HC Deb 22 January 1981 vol 997 cc520-38 10.26 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Mitchell)

I beg to move, That the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 5 November 1980 in the last Session of Parliament, be approved. Last July, the proposal for a draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order was published for consultation purposes. Comments were received up to 22 August and the draft order was laid on 5 November.

Hon. Members will have noted that this draft order provides for the consolidation, with amendments, of more than 30 housing enactments dating back to 1980. Recent enactments have had to adapt many references in earlier Acts to provide for the transfer in 1971 of housing functions to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The housing code is therefore spread across the statute book. It is somewhat obscure and it is desirable that it be brought together.

Pure consolidation of the law has not, I am afraid, been possible, but the House may find it helpful to know that the wording and arrangement of the original legislation is virtually unchanged in the majority of the 163 articles and 13 schedules in the order. However, in a number of instances it has been necessary to vary the sequence of the original provisions or to create a new provision to encapsulate similar provisions from differing statutes. A table of the main sources of the draft order was issued when it was published for consultation purposes. In addition, a few changes to the law have been included in the draft order, and I shall refer to these specifically.

The draft order now being considered contains a number of changes made as a result of consultation last summer. In article 2, the definition of "owner" has been extended to make it clear that where notices are served under the order they can be served on an agent where it is not possible to trace the owner. This is the first of the substantive changes which have been made since the draft order was published for consultation.

Part II deals with the constitution and financing of the Housing Executive and provides in article 6 for its general functions.

Hon. Members will note in article 15 a further change from the published order. The limit on the executive's borrowing from the Consolidated Fund is being raised to £950 million to provide for the executive's likely borrowing requirements up to midsummer 1982. The current limit is £850 million.

Part III covers the building functions of the Housing Executive, and also enables it to carry out an imaginative scheme known as homesteading. This enables first-time buyers to move into a dilapidated house on the basis of do-it-yourself improvements.

Article 29 is new but is drawn from a provision in Great Britain law. It empowers the executive to produce and supply heat to its tenants and others. The executive's existing power to supply heat to its tenants is clear, but doubt has arisen about whether the power extends to providing heat for, say, a school on an estate. This provision puts the matter beyond doubt. Article 31 sets out the executive's powers to provide houses for sale—a matter in which I have already expressed considerable interest and which I have encouraged.

The executive presently has no power to revoke declarations of proposed redevelopment or clearance areas and clearance, demolition or closing orders, and hardship to some individuals has resulted. Such powers are available in Great Britain, and the draft order provides similarly. In addition, article 49 provides for the executive to amend a redevelopment scheme in a significant way if that proves necessary.

The published order proposed that the executive's powers to take action to secure the demolition or improvement of unfit houses should become discretionary. That proposal has proved unacceptable to a considerable body of opinion in the Province. We have, therefore, decided that the law should remain unchanged.

Part IV provides for a system of grants payable by the executive for the improvement, repair or conversion of houses. Under article 85, the executive may carry out improvements or repairs with the agreement of house owners. Another substantive change has been made in part IV to take account of changes in the grants structure provided for in the Housing (Improvement, Intermediate and Repairs Grants) Order (Northern Ireland) 1980, which came into operation on 1 August 1980.

Part VII provides a code for the formation, administration and financing of housing associations. It contains general provisions relating to housing associations, including the encouragement of the voluntary housing movement, which can do so much for special groups. I am especially interested in the Northern Ireland co-ownership housing association, which enables first-time buyers to part-buy and part-rent.

I come now to the final change that has been made to the order since publication. Article 117 of the published order provided for the transfer of authority from the Department of Finance to the Department of the Environment to make loans to registered housing associations. In order to give effect to that change, which clears the way for a more effective method of financing associations, certain consequential provisions are necessary in the form of the Department's powers to enter into loan agreements and to secure loans on the revenues of an association. In addition, article 123 places a restriction on an association's power to mortgage its property and makes that restriction a charge to be registered in the statutory charges register. All penalties in the order have been brought into line with the equivalent penalties in Great Britain.

I am sure that hon. Members will welcome the order, at least as a comprehensive and clear statement of the law on housing in Northern Ireland. As such, I commend the order to the House.

10.33 pm
Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

The draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 is such a lengthy and important document that it would take almost an hour and a half—the total time at our disposal this evening—to read and digest it, let alone debate it intelligently. However, there are a number of points that we must touch on during the course of the debate. I wish to begin by addressing myself to article 5 of the order, which deals with the staff of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

During a public accounts debate some months ago, I drew attention to the fact that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was grossly overmanned in comparison with housing authorities in England and Wales. Without going into all the details touched on at that time, I believe that we still suffer from that problem in the Province—and it is a costly problem in these days of financial stringency. We have about 500 employed in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive who are not providing good value for money. I shall take a short time to alert the new Minister to the arguments that I advanced in the public accounts debate.

In the Housing Executive there is a staff of more than 2,500. That staff administers about 200,000 houses. In a comparable area—Birmingham—there is a staff of about 1,600. That staff does not administer as many homes, but on a pro rata basis we find that the Housing Executive has about 500 more employees than a comparable housing area in England and Wales. If the average wage for each of those persons is about £5,000 per annum, the total wage bill each year is about £2½ million. That sum could build a substantial estate. We would be producing one such estate each year if we saved the yearly £2½ million.

I contend that staffing in the Housing Executive is much too great for the amount of work that lies at its hands. I ask the Minister to examine staffing levels. What increases in staffing have occurred since the moratorium in the autumn of last year? Has the executive increased its staff since the end of June 1980?

Article 6 deals with the general functions of the executive. Article 6(1)(b) states that the executive shall submit to the Department for approval its programme for such years and in such form as the Department may determine for meeting housing need". It is the belief of my colleagues and myself that the executive and if I may say so, the Department have been somewhat remiss in this respect. We are coming towards the end of the first month in 1981, getting quite close to a new fiscal year, and yet no definite programme is emerging from the Housing Executive and there are no appropriate approvals from the Department.

We do not yet know how much the Department will spend on Housing Executive operations in the fiscal year 1981–82. As recently as Thursday last, the Minister said that he did not know. We feel that it is not very expeditious for the Housing Executive and the Department to come so close to a new fiscal year without being able to say "Here is the programme which we envisage undertaking from the beginning of April. Here is the money which will be available." In the absence of this, we have to say to our constituents "We do not know whether scheme A in Donacloney, Scheme B in South Belfast or scheme C in East Belfast is going ahead in this fiscal year."

I ask the Minister to ascertain whether there is an early date by which both the executive and the Department will know their minds, will know the programmes that they envisage in the following fiscal year and will give the details to us at the earliest moment.

Article 6(3) deals with the carrying out of inspections and surveys by the executive. The Minister will probably know that from 1974 to 1979 the executive spent about £220,000 on four reports—namely, in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979. Another £10,000 was spent on household surveys. We appreciate that, these matters must be undertaken if the executive is to ascertain the priorities and the real needs. However, we wonder whether £220,000 represents the best value for money. This figure does not include the annual report costs which crop up under article 12.

I wonder whether the executive can save money by producing reports which are less sophisticated, less glossy and less elaborate yet which will give us the factual information which the Government need and which representatives would like to know. We believe that £230,000 is far too much for these surveys and undertakings.

I move on quickly to article 22, which deals with housing management. We have not time tonight to look at the weaknesses and strengths of the present selection scheme, but there is one aspect of it which gives me great concern. I should be interested to know whether other hon. Members have also found this an area of difficulty. There is a great disparity from area to area in assessing the medical documentation which goes to distract officers for the purposes of obtaining, it is hoped, A2 medical priority status. For instance, one finds that in the city of Belfast a person may be very chronically ill, but because he is still breathing, not quite dead, he will probably get as many as 15 points. In another area of Northern Ireland, one could have a case of mild bronchitis and get A2 medical priority status.

Northern Ireland is a very small place. The information does not take very long to spread—"Mrs. So-and-so got special priority status". So either the person who is sick unto death is carried to us on a stretcher or we are exhorted to visit him to explain why he cannot get this priority status. I ask the Minister to look at the great disparity which exists in this area of medical priority status.

Article 26 deals with Housing Executive rents. The Minister's predecessor recently announced in Northern Ireland that our rents were to be increased by, I think, an average of £2.75 per dwelling. This was a great shock to those of us who feel that already Northern Ireland tenants in Housing Executive property do not get good value for money. The executive's repair programme leaves a great deal to be desired. It is a bit much to increase rents to that extent when the state of disrepair is so grave in very many houses.

I am particularly disturbed about the increases in relation to the vested areas, the redevelopment areas. The people who tend to live in those areas are by definition the older people. They are not able to take out a mortgage or to purchase a house. They are usually the last to move from a derelict or blighted area. These old people are now being levied with an increase in rent for properties which are little more than hovels—not through their fault but because the area has simply deteriorated over the years. One has to ask whether the property is worth it and how one can justify saying to people "You must pay this increase which the executive is levying".

The executive decided that the increase should be not £2.75 but, I think, about £2.50. The difference there is negligible and quite irrelevant. I draw the Minister's attention to an inescapable fact. The average rental for a home in Scotland is about £2 less than it is in Northern Ireland. Some people may say "Ah, but Scotland's housing programme is being axed for the entire financial year". It is no answer to the question, because we are dealing with what has happened in the past and the state of the property which has emerged because of the lack of attention given by the executive in the past.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has rental arrears of approximately £11 million. If I am right in my mathematics, an increase of £2.50 per week for the 200,000 dwellings amounts to only £500,000. So, if we got on with the business of collecting the £11 million in rent arrears we would not have to levy any increase on Housing Executive tenants in Northern Ireland. We are standing by, letting the £11 million go to pot, and yet we are levying many elderly folk with another £2.50 or £2.75 per week, which they can ill afford. I find that incredible, and I ask the Minister to address himself and make the executive address itself to the recovery of the outstanding £11 million. If it obtained even a fraction of the money—even £500,000—it would not have to increase the rents by one penny in the coming year.

I turn now to article 27 of the order dealing with the provision of housing accommodation. There has been a gross neglect in terms of house provision and rehabilitation of property in South and East Belfast since direct rule was applied in the Province. Unfortunately, past Administrations concentrated their attention on West Belfast and parts of North Belfast. Unfortunately, many of the decisions were based not purely on need considerations but on political considerations. We do not care about a man's creed. It is need before creed where housing is concerned. But decisions were patently taken on the basis of creed rather than need at the beginning of direct rule in the Province. The consequence of that was and is that South and East Belfast are grossly under-provided for with regard to new and rehabilitated homes.

In 1975, I asked the then Minister, who is now the Front Bench Opposition spokesman, how many blocked houses there were in Belfast. He said that there were 9,000 blocked houses, 3,000 of which were in my constituency of South Belfast, and there were approximately the same number in East Belfast. We had the biggest degree of dereliction and blocked dwellings. Now, it has been ascertained by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—in fairness, though we are on opposite sides, it must be said that he would probably have been here tonight but for the serious physical condition of his father, who is very ill—that half the people on the waiting list for housing in Belfasst were in East Belfat or the surrounding Castlereagh area. I think he was including a little of my constituency east of the river.

In spite of those clear facts about deprivation in South and East Belfast, we find little emphasis being placed by the Department on those areas. Surprise, surprise—it was the Housing Executive that took it upon itself to tell the Department that it did not agree with its projects for next year and the coming years on house provision. The Ramsey report has been released today. It deals with the need in East Belfast, Castlereagh and part of South Belfast, and it will bear out everything that I have been trying to say tonight.

I ask the Minister to ensure that there is a fair distribution of resources in Belfast and that the money is applied where the need exisits. This nonsensical policy of trying to buy allegiance from those who are opposed to the State of Northern Ireland should cease forthwith in terms of housing provision and money.

Article 29 of the order deals with the production and supply of heat. I am grateful for the Minister's explanation in his opening remarks, but I have one concern about the wording. It states: The executive may … establish and operate, or cause to be operated, for the production of heat such plant as it thinks fit". The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to tell us that one of the major reasons for including the article was to facilitate buildings other than homes in areas which are under the control of the Housing Executive. That is perfectly, acceptable but I ask the Minister at least to entertain the possibility that the article might allow the executive not just to establish but to devise schemes and to create its own schemes.

The word "establish" does not confine the Housing Executive to the business of acquiring a heating system; it could be interpreted as meaning to devise a scheme of its own. I am not grinding an axe on behalf of the coal industry, the gas industry or the electricity industry, but the substitution of "acquire" for "establish" would suit the purpose of the article very well. I therefore suggest that the wording of the article should be that "The Executive may acquire" rather than "The Executive may establish".

With regard to heating, I wonder whether the figure for the debt which has amassed in respect of the Housing Executive includes the heating arrears in areas where the executive has control over community heating systems.

Article 52 deals with housing action areas. I have some worries about housing action areas because of the on-off-on-off attitude adopted by the Housing Executive over the past months, the Housing Executive areas generally involve the older members of the community; they are always the last to go from blighted areas. When the executive goes into one of these housing action areas, the preponderant number of the people involved are elderly; they are pensioners. The executive tells them "Your area is to be declared a housing action area. If those of you who are home owners sell your homes to us, we shall pay the legal costs involved in the purchase of your homes and you will of course, obtain priority status when we come to rehabilitate homes in the area."

Many people in the proposed housing action areas were encouraged by the executive to begin negotiation for the sale of their property to the housing Executive. Now, the Housing Executive tell them that their area is not after all to be a housing action area and that the area will have to wait. But the people concerned have already employed a solicitor; they have already come to the point where they are prepared to sign over the deeds to the Housing Executive.

When the Housing Executive says that it is not going ahead with the housing action area, what are the consequences for he old people? First, the old people are faced with the possibility o having to pay rent for their own property for a long period of time. That is bad value of money because these are run-down dwellings, and yet the people are paying high rents.

Secondly, when these old people decide not to pay the high rents or not to go through with the negotiations, the Housing Executive tells them that in that event they will have to foot the solicitor's bills—bills that the executive encouraged the people to incur in the first place because they were in a proposed housing action area. I am pleading for some continuity, clarity and decision making—rather than indecision—on all the processes involved in a housing action area.

Article 60 of the order deals with blocked-up houses. The provision deals with the power to take possession of unoccupied properties. How many blocked-up houses are there in Belfast? About five years ago there were 9,000. How many are there now? How many owners are being pressurised by the Housing Executive to put their homes in order? How many face the threat that the executive will do it for them? Is enough pressure being exerted on owners who have been lackadaisical and complacent about making those houses available to the general housing stock?

Article 73 deals with improvement grants. Most people will share my concern that there is no increase in the level of improvement or repair grants. The grant level was established some time ago, but building and labour costs have escalated greatly since then. Nevertheless, landlords who repair their properties under the Northern Ireland rent order 1978 and tenants who apply for grants under the housing order are expected to complete a certain amount of work for the same amount of money as was being offered many months ago before the executive will release grants. That is not realistic. We must increase the grant levels, particularly in relation to rent order repairs.

This order touches on repairs done under the rent order. It is generous because it offers 90 per cent. grants for work done under that order. However, we are talking about 90 per cent. of the wrong amount. We should be talking about 90 per cent. of considerably more than £5,000 in terms of an improvement and 90 per cent. of considerably more than £2,000 in terms of repairs. I am told by conservative estate agents that the repair grant would have to be doubled if it was to come within striking distance. Instead of affording £1,500, we should think in terms of £3,000. As regards improvement grants, we should be thinking in terms not of 75 per cent. of £5,000 but of 75 per cent. of about £8,000. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.

In article 68 there is no special provision for housing action areas. I may be mistaken, but I understood that housing action areas used to qualify for 90 per cent. grant assistance. It may be argued by the Department that as most of those who live in housing action areas live in property of less than £60 net annual valuation they will qualify for 100 per cent. grant assistance. However, that will not be so in every instance. Some people in a housing action area live in homes that have a net annual valuation of £61 or £62. Although their neighbours might receive 100 per cent. repair grants, they will not. They will receive only 75 per cent. repair grants. I ask that housing action areas be categorised separately and given at least the 90 per cent. grant available to rent order tenants.

A difficulty might exist for grant superintendents in the Housing Executive. The 1978 rent order has a repair criterion which differs from that demanded under the housing order. The 1978 rent order does not demand as high a standard of repair as the housing order. Some superintendents in the grants division have told me that they are making grants under the housing order and breaking their own law. I hope that the Minister will remove the disparity.

I warned the House that it would take a long time to read the order, let alone debate and discuss it. However, I come now to the final page of notes.

Part VII of the order deals with housing associations. The Minister has been exposed to my views on housing associations during Question Time. The housing associations are on course for making a marvellous contribution to the housing scene. They had a slow and troubled start but they are on course towards making a real contribution. Housing association undertakings are cost effective. They have the added beauty of keeping communities together. They do not dissipate communities. They hold them together. They help to retain a friendly ethos. They should be assisted in every possible way. Alas, the Government's cuts last year did not assist. They caused staffing problems in some of the smaller housing associations. About £3 million was withrawn from housing associations in mid-stream. As a result, some associations with small programmes had to relinquish some staff.

Another problem is that the power to purchase, particularly in housing action areas, has been removed. For example, the Belfast approved houses association was geared to invest in about 200 homes in a dilapidated area but the axe was swung and it was not allowed to acquire those homes. That was a great blow to the people living in the area. Housing associations should be allowed forthwith to acquire property in housing action areas.

Under article 31 of the order, the Housing Executive can rehabilitate property and sell it. That facility is not afforded to the housing associations. I ask for parity. Housing associations should have the power to rehabilitate and sell. That power might be implicit in the order. Perhaps the Minister will say that the power exists. If it does not, perhaps he can explain how and when it will.

I turn to the Housing Executive's advantage of being able, prior to vesting, to pay the legal fees of people from whom it has purchased property. Housing associations cannot do that. The Housing Executive has an unfair advantage. It can snap up homes which the housing associations should be able to buy and which at times it would make great sense for them to buy. It would enable them to undertake a programme in an entire street. Because the Housing Executive gets in first, buying a home here and a home there, that is often not possible.

How much will the housing associations get for this fiscal year? They need at the very least, including the co-ownership scheme, £20 million. If they do not get that amount, housing, particularly for the elderly, will not emerge in the coming year.

I wonder how much the option mortgage scheme has been used and whether there is now such a proliferation of special schemes that particularly young people are becoming confused. There is the option mortgage and there are homesteading and co-ownership. Which seems to be attracting the most attention and use? Should not the Minister concentrate on the one which appears to be of most value to the young people looking for housing in Northern Ireland?

I thank the House for its indulgence. I hope that some of the questions which have arisen tonight will be answered by the Minister.

11.6 pm

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

This is, I think, the first debate on the Floor of the House in which the new Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has taken part, although he has survived a baptism in Committee. Perhaps the order will be some introduction for him to the jungle territory which is subtended by the Department of the Environment. Whatever differences of opinion there may have been in other parts of the Northern Ireland Office about the desirability and the urgency of a return of real powers to the district councils, it has been our experience that no such doubts are shared by those who occupy the office of the hon. Gentleman.

I must confess to the hon. Gentleman that there was a time when we thought that we could make progress in securing the restoration of real powers to the district councils by actually driving the Under-Secretary of State into a nervous breakdown. Both of his predecessors have escaped that fate, but I nevertheless feel that their experiences have clearly registered with them the fact that so much of what they have to attend to would be more expeditiously, cheaply and effectively attended to by the directly elected representatives in the district councils and by their excellent officials.

There is one other personal remark that I should like to make. One notices that there has been a changing of the guard of Parliamentary Private Secretaries on the second Bench on the Government side. I should like to say—I think that I am speaking for my hon. Friends as well—that the more we see, not only of hon. Members representing Great Britain constituencies but of those more directly linked with the Northern Ireland Office, the better pleased we shall be.

If I might offer a suggestion, and even an invitation, I feel that a day spent by one of those hon. Members in the company of one of us representing constituencies in Northern Ireland, just seeing what are our experiences and our work in 12 or 16 hours, might be valuable to us, to them and to the working of the Northern Ireland Office.

There is one substantial point—it was alluded to by the Minister in introducing the order—to which I should like to refer. It is the matter of closing and demolition orders. I can quite understand that in the gestation of this order debate arose on the question whether these orders should be mandatory or flexible and open to the discretion of the authorities making them.

In either case, there is a difficulty in Northern Ireland that I believe does not exist in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is that the Housing Executive is effectively both the authority that identifies and initiates the legal procedures for closing and demolishing unfit property and the authority that has the duty to rehouse persons who are displaced as a result of such orders. With that duality, a real problem which causes hardship both to tenants and to landlords can arise.

It can, for example, be the case that a tenant is in an unfit house that is incapable of being rendered again fit for occupation. The owner of that house would therefore like to be able to make a different use altogether of the site, and that would be in the public interest. But if the tenant does not agree voluntarily to the making of a closing or demolition order, I understand that it is the practice of the Housing Executive to secure that that order is not made and thus create a deadlock. The Minister will find that he has correspondence coming to him shortly which was initiated between his predecessor and myself on just such a case.

It can also happen that a demolition or closing order that ought to be made is not made because the Housing Executive foresees that it would not be able readily to provide reaccommodation for those who would be displaced.

That situation ought not to be allowed to continue. A house either is or is not unfit for continued occupation. If the public health housing inspectors find that a house is unfit, it seems to me that that becomes, first, a priority duty which cannot be ducked by the Housing Executive and, secondly, a decision that ought not to rest with the convenience or wishes of the tenant, however long standing the tenancy might be.

I therefore hope that the new provision in this order, as I gather it to be in some respects, will mark the beginning of a regime in Northern Ireland in this respect similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the decision that a house is unfit to be occupied and ought to be closed or demolished is put into effect irrespective of the difficulties which that might cause for rehousing, and that those who are living in that accommodation—accommodation which has been adjudged to be unacceptable—are rehoused, that the order is made and that the landlord is put in the position of his property ceasing to be a menace to health and becoming again capable of being put to beneficial use.

I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind and that perhaps he will link it up, or ask his office to link it up, with the cases that I have brought to his attention.

11.13 pm
Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

It is in a debate such as this that I bitterly mourn the passing of the Northern Ireland Parliament. I was a Member there for many years. I think that it would be accepted in this Chamber that two of the greatest problems that face any elected representatives are the provision of jobs and the provision of homes for his constituents.

If that is so, as I believe it to be, it is an absolute insult—this was referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford)—that when we have an order containing more than 160 articles, and 13 schedules, we are limited to a period of an hour and a half to debate the whole problem of housing in Northern Ireland. That is an absolute disgrace. Moreover, the order comes to us from another place. It was debated in the House of Lords on 2 December. Lo and behold, we had all the great interest and enthusiasm focused on this order in another place. There were three speakers—Lord Elton, Lord Blease from Northern Ireland, and Lord Hampton, who is a friend of Lord Blease and no doubt felt that he had to give him some little support, who spoke for about 16 seconds. That was the interest shown in the House of Lords. Here tonight many hon. Members are present, and I am certain that each of them could spend a great deal of the time talking about the problems of housing in their constituencies. Yet we are restricted to one and a half hours for this debate.

If we had time, we could go through every article of the order, but article 6 is the major one. It concerns the responsibility of the Housing Executive. It says that it "shall"—there is no "may" about it— regularly examine housing conditions and need". We do not need to go any further into the order than that, because the Housing Executive has regularly examined the need for the provision of housing in Northern Ireland and it has come to the conclusion, which has been reinforced by all sorts of independent observers, that Northern Ireland, particularly in certain areas, has the worst housing problem within the borders of the United Kingdom.

That assessment and conclusion have been arrived at not only by the Housing Executive but by independent observers all over the United Kingdom and, indeed, further afield. Once having arrived at this position—that the Housing Executive has fulfilled its function to look into the whole question of the need for housing in Northern Ireland—it surely then becomes obligatory on the Government to answer questions which have been posed by the Housing Executive.

But how do the Government answer? Lord Elton, in the debate in another place, said: To help meet the needs on the economic front, it has been necessary to claw back some resources from services which have improved their relative position in recent years"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 December 1980; Vol. 415, c. 351] He referred to the Housing Executive. In the context of those remarks, he was referring to the reallocation of funds announced last August. That reallocation was announced by way of a written answer to a Conservative Member, and we had no opportunity to debate the reallocation of these funds—and tonight, when we are able to debate it, we are restricted to one and a half hours.

The reallocation of funds included £10 million from education, £10 million from health and social services, £27 million from the Department of the Environment and £15 million from housing. This is the only opportunity we have had since August to debate these cuts. Of course, we have had the debate on the Gracious Speech, but when a Northern Ireland Member tries to make an intrusion into that debate to talk about housing in Northern Ireland all the other Members look at him and regard his intrusion as gross impertinence. He is now allowed to do it—but he is allowed to do so tonight for only one and a half hours. The great majority of Members from Northern Ireland regard this as an insult.

In that reallocation, £27 million was taken off the Department of the Environment and £15 million off housing. What does it mean? Lord Elton said that these services had done relatively well in the past, so the Government had to take something hack. I shall tell the House what it means. I have a letter here from Mr. Thomas Brown, chairman of the Eastern health and social services board. I had written to him on behalf of one of my constituents in Donegal Road. This lady's husband has been seriously afflicted with multiple sclerosis. She wanted the house to be adapted to make it easier for her husband to negotiate.

The letter I received back at the end of last year stated: You wrote to the Minister of State in the Department of Health and Social Services on behalf of Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor"— it is unnecessary for me to give the address— whose husband Roy suffers from multiple sclerosis and requires adaptations to his home to facilitate him. While it is appreciated that Mrs. Taylor's application has taken a considerable length of time to process, there does not appear to have been any undue delay on the part of the Board's staff. I am told that there is no question of these adapations not being approved but due to the current financial constraints it will not be possible to proceed with these adaptations within the current financial year. The case will however be reviewed when the Board's financial allocation is known for the year commencing 1 April 1981. That is what the reallocation of funds meant to one family. I received another letter, again from Donegal Road, this morning. I telephoned the district manager about the matter. This lady writes that her husband is dying of cancer. She cannot afford to do any repairs. Her mother and father, who is 82, live in the same area. The mother has had a double amputation of her legs. The lady says she has been waiting for 18 years for a house. She has been in constant touch with the Housing Executive but feels that there does not seem to be any hope for her.

The district manager told me that the lady is right. He told me that there are Al and A2 categories, decamping cases and redevelopment cases and that the woman was seventh or eighth in the list of priorities. I am prepared to give these cases to the Minister.

Every day, at the advice centre and constituency surgery run by my wife and I, we are told by district managers of every area in Belfast that they have not got to the people who have their names down and have been allocated a certain number of points. They are too busy clearing redevelopment areas and dealing with decamping cases. Ordinary, young married people in Belfast, whatever number of points they possess, are not being given any consideration because of the rehabilitation programme, the need to shift people, the decamping of people, and the clearance of areas.

A responsibility is placed on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to see where the need arises. It is the Government's duty, however, to try to cope with the problem, which, I repeat, is the worst in Europe. The Government have failed to do so. I was standing at the Bar of the House today while the Prime Minister was answering questions. I heard her saying that the Government had given people the opportunity to buy their own council houses. Her exact words we shall have to read in the Official Report tomorrow.

There are 100,000 unemployed in Northern Ireland. It is predicted that the figure will be 125,000 by the end of the year. Many of those people living in council houses will not have the money or anything else to help them buy their council houses. Whatever the Housing Executive does about building houses, it does not remain behind the scenes when sending out circulars saying how many people have applied to buy their council houses. However, I have no hesitation in predicting that, given the economy of Northern Ireland, the social deprivation and the unemployment, the opportunity to buy council houses has not added to the sum total of people's happiness.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South and I agree on many matters, but I object when he says that the need for housing has been exaggerated in West Belfast. I have represented the area for years. The vast majority of people in West Belfast are not against the State. They are against para militaries, whether Loyalist or IRA. They are ordinary, decent people, who are trying to live an ordinary, decent life in difficult circumstances. There is a crying need for more houses in West Belfast. It is bulging at the seams. Family upon family is living with in-laws.

Against an awful lot of opposition, the Housing Executive tried to grapple with the problem by providing a housing estate in Polglass. Purely for political reasons, there was total and unremitting opposition from the Official Unionist Party and particularly the Democratic Unionist Party in the Lisburn area. They did their damndest to prevent a housing estate being set up there. Even in past days, people on the Lisburn council have shown their incessant opposition. They are putting about stories that the people occupying those 60 houses are in rent arrears.

There is a crying need for more houses in West Belfast. There does not appear to be a need for houses in North Belfast, which we pass through every day on our way to the airport. Flats are being pulled down there that should never have been built in the first place. The news on the radio last night, today, and last week—and it will probably be the same next week—emphasises that there is, unfortunately, still a serious division between the communities in Northern Ireland. Some people will live only in West Belfast, because it is the only place in which they feel safe. Others feel safe only in other parts of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South is, however, right when he says that the order is of major importance. The restriction placed on us makes it impossible to go into every aspect in an academic manner, as in the order. Last August, September, October and November there was chaos in Belfast because of the effect of the cuts on the provision of repair and maintenance grants. Every public representative was driven berserk by the immensity of the problem and the suddenness with which the grants were cut.

Great responsibility lies with the Government. Public representatives in Northern Ireland are conscious that there are financial restrictions and that the needs of the economy must be geared also to other measures. We are prepared to accept that at a time of economic stringency we must do our best to cope with whatever funds are available. However, the Housing Executive has been treated shabbily over the past years.

I can do no better than remind the House of the words quoted in the debate in another place. They were certainly not said out of any political bias. There was reference to what was said by the chairman of the Housing Executive, the vice-chairman, and by Mr. Ferguson, who, I understand, is an Official Unionist. This was their message to the Minister responsible for housing at that time, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart): Essentially what we wish to say to you, and through you to the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, is that present funds for housing in Northern Ireland are insufficient to meet the need."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 December 1980; Vol. 415, c. 349.] There is nothing political or biased about that. It was said by the chairman of the executive, by his deputy, and by a prominent Unionist concerned in housing matters.

Those sentiments could be reiterated across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland. So I say to the Minister—I agree here with what was said by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell)—that he has taken on a Herculean task in trying to grapple with the problem of housing in Northern Ireland. The answer to that appalling problem is more funds from the Government. This is a challenge that the Government must accept and take up on behalf of all those in Northern Ireland who are so in need of public housing.

11.31 pm
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Because of the lateness of the hour and the need to give the Minister time to reply, I shall be brief, but I wish first to echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), when he says that this debate does not provide enough time to discuss the great problems of housing within the Province. I hope that the Government will find an opportunity for a longer debate on these important issues. Whether it be in the Northern Ireland Committee or on the Floor of the House, I hope that it will take place.

We on the Labour Benches support the housing order and the building societies order that is to follow. We give that support because the order now before us is the fruit of the effort initiated by the Labour Administration, and both that Administration and the present Government ought to be congratulated on making sense of the numerous and at times complex and bewildering pieces of housing legislation in the Province.

There is not much point in discussing the measures of consolidation, which are not in dispute, so I shall confine my comments to the substantive changes from the draft order and to the need for further clarification from the Government of the role of the Housing Executive and the housing associations in Northern Ireland.

I had intended to make some comments about the interesting speeches that we have heard, especially that of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford), but I shall do no more than take up one point that the hon. Gentleman made on the question of rents. Not many weeks ago, the Minister's predecessor announced some swingeing rent increases, and I hope that the new Minister will look at that again. It is not good enough for him to argue, as his predecessor did, that the increases fall short of the average increase in the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not think that we are comparing like with like. As the hon. Gentleman is coming fresh to the scene, I hope that he will recognise that and argue accordingly.

On the same subject, I refer also to what was said by Lord Blease in the debate in the other place, to which reference has been made. There is also the question of rent and rate rebates. As the Minister will know by now, there is a great disparity between the take-up of those rebates in the United Kingdom and those in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will find some way of bridging the gap, and I ask for his comments on that.

I note with pleasure—the Minister mentioned it—that the original proposal to change to a discretionary power the mandatory duty on the Housing Executive to deal with unfit houses has been removed. I know that it is often argued that the Executive could not physically execute that duty, but I consider that any change from a duty to a discretionary power would do nothing to reduce the number of unfit homes in Northern. Ireland, of which there are many, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West has already pointed out.

The interim report of the housing condition survey, 1979, reveals that 14.1 per cent. of houses in Northern Ireland are statutorily unfit. In England and Wales the percentage is 4.6—only one-third of that of Northern Ireland. The problem is clearly at its most severe in Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, where the problem is somewhat lighter, local authorities have a statutory duty to deal with unfit homes, and I consider it expedient that such a duty should remain in Northern Ireland. We therefore welcome the recognition by the Government of this matter. I am sure that it was after a great deal of pressure on the part of organisations on the Government that they decided to leave it where it is.

I now come to the matter of disrepair and article 41 of the order. I understand—perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the Northern Ireland Association of Environmental Health Officers recommended that this article should be extended to include provision for dwellings which, although not unfit, require some repair work to prevent their deterioration. From my knowledge of the age of the housing stock in the Province and from the plain common sense angle, I would say that it is cheaper and less troublesome to repair a house that has not reached the stage of being unfit. I regarded that as a sensible proposal, but perhaps the Minister can tell us why it has not been included in the article.

I have spoken of the high level of unfitness of the Northern Ireland housing stock, and I know that the Housing Executive has made considerable headway in repairing dilapidated housing and providing new stock. However, at the time of this debate on the operational framework of the Housing Executive and housing associations, I consider it appropriate to ask the Minister whether he envisages that the publicly financed housing sector in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity to operate freely within this framework.

The crux of the problem, surely, is that we now have a Housing Executive and associations with clearly defined functions and a level of housing need in the Province far in excess of that in any other part of the United Kingdom, but we do not as yet have any idea of the Government's intention on housing policy for the Procince. Nor do we have the prospect of sustained and adquate finance to meet the level of need.

Is it not a little ironic that the Government should seek to define the function of the housing authorities in Northern Ireland at the very time when their willingness to provide the resources for those authorities is in question? In fact ever since the present Administration came to power the housing situation in Northern Ireland has faced a gloomy future. This is evident in the downward slide of new building. The anticipated starts for 1980–81 were 1,083 houses. That compares with 5,136 in the last financial year under the previous Administration. Almost 14,000 construction workers are now unemployed, and that is at least 60 per cent. more were than unemployed last July. That is the picture.

As a result of Government cutbacks, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the Province about the future of housing provision. At the same time as the number of new houses is declining rapidly, the chairman of the Housing Executive tells us in his annual report that, at the very minimum, the Province needs a rolling programme of at least 5,000 new dwellings over the next 10 years so that the waiting lists can be kept down and so that the Housing Executive can fulfil its statutory obligation to meet housing need. Will the Minister tell us tonight whether the Housing Executive will have the financial resources to meet this programme and thereby fulfil that statutory obligation to the people of Northern Ireland? Certainly, the level of housing need in the Province demands that, at the very least, the Housing Executive and associations should have the money they require to alleviate the problems that bedevil the housing sector.

In Belfast, 24.5 per cent. of houses have no internal water closet, and 26.2 per cent. are without wash-hand basins. As the hon. Member for Belfast, West suggested, those figures come from independent reprts. Clearly, the Province constitutes an area of dire need. The Government, especially the new Minister, must meet the challenge before them. It is a daunting task, but the Minister must find the will to stand up and fight for that social problem which bedevils so many people in Northern Ireland. I hope that when he replies he will SSgive us some hope. We shall certainly wish him well if he tackles the job in the way that we believe he should.

11.41 pm
Mr. Davd Mitchell

The House has had a valuable debate on the important problems of housing in Northern Ireland as well as on the exact details contained in the order. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) asked me a substantial string of questions, which I shall endeavour to answer. If I miss the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth questions, I hope that he will forgive me. I shall certainly write to him about any that I miss.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the staff of the Housing Executive, which, he claimed, was overmanned. He drew comparisons with what he claimed were equivalent places on the mainland. New as I am to the position of responsibility for the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, I know that nothing on the mainland is comparable with the responsibility of the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman cited as an example Birmingham, a single contiguous area. That is totally different from having the whole of Northern Ireland under the responsibility of one Housing Execuive. Although I shall consider his point, I do not think that the hon. Member has drawn a fair comparison upon which to raise it.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the housing programme and the finance for 1981–82. I accept his point about the desirability of the Housing Executive knowing ahead where it stands. The executive has been given a broad indication of the probable level of its capital and revenue budget for 1981–82, but a detailed budget has yet to be agreed. I hope to notify the executive of its detailed allocation within a few weeks.

The hon. Gentleman asked about four glossy reports produced by the Housing Executive at a cost of £220,000. He asked whether it could get by with something less glossy. The reports are necessary for the formulation of policy. I think he will agree that it is necessary to research carefully what one is doing before one spends public money. Now that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I shall examine it and write to him. He also raised the question of medical points for housing and mentioned the variations in arrangements between one place and another. I shall discuss that matter with the Housing Executive, because it has not previously been drawn to my attention.

The hon. Gentleman was disturbed about rent increases in certain areas where houses were in a state of disrepair. There are no rent increases for unfit houses in redeveloment areas. Areas that are due for redevelopment also do not face increases. He said that the rents in Scotland were lower. Yes, that may be so, but that is compensated for by substantial increases in the level of rates, which have had disastrous consequences both on businesses in the area and on job opportunities. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to transplant to Northern Ireland the worst effects of that misfortune.

The hon. Gentleman drew my attention to rent arrears. He said that if they had been paid we would have avoided the need for the rent increases that are now about to be put into effect. With respect, that is not so. The rent charges are not affected by rent arrears as they are a matter of Government policy.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about housing in East Belfast, which, he says, is inadequate. He referred to the major report, which I have only recently received. It was published this morning. It is known as the Ramsey report. It will provide a useful information base on both the demand and the supply factors in housing over the next five years.

The report identifies considerable housing need, which will have to be considered alongside the housing needs of other areas in Northern Ireland when priorities are being established within the resources that are available in the public housing sector in any one year. I am anxious that the private sector should make its maximum possible contribution towards dealing with the problem.

The hon. Gentleman referred to acquisition. I accept what he said. Any action to establish heating plants will require the approval of my Department. I hope that that will at least allay the hon. Gentleman's fears. If it does not, I hope that he will write to me to set out the matter more fully.

The hon. Gentleman asked me how many blocked-up houses there are in Belfast. I shall investigate and write to him. He asked whether sufficient was being done to bring them back into use. He made a valuable and constructive suggestion, and I shall look into it. It is part of the value of debates of this sort that practical suggestions are put forward that can be taken up.

The hon. Gentleman referred to properties with a rateable value of less than £60 and went on to talk about housing action areas. He wants the limitation lifted. He will not expect me to answer that technicality off the cuff. I shall look into it.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman took up the relative importance, which I acknowledge, of housing associations. He expressed anxiety that they should be encouraged. I join him in that wish. He can be assured that within the available resources I shall seek to forward the work of the housing associations.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said that there was a time when it was thought that my predecessors might be driven into a state of nervous breakdown by the prospect of having to deal with the problems of local government in Northern Ireland. The previous two Ministers with that responsibility survived without any signs of a nervous breakdown, as the right Gentleman rightly said. I hope that it will be a case of third time lucky. I shall do my best to serve the interests of those concerned.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the important topic of demolition closing orders and whether they should be mandatory or discretionary. He identified—I appreciate his argument—the difficult position in which the Housing Executive is put when it has to identify, demolish and have responsibility for rehousing. He was saying that that might impair the executive's judgment as it will be aware of the consequences of having to deal with the rehousing of those whose houses have been demolished. He linked that with some correspondence that is on its way to me. I shall read it with great interest and care, especially in the light of his remarks this evening.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), who, unfortunately, is not now present, raised a number of important issues. I should like to have more time to deal with them, as he would like to have had more time to deal here with housing problems. But constitutional changes are matters for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

I recognise that there is a problem in the lack of the middle tier of local representation and local government to deal with many of the activities which on the mainland are carried out by elected councils. That lays an additional responsibility upon me to get out into the Province to meet people and to listen to what is being said by elected local representatives, both at Westminster and on the councils. I shall be ready to accept invitations to visit the hon. Member's constituency and other constituencies and councils around the Province.

The hon. Member drew attention to a particular case of someone with disseminated sclerosis who had been waiting for house adaptations, and he mentioned someone who had been waiting for rehousing for 18 years. As I have held my present post for 18 days, I am sure that the hon. Member would not expect me to have resolved those problems in that time. If he will write to me about those cases, I shall look into them very carefully.

The hon. Member said that there was no early prospect of resolving the housing need in the Province. That is true. Having accepted that, however, I think that it should be said that the 1979 house condition survey revealed that there had been a significant improvement in the condition of the housing stock between 1974 and 1979. There was a 16 per cent. increase in sound houses and a 17 per cent. decrease in the number of houses requiring remedial action. The number of unfit houses fell by a quarter and the number of dwellings lacking one or more basic amenities fell by almost 30 per cent.

Housing has always enjoyed a significant share of the resources available to the Province, and public expenditure on housing per head of population, even after the recent reallocations, is still one and a half times that in Great Britain as a whole.

The hon. Member went on to complain about what he called a cut of some £15 million in the Housing Executive's Vote. It was £12.5 million, not £15 million. It was not a cut. It was a reallocation of money towards industry and job saving and to assist with energy costs. During the sitting of the Northern Ireland Committee yesterday, that was one of the things to which I was frequently asked to give high priority. It was raised on a number of occasions by several hon. Members in the debate. I do not think that it is helping the cause if the hon. Member requests that we reallocate money towards job creation and job preservation and at the same time complains at our doing so.

Mr. Bradford

The fact is that the £15 million came about through £12¼ million for the executive and £3 million for the housing association, totalling £15¼ million for both housing agencies. That money was used not to create new jobs but to pay old debts—namely, electricity debts and Harland and Wolff's debts.

Mr. Mitchell

Unfortunately, the clock is running against us.

What I ought to say to the House is that the hon. Member for Belfast, West complained that the house sales programme added nothing to the sum of human happiness in the Province, but on that I take issue with him, for two reasons. It adds to the sense of human satisfaction when people own the house in which they live instead of spending their lifetime paying rent and never owning a brick of it. That gives immense personal satisfaction to those people. Moreover, when houses are sold and the money conies from the building society movement, it adds to the resources of the Housing Executive in the Province and enables it to increase the amount that it is able to spend on house building and house renovation.

That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) when he complained about the rent increases. Again, such increases enable the resources to come into the Housing Executive, to be spent on improving the stock of housing in Northern Ireland, thus dealing with this very serious problem, which all hon. Members are united in believing is something to which the Government should give attention. We are seeking to do that. I urge hon. Members not to attack the method by which we are able to help those who are in great housing need.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 5 November 1980 in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.

  1. Northern Ireland (Building Societies) 34 words