HC Deb 26 June 1974 vol 875 cc1658-65
Mr. Robin F. Cook

I beg to move Amendment No. 29 in page 4, line 33, leave out '£2,400' and insert '£3,000'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

With this amendment it will be appropriate to discuss Amendment No. 30, in page 5, line 7, leave out '£800' and insert '£1,000'.

Mr. Cook

I have tabled the amendment so that the House may have an opportunity to discuss the level of improvement grants and the maximum that has been written into the Bill. It is important that the House should realise that the level set out in this measure is the same as that set out in the 1969 Act. There has been no increase in the level of grants in the past five years, yet we are all aware that there has been an increase in housing costs during that period.

I was kept here until an intolerable hour last night, and I hope that it will not happen again tonight, but at least it gave me the opportunity of consulting the quarterly issue of "Housing and Construction Statistics" in the Library. I found from that document that between 1969 and the third quarter of 1973 house building costs overall increased by 65 per cent. There was an increase also in the cost of materials which are used in the process of modernisation and improvement. For instance, during those four years the cost of sanitary ware increased by 40 per cent., the cost of hardwood by 90 per cent. and the cost of metal furnishings, such as hinges, by 45 per cent.

I have also received information from the housing association in Edinburgh, which is one of the largest in Scotland and has one of the biggest improvement programmes, that over the past five years the cost of modernising a room and kitchen in a tenement has doubled. That is precisely the kind of property that we wish to see improved as a result of the Bill.

A figure of £2,400 is given in the Bill. There is widespread belief that that figure represents the maximum improvement grant, but it does not. It represents the maximum allowable expenditure on which an improvement grant will be calculated. In effect, the maximum 50 per cent. grant is £1,200, and £1,200 today will not buy the kind of housing services which it bought in 1969.

My case has already been admitted by the Government. The standard grants in Schedule 1 have been increased substantially. The standard grant for the provision of a bath has been increased from £30 to £50, an increase of 66 per cent. The standard grant for the creation of a toilet has been increased from £50 to £75, an increase of 50 per cent. The standard grant for the insertion of a sink has been increased from £15 to £50. an an increase of 230 per cent. If we admit the case for an increase in the level of standard grants, it is nonsense not to do so for discretionary grants.

The amendment is moderate. It proposes a modest increase of only 25 per cent. I do not pretend that that increase corresponds to the increase in prices over the past five years but at least it recognises that increases have occurred.

I recognise that the amendment has significant financial implications. My hon. Friend may feel that it is inappropriate to insert it in the Bill on Report. He may wish for time to digest what I and other hon. Members say in the debate, and if I can help to give him that time by withdrawing the amendment I shall consider doing so.

I believe that my hon. Friend has power to introduce a statutory instrument to vary the maximum level of improvement grants. Before I consider withdrawing the amendment, I am sure the House will want from him an assurance that he will consider whether a case already exists for increasing the maximum level of the improvement grant.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I am glad to support the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). The words of the amendment are moderate, as indeed was his speech. The figure, as he said, was laid down in 1969. Inflationary costs in the building trade, which is perhaps the trade most seriously affected by inflation, make it necessary for that ceiling to be reviewed. The work of housing associations and the financing of the voluntary housing movement will be made more difficult by the maintenance of this five-year-old ceiling.

When the White Paper was under discussion, I had a conversation with a member of the previous administration, from which I gained the impression that one argument put forward when the 75 per cent. improvement grant scheme was replaced by the 50 per cent. scheme was that 75 per cent. of the old ceiling might be much the same as 50 per cent. of a new ceiling if and when legislation were introduced. There is acute disappointment that the Bill provides no increase in the ceiling when the grant offered is being cut back to 50 per cent.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central has asked for a modest increase which will not fully meet the inflationary costs. Have the Government cut back for financial reasons? That would at least be a reason that we could understand. If that is not so, the Government must justify their failure to increase the figure.

If the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central does not receive the assurance he seeks—and I advise him to seek a firm assurance—I hope that he will not withdraw the amendment but that he will press it.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) that this is an important amendment. The Government should at least show sympathy to the general sentiments which have been advanced. Although the total level of expenditure on improvement grants has increased substantially—and no Government can ignore the amount of cash involved—and although improvement grants have not necessarily gone to the properties for which they were originally designed, in view of the escalating costs the figure of £2,400 should be reviewed. It is unlikely that we shall have another housing Bill for some considerable time.

Unless we have a clearer idea of the amount of work involved in the new 75 per cent. and 90 per cent. grants, it might be difficult for the Government to give a categorical assurance, but I hope that the Minister will show sympathy and understanding.

Mr. Milan

May I first refer to Amendment No. 30, which has not been mentioned. As the repairs grant is a new grant, it is difficult to argue that the figure is out of date. Therefore, there is no case for an increase from £800 to £1,000.

Coming to Amendment No. 29, the limit was fixed in 1969. There was a substantial increase in 1969, from £1,000 to £2,400, and there was in that an element of built-in inflation—proofing for subsequent years. It is perhaps a little misleading to make a straight comparison between 1969 and the present, and to say that nothing has been done in the interval. In term of present-day costs it is difficult to defend £2,400 as being right, if we considered it to be right in 1969. As the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) said, one has to have regard to the overall expenditure and the sort of improvement that one wishes to see carried out under the terms of the Bill.

The limit is under review. After the Bill goes through we shall be able, if necessary, to amend the figure. I cannot give any indication of what the new figure might be, but it is under review. After the Bill has gone through we shall be able to consider it right up to date. If necessary, we would be able to increase the limit. However, I cannot give an absolute assurance on that point tonight.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. David Steel

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to introduce legislation five years after the last legislation, and to indicate that if the House leaves the figure as it is there will be a review after the legislation has gone through, is a peculiar procedure?

Mr. Millan

No. If we review the figure after the Bill goes through, we may get some indication of any reaction that there may be in housing action areas. That is important in the context of total Government expenditure. We shall then be able to obtain the most up-to-date information and there will be no difficulty about reviewing the figure because any increase can be made by order.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's assurance. I should like to press him further on two matters. I appreciate that he cannot disclose any figure that he may have in mind. However, I understood him to say not that the review would take place after the Bill goes through but that it is taking place now. If so, he must have some idea of the time scale. Will he indicate when we are likely to hear any announcement following the review?

I apologise if I and other hon. Members were remiss in not mentioning the repairs grant. That is a new grant. Therefore, it may be unfair to compare it with 1969. Nevertheless, I am aware of criticism of the grant, particularly by major urban authorities, not because it will fail to cater for repairs to any one dwelling but because it is not considered adequate to deal with possible structural repairs in tenements in housing action areas. Will he keep that level under review and not neglect it?

Mr. Millan

That level, too, can be changed by order. This is a completely new grant. It is difficult to review it when it has not come into operation. We must have some experience of how it operates.

I should like to make a general point about public expenditure. We must have some priorities in this whole area. We are introducing a special provision for housing action areas. The Government are providing valuable assistance to those areas because they believe that priority should go to areas where there is the maximum need for improvement.

This is one example of looking at the scene as a whole and determining where additional money can best be placed. I accept that there is a strong argument about the maximum limit here. I hope that soon after the Bill has become an Act we shall be able to announce our conclusions on the review.

Mr. Dempsey

Will my hon. Friend comment on the approach to the incorporation of repairs for improvement grant purposes? This matter has been advocated for many years and I am delighted to congratulate him on introducing this element. However, I should have thought that the Department would have some idea about the extent of repairs. Many cases have been put to the Department about repairs. The claims are usually for structural improvements to houses which should attract improvement grants. Therefore, they must have provided some guide to the value to be placed on the repairs element to arrive at the figure of £2,400. Has my hon. Friend any information on that point?

Mr. Millan

We have carried out certain surveys—for example, in Glasgow. Our information is that it is reasonable. For example for a tenement building with eight or 10 apartments, if the £800 is multiplied by eight or 10 a substantial figure is made available for repairs. After experience we can look at it again and, if it is not a reasonable figure, we can change it. The £800 is subsumed in the £2,400. By adding to one we inevitably take away a little from the other. All these matters will be kept under review and, if necessary, we can make any changes by order.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

In view of the assurance that I have received from my

hon. Friend, that the matter is under active review and that we can expect an announcement soon after the Bill becomes law, I shall seek leave to withdraw the amendment. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If hon. Gentlemen had thought to be present and had taken an interest in the Committee stage of the Bill and had perhaps put down their own amendments, they might have had a better locus for speaking in the debate. I hope that after the review we may have a figure even greater than the £3,000 which I have included in my amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Hon. Members


Question put, That the amendment be made:

The House divided: Ayes 16, Noes 130.

Division No. 56.] AYES 18.35 p.m.
Crowder, F. P. Stanbrook, Ivor Winstanley, Dr. Michael
Ewing, Mrs. Winifred (Moray & Nairn) Stewart, Donald (Western Isles) Winterton, Nicholas
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Thorpe, Rt. Hn. Jeremy
Kilfedder, James A. Tyler, Paul TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
MacCormack, Iain Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley) Mr. David Steel and
Reid, George Watt, Hamish Mr. Douglas Henderson
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Wilson, Gordon (Dundee, E.)
Archer, Peter Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Marshall, Dr. Edmund (Goole)
Armstrong, Ernest Evans, John (Newton) Meacher, Michael
Ashton, Joe Ewing, Harry (St'ling, F'klrk & G'm'th) Millan, Bruce
Bates, Alf Flannery, Martin Molloy, William
Baxter, William Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Bidwell, Sydney Fowler, Gerry (The Wrekin) Murray, Ronald King
Bishop, E. S. Galpern, Sir Myer Oakes, Gordon
Blenkinsop, Arthur George, Bruce O'Halloran, Michael
Boardman, H. Golding, John O'Malley, Brian
Booth, Albert Gou'lay, Harry Orbach, Maurice
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Graham, Ted Ovenden, John
Broughton, Sir Alfred Grant, John (Islington, C.) Palmer, Arthur
Brown, Hugh D. (Glasgow, Provan) Griffiths, Eddie (Sheffield, Brightside) Perry, Ernest G.
Buchan, Norman Hamilton, William (Fife, C.) Phipps, Dr. Colin
Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Springb'rn) Harper, Joseph Prescott, John
Callaghan, Jim (M'dd'ton & Pr'wich) Hooley, Frank Price, Christopher (Lewisham, W.)
Campbell, Ian Hughes, Rt. Hn. Cledwyn (Anglesey) Radice, Giles
Cant, R. B. Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen, North) Robertson, John (Paisley)
Carmichael, Neil Hunter, Adam Roderick, Caerwyn E.
Cocks, Michael John, Brynmor Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Cohen, Stanley Jones, Dan (Burnley) Rooker, J. W.
Coleman, Donald Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Ross, Rt. Hn. William (Kilmarnock)
Colquhoun, Mrs. M. N. Judd, Frank Sedgemore, Bryan
Craigen, J. M. (G'gow. Maryhill) Kaufman, Gerald Selby, Harry
Crawshaw, Richard Kilroy-Silk, Robert Silkin, Rt. Hn. S.C. (S'hwark, Dulwich)
Cronin, John Lamond, James Sillars, James
Cryer, G. R. Latham, Arthur(City of W'minsterP'ton) Skinner, Dennis
Dalyell, Tam Lawson. George (Motherwell & Wishaw) Small, William
Davidson, Arthur Leadbitter, Ted Smith, John (Lanarkshire, N)
Davies, Bryan (Enfield, N.) Lee, John Spriggs, Leslie
Davies. Ifor (Gower) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Stewart, Rt. Hn. M. (H'sth.Fulh'm)
Dell, Rt. Hn. Edmund Loughlin, Charles Stott, Roger
Dempsey, James Loyden, Eddie Strang, Gavin
Doig, Peter Lyon, Alexander W. (York) Thorne, Stan (Preston, S.)
Dormand, J. D. McCartney, Hugh Tierney, Sydney
Douglas-Mann, Bruce McElhone, Frank Tinn, James
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth Maclennan, Robert Tomllnson, John
Eadie, Alex McNamara, Kevin Urwin, T. W.
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scunthorpe) Madden, M. O. F. Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Mahon, Simon Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
English. Michael Marks, Kenneth Wellbeloved, James
White, James Wilson, William (Coventry, S.E.) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Whitehead, Phillip Wise, Mrs. Audrey Mr. James Hamilton and
Williams, Alan Lee (Hvrng, Hchurch) Young, David (Bolton, E.) Mr. James A. Dunn.
Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)

Question accordingly negatived.

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