HC Deb 12 April 1978 vol 947 cc1366-9
2. Mr. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further measures he is taking to improve confidence in the construction industry.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

In addition to the £800 million extra public expenditure up to 1980, announced previously, the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced yesterday will benefit the construction industry by about £100 million of public expenditure. The investment incentives for hotels and agricultural buildings will generate further new work. The industry will also benefit from the changed tax arrangements for small firms. The tax relief for partners in consulting firms resident here and working abroad will benefit the industry also.

Mr. Knox

Is the Minister aware that the lack of confidence in the construction industry means that not enough young people are entering into apprenticeships and that in the future the consequent shortage of skilled workers in the industry will put very serious constraints on its capacity to expand?

Mr. Freeson

I make two points in answer to the hon. Gentleman. First, in the midst of a major recession such as that through which we are going, one is obviously very seriously concerned about job prospects, which influence the intake of apprentices. On the other hand, it has to be said that in view of the very grave difficulties that the industry has experienced in the past three or four years, the maintaining of the standards and the numbers of apprentices training in the industry are very commendable.

Mr. Hardy

Is it not the case that many Conservative-controlled local authorities—unfortunately, they are in the majority—are deliberately refusing to build and are spending well below Government limits, which they then use as an excuse, whereas some local authorities, such as Rotherham Borough Council, have been able to maintain an admirable programme, to the benefit of many of those whom I represent and of the construction industry? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the commendable are commended and the irresponsible criticised, if only to ensure that the building industry maintains efficiency?

Mr. Freeson

I certainly accept the general point that my hon. Friend makes. Along with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, I shall be meeting housing authorities around the country during the coming months to discuss their housing investment programmes, the problems that they have had and the weaknesses of their programmes and policies as we see them. I hope that as a result of this and other contacts that we have with them, those authorities which have decided to cut back unnecessarily and wrongly will decide to make good their programmes. This also is an important contribution to maintaining construction industry activity and the levels of apprenticeship intake.

Mr. Emery

Does the Minister realise that the construction industry expected a much greater incentive from the Budget yesterday, and that the announcements made would not be adequate even for the South-West to correct the unemployment problem there? Why has the Minister had so little influence on the Chancellor in terms of giving greater assistance to the construction industry?

Mr. Freeson

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman could have been paying close enough attention either to the statement yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor or, indeed, to previous announcements that have been made by him and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As I have already indicated today, there has been a major financial input into the industry—now well over £800 million. We want to see that expenditure taken up. That is the issue that is being put to me now. I urge the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to get in touch with their friends in local government to ensure that the programmes are taken up and that the construction industry is maintained at as high a level as we can provide resources for.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Knowsley Metropolitan District Council has the worst housing problem in the country, that it also receives less financial assistance from the Government than is the national average, and that it also happens to have a large number of unemployed construction workers? Does he accept that he could deal with both of these problems together and make a very valuable contribution to providing employment on Merseyside and dealing with the real housing problems of Knowsley if he were far more generous with financial assistance to the council?

Mr. Freeson

My first comment on that is that the North-West Region had by far the biggest increase of the whole country in resource allocation for 1978 and onwards. If there are individual authorities that feel that the deployments of the regional budgets that we have made available have not assisted them properly, they are certainly welcome to get in touch with my Department and, indeed, with myself, and we shall do what we can during the course of the year to assist them to maintain the building and rehabilitation programmes to which they have set their minds.

Mr. Alison

What efforts did the Minister or his right hon. Friend make to try to persuade the Chancellor not to raise minimum lending rate? Or does the Minister think that the increase in MLR will help to bring forward more orders for the construction industry?

Mr. Freeson

As the hon. Gentleman well knows from his own experience, we do not debate at Question Time, across the Floor of the House, the internal discussions that take place in Government.

On the general point, I would not expect the announcement made yesterday with regard to MLR to have any significant effect on the construction industry. Certainly I would not expect it to have any effect on mortgage rates—a subject which has been mentioned in the media.

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