I, too, congratulate Robin Harper for bringing this motion before Parliament and for the manner in which he has addressed the issue. His motion allows us to debate a very important aspect of housing, which is a subject that is not high up on the list of priorities for the Scottish Executive's initial legislative programme.
I agree with much of what Robin Harper has said. Many of his proposals and the issues that he has raised should be the subject of further discussion and consideration in the long-awaited housing bill. I also agree with Cathy Jamieson that that bill must address dampness and fuel poverty. Reducing dampness and condensation in our houses would create considerable savings and health gains and bring about a most welcome improvement in the quality of life of residents.
Labour's manifesto promised to eliminate fuel poverty by 2007, but that promise became vague and watered down in the partnership agreement. Is that another Liberal triumph?
The part approach of Labour and the Executive to fuel poverty has been to replace the Conservative Government's successful home efficiency energy scheme with a revised scheme, warm deal, and with fuel allowances. Labour's overall approach to housing is a continuation of many of the policies that were championed by the Conservative Government.
Local authority expenditure for improving housing conditions in the private sector has suffered substantial cuts since 1995. The fault lies not only with the Labour Government, which has drastically reduced capital grants to councils, but with councils. Prior to 1995, funds allocated to councils by government were ring-fenced to housing.
Following representations from COSLA, Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, devolved decision making on this spending to councils and removed the ring fence. Councils claimed they knew better how to spend capital allocations in their areas. The result was that capital spending on private sector housing plummeted from £118 million in 1995-96 to £45.3 million in 1998-99. Nearly £200 million that would previously have been spent on improving housing
According to Shelter Scotland, fuel poverty affects some 738,000 households in Scotland. The greatest benefit to those householders and to other energy consumers resulted from the Conservative privatisation of the utilities. Bill Aitken mentioned the fall in real energy prices, although he did not describe it in full detail. Cathie Craigie mentioned the imposition of VAT but, despite that, between 1991 and 1996, the cost of gas fell by 8.5 per cent, the cost of heating oils fell by 10.5 per cent and the cost of electricity fell by 5 per cent.
We support the stock transfer of houses from councils to local housing associations, housing co-operatives and a range of other providers.