HC Deb 20 June 1973 vol 858 cc654-6
4. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he has now made to prevent profiteering from the abuse of housing improvement grants.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Paul Channon)

I would refer the hon. Member to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) on 12th June.—[Vol. 857, c. 292–3.]

Mr. Hamilton

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the recent White Paper, Cmnd. 5339, will do virtually nothing to stop the exploitation and profiteering that is going on, particularly in the stress areas, which will increase between now and the proposed legislation indicated in the White Paper? Will the Minister give local authorities the power to put a suspension or moratorium on the making of improvement grants in stress areas where there is evidence of their exploitation for profit purposes?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. Local authorities already have these powers. It is a discretionary grant; local authorities make improvement grants at their discretion. I have already urged them many times not to make grants if they feel that the sort of things to which the hon. Member refers are going on. The proposals in the White Paper will have substantial effects after the legislation is passed.

Sir John Hall

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a case for requiring local authorities to impose a certain length of time during which the person obtaining the improvement grant must remain in occupation? There are many cases of people obtaining the grant and then selling the house, making a profit out of the grant.

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend will have read the White Paper and will know that, subject to consultations now going on, it provides new discretionary powers for local authorities to attach conditions.

Mr. Stallard

Does the Minister accept that that reply is exactly to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), who says that pending legislation arising from the White Paper people are worried about the kind of abuses that have been going on, which will go on, and will get worse? Is he aware that three old-age pensioners spent last night at No. 77 Leverton Street, N.W.5. in a house with no roof on it, under the pelting rain, because the roof had been taken off by the landlord, who is converting the property without having obtained planning permission for any of the improvements? Further, is he aware that landlords can continue with that process until legislation is introduced?

Mr. Channon

On the contrary, the discretion to make an improvement grant remains one for the local authority. I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman's local authority made an improvement grant under those conditions.

Sir G. Nabarro

I recognise that occasionally there is an abuse of the grant, but does not my hon. Friend agree that over the past two or three years there has been an enormous increase in housing costs and that properly the amount of the grant should be substantially increased and not diminished?

Mr. Channon

I do not think that it is necessary, in general, to take immediate action to raise the maximum amount of the grant. As is made clear in the White Paper, at the moment only 20 per cent. of all improvement grants are within £100 of the existing ceiling.

Mr. Freeson

The Minister has constantly reiterated the point about local authorities having discretion which will allow them to withhold grants in the circumstances referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard). Is he not aware that his own officials, in evidence to the Select Committee's sub-committee, have raised grave doubts about the legal powers of local authorities to use their discretion in this way? Further, will he consider urgently the suggestion that the right way to handle this matter, at least in the stress areas, is to introduce speedy legislation to authorise local authorities to take over and exercise management responsibilities at a moment's notice, as was suggested with regard to empty office buildings a year ago?

Mr. Channon

I am not sure how proper it is for me to refer to evidence given to a Select Committee which, as I understand it, is still sitting. Local authorities have the right either to make improvement grants or to refrain from doing so. That is a discretion which they have, and which they have always had.

Mr. Stallard

On a point of order. In view of the entirely unsatisfactory replies to the questions that have been raised, I beg to give notice that I intend to raise this matter on the Adjournment as soon as possible.