HL Deb 23 July 1991 vol 531 cc639-42

2.40 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What response, if any, they have made to the recent request by local authorities for increased access to capital receipts in order to finance their housebuilding and repairs programmes.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Government's new spending plans will be announced in the Autumn Statement. However, the present balance between use of receipts and debt redemption is kept under review. We are conscious of the need to encourage local authorities to dispose of surplus assets, but local authority spending is public expenditure, whether financed from receipts or borrowing, and the debt redemption rules allow us to target resources where they are most needed.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am disappointed with that Answer, bearing in mind that a document unveiled by the Prime Minister yesterday is produced by Conservative Central Office but funded by the taxpayer? That document makes no reference to the fact that homelessness, waiting lists and the dispossessing of owner-occupiers through high interest rates are all on the increase. Must we therefore assume that, on the question of the Citizen's Charter, those unfortunate people will not count?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that yesterday's document has been very well received. It addresses poor management of local authority or public sector housing. Where there is poor management, it at least gives the customer and the tenant some rights.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, does my noble friend agree or at least concede that to interfere with market forces in restricting the expenditure by councils of their own money on economically desirable houses is economically questionable?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not. The reasons are fairly complicated. The truth is that the Government have a concern for housing across the country as a whole. It is true that where the receipts are greatest, the need is least; where the need is greatest, the receipts are least. It is important to make sure that some of the targeting is on areas of greatest need.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, I concede that there are some very bad councils, but there are also some very good ones. Let it be put on the record that there are some very good councils. It is surely daft to say to those councils that they have to sell council houses that they own to sitting tenants and at the same time say that they are not allowed to spend the money from those sales. That seems to me daft. There is no logic in it. There are no party politics in this matter. Can the Minister say why decent councils are not allowed to spend their own cash which they have received as a result of government legislation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of the noble Lord's statement. As to his question, 25 per cent. of housing receipts are available for spending. Local authorities which are out of spending will also benefit from the freeing up of the 75 per cent. of council house receipts which are used to reduce debt. Therefore, there is a benefit. What is important is that the credit approvals are used to make sure that the areas of greatest need and the problems within those areas are properly addressed.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is quite deplorable that under this Government a situation has developed in which local authorities are not able to spend their money for housing those in need? Does she further agree that it is unlikely that any local authorities will be able to do so in future? It is self-evident from what the Minister said that the Government just could not care less.

Secondly, what is being done for all those demobbed servicemen and the thousands of families in Germany who are to return from the British Army of the Rhine? They will not have redundancy payments. Who will cater for them? What are the Government's plans to house those people?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may take the second point first. There is indeed an issue here. In response to a similar question only a few days ago, I said that my department is constantly in negotiation with the Ministry of Defence—because it is a matter for the Ministry of Defence. That debate will continue.

With regard to the first point, I have answered it a number of times in a number of ways. Perhaps therefore I may put a question: is the Labour Party saying that it would allow all local authorities to spend all their receipts and, when there is additional need to meet and those receipts are very low or even non-existent, it would address that situation by incurring considerable extra public expenditure?

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Question Time in this House is meant to elicit information from the Government and that it is not for government Ministers to ask questions of the Opposition?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may tell the noble Lord that I have answered this Question almost once a fortnight for a very long time. The Answer has been repeated over and over again. But every single question from the Benches opposite carries with it the implication that local authorities should observe no limits and that they should spend all their receipts. That will leave a very real problem for those areas without receipts. I put that question to noble Lords opposite. If they do not answer, they may wish to think about what they are going to say to the public. The time is rapidly approaching when the public will request an answer. Do they intend to spend extra billions in those areas where there are no receipts?

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that we shall be quite happy to fight out this issue in a general election campaign when it comes? But this House at Question Time requires answers and information from Ministers. That is the purpose of Question Time.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my answer is in the public arena; I await anxiously the noble Lord's.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that some Members on this side of the House are becoming rather tired of the gusts of windy rhetoric which masquerade as parliamentary supplementary questions from the Labour Benches?

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Baroness complains about the number of times that she has had to repeat her Answer. Would it be a fair deduction that the Answer is not very convincing?

Baroness Blatch

No, my Lords. There is a philosophical divide on this matter. The Government's intention is to ensure that public moneys are properly addressed to where the need is greatest. That is the proper responsibility of any government.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is a little unfair to ask the Opposition what they think because they do not have a policy? Can she say to what extent the housing was paid for by the Treasury in the first place?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the catalogue would take too long. Credit approvals have been increased by £102 million to £2 billion. Housing revenue subsidy has reached £3.5 billion. Housing Corporation expenditure is about to rise to £2 billion by 1993. There is an extra £50 million for low cost rural housing. There is £270 million for estate action programmes. Over £300 million, which is on top of mainstream funding, is provided to help relieve statutory homelessness. Over £100 million is provided to combat single homelessness and rough sleeping. I could go on.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the Minister gives convincing figures now. However, she must be aware that since this Government took office they have cut over £7 billion from the public building sector. Is the Minister aware that if that sum had not been cut, half a million more houses would be available to let to people in the three areas of greatest need to which I referred? Is it not sad that the Minister has not mentioned one word about the three groups in greatest need? It is obvious that because there is no reference to them in the document they do not count.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have constantly referred to the groups in greatest need. I have done so rather more often than noble Lords on the Benches opposite. The stock of housing is up by 2 million since 1979. Home ownership is up 12 per cent. to 69 per cent. Owner occupation has been a great success in this country. In addition to the measures that have been put in place, there are three exemptions from the capital receipts rules. Those, I believe, were made in direct response to local authority association representations.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that whether she and her colleagues like it or not, we on this side of the Chamber will return to this Question time and again until we have satisfactory answers? Local authorities throughout the country were criticised by the Leader of the House yesterday. Are they not being prevented by the Government from doing their duty by the deprivation of necessary funds which belong to them? For example, the area of Swindon, which I have mentioned previously, has £23 million outstanding which the local authority could use to house the homeless and reduce its housing list.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall continue to answer the Question at the Dispatch Box so long as it is on the Order Paper. I have not refused to do so. Equally, I shall continue to ask at the Dispatch Box and outside this Chamber for an answer to my question: what would noble Lords opposite do about the problem?

Lord Molloy

My Lords, the policies of many of the local authorities which the Minister criticises were placed before the public at elections and the councils elected on the prospectus that they presented. Will the Government occasionally consider the democratic aspect of their attitude?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we are talking of a national policy. It will be for the national Government to be judged on their record when the time comes.