To date I have received four considered responses and a letter from an hon. Member on behalf of a constituent. There have also been a number of requests for a longer consultation period, and on 10 June my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced that the period is to be extended from 9 July to 30 September.
With 1·1 million unfit dwellings, including 500,000 with outside toilets, does the right hon. Gentleman not appreciate that this Green Paper, based on the means test principle, in no way matches the immensity of the problem? Should not the Secretary of State ensure that local authorities are given the wherewithal to tackle this vital work?
Overwhelmingly, the maintenance and improvement of private houses is, and always has been, carried out at the expense of their owners, with or without loans from building societies or banks. We expect that to continue. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support a system whereby help from the taxpayer should be confined to those who really need it. It makes no sense to tax the public to pay for home improvements when owners can well afford such improvements themselves.
I am sure that that is one of the matters to which we shall give great attention once we have received representations on the Green Paper. I hope that the extension of time for the submission of responses will be welcomed, not least by the building industry, which is looking forward to playing a fuller part in securing the maintenance, repair and improvement of the private sector.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government's home improvements policy is bordering on the farcical? It is clear from the postbags of most Members of Parliament that at the first meeting of a local authority at the beginning of the financial year more applications are submitted than there is money available, and that for the next 11 months local authorities tell applicants that no home improvement money is left.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the proposals in the Green Paper are a considerable simplification of the system, particularly of the different categories of grant. They draw a clear distinction between the mandatory improvement of houses, for which grants will continue to be available., and the discretionary repair and improvement of houses, for which a system of loans is suggested. In both cases this will be based on the means of the owner. This is a very much more rational system for securing public help for those owners who cannot afford to do the work themse/lves. I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would support that as a considerable improvement on the present system.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that expenditure arising from improvement grants is a very cost-effective way of maintaining the quality of our housing stock from the taxpayers' point of view and that it gives rise to a great deal of labour-intensive activity, adding demand to the British economy? In the light of that, does he agree that it is not the most appropriate area in which to seek savings?
I hope that my hon. Friend will have taken comfort from the most recent figures published by the Department, which suggests that in the first quarter of this year total expenditure on repairs, maintenance and improvement was 10 per cent. up on the previous quarter and 8 per cent. higher than for the comparable period of the previous year. [Interruption.] I hope that the Opposition will applaud that, because that is how to get houses repaired and improved. Even more significantly, that increase in total expenditure comes at a time when the peak of expenditure on improvement grants has already passed. I take much comfort from that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the statement on page 1 of the Green Paper that there are 3·5 million unsatisfactory houses is a damning indictment of Government policy in the last half dozen years? Why will the Government not come clean about the proposed changes? There are no figures in the Green Paper relating to compatibility with the social security review, and no figures are given in the social security review either. Does the right hon. Gentleman admit that the Government are trying to disguise the fact that they intend to make major savings in this area in which investment is desperately needed? Will he also publish figures, as the Secretary for Wales has recently done, giving an analysis of renovation grants? Is he aware that the analysis shows that the system is working quite well in Wales, in that the average household income for recipients of grant is just over £5,000 and 72 per cent. of those who received grants had savings of less than £1,000, so people on low incomes are clearly benefiting from the system?
The Green Paper rightly includes an annex about improvements and adaptations for the disabled. Does the Secretary of State intend that that should also cover improvements and adaptations for the elderly? Is he aware of the splendid "Staying Put" scheme sponsored by the Anchor housing association, and will he encourage the provision of loans for work of that kind?
I am well aware of the excellent work of the Anchor housing association through that scheme. I hope that the proposals in the Green Paper can be used to reinforce that work. I must, however, put it firmly to the House that it makes no sense for the taxpayer to have to put his hand in his pocket—we are always being told that people pay tax at far too low a level of income—to finance work on other people's houses when those other people could well afford to do the work themselves. We shall help those who need help, but not those who can afford to do the work themselves.