HC Deb 25 June 1974 vol 875 cc1409-13
Sir B. Rhys Williams

I beg to move Amendment No. 77. in page 93, line 13, leave out 'approved by the local authority on or before 30th September'

and insert: 'received by the local authority on or before 23rd June'. I should declare an interest, in that members of my family own a house which is subject to a grant which could be affected by the amendment. That is why I am aware of the circumstances, which I should like briefly to put to the Minister. He will be aware that several local authorities have had difficulty in tackling all the applications for grants which were made last year and in some cases there have been considerable delays in giving approvals. Applications received well before 30th September were not dealt with in time, and may not have been dealt with for a number of weeks or even months after that. The result, of course, was that work could not begin, and with the shortages of materials and other difficulties of the building industry early in 1974 it has been a struggle for work to be completed to a satisfactory standard by 23rd June.

In the case of which I have personal knowledge, the builder has completed the work, but he might not have done so, and I am sure that in many other cases the work has not been completed in time for the reasons I have given. If the hon. Gentleman would care to make inquiries, I think he would find that this is a matter which deserves attention and that the local authorities would like an amendment of this sort to be made.

Moreover, I think that Clause 102(3) sanctions the idea that the date on which the application is received should be made the criterion rather than the date on which it is approved, because, in the case of housing associations, as I read the clause, it is the date on which the application was received by the Secretary of State that is built in. The date is left as 30th September. Thus, in suggesting that the date should be put back to 23rd June I am weakening the effects of my own amendment, and if the Minister were prepared to leave in the date of 30th September and catch thereby a certain further number of cases, I would make no complaint about that. I hope he will look at the matter. The cost would be small but the case is just. Perhaps he could produce an amendment in another place.

Mr. Tyler

I referred to this matter on Second Reading. As I said then, it is unfair that the applicant should be caught by the inefficiency of the receiving authority. It is a simple principle that he should not suffer if, by mischance or by maladministration, a local authority is slow in dealing with the application. In some cases they have been slow, whether by default or accident one cannot be too sure. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) and I in our different areas are able to report such experiences.

It seems wrong in such circumstances that the applicant should find himself caught out by the machinery of local government. The Minister may say that a great deal of money is involved. That may be so, but he should seriously consider whether a later date would not be fairer than that already fixed.

Mr. Freeson

We are talking about a situation arising from the Housing Act 1971. That Act was introduced not purely for housing purposes but for employment purposes in the development and intermediate areas. The case was made out clearly at the time by myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends in opposition, and it was accepted in that the Act did not relate the 75 per cent. grant to areas of housing stress but to development and intermediate areas for economic and employment reasons. It was clear that the grant applied to such areas.

Secondly, the deadline was laid down clearly by the Conservative Government. The Act was clearly intended to be a short, sharp measure. It was originally intended to run for a year, but when there was much pressure for the period to be extended to two years the Government agreed, making it clear that there could not be any further extension. There could or should have been no misunderstanding about the position under that Act—namely, that it was due to run out on 23rd June this year.

1.0 a.m.

However, we received representations about this matter when we came into office. I am aware of the position referred to by the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams). I could not have been unaware of it in view of the representations that we have received.

Having been under pressure for some months to soften the impact of the terminal date for these preferential grants, mainly because of delays occasioned by the three-day week, I gave long and careful consideration to all the factors. The Government then announced, on 30th April, their intention to amend the law, as they did, by altering the Bill.

Various requests have been made for concessions of different kinds, mostly involving a later date than 30th September 1973, which is the amendment we have put into the Bill, as the date by which applications must have been approved to be in receipt of the 75 per cent. grant, even if the work was not completed until after the 23rd June deadline. Varying permutations have been suggested, such as that referred to by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler).

The Government decided on applications approved on or before 30th September 1973 on the basis that, given an average of about nine months for completion of a scheme, based upon information about the operation of improvement grants, it was considered fair to help those who could be said to have obtained their approvals in adequate time and who in that sense had been particularly hard hit by recent difficulties and delays in the building industry due to the three-day week.

The Government accept that many good cases can be made. That is bound to be so wherever we draw the deadline. The situation would be totally unacceptable without a deadline. There are bound to be rough cases on one side or the other. However, to extend it further along the lines proposed would involve the expenditure of about £70 million. It is estimated that about £8 million per month would be involved. That cannot be a hard figure. We cannot be absolutely sure about that without operating in the sphere of improvement grants. That is a reasonable estimate based on experience.

We have given an extension to those affected by the three-day week. We cannot accept any further extension. We must move as rapidly as possible to the housing area concept where we see the 75 per cent. grant reintroduced on a proper housing basis as distinct from the employment basis in the 1971 Act.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

I am grateful for the attention that the Minister has paid to my point. I am amazed at the figure of £70 million. It must arise from some misunderstanding. We are talking about the difference between a 50 per cent. and a 75 per cent. grant. The putting back of the date to 23rd June also puts back the stage of the applications being put in, not the approval. The Minister does not seem to have appreciated that point.

If 23rd June is not early enough, then the principle supported by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler) should still be applied. The date of application would be the criterion, not the date of approval, because not all local authorities have acted with equal speed.

If the Minister will apply his fair mind to this point he will recognise that there is a good case here. If £70 million is more than he is willing to give, may I ask him nevertheless to accept the date of application. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If the Minister's figure is right and there is £70 million worth of work for the 25 per cent. over the 50 per cent. which was received in applications in June 1973, but was not approved by the end of September 1973, that is an incredible amount of work to be held up in the backlog of local government offices. I think that the Minister must have quoted the wrong figure.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. This is a matter that needs to be looked at again, perhaps not at 1.5 a.m. but in another place. The Minister can only expect uproar at his ruling if £70 million is at stake. I cannot believe it. I invite him to look at this again.

In view of the lateness of the hour and the difficulty of ascertaining precisely what the facts are, it would be taking the proper course if I were to ask the House for leave to withdraw my amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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