HC Deb 22 February 1989 vol 147 cc979-80
1. Mr. Summerson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what information his Department has on local authority rent arrears in London.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer)

Rent arrears to local authorities in London rose by 24 per cent. in 1987–88, from £84 million to £104 million. They are mainly concentrated in a small number of Labour-controlled inner-London boroughs. One third of the total arrears in England and two thirds of the national increase last year was in the worst 10 authorities, nine of which are London boroughs.

Mr. Summerson

In the light of those staggering figures, does my right hon. Friend agree that if local authorities were more efficient in collecting their rents not only would their housing revenue accounts be in better shape, but they would be less assiduous in making ever-increasing calls on the taxpayer for more and more money?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. For instance, in Labour-controlled Barking and Dagenham, arrears constitute 3.2 per cent. of the rent roll. In Brent, the figure is 46.9 per cent. in terms of rent and if rates are added it is nearly 100 per cent. That may, of course, be because three Brent Labour councillors together owe amounts of rent which must add up to £8,000.

Mr. Cohen

Is the Minister aware that in the Labour-controlled London borough of Waltham Forest rent arrears have been more than halved from the level under the previous Tory-Liberal controlled council and that the only reason for rent arrears across London increasing has been the cuts in social security benefits, especially housing benefit?

Mr. Gummer

That last comment is not true. It is interesting to note that the 10 authorities with the highest rent arrears are Brent, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington, Hackney, Haringey, Liverpool, Waltham Forest—the eighth highest—Greenwich and Camden. They are all Labour authorities, they are all a disgrace and they should all be put right.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the leader of Brent council owes £2,000 in rent arrears, and that the vice-chairman of the Lambeth housing committee owes £1,500 in rent arrears, having collected £29,000 in council attendance allowances in two years? When will my right hon. Friend put into the Local Government and Housing Bill a clause which bans people from remaining councillors if they wilfully owe rent and rates to their local authorities?

Mr. Gummer

I understand that my hon. Friend is a member of the Standing Committee on that Bill, so he will be able to express his views on that matter. I think that he is wrong about the leader of Brent council who I believe is not now in arrears—[Interruption.] I do not want to go into the history of this as it would be embarrassing. I agree with my hon. Friend about the Lambeth example, in respect of which my comments in the House were attacked by the Opposition but supported by the local representative of the National and Local Government Officers Association.

Mr. Soley

Before Conservative Members turn their hatred on other councillors, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Secretary of State's own research shows that council housing is far better managed than housing associations? Why has the Audit Commission commended Brent council on its rent collection procedures and recommended that the Government help by recognising that those arrears have accrued over three different Administrations—including Conservative ones—and that it should have the burden lifted from it? Does the Minister agree with the housing movement generally that the reason for increased rent arrears is housing benefit cuts, or does he agree with the former Under-Secretary of State for Social Services, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), who said that the real reason was that rents had been put up by the Government?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is, as usual, wrong. On housing management, the Maclennan report states: In general, tenants regarded housing associations as better providers of management services than councils". The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself for trying to defend Brent—he council which does not even have a list of its tenants, the council which found that its council house keys were being sold in Nigeria to students who were coming here, and the council which has rent and rate arrears amounting to nearly 100 per cent. of its roll. Brent council should also be ashamed of itself.

Mr. Gow

What action has been taken through the courts—by fellow councillors who do not belong to the loony Left, by fellow ratepayers who resent district councils cheating them, or by the district auditor—to prevent the scandal from continuing?

Mr. Gummer

People should be taken to court by the councils to which they owe the rent. The problem is that if councillors do not support their officers' attempts to take people who do not pay their rent to court, the officers cease to be able to do their job properly. The trouble is that all those who do not pay their rent put a burden on others who may be much less well off. In a world of generous housing benefit, those who need help get it through the housing benefit system.

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