HC Deb 16 November 1983 vol 48 cc852-97
Mr. Speaker

Before we move to the important Opposition day debate on the effect on householders of Government improvement grant cuts, I should tell the House that I have a long list of hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate. Would those making opening and winding-up speeches on the Front Benches set a good example to those who are to follow by making short contributions?

3.42 pm
Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Waterloo)

I beg to move, That this House condemns the proposals of Her Majesty's Government to cut improvement grants from 90 per cent to 75 per cent. and severely limit their availability, so disadvantaging individual householders, worsening the effects of previous cuts in housing capital expnditure, housing subsidies and inner city and urban aid, and thereby increasing unemployment in the building and associated industries, retarding home modernisation and impeding recovery in the construction trades and the national economy. The motion is primarily concerned with the Government's decision to cut home improvements grants from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent., and its effect on revitalising our housing stock and employment within the construction industry and in dashing the hopes of many thousands of home owners whom the Government are supposed to cherish.

The motion goes wider than cuts to improvement grants. The issues involved are interconnected, and add up to a serious blow to householders and to the poorest sections of the community — those who live in old houses which are desperately in need of repair or renovation.

The cuts in improvement and repair grants inevitably penalise the poorest owner-occupiers. Women, who are over-represented among the disadvantaged, must bear the brunt of the cuts. Women spend far more time in and around the home than their male partners. Even if they work, a high proportion of them work part time. Those women bear the main responsibility for the home and must cope with the miserable effects of bad housing. The Government claim that they have the needs of the family most at heart. If that is so, they should try to provide more support for the poorest families in the community and switch more and not fewer resources to improvements and repair than is suggested at present.

The motion deals with the rehabilitation of inner cities, the impending recovery in the construction industry, which has suffered tremendously since the Government came to office, and the effects of the cuts and Government housing policy on the national economy.

I have taken note of what you said, Mr. Speaker; before your remarks, I decided that I would not make a long speech, because the debate is scheduled to last only three hours. I have sat on the Back Benches through many hours of debate, and I have always resented long speeches made by either Opposition or Government Front-Bench spokesmen.

I must disappoint those of my hon. Friends who have asked me to include in my speech the statistics of Swansea or other places. If they wish to raise such matters, they must try to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.

The Government's proposal to cut the grant from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent. has caused widespread dismay and much anger. Those who protest include employers' organisations in the building and construction industry, trade unions, local authorities, housing associations and many others. Those householders who may find that their hoped-for grant will not be forthcoming and the workers who looked forward to better days in the building and construction industry will be especially angry.

The Government originally agreed to increase the grant for one reason only—a general election was imminent and this was a general election gimmick. Now that the Conservative party has won the election, it assumes that it can treat local authorities, builders and workers with disdain. There is no doubt that the increased improvements grants have been a great boon to the industry. I accept the Government's figures that spending on such grants increased from £90 million in 1978–79 to £430 million last year. According to what the Minister said on 20 October, the expenditure this year will be about £650 million. That was the only bright spot on the gloomy scene of the Government's policies. When I left the Chamber after the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the proposals in his Budget speech, the press asked me what I thought of the Budget, and I said that the only benefit was the increase in grant from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. That bright spot has now disappeared.

Reactions to the Government's decision have been sharp and clear. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities said that the ending of the renovation grant arrangements will have the following effects. Many people on local authority grant waiting lists will be disappointed. It is estimated that about 500,000 people are in the grants system. I should have wished to give the figures for individual areas, such as Liverpool and Swansea, but as I said earlier, I shall not. However, they are available and I assure the House that they add up to several hundred thousand peoole still waiting for grants. In many areas local authorities will not consider new grant applications until the circumstances change and they know what the housing investment programme will be. It has been clearly shown in letters that I have seen, and in statements by the Government, that the HIP allocations for next year are likely to be 20 per cent. lower than they are this year. If that is so, that, together with the cuts in the grants for home improvement, means that there is a bleak future for British housing.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities stated: As the next major announcement on housing capital expenditure will be the 1985–86 HIP then it looks like the freeze on grants introduced by many authorities is set to continue for up to 18 months". The AMA housing chairman, Mr. John Donnelly, is right to describe the Government's move as "wholly irresponsible". The National Federation of Building Trades Employers described the grants scheme as probably one of the most successful initiatives of the last Conservative Government. It also stated that the cut contradicts entirely the Prime Minister's call last year for increased housing investment". Sir Peter Trench, chairman of the House-building Council, was reported in the journal Building on 4 November as having told the City of Westminster Chamber of Commerce: The Government's reduction of housing improvement grants in 1984 is a reversal of policy we could live to regret". Mr. Bruce Chivers, president of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers — which is hardly renowned for its support of Labour policies — was reported in the November edition of National Builder as saying: It was monstrous that the Government should be seeking to impose further cuts upon an industry which had already taken far more than its fair share". The president of the Royal Institute of British Architects commented in the National Builder on reports that the Government are contemplating axing £500 million from local authorities' capital budgets for housing, and cutting inner city aid. Mr. Michael Manser said: This would be permanently damaging to a construction industry which remains in a very debilitated condition … It would be bound to stifle general economic recovery … Such a decision would show culpable disregard of the evidence about accelerating deterioration in the condition of the nation's housing stock. He also made the important point that the Government would also be turning its back on some of the severest inner city problems, and withdrawing from its earlier commitments. Lest some of my hon. Friends believe that I have been biased in quoting only the employers' organisations, the housebuilders and architects' representatives, I shall quote what the trade union leaders in the industry said. Mr. George Henderson, the building groups secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, said: These latest cuts will fall on an industry which has already taken a disproportionate share of the burden … The construction industry is the engine for any recovery. It is high time this Government was investing, not cutting investment. Mr. Hugh D'Arcy the chairman of my union, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians said: One of the most effective ways to boost the economy is to invest in the construction industry, which in turn creates demand for the products of manufacturing industry. Looked at in this light the Government's cuts are economic madness". On radio this morning the Minister of State tried to excuse Government policy by attacking the Labour Government's policies and the Labour party's present housing policies. The hon. Gentleman must know that I have not always supported previous Government's policies, but, although I have criticised some of the Labour Government's policies, I must set the record straight. When the Conservative Government came to office, in 1979–80, 75 per cent. of Government cuts fell on housing. Between 1979–80 and 1981–82 HIP grants were halved, and it has been said that housing grants are to be slashed by at least £500 million.

Cuts in housing expenditure could not have come at a worse time, because 4.3 million dwellings need repairs costing at least £2,500. Of those, 1 million need repairs costing more than £7,000, and 1,116,000 houses are unfit for habitation. Those figures were obtained from the English house condition survey 1981. It shows that 340,000 owner-occupied houses are without one or more basic amenities, such as an inside lavatory or a fitted bath; and 200,000 private rented dwellings and 142,000 vacant dwellings are in a similar position. The AMA estimates that there is a shortage of 433,000 dwellings nationally, and that the figure is increasing. Each year 40,000 dwellings deteriorate into being unfit to live in, and another 100,000 deteriorate into serious disrepair.

At present 400,000 construction workers are on the dole queue, and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers estimates that the cuts will throw another 30,000 workers out of a job.

Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire)

The hon. Gentleman reminded us briefly of the Labour Government's record on repair and improvement grants. Will he confirm that in 1978–79, the last year of the Labour Government, £90 million was spent on home improvements; that last year, 1982–83, £430 million— four times as much—was spent on home improvements; and that this year £650 million will be committed to home repairs?

Mr. Haffer

The hon. Member must be deaf. I said that a little while ago. I said that that was the one bright spot in the Government's policies of deepening gloom. I accept that that has happened, but why are the Government now cutting improvement grants from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent. while also cutting the HIP allocation? That means that local authorities will not have enough money even to provide the 75 per cent. grants.

The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) must also know that unemployment in the construction industry has reached its highest ever level during the Government's term of office. If the hon. Gentleman does not know that, he should talk to some of my constituents who are construction workers. He should also talk to some of my constituents who live in miserable housing that desperately needs repair. They hoped to modernise their homes but will no longer be able to do so because of the cut in grants. That is what is happening and it is why we protest at what the Government are doing.

I see from the Government amendment that they want to offset criticisms of their policy by referring to their so-called home ownership policy and their so-called tenants' charter. The latter has been discussed in Committee this week. I am sure that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have been involved in those discussions will be anxious to deal with the charter today. The Government did not accept the Opposition's sensible proposals. Their tenants' charter is phoney.

The Government's policy of cutting home improvement grants will hit those who own their own homes. They constantly tell us how much they favour people owning their own homes, but many such people are struggling to pay their substantial mortgages. They have bought property that is not as fit and good as it should be. It requires renovation and repair. The grant system which has helped those people in the past two years is now being destroyed. Conservative Members should be aware that the destruction of the system will affect the construction industry as well as people who want to renovate their homes. I appeal to them to support the Opposition's motion.

We shall soon hear of the Government's intentions with regard to the housing investment programme. The Opposition are filled with fear that, once again, housing and construction will be badly affected. Yesterday, I received a letter from a body which calls itself the Confederation of Construction Specialists. I am sure that other hon. Members will have received similar letters. It makes my point excellently: In 1982 the Government took a welcome (although overdue?) step and increased grant rates for the most important improvement work — installing basic amenities and major repair work. The result was an immediate surge in much needed improvement work. The number of grant aided major renovations being carried out had almost doubled by the first half of 1983. This surge in improvement work reflects all too clearly the fact that housing in poor condition tends to be occupied and owned by the poorest people. Without a high rate of grant they simply cannot afford to repair or improve their (often semi derelict) homes. The Government decision to cut the grant rates back from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent. will mean that many poorer people will not now be able to afford home improvement or repair work. The short lived house improvement surge will be stopped in its tracks by Government meanness. Like the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, the Confederation of British Industry is not renowned for supporting Labour party policy. However, Mr. Malcolm Fordy, who is the ex-president of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, was quoted in the magazine Building, as having told the CBI conference: Painful damage will be caused by capital cuts. After the encouraging stimulus of Mrs. Thatcher's campaign to eliminate local authority underspend a year ago, and the construction packages in Sir Geoffrey Howe's last two budgets, the Treasury was now 'back to its old tricks'. He continued: We are perhaps being too polite and too considerate to the Government. Unless this conference acts urgently now to counter the curse of rigid monetary obsessions, this Government will not have a strong construction industry to fall upon in future years. I never expected to agree with every word of a delegate at the CBI conference. The Government should support the motion, as it is sensible and intelligent. Many Conservative Members whom I have known for many years are present. They have fought for the construction industry and have argued as I have argued. If they are honest today and do not hide behind their party, they will get up as I used to get up and support the industry and those people who should be receiving improvement grants. They should tell the Government to change their policy—and to change it fast.

4.6 pm

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: welcomes the priority given by the Government to the promotion of home ownership and the repair and improvement of the housing stock through repair and improvement grants and the introduction of the Tenants' Charter and the entitlement of local authority tenants to improvement grants; and believes that these measures are of real benefit both to individual householders and to the construction industry. I welcome the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) in his new capacity as shadow Housing and Construction Minister. The House knows the keen interest that he has always taken in the housing and construction industry. No one who has followed his career as I have can doubt the sincerity of his views or the depth of the conviction with which he holds them. I shall put those views in the context of the construction industry for which he has shadow responsibility and in the context of the tentative attempts which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is making to move the Labour party away from some of its more ludicrous policies.

I begin by referring to an article which the hon. Member for Walton wrote in the March 1983 edition of Marxism Today to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. The hon. Gentleman wrote: Through the study of Marx, I became dedicated to fundamentally changing and destroying capitalist society". The construction industry is an important element of capitalist society and it will have been given no encouragement by those words, especially as they were written by the shadow Housing Minister. That is not all. The hon. Gentleman addressed the Labour party conference in Blackpool on 28 September 1970——

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

The Minister really has been following my hon. Friend's career.

Mr. Gow

The Leader of the Opposition will want to hear my next quotation. The hon. Member for Walton said: If ever there was an industry that required public ownership in one form or another, it is the building industry.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gow

No, I will not.

Any proposal to nationalise the construction industry for which the hon. Member for Walton has shadow responsibility would diminish the prospect of increased jobs now held out to the industry.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Gow

Mr. Speaker has asked us to be brief. I shall not give way.

I draw the attention of the House to a further piece of advice from the hon. Member for Walton. He wrote a book, "The Class Struggle in Parliament", to which his right hon. Friend the former Leader of the Opposition wrote a foreword. [Interruption.] I hope that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) will remain quiet while I make my speech. If he wishes to intervene, I shall give way.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)


Mr. Gow

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). I was seeking to give way to the former Patronage Secretary.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Gow

I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) either.

"The Class Struggle in Parliament" by the hon. Member for Walton is priced £3.90. I think that it is overpriced, but on page 272 the hon. Gentleman offers the following advice: The young active revolutionary-minded Labour MP, unless he is careful, can quickly be ensnared in the aristocratic embrace. He then added: It is not inevitable and many have avoided it. On page 96, however, we find a photograph of the hon. Member for Walton sitting close beside the second Viscount Stansgate sipping a glass of wine. We are told that the former right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, who competed for nomination with the Opposition Chief Whip, is now seeking to return to the House following the defection of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley). I hope that the hon. Member for Walton will follow his own advice and eschew the aristocratic company of the former right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

I am sure that on reflection the Minister will wish to withdraw the word "defection" in connection with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley), as it has connotations which are entirely unjustified in this case.

Mr. Gow

I accept that. I withdraw the word. I should have referred to the right hon. Gentleman's prospective departure.

The hon. Member for Walton rightly said that the most important part of the Opposition motion related to improvement grants.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Gow

No, I shall not give way. The hon. Member for Walton himself acknowledged the marked contrast between the policies of the Labour Government which he briefly adorned and those followed by the present Administration. In view of the Labour Government's appalling record on improvement grants, I am greatly surprised that the Opposition have chosen this topic for today's debate. Indeed, I regard it as impertinence for the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) said in his intervention, in their last full year of office the Labour Government spent £90 million on improvement grants. That expenditure rose to £200 million in 1981–82 and to £430 million last year and it is likely to exceed £650 million in the current year. I see no reason why next year's spending on improvement grants should not be about three times greater in real terms than the pitiful performance of the Labour Government during their last year in office.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gow

No, I shall not give way.

The plain fact is that since 1979 we have made the grant system more flexible, more generous and better attuned to priority needs. [Interruption.] It is clear how much importance the Leader of the Opposition attaches to this subject.

We have provided local authorities with the resources to give grants in numbers unheard of throughout the Labour Government's period of office. Under the Labour Government, repair grants were available only to people in severe financial hardship who lived in housing action and general improvement areas. Between 1974 and the beginning of 1979—that is, during the entire five-year period—only 500 such grants were made in England.

In the first six months of this year more than 44,000 such grants were made — 90 times as many as were made in the entire five years of the Labour Government in which the hon. Member for Walton held office for a brief period. We did not just talk about the problem of disrepair. We have done something about it, through the Housing Act 1980, by extending eligibility for repairs grants to a much wider range of pre-1919 houses in need of major repairs.

It was this Government who provided 90 per cent. rates of grant for people in financial hardship, wherever they lived. Before 1980 such higher rates had beeen available only to those in housing action areas. We also excluded grants for disabled occupants from the rateable value limits. This Government, too, enabled occupiers to receive grants as of right to install a single missing basic amenity even if the house still lacked other such amenities. It was this Government, too, who gave local authorities more scope to grant-aid small improvements such as the installation of better heating in one room and encouraged authorities to use those powers, expecially for the elderly.

Mr. Donald Stewart


Mr. Gow

No, I shall not give way.

It was this Government who enabled tenants in both the private and public sectors to receive grants for the first time. Some might say that we have stolen the Labour party's clothes, but the truth is that when in government —an opportunity unlikely to be repeated—the Labour party showed little inclination to wear them.

Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gow

No, I have been asked to be brief. Many hon. Members on both sides wish to take part in the debate.

Mr. Freeson

The Minister is frightened of us.

Mr. Gow

I am certainly not frightened of the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) or of the House.

We have now decided that next year, in most circumstances, we should revert to the 75 per cent. grant. The higher rate of 90 per cent. will still be available for those who would suffer financial hardship from any lower rate. The present rate will also be available to anyone who applies for a grant by 31 March 1984 even if the grant approval and the actual works come in the new financial year. I am sure that the rates of grant which will apply from 1 April next year, which are higher and more widely available than those under the Labour Government, will be regarded by many people as generous.

To reinforce the temporary availability of 90 per cent. grants, we have provided special resource allocations this year for some local authorities which needled them. I am glad that so many authorities have responded with so much vigour to our encouragement. This was never intended to be a permanent measure. Next year, local authorities will still have full freedom to allocate a substantial part of the HIP resources for this purpose as well as capital receipts which they hold or acquire in the coming months.

There has been some wild talk within and outside the House to the effect that my announcement last month about home improvement grants in 1984–85 signalled a change of course by the Government. That is nonsense. When the higher rate of grant was announced in March 1982 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that it would he a temporary measure only. I quote his exact words: This increased rate of grant will apply only to applications received before the end of 1982. The purpose is not to add to longer term demands on the industry but to encourage the early take-up of immediate spare capacity."— [Official Report, 9 March 1982; Vol. 19, c. 750.] In fact, we have twice extended the scheme—first to the end of March 1983 and then to the end of the current financial year.

The hon. Member for Walton referred to the general condition of our housing stock. I am fully aware of the problem of disrepair and we shall continue to adapt our policy in the light of changes in the condition of the housing stock.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

A few minutes ago the Minister carefully said that in the coming months local authorities would be able to reinvest their capital receipts. Does the word "months" in that context confirm today's story in The Guardian that after this financial year the Treasury will start to claw back capital receipts from the sale of council houses?

Mr. Gow

I certainly do not intend to confirm the report in today's edition of The Guardian.

In future, as at present, it will be for authorities to determine their own priorities in the use of 'capital resources, but the Government expect continuing emphasis to be placed on the repair and improvement of the existing housing stock. The resources that we shall make available to local authorities will allow them, if they wish, to tackle those defective dwellings in their own stock that need immediate attention. There is no reason why at the same time they should not also be able to maintain a significant programme of home improvement grants.

I wish to make a broad comment on the general housing scene. For the first 70 years of this century the dominant issue was the scarcity of houses. Very few houses were built during the 10 war years, when nearly 250,000 houses were destroyed. Given the rapidly rising number of households, successive Governments rightly concentrated on producing more dwellings of all kinds. By 197'7 the then Labour Administration were able to record in their Green Paper, Cmnd. 6851, that there were 500,000 more dwellings than households. As I have said, that was not our Green Paper, but the Labour party's Green Paper. By the end of last year the figure had grown to approximately 1.1 million.

Of course I accept that the true housing situation cannot be gauged simply by this crude surplus — substantial though it is. Certainly those statistics are of no comfort to those living in crowded or substandard conditions. We must take full account of the condition of that stock, on which I shall have more to say in a moment, but over the coming years families will be better placed than ever before to express their choice in terms of the kind of housing they want.

A second major fact overlooked by the hon. Member for Walton is the dramatic growth in home ownership. By June 1983 nearly 62 per cent. of dwellings in England were owner-occupied—an increase of more than 5 per cent. since the Conservative Government came to power in May 1979. This year's Building Societies Association survey showed that 77 per cent. of all households and 90 per cent. of households in the age range 25 to 35 saw their ideal housing tenure as owner occupation.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Will the Minister give way"

Mr. Gow

No, I shall not. The Government's policy, including the right to buy, is in accordance with the people's expressed preference. Since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister arrived in Downing street more than 600,000 local authority, new town and housing association homes have been sold, the vast majority to sitting tenants. I pay tribute in particular to the 66 Labour-controlled councils that have completed the sale of 1,000 houses or more under the right to buy.

The hon. Member for Walton understandably placed much emphasis on the condition of the nation's housing stock. The truth is that in recent years we have seen a fundamental improvement in living conditions. Many serious problems of course remain, and I do not seek to minimise them, but I ask the House to consider the facts.

In 1971 nearly 3.2 million dwellings in England were either unfit, lacked at least one basic amenity such as a bathroom, or were in serious disrepair. By 1981 that figure had been reduced to just over 2 million, of which 300,000 were not being lived in. Therefore, it is misleading to argue that we are facing a situation of crisis proportions.

Only in terms of disrepair has recent progress given cause for concern. In the private sector, the primary responsibility — I underline the word "primary" — for keeping homes in good repair rests with individual owners. It is not axiomatic — provided the minimum statutory standards are achieved—that the taxpayer at large should be asked to foot the bill for this kind of work.

In the public sector, I have seen for myself plenty of evidence that the grave disrepair that exists on so many council estates is often the product of quite inadequate management by the councils concerned. It is not self-evident that the only answer is to throw more of the taxpayers' money at the problem. The 1983 HIP return of one major London borough describes more than 22 per cent. of its council stock as difficult to let—more than 14 per cent. of the entire housing in the borough. Yet more than £375 million has been spent on housing capital programmes by that authority since 1974–75, not to mention its expenditure on management and maintenance of council dwellings, which is now running at more than £44 million a year.

Regrettably, that kind of performance is not unique and suggests that the causes are to be found both in original errors of design in relation to real needs and in the quality of housing management. We must certainly think and act radically with regard to management and tenant involvement.

Major lessons should be learnt and applied from the work of our priority estates project, for which I have just agreed a three-year extension until 1986–87. I am sure that dramatic improvements can result from this and other initiatives aimed at restoring a decent quality of life on some of our rundown council estates.

In future, the role of local authorities will be different. The need for massive public sector house building programmes is a thing of the past, and I am glad to say that most local authorities recognise that. Of the total 1983 housing investment programme bids from English authorities, only 26 per cent. related to new build expenditure which they wished to incur, compared with 64 per cent. on various aspects of renovation and repair.

Increasingly, that diminished public sector new build programme will rightly concentrate on meeting the special needs of the elderly and the disabled. From the HIP returns, I am glad to see that more than 250,000 sheltered dwellings are now provided by local authorities—the highest number ever—and I look forward to further increases in housing to serve special needs.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gow

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue. We are short of time and many hon. Members wish to speak.

Part of our amendment deals with the Government's main housing priorities. We wish to extend the widest opportunities to those who wish to own their own homes, and most people do. We are now in the business of transforming what for many was a dream into reality. Since May 1979, in addition to the 600,000 people who have bought from public authorities, another 1.4 million households have entered owner occupation—a total of 2 million new owner occupiers in four years.

The house building industry has responded to this demand. Despite the difficult economic circumstances in which it has operated over the past few years, private housing starts in Great Britain are said to be likely to reach 165,000 this year— 17 per cent. up on 1982, and a figure that was last exceeded 10 years ago during the premiership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath).

We shall do all in our power to create the right climate to allow private house building to continue to be the main provider of people's housing needs and aspirations. The abatement of inflation and the return of sound money have meant that house prices in relation to average earnings have fallen significantly below the 3.5:1 ratio that has obtained over most of the period since 1945. Currently, building societies have ample funds to meet current mortgage demand and to reduce mortgage queues. Consumer confidence is higher now than for several years.

Last, but emphatically not least, the Government are taking further steps to promote the right to buy. The Government amendment refers to the promotion of home ownership. Our new Housing and Building Control Bill now in Committee will extend the right to buy to 50,000 tenants whose landlords do not own the freehold of their dwelling.

Mr. Winnick

Why will the Government not give private tenants the right to buy in law?

Mr. Gow

I answered the hon. Gentleman in the first Question Time in this Parliament.

The Bill will give to less well-off tenants the right to buy on "shared ownership" terms; it will increase the discount for 400,000 tenants from 50 per cent. after 20 years' tenancy to 60 per cent. after 30 years' tenancy; and it will reduce the right-to-buy qualifying period from three to two years, giving to another 250,000 tenants the immediate right to buy. And we intend, as I have told the Committee, to amend the Bill further to allow periods of occupation spent in other public sector tenancies to count for right to buy qualifying and discount purposes.

The Government also regard the private rented sector as a way of providing a further crucial element of choice and flexibility in the housing market, particularly for the young, the single, and the mobile. Continued decline of this sector is in no one's interest.

The Opposition have adopted — very unwisely — a wholly destructive attitude to the private rented sector. Their threat to repeal the shorthold provisions of the Housing Act 1980 was repeated in the 1983 manifesto. The manifesto went on to list measures to impose still further burdens on private landlords. Although we know what the electorate thought of that manifesto, I suspect that the Opposition have so far learnt little from their experience.

The Government are determined to build on the measures introduced in the 1980 Act, despite the Opposition's attitude. The response to the assured tenancy scheme is most encouraging. Over 100 bodies have been approved to let on an assured tenancy basis, outside the Rent Acts. Certainly the assured tenancy scheme provides an opportunity both for investors and for tenants looking for modern housing for rent in the private sector.

We are examining the existing legislation affecting the private rented sector as a whole. The truth is that legislation designed to help the tenant has succeeded in drying up the supply of rented accommodation. We have succeeded unwittingly in injuring precisely the kind of people whom we were trying to help. We must aim to establish conditions in which landlords have the confidence, the incentives and the desire to invest in the private rented sector. At the same time, we must and shall provide proper protection for tenants.

In earlier debates concern has been expressed on both sides of the House, notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), about the problems of management in privately owned blocks of flats, especially in London. In response to this, as the House knows, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in 1982 set up a working party under a distinguished chairman, Mr. J. N. C. James, whose report, published in January this year, was an important step forward.

Some of the working party's recommendations were essentially matters for the parties involved; for example, the working up of an agreed code of practice for the management of residential blocks. I hope that those directly involved will now press ahead with the implementation of those recommendations.

However, many of its other recommendations would involve legislation. Before we can decide whether it would be right to alter the statutory relationship of landlords and tenants in this area, and in what way, we would need more evidence. I have decided to set up a committee of inquiry to consider the matter and report as soon as possible. I have in mind the following terms of reference: To collect and examine evidence of the nature, scale and incidence of problems for landlords and tenants arising from the management of privately owned blocks of flats; to assess the difficulties caused by these management problems and to make recommendations on how they might be resolved. I hope to be able to announce shortly the names of the chairman and members of the committee, and the date on which it will start work.

The amendment in the name of my right hon. Friends also refers to a tenants' charter. Let no one in the House be under the impression that the Labour party is anything other than a latecomer to the principle of a tenants' charter. There was a memorable occasion in the House which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will remember when my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) sought to bring in a private Member's Bill to introduce a tenants' charter. That Bill was voted down by the Labour party. It is all very well for the former Patronage Secretary to keep sniggering about it, but he was one of those who opposed the Bill.

Through the tenants' charter provisions of the Housing Act 1980 we gave for the first time public sector tenants of local councils, new towns and housing associations a number of new statutory rights. First and foremost was the right to buy, but there was also the right to security of tenure, the right to improve their homes, rights to information, and the right to be consulted about housing management proposals. These rights were intended to give tenants a greater sense of belonging, a greater sense of responsibility, and a greater willingness to help build a better quality of life for themselves and their fellow tenants.

We are extending the rights under the charter. The Housing and Building Control Bill now in Committee will confer two new rights on secure tenants: first, to carry out repairs for themselves, if they so wish and to be reimbursed for doing so; and secondly, the right to information about charges for communal heating systems.

We have also set up the tenants exchange scheme. This enables public sector tenants who want to move to another council's area to have their needs registered and displayed in the chosen parts of the country. There are now nearly 40,000 registrations under the scheme. Some councils are helpful in their attitude towards people who want to exchange. Many, however, are unnecessarily restrictive. Accordingly, I have decided to help tenants in their exchanges by introducing a right to exchange.

I have issued today a consultation paper outlining the Government's proposals for giving secure tenants a statutory right to exchange. Following consultation, I intend to introduce an amendment to the Housing and Building Control Bill. In essence, our proposals would allow, as of right and subject to certain safeguards, secure tenants to assign their tenancies to other secure tenants of the same or other landlords. Copies of the consultation paper have been placed in the Library.

It is excellent that we should have a debate on housing. I think that the Opposition have made a grave error of judgment in seeking to base the debate exclusively on improvement grants. The record of the Labour party is a record of which, as the hon. Member for Walton said, he had no reason to be proud.

Mr. Heffer


Mr. Gow

No; I am just finishing. The Government have every reason to be proud of their record on housing improvement grants. I hope that the Opposition motion will be roundly defeated.

4.37 pm
Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I am delighted to be able to take part in the debate so soon after being elected chairman of the Transport and General Workers Union Members of Parliament in the House because many of my union comrades work in the construction industries, or did; unfortunately many of them are unemployed because of the Government's actions.

The Minister's speech gave no indication of the problems faced by local authorities. The reduction of the improvement grant from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent. will result in a considerable reduction in the total amount of reconstruction, rehabilitation and refurbishment work that can be done. The replacement of aging housing stock, which would have taken hundreds of years at the existing rate, will be further slowed down. That is a poor prospect for tenants who are waiting to have their houses improved.

In my constituency the position is very serious. The housing committee has just debated it. Its report states: In view of the announcement about retrospective allocation arrangements for 1984/85, the projected figures for commitments into that year were therefore a matter of concern. On the basis of grant approvals already issued the Council were committed to expenditure of approximately £4.8 million, of which some £3½ million was likely to fall for payment in 1984/85. Grants were currently being approved to a value in excess of £600,000 per month, and if this rate continued to the end of the financial year it was estimated that there would be a carry over of grant commitments into 1984/85 of approximately £6 million. Committed expenditure on the remaining aspects of the Capital Programme for 1984/85 was currently estimated at £14 million. The housing committee has had to take drastic action and limit its priorities.

There are about 400,000 unemployed construction workers, and there will be many more before the year is out if the Government's programme continues. The construction industry has built up a flourishing export market in the middle east, the far east, Africa and even America. But if it is to be ground down by insufficient work at home, its export earnings will be affected.

Nearly £4 billion of exports were earned in 1982–83, of which the majority came from the export of building materials, plant and machinery. The work of contractors and consultants added significant amounts to that sum. The construction industry involves the building material producers that supply it, and which are affected by cuts in housing construction, new build or refurbishment. On analysis of the figures, and discounting distortions introduced by the Department of the Environment in the statistical data, it must be faced that in 1982–83 export earnings fell below those in 1981–82, so the slide has already begun. Competition from EC countries and America is becoming much tougher. Everyone knows that we cannot expect good export performance without a viable, expanding, home market.

While the Conservative party has been in office, the real value of the output of the construction industry has diminished while the number of unemployed has increased disastrously and the number of bankruptcies amoung smaller firms has risen. But more serious for industrial efficiency and future expansion is the requirement imposed by a shrinking market on the large firms that have had to dismiss established design teams, management teams and construction experts. In other words, they were mortgaging the future. It takes time to build up expertise, and those people will be difficult to replace.

The recent slight improvement in the private housing market is insufficient to halt that process. Compared with our major overseas competitors, the outlook is discouraging, and even dangerous to our economy and the future of our construction industry.

The total yearly product of the German construction industry, in equivalent money terms, is almost three times that of the British construction industry. Its productivity —output per man—is double that in Britain, and its loss due to the recession has been much lower. The number of unemployed building workers is half that in Britain. Why have Germans been able to develop their building industry and control the level of unemployment? Perhaps the Minister can answer that.

French productivity is even lower than that in Britain, but its unemployment rate is less and its total production is increasing. Investment in Germany on modern building plant is encouraged by the German Government, and 70 per cent. of building workers — despite the influx of untrained foreign workers — have a recognised skill.

That attracts special payments and bonuses. Yet this Government and our building employers are impervious to the need to professionalise the industry. They continue to use unskilled workers and offer no opportunity for training.

Some 50 years ago it was proposed that a special skilled job should be created for those working with concrete, yet that has not happened yet. Rather than cutting the allocation of money to the construction industry, the Government should encourage capital investment in building—as even the CBI is demanding— and abandon their damaging and outdated dogma and prejudice against public investment. Why do not the Government introduce tax benefits to encourage employers to retain their teams of designers, architects and engineers? They should encourage the renewal of our industrial building stock as a matter of urgency. They should reward increased efficiency and productivity. The CBI and the building unions alike are asking for those steps.

Bricks, blocks, steel, timber and many other components are needed to build and improve the housing stock. That would create many jobs to revitalise the stagnation created by the Government. But that work cannot be undertaken without vastly increased investment in the public sector, new build and improvements. That must be done sooner or later because we cannot continue with the present decline in building stock. If it is not done now, ultimately the home market of the British construction industry will be taken over by expanding European entrepreneurs, and nothing will remain of the British building industry.

The Government have a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders and the steps needed for the survival of the construction industry are clear. Unless those steps are taken and resources are injected into new build and improvement of the existing housing stock, the rapidly declining construction industry will decline still further. Foreign building firms will then attempt to take over our industry. I hope that the Minister is well aware of that problem.

4.47 pm
Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

I wish to concentrate my remarks on one aspect of the Government's approach to their housing investment programme and home improvement and repair grants in particular.

I wonder what effect the recent announcement and indications about future Government financial provision for grants will have on householders who have already made their applications, or will do so by 31 March 1984, but who are living in areas where local authorities have already exhausted their funds for the current financial year 1983–84.

There are three local authorities in my constituency, and all have had to suspend approving any further applications — not only because funds for the current financial year have run out, but because of the absence of a guarantee from the Government to provide adequate financial resources for 1984–85 for commitments arising from the approving of home improvement and repair grants between now and the end of the financial year. In south-east Cornwall, some 3,000 householders have found themselves in that position. Their applications have been properly submitted but cannot be approved.

The three local authorities can expect a total HIP allocation of £6 million to £7 million for the financial year 1984–85, plus any capital receipts that they obtain. Even if they were to use up all their HIP allocation for improvement and repair grant purposes—that would be impossible, because of their continuing new build commitments—there would still be a shortfall for the next financial year of more than £3 million.

I stress that I do not make such remarks lightly, or simply on behalf of my constituents. Local authorities in the constituencies of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are in identical difficulties. Those problems are especially prevalent in rural areas such as the south-west, and perhaps in other areas where there is the attraction of the 90 per cent. grant incentive, plus the need to update old and declining housing stock. Indeed the embarrassing situation that I have outlined reflects the success of the home improvement scheme, under which grants are available at the enhanced rate of 90 per cent.

It will not be good enough for the Minister to say tonight, as he has already said in letters to me, that those grants are made at the discretion of the local authority. The House has known the facts right from the start of the programme announced by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1982, and confirmed in subsequent ministerial pronouncements. Today, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) mentioned that and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction confirmed on the "Today" radio programme this morning that individuals who apply for grants between now and 31 March 1984 will be eligible for the enhanced rate of 90 per cent., providing that they satisfy the necessary criteria.

My interpretation, and that of other right hon. and hon. Members, is that the Government are still encouraging people to apply for grants under the scheme, designed to improve the quality of existing housing stock, in the knowledge that their application will still be looked upon favourably by the appropriate local authority. I hope that the Minister can put me right when he sums up the debate. It is difficult to reconcile the statements that are still being made with what is happening on the ground. Local authorities have been obliged, against their will, to suspend grant approvals because of the inadequate funds available this year, and because of uncertainty about the adequacy of financial resources that will be made available in 1984–85 for specific housing purposes such as improvement and repair, and for other housing commitments.

I genuinely find the situation very sad. My hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Walton acknowledged that the scheme has been an outstanding success in improving the quality of national housing stock.

Money spent in this manner is not inflationary. It assists the building and construction industry, thus reducing unemployment on the one hand and stimulating regional and local economies on the other hand. In my own part of the world, it has helped considerably to rejuvenate rural villages socially and economically. One has only to drive through them to see how enormously, as a result of successive Governments' home improvement schemes, their appearance has improved.

There can be no objection by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on ideological grounds. Although it is public investment, it goes straight to the private sector because all the building firms involved come from the private sector. The scheme has enabled the nation to enhance the quality of its housing stock. Bearing in mind demographic change and the current national housing situation, I have always felt that the home improvement scheme is just as important as the new building programme.

Above all, I am sad because the Government have, by their actions—they may yet put me right, and I hope they will — deliberately misled a significant and important number of people whom they and I purported to be encouraging. Those people are the householders. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the ambition of most people is to own the property in which they live. It is unacceptable for the Government apparently to mislead those people deliberately, and it is difficult for me to reconcile myself to it, for the reasons I have outlined. As a consequence, unless my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State can put me right later, I shall feel obliged to express my feelings in the usual way in the Division Lobby at 7 o'clock.

4.57 pm
Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

The House owes its thanks to the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks). I say that genuinely, in no partisan spirit, and with no intention of creating mischief. He gave the House a strong dose of realism and straight talking. His speech was realistic and refreshing.

The Minister for Housing and Construction was proud of his Government's policies. I shall not deal with the whole range of housing policies, although I shall go a little wide of improvements when I deal with that sub2ect. However much pride the Minister expressed, especially in the rhetorical conclusion of his speech, false pride will not solve the problems. He will have to do much better for the sake of all hon. Members than he did today. I say that not just because I am a member of the Opposition. The Minister will have to use better arguments about the housing problem. I am sorry to have to say that, irrespective of partisan points of view about housing. Each hon. Member learns to respect others on different subjects, even when we disagree. However, I am afraid that I did not find much merit in the Minister's remarks.

At some points in his speech the Minister played politics. It is not the first time that that has happened. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), as an ex-Minister I am and was far from satisfied about insufficient action during our period of office. I wish that all Ministers were prepared to say that. I frequently did at the Dispatch Box and outside the House. I said it not only when I was in Opposition. I wish that all Ministers were frank enough to say, "I wish that I could do more. I wish that I could do this, and that, but, for certain reasons I cannot. I hope to be able to do it." Ministers should say so, in whichever way they wish to express themselves.

On the facts of the matter, it is misleading to compare the position of the past few years with what happened in the previous period. It is true, as the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East said earlier, that the figure of £90 million spent on improvement grants then was lower than the figures of recent years, but other improvement work was proceeding on a larger scale, in local authority and housing association housing policies and practices. Other work such as rehabilitation and improvement was under way on a scale way beyond present levels. Hundreds of millions of pounds were being made available during those years as part of a deliberate and, I hope, coherent housing policy — not an ideologically based one — to bring declining and decrepit old housing back to a decent state.

I shall quote one figure as an example of what we achieved, and I could quote others. When I left office in 1979, housing associations were annually spending about half their housing resources, perhaps even more, on buying, modernising and converting old properties, particularly in inner city areas. That had reached just below 40,000 dwellings a year, and the figure was rising. However, they are now operating at just below 20,000 dwellings. Hundreds of millions of pounds that were going into the purchase, rehabilitation and conversion into modern flats of old, decrepit houses and mansion blocks, are no longer being spent.

There has been a considerable increase in improvement grants, most of it going to owner occupiers — about which I do not complain. Make no mistake, though, in the worst housing in the inner cities and deprived rural areas there has been a major reduction in activity. I represent an area that suffers particularly from this decline in activity, created not only by the fact that resources are no longer available, but by the rules and regulations being imposed by the Minister and his predecessor through their civil servants. These put constant obstacles, deliberately and on ideological grounds, in the way of local authorities and housing authorities — primarily local authorities —purchasing old properties.

We are talking about people suffering from housing problems. As a result of ideological dogma, local authorities have not been allowed to buy properties, modernise them and convert them into a decent place for families who are now homeless or living in decrepit buildings. I have had answers from the Minister's predecessor that make it clear that this is a matter of policy, not simply a matter of resources for purchase. These rules and regulations have produced a major reduction in activity in many inner city areas, and there will be more.

I shall deal now with some of the other matters raised by the Minister in his reference to history. Five years having elapsed since the period to which he referred, it is now time to concentrate on where we are now and where are going, so I shall deal with that. There is no doubt that the condition of housing, particularly pre-1919 housing, is getting worse. When the house condition survey of 1981 made that clear, it was not a revelation. The problems were underlined. They have existed for a long time, but they are getting worse, while fewer resources are being made available to deal with them.

The Government intend to make not just this cut, which is guessed to be about £200 million. There will be other cuts. The Minister will not deny that. Most of the guesses in the media suggest that about £400 million to £500 million will be cut by the time we reach the next financial year. We shall see. If there is such a cut in expenditure there will be a further — and not the first — major reduction in housing investment. I am not concerned to argue that the particular pattern of expenditure in any particular year or run of years is sacrosanct, or that it must always remain the same. I object to the cuts proposed and to the changes in the grants system, more because the way in 'which they were introduced, which has been well illustrated by the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East, has affected local authorities and customers. I object also because the cuts are in no way the result of a sensible and coherent review of housing policy. If there had been some review that logically led to a change in the pattern or the system, we might argue about the detail, but we could see some sense in the changes.

The third objection is that this is not so much a change in policy that has been thought out as it is a change in the level of resources going into improvement, an urgent aspect of housing need. It is a major reduction that will lead to further reduction.

These are the objections and on them we shall argue strongly. All who are seriously concerned about housing conditions should think seriously about where we are going. This is not just a bandying match across the Floor of the House, or even a genuine difference of view. We need more investment in housing. The house condition survey made this clear when it talked about the need for major works on housing.

We are concerned not only about pre-1919 housing. There has been growing evidence over a number of years, which is clearly shown in the 1981 report, that the problem is increasing in the inter-war housing estates, the owner-occupied houses, and is not confined to the Victorian era housing. The problem is not as big as it is among old properties, but if we do not tackle the inter-war housing with more resources and a reshaped improvement policy, if need be, serious problems will face whichever Minister and Government are in office in five or 10 years' time. The problem will not start then. It has started already.

Many of the people who are suffering who will continue to suffer and who will bequeath it to the next generation, are elderly owner occupiers who have neither the capacity nor the resources to undertake decent repairs of their properties, whether they are pre-1919 houses, or, increasingly, the inter-war housing that is falling into disrepair. These are not the old pattern of old private landlord properties which, for various reasons, are in a poor condition. There is a problem within the owner-occupied sector that has been growing for years and is now serious.

The survey showed that between 5 million and 7 million properties—about 24 per cent. of the nation's housing stock—are in need of major expenditure at all levels, be they pre-1919 houses or inter-war housing estates. It is in that area where some of our most serious problems lie.

There is also the question, frequently overlooked, whether much older property—despite the boom in the policy of rehabilitation, in which I participated, which I encouraged and which I still support—should be saved. I am referring to old properties that need to be replaced. I do not mean that they should be replaced by the high-density massive estates that were built—fashionably or under pressure of events—10 or 20 years ago. The need to replace them will become acute in the future.

We need some fundamental thinking. We must consider how to deal with the entire housing demand—rented, owner occupier, co-operative, housing association and the rest—as well as the need for stock replacement. Some fundamental economic questions have not been tackled by any Government so far on the question of the replacement of old properties, largely owner-occupied. While, as I have explained, some of the worst problems face the elderly, we have the problem of disrepair and increasingly we shall have to tackle the question of replacement.

I have a few matters to raise which inevitably are illustrated by my experience in Brent, to which I have alluded. However much the Minister may dislike our use of the word "crisis", in parts of the borough of Brent—I am sure that the same can be said of other inner city areas —we have reached a crisis. We now have 500 families in bed and breakfast accommodation. —[Interruption.] If the hon. Members will listen to what is being said and take it seriously, instead of trying to turn this into a flippant barney across the Floor of the House, they will have greater respect for people in need.

As I was saying, we have 500 families in bed and breakfast accommodation and their average expectation for rehousing is three years. That has nothing to do with the state of the local authority and it is idiotic for Conservative Members to think it has. It is because the local authority has not been given the authority or resources— nor have the housing associations that are active in the area—to obtain the properties that they need so as to rehouse those families.

Mr. Gow

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I came to the borough of Brent and visited some of the very families to whom he is referring.

Mr. Freeson

I was grateful for the Minister's visit. I would have been more glad if, when he returned to his office, he had changed the rules governing the purchase of properties. I sought to negotiate on this in a completely non-partisan fashion with his predecessor, but without success. If we changed the rules governing the procedures for the purchase of properties—which are now more antiquated and inhibiting then they were 20 years ago, when I was leader of the then Willesden borough council — we might get somewhere. We are more restricted today in the procedures that we must adopt for the purchase of properties for modernisation and rehousing than we were at the time of Lord Brooke when, as Minister, he was Henry Brooke.

That must be a nonsense administratively. If we are to bring those families out of bed and breakfast accommodation and house them decently within a reasonable time, more resources must be placed at the disposal of the local authority.

Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)


Mr. Freeson

I am dealing with a vital matter. I will not give way because I am anxious to get my case across. I am representing my constituents and hundreds of thousands of people who need housing.

If the Minister says, "We must look for more efficiency, especially in administration," I might be prepared to argue that with him; I will visit any local authority department and any part of any housing association and use my endeavours to change procedures and attitudes, if there is a need. But let that not be used as a substitute for action by central Government. Although I speak passionately and strongly—I hope rationally also —on behalf of my constituents, it is a problem that is becoming an increasing curse to inner city areas throughout the country. We cannot in all humanity allow the present state of affairs to continue.

I am endeavouring to concentrate on specific areas, though I must mention other problems such as people who need transferring from high-rise blocks of flats to low-level accommodation — people with heart conditions.

There are many other needs. The transfer problem in our estates—the same applies in many inner city areas—is a growing one, about half the problem represented by the housing waiting list at the top end. They cannot be rehoused because there is no other accommodation in which to rehouse them.

The only way to handle these problems and prevent the deterioration of stock in the older areas is to change the rules and procedures and increase resources. I implore the Minister to accept—I argue this not in an ideological spirit; I will argue ideology on housing on another occasion—that I am arguing on behalf of individuals who come to see me for advice. My constituents write to me about these problems day in and day out, and I get only the tip of the problem. Those who work in the housing departments and the housing association offices get the worst of it, though in the end, of course, the people who get the very worst of it are those who do not get any answers and cannot get decent housing.

I have given the situation in Brent as an example of what is happening. From the national point of view, I warn the Government — whatever arguments are developed about the patterns of tenure, home ownership, private, local authority and housing association renting and so on —that if they do not become seized of the need for major public investment in a framework of coherent and consistent resource expenditure, our inner cities and certain deprived rural areas will be heading for social and physical disaster.

I am not suggesting that by a change of policy we can resolve all our problems in six months or a year. No Government could do that. But we could start to reverse the trend, and I appeal to the Government to search their heart and mind and act accordingly. Resources are needed, but they have not been forthcoming. On the contrary, they are being cut. Let us have those resources, and increase them, otherwise whoever is the Minister in a few years' time—of a Tory, Labour or any other Government—will be cursing the days of this Government's housing policy. I urge the Government to make the resources available and change their policy.

5.18 pm
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

Our ability as politicians to select a piece of information, a single statistic, and then, totally out of context, portray that as reality when it is a distortion of reality seems to be legendary, and today the Opposition are offering us just such a gem. They seek to pluck a small perceived deficiency in an overall well-balanced strategy and present it as illustrating the opposite of what is actually happening.

The right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) did exactly that—which irritates my hon. Friends and me. There are Conservative Members who care just as much about society and who can at least have a clear conscience about what has been achieved. Left-wing Members always manage to avoid matching their words with actions, and so appear as the good guys.

The House deals mainly in macro statistics —telephone numbers that mean very little to the man in the street. However, in rejecting the motion and supporting the Government's amendment I believe that it is important to deal with reality at the sharp end, and with local authorities and their housing stock. Until recently, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) led the Opposition in Committee. He accused me of bringing what he called "Nottingham gossip" into the debate. Strangely enough, the right hon. Gentleman thereafter drew on his experience in Manchester. However, at least he was honest enough to record his general opposition to the right to buy and related matters. He has now passed on to other things and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is seeking to establish his credentials by putting his name to this afternoon's nonsense.

Mr. Heffer

I do not need to establish my credentials.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

In my city there are about 1,600 empty council homes, some of which have been empty for more than a year. They are monuments to the contrived publicity that lack of Government money is to blame. In fact, the real cause is political dogma mixed with the inefficiencies that are almost inevitable in large housing administrations. For example, the refusal of the repairs section to permit sensible multi-trade craftsmen to complete a job in one, means that fewer repairs—not more—are achieved with the money available. Our city embodies—and it cannot be alone—the reality of that famous Flanders and Swann ditty "The Gas Man Cometh" with its sequence of trade skills.

The right to buy has given our authority all the funds that it could reasonably expect, to do the things that should be done.

Mr. Winnick

Obviously the hon. Gentleman favours the right to buy. Is he in favour of private tenants having the same right in law, so that they can buy the dwellings in which they live?

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

The short answer is no. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I am sure that the Minister will give hon. Members a better reply than I could. We have suggested homesteading to the majority Labour party in our city, but we have had no luck. Of course, it would put many of those empty properties quickly into use, but that would mean even more owner occupiers, and that would never do. On 5 July I told the House of our transfer scheme, but that, too, was stopped when Labour took control in 1979. A controlled scheme ensuring that the transferred purchaser left his tenanted home in good and reasonable condition would further reduce the demand on public resources and speed up housing for those in need.

I appreciate that there are dangers. It has been suggested that authorities might put highly unsuitable disruptive tenants into otherwise satisfactory high rise flats, with a view to their conduct leading to a decline in the quality of the property and subsequent claims for demolition assistance. I do not challenge the statement that there are some high rise blocks that must, on objective grounds, come down, and that there are others which, on more subjective grounds, might have to come down. However, we objected strongly to our Labour authority dealing with the matter in such a way as to burden its tenants with an astronomic cost which unnecessarily adds to their rents.

By the statement in the local version of the "Thoughts of Chairman Mao" that Labour would not allow the flats to fall into the hands of private developers, £1.5 million or about £1 per week in rent per home was added just for a piece of political dogma. Our authority has doubled its expenditure on repairs; to little obvious effect. As has been said, cash expenditure alone does not create jobs or, necessarily, lead to economic activity. The Opposition, who oppose our right to repair, and the phoney ill-conceived Bill presented to the House by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), show the real face of the Labour party. I should have thought that, properly exercised, such a right of repair must represent a constructive contribution to the very aims of the Opposition's motion. However, they oppose that very real improvement in tenants' rights.

I can illustrate Labour's attitude to past tenants and its approach to real people in another way. A mortgagor who sought to improve and extend his newly acquired home was refused an increase in his loan. By switching to an alternative funding source, our housing sub-committee deemed the transfer a disposal and reclaimed the £1,200 discount that the tenant had been granted.

I shall deal now with Labour's attitude to a housing improvement programme. Labour says that the Government have not accepted its statement of need. I am not surprised. Labour's attitude is to think of a number that is high enough to ensure that some lesser sum will be agreed, and then to present the result as a cut. Two years ago we asked for £30 million and obtained £20 million. Locally it was splashed that the wicked Government had cut one third of that money, or a whole £10 million, off our needs. Labour should have asked for £40 million—"Housing programme cut in half' would have made a better headline.

The same applies to the reference to urban aid. Knowing full well that £4 million to £5 million was a likely offer, a bid for £7 million was made. Some of that application was deliberately outside our inner city boundary, thus ensuring that the full application would not be granted. In the end, £4.5 million was approved and Labour smugly announced that we had cut £2.5 million from its needs.

The Labour party's conduct where it matters — in local authorities—defies any words that are permitted in this House. However, it means that I and my colleagues can support the Government with a clear conscience.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The shorter the speeches, the more hon. Members I shall be able to call.

5.27 pm
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

Your strictures are noted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall attempt to comply with them.

We have just heard a mean and nasty little speech from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo). It was partisan and reeked of complacency. I suppose that was excusable, given that he did not address his remarks either to the motion or to the amendment. I also suppose that he is representative of the new generation of Conservative Members whose only experience of housing problems lies in deciding which one of their many homes they will live in that weekend—[Interruption.] I should welcome it if any Conservative Member would like to deny the truth of my remarks, or provide evidence that they are untrue.

I represent a part of the United Kingdom that has a housing problem of crisis proportions. I am glad that a Minister from the Welsh Office is in the Chamber to listen to the problems of housing in Wales. When he goes away tomorrow, I hope that he will urge the Secretary of State for Wales to spend a little more time dealing with the housing problems of Wales and a little less time helping to speed through planning applications on behalf of the Prime Minister's husband. Of course, I should also welcome it if any Conservative Member wished to challenge that remark.

In 1981 the English house condition survey made a comparison with the situation in Wales via the Welsh house condition survey. In Wales, 8 per cent. of all households lacks one or more basic amenities. Houses without an inside WC amount to 5.4 per cent. and 4.3 per cent. do not have a bath. Since 1979, the Government have done nothing to redress the imbalance between England and Wales. A capable, logical or rational Government would have attempted to redress the imbalance in the distribution of resources. That has not occurred. One report stated: The results of the 1981 survey suggest that the overall state of repairs of Welsh housing stock has deteriorated since 1976. Between 1976 and 1981, the number of defective properties in England fell from 2.22 million to 2.01 million — an improvement. Wales experienced the reverse, and it is not difficult to find the reason. It lies with the ineffectiveness of the incumbents in the Welsh Office. Average housing expenditure in the United Kingdom is about £79 a house: in England, average expenditure is £70 a house and in Wales it is £52 a house. This is not a record of which anyone can be proud or one which the Secretary of State, who is the responsible Minister and who has presided over that decline, can attempt to justify, let alone support.

In 1982, Shelter—a group that many Opposition Members will recognise as being in the forefront of housing battles — reported that since 1970 Wales has been—[Interruption.] If Conservative Members wish to argue, I am prepared to give way. If they wish to challenge, they should stand; if they do not wish to challenge my figures, they should remain seated and await the opportunity to present their arguments.

In 1982, Shelter reported——

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I did not say a word; I am a member of Shelter.

Mr. Davies

I was addressing the multitude, not the individual.

The Shelter report suggested that we had been underfunded by £370 million over 10 years. My county of mid-Glamorgan is the most deprived in Great Britain, with 20,500 houses classified as unfit and 9.2 per cent. of all dwellings lacking an indoor WC. The county next on the list of deprived counties is Powys with 6.1 per cent. of houses without an indoor WC. The most deprived and the second most deprived counties in the United Kingdom lie in Wales. What a proud record for the responsible Minister. In mid-Glamorgan, 6.1 per cent. of all properties are without a bath, and in Powys 5.3 per cent. are without a bath. Again, the two most deprived counties without these facilities lie in Wales.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

Are the figures that the hon. Gentleman has been citing caused by inadequate funding or incompetent management by those authorities? Are they receiving significantly less money from central Government than comparable authorities?

Mr. Davies

The conditions are caused by the incompetent management by the Welsh Office and inadequate funding. Our problems are reflected in the statistics and in a series of personal tragedies.

I was a member of a local authority for 14 years. Other hon. Members have spoken of their meetings at Saturday morning surgeries with young couples who are entering marriage or trying to bring up young children in conditions of appalling degradation. I have met middle-aged couples who are suffering the first effects of a life spent working in the steel or coal industries, and they are asking for transfers. It is a hollow promise to provide a statutory right to a transfer when the houses to which these people should be transferred have been sold. Elderly people who are nearing the end of their lives are living in squalour, and they are asking for transfers. The Under-Secretary might say that we cannot afford them. The theoreticians among the Conservative party may say that that is the price that people must pay if we are to live in a free, democratic or capitalist country. They say that we cannot afford to spend money on housing.

I regard this as a matter of choice. We have free will and the essence of democracy is that choices are made. Unfortunately, decisions are made in Cabinet and in the Welsh Office where the choice must be between providing adequate housing for young people and spending money on bombs. The Government show their preference for cruise and Trident missiles, not housing for young people. When deciding between allocating funds for improvement grants for middle-aged couples and their families and spending money on an airport in the Falkland Islands, the Government chose not the people of this country but those in the Falkland Islands. When the choice is between elderly people and tax concessions for the oil companies and the rich, we know the Government's decision. The Government give those tax concessions and turn their back on those people——

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wyn Roberts)

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that Welsh local authorities spent £50 million less on housing in 1982–83 than they could have done and £35 million less in the previous year? In other words, during those two years they failed to spend the £85 million that could have been spent on housing.

Mr. Davies

This is not the first time that I have heard that tale. Each time the Under-Secretary provides those figures, he becomes less impressive. On the last occasion, he was addressing a conference of Welsh local authority housing associations, and he gave a miserable performance. The hon. Gentleman might have raised his point to put me off my stride; he will not succeed. Whenever the Government have the choice between providing for the needs of the people and making the most brutal, offensive, callous and wasteful decisions, they decide on the latter. If it is a choice between houses and bombs, inevitably the Government choose bombs. The Government tell us that that is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. We reject that point.

I am prepared to take issue with what the Under-Secretary said about housing allocations. In 1980–81 the local authority in the district which is a prime pan of my constituency of Caerphilly and which I have the honour to represent with my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), made a bid to the Welsh Office for £7.48 million. The allocation was £5.15 million. Sixty-nine per cent. of the bid was allocated. It might have escaped the hon. Gentleman's attention that the bid was presented in 1978 prices; the allocation was spent in 1980–81 prices. Because of the increase in inflation between 1978 and 1981, the allocation that was received could purchase only 46 per cent. of the original bid.

The Under-Secretary piously tells us that we are not spending £50 million of resources when they are given in November, December or January. In a last-minute throwaway, local authorities are supposed to gear up and process the applications. They are supposed to take on staff and bring in the builders' estimates. People are expected to obtain estimates and planning consent within three months. It is hypocrisy, and the Minister knows it.

The circumstances affecting my local authority, Rhymney valley, are paralleled elsewhere in mid-Glamorgan. A working party of local authorities in mid-Glamorgan referred to the 1981–82 allocation which was only 72 per cent. of the 1980–81 allocation. The report stated: Inflation has cut that 72 per cent. to only 62 per cent. of the 1980–81 investment ability and that was only 46 per cent. of what the county's bid totalled. In real terms therefore the allocation represents only 29 per cent. of the levels that local authorities believe is necessary to resolve the housing problem of mid-Glamorgan. That is a foretaste of a future Welsh housing crisis.

My local authority has an estimate of expenditure for 1983–84 of £2.5 million to £3 million. It has a carry-over from the current year of £2.5 million to £3 million and £9 million is allocated to committed grants. Further applications between now and the end of the year will amount to £3 million. That gives the local authority an expenditure figure for next year of between £12 million and £15 million. Its choice, unless the Government take action, is to abrogate commitments or make cuts elsewhere in its capital investment programme. The majority of Welsh housing authorities are faced with similar, if not worse, circumstances.

I make a few suggestions which are offered more in hope than in expectation. They are not a shopping list of dogma which will traumatise the Tory theorists. They are sensible, practical proposals designed to help resolve the Welsh housing crisis. The Minister should restore expenditure to the 1983 level. Additional resources should be earmarked for the most disadvantaged areas. The Minister should guarantee a continuation of policy for five years. That is the only way in which local authorities can tool themselves up and householders can make their applications. It is the only way in which the building industry which is dear to the hearts of Conservative Members, will be able to prepare itself if it wishes to meet the challenge.

The Minister should be prepared to guarantee exemption from rate capping for all related revenue expenditure incurred by local authorities in processing applications. He should discount that expenditure when it comes to the assessment of the GRE. The Minister should reduce the complexity of grants. We have three grants — improvement grants, intermediate grants and repair grants. If a property has a problem, the property should be looked at as a whole. Local authority expertise should be used so that the system can offer the most appropriate grant to the house owner in the light of his circumstances.

I am sure that my next point will appeal to Conservative Members. The Government should introduce a system of tax relief for mortgages which are taken out to pay for repairs. If there is underspending at the moment, one of the main reasons is that people cannot raise mortgages to meet the cost of repairs. Interest relief is allowed on mortgages, second mortgages and improvement mortgages, so why not on repair mortgages? The Government could do away with VAT on repairs. There is no VAT on house purchase. The person who has a small job to be done or who wants a small bathroom or roof is discriminated against. The Government are prepared to make big concessions to people who wish to build or buy their second or third property.

The Government should develop a scheme of maturity mortgages. In mid-Glamorgan there are 60,500 unfit properties occupied by unemployed people. A maturity mortgage scheme would allow those properties to be rehabilitated and allow those people to obtain the mortgages necessary. The scheme has been agreed in principle. Why do you not take the necessary steps to ensure that those mortgages are made available? It is because of your apathy and complacency. It is because there are Ministers in the Welsh Office who——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Member must not accuse me of apathy and complacency. It is not my responsibility.

Mr. Davies

I was referring to the Minister, as I am sure he knew.

I come to my last point, which I am sure will be a great relief, but I am sure that hon. Members appreciate that I had to give way to the Minister.

We should pay full regard to housing associations. [Interruption.] I am conscious of all the messages I am receiving. There are 40,000 houses in Wales capable of being repaired. Housing associations are underfunded. Welsh housing associations receive £41 million from the Housing Corporation. They should receive £57.5 million.

If the Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales are serious when they say that they wish to represent Welsh interests, they should go to the Cabinet and start fighting for the interests of the Welsh people instead of tagging along on the coat-tails of the Department of Employment.

5.45 pm
Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)

I must declare an interest, as I am an estate agent, surveyor and auctioneer. As a result, I might be able to give the House the benefit of my experience in these matters. I agree that housing should not be the political football that it has been for a number of years. However, I do not believe that there has been any period during the term of office of a Labour Government when housing grants have been as high as 90 per cent.

Honesty and integrity are missing from this debate, because when the Government announced the 90 per cent. grants they made it absolutely clear that they would be for a limited period only. The housebuilding and other industries, and the nation, were fully aware of that fact. It would be preferable to have such announcements more often. so that we would know exactly where we were going. I found the Government's announcement refreshing, because everyone knew where he stood.

On no fewer than two occasions the Government agreed to extend the period involved and gave specific dates for the extension. It is unfair, as some people in the private and public sectors have done, to accuse the Government of cutting resources. This is not a cut. It was a one-off provision. When the economy improves, we may be able to do the same again.

I should like some assurances from the Minister about those who have applications in the pipeline. Their plight worries some of us. Rightly or wrongly, the public and professional people who deal in property management gained the impression that provided applications were in by the cut-off date they would be processed and it would be possible to carry out the improvements.

I am not against private landlords disposing of their property to sitting tenants. However, we must consider whether a sitting tenant will be able to obtain a mortgage in the first instance, because many will have lived in their properties for many years and be beyond the age at which they can get a mortgage. Young tenants are rare, as the landlords invariably dispose of their properties once they become empty. The private tenanted property, properly managed and run, plays a specific part in the nation's housing stock. Not everyone wishes to purchase his own home or to live in a council property.

We have discussed the age of our housing stock and its state of repair. The small private landlord, not the owner occupier, will be most affected by the cut in the improvements grant from 90 to 75 per cent. I refer, not to the landlord who owns a large property company, but to those of my constituents who own one property but who may live in a property that is in a worse condition than that which they rent out. Such a state of affairs is common.

The one-property landlord will regard the reduction in the improvement grants as a serious blow. The reduction will have the effect of preventing him from carrying out the repairs, and local authorities will be obliged to take over the house and carry out the necessary repairs if the property is subject to a public health notice. Could a scheme be devised whereby a lower percentage grant is available to owner occupiers, but where grants slightly above 75 per cent. could be made in extenuating circumstances? We should examine seriously such a scheme.

There is an immense availability, net a shortage, of housing in the inner cities. Many owner occupiers, be they widows or widowers who live on their own, frequently possess much accommodation which they would be willing to let were they not deterred by the rules and regulations of the landlord and tenant legislation and the shorthold rent legislation. If we could eliminate the present form of shorthold tenancies, and the security of tenure attached to it, many of our housing problems in the inner cities would be eradicated and there would be much more mobility of labour, which at times of high unemployment is important. For a trial period we should allow the landlord who deals in shorthold property lettings to charge a reasonable rent without being subjected to the problems inherent in security of tenure.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman rightly prefaced his remarks by saying that he was an estate agent. I understand the point of view of somone in that profession.

Does the hon. Gentleman remember that the Rent Act 1957, which was introduced by a Conservative Government, removed all forms of security of tenure for new tenancies? Far from such legislation leading to an increase in available tenanted properties, there was a substantial reduction, quite apart from the hardship, misery and Rachmanism caused by the Act.

Mr. Bendall

The Rent Act 1957 removed security of tenure for many properties above a prescribed rateable value. I suggest that where the landlord lives on the property, and could let some of the rooms, such property should not be subject to control. If that were the position, many more properties would be available for rent.

I have been concerned, as have many hon. Members, with the structural problems of Airey houses. When I discovered that the grants might be reduced, I asked the Minister for clarification about grants for repair to Airey houses, which until next April will remain at 90 per cent. I have an assurance from the Minister that grants up to 90 per cent. will be available for Airey houses after 1 April 1984. I am sure that that information will allay the fears of many people who would have been affected by such a cut, and I thank the Minister for his assurance.

5.55 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Week after week in Committee the Minister reminds us that the Government have a mandate to do many things. The Minister prefaced his remarks today by reading from various books and literature, the relevance of which escaped me, when dealing with the important subject of housing. Will the Minister reflect what the Conservative party said in its manifesto at the general election: Housing Improvement grants have been increased substantially in the last two years and will continue to play an important role."? On how many occasions before the election did Conservative Ministers say that within four months the improvement grants would be reduced? How many speeches were made or questions answered stating that the grants were so temporary that within four months, and before the next financial year, they would be reduced to 75 per cent? The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) was clever enough with words to suggest that the reductions were not cuts. Hon. Members have heard that distinction before. The Health Service suffers from the same clinical distinction. People do not perceive what they see round them. Bodies such as the National Home Improvement Council have asked hon. Members to take this subject out of politics because it considers that the revitalisation of our housing stock is not a political issue. Many Opposition Members have been asked to contribute to a debate on a subject that in the past has been a matter of consensus between the political parties. It is difficult to take seriously the Government's arguments when not one of them deals with the consequences of such a reduction in grant, or the savage effects it will have on urban life, the construction industry and the welfare of many of our people, expecially the old. Two Conservative Back-Bench Members have expressed their unhappiness about such an unannounced about-turn in Government policy.

Mr. Gow


Mr. Hughes

I frequently do not have an opportunity to interrupt the Minister's speeches in Committee, and I shall persist a little longer. I frequently have to wait for what the Minister calls his "flights of oratory", so I hope that I shall be permitted to proceed a little further.

Those bodies which have been involved for many years in house improvements have expressed anxiety that in the forthcoming financial year more than 100,000 people who have applications in the pipeline will be disappointed. The cost to the local authorities of disengaging themselves from processing the applications will be substantial, and there is no sign that in future the home improvement grants can be given.

The consequences in many local authorities, not just for the old—although often the elderly owner occupier is most in need of a grant to improve his home—are set out both in statistics and in general sociological terms in many of the documents that all hon. Members have received. The strongest indictment of the Government's proposals is that each year, because of the reduction in the grant that was built up and that all hon. Members welcome, tens of thousands of houses that could be saved will be boarded up, entire neighbourhoods will break up and the patterns of life that have been enjoyed for generations will be destroyed. The director of the National Home Improvement Council claims that those will be the effects of reducing a fundamental part of the investment needed to return the basic structures of life to a condition that a healthy economy should require as its first priority.

If 125,000 grant approvals do not proceed next year, if—as is predicted—we lose a possible 30,000 jobs in the construction industry, and if the welcome increase in grants from 5,000 in 1981 to 28,000 in 1982 and to 90,000 in 1983 is reversed, as it inevitably must be, I hope that the Government and especially the Minister will pay attention to the practical worries of all those involved in the past and present administration of those grants. Many authorities are worried about honouring their obligations, which people have been led to believe they can honour, to improve the housing in their areas. It does not matter which authority it is—it may be Medina on the Isle of Wight, whose documents I have here, or it might be my authority at Southwark, which may be the one to which the Minister referred when talking about London HIP bids — all authorities must be certain. What we are now discovering is that this Government will not become the Government of certainty and resolution, as they led us to believe that they wished to be. This is a stop-go Government. They say that the Health Service will be safe in their hands, then cut the money available to the Health Service. They said in June that home improvement grants would be continued, but four months later they reduced those grants.

The Government pride themselves, in the words of the Prime Minister, on being the Government who live by the budget of the householder. If one needs to budget, one must know how much money is coming in. One must be able to plan and, when resources are limited, one must eke out those resources so that next week or the week after there is some money left to spend on the essentials. How can local authorities and those who have invested a little money—the fees that they have paid when applying for a grant which they hope will be forthcoming in the next financial year—be expected to trust a Government who have led them to believe that they will come up with the financial resources, but who let them down so appallingly?

Mr. Gow

I resent the charge that I have not given way to the hon. Gentleman in Committee. I have never refused to give way to hon. Members in Committee. Whenever the hon. Gentleman is there I give way to him, as the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) will confirm. I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for not being familiar with what the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget statement on 9 March 1982, because that was before the hon. Gentleman arrived here. However, I made clear in my speech what the Chancellor said, which was that this is a short-term measure. He said that we would have it only until 31 December 1982. It has been extended twice, but the Government always envisaged that the higher rate of grant would be a temporary measure.

Mr. Hughes

I know what the Chancellor said, although as the Minister rightly said I was not here. However, I have heard no denial of the fact that, as the Conservative party went into the election, it said nothing to suggest that the grant would be reduced during this financial year, and that those who were led to believe that their homes would be improved would be disappointed. Why did people apply in such great numbers, and why are the grant applications lying in piles on the desks of many local authority officials, if they believed, as the Government led them into the election, that the grants would be reduced during this financial year? There was no suggestion that the grants, although temporary, would end this year.

Mr. John Fraser

In the public expenditure document published in February, just before the election, the Government stated: The results of the 1981 English House Condition Survey have reinforced the importance the Government attaches to improving the condition of the housing stock. The housing programme reflects a continued emphasis on this aspect of capital expenditure.

Mr. Hughes

The Government suggests in their amendment that the House should welcome the priority given by the Government to the promotion of home ownership and the repair and improvement of the housing stock through repair and improvement grants". If they believed that they could sustain the record that they began to build for themselves, they would not have introduced an amendment relating solely to the past. Clearly, they will make no concessions and they will not allay the fears expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House on behalf of those who know that they will be disappointed by the Government yet again.

As the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) said this afternoon, the Government have misled the electorate. There are but 55 minutes remaining during which Ministers can tell those who are trying to improve housing and fight urban decay that the Government will assist them in that process. I hope that the Government will reconsider this half-baked and half-yearly alteration of a scheme that they began, and will assure local authorities that they will continue a policy that all parties wish to continue to support. The Government alone are backing down from a national responsibility, and I hope that they realise that if they persist, they alone must take the blame.

6.8 pm

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) questioned the competence of some Conservative Members to speak in the debate. The hon. Member whom he accused—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) has been a member of the council in Nottingham for about 15 years. I am a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and have been involved in that profession for more than 25 years. I see the problem of disrepair almost every day, and there is no lack of concern in the Conservative party about that matter.

We have heard some eloquent speeches from Opposition Members, and I have been privileged to listen to the eloquence of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) in the Committee discussing the Housing and Building Control Bill. His speech today, from my limited experience in the House, was probably the most eloquent that I have heard him make. I fear that perhaps the hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. There has been an almost hysterical quality in some Opposition speeches today which reveals that Opposition Members might believe that they are on poor ground when attacking the Government on this subject.

It is right that the public should know the facts. "By their deeds shall ye know them," should be the maxim. We should examine the Government's record and compare it with that of Opposition Members when they were in government. In 1974, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was Prime Minister, there were 192,000 grants. Under Labour, that number fell to 57,500 by 1978–79. That shows the extent of Labour's concern about improvement grants. They are shedding crocodile tears today.

It has taken some time for the number of grants to increase. Last year, the number had risen to 104,000 but in only the first six months of this year the number had increased to 97,000. The Government can be proud of their record. The hon. Member for Walton told us that expenditure on grants had risen from £90 million under Labour to £650 million now. That represents an increase of some 720 per cent. Those figures are impressive. The Government have made an unparalleled contribution to housing improvement. Conservatives should be proud of that record. It shows the extent of our interest in it.

It is not a matter of shame that we have abandoned the temporary arrangement which my right hon. and learned Friend the then Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in 1982. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, it was a purely temporary measure that has been extended twice. That, too, demonstrates the level of our concern. Reverting to the normal level of grant—75 per cent.—was always expected.

I appreciate that reverting to the 75 per cent. level of grant might cause some difficulties for some local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) illustrated the problems that it might create in his area. Local authorities that have promoted grants diligently might face some temporary difficulties after the Government's announcement, but other authorities have underspent and not attempted to promote the scheme. That is a balancing factor.

The important fact is that the Government increased expenditure when a nudge to the economy was required.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Just before the general election.

Mr. Butterfill

It was almost two years before the general election. The Government have always said that the larger grants would be temporary. Under the inspired leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we are at last seeing some recovery in the British economy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am quoting OECD figures. The British economy is growing faster than that of any other EC country. We can now afford to take our foot off the pedal. That is what the Government are doing. They deserve to be congratulated on their record. Unlike Opposition Members, I am not shedding crocodile tears today.

6.14 pm
Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

Many hon. Members have said that improvement grants are to be reduced from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent. I have not had the opportunity to leave the Chamber to check on statements made by Scottish Office Ministers but I understand that Scotland is to be even worse off. The reduction there is to be from 90 per cent. to 50 per cent., except in housing action areas. I hope that the Minister will assure us that Scotland will not be put at a disadvantage to other parts of the United Kingdom.

Glasgow district council took full advantage of the Government's scheme. I do not mind saying that, of all the Government's decisions, increasing improvement grants was the best. It gave local authorities with severe housing problems an opportunity to get on with improving property. Rehabilitation has made a valuable contribution to the environment in Glasgow. We have many tenements and old buildings which community-based housing associations, local authorities and tenants have had sandblasted. They have also replaced windows and brought the interiors up to a high standard.

It is to the Government's advantage to continue modernisation schemes and grants. What the Government might gain by taking away the 90 per cent. grant they will lose in other ways. If properties are not improved, they will be demolished. If, as a result, the population moves out of inner-city areas, schools will no longer be necessary. Therefore, good substantial buildings such as schools, clinics, hospitals, post offices and even fire stations will be demolished because there is simply not enough population to sustain them. As a result, replacements will have to be built in other areas on peripheral schemes.

The level of recent grants has kept communities together. People who were moved to peripheral housing schemes have been able to move back to their old communities. The Government should not spoil that now. The improvement grants are good. Let us keep them. It is foolish to throw away the advantages that we have gained by rehabilitating property.

Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have said that it is not easy for a local authority to say, "Good, we now have Government approval for grants. Let us get started and tell people in our area that grants are available." Like most other large local authorities, Glasgow district council has had to set up separate departments — which are staffed with officials who have expertise in rehabilitation — just to consider grant approval and to help council tenants and people who want grants.

Some community-based housing associations started to get off the ground four or five years ago. It takes about live years for a good community-based housing association to start getting contractors on site. Many of those people will now be disappointed because of the Government's decision.

Many private contractors who put in tenders to local authorities and private organisations operate on a profit margin of about 5 per cent. The tenders are cut very low in that industry. When I ask private contractors how they are doing they, tell me that they are "surviving". Survival is success in the building industry now.

Throughout the country, companies specialising in rehabilitation have sprung up in recent years. Other companies, which are excellent at new building, do not know where to start with rehabilitation. When I was in local government I came across companies which were highly successful in new building but got their fingers burnt when they went into rehabilitation because they could not cope with the work when the tenants continued to live in the houses, there were tradesmen everywhere, and so on. Many companies throughout the country now understand rehabilitation from A to Z.

For example, a contractor in Glasgow who obtained a large local authority contract set up two snagging squads to inspect the houses after rehabilitation to see whether there were any problems. That contractor was so good at rehabilitation that he had to disband the second squad because it was not needed. There is a danger that such companies and their expertise will be lost and that there will be increased unemployment in the industry. Many people in the building industry are guaranteed a job only from week to week, but with 4 million people unemployed that is still quite something.

I ask the Government to reconsider their action in view of the hardship that will be caused to so many people.

6.21 pm
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

I am glad to follow the thoughtful and constructive speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin). I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take careful account of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I make no accusation of bad faith on the part of the Government. As all hon. Members acknowledge, the grant scheme was announced as a short-term measure. I am extremely proud of the Government's housing record. Their policy has been a magnificant success. Throughout the land people have rejoiced at the right-to-buy policy. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) was magnanimous enough to acknowledge, one of the best things that the Government have done has been to give improvement grants at a high level, thereby stimulating applications in probably every constituency in the land.

I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to think again and intercede with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the final arbiter and controls the purse strings, and tell him that the scheme must continue for a further year at the very least. I say that for three reasons. I shall explain them briefly, as I hope that another hon. Member will have the chance to contribute to the debate before the winding-up speeches begin.

First, like every hon. Member, I am concerned about the construction industry and the amount of unemployment in it. The proposed reduction in grant would be a real blow to the industry. I should hate to think of a further 20,000 or 30,000 people being put out of work after 31 March, as the employers predict. One of the great things about this scheme is that there are no revenue implications. Arguments may be made against building new hospitals and the like—I do not say that I share them—because there is a revenue commitment. Here there is none, and it seems an extremely sensible way to spend money to prime the pump.

Secondly, there is the state of the housing stock. I do not like that phrase. I agree with Winston Churchill that "accommodation units" mean people's homes. When my hon. Friend the Minister said that 300,000 homes were not being lived in because of their present state, a thrill of horror went down my spine. As hon. Members of all parties know, one of my great concerns is the importance of the green belt. I am extremely worried lest we erode a policy that has stood the country in good stead since the war. If 300,000 homes can be improved, that will save incursions into the green belt. For the reason alone, the Minister should think again.

Thirdly, and most important, whatever we do in the House we should never behave as though people were expendable, and we should never excite expectations and then fail to fulfil them. Although I make no accusation of bad faith and would never do so — it was explicitly stated that the scheme was a temporary measure when it was first announced — expectations have nevertheless been excited and will not be fulfilled. My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) referred in his powerful speech to cases in his constituency. There are many in my constituency, too. Indeed, the problem is probably most acute in rural areas.

A number of people have come to me having entered into commitments to buy properties, many of which are of considerable architectural and historic interest. Having purchased properties on the advice of the local planning authority, they suddenly find that there is moratorium on grants, they are financially embarrassed and they do not know whether they will be able to live in the homes that they have bought.

There is a double penalty. First, the grants are to be reduced. Secondly, the overall sum available is likely to be reduced from 1 April. Therefore, I beg my hon. Friend the Minister to think again about this. I hope that he will also do two other things. He made, as one would expect, an eloquent, entertaining, witty and thoughtful speech. He said that in cases of real financial hardship the 90 per cent. grant would continue to be available, but he did not spell out the details. I hope that when he replies he will tell us exactly what that means and what the financial implications are.

I make one final plea. In the course of a rather long harangue, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) made one very good point when he referred to VAT. I have ridden that hobby horse since before VAT was introduced. In the early 1970s I took a deputation to see the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, now my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, begging him to ensure that VAT would not be imposed on repairs to buildings. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot give such an assurance today, as it is the Treasury that we have to fight, but I hope that we can fight shoulder to shoulder against the Treasury, because it is manifest nonsense to encourage demolition rather than improvement and repair.

As a member of the Historic Buildings Council, I am especially concerned about our heritage. Year after year in our annual report we have made the same plea to Labour and Tory Chancellors alike — that VAT should be removed from repairs to buildings. If that were done, the threat of the proposal under discussion today would not be of such consequence. At the very least we want something. Our housing record is something of which the Government can be unreservedly proud. As this temporary measure has worked extremely well, as it helps combat unemployment and as it give real help, hope and satisfaction to people throughout the land, let us think again and keep it going beyond 31 March.

6.30 pm
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

This is an important debate, and I welcome the Opposition's decision to hold it. It is particularly important for constituencies such as my own which contain many old properties that were built before the first world war. All of us who represent constituencies that have older properties in urgent need of improvement are concerned about the Government's decision to reduce the level of improvement grants.

I have no illusions about the fact that the Government stated that the increased grant was temporary. However, we should bear in mind its success. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said, this is one of the best things that the Conservative Government have done.

Since the limit was increased to 90 per cent., applications in Burnley have increased and this year stand at 260 a month. The highest figure before that was in 1975, when there were only 60 applications a month. Given the dramatic increase in applications that has resulted mainly from raising the grant to 90 per cent., there is no question but that the scheme has been successful and ought to be continued.

If we do not continue with grants at this level, in a few years the improvement option will have disappeared and instead we shall face the more expensive option of clearance and rebuild.

It is also important to remember that many people who live in these older properties are in the lower income brackets. Therefore, the difference between 75 per cent. and 90 per cent. grant is a major factor in determining whether they make an application.

Burnley has the dubious honour of being the sixth worst district in England and Wales whose houses do not have an inside toilet or in many cases a bathroom. That is absolutely appalling. A recent publication by the Lancashire county council planning and information department listed three Burnley wards among the 10 worst wards in Lancashire for houses that lack either a toilet or bathroom. The figures show just how deficient those wards are. In Calder ward, 30.13 per cent. of houses lack those amenities. That is the ward in which I live, and the homes that back on to mine have outside toilets. That is deplorable in 1983. In the Daneshouse ward, 22.39 per cent. of homes lack one or more of those amenities, and in Burnley, Wood ward, the figure is 17.38 per cent.

The HIP allocation is also a major factor. At present it is insufficient to meet Burnley's commitment, given the number of grant applications in the pipeline. The council has been forced to stop new applications, although it is processing those that have already been received. It is estimated that these grants will add £500,000 a month to next year's commitment. If, as seems likely, Burnley receives only 80 per cent. of this year's HIP allocation, it will receive only £3.8 million. The council will soon have committed all the money available, and it is important that the HIP allocation should meet the needs of the community.

We should look carefully at the difference between the financing of council house improvements and improvements in the private sector. Those in the private sector have few local authority revenue implications, whereas council house improvements have major revenue implications that must be borne either by the council tenants or the ratepayers. The Government should again consider changing their subsidy policy, because few councils now benefit from it.

Therefore, the Government should continue the 90 per cent. improvement grant; ensure that councils receive a sufficient HIP allocation to cover the whole of their programmes and cater for the needs of the communities; and look again at the method of subsidising the improvement of council houses.

6.36 pm
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

It should be noted that barely one voice has been raised in favour of the Government's proposal to cut the 90 per cent. level of improvement and repair grant in April 1984.

The two great domestic issues faced by Members of Parliament are housing and unemployement, and this debate is about one aspect of the Government's gross and scandalous neglect of both problems. In fact, "neglect" is too easy a word to use, because they have launched a deliberate and successful attack on employment. The Minister smiles, but in my constituency, as in most others, unemployment since 1979 has increased almost threefold. The Government have also attacked public housing and brought the number of starts down to a derisory level.

On 3 November, a Department of Environment press release stated: In the public sector … starts were down 25 per cent. on the previous quarter and 26 per cent. lower than a year ago". In the last complete year of the Labour Government, there were 107,000 starts in the public sector. That fell to as low as 37,000 in 1981, although it increased to 52,000 in 1982. Nevertheless, that was only half the number of starts in the last complete year of the Labour Government.

It is also interesting to compare employment in the private construction industry. I have with me a list of the top six firms and the comparisons between 1981 and 1982 —[AN HON. MEMBER: "What does that have to do with improvement grants?"] This is not a bad indicator of the relationship between Government policy and employment. Conservative Members will be familiar with some of these names. They are their friends, not their enemies.

In 1981, employment in George Wimpey was 22,000. That went down to 17,000 in 1982. In John Laing, the figure went down from 14,400 to 12,900. In Costain—we have heard that name in the House before — the figure went down from 4,974 to 4,576. Employment in Taylor Woodrow has also dropped, as it has in Bovis, one of whose associates is in the House. The Government even rat on their friends and have robbed their supporters of an important source of work. As I have said, no hon. Member has spoken with any enthusiasm in support of ending the 90 per cent. grant.

The Conservative party is not the party of homes and jobs. It is the demolition contractor of social policy and the architect of despair. I illustrate that by referring to my own constituency, which is not so different from those of other hon. Members who have spoken. In Lambeth since 1979, 25 per cent. of the people have been living in poverty, 25 per cent. of the males have been unemployed and 25 per cent. are on the housing waiting list hoping for a decent home. The absence of a decent home and the inability to get a job are the two factors which are most likely to undermine a family and to provide an assault on the dignity of the citizens. Like many hon. Members, I have to live week in, week out, with the consequences of this policy. Bad housing is the cause of family breakup and social tension. [Interruption.] I wish the hon. Gentleman, who has not spent much time here during the debate, would shut up.

I should like to quote from the Scarman report; dealing with social matters, Lord Scarman said: the disorders in Brixton cannot be fully understood unless they are seen in the context of the complex political, social and economic factors to which I have briefly referred. In analysing communal disturbances such as those in Brixton and elsewhere, to ignore he existence of these factors is to put the nation in peril. Over the past four or five years we have seen a desert of achievement in housing policy, with one single exception. The one beacon of light has been the recognition by the Department of the Environment that much of our housing stock was in poor repair and lacking in basic amenities. The figures have been quoted and are probably well known; 4.3 million houses need repairs costing £2,500 or more, and 1.1 million houses lack basic amenities. Almost all the housing which needs a large amount of repair or lacks basic amenities is in the private sector. Many of the 1.1 million houses which lack basic amenities are in the private rented sector.

Here was an area where it was possible to help the private sector and the owner occupier by providing better amenities; at the same time it meant extra employment, which comes about almost instantly when there is an increase in housing repair grants. It was possible to stimulate training and help local authorities through partnership with the private sector to get improvements made. While the Government may have closed hospitals —I noticed that the hon. Member who used to close hospitals is now cutting down on housing because he has been transferred from the Department of Health and Social Security to the Department of the Environment—while they may have presided over riots and cut down on local authority housing, at least they got one thing right. They chose a programme of increasing employment by means of repair and improvement grants.

Now the Treasury has caught hold of the moles. The reduction in grant from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent. in April of next year will not lead to a proportionate decrease in the amount spent on housing repairs and improvements. Once the reduction in grant takes place there will be a disproportionate reduction in the number of people applying for grants. The cut of £200 million in housing expenditure will mean an almost immediate reduction of 30,000 or 40,000 jobs. The Minister for Housing and Construction is just doing a boarding-up job. The demolition contractor will come to the Dispatch Box tomorrow to deliver the rest of the package, which, we understand from the press today, will be a cut of about £500 million in housing expenditure in addition to what we are debating today.

The Department of the Environment has developed a reputation for at least trying to alleviate some of the worst social conditions. The former Secretary of State took an interest in inner city problems and the Under-Secretary of State, who is a progressive wet, has done what he can for inner city areas. In the battle between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Department of the Environment, it is clear that the dry rots have beaten the rising damps. There is to be a cut in housing expenditure, which will deliver an awful blow to people in the private sector and to tenants and owner occupiers, as well as to the construction industry. I do not think any hon. Member has put those figures in pawn in the debate.

When the Government announced a 90 per cent. grant, for once they got it right. They had the support of local authorities. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, this was one way of ensuring that there were improvements in the private rented sector. There is very little, if any, incentive for the private landlord to improve tenanted property which is subject to regulated rent. There is little opportunity of public purchase because the Government will not provide the money. The only way to get anything done is to serve a repair notice on a private landlord, but it is no good doing that if it will bankrupt the landlord, because the money will not be there. If the case is to be pressed further, there must be public expenditure involving the local authority. The 90 per cent. grant provided an opportunity to bring about dramatic and speedy improvements in living conditions.

I understand that there are 500,000 grants in the pipeline. There are 4 million houses in need of considerable repair. If there had been no other pressures on the construction industry, it might have been possible within eight to ten years to eradicate poor housing conditions and the lack of basic amenities. The opportunity for doing that is being set aside. The scheme had the support of local authorities, trade unions and the Labour party — branded upon all of us is the overwhelming desire to provide employment and good housing, which are the absolute preconditions for a happy and satisfactory life.

The Government have chosen, not because of any judgment about housing policy but as a consequence of monetary policies, to cut down on the highly successful scheme for which we have been prepared to give them all credit. The reduction in grant will harm particularly inner city areas. In Lambeth there are about 48,000 private homes, of which half are in poor condition. I see very little prospect of those houses, many in the private rented sector, being improved once this policy is pushed through. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has told us about Liverpool. There are 7,000 grants in the pipeline there, many of them for properties in housing action areas.

The reduction in grant will be a tragedy for the building industry, for employment generally and for those who live in poor conditions. We have not heard from the Minister a single word of justification for the policy, but simply one or two diversionary tactics. He must answer the question put to him by the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) and other hon. Members, about whether applications submitted before March 1984 will be honoured.

In a desert of housing cuts, cuts in employment, cuts in social services and industrial dereliction, there was one beacon of light, the undoubted generosity and compassion of the Government's policy on housing improvement and repair grants. The only advice that the Minister can offer to us is that which Macbeth gave: Out, out, brief candle! We believe in generosity and compassion in housing. In that we have the support of the country and, I believe, the secret as well as overt support of many hon. Members on the Conservative Benches. I hope some Conservative Members will have the guts to vote for the motion.

6.48 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for he Environment (Sir George Young)

I shall try to deal with the points that have been raised in the debate, but if I do not have time to deal with all the individual points, I shall write to the Members concerned.

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) mentioned the construction industry. No one would deny that it has suffered through the recession, but the picture which the hon. Member gave is incomplete, because the output figures for 1982 were up on 1981 and for the first six months of 1983 they are up by 3.5 per cent. on those for the same period of 1982. On new orders, the picture is even better. For the first eight months of 1983 they are 16 per cent. up on 1982. I hope the hon. Member draws the same encouragement that I draw from those figures.

If one thinks through the consequences for the construction industry of improvement grant policy it is worth remembering that for every £1 which local authorities contribute to repair and improvement the individual puts in £30. Of far greater importance to the construction industry is the impact that our overall policies are having on the £30 rather than the £1 put in by the public sector. Our success in bringing down interest and mortgage rates and ensuring that funds are available, and the fact that earnings are still keeping ahead of prices, have meant that more people have the resources to keep their homes in good condition. The construction industry is more interested in securing a long-term future, based on a sound economy, than in pressing for the continuation of short-term initiatives to help them as they move out of the recession.

My Department has implemented the recommendations made by Lord Scarman. The figures for the urban programme show that the Government have put their money where their mouth is. We have increased the urban programme from £165 million in 1979–80, which is the figure that we inherited from the Labour Government, to £348 million in 1983–84.

The hon. Member for Norwood gave the figures for public housing starts, but conveniently omitted the figures for private sector starts. In 1983 those are likely to exceed 165,000. That is the highest level since 1973, and reflects growing consumer confidence in the country's economic recovery. The building societies have had excellent inflows of savings since July, with October's inflow at a record £1,010 million. Those substantial funds are ample to meet current mortgage demands and reduce mortgage queues.

The right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) sought to excuse the poor performance of the Labour Government by implying that they had spent more on local authority improvements. Sadly, statistics do not support his case. Between 1978–79 and 1982–83 the amount of money local authorities spent on improving their stock rose from £479 million—the figure that we inherited— to £934 million in 1982–83. So the expansion in home improvement grants has not been at the expense of improvements in local authority stock.

It is not for me to pass comment on the performance of Brent council. However, I read in the newspapers that one Brent councillor has decided that her constituents would be better served if she supported Tory councillors. I applaud her decision and her courage.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland heard what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) said about the position in Scotland.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) that the 90 per cent. grant for hardship cases will continue. Local authorities have the discretion to define hardship. The 90 per cent. figure will apply for those in hardship in all areas, and will not be restricted — as it was under the Labour Government—to those who live in housing action areas.

My hon. Friend raised a point about rehabilitaion. We are in favour of that where it is economically practicable. There will be some role for demolition, but there is no question of returning to the major clearances of the 1960s and early 1970s. That is not needed, and it is socially costly.

There have been constructive comments from both sides of the House about improving the grant system. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) touched on that matter. The present system is legally and administratively complex, and it is not always targeted towards obtaining the best value for money. We are studying the matter, and will discuss the report of a joint working party of local authority associations and my Department at the housing consultative council next week.

I hope that we all agree that the policy of improvement grants and the publicity surrounding them have had the beneficial long-term effect of bringing home to owners of buildings the importance of keeping their properties in good repair. It has compelled local authorities to reorder their priorities and allocate a higher place to the conservation, maintenance and improvement of existing stock. I make no apology for those consequences.

A number of hon. Members have expressed concern about next year. I cannot anticipate the Chancelllor of the Exchequer's statement tomorrow about the Government's public expenditure plans, but I can see no reason why English authorities should not find it possible next year to match the £430 million that they spent on grants this year — which was a record. The resources that we shall make available to local authorities will allow them to tackle defective dwellings in their stock that need immediate attention. There is no reason why, at the same time, they should not maintain a significant programme of home improvement grants.

The real problem appears to be uncertainty — until local authorities know their allocations for next year they are reluctant to commit themselves. That is why we hope to announce the HIP allocations for individual authorities before the end of the month. We have told them that the minimum provision will be at least 80 per cent. of their allocation for this year. Given that assurance, and the clear terms in which the temporary nature of the 90 per cent. grant was described by the Chancellor, I do not think that any authority can claim to have been misled. Indeed, one could argue that the reduction from 90 per cent. to 75 per cent. helps local authorities, because for any given volume of improvement work, the cost to them is slightly reduced.

The Government vigorously deny allegations of misleading the public. All publicity from my Department has made it clear that, where applicable, the grants are at the discretion of the local authority. The Labour party criticises us for our lack of generosity when we are spending seven times what it spent on improvement grants. The public will realise the shortage of constructive criticism and new ideas within the Labour party. We have all read in the press how the Labour party is abandoning its dogmatic approach to housing, which cost so much support at the general election. But we saw little sign of that new approach today.

If we have not persuaded the Labour party in the House to change its policy on housing, there are welcome signs outside. On September 27 the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph carried the headline: Homes sale critic to buy house. The article stated: A Labour Party chairman on Scunthorpe Borough Council, who has been one of the severest critics of the Government's right to buy Act which allows council tenants up to 50 per cent. discount on the price of their homes, has applied to buy his council house… Councillor Vessey said in a prepared statement last night: 'After much heart searching I have decided that it is right for me to purchase my council house in Scunthorpe.' Of course it is right for him to do that. Yet when we seek to extend those rights we meet opposition from the Labour party, which simply does not understand how out of touch it is with public opinion.

The policy on the right to buy has increased the resources available to local authorities. Between April 1979 and June 1983 total receipts from council house sales were £2.1 billion. The average improvement grant is about £3,000. Therefore, in principle, about 700,000 improvement grants could be financed by the implementation of our right-to-buy policy. Each sale of a council house is the equivalent of two and a half improvement grants. Not only does our policy give independence to the home buyer: it helps to finance the improvement of the housing stock as a whole.

It is difficult to find a less promising subject than improvement grants for the Labour party to choose for its attack on the Government. It is like winning the toss and putting the other side in to bat on a plum wicket. Whatever objective measurement we choose, the only conclusion is that the Government are half way around the course while the Labour party is still in the starting trap, facing the wrong way.

The number of home improvement grants in 1978–79 was 60,000, and this year it is likely to be 200,000. In 1978–79 grants totalled £90 million; this year they will total £650 million. In each constituency about £70,000 was spent in 1978–79; this year it will be £1 million. If we asked thousands of people who live in poor conditions which party has benefited them most in their improvement policy, they will quickly reach the conclusion that it is the Conservative party.

For every grant given in 1978–79, three grants are being given this year. We have made the policy more flexible and better attuned to priority needs. The Labour party restricted the 90 per cent. rate to those in hardship in housing action areas. We have removed that restriction. The Labour party denied grants to disabled occupants whose property was above the rateable value limit, and we have removed that restriction. The improvement grant regime for next year, so fiercely criticised by Opposition Members, will still be far more generous than the regime that we inherited from the Labour Government. The Opposition's motion is sheer hypocrisy, and I invite the House to support the amendment.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 196, Noes 342.

Division No. 69] [7.00 pm
Abse, Leo Fatchett, Derek
Alton, David Faulds, Andrew
Anderson, Donald Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)
Ashdown, Paddy Fisher, Mark
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Flannery, Martin
Ashton, Joe Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Forrester, John
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Foster, Derek
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Foulkes, George
Barron, Kevin Fraser, J. (Norwood)
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Beith, A. J. Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Bell, Stuart Golding, John
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Gould, Bryan
Bermingham, Gerald Gourlay, Harry
Bidwell, Sydney Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Blair, Anthony Hardy, Peter
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Harman, Ms Harriet
Bray, Dr Jeremy Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N) Heffer, Eric S.
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Bruce, Malcolm Home Robertson, John
Caborn, Richard Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. Howells, Geraint
Campbell, Ian Hoyle, Douglas
Canavan, Dennis Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Cartwright, John Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Cohen, Harry Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Coleman, Donald Janner, Hon Greville
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)
Conlan, Bernard John, Brynmor
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Corbett, Robin Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Corbyn, Jeremy Kennedy, Charles
Cowans, Harry Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Craigen, J. M. Kirkwood, Archibald
Crowther, Stan Leadbitter, Ted
Cunningham, Dr John Leighton, Ronald
Dalyell, Tam Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Litherland, Robert
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Deakins, Eric Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Dewar, Donald Loyden, Edward
Dixon, Donald McCartney, Hugh
Dobson, Frank McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Dormand, Jack McGuire, Michael
Douglas, Dick McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Dubs, Alfred Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. McTaggart, Robert
Eadie, Alex McWilliam, John
Eastham, Ken Madden, Max
Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n SE) Marek, Dr John
Evans, Ioan (Cynon Valley) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Martin, Michael
Ewing, Harry Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Maxton, John Ryman, John
Maynard, Miss Joan Sedgemore, Brian
Meacher, Michael Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Meadowcroft, Michael Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Michie, William Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Mikardo, Ian Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Skinner, Dennis
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby) Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Nellist, David Snape, Peter
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Spearing, Nigel
O'Brien, William Steel, Rt Hon David
O'Neill, Martin Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Stokes, John
Paisley, Rev Ian Strang, Gavin
Park, George Straw, Jack
Parry, Robert Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Patchett, Terry Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Pavitt, Laurie Tinn, James
Pendry, Tom Torney, Tom
Penhaligon, David Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Pike, Peter Wainwright, R.
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Wallace, James
Prescott, John Ward, John
Radice, Giles Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Randall, Stuart Wareing, Robert
Redmond, M. Welsh, Michael
Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S) White, James
Richardson, Ms Jo Williams, Rt Hon A.
Roberts, Allan (Bootle) Winnick, David
Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N) Woodall, Alec
Robertson, George Young, David (Bolton SE)
Rooker, J. W.
Ross, Ernest (Dundee W) Tellers for the Ayes:
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Mr. James Hamilton and
Rowlands, Ted Mr. Frank Haynes.
Adley, Robert Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.
Aitken, Jonathan Buck, Sir Antony
Alexander, Richard Budgen, Nick
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Bulmer, Esmond
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Burt, Alistair
Amess, David Butcher, John
Ancram, Michael Butler, Hon Adam
Arnold, Tom Butterfill, John
Ashby, David Carlisle, John (N Luton)
Aspinwall, Jack Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Chapman, Sydney
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Chope, Christopher
Baker, Kenneth (Mole Valley) Churchill, W. S.
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)
Baldry, Anthony Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Batiste, Spencer Clarke Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Clegg, Sir Walter
Bellingham, Henry Cockeram, Eric
Bendall, Vivian Colvin, Michael
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay) Conway, Derek
Benyon, William Coombs, Simon
Berry, Sir Anthony Cope, John
Biffen, Rt Hon John Cormack, Patrick
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Corrie, John
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Couchman, James
Body, Richard Critchley, Julian
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Crouch, David
Bottomley, Peter Currie, Mrs Edwina
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Dickens, Geoffrey
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Dicks, T.
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Dorrell, Stephen
Braine, Sir Bernard Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Brandon-Bravo, Martin du Cann, Rt Hon Edward
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Dunn, Robert
Brooke, Hon Peter Durant, Tony
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Dykes, Hugh
Browne, John Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Bruinvels, Peter Eggar, Tim
Bryan, Sir Paul Emery, Sir Peter
Evennett, David Kershaw, Sir Anthony
Eyre, Reginald Key, Robert
Fairbairn, Nicholas King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Fallon, Michael King, Rt Hon Tom
Farr, John Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Favell, Anthony Knowles, Michael
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Knox, David
Finsberg, Geoffrey Lamont, Norman
Fletcher, Alexander Lang, Ian
Fookes, Miss Janet Latham, Michael
Forman, Nigel Lawler, Geoffrey
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Lee, John (Pendle)
Fox, Marcus Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Franks, Cecil Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Lightbown, David
Freeman, Roger Lilley, Peter
Fry, Peter Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Galley, Roy Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Lord, Michael
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde) Lyell, Nicholas
Garel-Jones, Tristan McCrindle, Robert
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian McCurley, Mrs Anna
Glyn, Dr Alan MacGregor, John
Goodhart, Sir Philip MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Goodlad, Alastair MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Gorst, John Maclean, David John.
Gow, Ian Macmillan, Rt Hon M.
Gower, Sir Raymond McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Grant, Sir Anthony McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Gregory, Conal McQuarrie, Albert
Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds) Madel, David
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Major, John
Grist, Ian Malins, Humfrey
Grylls, Michael Malone, Gerald
Gummer, John Selwyn Maples, John
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Marland, Paul
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Marlow, Antony
Hampson, Dr Keith Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Hannam, John Mates, Michael
Hargreaves, Kenneth Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Haselhurst, Alan Mellor, David
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Merchant, Piers
Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk) Meyer, Sir Anthony
Hawksley, Warren Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Hayes, J. Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Hayhoe, Barney Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Hayward, Robert Miscampbell, Norman
Heathcoat-Amory, David Mitchell, David (NW Hants)
Heddle, John Moate, Roger
Henderson, Barry Monro, Sir Hector
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Montgomery, Fergus
Hickmet, Richard Moore, John
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)
Hind, Kenneth Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Hirst, Michael Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Moynihan, Hon C.
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Mudd, David
Holt, Richard Murphy, Christopher
Hooson, Tom Neale, Gerrard
Hordern, Peter Needham, Richard
Howard, Michael Nelson, Anthony
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Neubert, Michael
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Newton, Tony
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Nicholls, Patrick
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Norris, Steven
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Onslow, Cranley
Hunt, David (Wirral) Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Ottaway, Richard
Hunter, Andrew Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Irving, Charles Patten, John (Oxford)
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Pattie, Geoffrey
Jessel, Toby Pawsey, James
Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Pink, R. Bonner
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Pollock, Alexander
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Porter, Barry
Powell, William (Corby) Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Powley, John Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Stokes, John
Price, Sir David Stradling Thomas, J.
Prior, Rt Hon James Sumberg, David
Proctor, K. Harvey Tapsell, Peter
Pym, Rt Hon Francis Taylor, John (Solihull)
Raffan, Keith Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Rathbone, Tim Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover) Temple-Morris, Peter
Renton, Tim Terlezki, Stefan
Rhodes James, Robert Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Rifkind, Malcolm Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Robinson, Mark (N'port W) Thornton, Malcolm
Roe, Mrs Marion Thurnham, Peter
Rossi, Sir Hugh Townend, John (Bridlington)
Rost, Peter Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Rowe, Andrew Tracey, Richard
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Trippier, David
Ryder, Richard Twinn, Dr Ian
Sackville, Hon Thomas Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Viggers, Peter
St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N. Waddington, David
Sayeed, Jonathan Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Scott, Nicholas Waldegrave, Hon William
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Walden, George
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Shelton, William (Streatham) Wall, Sir Patrick
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Waller, Gary
Shersby, Michael Walters, Dennis
Silvester, Fred Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Sims, Roger Warren, Kenneth
Skeet, T. H. H. Watts, John
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Whitney, Raymond
Soames, Hon Nicholas Wiggin, Jerry
Speed, Keith Wilkinson, John
Speller, Tony Winterton, Mrs Ann
Spence, John Winterton, Nicholas
Spencer, D. Wolfson, Mark
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Wood, Timothy
Squire, Robin Woodcock, Michael
Stanbrook, Ivor Yeo, Tim
Stanley, John Young, Sir George (Acton)
Steen, Anthony Younger, Rt Hon George
Stern, Michael
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Tellers for the Noes:
Stevens, Martin (Fulham) Mr. Carol Mather and
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Mr. Robert Boscawen.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 32 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the priority given by the Government to the promotion of home ownership and the repair and improvement of the housing stock through repair and improvement grants and the introduction of the Tenants' Charter and the entitlement of local authority tenants to improvement grants; and believes that these measures are of real benefit both to individual householders and to the construction industry.

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