§ Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.8.32 pm
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
As the House will be aware, this is a small, two-clause Bill and has only one basic provision—to raise the borrowing limits of the Scottish Special Housing Association from the present maximum of £500 million to £600 million, with provision for a further increase of £150 million by order of the Secretary of State.
It is expected that the Scottish Special Housing Association will reach its present limit by early next year, and it is therefore desirable to allow this increased borrowing facility to enable it to continue its work. The Opposition have approached the Bill in a constructive spirit, both on Second Reading and in Committee, for which I congratulate and thank them. On that basis, am confident that the House will be anxious to give the Bill its Third Reading.
§ Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for his congratulations. I know that he means them. I assure him that I shall not live up to the reputation that was a little unkindly foisted upon me by the Under-Secretary of State for Trade. Obviously taking his own words seriously, he fled the Chamber as I rose.
I accept that this is a non-controversial Bill, in one strict sense. No opposition Member objects to the raising of the financial limits for the Scottish Special Housing Association.
It is common ground that housing finance is never noncontroversial in a political sense. We in Scotland are rightly worried about the effect of the Government's policies on housing. Local authorities and the SSHA are starved of the funds that we believe should be available to them. The Minister will be aware of the fundamental difference between a nominal borrowing limit and the consent and authorisation to borrow or to spend, which the SSHA, like any other public service agency, needs from Government. The fact that we are raising the financial limits from £500 million to £600 million, with a possible further £150 million, is of little consolation if the Government are to cut the resources that are in reality available to the SSHA.
In this week of very severe weather it is not a bad time to consider the state of housing in Scotland and the condition of the SSHA's own stock. Nothing affects the quality of life so fundamentally as the houses in which people live. In the 92,000 houses owned by the SSHA—and the same applies to local authority housing stock—we have seen under this Government's financial policies a steady and lamentable deterioration in the quality and choice of housing available.
I look at the SSHA's record, bearing in mind that it will be affected by the Bill, and I see that it is one of steady decline, not in the competence of the organisation, but in the range of activities that it has been able to undertake because of the financial limitations imposed upon it by the Government. It is a tragedy that we see a new build programme for the SSHA that is less than one-third of 87 what it was in the mid-1970s. We see the necessity to update and upgrade the facilities available. According to the last annual report of the SSHA, it was possible to improve only half the number that was managed in 1979 and barely one-quarter of the number managed in 1977.
The Minister claimed credit, rather coyly, for not suggesting that there had been an increase in real terms of the finance available to the SSHA. If that is a matter for congratulation, it is one for very modest congratulation. In real terms the finance made available to the SSHA has been declining dramatically, and if the Minister came clean he would have to say that the real resources available to the SSHA would decline further at a time when the needs were as great as ever.
I feel very strongly about many of the Government's actions in their housing policy. The SSHA itself perhaps has not been in the eye of the storm. It has not been involved in the argument about the shabby manoeuvres of the Government in linking housing capital allowances to rent levels, where, for the first time, we see an allocation on the basis of need cut back in a form of administrative blackmail to force local authorities to push up their rents to levels that are seen to be acceptable by the Secretary of State but which have no reality in terms of the social hardship and the difficulties that many tenants experience.
Directly relevant to the financial limits is the fact that the Secretary of State has forced the SSHA—because its rent levels are a matter for the right hon. Gentleman's diktat—to increase average rents to £9.12 a week. That may sound modest, but in Scottish terms it is a substantial rise of 26.5 per cent. in the last financial year, and of almost 50 per cent. in the last two years.
If people are to be subjected to ever-increasing rents with a decrease in the service provided and with modernisation and new build programmes grinding to a halt, tenants and electors will be entitled to say that they are getting a very bad deal from the Government. During the last Scottish Question Time the Under-Secretary of State remarked that he hadrecently announced that an extra £38 million would be available to housing authorities in Scotland for house building and improvement in the current year."—[Official Report, 9 December 1981; Vol. 14, c. 853.]I confess that I was surprised by that figure, because I had heard a number of others—£22 million and £23 million—and £38 million was a new figure to me. Perhaps the Minister will say what proportion of that will go to the SSHA, or whether it is included and will be part of the new financial ceilings being considered in the Bill.
It is clear—the Minister said this—that we do not yet know what the capital allocation will be for 1982. However, he stated clearly on Second Reading that the sale of council houses would have a considerable impact on the finances of the SSHA and on local authorities. For example, the Under-Secretary suggested that in the current year he expected about £17 million to come in through the sale of SSHA houses. As 55 per cent. of that figure would be financed by private resources or building societies, he expected thatthere will be a net revenue to the SSHA of about £9 million or £10 million. That reduces the SSHA's borrowing requirement from the national loans fund and is beneficial to the association. Next year and in future years, if the revenue from sales is greater than the figure estimated, increased power will thus be given to the SSHA to incur extra expenditure in a way that will be perfectly acceptable to the Government.88 I want to be clear about what that statement means. The Minister stated that the figures for the capital expenditure programme for the current year would be £45 million. Let us suppose that the SSHA borrows £35 million and the rest comes in from the net revenue and proceeds of housing sales. If that sales figure increases, the association will clearly have lower interest charges to meet. However, the suggestion that seems to be coming from the Minister is that it is rather more than that. He used the phraseif the revenue from sales is greater than the figure estimated, increased power will thus be given to the SSHA to incur extra expenditure".—[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 24 November 1981; c. 31.]Does that mean that the ceiling that may be agreed for the current year—whether it be £45 million or another figure—can be exceeded if the sales are more extensive than the Minister expects? I wish to know that, because it will be of interest to the House when considering what the future holds.
It is an important point because, as the Minister appreciates, if he is still saying what he appeared to say on Second Reading, the areas where sales will be more frequent will benefit financially. We will be in a rather strange position. We all know, and it is self-evidently true from our experiences in Scotland, that the areas where sales are more common are those of higher amenity, more attractive socially and where the financial situation is a little easier.
If that is a way of ecaping from the stringent housing financial dictates of the Government, the areas without serious problems will benefit. The Minister shakes his head in an adamant way and I am glad to see that, because the consequence that I have suggested is not one which I would approve of or desire, but it is something that could be read into the words that he has used on many occasions. It would be useful if the Minister took this opportunity of explaining exactly where he stands on that matter.
If the Under-Secretary is right when he says that a high concentration of council house sales will bring financial advantages to the local authority concerned, he is self-evidently saying that the areas that do not have serious housing problems—or less serious housing problems—are those that will be advantaged by the new policy, while deprived areas that have multiple problems will be disadvantaged. That almost inevitably flows from the first proposition that the Minister has so proudly proclaimed in housing debate after housing debate.
I promised that I would not delay the House and I know that many of my hon. Friends want to contribute at least briefly to the debate. However, let me conclude by repeating the bold point—the real crux of the matter—that no one objects to raising the financial limits of the SSHA, but that is only a preliminary to the real decision about the resources that will be made available and the borrowing limits that will be allowed to the authority in the coming year.
We will want to hear from the Minister—perhaps not today, because I accept that there is a time table—that he is prepared to allow the SSHA and its staff to get on with the job that we know they can do. They have had an admirable record over the years, but they have been caught in the financial holocaust started by the Treasury.
The ability of the association to build and improve has been reduced, and that can be seen in its employment figures. There was, rightly, adverse comment on Second Reading about the fact that the last annual report of the 89 SSHA stated that the association had not taken on one apprentice in the previous two years. A major public agency that ought to have a direct interest in producing training opportunities for young people has had to opt out because of what the Government have done to its financial parameters. That is the sort of sad message that comes through.
Even more important, the SSHA has not been able to carry out improvements and modemisations and to upgrade services for its tenants. That general decline has been part of the housing picture in Scotland. Under the Government the new build totals in the private sector are the lowest for a decade, and in the public sector they are the lowest since the war. That is a record of which the Under-Secretary should be thoroughly ashamed. To do him credit, he probably worries about it in private, however bravely he tries to dissimulate in public.
We should make a start on putting things right, and a generous allocation to the SSHA would be one part of a much-needed attack on housing deprivation in Scotland.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
We have the opportunity to assess again the work and role of the SSHA, especially in relation to the new borrowing limits proposed in the Bill.
Eighteen months ago, when I occupied the Front Bench post now held by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), I warned the Government that this form of primary legislation should be considered well before we reached the brink of the borrowing limits being achieved. I said that if there were a need for increased limits the Government should take quick action rather than delay the legislation.
It is important to underline the Opposition's support for the work that has been done and is being done by the SSHA, even in the difficult circumstances laid down by the Government—especially the financial arrangements provided for the association.
In Opposition, Conservative Members were loud in their praise of the interventionist role of the SSHA. Indeed, the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), who was the principal spokesman on Scottish affairs at that time, and who is a notable absentee from our deliberations, said in the Committee considering the statutory instrument on this subject:The Minister will be well aware that the Conservative Party has always given great support to the Scottish Special Housing Association and regards it as an organisation making a useful contribution to Scottish housing, which we fully support."—[Official Report, Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments &c., 22 February 1978; c. 6–7.]The Conservatives' record since they came to power, which was so well catalogued by my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden, shows that their words in Opposition gave no flavour of the message given to the SSHA since they came to power.
In paying tribute to the association, I should like to deal with one of its activities in my constituency. Like many people in Scotland, the Minister will be aware of the association's work in the Laighstonehall area of Hamilton. The Laighstonehall project is one of the major projects undertaken by the SSHA in an area of multiple deprivation in the West of Scotland, and an area which has more than the average number of characteristics of decline. The association took on the problems of the area in an 90 imaginative and hard-headed manner. The record of the Laighstonehall project has been one of which those responsible can be justly proud.
The only fly in the ointment is that the conclusion of the project has been delayed by the overall cutback in resources that has been experienced by the SSHA. It is a matter for profound regret that the success of the project has been placed in the balance because the association, despite its good intentions, does not have the resources to conclude the work that was so ambitiously started only a few years ago. If we are ever to get to the root of some of the serious problems that confront inner urban areas in Scotland, England and Wales, the type of project that was embarked upon at Laighstonehall must be seen through to success.
I read with care the debate on the Scarman report, which was confined to the problems and difficulties that arose in the summer in England. Happily, Scotland was spared the problems that were experienced in some parts of the inner cities of England. That was due in no small part to the work that has been done over the years by agencies such as the SSHA. The problems which have been experienced in some parts of Scotland, which were being tackled imaginatively, have been the subjects of experiments that we dare not allow to fail. If the experiments are allowed to go into decline, Scotland will experience some of the problems that have afflicted other parts of the United Kingdom.
I plead with the Minister to look afresh at the background to the Laighstonehall experiment. I ask him again to consider those areas where there is still a continuing demand for funds. The last phase of the modernisation project, which is so crucial to the overall completion of Laighstonehall, requires funds. We must find the extra funds that will enable the project to be completed.
I repeat the invitation that has been extended by the Laighstonehall tenants' association, by councillor Peter Grenfell, who is responsible for the area, by regional councillor Jim Irvine, by the regional council for the area and by myself as the local Member of Parliament, to come to see the successes of the Laighstonehall project, the achievements in the area, and the areas in which completion is being prejudiced by the continuing uncertainty about the timetable for the last phase of modernisation. I believe that the Minister will be impressed by the success of the project so far and may be convinced about the need to complete the experiment so that we may see the real success of an attempt at revitalising an area of multiple deprivation.
Another issue that needs to be considered on Third Reading is that of rents, which was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for, Garscadden. We are seeing serious problems experienced in areas in which there is a mix of SSHA houses and local authority houses. Different approaches and attitudes are being taken by the two areas of the public sector. There is a growing disparity between the rent levels imposed by the SSHA on the immediate and direct diktat of the Government and rent levels in other parts of the public sector. That is causing dismay and distress, especially because in the SSHA area—this is for reasons totally outwith the association's control but for reasons that lie in the Government's lap—repairs and modernisation programmes are being delayed and tenants are being asked to pay greater and greater rents while they suffer real reductions in their standard of living. They are 91 not getting the concomitant returns that they would normally except in the way of a natural repair programme and the natural progress in the modernisation programme that was promised in many areas. That is in an area that the Government should look at. The Bill fails to take it into account.
As has been said, the Bill is a fairly uncontroversial measure. It adds to the borrowing limits of an agency that most hon. Members regard as having a fine record. It still has a substantial job to do. If we have any reservation, it is about the amount of money that the Government are allocating. If the SSHA is to do its job properly in the future there is a need for even more primary legislation. The SSHA deserves commendation for the job that it is doing, but it is also a job that requires future resources if it is to be done as the people of Scotland expect.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)
It is rare for me to take part in a housing debate, as hon. Members know, but I felt that I had to use this opportunity to congratulate the SSHA on the work that it has done and, above all, congratulate it on the way that it handled its relationship with elected representatives and on the help that it has given. I refer to two areas—there are others in my area and that of Renfrew district council—Linwood and Erskine. I hope that the Minister is aware of the careful and deep report that has just been prepared by Renfrew district council on the high incidence of lead tanks and lead pipes in that area. The report has been described as alarming, and certainly it is very serious. Renfrew district council takes the report seriously. The problem it faces, given the medical consequences of the high incidence of lead pipes and tanks, is that if it is to do the job that is required it will need all the assistance it can get in housing, housing support grant, capital allocation and, for that matter, rate support grant.
The district council has had the problem of the new town at Erskine without normal new town financing. Given the figures that we see here, we must ask whether that assistance is sufficient. Perhaps, as my hon. Friend says, the Bill is not controversial, but any increase from this Government, whether' or not it keeps pace with inflation, must be welcome. It is doubtful, however, whether it is anywhere near enough to meet the sort of problem with which we are faced. Therefore, I must ask the Minister to say whether he is to seek methods of assistance for the SSHA, or for Renfrew district council, which has taken on many of the tenancy allocations of the SSHA buildings in places such as Erskine, and whether the money necessary to implement the recommendations in that serious report will be forthcoming. Renfrew district council will be seeking that assistance. It will be right to do so, and I shall support it in its endeavours.
It will be useful, therefore, if the Minister, in talking of housing finance, even if it is limited to the SSHA, will say that he will treat the report seriously and give all possible assistance to Renfrew district council in its efforts to deal with the serious medical problem of lead pollution that the report has highlighted.
§ Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)
I am pleased that we have this opportunity of debating the Scottish Special Housing Association and the work it has done and, we hope, will do in future.
Like most hon. Members, I have a fair representation of Scottish Special Housing Association type houses in my area and we are very grateful for them. I am worried that the balance of the finance for the SSHA has, perhaps, not been used as I would like. For example, while in my area we want new houses to be built, we also want the existing houses maintained at a level and at a standard that will allow them to continue as dwellings for the people in them for many years to come.
I find a niggling attitude towards repairs, particularly in some of the blocks that have flat roofs. We have never been able to conquer their problems in any part of Britain. We have never been able to build a flat roof that does not let in dampness, no matter what techniques the architects use.
In my area the tenants of some perfectly good houses are put to great inconvenience. In some cases they are decanted and moved because of repairs being delayed, or not carried out properly when they are done. That is largely due to the fact that inadequate money has been available for repairs.
In one part of my constituency, Fortrose Street, a model block was built many years ago. It was a good idea, although it turned out to be far too expensive. The general idea was that the SSHA, the local authority and the Scottish Office would get together and build a special block that would be easily adaptable for sites all over the country. It was seven or eight storeys high. It was thoroughly studied while it was being built. It was basically a well designed and well built block. However, it turned out that the standard was just too high for it to be profitable or practical to build such blocks all over the country.
It is a very good block. The people living there are concerned about penny-pinching in some of the repairs. Perhaps the Minister will tell the SSHA that there seems to be an inadequacy of supervision. There is provision for a caretaker in the block, but none is available because of shortage of money.
I can understand that the SSHA has a decision to make. If it is a choice of spending money on housing or on caretakers, obviously most people would want it spent on housing. But the difference in cost is not so very great. It would be a great pity if the homes in that block deteriorated for want of a proper caretaker to look after the building full time.
That leads me to the other thing that worries me about the way in which the SSHA has been squeezed for money. There have been criticisms throughout SSHA's existence, partly because of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) about the disparity in rents between local authorities and the SSHA. I have experienced both sides of this matter, and no doubt my hon. Friend has done so. For a period the SSHA rents are much higher than council rents, and some people grumble, and then there is a change and the other tenants grumble.
One thing for which the SSHA had a good reputation was apprentice training. I understand that, partly because of the cuts in money to the SSHA, training has fallen to almost nil. That is dreadful. When I heard about this Bill 93 for the first time, I hoped that it would be the beginning of a U-turn and that we would be starting something in the building industry. That is obviously the place to start—building sucks in very little in the way of imports. It is a place to start a U-turn or a capital advance in building. The Scottish Building Federation is desperate for a start to be made. Many more firms will go under if it is not made.
Will the Minister use his influence to persuade the SSHA to have a look at its apprenticeship schemes? The SSHA has produced many good apprentices of a very high standard, who have already taken jobs in the building industry when it was on the up. They were invaluable in building houses in Scotland. Will the Minister ask the SSHA to earmark at least a part of the £100 million and, later, the £250 million for this very valuable work?
The order is well worth while. We should like to have a great deal more, but with the help that the Minister is getting from the Opposition Benches, I hope that he will have some ideas to take to the SSHA the next time he meets its representatives to discuss finances.
§ 9.5 pm
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
I, too, welcome the opportunity to say a few words about the Scottish Special Housing Association, partly because some of the points that I made in the Scottish Grand Committee were not answered by the Minister, and partly because the SSHA plays an important, and good, role in housing in Scotland.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) and for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael) all have SSHA houses in their constituencies. I have not, but I have the new chairman of the SSHA as a constituent. I could not say that he voted for me; in fact, he is far more likely to have campaigned actively against me. However, he is a constituent, and that gives me some interest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton reminded the House of what the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) said when he was the shadow spokesman for Scotland and was demanding extra money for the SSHA. I hope that his close personal friend, Mr. Derek Mason, who is the chairman of the SSHA, will follow that up and demand from the Government the sort of money that the hon. Member was asking the Labour Government to provide. That is the role that the new chairman should play, and he should not accept all the Conservative Government policies.
The hon. Member for Hamilton also raised the matter of the Laighstonehall scheme, which is very worth while. Over the past three years there has been a decrease in the incidence of vandalism—which was a serious problem—because of the environmental improvements in that area. However, if improvements are not continued and the environment once more begins to decline, the money required to put right the vandalism will probably be greater than the money that could now be spent to ensure that the scheme is properly carried out. The Government should bear that in mind.
As the Minister said, this is a two-clause Bill, although on Second Reading he said that it was a one-clause Bill. I accept the Minister's correction, and I agree that the Bill is not controversial. However, somehow or other, the impression is being given that the Government are giving 94 extra money to the SSHA. They are not doing so—there is not one extra penny in teens of what the SSHA will be able to do next year or the following year.
All that the Government are doing is increasing the SSHA's borrowing power. However, it has to come to the Government for permission to use the borrowing power and to spend the extra money if it so wishes. The Government have not shown that they intend to allow that increase in SSHA spending. Over the past two years while the Government have been in power the amount of money available to the SSHA and the amount of money that it has been able to spend on such things as repairs and improvements, and the rehabilitation of housing stock, has declined dramatically.
The figure for repairs and maintenance expenditure in 1979–1980, which was not a particularly good year, was £14,966,000. Between 1980 and 1981 the figure dropped to £12,846,000. There is a clear reduction in the amount of money being made available for repairs and maintenance of housing. Over the 12 months the tenants have faced a 50 per cent. increase in their rents. Those who happen to be old-age pensioners, or to be unemployed or on supplementary benefit, have not been allowed increases even to the level of inflation. yet they are having to face rent increases that are way above the rate of inflation.
The Government seem to be hoping that if the rents continue to increase more people will be forced to buy their houses rather than continue to pay higher and higher rents. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) shakes his head. It is very interesting that on this occasion not even the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) has contributed to the debate. He is usually the one Conservative Member who has some sort of conscience about the part played by Conservative Back Benchers, and often makes a speech—
§ Mr. Maxton
I apologise. I shall not tempt the hon. Gentleman too far, because I know that there are hon. Members who wish to speak on other matters later this evening.
Conservative Members seemed to be dissenting from what I was saying about high rents, but many tenants in local authority and SSHA housing believe that rents are being forced up by the Government to persuade them to purchase their houses.
On Second Reading the Minister made great play of the number of houses that the SSHA had sold. It has carried out a much more active selling policy than have many local authorities. Even so, it has managed to sell only about 4 per cent. of the total housing stock, although the Minister will probably say that this year the figures will rise to 6 or 7 per cent.
Our concern is for those—well over 90 per cent.—who will remain tenants of the SSHA and of local authority housing, and who will not purchase their houses. They are facing lower standards in regard to the time betwen repairs being reported and the work being done. Repairs considered not to be essential are not being done and modernisation programmes are being cut back, yet SSHA rents are rising by over 50 per cent. It is these tenants who are the concern of Labour Members, not the very small percentage who are purchasing their properties. The Government ought to be concerned with the people who are remaining tenants of local authority and SSHA, properties.
95 I hope that the Minister will say what extra money is to be spent by the SSHA, rather than simply giving it borrowing power. Let us be told there is to be an expansion of the SSHA programme to give the tenants a better deal and to increase the prospects of employment in the building industry, which is so desperately needed in Scotland.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)
I am impressed by the sudden interest that the official Opposition are taking in the Bill. In the debate it has been possible to go over some of the territory that should have been covered in Committee. The Bill is an important one, because it gives an opportunity for the Government to expand the resources available to the SSHA.
§ Mr. Wilson
I, too, spoke on Second Reading, but I do not think that it is necessary to go into that. There was a stage in between that does not seem to have been canvassed with the same degree of intensity.
The Government should look at the position of the SSHA because, despite what I have said, there is a real interest in the amount of work that it could and should be able to carry out. One of the prime functions of the SSHA was to build houses in areas of economic growth. It is sad indeed that one can now scan the country, with the possible exception of the Aberdeen area, and have great difficulty finding any economic growth requiring building for that purpose.
I wish to concentrate the Minister's attention on the role of the SSHA with regard to modernisation. Many of its tenants have been disappointed with the way in which modernisation schemes planned for two, three or four years ago have become more and more elongated and seem to be receding into the distance. I know of cases in which phase 1 has been carried out and plans laid for phase 2, when phase 2 seemed suddenly to disappear and phase 3 to vanish completely into outer space. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell the House how he sees the role of the SSHA in relation to modernisation.
The House should realise that a substantial number of SSHA houses suffer from very poor standards of insulation. I received a reply from the Minister today concerning the number of public sector houses falling below accepted standards of insulation, in which he stated:Approximately 400,000 public sector houses with loft spaces have less loft insulation than the current Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations requirement of 50 mm (2 inches). The average cost of providing loft insulation in a typical four-apartment house is about £100.In another reply, he stated that some 236,000 public sector houses had been insulated since April 1978. Buried among the 400,000, there must be a good number of houses built by the SSHA that have deficient standards. It takes only some general surveillance of the work carried out by the SSHA to realise the improvement in living conditions that could be given to the tenants of those houses.
In view of the recent savage weather, many people—particularly the elderly—must find it difficult to live in comfort in unmodernised SSHA houses due to the inability of those houses to retain heat. The severe weather conditions should prompt the Minister to reconsider his attitude towards providing funds for the SSHA to go ahead 96 with such modernisation. If he were prepared to live up to the expansion limit provided for in the Bill and to grant the wherewithal for the SSHA to carry out that work, substantially improved living conditions could be offered to many long-standing SSHA tenants who badly need a better deal.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)
Like other hon. Members, I briefly pay tribute to the Scottish Special Housing Association and the work that it has done in Scotland since its inception in 1937. It is no exaggeration to say that it has probably been one of the most successful examples of public enterprise in Scotland. The fact that, through the growth of public sector housing in Scotland, we have managed to solve some of Scotland's housing problems over the years has been due not only to the efforts of local authorities but to the excellent work of the SSHA.
Unfortunately, for the first time in the history of public sector housing in Scotland, we are now in danger of seeing not just the end of expansion in public sector housing but a reduction in the number of houses in the public sector. That reduction will be the result of Government policy on two fronts. The first is the dictatorial powers taken by the Secretary of State to instruct local authorities and the SSHA to sell off their houses, irrespective of the needs of the local community and the demand for public sector housing in particular areas. The Secretary of State thinks that he knows best, and has given a general command to the local authorities and the SSHA to sell off their housing stock.
At the same time, he is not giving them enough money to replace the housing stock with new build. Despite the Bill's title and the explanatory and financial memorandum, the truth is that the Secretary of State is not giving the SSHA nearly enough money to do the job that it should be doing—in other words, to build more public sector housing in Scotland to cater for the needs of the thousands of people, including many young newly married couples, whose only chance of getting a house lies in obtaining one in the public sector.
The Government have jacked up the mortgage rate and will throw these young couples into the hands of the money lenders. Many of them have no chance at all of getting a house unless they get some form of Government help, but the Government are selling off houses and not giving the local authorities or the SSHA enough money to replace them with new stock.
My constituency is virtually unique, in that it contains five different housing authorities—Stirling district council, Falkirk district council, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth district council, Strathkelvin district council and the SSHA. The advantage of district councils as housing authorities compared with the SSHA is that if somthing goes wrong administratively or bureaucratically—be it house allocation, housing repairs or whatever—there are elected district councillors to whom the tenants can turn.
It is a pity that in this legislation the Government are losing a tremendous opportunity to bring about a greater degree of accountability on the part of the SSHA. I am not saying that we should dismantle the SSHA completely, but perhaps its role has changed. It may be that its role should be concentrated within the dynamics of housing construction, especially in areas of need or areas of economic growth—if there are any such areas left in Scotland. We should be looking at areas where there is
97 demand for public sector housing. If the local authorities are not getting the resources because of Government cuts, perhaps the SSHA should be the appropriate authority to work in liaison with the local authority to achieve development in the house building programme.
In the longer term, after the houses have been constructed, there may well come a time when they should be handed over to the local authorities. In other words, we should be thinking of a more decentralised and democractic style of management. I would not stop there, because I believe that there should be greater decentralisation and devolution through tenant control. I should like to hear the Government's views on how that can be achieved, either by encouraging tenants' cooperatives or other forms of communal housing management.
The SSHA has grown over the years until it has become a little too over-centralised, bureaucratic and non-accountable. An SSHA tenant looking for an elected representative to try to sort out a mess in which he finds himself may decide that the only answer is to turn to his Member of Parliament. A council tenant, who has a complaint about housing repairs, management or allocation, has his own elected district councillor at grass roots level to whom he can turn to try to solve the problem.
I should like to see the SSHA given a vastly increased budget as opposed to the paltry increase proposed in this legislation. It should be given the task of tackling the problems of housing and the lack of public sector housing. If the SSHA were decentralised through the district councils that already have statutory powers, as local authorities, this would produce a more democratic system of housing management that was in the best interests of SSHA tenants and council tenants.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
A number of excellent speeches have been made by Opposition Back Benchers. It is most unfortunate that none of those Members happened to be selected for the Committee that considered the Bill. There would have been opportunity to consider these matters in greater detail, with a greater amount of time available. It is unfortunate that those hon. Members selected for the Committee not only failed to turn up but have also not even thought it proper, with the honourable exception of the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), to turn up for the Report and Third Reading stages.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) suggested that pensioners, the unemployed and others on supplementary benefit would suffer hardship as a result of the SSHA rent levels that were proposed or might be proposed. The hon. Gentleman is clearly unaware that almost all those receiving supplementary benefit pay no rent at all. They are not affected by 1p of any increase in rents of whatever level. The hon. Gentleman might have checked his facts before making serious allegations.
§ Mr. Maxton
The hon. Gentleman did not include old-age pensioners, many of whom do not take up rent and rate rebates which they are allowed and who, as a result, will suffer hardship, because they are often too proud to take rebates.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman cannot legitimately put forward that explanation. If successive Governments 98 have rightly provided a rent rebate scheme to deal with people who cannot afford rent levels, whatever those levels are, the hon. Gentleman cannot argue that the Government must keep down rent levels because certain people entitled to rebates do not apply for them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, like everyone else, would urge that everyone entitled to a rent rebate should apply for it. The vast majority do apply. It is desirable that the small minority who, for whatever reason, do not apply should do so. The hon. Gentleman suggests that rent levels cause hardship for pensioners and those receiving supplementary benefit. That is untrue, as I think he now recognises.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) made an interesting comment about the need for home insulation in houses owned by the SSHA and other organisations. It is a curious feature of Scottish housing over the last few years that the home insulation resources have not been fully taken up. While there has been no difficulty over the resources being utilised in England and Wales, there has not been sufficient interest in Scotland, although there is a need for insulation and many people would benefit if they used the grants available.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson
Is it not possible that the installation of insulation could be kept back through the inability of the SSHA to go ahead with general modernisation? If the Under-Secretary cannot guarantee that the modernisation work will go ahead, will he give an assurance that ample funds will be available to the SSHA to insulate all its houses?
§ Mr. Rifkind
We give a general allocation to the SSHA but we do not dictate how it should use it. If it wishes to use part of its resources for that purpose, that is for its discretion.
The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) made three curious remarks. He said that for the first time under this Government we were seeing a reduction in expenditure on housing. That is wrong. The reduction 3n housing expenditure began under the Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the SSHA might have an exciting new role in dealing with areas of economic growth and liaising with local authorities. The SSHA already has that role and has had it for a number of years.
§ Mr. Rifkind
I shall come to that later. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is a desirable role for the SSHA. It has that role in Aberdeenshire, the city of Aberdeen and in other areas. Areas of economic expansion are the main priorities for the SSHA. It has a good record of providing assistance to individual local authorities in that respect.
The hon. Member also made a passionate call for decentralisation of control of SSHA houses to tenants. We are all in favour of that. For some reason, the hon. Gentleman wishes to stop that decentralisation to groups of tenants. We wish to take decentralisation further so that it reaches the individual tenant and gives him control over the house in which he lives by giving him the opportunity to buy his home. Why the hon. Gentleman should seek to prevent, prohibit or limit that form of tenant control is a mystery to most of us.
§ Mr. Canavan
There is a big difference. Even the Minister is capable of appreciating the difference between decentralisation of management and privatisation of 99 ownership. The latter would mean that the future occupation of that house would for ever depend upon free market forces rather than need. That is why I am against privatisation of houses that are already in public ownership.
§ Mr. Rifkind
It remains the case that if one wants to give people the maximum control over their environment, for the vast majority of the human race the opportunity to own the homes in which they live is a satisfactory way of achieving that. The hon. Gentleman may not share that view but in that respect he is in the minority among those who support his party as well as of those who have other political views.
The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) referred to problems caused in Renfrewshire by lead in water. We have received the report submitted by the district council and we shall examine it. Lead in water is a serious matter. It is a health problem and therefore it is right and desirable that the maximum assistance is given to local authorities throughout Scotland. It is also a matter for local authorities, which must judge whether to give it priority in their expenditure. We accept that we have a responsibility. We shall examine the issue in relation to capital allocations to local authorities in the weeks to come.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael) referred to the SSHA being able to take on apprenticeship schemes. I shall refer the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the SSHA. It is a matter for its discretion but I shall ensure that it is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's comments.
The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) referred to the discrepancy between rent levels of SSHA houses and some local authority houses adjacent to SSHA houses. He must appreciate that the main difference between the two groups, as applied under successive Governments, is that, because SSHA rents have always been under central Government control, rent increases have been reasonable over the years. That is not always so in the case of individual local authorities. Some local authorities have deliberately pursued a policy of unreasonably low rents. The discrepancy between their rent levels and SSHA rents is most obvious and wide in such areas. No one could seriously argue that in United Kingdom terms SSHA rent levels are unduly high. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that.
§ Mr. George Robertson
I hope that the Minister will deal with the major issue that I raised with him. The SSHA is having directly imposed on it the full swingeing rent increases that the Government would like all local authorities to implement, but they are also making sure that the SSHA is starved of the resources to allow it to undertake the modernisation programmes that it has in many cases promised its tenants and the repairs that they should expect for the rent that the Government dictate that it should force them to pay.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I may be one or two pence out, but in the current year the Government reccommended to local authorities average rent increases of £2.33. Because in the previous year the SSHA had made reasonable rent increases, unlike the vast majority of local authorities, the figure for the SSHA was 100 £1.90, which is close to the rent increases ultimately imposed by local authorities, on average, throughout Scotland. In this year, at the end of the day, the SSHA tenants' rent increase will not be significantly different from that of local authority tenants as a whole, although it may be different from certain increases in individual localities.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the rent base from which the increases were made was extraordinarily low, and that is so even at present. For example, local authority average rents in Scotland are £7.40, which is dramatically small. That fact must be taken into account. Even the SSHA rent level, although higher than that, is not particularly high by the standards of many other parts of the country. The hon. Gentleman should take account of that factor.
The hon. Member for Hamilton asked about Laighstonehall. He will be aware that of the original 518 houses in the scheme 75 have been rebuilt and the conversion of 32 large flats into 64 smaller flats has also been completed. The modernisation of 188 houses has been completed. I am aware of the concern of the hon. Gentleman and some of his constituents at the delay in the modernisation of the remainder of the stock, but he will appreciate that the Government's responsibilty is to give the overall allocation to the SSHA, and we do not tell it how it must use the allocation, so representations on the priority that should be given to the project should be directed to the SSHA. No doubt the hon. Gentleman has made such representations, but he must appreciate that it is a matter of the SSHA's detailed responsibility and it is not something on which the Government, either in respect of this or any other individual project, take a particular position.
In his usual helpful and constructive fashion the hon. Member for Garscadden raised two basic points. He expressed great concern at the level of capital allocations for the SSHA. It is true that they have declined over the past couple of years, but the hon. Gentleman has a tendency to exaggerate these matters.
§ Mr. Rifkind
Compared with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes), the hon. Gentleman does not exaggerate these matters. Nevertheless, viewed in isolation, there is an element of exaggeration from which I cannot entirely exempt the hon. Gentleman.
In the current year the SSHA's allocation is £45 million, which is a substantial sum and which in cash terms is close to previous years, although I appreciate that it is a difference in real terms.
The hon. Member for Garscadden also expressed confusion about the effect of the net allocations system so far as the sale of houses is concerned. His interpretation is that, because the Government would be making an estimate of sales of SSHA houses, in practice the system would be of benefit to areas with high amenity housing and against the interests of those with low amenity housing 101 which might be expected to sell less houses. The hon. Gentleman seemed to misunderstand the scheme both in respect of the SSHA and the local authorities.
In each case—let us look at any individual local authority—we shall be looking at a reasonable estimate, given the number of applications that authorities have received from their tenants, as to what their expected income from the sale of houses should be in a given year. That estimate will obviously be a lot less in an area where, for whatever reason, there have been fewer applications than in an area where, for whatever reason, the applications have been far greater. In both cases—having made a reasonable estimate—if at the end of the day a local authority or the Scottish Special Housing Association has sold more houses than estimated, it will have the free use of the extra receipts from the sales. Therefore, it will be in its interests to maximise sales.
§ Mr. Dewar
The Minister's statements are open to many interpretations. Is he saying that if we take a capital allocation of, say, £45 million for the local authority or the SSHA and it is assumed that included in that figure is a sum of £10 million, which will be found from the net proceeds of sales, and if, by means of sales drives, caravans and so on, the local authorities or the SSHA persuade more people to buy their homes so that the £10 million becomes £13 million, the resources available for new build will be £48 million rather than £45 million?
§ Mr. Rifkind
The difference between what we have estimated and the net receipts will be available to the local authorities or the SSHA to use as an extra capital allocation for whatever purpose they consider appropriate. It will be in their control, since the estimate will not be a vague figure plucked out of the air, but will be based on the number of applications received. We are now in a position to know the number of applications that a local authority or the SSHA has before it and we know the normal time that the processing of an application should take until the ultimate completion of the sale. Therefore, barring the unexpected, we are in a reasonably good position to be 102 able to predict the likely minimum income that the local authority or the SSHA will receive from sales. If, in order to boost its resources it is able to encourage more of its tenants to purchase, it will benefit from that, and it is right and proper that it should do so. It is precisely because, in the current year, the estimates were much lower than had been expected that we were able to boost the allocations by the figure to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. Dewar
I do not wish to detain the Minister, but it should be put on record that we challenge his statement that it should be "right and proper" for local authorities or the SSHA to encourage more tenants to purchase. We do not accept that it is "right and proper" that there should be a built-in incentive to sell council houses in order to obtain more resources on the capital side. We believe that the inadequate capital resources that are available should be allocated on the basis of the need of the people who live in the area.
§ Mr. Rifkind
Those comments could be described as good Committee points, which, unfortunately, the Committee did not have the benefit of hearing. They could have been expanded in greater detail in Committee. If the hon. Gentleman were to speak with the local authorities and the SSHA he would find that they realise that this is an opportunity from which they can benefit, and it is right and proper that they should be able to do so.
The Bill has had a fair passage throughout its stages, although this stage has been slightly longer than the others. Nevertheless, it has been equally constructive.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman could at least have turned up.
The debate today, although slightly longer than previous stages, has been just as constructive, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.