality. It will be of great benefit to all if we can have a scheme across the board throughout the whole country which will enable rebates to be paid to those who are most in need of them.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that the rebate scheme for council tenants under this Bill is primarily intended to cushion the impact of the much higher rents for a section of the population and that, by and large, the vast majority of council tenants will derive no benefit? In that case, what is wrong with postponing Clause 6, which deals with the mandatory increases, even if the rebates are postponed as well?
§ Mr. Gower
We have heard that argument at all stages of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that in many instances people will be better off over and above their present position. In other words, the rebates will not merely serve to cushion them; in some cases 1648 they will bring positive benefit. What is far more important is that the benefit will go to those in greatest need. It is a question not of quantum but of merit, which under the present arrangement is not the case. With the hon. Gentleman's knowledge, he must be aware that the present system is haphazard. Under the new, well worked out system, the greatest benefit will be to those in greatest need, which one would have thought that the Opposition would welcome because they have often said that benefit should go to those in greatest need, a view which we share.
It is a positive advantage that the early implementation of these proposals will give us a sensible scheme across the board throughout the country under which the benefits will go to those in greatest need of this kind of help in paying their local authority rents.
Some speakers have implied that, although there may be some merit in the assessment of fair rents in the private sector, there is not a similar merit in its introduction in the public sector. It would be out of order to argue that matter at length tonight, but I should have thought that the merit that hon. Members opposite found when they introduced similar proposals for the private sector could be laudably extended to the public sector.
My hon. Friend also pointed out that there are many other positive benefits in the rearrangement of subsidies, not least for slum clearance. [Interruption.] I do not know why hon. Members groan at my reference to slum clearance. I should have thought that it was one aspect of housing in respect of which the greatest effort was needed in the months and years ahead. That, surely, is one sphere in which the greatest initiative is needed.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
Does not the hon. Member accept that assistance is already provided for slum clearance for local authorities which have cleared slums to build houses? The distinction in the Minister's proposal is that he is prepared to give a subsidy whether houses are built or not. That is the only difference. An area like Islington will receive no benefit.
§ Mr. Gower
This will be a vital help to many parts of the country where the very nature of the former restriction was 1649 an inhibiting factor in the clearance of some of the worst slum areas. I should have thought that in a matter like this the hon. Member would be prepared to take a national view rather than a view merely of Islington. I respect the hon. Member's local knowledge and expertise on Islington, but he ought to be prepared to look beyond the boundaries of his area and admit that if this is a useful extension in many parts of the country it is a valid argument that this proposal should be implemented as soon as possible, because it is likely to add an impetus to the work of slum clearance.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
Will the hon. Member tell us to which area he is referring and give us the background, showing how the Minister's proposal will help such an area?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) knows that he must not make long-drawn-out sedentary observations. It wrecks the debate.
§ Mr. Gower
Fortunately, the nature of my constituency is such that it does not have this problem, but recently some of the docks areas in South Wales towns—and Barry, particularly—have been cleared without any buildings being built. That was done under other powers, but the Minister's proposals would be an 1650 incentive to authorities to do that kind of thing.
§ Mr. Cunningham
Will the hon. Gentleman now say why council tenants from their rents should pay for that subsidy when it will not produce houses?
§ Mr. Gower
This is completely outside the terms of the Amendment and will be discussed later. I wish to emphasise that this is a valuable part of the Bill which would be deleted if the Opposition Amendment were accepted.
We cannot over-emphasise the contribution of housing associations in terms of additional benefits. There are many people who through personal circumstances, whether by reason of age or their means, cannot contemplate the private ownership of houses or flats. Many of them cannot hope for accommodation in council houses. Therefore, housing associations make a unique contribution in helping to fulfil this need. They are accommodating people who in former years were left out in the cold. In this respect the Bill brings numerous benefits which have been welcomed by the associations. It would be a serious matter if any delay were to be caused by the provisions of the Bill. These associations want to get ahead with their work for providing for those who have been among the most deprived in recent years.
I do not suggest that this is a perfect Measure, and, of course, it is not. We shall learn by experience. It is natural that a Measure involving such a large-scale change will contain imperfections. But within these provisions we have a framework which can bring the help to the people whose need is greatest. In that sense it would be a misfortune if any delay were to have had the effect of holding up the Bill.
§ Mr. McBride
The only thing the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) and I have in common is that we represent Welsh constituencies. I should like to hear him defend the Bill in Barry, when I would certainly take the other side of the argument.
We face a Government which display over-weening arrogance. They have decided to force through this Bill at the end of July. When we look at the Conservative Party and take the Minister for 1651 Housing as a yardstick—and I have said this to him in his presence—together with the apology of the Prime Minister, we can see the standard of ability which exists in this Government. The country can see that it is at an all-time low level.
We have heard the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill) that local authorities with their intuitive faculties should appreciate what the Government want. That is surely the most far-fetched assertion that has ever been advanced in this House. Hitler thought he had these faculties, and he lost his life and a possible empire into the bargain. The Government are disregarding the views of 5½ million citizens and of the local authority associations. We see trenchant criticism of the Government's attitude in this week's issue of the Local Government Chronicle. The Government are obviously quite impervious to logical argument. We saw this in Committee, and we know that it has happened on other Bills which we have been allowed to amend in no way whatever. As a result the country finds itself in a terrible situation.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ I speak on behalf of many inhabitants of a little country, one of whose constituencies I have the honour to represent. In the Standing Committee I sought to advance the rightful arguments of some 270,000 local authority tenants in the Principality. The Tory Government have included them among the 5½ million local authority tenants in the United Kingdom. In seeking to force through this Measure they are saying to local authorities "In a fortnight you must assimilate everything in this Measure and produce the organisation necessary to carry through these gigantic administrative changes." Surely that is the argument of lunacy. However, we are dealing with the party of business, and when I look across at right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite I am proud of the people from whom I spring. This is not business. This is the maladministration of the country. No wonder we are at the low ebb that we have reached.
§ In Committee we saw the Government's arrogant disregard of the arguments put forward on behalf of the Welsh people, with the Secretary of State for 1652 Wales conniving at the alteration in the circumstances of Welsh local authorities and not having the moral courage to take a place in the Committee—
§ Mr. McBride
As my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Rowlands) points out, the Secretary of State is not even here today. We could have benefited considerably from the presence of the Secretary of State in Committee. He is a lawyer of some distinction. However, there was no legal opinion of Queen's Counsel standard available to the Committee, any more than there is tonight. There should be. However, perhaps I speak with the logic of the class in which I was born, which is foreign to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite.
This Bill is opposed by the vast majority of the Welsh people. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil and I attended a conference last Saturday. If he has an opportunity, my hon. Friend intends to adduce arguments about the opposition to the Bill.
Most of this legislation will come into law four weeks after receiving the Royal Assent. Had a Labour Government attempted to put such a proposal into effect, the Under-Secretary of State would have been the first to object, and the howls of execration at a Labour Government would have been loud and long—
§ Mr. McBride
Yes. I said "most of it". I appreciate the point about the two weeks' assimilation period.
All local authorities have to introduce rebate schemes. I have an inquiring turn of mind. I ask: how can administrative chaos be prevented if local authorities are to be obliged to conform to a law providing for the provisional assessment of rents, not fair rents—that is a misnomer—but robbery rents They are based on comparability with the private sector, where, after everything is paid, rents should show a profit for the landlord, only in this case the profit will be creamed off with the surplus going to the Government.
The local authorities have to carry out this provisional assessment. The right is 1653 given to the tenant to make representations within two months. Rebate schemes have to be brought in within a very short time. It means that within two months all the tenants affected have the right to make representations to their local authorities. I say to every tenant in the kindom "Use your right. It is about the only thing that you will get in this Bill when it becomes law."
We have heard a great deal about the charity of rebate. Of course it is right that the community should carry the weaker. But who will provide the finance for rebates? There is a shattering silence from the benches opposite. The great part of the finance will be provided by local authority tenants, and they will provide it for the rent allowances of private tenants as well. Let us have no myths perpetrated by the alleged businessmen on the benches opposite. They know that they are perpetrating a lie.
We then come to the matter of the surplus in the housing revenue account of any well-managed locality, which is denned by £30 multiplied by the number of houses. I have the honour to represent the eastern part of the Welsh City of Swansea, which has a well-managed housing revenue account. It is successfully managed. It has been a Labour authority for over 40 years and is recognised not only in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom as a first-class expert on housing matters. That authority wisely put its surplus in the general rate fund before the Minister could get his aristocratic hooks on it. But the surplus which we sought to vary upwards will amount only to £515,000 in the defined balance of the housing revenue account. Had it been of the reverse order, a £50 variable multiplied by the number of houses, we would have had £875,000. I am but a child in business; however, I know full well the great advantages this could confer on estate management for improving amenities, and so on, bearing in mind that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are agreed that the housing repairs account should be abolished.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) said the Minister would be received in the council tenants' heaven, I thought he was referring to a far warmer place. The surplus will be taken away and only half returned if a rent allowance is paid to private 1654 tenants. The other half will be retained for an undisclosed purpose. What purpose? Any Governmental purpose, not housing. The Bill does not say it must be devoted to housing. It could be used for the redemption of the National Debt. I ask the Under-Secretary to say "No" to that. That is the essence of the maladministration of the country's business exemplified in this Measure and agreed by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. I gladly give them the opportunity of saying "No."
No local authority is required to operate this vicious anti-working class Measure—thatis what it is; the Government are seeking by this vicious Measure to depress the class from which I come and to which I am proud to belong—until it receives the Royal Assent and a directive has been issued by the Minister. My right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), who led the Labour Opposition so well in Standing Committee, rightly said that local authorities will probably have to assimilate the great mass of this Bill within a fortnight. Who except that miscellaneous collection of nonentities who make up the Government would believe this could be done?
§ Mr. Idris Owen (Stockport, North)
I have not received any complaints from the AMC or any other authority about the inadequacy of the time. [Interruption.] This is an honest statement of fact. I have had dozens of complaints from local authorities about the implementation or non-implementation of the Local Government Bill, but they are making great efforts to get on with the reorganisation of local government. I know that many local authorities are also proceeding with implementation of the Housing Finance Bill. Many of them are well ahead with their organisation and have had to ask my right hon. Friend for variations in rent because they have studied the situation and got their assessments completed. I repeat: I have not received any complaints from local authorities that the time is inadequate. I have had complaints that they do not want the implementation of the Bill at any price, but I have had no complaints about inadequacy of time.
§ Mr. McBride
I have seen objections to the lack of time and the time scale 1655 generally in letters from local authority associations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the housing committee of my local authority says that not sufficient time has been given to effect the necessary administrative arrangements for its 17,500 tenants.
§ Mr. Arthur Probert (Aberdare)
I speak as a Vice-President of the Urban District Councils Association. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the complaints provided by that association are not necessarily against the Measure, although some are, but are primarily against the total inadequacy of time on the basis of one month. The Amendment proposes to allow only two weeks. I put forward the complaint about the inadequacy of time with the authority of the Urban District Councils Association, quite apart from the complaints made by my own local authority.
§ Mr. McBride
I am indebted to my hon. Friend, who is an authority on these matters. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Idris Owen) will accept that and will not care to contradict a fellow Welshman. I have been a Member of the House for many years, and I have amply demonstrated that I have great faith in the personal integrity of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Probert). I agree with him that not sufficient time is being allowed, and for anyone to say that it is sufficient is to stretch credibility to the limit.
On the question of the rent structure, there was the proposal letter from Birmingham which, unfortunately, did not win the local election. That letter asked for an increase of less than £1, and subsequently an Amendment was incorporated into the Bill providing that where 2 per cent. of local housing revenue account dwellings were above the so-called fair rent level application could be made for another arrangement to be instituted. But who can tell me, or any local authority, that if arrangements are made to charge 65p or 75p per week instead of £1 those are not swingeing and savage increases? I say that they are, and the Bill will provide for a mandatory increase of £1 as from 1st October unless there is a concession by the right hon. Gentleman.
We think that the rents in my city are fair. I know that the hon. Member for 1656 Stockport, North will do me the credit of agreeing that on many occasions I have said that the present level of rents in Swansea is adequate. The result is that the city has applied for a nil increase, and I applaud its action. I suggest to the Minister that on any business consideration we could not have increased rents this fiscal year or next year.
When one considers a city such as that which I have the honour to represent in part, one wonders how it can put the Bill into effect in the time that is proposed. The Cabinet has decided that it wants the Bill by the end of July. How can the Government expect a giant community such as that at Swansea to effect all the administrative arrangements, to engage staff and to provide office accommodation when this time-scale is born of blatant Government inefficiency? No one can say that that charge is not fair. Any hon. Gentleman opposite who is adhering strictly to the truth knows that that is abundantly plain.
Every council officer is concerned about the position, as is every local authority treasurer. They are entirely at sea. They are concerned about what arrangements will be made. What instructions will the Government give? What yardstick will they lay down? I ask the Minister to elaborate further on the Birmingham rent structure proposals. Does he consider that he will make them part of the Bill, or what is his objective? We have taken our decision in Swansea. I heard my right hon. Friend declare that when wages were low rents were low. Those are natural corollaries: the one is attendant upon the other.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Consequently, I demand that the Minister, in the Welsh context, considers the applications of Welsh local authorities to have their present rent levels considered as fair. I warn the Minister that the feeling of opposition to the Bill in Wales is growing. Wales is not a Conservative country; we have no time for Conservatives. There will be fewer of them returned from the Principality at the next election. Wales is a Labour country. It is a radical and sensible proposal that the present rent levels should obtain.
§ Why do the Government consider the Measure to be non-inflationary? All my 1657 working life I have been a member of one of the great trade unions. It taught me economics and some common sense. If millions of pounds in purchasing power are taken from the economy, what are they replaced by and what is the natural sequence—
§ Mr. McBride
I was merely seeking to argue that wage demands will follow.
It is a tragedy that all the know-how built up under Labour's great concept of housing being a social service is being swept aside and that rent scrutiny boards, composed of non-elected Government appointees, are being substituted therefore. Is this the essence of democracy? If it is the Conservative concept of democracy, it is the negation of all that I have always held dear.
In Wales there is a feeling of close relationship between the local government representative and those whom he represents. Welsh Members know that what I say is true. This sense of closeness will disappear. The Bill enjoins that the rent scrutiny board pays no regard to any representations made about the submitted provisional assessment of fair rents. That is most un-British.
The Local Government Chronicle has opposed this proposal on the ground that insufficient time is being allowed. All local authorities would agree with this view. The Tory Government lurch from one chaotic situation to another. The business of local authority is, by any standards, a gigantic business. Housing is a gigantic business. Is this being conducted in the same foot-loose fashion?
The Minister owes it to the nation to introduce a sense of business arrangement into the matter. Increased costs will be involved. There is the insufficiency of time. Local authorities will have to pay the salaries of all the extra staff engaged to operate the Bill. The arrangements envisaged by the Minister are the arrangements of bedlam, and they will create chaos in every local authority.
In Standing Committee, we had with us as junior Minister the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), who is now Minister of State for Northern Ireland. He at least had read the Bill. I 1658 fear that the Minister himself had not, and I do not think that he has read it since. But I want answers now to the questions which we have put. It is well known that, with the start of the holiday period in August, most local authorities conduct no business during that month. What do the Government expect local authorities to do in this abnormally speedy transition from the present system to the arrangements under the Bill?
The Government should introduce flexible arrangements on sensible business lines, with a proper time-scale, givingdue regard to the great body of opposition to the Bill which has built up throughout the country. This is one of the most undemocratic, most harshly drawn and legally rigid Bills. It is thoroughly unfair. It could have been conceived only in the mind of a Government which intended, and still intend, to be repressive.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. McBride) in deploring the neglect and constant absence from our debates of the Secretary of State for Wales and his Minister of State. Again the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not here to listen to this important debate on a matter which will profoundly affect not only the administration of the 168 or so local housing authorities in Wales but his own Department as well.
It should be emphasised in relation to the question of timing that we have in Wales a very large number of housing authorities and among them some of the smallest such authorities upon which will bear most heavily the administration of the complexities of the Bill. Our Welsh housing authorities will be confronted with a task of extreme difficulty, and it is intolerable that the Secretary of State for Wales, who is supposed to be the voice of Wales in the Cabinet, has not bothered to attend today, just as he has not bothered time and again to attend debates on the Bill. Apparently he does not care a damn what happens to the administration of Wlesh housing authorities. But he ought at least to care for his own office.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) said that there is an Ulrich in the Department of the Environment. I am not sure that there will be an Ulrich in the Welsh Office. I cannot 1659 believe that there will be sufficient experience in the Department of the Environment to deal with all the applications under Clause 62(4).
It will be difficult for the Welsh Office, in trying to handle applications under that subsection, to draw upon the experience of rent officers in Wales. The vast majority of rent officers in Wales have been made redundant or have been seriously under-employed, since 1965, and in the vast majority of cases—I am sure that this will be so in many areas—the experience of rent officers will be valueless to both housing authorities and the Welsh Office itself. In the extremely short time available, the task will inevitably bear heavily upon the Secretary of State's Department.
I wonder how that Department will deal with the applications which will pour in from Welsh housing authorities under Clause 62(4). I believe that the Welsh Office housing administration will crack under the strain with its lack of experience and expertise in such matters. The Secretary of State does not seem to care. The Department of the Environment at least can command a slightly larger range of experience of administration. The Welsh Office has about one principal to every 10 in the Department of the Environment to deal with the many complex issues which will arise, now under the supreme pressure of a few weeks, in trying to deal with the administration of the Bill.
The whole relationship between local housing authorities in Wales and the Welsh Office, which I hope it is not too boastful to say was extremely good at the time when I had the privilege to serve in the Welsh Office, will be destroyed by the impossible conditions imposed by the Bill on both the local authorities and the Welsh Office. We have not got a Welsh Ulrich. We have not got our man at Whitehall or Cathays Park to be able to deal with the sort of applications made under Clause 62(4).
But the Welsh Office and the Secretary of State will find themselves with many more serious problems than just dealing with Clause 62(4). An increasing number of Welsh housing authorities are moving into a position of non-implementation. The kind of Lords Amendment before us. 1660 which imposes such impossible burdens of administration and which tries to ram things down the throats of local authorities, is the biggest provocation to housing authorities not to implement the Bill that we can think of. If the Government hope to woo housing authorities throughout England and Wales, but particularly radical Socialist Welsh housing authorities, into acceptance of the Bill in principle, or at least reluctant implementation, I cannot think of a single measure which would do more to drive those Welsh housing authorities which have not yet made up their minds in the opposite direction than the absurd imposition of a time limit.
§ Mr. McBride
Is my hon. Friend aware that those of us who represent Welsh constituencies face another difficulty under the Bill, since the Secretary of State referred to in the Bill is the Secretary of State for the Environment and not the Secretary of State for Wales, in whom is reposed executive responsibility for housing in Wales? Does he agree that that is an error?
§ Mr. Rowlands
I did not realise that it was an error. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. If the position is as he says, it should be rapidly amended. I assume, however, that the Secretary of State for Wales will act in his capacity as the Minister responsible for housing, and for the Bill, in a Welsh context.
I was saying that the imposition of an impossible time limit will alienate Welsh housing authorities and drive them into a more extreme position in their opposition to the Bill. My own authority has already decided unanimously not to take any action on the Bill, whether a fortnight or a month after Royal Assent. That was a decision taken not merely by a Socialist council, although I am glad to say that it is of course overwhelmingly Socialist, but by the whole council, including other parties on it. Therefore, in principle my authority is in out and out opposition to the Bill and has no intention of operating it. I understand that Aberdare has decided not to implement it, and I believe that other authorities will follow suit.
At a conference I attended last Saturday, the overwhelming view was that 1661 authorities should consider non-implementation. In these circumstances, what will the Government do in the impossibly short time limit that they are imposing on housing authorities? Have the Government drawn guidelines on how the housing commissioners will perform their tasks? I asked this question a few weeks ago and was told that there would be no need for such guidance: there will be a need now. The housing commissars will need advice and guidance within a fortnight of the Royal Assent. What sort of people will these "commissars" be? What will be their qualifications?
§ Mr. Rowlands
What sort of advertisements with the Government issue for these jobs? Is it possible to place such advertisements within a fortnight of Royal Assent? What situation does the Minister envisage? Normally with jobs of that sort there must be a time limit in order to get references ready.
§ Mr. McBride
Is my hon. Friend saying that by that time the strike will be over and newspapers will be printed again?
§ Mr. Rowlands
An advertisement for a housing commissar in Private Eye would be interesting. I should be interested to see the applications. How do the Government intend to recruit these housing commissars? Will they have time to do so within a fortnight from Royal Assent?
There have been many changes to the Bill in the House of Lords to impose even greater difficulties whether or not the housing commissioner is to be brought into housing authorities such as my own. There is a new provision in Clause 94 1662 which will have an effect on timing. It says that:If a member of the authority…whether before or after the appointment of a Housing Commissioner, does any act having reasonable cause to believe that it is likely to impede, mislead or interfere with a Housing Commissioner or any person carrying out the orders or requirements of a Housing Commissioner, in performing those functions he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £400.A person could be guilty of an offence before the commissioner is appointed. I do not understand that. What sort of impediment or difficulties does this relate to? What is "reasonable cause" in these circumstances? The situation could arise where a member of an authority could be offending some law which has only just been enacted and which is in a state of total confusion. He could be fined up to £400 for apparently misleading or interfering with the housing commissioner who had not been appointed. How are we to work it all out? What ramifications would arise from the application of Clauses 93 to 95 when housing commissioners had not been appointed? The whole administration of the Bill is confused. As with so many other matters, the best course for the Government is to put it on ice while they get things sorted out.
My hon. Friend's have mentioned the results of Clause 62(4). Incidentally, most housing managers still think of it as Clause 63 as it was only a week or so ago. If they refer to the wrong Clause, they will be even more baffled about the man in Whitehall and the Ulrichs of this world.
The Government cannot brush under the carpet all the complexities that will result. The Bill was bad enough in its original form, but with this subsection the Clause is the closest thing to a wrecking Amendment ever introduced by any Government. The Government have wrecked the administration of their own Bill. We do not know what is to be the relationship of the rent scrutiny boards to decisions by the men in Whitehall. We do not know what criteria are to be used.
Only a few weeks ago, I moved an Amendment asking the Minister to stipulate the criteria on which he would make 1663 decisions under Clause 62(4). He replied that there was no need for such a provision, because the Ministry's letters to authorities would be perfectly clear and the criteria would be stated in the clearest possible language, that the Government would give guidance as a matter of courtesy. What courtesy have the Government shown authorities which have already applied? What nicely defined criteria have they drawn up to help authorities understand the administration of the Bill? It is little wonder that an increasing number of authorities are moving towards non-implementation, an understandable position in view of the fundamental evil of the Bill, its evil principles and the complexity of its administration.
There is another reason why housing authorities ought not to be expected to implement the Government's wishes at a fortnight's notice. If they apply to the Government under Clause 62(4) and that application is still outstanding on 1st October, what do they do? On 1st September, they are supposed to send notices giving tenants a month's notice of an increase in rent, but they will not know what that increase is supposed to be. An application will have been made under Clause 62(4). Are they to make the increase £1 and then have the onerous task of collecting back the difference, or will it be impossible for them to notify tenants by how much the rent is to be increased? If by 1st October the Government say that rents must be increased by £1, it will take another month or five weeks for that to come into force and the housing revenue account will fall into arrears. Would there be a surcharge on the councils for the difference?
What happens where a local authority which submits an application under Clause 62(4) has to notify tenants on 1st September of an increase the amount of which it does not know? The council will be in total confusion. The rents which it should charge will not have been collected on the appropriate day and the revenue account will be in arrears. That is the nightmarish situation that can arise within the time-scale envisaged.
More than half the Welsh housing authorities have taken no action on the 1664 Bill. Many of them are small, and many have a housing manager who is also the public health inspector. He will be administering the rent rebates, he will be in charge of estate management, and he will also have to explain the provisions of the Bill to the tenants. How can we expect such an authority to implement a Bill the administration of which is in such total confusion?
The answer is that many local authorities will not be able to do so and will in principle decide not to implement the Bill. Who can blame them? My own authority will not implement the Bill. It regrets that it has been forced into that situation but it draws its authority from the same well of democratic rights as does the right hon. Gentleman the Minister. The democratically-elected representatives of Merthyr Tydvil have a right to say that they cannot honestly implement the Bill. What will the Government do in the two weeks following the Royal Assent in such a situation?
I notice from the Clauses relating to the housing commissioners that it is the duty of the Secretary of State and not of the local authority to take the appropriate action. Will he take action within a fortnight of the Royal Assent? Will he put in housing commissioners before 1st October? Has he enough time and the administrative capacity to do that? It is possible that the administration of the Department may break down under the strain, as will the administrative relationships between a regional Government Department like the Welsh Office and the housing authorities. The housing division of the Welsh Office has a marvellous working relationship with the Welsh housing authorities; as a result of the impossible timetable imposed by the Bill that relationship will be totally destroyed.
A Government Department has to work in close co-operation with local authorities over the whole area of housing—construction, cost yardsticks, and so on—and there is a lot of give and take. There is much real, informal contact. But, just as with the relationship between the trade unions and Government, there will be total alienation between the Welsh housing authorities and the housing department of the Welsh Office. Because of their proximity, because of the much 1665 closer working relationship that they had managed to achieve, the loss will be all the greater.
The Government seek to impose this Measure upon so many Welsh housing authorities with deep principles and amazingly successful housing records. All this will be destroyed by the absurd decision to impose this Bill and ram it down the throat of the Welsh authorities in such a short time.
§ Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington, South)
I was so anxious to impress the Chair with my capacity to speak briefly on Second Reading that I spoke for only two minutes and that did not leave me enough time to give as cordial a welcome to the Bill as I would have liked. Since the Chair has been so indulgent in this debate, I trust that I may be able to make a few more remarks now which may repair the deficiency.
Hon. Members opposite have called upon the Government to show prudence and to delay the coming into effect of the Bill. I could not help reflecting on the famous saying of William Blake that prudence was a rich ugly old maid, courted by incapacity. We have to recollect that the pace of change in local government has perhaps not been so stretching and extreme as the abilities of the many fine men who take part in local life would have permitted in past years.
I believe that the country will surprise itself when it finds how rapidly it can accustom itself to much more rapid administrative change in local government affairs. I think it was Dr. Johnson who said that when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully. I cannot help congratulating my right hon. and hon. Friends for the way they have set such a high rate of striking in getting this Bill away. They are really setting a thrilling and exciting target for local government.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) is not with us now to hear my sincere congratulations on his absolutely brilliant opening speech. It was a speech of such hilarity that it would have been entirely out of place if he really now any longer had serious reservations about the Bill. What he gave us was an outstanding parliamentary performance and it showed that he was 1666 using the Bill as a vehicle for his wit rather than for his venom. He took us on a whistle-stop tour from one end of our island to another at breathtaking speed. I could not help wondering whether it would not be more agreeable for hon. Members if, instead of sitting here until two o'clock in the morning to discuss the Bill, we were all to get into char bancs and tour the country and learn from the various local authorities the right hon. Gentleman mentioned how they will tackle housing reform.
In spite of my intervention on Second Reading, which was designed entirely to get myself selected for the Committee, I did not have that pleasure. [Laughter.] I am putting that absolutely sincerely. Housing is one of the most important considerations in the borough which I have the honour to represent and I sincerely wanted to study this Bill, together with other hon. Members, in Committee. I now find that I am not able to follow all the private jokes which hon. Members who served on the Committee have been exchanging.
Before I leave the question of the pace of change which we are imposing on local authorities, may I remind the House of the way in which right hon. and hon. spokesmen for the administration of National Insurance pensions came forward year after year to assure the House how impossible it was to introduce increases in pensions except after months and months of tedious and agonising delay. That has now all changed. I cannot help asking myself whether that may be partly due to the evidence of a small parliamentary delegation which went to Brussels and examined how the administration of pensions was dealt with there.
I had the good fortune to be a member of that delegation. At the same time as we were explaining that it would be months before an increase in National Insurance pensions could be implemented, we learned that in Belgium, provided that those responsible knew the new figures they were to pay by the last week of one month, they were able to introduce the new figures at the end of the first week of the following month. In other words, they needed 10 or 14 days to make the necessary changes. I believe the arguments which we have heard about the impossibility of implementing the Bill 1667 will be seen to melt into nothing when local authorities face the challenge.
We have heard from hon. Members opposite about the increases in rents which will accompany the Bill, but we have not heard much about the benefits which it will bring in the form of housing allowances for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people who will receive a housing subsidy for the first time. Those people will not thank the Labour Party for its efforts to delay the implementation of this important reform. I am certain that the thousands of people in Kensington who will find themselves eligible for housing allowances will remember the fight which right hon. and hon. Members opposite put up against the Bill.
We have heard something about the inflationary effect of the Bill. It is important to say, in the context of a long programme of social reform, that the Bill as was also shown in the White Paper, introduces new child allowances of 40p, 50p, 60p per week or thereabouts. We welcome that because it gives extra benefit to the people whose families require the biggest outgoings. I have often made the point that when there is an increase in the cost of living it appears in the official tables as an increase in percentage terms, but it is in fact an increase in terms of pence or pounds a week. Whereas a single person suffers once from an increase in the cost of living, a married couple with children may suffer from that same increase three, four or five times over. Therefore, it is progressive legislation which selects the people with families for the biggest benefits.
Over the last 200 years, consciously or unconsciously, legislation has recognised that family men have the biggest burden to bear. When income tax was introduced in 1798 there was built into it a negative child allowance. In the 19th century the cheap food policy was implemented which, obviously, offers the biggest benefit to the man with the largest number of mouths to feed. That policy continued into the 20th century with the food subsidies. There was then the implementation of free education, which is also of benefit to the family and is not of any direct benefit to the majority of single people. Family allowances were 1668 introduced in 1945, a direct cash subsidy based on citizenship and not related to need.
I welcome the basic thinking behind the Bill because it introduces allowances which are not directly related to a fixed concept of the poverty line. It takes us away from the idea of benefits concentrated selectively and absolutely on those in need. We find from examination of the table of weekly rebates and allowances which the Bill will implement that allowances are available even for people with substantial incomes—considerably in excess, for instance, of the average wage.
So, in this social reform, we have broken away from the concept that payment should be concentrated only on those in direst and most absolute need.
I think that the Opposition, who have thrown their weight against the implementation of the Bill, have been making an extremely serious miscalculation. In retrospect they will see that they have been trying to hold up a necessary and important reform which in the end had to come. I am glad that it has come as a result of the Government's efforts, and I cannot wait for the day it begins.
§ Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Kensington, North)
The hon. Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams) congratulated my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) on using his speech as a vehicle for wit. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on using his speech as a vehicle for a great deal of erudition in a great many affairs. We have heard references to Blake and Dr. Johnson, to the tax laws over the last 200 years and to pensions in other countries. But we have not heard from the hon. Gentleman much about housing, and it is obvious from what he said that he does not know a great deal about the contents of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman represents part of the same borough as I represent. I believe that at the next General Election he will be seeking to represent the part I now represent. I fear that his ignorance of the impact of the Bill will be a handicap to him for many years to come. He gives the Bill a cordial welcome and refers to the benefits which derive from it. When he refers to the rent allowances, he appears wholly to ignore the fact that 1669 they are not available to furnished tenancies and that 35 per cent. of all households in our borough are in furnished premises.
§ Sir B. Rhys Williams
The hon. Gentleman is characteristically skating very near the edge of untruth when he says that those in furnished accommodation are not going to benefit. He could not have been attending very closely when my right hon. Friend replied to an Amendment which the hon. Gentleman himself introduced and which I supported. His is not really a very worthy comment for one of the Members for the borough I represent.
§ Mr. Douglas-Mann
I do not quite know on what basis the hon. Gentleman justifies his reference to me as characteristically skating near the edge of untruth. The Bill does not provide forrent allowance to furnished tenancies. If there are to be rent allowance for furnished tenants, they will be from some other source.
The hon. Gentleman gives a cordial welcome to the Bill. I join my colleagues who have urged the severe administrative difficulties which are likely to result from the extremely short time-scale involved as a result of this Amendment. I do so for the reasons advanced by my hon. Friends and because two weeks can indeed be a very long time in politics—not a very original phrase. Three weeks ago there were still many hon. Members opposite pleased and content with the Industrial Relations Act. A very short period has changed their feelings about it. I hope that within a similar short period the Government will reconsider the impact of this Bill on one of the major problems facing the country—the runaway spiral of housing prices.
This Bill will have an exaggerating effect on the rise in house prices. We have seen a very sharp rise in those prices over the last year. I have in front of me figures published by the Nationwide Building Society—
§ It being Ten o'clock the debate stood adjourned.