HC Deb 16 May 1984 vol 60 cc353-5
11. Mr. Steel

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received about the problems caused to potential applicants by the moratorium on home improvement grants.

Mr. Younger

I have received a great deal of correspondence about the improvement and repairs grants schemes in recent months, including many inquiries and representations about the timing and amounts of grant payments. The pressure on resources, which I would now expect to slacken, is a reflection of the very great success of these schemes in the past two years.

Mr. Steel

Leaving aside the case on housing and employment grounds, and the interests of the construction industry, for the Government giving a high and stable priority to home improvements, is the Secretary of State aware that I have dealt with four individual cases in the past few weeks in my constituency where considerable hardship and heartbreak have been caused to people who bought properties, expecting to improve and live in them and who have then found that the Government had changed the rules after the properties had been bought? On reflection, is that not one of the harshest, most cruel, arbitrary and shortsighted attempts to cut public expenditure?

Mr. Younger

I did not hear the right hon. Gentleman complaining that it was arbitrary, cruel and hardhearted to introduce the temporary scheme in the first place. Nothing he can say can alter the fact that in 1979 the total amount of money spent on this was £11 million, whereas on the most recent count it will be £145 million this year. If that is not something on which the right hon. Gentleman feels he ought to have the decency to congratulate the Government, he carries no credibility at all.

Mr. Hugh Brown

Will the Secretary of State look sympathetically at the special cases in Glasgow where, free from ideological bias, they have genuinely tried to seek a partnership arrangement with private developers? The increase in VAT and the reduction in improvement grants means that hundreds of houses are lying empty at the moment.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate that there are cases where it was expected that things would happen quickly which will now take a lot longer. That is perfectly true and I have great sympathy for the people who are affected. When a scheme such as this, brought in with the best intentions, takes off to the extent that it outstrips the resources available, somebody must have the responsibility to do something about it. Although the hon. Gentleman knows about these things, I should say that the number of houses below tolerable standard in Scotland has gone down since 1979 from over 120,000 to 81,000. I should have thought that that was something on which the Government could be congratulated.

Mr. Hirst

I recognise that home improvement grants have done a great deal to improve the housing stock all over Scotland, but is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of people incurred architects' and surveyors' fees in anticipation of being eligible for a grant? As they may not now qualify for a grant, is he able to hold out any expectation that his Department will look sympathetically upon some way of reimbursing those people for the professional costs which they have incurred?

Mr. Younger

I have complete sympathy with people caught in the middle of the changes, but the change in the grant percentage does not necessarily mean that anybody who previously hoped to obtain a grant will not do so, although it may be that a person does not get so much or that it will take a bit longer to get. I also sympathise with the problem caused by fees that have been paid, but it is unlikely that such fees will be more than the at least 10 per cent. which the person concerned would have had to contribute from his own resources. If the grants can go ahead as soon as possible, at the end of the day the person concerned will have his house improved as he originally hoped. It is regrettable that it will take rather longer because of the huge success of the scheme.

Mr. Lambie

Although I have not received another internal memorandum from the Scottish Office this morning, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government intend to introduce another moratorium on all council house building in Scotland in July this year?

Mr. Younger

As to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I have no such intention. I am sorry that I added inadvertently to the hon. Gentleman's already considerable burden of paperwork.

Mr. Henderson

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, given the difficult interaction between central Government funding and district council priorities, it is not easy to be clear where responsibility lies on specific decisions on discretionary improvement grants? Can my right hon. Friend emphasise to district councils the importance of finding improvement grant help for listed buildings in particular, especially in conservation areas?

Mr. Younger

On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I appreciate that it is disappointing for people who were hoping to get a 90 per cent. grant not to get such a high percentage rate, but it has to be said that it never was the case that everybody who applied for a grant in the 90 per cent. period would get a 90 per cent. grant. In many cases, local authorities exercised their discretion to offer a lesser amount than 90 per cent. There are special arrangements for historic buildings, and I shall look into the matter that my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Craigen

May I have a simple assurance from the Secretary of State that, unlike the Department of the Environment, which is considering the possibility of contingency plans for a freeze on local authority housebuilding, the Scottish Office has no such intentions, and that he would resign if such a plan were inflicted on him by the Treasury?

Mr. Younger

I have not heard of any such proposal, and I have no intention of introducing any such proposal. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Gentleman.