§ Again considered in Committee.
§ Question again proposed,That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
I have already apologised for not having had the opportunity to attend this debate all the time. Nevertheless, the points that I am about to make are relevant to Clause 2.
Clause 1 having been agreed to, the Bill permits local authorities, on certain 561 conditions, to increase rents by defined amounts. I was going on to explain that as good a local authority as we have in Newharn—and it is one of the best— will nevertheless find great difficulty in meeting its obligations in carrying out the provisions of this Clause relating to rents because the Government, having made a 40 per cent. grant, have imposed upon the local authority a 60 per cent. charge towards the cost of strengthening tower blocks. Tower blocks are houses within the meaning of Clause 1.
It is laid down that rents may be increased above the suggested amounts in Clause 2 if certain criteria are met. I should like to know what will be the position in areas such as mine, and in other constituencies, if the council says, "We have moved people out of Ronan Point. Some of them are afraid to return and will not go back. But as new tenants are taking over, we have the opportunity of asking for more than the 10s. or the 7s. 6d. average to cover the cost of improvements"—the improvements being the strengthening of tower blocks, which duty is imposed upon local authorities.
Local authorities such as mine will have to apply rents far in excess of the amount specified in the Clause. Otherwise, they will not be able to find the money to carry out the strengthening and other improvements. The Minister may say that they do not have to increase the rents, that they could increase the local rates instead. But this will mean that the people who have already suffered for nearly two years will find their rates going up. The Minister may say that he will not permit the local authority to raise rents above the 10s. or 7s. 6d.
I do not know what the position will be, but the situation as I have described it exists in Newham now. It is not hypothesis. Hundreds of people were moved out of these blocks of flats and they are having second thoughts about going back. That means that new tenants will be taking over. If there are new tenants, and if there are improvements—1 assume that there will be some strengthening eventually and it could be termed improvement—I want to be assured that in an area like mine, and others similarly affected, people will not suddenly find that they have to pay extra rent because 562 they were so unfortunate as to suffer a disaster.
It was not their wish to suffer in that disaster. I have never known an attitude like this to be taken before. After the Aberfan tragedy, the Government rightly footed the bill. But in circumstances such as I have just described, poor local authorities—and they are mainly the poor ones—will be confronted with a 60 per cent. imposed charge. I agree that the Minister is still considering it, but that is how it looks. Goodness knows how long he will be considering it. If I were considering something for 18 months, I should expect a kick in the pants if I did not come to a decision. The Ministry deserves a kick in the pants.
What worries me is this. Will the Bill be used as the vehicle for saying to local authorities like mine "Whether you like it or not, you now have to find the 60 per cent., and we shall give you permission" —which, incidentally, they do not want —"to increase rents above the 10s."? That would be a grave injustice. Unless I have an assurance from the Minister that the Bill will not be used to the disadvantage of authorities such as mine, I shall have grave doubts about supporting the Clause.
I regret that I inadvertently mentioned Clause 1, which has already been agreed, but my point ties in with Clause 2 as well because it is the amount of the rents which particularly concerns me. I hope that hon. Members who have these tower blocks in their constituencies will be aware of the danger which may confront their constituents.
§ Mr. Freeson
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) on his ingenuity and the promptitude with which he brought it to bear on this topic. As he said, the Minister is considering the question which he raised. He may think that we are taking too long, but he will appreciate that there have been consultations with the local authority associations concerned. They expressed certain views and made representations on the level of the contribution proposed by the Minister —I do not recall the exact date of the meeting, but it was earlier this year— and those representations are now being considered.
563 As regards the Clause and its relevance to the specific issue put to us in connection with the aftermath of Ronan Point, all I can say is that the Bill, far from precluding them, requires local authorities to apply in respect of any average increase in excess of the 7s. 6d. laid down. I am not seeking to encourage or invite applications; I am merely stating what is laid down in the Bill.
There will therefore, be nothing to prevent a local authority—indeed, it is required in the Bill for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) earlier, because of the dispute which arose—to make application and submit the evidence which gives rise to its view that it should have a higher average rent increase in its area.
I cannot go beyond that, except perhaps to mention, since departmentally I have an association with the issue of the Aberfan disaster, that the kind of thinking we have sought to apply to the aftermath of Ronan Point has been very much along the lines of thinking on the role of Government in the aftermath of national disasters. The Government have not taken a 100 per cent. cost burden upon the Exchequer, but they have sought to make a good contribution.
I cannot go into details which would not be relevant tonight, but that was the position with regard to that national disaster, and it was in that spirit that we discussed the matter and made certain recommendations about the Ronan Point situation. Tonight is not the occasion to go further than that. The matter is before my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. John Page
When are we likely to know the result of the Ronan Point discussions? The Minister said earlier that it would be this year. When shall we have the answer?
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clauses 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.