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Column 1088tenant-borne expenditure and has reduced employee costs by more than £1 million, yet still managed to increase spending on repairs in real terms.
In addition, other services are being improved. The multi-storey flat concierge service will be expanded to benefit a further 3,000 homes next year. As a Member who has 13 blocks of multi-storey flats in his constituency, I warmly welcome that, because where the system already exists it is popular and cost-effective. Tenants feel safer, especially the frail and the elderly, and vandalism is reduced. It is hoped that the housing alarms service can be made available to a further 3,300 tenants next year. Again, that is a popular and essential service, providing additional security.
Unfortunately, much remains to be done, for example, the 1,000 sub-standard Winget houses in Carntyne, in Glasgow's east end. I must express my gratitude to the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, who accepted my invitation to visit those houses 18 months ago, and especially for his subsequent decision to make an additional £250,000 available for a pilot scheme to see what could be done. Perhaps he will consider extending his contribution and thus allow the pilot scheme to cover more houses than it presently does.
I must tell the Minister, however, that only last week a tenant of one of the houses that he visited--an elderly widow--came to see me at my weekly surgery, and she was in some distress. She is no further forward than she was five years ago. Her roof and windows still let in rain water and her front door has gaps all around it. She cannot heat her house adequately. It is continually freezing, and one can see that old lady's health deteriorating as each month goes by. It is sad to say, but there are far too many similar cases throughout Scotland.
Why will not the Government accept that there is genuinely a serious problem in far too many houses and do something other than make the position worse by making further cuts? People are dying before they should because of the inhospitable housing conditions in which they are forced to live. The scale of Glasgow's problems is far greater than anywhere else and should be recognised accordingly. Glasgow district council is trying its best; the Government are not. Let me say a little about the revenue support grant. Do the Government not realise the scale of the crisis facing Strathclyde regional council, which estimates a shortfall of £115 million in grant-aided expenditure, as well as this year's deficit of just over £20 million because the Government would not make any allocation for wage awards to council staff? Just to maintain the current levels of service while remaining within the Government's capping limits, the council would have to cut next year's expenditure by £107 million and raise the council tax by 25 per cent.--all because the Government have shifted the burden from the national Exchequer to local council tax payers. That is just because the Government want to build up an election treasure chest, allowing them to announce a giveaway Budget next year in a blatant attempt to bribe the electorate to re-elect them. It will be a failed effort, because you cannot fool all the people all the time.
A cut of £107 million means an across-the-board reduction of more than 5 per cent., and that could mean the loss of 5,500 jobs. There could be fewer police, firefighters and home helps. Some residential homes, police offices, fire stations and outdoor centres for
Column 1089youngsters could be threatened with closure. Grants to voluntary and cultural organisations are at risk; fees and charges for services will almost certainly increase substantially. All in all, the situation is very depressing and worrying.
Like many other hon. Members, I am receiving pleas from constituents regarding the possible closure of Ad-Tec, a Strathclyde regional council project, as a result of the cuts. Ad-Tec provides courses for people with learning difficulties and physical disabilities. The training that it gives enables such people to find employment. A constituent wrote to me:
"I am 24 years old and I go to Ad-Tec four days per week. I have a Learning Disability and was shocked to find out that Ad-Tec may have to close due to the budget cuts . . . Ad-Tec offers us training in clerical skills but more importantly assists us in our search for work. At Ad-Tec we do things like typing, computing, filing, word-processing, communication, literacy, and advocacy. I would like to have a Job when I am finished at Ad-Tec."
Vulnerable people like that constituent are most at risk and will suffer most as a result of the cuts. Are there no limits to the Government's lack of compassion or humanity?
The orders only make a bad situation worse. The only welcome order would be the order of the boot for this Tory Government--and the one bit of good news is that it will come at the next general election. 9.27 pm
Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South): I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends who have spoken briefly; I intend to speak briefly as well to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm), if he is lucky enough to catch your eye.
I do not wish to repeat all the points that have been made about rent rises, and the fundamental housing issue--that everyone has the right to a warm, dry and comfortable home. Those points have been made forcefully by my hon. Friends, and I shall simply associate myself with what they have said. I shall concentrate on a couple of specific points.
The Minister would be surprised if I did not mention floods, and it would be churlish of me not to place on record that the Minister recently awarded an additional borrowing consent of £2 million to Renfrew district council. Local Members of Parliament are very grateful for that, because it will allow us to start clearing up the aftermath of the floods. However, we now need to know exactly what will be provided to finance that additional borrowing. Everyone in Renfrew district knows that not a brass farthing of new money was provided; although an additional borrowing consent was provided, the debt must be serviced and the mortgage paid in future years. When I met the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) during what turned out to be his last few days as a Minister, he gave me a verbal assurance that there was a formula called top-slicing--an unfortunate phrase, given the source of the assurance--which would build money into the local authority's revenue side in future years to service the debt. He followed that up with a letter dealing with future revenue support grant, and he explained the principle of top-slicing, but no such assurance has yet been given on housing. I ask the Minister to give that assurance either tonight or by way of a letter after the debate.
Column 1090Flood prevention is the issue that exercises the minds of my constituents who were flood victims. As they begin to move back into their homes that were devastated by the floods, they need to have an assurance that those floods, or anything like them, cannot happen again. That is why I have presented the Natural Disasters (Scotland) Bill to the House. It tries to make someone responsible for flood prevention in Scotland because, at the moment, no one is. Local authorities have a permissive power to apply for additional moneys for flood prevention, but they need not use it; indeed, the Secretary of State need not fund any application.
There are opportunities in that Bill. They will arise again when the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency Bill comes from the other place. I ask the Minister seriously to consider what can be done to assure the people whose homes have been devastated that there will be flood prevention, because they are now buying new furniture and trying to rebuild their lives.
Every Opposition Member supports that Bill, so at least 62 of Scotland's 72 Members of Parliament support it. I have laid a motion before the House to refer the Bill to the Scottish Grand Committee for its Second Reading. On Friday this week, if the Government do not object, that Bill can proceed to the Scottish Grand Committee, where I will happily accept Government amendments if they feel that there are any problems.
I have not given the Minister warning of my next point, so it would be unreasonable to expect detailed replies tonight, but I urge him to consider it. I am in a position to accuse Scottish Homes and its board of, at best, gross incompetence and, at worst, criminal negligence over the case of Waverley court in Paisley. Six years ago, the local management of Scottish Homes decided that it would empty a 56-flat multi-storey block in my constituency. I would have called it a clearance; it called it a diversification of tenure. It decided to empty that multi-storey block and to sell it to the private sector. Six years later, that multi-storey block of 56 flats remains empty. The reason is that Scottish Homes, in its incompetence, emptied the block before checking that its proposal for redevelopment could happen. It proposed to empty the block and convert it into cheap homes for first-time buyers. Once it had emptied it, it found that no mortgage lender in the land would give a mortgage for such a block. It has been to see housing associations to ask whether they will consider the matter.
I have met Scottish Homes management locally. No housing association wants anything to with that block of flats. It was built only 20 or 30 years ago, yet it stands idle. The Minister has stood at that Dispatch Box before and criticised local authorities for empty housing stock. The number of empty houses in Renfrew district council is lower than not only the national average for councils, but the national average for the private sector. The district council has turned the general situation around, but Waverley court is still a problem. I have here a letter from
Column 1091Mr. John McPherson from the Oliphant Oval in Paisley. I know him well; he is a good man who works hard for the community. He writes: "Are Scottish Homes so well off that they can ignore lost revenue in this block of flats for six years? Just how much revenue has been lost over the six year period this building has lay empty?" His questions deserve to be answered.
I deal finally with the non-housing aspects of the orders. To illustrate the orders' impact I cite the case of a couple to whom I spoke only last week. The husband works for Strathclyde's community education department and the wife also works for the council--she heads a unit that promotes understanding between European member states, a project encouraged by the Scottish Office. They now find themselves working for departments at the head of the hit list. David and Edna Paterson are good people. Does the Minister think it right that Members of the Treasury Bench and Conservative Back Benchers boast that people who have such a valuable contribution to make are losing their jobs?
There is one aspect of the orders that Ministers have not considered. When local government jobs start to go in the Greater Renfrewshire area, the constituency of Eastwood will be affected every bit as much as mine. I know from when I was a councillor that when local government workers leave their place of work in Paisley they do not return home to some housing estate or peripheral housing scheme but to Newton Mearns and Giffnock. The impact of job losses in local government will be a matter of political regret for the Conservative party.
I still keep on my desk a handy copy of the book written by Nicholas Ridley, and there is no doubt that the Government still see councils as enablers, not providers. The Government want them to meet once or twice a year, have dinner and award contracts but not get involved in the problems of the people whom they represent. 9.36 pm
Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) for being brief, to allow me to speak about Edinburgh district and Lothian region. I wish to make three points about housing in Edinburgh. First, for years Edinburgh district has not received any housing support grant for council housing. I make my annual complaint, but the result is that rents will have to go up by £1.85 to cover increased interest rates and inflation.
Secondly, the housing support grant for hostels for the homeless in Edinburgh is being cut by £111,000, or 20 per cent. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for housing--the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)--can explain that remarkable cut.
Thirdly, the capital allocation for Edinburgh is being cut by £1 million to £32 million. There is also a strange change. Whereas, before Christmas, the receipts from council houses were said to be going to realise £12.5 million, we are now told that they could realise £13.5 million. I think that the first figure is more accurate, which probably means that in practice we have a £2 million cut in capital allocation for Edinburgh district.
Column 1092In Lothian region, the problem is that the cap has been set very tight. This year, Lothian region is allowed to spend £596 million and, next year, it will be allowed to spend £600 million. By no stretch of the imagination can £4 million be said to cover inflation, for which £9 million must be allowed; pay increases, for which £17 million must be allowed; and other unavoidable expenditure, which I do not have time to list in detail.
An additional problem to which I draw the Minister's attention is that school rolls in Lothian will be increasing in August by, I am told, 1,400 pupils in primary schools and 1,100 pupils in secondary schools. An extra 130 teachers should therefore be employed, which would mean that from August an extra £3 million has to be found. I should like to hear the Minister's suggestions on how Lothian region's problem can be solved. I expect that we shall hear something about efficiency savings, but what does the Minister mean by that? Does he mean that we must have fewer teachers, larger classes and additional charges for school meals or for meals on wheels for elderly people, or a combination of all those? The Government should deal with that problem.
The amount of aggregate external finance has gone down even in cash terms, once community care transfers are taken into account. From April, it will represent 86.4 per cent. of Government-supported expenditure, whereas this year it represents 87.4 per cent. The Government must do something about the crisis facing Lothian region. They are unlikely to do anything because they do not have the money, having had to pay the costs of economic failure. Moreover, they are storing up money for tax cuts next year.
As I said in the Grand Committee, why not does the Minister put the needs of the children and the elderly of Lothian region before the Government's mad dash for next year's tax bribes?
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East): We have had a good debate, but it would be fair to say that it has been predictable, with Labour Members universally condemning the housing and local government finance settlements that the Secretary of State introduced. Conservative Members who bothered to speak on the Government's behalf weakly tried to defend what cannot be defended in a democratic Chamber.
I suppose that the fact that Opposition Members represent 61 of Scotland's 72 seats and 75 per cent. of all those who voted in the last general election in Scotland shows that we reflect the overwhelming view of the Scottish people on the settlement. If we lived in a real democracy, all the orders before the House tonight would be defeated because those affected by them voted for hon. Members who want to see them defeated. Unfortunately, however, we do not live in a real democracy in Scotland, so we shall have the fiction of a Government majority voting on the orders when every man, woman and child in Scotland opposes them.
Some of the best contributions to the debate have come from my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams) and for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm), all of whose vast experience on housing matters was shown in their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow,
Column 1093Provan (Mr. Wray) reminded us what housing was like in Scotland before council housing was widely available. Rat- infested slums were thrown up by private sector landlords. I lived in one such slum in Springburn and, like all my hon. Friends, can remember the poor housing conditions in the private sector in Scotland which directly affected the health of working-class people. Infant mortality rates were much higher, tuberculosis affected people's chances of survival and working -class people in general lived for a much shorter time than those who lived in better circumstances and better housing. The contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Provan was timely, given that only last week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report showing that, once again, huge inequalities are beginning to develop in our country and working-class people are again at risk as their health begins to be affected by the poor housing conditions that have resulted from Government policies.
It is because we do not want to return to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that we care about the housing settlement. It is because we do not want to return to those bad times that my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) rightly described this as the most savage housing settlement in years.
Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: May I pose the same question as I posed to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), which he deliberately did not answer? If the settlement is inadequate, by how much is it inadequate? If the hon. Gentleman were a Minister now, on what settlement would he ask the House to vote?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton also said, rightly, that the price that has been paid for the settlement will be paid mainly by council tenants. That remark was met by guffaws from Conservative Members, but the point was confirmed by the opening statement in the Secretary of State's speech, when he said that the Government were assuming, in the housing settlement, a notional rent of more than £37 a week. The Secretary of State knows that actual rent levels in Scotland are much lower than that. The Government are assuming income for local authorities which they will not receive. He is denying them the housing support grant that they deserve if we take into consideration the actual rent levels charged in Scotland rather than the notional ones which the right hon. Gentleman assumes in his housing settlement.
If we take the Secretary of State's own area, Nithsdale district council in his constituency, the actual rent is £25.72 a week. If his council were to meet the notional rent level that he assumes, it would have to put rents up by £12 a week, or 50 per cent. Perhaps the local Member has recommended that the council should do that, because he assumes that it has done it anyway. In fact, to take an even better example, Eastwood--the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who is normally present at such debates, is not here--would have to increase rents by £15 a week. What do Conservative Members want? Do they want their local councils to charge current rent levels or do they want them to charge those rents that they assume will be charged, according to the housing settlement? They cannot have it both ways. If they are going to preach in the House that councils should charge rents of £37 a week, they had better go back to their constituencies and
Column 1094preach the same. I suspect that none of them would do that, because they would be frightened of what would happen to them in terms of votes in their constituencies if they made such an absurd suggestion.
The COSLA brief, which was made available to all hon. Members, pointed out that, in the past 14 years, the Government, by reducing housing support grant and revenue fund contributions, have withdrawn about £2 billion of support for council housing in Scotland. We all know the consequences of the withdrawal of that massive subsidy, because we have seen rents rocket by almost 500 per cent., tenants in their tens of thousands forced on to housing benefit and the housing benefit bill rocket.
It really surprises me that Conservative Members force council tenants on to housing benefit. They have impoverished those tenants by forcing them into dependence on housing benefit and then expect those tenants to be thankful for that. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) seemed to think that it was a blessing to receive housing benefit. He should go back to his constituents and ask them whether they like getting housing benefit. They do not; they would like to be able to afford the rents charged by local authorities.
Mr. Bill Walker: The hon. Gentleman should visit Limlathem, which was the first place to introduce the equivalent of housing benefit. My parents were delighted. I would also be delighted today to see people being properly recompensed through rents and living in houses free from damp and subject to adequate supervision.
As the housing benefit bill has rocketed in Scotland, one of the strangest things to note inside the Tory Cabinet is how the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is almost pulling his hair out as he wonders why that bill has rocketed. He seems to be puzzled by that. He does not understand it. The answer is that the housing benefit bill is high because the Government's housing policy makes it high. That policy has forced councils to set rent at levels that council tenants cannot afford. Therefore, the Government have only themselves to blame for the spiralling housing benefit bill. If they truly want to reduce that bill, the best thing they could do would be to resign en masse and let someone who knew how to run housing policy take it over.
I compare the withdrawal of subsidy from council housing under the Government with their parallel injection of subsidy into non-council housing, particularly through Scottish Homes. We cannot discuss the policies of Scottish Homes in the past 14 years because, thankfully, it has existed only since 1989-90. What might have happened if it had existed since 1979? God help us.
Since 1989-90, Scottish Homes, through its various programmes to enable development and investment, has channelled £1,529 million of subsidy into housing associations, co-operatives, grants for rent and ownership for private developers and other low-cost home ownership schemes. On the one hand, the Government have withdrawn general housing subsidies for council tenants while, on the other, they have increased general housing subsidies for non-council tenants and other home owners. Why is that?
Column 1095Last year, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for housing, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), was challenged on why he was cutting housing support grant and general fund contributions to council tenants. He said it was because
"This sort of subsidy is indiscriminate because it benefits all tenants regardless of their circumstances".--[ Official Report , 14 February 1994; Vol. 237, c. 745.]
That is why he is withdrawing general subsidies to council tenants.
Let us apply the same logic to the Government subsidies that are paid through Scottish Homes. Are they indiscriminate, and do they benefit all, regardless of their circumstances? Let us take housing association grant, which is the main subsidy paid to housing associations. Of course the answer is yes, it is indiscriminate; yes, it does benefit all housing association tenants, regardless of their circumstances. Let us take grants for rent and ownership, which are paid to private developers to bring down the cost of new housing to first-time buyers. Yes, they are indiscriminate; yes, they benefit all, regardless of their circumstances.
Why are indiscriminate subsidies outlawed for council tenants when indiscriminate subsidies are increased for non-council tenants and householders? We need to know the answer. Why is it okay to subsidise non- council tenants but not okay to subsidise council tenants? If the Minister does not have an answer to that question in his speech, he had better think of one before 9.55 pm, because many people in Scotland will be waiting to hear why the Conservative Government discriminate against council tenants in Scotland, and we need to know the answer.
The answer cannot be that there are so few council tenants in Scotland that they do not count, because, according to the Government's figures, there are 12 times as many council tenants in Scotland as there are housing association tenants. If all the council housing, the new town housing, the Scottish Homes housing and the housing association housing are taken together, council house tenants represent 83 per cent. of the total. That is overwhelmingly the dominant type of renting in Scotland.
There are more council tenants in Scotland than any other type of tenant, so the question must be, why do so many people receive so little from the Government when so few people receive so much? We all need to know the answer to that question.
The housing support grant that is paid by the Government goes to the housing revenue account, which, in turn, helps to pay the outstanding capital debt owed by the councils in Scotland. I want to ask the Minister a specific question about a capital grant that was paid to Scottish Homes in 1992-93. It received £250,139,000 to repay a national loan fund debt on its housing.
According to the 48th report of the Committee of Public Accounts, which, the Minister will remember, conducted an inquiry into the sale of houses by Scottish Homes to Waverley Housing, the Department told the Committee that that payment of £250 million was in recognition of the houses that had been transferred out of Scottish Homes' ownership. The Department said that there was a danger that Scottish Homes might find itself responsible for servicing outstanding capital debt on
Column 1096houses that it no longer owned. Therefore, £250 million was paid to Scottish Homes so that it could redeem the outstanding capital debt on the houses that it had lost.
That is all very well. Scottish Homes had lost 30,000 houses at that stage to other forms of ownership, but councils in Scotland have lost about 260,000 houses to other forms of ownership. Where is the equivalent capital grant, which would be in excess of £2 billion, to local authorities in Scotland to help them to redeem outstanding capital debts? The Minister, who will have to answer that question, should think about it. The Government have given £250 million to Scottish Homes at a time when they deny more than £2 billion to local authority government in Scotland.
It is a matter of the way in which we distribute the purse between different forms of tenure. We would distribute it far more fairly, and that is the difference between the Opposition and the Government. We understand very well that there will always be demands on public spending, not only for housing but for health, education, social work and transport. There is never enough money to satisfy everyone, but being in government means having to learn to say no--we know that. As resources are limited, there is an absolute requirement on the Government to allocate those resources fairly, reasonably and in accordance with criteria that ensure that those in greatest need have the greatest priority in respect of the resources available. According to the Scottish housing conditions survey in 1991, public sector housing, which was mainly council housing in Scotland, needed £691 million spent on it to bring it up to what the Government describe as a reasonable standard. Housing associations required only £30 million--less than 5 per cent. of that total. According to the same housing conditions survey, dampness in council housing is twice as prevalent as dampness in housing association stock, yet last year the Government gave £280 million to housing associations, and gave only £35.9 million to council houses in Scotland.
Why, when the crying need, whatever scheme of priorities one adopts, is to invest in council housing, do the Government concentrate resources in areas other than council housing? The crunch question is not whether we will receive additional resources, but what we can do with the resources that the Government have available to them at the moment. The Government are deliberately discriminating against council housing in Scotland. Deliberate Government policy and discrimination are making it almost impossible for the vast majority of people in the rented sector to live in decent conditions. The Minister must respond to that point.
I do not have much time left to talk about the finance settlement. The Secretary of State for Scotland repeatedly asserts that Scottish local government is profligate in its expenditure and in the number of people that it employs. I have already told the Secretary of State that COSLA will fund with the Government a joint inquiry into those matters. However, the Secretary of State refuses to commission that inquiry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton is quite right: the joint staffing watch figures which were issued in December last year and which cover the position until September point out that, between 1990 and 1994, the number of local authority employees was cut by 0.8 per cent. There is the Scottish Office staffing responsibility--I refer not just to the Scottish Office core group, but to
Column 1097Scottish Office agencies such as Historic Scotland, the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency, the Scottish Office Pensions Agency, the Scottish Prison Service, the Scottish Courts Administration, the General Register Office, the Scottish Record Office and Registers of Scotland. Far from reducing the number of people in his employ, the Secretary of State has employed more staff. To be fair to him, we have not included the people who work for Scottish Homes or for the Scottish enterprise network. If they were included, the situation would be even worse. While the Secretary of State for Scotland spreads untruths about the way in which Scottish local government is profligate in the number of people that it employs, the reality is that he employs far more people and that that number is increasing at a faster rate. The truth will out eventually, despite what the Government say, because they are the facts.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton): No less than £800 million is spent on housing benefit in Scotland. It is the Government's policy to move away from generalised subsidies to target subsidies at those who need them. We anticipate that the sum will increase and that next year it may be above £900 million. They are very substantial sums and it is very easy for Labour Members to pour scorn upon the expenditure of such large amounts of money on those who need it. However, there would be massive complaints if a Labour Government ever tried to take that money away.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) raised certain constituency matters. I am glad that we were able to help with the Winget housing in his constituency. We have made certain that councils include condensation and dampness as one of the four key national priorities in their housing plans each year. Glasgow will receive £92 million to enable the council to invest substantially in improving the housing stock. Glasgow could make greater headway were it not for the fact that it lost rents to the value of £8 million through its failure to let empty houses. Reducing the number of empty houses in Glasgow will make a substantial difference, and it lies within the power of the council to do that. The hon. Gentleman should take up with Glasgow district council the matter of substantial surpluses. In two out of the past three years it has generated surpluses of more than £25 million. He could put in a strong bid for his own constituency arising out of that. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) asked about housing support grant for Edinburgh. Housing support grant is given to help with the deficits of hostels in Edinburgh and it is expected to amount to almost £441,000 next year.
This has been a wide-ranging debate--
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: No, I must move on and answer some of the other questions. We must ensure that local authority services are sufficiently provided for every man, woman and child in Scotland. I accept that the settlement is a tight one because of the need to keep inflation down. There has also been substantial growth in
Column 1098expenditure and manpower in Scottish local government. For example, between 1987 and 1994 the number of full-time equivalent staff in Scotland's local authorities increased by almost 6 per cent. In the same period, staffing levels in English authorities decreased by more than 6 per cent. In the year to June 1994 Scottish local authority manpower increased by almost 1 per cent. whereas in England there was a fall of almost 2 per cent. If Opposition Members say, "How will we live with this settlement?" I need only point to the example of the constituency district council of the hon. Member for Hamilton. On 10 February an article in The Scotsman stated:
"Hamilton District Council has agreed to cut council tax bills by 10 per cent., and council leaders have pledged not to reduce services to pay for the cuts. Instead they plan to expand services." It continued:
"The overall package is a vindication of the restructuring which we initiated in 1992".
Mr. George Robertson: The Minister is one of a long line of distinguished failed Conservative candidates in Hamilton, although his forefathers used to own the whole constituency. He has given an example of a highly successful Labour council which, even in the face of adversity being thrust on it by the Government, has managed sufficiently to deal with its own resources. Others have not been so lucky, but clearly it is a successful council that has succeeded in the face of the Government rather than because of it.
What my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) said in his vigorous and substantial speech tonight was extremely important. [Interruption.]
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I was pointing out that the level of grant-supported expenditure is 33 per cent. higher per person in Scotland than in England and the level of aggregate external finance is 45 per cent. higher in Scotland than it is in England. It is an example of the fact that the settlement is a substantial one. I now turn to the issue of capping to which Opposition Members object most strongly. I quote the late Willie Ross, the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland. He strongly defended capping and he said:
"the Secretary of State ought to have these residual powers, especially as they now protect local authorities generally from excessive claims by individual authorities on the pool of grants."--[ Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee , 14 June 1966; c. 10.] It is all very well for Opposition Members to complain about capping powers. When they were in power and had the
responsibility--and I am one of the few Conservative Members who knows what it was like to be in opposition--their Secretary of State was only too glad to have exactly the same powers.
Mr. Wallace rose --
Dr. Godman rose --
Column 1099We shall maintain a unified business rate in Scotland pegged at the same level as in England on a permanent basis, ensuring that Scottish businesses have the same benefits and stability of competing on a level playing field with their English counterparts.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, it is astonishing that the Opposition should be prepared to contemplate returning control over non-domestic rate poundages to local authorities and thus at a stroke completely to destroy the benefits that Scottish businesses will gain from the achievement of the unified business rate. We spent no less than £440 million in harmonising it, so it would be a tragedy for every small business man in Scotland if that was to be thrown away.
Dr. Godman: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for displaying his characteristic courtesy. Let me remind him of his visit to Gibbs hill in Greenock. What is the likelihood of the east end of Greenock being given partnership status? A promise was made to bring together Scottish Homes, Renfrewshire Enterprise and the local council. The Minister was extremely sympathetic to the idea. What is the likelihood of that area of my constituency being given partnership status?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: That issue will be looked at with great care by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the hon. Gentleman will receive an answer to his request in due course. I am aware of the problems that the hon. Gentleman has in his constituency.
We have provided substantial sums for the reform of local government in Scotland--£5 million to cover the elections of the shadow councils and £36 million for the shadow authorities, to be paid during 1995-96. If an existing authority faced genuinely additional costs, we would expect it to discuss funding with the relevant shadow councils.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) mentioned housing benefit, which is of key importance in Scotland. This year, the figure is no less than £824 million and next year the figure is likely to be £926 million. That is not something to be looked at askance; it is a substantial sum. It is supplemented by no less than £80 million of urban aid.
Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East): I am totally at odds with the view being propounded by the Minister. How can he possibly argue that there is a positive incentive in having increased housing benefits, when people apply for them because they are living in poverty that is induced by the Government? They are living in housing conditions that are being made increasingly intolerable by the Government's expenditure cuts. I cannot believe that a Minister would be so insensitive as to take that view.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: The houses would be in much better condition if the rents charged by local authorities had been raised so that more could be spent on management and maintenance. Everyone knows that the average rent in Scotland is £7 or £8 less than the average rent south of the border. Some commentators say that some of the housing stock south of the border is in better condition. If that is so, it is because more has been spent on management and maintenance over the past 30 years.
Column 1100The hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) came to see me; we shall look carefully at the issue of urban aid, not only in her constituency, but many others.
To the hon. Members for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) and for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) I say that the crux of the matter is that, when Labour was in power, it spent £215 on each house in Scotland in 1978-79. We have increased that figure to £672 per house for 1995-96--a substantial increase. Opposition Members cannot have it both ways; they cannot say that the Government should spend far more on housing, when a large percentage of public sector stock has been sold to the sitting tenants. Some 300,000 houses have been sold to sitting tenants--a factor that inevitably has to be taken into account.
I studied the reactions of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. We shall ensure that £35 million to £40 million is allocated for community care projects. That allocation will enable the authorities to achieve their aim. Housing capital and resources for rural areas has again been increased, and those areas receive more per capita than the rest of the country.
Substantial resources are being provided for the non-housing revenue account and, as for capital receipts, more than several billion pounds has been allocated to benefit public sector housing. [Interruption.]
Mr. Welsh: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many English Members of Parliament have suddenly appeared who were not present earlier. They are taking a sudden interest in the debate and appear to have come to vote, but they do not to want to listen to the Minister. Would it be possible to hear the Minister? [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is right. I have already appealed once to both sides of the House to give the Minister a fair chance. So far, that plea has fallen on deaf ears. I hope that the remainder of the Minister's speech will be given a fair hearing.
I must stress that more than 300,000 tenants have achieved their ambition of becoming owner occupiers, thus releasing almost £3 billion for investment in housing stock. Almost 300,000 new homes have been built in Scotland since 1979. The number of sheltered and amenity houses has more than quadrupled to more than 50,000 and investment per council house, at £672, is higher in real terms than was achieved by the last Labour Government. Significant inroads have been made and will be made in improving Scotland's housing. It is a success story. We will build on that success, as we are absolutely determined to do.
The House divided: Ayes 290, Noes 247.
Division No. 75] [10.10 pm