Is my hon. Friend aware that many thousands of people will lose 25 per cent. of the house improvement grant which they expected? No doubt he is also aware that I have written to the Minister of State in another place about retired people and people nearing retirement, who will suffer a substantial loss because of delays caused by the three-day working week, shortage of materials, and so on.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that one of the instances involved concerns a man whose house was set on fire by vandals after £1,000 had been spent on improvement work? Does he not feel that this warrants the exercise of some flexibility?
These matters have been debated already. This is a difficult matter, and there are bound to be hard cases which fall just on the wrong side of the line. In all the circumstances, the concession which was announced on 30th April seemed to us to represent the best answer.
It is possible, of course, for local authorities to help people who are suffering hardship, by means of loans, but I think that the grant arrangements must stand as we modified them in the announcement on 30th April. I am sorry that we cannot make any further improvement here.
Has this not been a quite exceptional year—utterly different from any other? Will not the hon. Gentleman reconsider this matter? Many people, through no fault of their own, are failing to obtain the grants.
I accept that it has been a very exceptional year, with a three-day working week. We were not responsible for that. We have tried as far as possible to produce arrangements which would meet, generally, those people concerned, but I have neved disguised the fact that there would be hard cases.
May I press the Minister again on this matter? Will he consider using the powers which exist under the Act to make an order to assist these people? Will he also look again at the possibility of at least paying the grant on work which has been done, even if the whole work has not been completed?
I think the essence of the scheme is that there was a completion date; that was the original date of 23rd June 1974. The essence of the modification was that there would not be a completion date, but the work had to be approved before 30th September 1973. If one changed that, for example, to 31st October—if that were practicable—or 31st December, there would still be hard cases involving people whose approvals came a few days later. Therefore, one does not remove the problem completely. I think that one simply has to accept that that is so.
May I appeal to my hon. Friend to reconsider the position? As one who has practical experience as a building contractor, I know the difficulties that have been experienced in getting work carried out owing to the three-day working week and other factors. We agree that the three-day week is not the responsibility of the present Government, but it is right that we should take the matter into consideration. There are innocent people who have been endeavouring to get their work carried out in accordance with the desires of the Government, and it is through no fault of their own that they have been unable to do so.
I do not disagree with anything that my hon. Friend has said I repeat, however, that all these matters were taken into account before we made the modification which we announced on 30th April. There is no question of our not taking these matters into account. They were all carefully considered when we made this statement. We recognised that there would be hard cases. In the circumstances it was inevitable, whatever one did, given that it was intended by the previous Government, from the inception of the scheme, that there would, in fact, be a closing date. That is something which we have to bear in mind. The closing date, of course, was originally 23rd June 1973 rather than 1974. Therefore, there was already a year's extension involved, to the credit of the previous Government.
Must the hon. Gentleman be so inflexible? Surely the point that really matters is that where people have suffered in this way it is through no fault of their own. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have brought this to the attention of the Scottish Office.
Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that although he said that whatever date was chosen there would still be hard cases, surely at later dates there would be far fewer hard cases, and the needs of far more people would be helped? I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that people who had counted on getting the grant are having difficulty in finding the extra money required to carry out the improvements.
As regards the extra money, I have already said that local authorities have the power to give loans in cases of hardship. There is no question of inflexibility. If one is to operate a scheme of this description, with a terminal date, there has to be some kind of terminal arrangement. Inevitably, given that there are terminal arrangements, some people will, unfortunately, fall on the wrong side of the line. The normal arrangements for 50 per cent. of grant are continuing, however, and under the new Housing Bill in housing action areas the grants may be 75 per cent., or may go up, in special cases, to as much as 90 per cent. Therefore, there is no question of the Government's treating the matter unsympathetically.