§ The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. J. D. Concannon)
I should like with permission, Mr. Speaker, to make a statement about the report of the Porter Committee on the Rent Restriction Law of Northern Ireland. This report, which my right hon. Friend received in April, has not been published to date because of printing delays. However, it is now clear that it will be published during the recess, and while detailed discussion of this complex report must await publication I believe that it would be right to indicate now the general drift of the committee's recommendations and my right hon. Friend's reaction to them.
The report sets out the very grave problems of the private rented sector in Northern Ireland. There is a vicious circle of very low rents, with about half the tenants paying less than 50p per week and three-quarters paying less than£1 per week, an average of 90p per week—lack of repairs and maintenance and a rapid decline in the number and condition of privately rented dwellings. In 1974 over 48 per cent. of these were unfit and nearly 70 per cent. lacked at least one basic amenity.
The Porter Committee's recommendations can be summarised as follows: public acquisition and redevelopment of the privately rented houses in the worst condition; generous State assistance for the repair and improvement of the remaining houses, including encouragement to tenants to buy their homes; and a system of rent regulation broadly similar to that which operates in Great Britain, including the introduction of rent allowances.
My right hon. Friend shares the committee's view of the urgency and seriousness of the situation and has to some extent anticipated the recommendations. For example, he has decided to accelerate 2441 the purchase of the areas scheduled for eventual redevelopment, and new legislation is being prepared on house improvement grants, with special emphasis on repairs, on action to arrest the decline of the "twilight" areas and on additional assistance to promote the development of housing associations, especially to purchase and improve older properties.
While the pressure on resources for housing, as for public services generally, must be taken into account, it is my right hon. Friend's intention to give a high priority to these objectives. Action to cope with the worst aspects of the physical condition of the privately rented stock will represent the first and immediate response to the report.
A further response—to those recommendations which are concerned with rent levels and rent allowances—will follow consultation with the interested parties in Northern Ireland. I shall be writing to them when the report is published inviting their reactions to it and especially to its proposal for the introduction of a system of rent regulation. Once these reactions have been received and assessed, my right hon. Friend will consider the content and timing of legislation on rents.
In the present difficult economic situation, additional public expenditure for improving the condition of the private rented sector in Northern Ireland and, if this is the ultimate decision, for introducing a system of rent regulation with rent allowances can be accommodated only by a reassessment of priorities, including those for housing itself. Nor can there be any doubt that part of the solution must lie in a readiness by tenants to pay higher rents as a contribution towards the improvement of living conditions. In conclusion, I would add that I hope it is intended to debate all aspects of housing at the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Committee after the recess.
I should like to thank the right hon. Sir Robert Porter, QC, and his committee for delving into this matter in very great detail and the Minister of State then in office, Lord Windlesham, for setting up the committee on 16th May 1973.
§ Mr. Mather
Are the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend aware that this is a sobering statement and one that is 2442 long overdue? The report was first commissioned on 16th May 1973 under my right hon. Friend, and we are all indebted to Sir Robert Porter and his Committee for the work they have done.
It is unfortunate that we have not the report in our hands and are dependent on a short statement, so that it is difficult to comment usefully on this report, but we welcome the statement as far as it goes. We welcome the legislation which is promised on home improvement grants, on generous State assistance for repair and improvement, and also for the promotion of housing associations.
On the question of rent regulation and allowances, may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether this is in parallel with the fair rent legislation in Great Britain, whether it is intended to proceed on roughly parallel lines, and whether this will take place in stages of about 12½ per cent.? In the terms of reference of the Porter Committee, which were outlined on 20th February 1975, one of the factors to be taken into consideration was the maintenance of a balance between the interests of tenants and the interests of landlords. Will the Under-Secretary say a little more on this question, and whether he is also aware that this relationship must be right if the private sector is to thrive?
Will he also bear in mind the 1974 Rent Act of Great Britain? If it is also intended to advance on these lines in Northern Ireland, it could mean that there would be less rented accommodation becoming available on the market. I hope that it is his intention, in order to improve the overall housing stock in Northern Ireland, to encourage the private sector.
Finally, we note that the subject is to be debated in the Northern Ireland Committee the next time it meets, and we welcome that.
§ Mr. Concannon
I can only apologise to the hon. Member and to Northern Ireland Members for the fact that they have not got the report. This is due to no fault of mine. I would like to have it published as soon as possible because it will help me in my task of getting over to the people of Northern Ireland just what are the basic problems of housing there.
2443 Most of the other points the hon. Gentleman mentioned are dealt with in the report. Housing legislation in Northern Ireland has lagged far behind that in this country. We have just introduced a rent rebate scheme in Northern Ireland, but unfortunately few people are taking advantage of the scheme, for reasons which to some extent I understand. The take-up is very low, though there must be thousands of people in Northern Ireland paying more than they should be. Getting it over to the people there is a slow process.
All the other matters are open for discussion. I hope that we shall be able to enlarge on them when the hon. Member has had a chance to study the report in detail and I hope that we shall be able to have a thorough discussion in Committee after the recess.
§ Mr. Carson
May I thank the Minister for his statement and ask him some questions about the recommendations? When did the Porter Committee report? How many houses under private landlords are vacant in Northern Ireland? How many lack basic amenities such as bathrooms, internal water closets, and a hot and cold water supply? Will the Housing Executive be the body responsible for the houses acquired under these recommendations? Does not the Minister agree that already the Housing Executive has too much to handle in connection with this type of property? I can safely say that in my constituency—and I am sure that many of my hon. Friends can say this of their constituencies—the Housing Executive has too much of this type of property on its hands at present. In North Belfast many houses lie vacant for two or three years—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)
Order. The hon. Member must not debate the matter now. He should ask questions. I understand that the matter is to be debated upstairs.
§ Mr. Carson
Will the Minister give us some further idea about his statement that generous State assistance should be made available for the repair and improvement of the remaining houses? 2444 This is welcomed. The Housing Executive has already cut back its spending on repairs to its own property. How can it give assistance to privately rented houses?
Finally, I again thank the Minister and welcome the statement he made about rent regulations and rent allowances. Will the Westminster Rent Act apply to Northern Ireland just as it does to the rest of the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Concannon
I thank the hon. Gentleman for some of the things he said. One of the basic questions he was trying to ask me concerns the standard of the houses. What I said about substantial State aid is a recommendation in the Porter Report. I am not saying that it will be done at the moment. I shall have to juggle with the money available to me to do some of these things. I have promised to take most of the slums in the redevelopment area under our umbrella by 1980. This will make the Housing Executive of my Department the biggest slum landlord in Europe This is obviously the only way we can tackle this.
In 1961 there were about 128,000 rented properties. By 1971 the number had fallen to about 70,000. In 1974 the number was just under 60,000. Of that number, the total number unfit is 29,120, or 48.7 per cent. The number lacking five basic amenities, including those listed by the hon. Gentleman, is 3,370, or 5.6 per cent. The number lacking at least one basic amenity is 41,690, or 69.7 per cent. The number without a fixed bathroom represents 61.2 per cent., without an internal water closet 63.2 per cent., and on average 13.7 per cent. do not have a water closet, inside, outside, or at the bottom of the garden. Sixty-six and a half per cent. lack wash hand basins, 41.6 per cent. lack a hot and cold water supply, and 5.8 per cent. are without a sink.
That is the problem. This is the vicious circle of low rents. Landlords, given the best of intentions, cannot, as they have told me, go about repairing these houses when the cost of the rent represents a packet of cigarettes a week.