HC Deb 12 December 1973 vol 866 cc396-9
10. Mr. Ewing

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what is the total amount of rent arrears owed by local authority tenants in Scotland, to the nearest available date; and what was the amount at the same date in 1972, 1971 and 1970.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

This information is not kept centrally.

Mr. Ewing

Do I take it that the Scottish Office has stopped collecting information on local authority housing? Is the Minister aware that over the last few Scottish Question Times my Questions have been designed to monitor the effects of the Housing Finance Act on local authority housing in Scotland? Is he further aware that those Questions reveal that new houses are almost as short as are Tories on a Scottish Questions day, that housing queues are longer than they have been since the mid-1950s and that the debt owed in rent arrears by Scottish local authority tenants is at its highest level in the history of local authority housing in Scotland? Is the right hon. Gentleman proud of his record? Does he expect to improve on it in 1974, or does he forecast that in that year it will get worse?

Mr. Younger

The record referred to by the hon. Gentleman is not a record at all; it is a piece of splendid private enterprise invention by him. The effects of the Housing Finance Act are well seen throughout the country in the vast number of rent rebates that are being paid. It is disturbing that in recent years there has been an increase in the number of families with rent arrears. It is imporant that we should try to find out the precise reason for this. That reason cannot be the absence of rent rebate schemes. We have better and more generous rent rebate schemes than ever before, with more Government finance to help them, and that is the result of the 1972 Housing Finance Act, which it is about time the hon. Gentleman learned to appreciate.

Mr. Edward Taylor

Is the Minister aware that despite the splendid assistance offered by rent rebate schemes, particularly to many poor families in Glasgow, and other towns, there is an enormous increase in the number of evictions and abscondences for non-payment of rent? Would it not help families in receipt of supplementary benefits to get a rent allowance in that form if the allowance were paid direct? This would remove a lot of hardship and would be much appreciated by the many families involved.

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend's constructive suggestion. We are conducting conversations with our colleagues to see whether it is possible to arrange that. One presumes that the families who find it difficult to pay rent are either people who should be getting rent rebates and are not getting them —and that is something to which local authorities and housing departments must give attention—or, alternatively, people with large incomes who are perfectly able to pay their rent but are not doing so.

Mr. McElhone

Is not that a totally unsatisfactory answer? Will the Minister assure the House that he will discuss with local authorities the weekly payment of rents and discuss with electricity boards the payment of electricity accounts on a monthly basis? Would not these two schemes go a long way towards preventing families having to leave their homes, of which there were 3,000 in Glasgow last year?

Mr. Younger

I have agreed that it is a worrying situation. What I am disputing is that it has anything directly to do with the Housing Finance Act. It is because I agree that it is a worrying situation that I have commissioned a study of the procedure for dealing with rent arrears. The results of the study, which is being undertaken by the local government operational research unit, are expected to be available in spring next year. I also intend shortly to issue advice to local authorities on measures, including improved methods of rent collection, that they can take to reduce the possibility of tenants incurring arrears. I shall be in no way backward in doing everything I can to solve this problem.

Mrs. MacDonald

Does not the Minister agree that there is a direct relationship between the increasing number of families who are in arrears with rent and the implementation of the Housing Finance Act—as he has conceded that it is probably the families most in need of rent rebate who are paying artificially high rents?

Mr. Younger

I am sorry to have to disagree with the hon. Lady on her first supplementary question. If families find they cannot pay their rent they are entitled to rent rebate. If people in the hon. Lady's constituency are not getting rent rebate, she can no doubt explain to them how to get it. For instance, taking a married couple with two children, if the rent is £3 a week the man has to earn over £36.50 a week before going out of rebate. No one can say that that is a low income.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is it not extraordinary that the Minister has no record of rent arrears and yet is so worried that he has commissioned a special study of the matter? Did he make no effort to find the information in reply to the Question? Unless he has the information he will not be able to find a cure.

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman can get information from his own local authority if he wishes to do so, but it would mean quite a lot of work for the local authority to collect it. The position is clear. We want to do all we can to alleviate the situation. We are doing all we can and will continue to do so. We must try to identify the correct cause and not concentrate on the imaginary causes which hon. Gentlemen opposite, who have always opposed it, would like to assign to the Housing Finance Act.