Orders of the Day — Scotland (Housing Support Grant)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:24 pm on 14th January 1980.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook , Edinburgh Central 11:24 pm, 14th January 1980

Those hon. Members who sat on the Committee that considered the 1978 Bill will recollect that I, together with a number of other hon. Members, had doubts about the wisdom of that measure precisely because of the amount of discretion that it left in the hands of the Secretary of State. At one stage we carried the present Secretary of State with us. If hon. Members care to look up the report of the first sitting of that Committee they will find an eloquent speech by the Secretary of State in which he also expressed doubts about the wisdom of giving the Secretary of State so much discretion.

We had a vote at the end of that sitting in which my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie), some of the Secretary of State's colleagues and I carried an amendment to the 1978 Bill providing machinery whereby COSLA could seek arbitration if it were unable to reach a voluntary agreement with the Secretary of State. Regrettably, that amendment was deleted at a later stage. It is a great pity that we do not have that machinery now, because there is no doubt that COSLA would take advantage of it. COSLA has not been consulted.

The explanatory memorandum presented to the House says that the order has been laid in accordance with the provisions of the Act. The Act provides that COSLA shall be consulted, yet it plainly has not been consulted. I have discussed what happened with members of COSLA's housing committee. They were summoned to St. Andrews House for the one meeting to negotiate the housing support grant. They arrived for the pre-meeting at 9.30 am, when they were told the figure. They were also told that no change in the figure was likely because the press release had already been drafted and was to be released at noon that day. They went into the meeting at 10 am and were told the figure. I doubt whether even Brezhnev could convince the Supreme Praesidium that that amounted to consultation.

It will not do for the Secretary of State to say that COSLA was consulted about the 10 per cent. abatement in loan charges on capital costs. It was not consulted; it was told. If it had been consulted it would not have accepted the figure, because the provision is daft. One can see how daft it is by reading the explanatory memorandum, which says that 10 per cent. of the Secretary of State's estimate of capital expenditure for 1980–1 has been regarded as unreasonable. I repeat that quotation: 10 per cent. of the Secretary of State's estimate of capital expenditure for 1980–1 has been regarded as unreasonable. In a previous debate I congratulated the Government on their can dour in the financial memorandum to the Bill. However, this is the first time that I have seen a Government lay a White Paper, or piece of white paper, before the House saying that their own estimate has been regarded as unreasonable. That is nonsense. The Government themselves have decided what the housing allocation shall be for each local authority. If that estimate was thought to be unreasonable they could have reduced it by 10 per cent. In fact, they reduced it by far more than 10 per cent. since they have not given the local authorities anything like the amount that they sought. To reduce that amount still further is totally unreasonable.

I have been on a housing authority and I know that one cannot get 10 per cent. savings in contracts for construction by efficiency. The only way to make savings in contracts is to reduce the specification. The Government are saying that specifications are unreasonably high. I shall welcome a statement from the Secretary of State making clear in respect of which council houses in his constituency, and on which estates, he regards the specification as having been unreasonably high. That is the real nature of this provision in the housing support grant. I am anxious that the Secretary of State should reply to that question and give, chapter and verse, those specifications that have been unreasonable.

The consequences of the Bill upon the weekly outgoings of ordinary tenants will be severe. The rent increases will in most cases be well in excess of the average that has been quoted. COSLA's figures show that, out of 56 housing authorities, 38—if they are to recoup what they are losing under the order—will have to increase their rents by more than the average suggested. The average will end up at between 29 per cent. and 33 per cent. of present rents, although no Government Member will suggest that that will be the wage settlement for the coming year. However, that is what the Government are obliged under the Act to take into consideration when arriving at the increase in local contributions.

It would not be so bad if this increase in rent payments were being used to finance a new drive to solve our housing problems, if out of this we were to see more houses being built and a better standard of maintenance. The reality is that this increased financial payment is being asked for at the very time when we are faced with a cut in the capital allocation for construction, which is already at an all-time low. Local authorities are faced with a dramatic cut in their capital allocation and an equally dramatic cut in the subsidy that they receive towards their revenue costs. I am glad to see that the Secretary of State agrees with me on that. It is particularly damaging to have this sudden switch in housing policy. By their very nature, housing projects require at least five years to bring to fruition.

In view of our experience of the working of the 1978 Act I believe that the time has come for the House to look again at that Act, in the light of the criticisms that many of us made at the time, and find some way to protect local authorities and their tenants against damaging shifts in the housing budget at the whim of the Secretary of State, with the sole means of scrutiny being a brief debate in the Chamber followed by a vote. This is a form of scrutiny which can only be likened to the homologation after the decision has been taken. In the meantime those of us who disapprove of what is being done should take the opportunity to dissociate ourselves in the Lobby from that homologation.