Previous Section Home Page

Mr. O'Hara : Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, I am grateful to you for allowing me to depart from the debate to such an extent. I was about to return to it.

This is not a matter of narrow national interests. It transcends national interest. It is a matter also of international scholarship. I should like to highlight an aspect of the subject that has not been mentioned so far. There has been mention of looted objects without provenance that appear on the art market. "Without provenance" is not just a term used in a catalogue. Archaeologically, it is a very important term ; it means without associations in space, time or cultural and artistic affinity. When a professional archaeologist discovers an object, he or she notes its location, its level, what other objects have been found with it and where similar objects have been found.

I use this opportunity to take up a general observation by several hon. Members about the respect that nations in general owe to each other with regard to their cultural heritage. I shall try to stay within the European Union. I hope that, in the course of time, former imperial powers, such as the United Kingdom, will be more willing to return to their rightful homes artefacts that may, in their present locations, be objects of curiosity, as well as of love and appreciation. I am thinking, for example, of items in the British museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Louvre, the

Column 736

Glyptothek, the New York Metropolitan and even the Getty, which would be of immeasurable cultural significance in their places of origin.

lace of origin. That is neither necessary nor desirable. If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, let me say that there was an element of reductio ad absurdum in the case that he put.

Mr. Jessel : Does the hon. Gentleman think that every important art object ought to be returned to its country of origin? If not, how would he distinguish between important and not so important objects?

Mr. O'Hara : I was about to say that that would not be necessary or even desirable. Cross-cultural exchange is important, for it makes for cross-cultural understanding. However, some artifacts transcend such considerations. Mention was made of the Elgin marbles--or the Parthenon marbles, as I prefer to call them. They are symbolic of the triumph of Greece over Persian aggression, of the triumph of freedom of thought, artistic expression and political institutions and of that classical tradition which we may take for granted now but without which we would not be as we are. Inferior as we are, we would be measurably worse off without that tradition.

The Elgin marbles should be with the Parthenon and the other great monuments dating from the third quarter of the 5th century BC. It is grotesque that we should be able to see the originals in the British museum while visitors to the Acropolis museum must make do with plaster copies. The British Government would do a great service internationally if they made the gesture of offering to return the Elgin marbles to Athens.

I ask those who bang a jingoistic drum to consider hypothetically what would be their reaction if Nelson's column had been removed from London by an invader and was displayed elsewhere--and I wonder how the Americans would feel if the statue of liberty had been similarly removed.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North) : Would the hon. Gentleman return only the Elgin marbles?

Mr. O'Hara : I used them as a specific example, in response to the remarks of the hon. Member for Twickenham. I referred to objects that transcend normal considerations, and the Elgin marbles fall into that category.

I welcome the regulations as far as they go. I mentioned the damage done to scholarship if objects are looted and sold on the black market without provenance. Collectors share in that damage to scholarship.

The House will be aware of the controversy surrounding the Ortiz collection on display in the royal academy. I know, from what has been broadcast and published, that that exhibition presents many beautiful objects--but many shown in the catalogue are without provenance. They may speak to us directly with their beauty, but there is so much that they do not tell because they are displayed in relative isolation from their historical and cultural context. The more they say directly to the practised artistic or archaeological eye, the greater the frustration at what they could say, if only their provenance were known.

We should welcome the regulations in that they go some way towards protecting the cultural heritage of

Column 737

member states and international scholarship. They rightly include compensation where it is due, and rightly also offer a salutary deterrent to wanton looting and collection--without which the looters' market fails. I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on- Trent, Central the hope that the Government will go further down that road, but we can applaud the first faltering steps that the regulations take.

9.3 pm

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) made a thoughtful speech, and I can associate myself with many of his remarks. We all agree that the proposals are modest, but they put down a marker in more ways than one.

There is universal condemnation of those who, without regard to context and true ownership, rob, pillage and sell cultural objects and view them merely as money. That is deeply to be deplored. Commercialism has done great damage in many walks of life and certainly has not over the years enhanced many people's artistic appreciation. There cannot be a single hon. Member who would not wish to deal vigorously with those who rob ancient sites, English churches or any other historic setting of its objects.

Rightly, Madam Deputy Speaker, you called the hon. Member for Knowsley, South to task when he strayed a little beyond the bounds of the European Union. Briefly, if I may, I shall make a couple of comments. I was indeed with the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in Czechoslovakia with the all-party heritage group a few years ago. We were deeply dismayed at the way in which churches especially, but many other historic buildings, had been robbed and desecrated by those who had regard only for the monetary value that the objects could obtain.

In a European Union context, we were told that most of those objects were finding their way on to the international market through Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom. Anything that can curtail that must be good. We all want to congratulate the Minister and Her Majesty's Government on recognising in legislative form that that must be tackled.

Of course, that is only a small beginning. Later in the parliamentary Session I shall present a Bill on market ouvert that has now completed all its stages in the House of Lords. There are a number of markets in the country, of which Bermondsey is one, where, when an object is bought, the title automatically passes to the purchaser.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : It depends on the hour.

Mr. Cormack : Most people who go there to buy

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : It depends on the hour.

Mr. Cormack : Would the hon. Lady contain herself? I know that it is difficult--

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Not all day--

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that I deplore seated interventions.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Will the hon. Member give way?

Column 738

Mr. Cormack : Oh, all right.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I was simply making the legal point that it is crucial that the transaction is done between the hours of daylight and sunset. Otherwise it does not transfer the title. I was not seeking to criticise the hon. Member, but simply trying to make the point absolutely clear.

Mr. Cormack : Of course, that is an extremely helpful intervention. For most of most days, when whatever object is sold at Bermondsey or at a number of other markets in the country which benefit from the same medieval exceptions, the title passes to the purchaser. However innocent the purchaser may be--like a lot of innocent purchasers, I bought a number of my Christmas presents there in the past year--and however honourable the people are who go to such markets, it is nevertheless clear that they are a channel for stolen goods from the United Kingdom and beyond.

If the Government are determined to build on the foundation stone of the motion, they must pass as quickly as possible the Bill introduced by the noble Lord Renton in another place. The Bill is necessary to deal not with the market, which is a most delightful institution where I am sure every hon. Member would like to go, but with the loophole to which I have referred.

I wish to be brief because other hon. Members want to speak, and will pass to the other subject which has cropped up in almost every speech--great national treasures. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South said that he would not wish to empty the great museums of the world, if I may paraphrase him. We would all agree, because art is universal and its message is universal. Anyone in France who does not have the opportunity to learn about the art of Flanders or Italy, or to see African sculpture at its best, or to be able to consider some of the extraordinary creations from Polynesia is impoverished. The same applies to people in this country who do not have similar opportunities.

I agree that some objects are so tremendously important, so integral to the context in which they were created, that they fall into a different category. I confess that in the past, whenever the Elgin, or Parthenon, marbles were mentioned, I fell back on the orthodox defence. Repatriating the Elgin marbles would open the floodgates : what would happen to all the treasures in Apsley house that were gathered by the Duke of Wellington, and all the pictures in the national gallery that were obtained by various means? I have rehearsed my arguments parrot fashion--and, indeed, believed them ; but I have begun to have second thoughts.

Politicians must be prepared to examine long-held beliefs critically, and-- sometimes--to admit that they may have been wrong. I am not attacking Lord Elgin : it is clear that he acquired the marbles legitimately, and paid for them. It is equally clear that they are beautifully displayed and magnificently cared for in the British museum, and that they are seen by millions of people. It would be cussed and contrary to send them back to Greece without a guarantee that they would be seen in equally advantageous conditions, conserved in the same manner and looked after properly.

Times change, however. It is beyond doubt that even to have contemplated the return of the Elgin marbles before or during the 1960s would have been entirely wrong, but

Column 739

I now believe--I say this with some hesitation--that perhaps the matter should be reconsidered. I certainly think that the marbles fall into the supreme category referred to by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South. I also think that there is a strong case for saying that such magnificent--no, that word is not sufficient to describe them ; these supreme--objects of European culture, which really set the tone for civilisation in our continent, should perhaps be where the ruined but noble Parthenon still stands.

I had the great good fortune to take a party of colleagues to Greece last year, in the company of the hon. Member for Linlithgow. We were not lobbied on the subject of the marbles--no one sought to make any case to us--but, looking at the Parthenon and being bowled over by it, I could not help wondering whether the time had come for us to consider returning them. I am not being dogmatic ; I am not saying that we should not keep them in any cirumstances. Certainly no one in this country has any reason to be other than proud of the way in which they are conserved and displayed by the British museum.

Mr. Jessel : I am sure that I do not need to remind my hon. Friend that the Greeks would have no intention of putting the Elgin marbles back on top of the Parthenon where they originally belonged but would instead put them in a museum in another part of Athens.

Mr. Cormack : Not in another part of Athens but hard by the Parthenon. I do not dispute that, but if the west front of Wells cathedral were in a museum in Malibu, or if the west front of Lincoln cathedral were in a museum in Germany, we might suggest that it would be better if those great carvings were brought back and displayed close to their original setting. That is all that I am saying. If one has second thoughts, I believe that one should express them to the House.

I have been slightly led astray by interventions, but I conclude as I began, by saying that this is a modest proposal and one that I warmly welcome. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on the way in which he introduced it, and I am delighted to learn that the Opposition will not press the motion to a Division.

9.15 pm

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) : I had not intended to speak, but the comments of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) aroused my anger. He said that, if artefacts were returned to their country of origin, the number of visitors and the income that they bring to this country would disappear. Perhaps the countries from which the artefacts came should receive that income instead of us.

He also said that some countries are not as conscientious as we are in the preservation of some works of art. I do not know much about European artefacts, but I know that a number of African objects currently in the British museum and elsewhere were made to fade away. They are religious artefacts and were supposed to turn to dust. By preserving them we are acting against the religious convictions of the people who created them, a matter that should be taken into account.

The regulations are to be welcomed. I hope that they set a precedent in terms of international co-operation. Some artefacts have been stolen or acquired in very strange ways by British collectors, the British museum and other institutions. Some were stolen from Africa during the

Column 740

period of enslavement and colonisation. For example, the Ghanaians had to hide the sacred Ashanti stool from the invaders in case it was stolen and brought to this country ; several obelisks are being kept here against the will of their owners in Africa ; and the ivory mask of the Ino of Ife, which is a sacred object from Nigeria, is being held by the British museum which refuses to return it. I was once told that the nose of the Sphinx was in the British museum, so I contacted the curator who said that the museum did not have the nose but had part of the beard. I am sure that the Egyptians would like to display it and benefit from the revenue from students and those wishing to study it.

Dr. Spink : Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the British museum has been a party to any illegality.

Mr. Grant : Far be it from me to suggest such an appalling thing, but there are those who will say that the ways in which certain articles have been acquired leave a lot to be desired. The House would do a great service to people around the world if it were to investigate the ways in which some artefacts were gathered and came to be displayed in the British museum. I also mention in passing the Crown jewels--you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be pleased to know that I do not intend to dwell on them today--and some of my favourite pieces, such as the Cullinan diamonds or the Stars of Africa, which should be returned to that country.

What is meant by "British territory" in the regulations? Would an artefact that had been taken away from a Caribbean dependent territory such an Anguilla qualify to be returned? This is an important subject and it creates a lot of anger and emotion, certainly among people of African origin. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to have a wider debate on the issue which is not restricted only to Europe.

I thoroughly support the right of the Secretary of State to intervene and to be able to enter people's houses to chase up stolen objects. I hope that that right will apply to international objects. I hope that the regulations are merely the beginning.

9.20 pm

Mr. Fisher : With the leave of the House, I wish to make one or two remarks.

This interesting debate has tested the scope, the implementation and the likely effectiveness of the regulations. The Government have received congratulations from hon. Members on both sides of the House on introducing the regulations, but the debate has been rather like going to the dentist because it has tested the regulations, which have winced at certain points.

Will the Minister comment on how the scope of the regulations will affect British cultural treasures? The regulations may not cover much of our heritage that is in private collections or in archaeological sites because the Government do not have a designated list of national treasures. If we are to benefit from the regulations, will the Minister confirm that his Department will now set about the task of drawing up a list of national treasures? Without it, we shall not benefit and much of our heritage will not be protected by the regulations.

Will the Minister comment on how his Department will implement the regulations? He will know that only nine of

Column 741

the 52 police forces have antique liaison units. Without trained staff and officers, how will be fulfil the obligations that the regulations place on the Government?

Will the Minister comment on the effectiveness of art smuggling? He will know of press reports that works of art have been stolen from this country and have gone, via Switzerland, to France and are now on France's list of designated national treasures. That smuggling must be tackled, but it will not be unless there is much more commitment from the Government.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have paid tribute to the Government for introducing the regulations and have agreed, in the words of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, East (Mr. Cormack), that they are only a marker. Criticisms have been voiced about the Government's commitment to make them effective.

As I said earlier, the Government must implement the UNESCO treaty, UNIDROIT and the Mauritius Commonwealth convention. If they do so, they will give teeth to the regulations, which have the support of hon. Members. Severe doubts have been raised, however, about the Government's commitment to them.

9.23 pm

Mr. Sproat : Many interesting points have been made in the debate. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) was pulled up for straying a bit wide of the subject, but I hope that we shall be able to return to the important points that he and the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) made, which do not fall within my competence in this debate. So many important points were raised that I doubt whether I shall be able to do justice to all of them in the few moments remaining. I shall go through them in chronological order and if hon. Members wish to raise matters for me to deal with in correspondence I shall gladly do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) asked me how many requests had been made for the return of objects that had been here since 1993. I can tell him that no such requests have been made so far.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) launched an attack on the Government's case--rather, he said that, if there was a weakness in it, it was that we did not have any commitment to the measure. I can certainly assure him that we have a very real commitment to it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned various other bodies, which I cannot really go into in great detail here. They included UNESCO, UNIDROIT and others. At some stage, we may have a

Column 742

debate on the whole question of cultural objects from around the world and what we should do about an object that unlawfully finds its way on to the New York market, but such matters are unfortunately not within the competence of this debate.

We do not agree with a number of central aspects of what UNESCO has suggested and do not therefore seek to incorporate them into the regime that we propose to establish. For example, UNESCO would like a specific certificate for every single cultural object. We believe that that would create an appalling bureaucractic nightmare and thus render the whole exercise totally impracticable.

Of course we are dedicated to ensuring that only lawfully exported goods find their way out of the country where they lawfully are into another, but there are ways and ways of doing that, and we believe that the regulations represent the best practical way and certainly the best compromise that we could find. It is entirely wrong to think that we are sceptical about the regulations. That is truly not so. We are extremely keen to make them succeed. We shall review their success in 1995-96. We will return to all these matters and see whether the regulations have done what we want them to do and, if not, how they can be improved.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central asked me a straightforward and fair question about whether we would take on any new staff. The answer is that we do not think that we shall have to. We have taken on two new staff already so that applications for export licences can be dealt with as quickly in the future as they have in the past. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question really depends on the amount of work arising from the regulations. Clearly, if we receive an absolute flood of requests from other EC member states saying, "Please follow up what we believe is an unlawfully exported object," more staff may be required, but our present view is that extra staff will not be needed.

Let me make it clear that we are not talking about objects that have been stolen, which rightly have to be dealt with and already can be dealt with through the courts. We are talking about objects that are unlawfully exported because they do not carry an export licence. An hon. Member might own an object perfectly legally and want to sell it in Rome. If he did not get an export licence--

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion , Madam Deputy Speaker-- proceeded to put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of them, pursuant to order [11 February].

Question agreed to.


That the draft Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 15th December, be approved.

Column 743

Housing Support Grant (Scotland)

9.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : I beg to move

That the draft Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 25th January, be approved.

I propose to keep my opening remarks brief. This is the seventh successive annual housing support grant order that I have laid before the House. Hon. Members will by now be familiar with the housing support grant system, but it may be helpful if I remind the House that housing support grant is a deficit subsidy paid to local authorities that, on the basis of reasonable assumptions about income and expenditure, would otherwise be unable to meet the costs of council housing from their rental income.

Full details of the grant settlement for the next financial year are set out in the order and the accompanying report. As always, I wish to express my thanks to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, with whom the grant settlement was discussed. Although the convention has reservations about certain aspects of the settlement, I am grateful for the constructive and helpful approach that it takes in our annual discussions on these matters. The draft order provides that the total grant payable next year will be £25.7 million. Broadly speaking, that sum represents the difference between the eligible expenditure and the relevant income of the authorities that, in the absence of grant, would have a deficit on their housing revenue accounts. Eligible expenditure consists mainly of loan charges and of management and maintenance spending. The loan charges that we estimate local housing authorities will have to meet next year are, as usual, based on a projection of each authority's capital debt to the mid point of the financial year, taking account of new borrowing and debt redemption.

To calculate interest charges, we applied to those projections of capital debt the pool interest rate expected for the local authority debt next year. Our present estimate of that rate is 9.2 per cent. Interest rates may fluctuate, however, and I can assure the House that, if there is a significant change in the estimate of the pool rate, the Government will, in line with usual practice, introduce an appropriate variation order to adjust the amounts of grant payable. For the moment, our estimate of total loan charges to be met from local authority housing revenue accounts amounts to £494 million. The other main item of eligible expenditure is that on the management and maintenance of housing stock. Our estimate of eligible management and maintenance spending in 1994-95 is based on an assumed average spending level of £696 per house. That represents a 15 per cent. increase over the equivalent average for the current year. Although that is a generous increase, I consider it justified by the additional demands being placed on local authorities' housing management services, particularly as a result of the tenants charter. I would add that it is further evidence of the commitment of the Scottish Office to the maintenance of the physical condition of Scotland's housing stock.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : In relation to the housing support grant that is given for the repair and building of hostels, what guidelines has the Minister issued to local authorities in

Column 744

terms of the need to participate, to consult and have discussions with those who run and manage hostels? Will he ensure that those who run hostels have the right to determine or be involved in the way in which the money is spent?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman is taking me slightly out of sequence. I am coming to that point. I am glad to say that some 20 district councils receive housing support grant for the hostels portion. The sum this year has gone up considerably as a result to £2,066,339, which is a substantial increase. I genuinely believe that local authorities are fully aware of the possibilities in that connection and it represents an indication of the co-operation between authorities and the Scottish Office. On the other side of the equation--the estimated relevant income--the assumed average standard rent for next year has been set at £34.86 per house per week. I stress that that figure is not a forecast, guideline or recommendation. It is the average rent which, for the purposes of the grant calculations, we consider that the authorities should reasonably be expected to achieve. The actual rents charged by authorities may be higher or lower, according to their own decisions about income and expenditure.

I shall discuss the implications of the subsidy settlement for actual rents in a moment. Before doing so, I should mention the hostels portion of the housing support grant, on which we touched a moment ago. Since we decided three years ago to extend the hostels grant to all authorities with hostels, rather than limiting it to authorities that qualified on the basis of their housing revenue accounts as a whole, there has, as I mentioned, been a welcome increase in the number of hostel places made available by authorities from 1,796 in 1990 to 2,126 in 1993.

As I mentioned, the amount of grant has increased from £1.3 million to more than £2 million next year. I recognise, of course, that hostels are far from being the complete answer to homelessness, but I believe that they make a significant contribution to dealing with the single homeless. I am pleased that the partnership between the Scottish Office and local authorities in this area is definitely producing worthwhile results.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : Is the Minister suggesting that any Scottish housing authority that applies for a hostels grant is likely to get it? The need for hostels for the homeless is widespread throughout Scotland and is not confined to local authorities that happen to have been given a grant this year.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Authorities have received a hostels grant in response to representations. There is one case within my knowledge in which the costs were far greater than was the case for the rest of Scotland. As the costs were considered excessive, the grant was not allowed. In general, authorities that are eligible and apply get the grant.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : Is the Minister aware of Landsborough house in Ayr, which is provided by Kyle and Carrick district council? It was named in honour of a former councillor, the late James Landsborough, and is an excellent provision for the single homeless in Ayr. Is the Minister also aware that, due to the lack of foresight and to the inept planning of

Column 745

Tory-controlled Kyle and Carrick district council, that newly equipped hostel will have to be knocked down? Is not that completely ridiculous and a waste of public expenditure? Will the Minister tell us exactly how he will deal with that in relation to the expenditure that will be required to replace Landsborough house and to provide sufficient alternative accommodation?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Kyle and Carrick district council is receiving the hostels portion housing support grant of £50,032, if I have read the order correctly. The priorities chosen by the council are a matter for it. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the details, because I have not been directly involved and it would not be appropriate for the Scottish Office to be involved in choosing local priorities, which should more properly be a matter for local democracy. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I am prepared to look into that point. Perhaps he will give me a note of the circumstances. I shall, of course, reply to him fully.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : The Minister said that there would be about 2,000 places for the homeless in hostels. What is the current level of homelessness in Scotland in terms of individuals registered as homeless with local authorities?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The numbers of homeless people have increased. Two thirds of the applicants have given as the immediate cause of homelessness the fact that their family or friends are no longer willing or able to accommodate them. Shelter's figures show a 15 per cent. increase in homelessness. The Government have seen the figures. As Shelter has said, most of the increase related to Glasgow and at least part of the increase seems to be due to under-counting in previous years rather than to a real increase in 1992-93. Scottish Office statisticians have discussed the figures for Glasgow with a view to publishing more accurate estimates shortly. In my winding-up speech, I shall give the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) our best estimate of the numbert benefits all tenants regardless of their circumstances, and it is unnecessary because tenants who are unable to meet the costs of their housing receive assistance in the form of housing benefit. Therefore, I make no apoligy for the proposals in the Housing Revenue Account General Fund Contribution Limits (Scotland) Order 1994 to bar authorities from budgeting to make general fund contributions next year.

Authorities were consulted individually about these proposals and only nine of them saw fit to make representations on the matter. I have examined those representations carefully and concluded that none of them presents a case that is strong enough to justify allowing them to make a general fund contribution.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) : When the Government previously allocated funds to the homeless in Renfrew district, the council was allowed to buy four houses in the private sector. When the local folk complained about that, the information that they received from the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), the Under-Secretary, was that the district council

Column 746

could have used the money to improve flats. When Renfrew district council received the money, what information did it receive about how to spend the money--whether it could be used to refurbish council flats for the homeless or whether the council was forced to buy private houses?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : We issued a special allocation of more than £20 million for special projects. The hon. Gentleman may have a point in saying that it could have been done better. An enormous amount has been achieved throughout Scotland as a result of those special projects, and that is the view of Shelter as well. We are learning all the time. If the hon. Gentleman has recommendations to make, they will be taken into account in the future.

Mr. Graham rose--

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I am tempted to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to develop this point.

The effect of the subsidy proposals on authority rent levels will vary. Decisions on such rent levels are a matter for authorities, but I accept that some of them will be influenced by the levels of subsidies. We should not, however, exaggerate the extent of that influence.

A large majority of authorities in Scotland do not receive housing support grant in respect of their mainstream council housing or make general fund contributions. Clearly, the subsidy proposals will have no impact on the rent decisions of those authorities. For the 17 authorities that currently receive grant in respect of their council housing, the effect of the change in the level of grant from this year to next will vary. In most cases, the grant is a relatively minor component of housing revenue grant income and the impact of the change in grant levels is likely to be outweighed by the decisions of authorities on such matters as management and maintenance spending.

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn) : The Minister will know that many tenants who are on co-operative or district council waiting lists are offered community-based housing association properties. Is he concerned that many of the community-based housing associations where tenants find housing are facing rent increases of 30, 40 or 50 per cent? Surely he should be concerned about what is happening in that area, because hardship is being created.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Many of those matters must be discussed at the local level. Certainly, the levels of housing association grant in Scotland are on average higher than those south of the border. The purpose of that is to ensure that housing associations continue to cater for their traditional clients. The amount of housing benefit that will be paid this year is likely to be more than £750 million. Of that amount, it is estimated that more than £500 million is likely to be paid to local authority tenants--and paid by the Department of Social Security to local authorities. That is a significant factor in relation to rents. As I have made clear, decisions on council rents are matters for local authorities, and the Government's influence on those decisions is limited. Nevertheless, it has become a tradition--

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) rose--

Next Section

  Home Page