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Commons Chamber

Volume 885: debated on Wednesday 5 February 1975

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 5th February 1975

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions


Housing Acquisition


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many houses have been acquired, or are in the course of acquisition, under the scheme outlined in Circular 70 of 1974; what is the total amount of loans for which sanction has been sought under the scheme; and what financial limitations there are on the rate of expansion of the programme of acquisition.

The returns so far submitted by local authorities in England and Wales show that under the general consent given in Circular 70/74 some £60 million was spent on about 7,400 existing houses from April to 30th September last. Some £20 million has been approved for acquisitions falling outside the general consent. The expenditure limits on next year's acquisition will be higher than those in use for 1974–75.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a total of 7,000 is totally inadequate and that a successful municipalisation programme will necessarily involve compensation on the same lines as any other nationalisation programme, such as by the issue of Government stock rather than by cash, as the cash involved would be excessively inflationary?

My hon. Friend and I have discussed that suggestion several times. I see severe drawbacks to that way of handling the purchase of rented dwellings, but there are aspects of it which bear further examination. No doubt we can pursue that matter on another occasion.

Is the Minister satisfied that local authorities which are acquiring properties are carrying out adequate surveys beforehand and are not later finding that they have landed their ratepayers with impossible burdens of repair?

This must vary from one kind of property to another. After all, one of the main objectives that the Government have set in this field and which we are trying to encourage local authorities to pursue is the purchase of properties which are in need of modernisation and improvement. Indeed, I would wish to see local authorities concentrate most of their activities on a programme basis in such areas. It would inevitably follow from this that a considerable level of expenditure would be involved in many instances in such modernisation, conversion and repair, since the properties in question would be in grave need of it in such areas.

Railways (Children's Fares)


asked the Secretary or State for the Environment whether he will direct British Rail to extend children's half-fares from under-14 years of age to under the statutory school leaving age of 16 years, in order to encourage the use of this form of public transport.

No. It would not be appropriate for me to issue directives on detailed aspects of fares policy. Concessions on the lines suggested by my hon. Friend already exist for season tickets for school journeys and for family travel.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people think there was a complete lack of logic in the failure to extend half-fare concessions to take account of increases in the statutory school leaving age? If he cannot direct that this be done, will he at least encourage it, bearing in mind that the years between 14 and 16 are extremely expensive for parents, so that the absence of these concessions is not only lacking in logic but presents serious practical difficulties for families? We want to encourage and enable people to use public transport, do we not?

I agree that we should take all reasonable steps to encourage the use of public transport. However, for journeys to school half-price tickets are already available, not only up to 16 but up to the age of 18, and there is a very successful reduced fares scheme, which is commercially viable as well, for students over 18. Thus the objective that my hon. Friend has in mind is met by British Railways. However, if she knows of any particular difficulties and will let me know about them, I shall certainly draw them to the Board's attention.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that that arrangement is not particularly suitable in Scotland? Will he bear in mind that the original reason for fixing 14 as the age was that it was the compulsory school leaving age? Now that it has been increased by statute to 16, surely the same logic and the same reasoning should result in the extension of this privilege. Will he try to remember that these fares are a very costly charge to the working man's weekly income?

As I have already explained, children who regularly use the railways to go to and from school can and usually do get half-price tickets. For holiday and leisure purposes they would normally, travel with their families, and their are similar family concessions available for peak periods which I think cater reasonably for this need.

One-Bedroom Housing


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take action to encourage local authorities to increase their stock of one-bedroomed accommodation.

We will be issuing advice very soon to local authorties on ways to increase the stock of one-bedroomed and two-bedroomed dwellings.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is indeed a great and an increasing shortage of one-bedroom accommodation? Does he agree that if local authorities were to increase their stock of this type of accommodation they could make better use of existing stock by transferring tenants from houses which are under-occupied, which would result in a rationalisation of the present housing situation?

I certainly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. I suggest also that in at least some circumstances it is a question not simply of building new stock but possibly of adapting existing large stock where the demand is not so great in order to increase the availability of small dwellings that way. Also, there is a much better provision in this matter in new construction by local authorities generally than there is in the private sector, and the advice which we shall be issuing will cover that aspect of the subject as well as local authorities' works.

I welcome the Minister's statement and I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) since both one-bedroom and two-bedroom accommodation is very much in demand. The figures from my local authority indicate that over 100 applicants need only one-bedroom accommodation. Will the Minister please expedite his instructions to local authorities, which will assist them in this matter—which no doubt will arise in our debate tomorrow?

I certainly welcome the support from the Liberal benches and that which is given as a whole. I emphasise that the advice will be issued very shortly.

May I also welcome the promise of a circular? Might not the Minister encourage local authorities to take a more relaxed attitude towards lodgers in council accommodation, because this would help to maximise the use of the existing housing stock?

We are examining this aspect of the housing scene also as part of a general look we have initiated recently at the use of stock across the board—not only local authority housing stock but housing stock within local authority areas—to see how better it might be used for various initiatives which can be taken.

Channel Tunnel


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now prepare a White Paper setting out all the relevant correspondence and details of discussions which took place from 26th November 1974 to 20th January 1975 between his Department, the French Government, British Rail and the Channel Tunnel companies, resulting in his decision to withdraw the support of Her Majesty's Government for the Channel Tunnel project.

No, Sir. My right hon. Friend has already explained how it came about that the British Government saw no alternative to accepting the companies' formal claim of abandonment.

Is not the Minister aware that there are—to put it no higher—different interpretations of events and that there is a belief that, given essential good will on all sides, a different solution might well have been found? Is he aware that moves are being made in the European Parliament and elsewhere to try to engender European financial interest in this project? Will he give an assurance that he will keep an open mind on these discussions pending an approach which is likely to be made to his right hon. Friend before the end of this month?

As to the last point, I have said several times that we shall be very willing to consider any such proposals for a European involvement in the costs of the tunnel but so far we have had no such proposals. As to the other point, I do not think anyone has denied that whereas the two Governments were anxious to reach a standstill arrangement, which would have got us over the difficulty of 31st December and safeguarded the rights of all involved while discussions took place, we did not get any communication from the companies until after 31st December, and that was a formal notice of abandonment. That was the difficulty in which we were placed. It was a difficulty clearly foreseen by the previous Government, because they made extensive provision for it in the agreement.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that although a decision not to go ahead with the project has been taken, men are, apparently, still carrying on digging, from both ends? Is it not about time someone told them to stop? [An HON. MEMBER: "NVT."] Although I can commend to my right hon. Friend some very worthy projects for consideration, either as workers' co-operatives or as candidates for the National Enterprise Board, will he please ensure that this is not one of them.

I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. So far, although we have had many helpful proposals about how we might proceed, no one has suggested a workers' co-operative. The reason why some work is still continuing is that, as my right hon. Friend has informed the House, we are desirous of retaining much information as to the work which has been done, and one or two tests are still being completed. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that this is not adding substantially to the costs already incurred.

National Bus Company


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to receive the annual report and accounts of the National Bus Company.

Does not the Minister agree that, in view of the report of a statement he made to a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party about the grave condition of the National Bus Company, it is high time that a statement was made by him on the Floor of the House so that we might see whether the company has come to him to seek immediate cash assistance and, if so, whether the figure of £25 million is correct?

The hon. Gentleman has been a Member long enough to know that sometimes Press reports are not a wholly accurate account of what transpires in private meetings. But it is well known that the National Bus Company, like all public service transport undertakings, is operating at a loss in present circumstances. I am having discussions with the chairman. If the need arises, the Government will take the necessary steps to assist the company. Publication of last year's accounts would not assist either the hon. Gentleman or the House to assess the situation in 1975, which is our immediate concern.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree, however, that the reason for the present financial problems of the National Bus Company is the counter-inflation policy of the previous Government, which did not permit nationalised industries to increase their rates in accord with the inflation that was taking place at that time?

This probably was a factor in the deficits incurred by a number of public sector industries. But that does not apply in present circumstances.

Is the Minister aware that, at this time of great concern about the high cost of petrol in rural areas, Treasury Ministers are giving the answer that greater reliance will be placed by the Government on the use of public transport? In the circumstances of the National Bus Company and with more and more counties seriously concerned as to whether they can continue to subsidise local bus services, and at a time when the bus companies are coming forward with much greater demands for subsidies, what will the right hon. Gentleman do to preserve even the present limited fabric of bus services?

I am very much concerned about the problem. Only yesterday my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was having discussions with the local authorities. He has already met the operators and the trade unions with a view to trying to find a way out of these very difficult problems. One of the difficulties is that it is recognised that in many rural areas it is not viable to run reasonable bus services and that the counties, as they have powers under the transport supplementary grant, should make subsidies to them. Counties which included this in their plans obtained a grant specifically for that purpose in the TSG recently announced. The trouble is that many counties have either cut back on their plans or are contemplating doing so. This is a great difficulty, because the whole concept has been that the counties should have some regard to the social service aspects of these routes.

Rent Act 1974


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will expedite his proposed survey on the operation of the Rent Act 1974 in view of the latest representations about its effects.

The Department is already monitoring the operation of the Act as closely as possible.

Does the Minister believe that fair rents should also be a fair return on landlords' capital? If rent officers continue to fix rents which give a return of only about 3 per cent., how on earth does the Minister hope to arrest the collapse in the private rented market brought about by the Act, which is making thousands homeless when local authorities cannot cope?

We are committed to review the operation of the Rent Acts, and certain aspects of the point the hon. Gentleman has raised will fall to be considered under the housing finance review on which we are embarking.

As regards the loss of rented property from the market, there seems on the whole to be a fairly consistent experience in this through all types of legislative situation. So far as I am aware, the figures are not increasing now. The position has been, roughly speaking, that about 100,000 rented dwellings have left the market per year for the last decade or more.

In view of the campaign of vilification and misrepresentation against the Rent Act 1974, which has been mounted particularly by certain newspapers which should know better, will my hon. Friend undertake a publicity campaign to let landlords, particularly resident landlords, know the very considerable advantages conferred upon them by the Act?

I shall certainly consider that and call for a review of the publicity material that we have been using to see whether we can put across the facts about the Act more effectively. It is true that, due to the failure to be able to print the Act at an early stage, and also to some of the propaganda activities in certain fields, there has been misunderstanding by a number of resident landlords about their position. I believe that this is now being corrected and I shall do my best to encourage the process of correction.

Economic Development Committee For Building


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will seek to attend personally the next meeting of the Economic Development Committee for Building on which his Department is represented at official level.

Would not such a visit allow the Minister to confirm the EDC's latest forecast of a fall in new construction output in 1975 of 6 per cent. over 1974?

I do not need to attend a meeting of the EDC in order to keep contact with all sections of the building industry, with all the various forecasts which are being made, and with work in that industry. I am well aware of the EDC's forecasts. They are gloomy. The situation is very difficult. I am not quite as pessimistic about the situation as these forecasts would suggest that we should be.

Central Lancashire New Town


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what provision is to be made in the Central Lancashire New Town in respect of hospitals, doctors, dentists and social workers; and whether these provisions reflect estimated population increases by 1986.

Proposals for the provision of health and social services for the estimated future population of Central Lancashire New Town are described in the development corporation's outline plan, recently the subject of a public inquiry. The inspector's report on the inquiry is awaited and it will be some time before final decisions are reached.

What advice was given to the development corporation about the planning of these facilities in line with the Skeffington Report? Were any recommendations made to the corporation about consulting people and organisations in the area with regard to the supply of these facilities?

The proposals in the outline plan are based on discussions with the corporation and also with authorities having responsibility for the provision of these services. Those discussions are of a continuing nature, because obviously as time passes the aspect may change. We try to mirror that, because my Department holds informal consultations with the appropriate Departments so that we have a full and continuing picture and the various priorities can be kept in step.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us now whether his announcement last year of the increase in the percentage of rented houses that he is to apply to all new towns up to a total of 75 per cent. is to apply to the Central Lancashire New Town?

I should not have thought that that question arose out of the Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne), but if the House will grant me some indulgence I will say that the hon. and learned Gentleman should carefully consider what I have said. He will see it fairly clearly stated, I hope, in the consultation document on new towns and he will see that the basis is not a fixed proportion but that we shall eliminate as soon as possible the waiting list in new towns, particularly for second generation families, and that in doing so inevitably we will give greater weight to rented accommodation, which is needed in the new towns, than to houses for sale.



asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps and research he has taken to control the activities of pigeons on public buildings.

Is not the Minister aware that the damage caused by these birds to public buildings amounts to over £20 million a year? Will he consider an amendment to the Public Health Act 1936, or perhaps follow the example of the French and put the pigeons on the pill?

I shall consider the points the hon. Gentleman has put to me. In the meantime, I hope that he comes to no harm.

Hardwoods (Planting)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps his Department is taking to encourage the planting of hardwoods.

The Government offer a supplementary grant of £125 per hectare for hardwood planting under the Forestry Commission's new dedication scheme. My right hon. Friend's own Department plants many hardwoods and other trees—for example, along the motorways—assists local authority planting schemes and supports the Tree Council. Moreover, grants for planting in the countryside may be available from the Countryside Commission.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that excellent reply. I appreciate his Department's concern. Has his right hon. Friend had discussions with the Treasury, and has he pointed out to the Treasury that the effect of its capital transfer tax will be very damaging to British forestry and that all the good intentions of his Department will be frustrated by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he is not careful?

I read with interest the hon. Gentleman's contribution to a debate on 21st January and I believe I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said at that time that he would carefully consider all the representations which had been made.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, as indeed I welcome the encouraging of every form of planting of small copses of hardwoods. Will he urge the bringing under proper planting control of large-scale planting of softwoods, which is terribly damaging over many parts of the countryside?

I shall certainly consider the question, as I must whenever my hon. Friend makes a suggestion, because of his well-known history of interest in and concern for the environment. I know that the planting of suitable trees in suitable places is a matter of great concern. I shall look at the problem.

Pedestrian Crossings (Essex)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many applications for pedestrian crossings have been made and approved, respectively, in respect of the county of Essex during the past year.

Of 14 applications for pelican crossings, five were approved and three are still under consideration. My approval is not required for zebra crossings.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, for example, in Buckhurst Hill and Loughton in my constituency there are several spots where terrible accidents have occurred and it is very difficult to get appropriate action? Does not the Department think that this is rather over-centralised and that local authorities should have more discretion in such matters?

I think the difficulty in the example the hon. Gentleman quoted was that the proposed crossing was very near a junction and it would have given rise to traffic difficulties. The initiative in all these cases is for the local authority when it makes the site proposals. We have extended the use of the pelican crossing. As I have said, we do not seek to control zebra crossings. We have extended the criteria for pelican crossings and when we are satisfied that the scheme is working well we shall probably be able to relax that control too.

Bus Purchase Grants


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he is satisfied with the controls exercised by his Department over the administration of bus purchase grants for stage carriage operators.

Yes, Sir. The procedures have already been revised to reduce the opportunities for fraudulent grant claims. My officials are also discussing with the operators their estimates of future bus purchases.

My right hon. Friend knows that millions of pounds are involved. What about the case of Barton's, Britain's biggest independent operator, which last year actually made a profit out of selling five-year-old buses and buying new ones under the grant scheme? What about the Newport cases last November where, for example, in the Moseley case some £10,000 in costs and fines were awarded? What about the Don Everall case in which £2,000 in costs and fines was awarded—[Interruption.] Can I say to my hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]

Order. The hon. Member has asked three supplementary questions already.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the stories now circulating about dealers and operators who have had to hand money back and have still not been taken to court? Is he not concerned that a worthwhile scheme which should be helping hard-pressed public transport is being turned into a gigantic milking machine for filling private operators' pockets?

My hon. Friend tends sometimes to use colourful language. We have made some amendments to meet the point and there have been 16 successful prosecutions involving six operators and two distributors. If my hon. Friend has information which he thinks we can use to correct any existing abuses or possible abuses of the scheme, he knows that I am available to talk about these things. That is probably a better way to do it than by parliamentary question and answer.

In spite of what was said by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield), many bus operators are in a desperate position and services are being drastically cut. People are not able to get to work, particularly in rural areas. When I raised this matter with the Prime Minister he suggested that I should take it up with the Minister of Transport. For once I am taking the Prime Minister's advice and I am asking the right hon. Gentleman when his Government will do something to produce a transport policy to serve people in the rural areas.

I think the hon. Member knows enough about the facts of transport to realise that it is easy to make a declamatory statement about the problems of rural transport, but it is not easy to produce a scheme especially when, perhaps for understandable reasons, many county councils are unwilling to make contributions to the social service this transport system would provide.

Roads (Sussex)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, following his decision not to proceed with the Channel Tunnel, how quickly he now expects to be able to announce improvements to the congested roads serving the port of Newhaven and surrounding areas.

As I told the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) on 3rd February, we are considering the general implications of the decision on the Channel Tunnel.

Is the Minister aware that we have been waiting for more than a year since consultations about road schemes took place in my constituency, particularly for the relief of Lewes but also for the whole of the surrounding area of Newhaven? Is it not time that the Minister gave his decision on these road schemes? This is a social matter for the people involved. Will the Minister give a specific answer to the questions which he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have avoided answering for far too long?

As the hon. Member probably knows, work on the new southern bypass for Lewes is expected to begin this year, and I expect construction of the Falmer diversion to begin during 1976. The Question asked what we had done since the decision on the Channel Tunnel was taken on 20th January.

We are considering this point. Hon. Members would do well to bear in mind that practically all hon. Members are in favour of road schemes in their constituencies but that whenever a line has to be drawn on a map there is the most intense opposition. If we are to take public participation procedures seriously—they were introduced by the last Conservative Government—this adds two or three years to the time between taking a decision to build a road and being able to begin construction. In addition, we have cut back the size of the road programme for reasons of general economic stringency.

is the Minister aware that British Railways can extend their port facilities without the necessity of planning permission by the local authority? Great congestion occurs in towns where such expansion takes place. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to meet a deputation which I will bring to him headed by the Chairman of the Shepway District Council, who can explain the situation personally?

I have written to the hon. Gentleman to say that we will be happy to talk to him about any problems arising from the Channel Tunnel. If on that occasion he would like to bring representatives of his district council, naturally I or my hon. Friend would be very happy to see them.

Rate Support Grant (Cheshire)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he can now say what rate support grant for 1975–76 will be available to the Cheshire County Council.

The county council now has details of its initial needs element grant entitlement. The figure is some £46·8 million. The county will also benefit indirectly from the resources element grant.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that gracious and informative answer, but is he aware that the ratepayers of Cheshire, as elsewhere in the country, experienced massive rate increases last year? Even with a no-growth situation for all services, they will experience this year further massive increases, certainly in excess of 35 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman urge the Secretary of State to bring in special rate relief for domestic ratepayers because of the intolerable situation which faces them?

I do not think that Cheshire can complain too much about the meanness of the central Government. The grant this year is 47 per cent. higher in money terms that it was last year, and Cheshire has received £12 million through our increase order for 1974–75.

We are exceedingly grateful to my right hon. Friend for the extra money, which was exceedingly useful to the Cheshire County Council. The sooner we can offer a fundamental review of the entire rating system, however, the sooner we shall get away from the nonsense which requires very substantial grants from the central Government for absolutely essential services.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. We are all concerned about the effect of rates from whichever side of the House we come. It was for that purpose that the Layfield committee of inquiry was set up by my right hon. Friend.

Empty Housing


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what information he can give about the performance of local authorities in dealing with empty houses and flats.

About 4,100 empty properties have been bought under Circular 70/74 by local authorities in the first half of this financial year. A number of local authorities are organising special quick repair and lettings services. About 90 local authorities are levying 100 per cent. rates on empty properties. I am examining further initiatives which might be taken to increase the use of empty properties generally.

Will the Minister direct his attention to empty houses and flats which are already in the possession of local authorities? Will he endeavour to galvanise those local authorities into dealing with them urgently? Is he aware of reports of about half a million houses and flats in the possession of local authorities which are empty? Are these figures correct? If they are not, what are the correct figures and what are the Government going to do about this situation?

The end-of-year survey which has been undertaken over a number of years shows, according to the latest figures, that the hon. Member's figure is erroneous. The figure is about 1 per cent. of the total stock—that is, 1 per cent. of 5½ million.

The figure is about 1 per cent. of the 5½, million dwellings owned by local authorities. As for chasing up local authorities I shall be considering, as I have suggested, what steps I can take. I urge the hon. Member to turn his attention to his own local authority, where, I understand, about 1,000 empty properties have been on the market for more than six months and these could have been purchased by the local authority if it set its mind to the task.

Will my hon. Friend consider proposals which were put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) last week to give local authorities power to requisition properties in order that homeless people might be housed in them?

I have considered requisitioning on a number of occasions over the past year. Each time I have come to the conclusion, having studied the matter very closely, that this would not be an effective way of achieving the objective I wish to achieve. However, I certainly hope to come to the House and announce initiatives in this area not too long from now.

Government Offices (London)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many square feet of office space is rented by Government Departments in the London area; and what is the total annual rental.

The figures are 14·4 million square feet; and £39·4 million in this financial year.

Those staggering figures are no joke. To what extent has the Government's policy on dispersal reduced them in the past year or so, and to what extent is it likely to reduce them during the next year or two?

I cannot speak for the past year, but the Government's dispersal programme will lead to savings in London rents amounting to about £27 million a year, at current figures, by the time the programme is complete, and a total reduction of 4·25 million square feet is expected.

Various aspects of the matter need to be considered. It is not only a question of dispersal policy. It is also a question of the availability of capital to get Crown buildings provided, to avoid the leasing of buildings at high rents. But this is a much more complicated and more questionable area of examination, because it brings me into the whole area of public expenditure and the total allocations that must be made.

What is the current annual rental value of the office buildings occupied by the Government in London, as opposed to the rent paid? The Minister referred to the opportunities to build Crown buildings. Is he aware how long the discussions have been going on on this subject? Is he aware of the advantages in efficiency of operation in modern purpose-designed buildings that could flow from the Government's taking advantage of the opportunities open to them to build on vacant sites that they now own, or have the option to own, in central London for office development?

The construction of Crown buildings has been under consideration for a long time and has been the subject of economies under successive Governments over many years. It is not possible merely to say "Build more" without involving oneself in an expansion of public expenditure. It is not a cheap exercise. There are matters which constrain us and drive the Government into rented buildings.

I cannot give a full answer off-the cuff to the question about current rental values of properties that have been under-rented as a result of the business rent controls and the freeze. I believe that if rents were to be charged at current levels following the freeze the additional amount for 1975–76 would be about £6·5 million nationally.

Harlow New Town


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the expansion of Harlow New Town.

I am considering the development corporation's recommendations. If I decide to proceed, I shall consult the local authorities before making a draft order extending the designated area of the town.

Will my right hon. Friend, whose recent visit to Harlow was much appreciated, bear in mind that the expansion of Harlow has been under serious consideration for about 10 years and that it is vital to second-generation applicants, both sides of industry, all the authorities concerned and the population as a whole that a decision should be reached at an early stage? Can he say anything about the time scale for bringing the matter to a conclusion? There is considerable impatience in the area over the whole business and the delay we suffered before my right hon. Friend took over responsibility.

If I were to proceed to make a draft order, my expectation would be that the process would be completed within 12 months from now. I understand that I would probably be sent to the Tower if I discussed the merits of the case at this stage.

What representations has the right hon. Gentleman received so far from neighbouring authorities, interests and individuals? What attention is being paid to such representations?

I do not think that I would be acting properly if at this stage I were to make the matter public. I have said that it is a question which I must consider in a quasi-judicial capacity.

Molsworth Airfield


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment why the Defence Land Agent has failed to pursue his negotiations for the offer to the previous owners of any of the 636 acres of agricultural land surplus to Service requirements at the former Molsworth Airfield, in spite of the recommendation of the Defence Lands Committee (the Nugent Committee) on page 204 of its Report that those 636 acres should be disposed of.

There has been no such failure. Under the normal procedure for disposal of surplus land, offers are made to the other Government Departments and public authorities first. The Central Electricity Generating Board may need the property, and its decision is awaited.

Is it a fact that the CEGB wants the land for a nuclear power station? Would it not be a bad site for such a station? Is the Minister aware that the land has been blighted for three years? It is a good farmland. Why is the hon. Gentleman withholding it from production because of the speculative possibility of a power station there?

It is not a question of withholding it from agricultural use as a matter of deliberate policy because there is a speculative possibility of a power station. The procedure laid down has been followed by successive Governments. Questions as to whether nuclear power generation is a suitable use of the land should be directed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. All I would say is that if a decision in favour of such a station is made by the CEGB, in consultation with my right hon. Friend, the planning procedure must be gone through. Planning application must be made.

Thermal Insulation


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to encourage local authorities to improve thermal insulation standards in existing public-sector housing.

I would refer the hon. Member to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) on 25th November 1974.—[Vol. 882, c. 89.]

That was not very satisfactory. Does the Minister accept that whereas owner-occupiers have an incentive to spend money on improving their property with thermal insulation, because it increases the value of the property, there is no such incentive for tenants of local authority housing, nor is there such an incentive for local authorities to spend money on thermal insulation, because it is not the authorities who pay the heating bills? What will the hon. Gentleman do about this in the interests of energy conservation?

I think that the hon. Gentleman has got his facts a little wrong. The position, as I stated in the previous reply, is that the installation of central heating and insulation in existing council houses is already accepted for subsidy purposes if it forms part of a comprehensive scheme of improvement and conversion.

As to the position of tenants, there is nothing to prevent local authorities and tenants or tenants' associations negotiating arrangements—I know that some do—whereby tenants can undertake certain works on a reimbursable basis. I hope that if tenants go to their local authority with a view to undertaking insulation arrangements they will be suitably assisted by the authority.

If my hon. Friend sends out any circulars on this matter or any other within the ambit of his Department that result in local authorities having to spend money which they may not have taken into account in the period between the two financial years, will he also send one of the circulars to the district auditors in order that they may be informed that the Government have suggested to local authorities that there is a need to spend money? That kind of suggestion was made by the previous Government, when the Minister responsible sent out a circular instructing local authorities to spend money on environmental matters to cut down the long list of unemployed people, and because one local authority—Clay Cross—did that the district auditor has tried to haul its members before the court.

It would be improper for me to involve myself on the Floor of the House in matters which are the subject of representations before a district auditor.

I have no plans to issue any circular about thermal insulation, although I am sure that I shall be issuing circulars on other matters concerned with housing policy.

House Building


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the number of housing starts in the private sector in the last six months of 1974 as compared with the same period in 1973.

In the five months July-November 1974, starts in Great Britain were 38,900. Over the same period in 1973 there were 83,300 houses started. Provisional figures for December 1974 will be published tomorrow.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the building merchants' index shows that the decline in private house-building is likely to continue into the next six months of this year? What measures have he and the Department in mind to stimulate the building of houses rather than the demand for them, which the measures announced so far have had the effect of doing?

The implications of the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question are a little unfortunate in the present situation. He should recall, as was made clear when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his announcement on 27th January, that the financial initiatives had been made after the fullest consultation with builders' representatives and building society representatives and that they were welcomed by both elements. We believe that the initiatives will contribute to boosting morale and the demand and provision of houses in the coming months. We in this House as well as the Government should be doing everthing we can to assist builders in that direction.

Does my hon. Friend agree that among the lessons to be learnt from the fluctuations in private house building is the complete inadequacy of private enterprise as a means of constructing homes for our people?

Certainly there are some basic structural problems on the financial side of housing provision and in the structure of the building industry as such. These matters will fall to be considered within our housing finance study, upon which we have already embarked, and in further consideration of other aspects of housing construction which we shall be initiating in future.

Does the Minister agree that under all Governments tens of thousands of housing starts are held up each year because of the actions of local authorities and his own Department? Does he accept that when permission is sought to erect a dwelling or to convert a property into flats it takes up to 12 months to obtain planning consent? Is he aware that that has nothing to do with planning as such, as every expert is aware, but is purely bureaucratic inefficiency? In order to help the homeless, will he try to be a reforming Minister and make a determined attempt to reduce the period that has to be spent in obtaining planning consent?

Both my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government and myself, and the Secretary of State, are very much concerned with the rôle of planning procedures. To deal with this matter in such generalised terms as the hon. Gentleman has put to the House is not helpful or constructive. If the hon. Gentleman likes to put specific case material to us I assure him that we shall probe all such cases to see whether there are lessons to be learnt and whether any action can be initiated. We shall certainly act.

Football Referees


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consult the Football Association about its policy of sexual discrimination with regard to the appointment of football referees.

The Football Association is represented on the Central Council for Physical Recreation, as are the other governing bodies of sport. This council and the Sports Council are now considering the proposals in the White Paper "Equality for Women" Cmnd. 5724.

I am much encouraged by the Minister's reply. My only regret is that the Minister responsible—

Will the Minister impress upon the Football Association that it seems unfair, if not unjust, that men can referee women's matches but women are not allowed to referee men's matches? Is he aware that there is a young woman school teacher in my constituency who has been refused registration by the local football association? This woman has passed Class 3 of the Football Association's rules but has been refused registration merely because she is a woman. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are 70 women throughout the country similarly qualified who wish to referee men's football matches but have been refused only because they are women?

I yield to no one in my approval of any measure that is designed to create equality for women. On the other hand, it is true that the Central Council for Physical Recreation has pointed out one or two complications that might arise in a strict application of this proposal relating to football. Those complications are at present being considered by the Government. I can promise the hon. Gentleman, if the House will not misunderstand me, that the council in question is engaged in a close and continuing contact with sporting women's bodies.

As a serious question, may I ask my right hon. Friend how many women are on the Central Council for Physical Recreation? Further, will he tell me how many women are represented on the governing bodies of many of the sporting organisations? Is it not indicative of the problems we face in straightforward teaching that so many of my colleagues on both sides of the House find this a matter for amusement?

It is, as my hon. Friend says, a serious subject. I am therefore happy to inform her that the Central Council for Physical Recreation represents all governing bodies in sport including those concerned exclusively with sport for women.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he sounds rather like a player who played for a team that started the season badly and then fell away? I do not want to become involved with Liverpool and Everton, but does the Minister accept that the Government should in no way get themselves involved in the internal arrangements of our sporting bodies and associations?

I was trying to point out that the advice of those concerned was perhaps the most important matter to be considered. As for teams that fall away, I think that the hon. Gentleman represents an excellent team on his side of the House that has fallen away recently.

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Football Association to appoint the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) a referee, because she would not need a whistle?



asked the Secretary of State for the Environment on what evidence he bases his prediction that the total rate demand for 1975–76 should not on average exceed that for the current year by more than 25 per cent.

On the basis that the Government have made a major increase in grant, and that local authorities will keep their expenditure down to the rates of growth allowed for in the settlement and rate realistically.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Greater London Council announced yesterday that it anticipated an increase of 80 per cent. over last year? Rugby has already announced a 61 per cent. increase and Westminster has announced a 70 per cent. increase. The Deputy-Leader of the GLC has indicated that the London boroughs will show an average increase of no less than 50 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House where the balancing figures are to come from to bring about the Government's pledge of 25 per cent.?

It might be as well to remind the House of what my right hon. Friend said at the time, namely:

"if, and only if, local authorities stick to their side of the bargain, I reckon that the average increase—I stress the word 'average'—will be about 25 per cent.…"—[Official Report, 12th December 1974; Vol. 883, c. 788.]
Of course, when there is an average many increases are above the average and a number are below it. It is surprising that I never seem to receive any representations from those who are below the average.

Will my right hon. Friend point out the importance of making clear the basis on which these figures are calculated, as in some cases areas have been extremely fortunate in their position in the past?

That is a very fair point to make. While I am making fair points I remind the House—[Interruption.] I always make fair points. This has been the largest Government grant to local authorities in history. It has increased by virtually two-thirds from £3,431 million to £5,434 million.

Does not the Minister recognise that in spite of that the increase in the rates this year is likely to be the highest on record, with the possible exception of last year? Will he publish a list of the authorities that he thinks will be below the average so that we may see whether they exist and where they are? Secondly, may we ask what he is doing about local authorities such as the London borough of Wandsworth? That authority has frankly said that it has not the faintest intention of abiding by the guidelines and that it will go ahead fully with public expenditure and let the ratepayers jolly well get on with it.

I understand that there has been a denial of the newspaper report concerning Wandsworth. I wish that there had been denial in respect of the statement made by the London borough of Barnet a few weeks ago. If a local authority decides to act selfishly and against the national interest, this can only be at the expense of other local authorities. I hope that the local authority associations will take note of this.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the expenditure plans of local authorities are long-term and that local authorities are now suffering from the foolish policies introduced by the Conservative Government, which involved high interest rates and the famous U-turn of 1972 when they sought to get local authorities to cut back on plans to which the Government had committed them?

It was for that reason that my right hon. Friend made the most generous rate settlement in history. What we are saying to local authorities is that they may stick to last year's figure, plus inescapable commitments. This has generally been accepted throughout the country and by local authority associations as being not only fair but generous.

The Secretary of State used an important expression about local authorities sticking to their side of the bargain. If those words mean anything, do they not throw a responsibility upon the Government to pursue such bargaining?

I do not deny that. It is absolutely right. The Government have said that for their part they will not force local authorities to increase expenditure where there should be no such increase. That has happened in the past.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply—and the right hon. Gentleman must agree with that—I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

Questions To Ministers

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that on Wednesday of last week I raised with you the irksome question why it is that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster never answers Questions. I pointed out that even if an hon. Member were to table a Question he would have difficulty in getting an answer because Questions to the Chancellor of the Duchy follow an exhaustive list of Foreign Office Questions which usually contain twice as many as can be dealt with in the hour that we have available.

I was aware of the difficulty of tabling a Question to the Chancellor of the Duchy dealing with matters of North Sea oil profits and Finance for Industry. I have now been informed by the Table Office—I suspected that I would be so informed—that no Question can be tabled relating to the affairs with which the Chancellor of the Duchy is at present dealing. I have attempted to table a Question relating to his present talks with the American oil company leaders about the marginal profits arising from North Sea oil exploration. I am told by the Table Office that such a Question cannot be put to the Chancellor of the Duchy. What is more, there is no Question whatever that can be put to him relating to the affairs with which he is currently dealing.

It was suggested to me that the Chancellor of the Duchy will go through the present Parliament, dealing with all of these multifarious pieces of legislation and interference of one kind or another, and never have to answer a Question. We could reach the farcical situation in which, by devising 12 heraldic titles for themselves, the 12 most important members of the Cabinet could avoid answering Questions relating to their departmental affairs.

I suggest that this is not a trivial matter. This is a question of a man who, in logic and in practice, has one of the most important Departments in this Government. The fact is that not only I, but any other Member of this House, from whatever side is unable to table a Question dealing with the affairs for which the Chancellor of the Duchy is responsible.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. This is not a matter for the Chair. The hon. Member must use his influence with the Patronage Secretary on this matter. [Laughter.] I am quite serious. How the Government arrange their business—

How the Government arrange their business and what Minister answers for what, and how, is not a matter for the Chair at all. No doubt what the hon. Member has said will be noted.


In view of the questions that were asked last week I will, with permission, make a statement on Cyprus.

During my recent visit to the United States, I had separate discussions on Cyprus with Dr. Kissinger and Dr. Waldheim, the Secretary General of the United Nations.

It is Her Majesty's Government's view that at present, and despite their slow progress, the talks between Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash continue to provide the best chances of moving towards a settlement. The Government fully support these talks and hope that they will be pursued with a greater sense of urgency. A lasting settlement is most likely to be achieved if the Cypriots themselves agree upon the nature of a constitutional settlement. The present talks provide the people of Cyprus, of both communities, with an opportunity to do so.

Our policy remains based on active support for the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and of the General Assembly. I reaffirm that Her Majesty's Government will be ready to support any solution which is acceptable to both communities, and which maintains the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Cyprus. I also reaffirm that, if it is the wish of the parties that we should assist in wider negotiations to reach a settlement, we remain ready to do this or to help in any other forum.

The House is aware that the transfer to Turkey of the Turkish Cypriots from the Western Sovereign Base Area is now complete. Winter weather in the camp in the Western Sovereign Base Area had, as I saw for myself when I visited Akrotiri briefly on my way to Africa, brought about a significant worsening in the conditions of these unfortunate refugees. It would have been inhumane to withhold agreement any longer. I was not willing to use these people as political pawns and I refute the suggestion that, by this decision, Her Majesty's Government have shown some change in our policy towards Cyprus. Some have even used it to argue that we support partition. This is untrue.

I remain very conscious of the plight of the Greek Cypriot refugees. We shall continue to do whatever we can to help them. The British Government have not forgotten that many Greek Cypriots have lost their homes and livelihoods. By virtue of their numbers alone, the Greek Cypriots' problems are much greater. Britain has given over £1·5 million in relief aid to Cyprus, but no lasting solution can be found until there has been a political settlement. Nor have we forgotten the many British subjects who have suffered in Cyprus, whether by loss of life or injury, or by damage or loss of property. We are trying to obtain compensation for them and to protect their interests in every way we can.

Humanitarian considerations equally call for a move by Turkey to help the Greek Cypriot refugees. I understand that a proposal has been made that some 5,000 Greek Cypriots should be allowed to return to their homes in an area round Athienou. It remains to be seen whether the conditions for their return can be accepted by the Greek Cypriots, as the villages concerned are behind the Turkish lines.

It would be wrong to assume too quickly that these talks between Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash are irrevocably deadlocked at any one point. The problems of Cyprus have never been easy to solve and a long-term settlement of the many humanitarian, social and political problems of the Republic as a whole can be found only by some agreement between the two communities themselves.

I am in continuing contact with Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash as well as with the Greek and Turkish Governments and have urged on all of them the need for serious bilateral negotiations to be pursued without delay.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, which reflects the growing anxieties which have been expressed on both sides of the House about the situation in Cyprus. I welcome his acknowledgement of the plight of the Greek Cypriot refugees and also accept what he said about the rightness of not using the Turkish Cypriot refugees as political pawns, but surely there were discussions with the Turkish Government about the action which they might take to relieve the situation.

As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges that the best hope is perhaps the talks between Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash, what effect does he think the Government's action, taken in the way it was, had upon the talks? Will the right hon. Gentleman indicate what initiatives the Government are taking to secure the implementation of the treaties of London and Zurich of 1960 in order to create arrangements which will guarantee—and I am sure that this is the policy of both sides of the House—the political independence and territorial integrity of Cyprus?

Finally, in view of the importance of this matter and the interest in it displayed on both sides of the House, will the right hon. Gentleman consult and give his support to any proposals which may be made for an early debate?

There has been continuing discussion with the Turkish Government, as with the Greek Government, about the position of 200,000 Greek Cypriot refugees who have been displaced from their homes. Alas, they are not within our jurisdiction or our territory, and, therefore, we can only make representations on their behalf.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked what effect the evacuation of the Turkish refugees had on the talks. I could only assume that it should make the Turks rather more accommodating in helping some of the Greek refugees. I did not make it a bargain because this is not a subject to bargain about, but the Turkish Government are well aware of my attitude. Indeed, it is the attitude of the United States Secretary of State. Both of us have made continuing representations.

We are anxious to play our part in the London and Zurich agreements when we think that the Clerides-Denktash talks cannot be carried any further. Although they seem to be in a position, I regret to say, of near stalemate, I do not think that we could usefully intervene in those discussions. We are watching the situation literally day by day; it is a continuous review.

The question of a debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I shall always be willing to account for myself to the House when I am allowed to return to this country from time to time.

Many people will congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his clear and unequivocal rejection of partition, because partition would certainly lead to a continuing foreign, non-Cypriot presence in Cyprus, which would not be for the good.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he would not use the Turkish Cypriot refugees in Akrotiri as political pawns. Although indubitably he made an extremely honourable decision, does he agree that it appeared to be a change of policy and, therefore, was made to appear as if this country yielded to Turkish pressure? Does he agree that the situation is fairly dangerous? There is a real danger of deadlock. There is the question of the Turkish attitude to Congress and the archbishop's apparent enthusiasm for the Soviet proposal for an international conference.

What proposals does the right hon. Gentleman have to bring a new moment-tum to the talks? In particular, for example, is it true that the Greek and Turkish Foreign Ministers will meet in Brussels with Dr. Kissinger in the next 10 days? If so, are we to be involved?

I am glad to repeat that not only do the British Government rule out partition as being a solution which would help but in my conversations in Geneva and subsequently with them the Turkish and Greek Foreign Ministers said that they rule out partition as an effective solution for the problems of Cyprus. I hope that that is still their policy.

On the question of the refugees, I was conscious that I should appear to be succumbing to pressure from someone. But this was a no-win situation. If I had resisted the evacuation of the refugees I should have been told that I was holding them as political hostages. Therefore, I had to take the decision which I thought was right, and, having seen the conditions for myself, despite the misrepresentations, I still think that it was the right thing to do. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the situation in the island is fraught with danger and we must all be careful about the way in which we approach it.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right in indicating that in my talks with Dr. Kissinger it was agreed that he would meet in Brussels the Foreign Ministers of Greece and Turkey. I shall not be personally associated with that, but there will be representation in Brussels at that time. I hope to have a very early meeting with Dr. Kissinger immediately after my return from Moscow in about 10 days' time, when we shall be able, I hope, again to concert our policies.

Although my right hon. Friend could not have resisted the evacuation of the Turkish refugees, he could have prevented the Turkish Government from resettling them in the northern territories of the island. [HON. MEMBERS: "How?"] In the ways which have been suggested. I hope that the House will have a chance of debating some of these matters, which may prevent exacerbating the situation.

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his attitude on the question of non-intervention in the Clerides-Denktash talks? Does he agree that it will be virtually impossible to achieve a political settlement and a peaceful solution in the talks if they are based on the concept of ethnic separation and geographical partition? Therefore, if federal government will not lead to a peaceful solution for the island, is it not time to consider recalling the Geneva Conference so that further elements can be introduced as a means of intervening in what must become a deadlock between the Cypriot negotiators?

My hon. Friend's analysis, which is a pessimistic one, may turn out to be right because, as I said in my statement, the progress of the talks is extremely slow and I cannot pretend that I am satisfied with them. I remind the House that they began only on 14th January. But both sides are loth to move precisely because of the difficulty which my hon. Friend thinks I should try to overcome; namely, their fear of each other and desire for ethnic separation.

This is an intractable problem. If I thought that a return to Geneva would help, I should, subject to the views of the Turkish and Greek Governments, be happy to continue to discuss it. I have already made clear that I should be willing to assist in any forum, either there or in the United Nations, if the Government came to the conclusion that that would be helpful.

However, the talks in Cyprus are going on under the chairmanship of the United Nations, and Mr. Weckmann is the United Nations representative there. When I talked with Dr. Waldheim last Saturday, we discussed a formal intervention by the United Nations. We shall keep the idea in mind, but the timing is not just yet.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the implications of this matter go very much wider and that we must all be very disturbed to hear today of the possibility of the Turks, at least temporarily, withdrawing their forces from NATO? Therefore, I wonder what steps the NATO Council is taking to involve itself in this matter.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that in the last 20 years the Turkish-Cypriot minority have behaved in a most exemplary fashion, often under extreme provocation—for example, during the EOKA troubles, in 1963, and again in 1974, when the final intervention took place. The same applies—and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees—to the Turkish Government. Their position in 1963, in particular, was extremely difficult. At a time when there were pressures on them to intervene with military force they did not do so. The circumstances in 1974 virtually forced them into that position, and we should bear that in mind.

I do not think I can debate those issues with the hon. Gentleman. I was informed shortly before coming to the House—and I have had no opportunity to check it—that the Turkish Prime Minister has said that Turkey has no intention of withdrawing from the military side of NATO. As to the other issues, this problem, as many others, has a great deal of history, and on the whole, if I have any influence, I would prefer to get the communities to see how they can live together in future, rather than apportion praise or blame for the past.

Has Mr. Clerides or Mr. Denktash made representations to Her Majesty's Government about the unacceptability of arrangements for the use of the sovereign bases in Cyprus by the Americans? Is my right hon. Friend aware how dangerous such arrangements would be to our relations with the Arab countries?

I am not aware of any such arrangements or proposals. None has been made to me.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether Her Majesty's Government propose to assist in exploring the possibility put forward by Mr. Denktash of the internationalisation of Nicosia airport and its administration by a neutral administrator? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the Turkish Government have yet made any definitive response in the context of compensation for damage suffered by British nationals and whether in principle they accept liability subject to proof of damage and quantum?

When I had my discussion with Dr. Waldheim last Saturday he had put forward an ingenious proposal for handling the administration of Nicosia airport, but I have not yet been informed whether it has been accepted. That decision is now with the Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders. I have not had any response from the Turkish Government on the question of compensation and liability. There is an office to which claimants are directed, which I believe is in the Ministry of Finance—if the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes, I will give him particulars—where people can register their claims, but so far there has been no admission of liability.

I accept my right hon. Friend's concern, which we all share, for the distress of all the refugees and his wise decision on humanitarian grounds to evacuate the Turkish Cypriots from Episkopi. Is not the primary concern of the British Government to look after those refugees who are in the sovereign base areas and to seek to get them resettled as quickly as possible in view of the criticisms and difficulties which face the British Government? What about the new section of Famagusta which is virtually a ghost town? Could we not put pressure on the Turkish Government to relax military operations there and allow the Greek Cypriots to get back into the houses?

I do not believe that there are any refugees in the western sovereign base area, but there are in the eastern sovereign base area of Famagusta. I wish that part of it would be released so that Greek Cypriot refugees could return. The Turkish administration is in no doubt about the views of Her Majesty's Government and others on this matter.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that up to a few days before the Government made the welcome announcement that the Turks would be allowed to go where they wanted, as can any other refugees. I received letters saying that that was impossible on political grounds because it would interfere with political arrangements? The letters were not confidential. I commend on humane grounds what the right hon. Gentleman said, but will he confirm that under international law we have no power to keep people anywhere against their will should they wish to go somewhere else once they have become refugees in our base? I completely support what the right hon. Gentleman said about partition. Does he not agree that the only way to prevent de facto partition is for both sides to get together and hammer out a federal solution?

It is true that we had no right to hold any refugees. The difficulty was that they could not go back to their own homes. I must confess that I modified my view between August and February. At the start I hoped that Mr. Denktash and Mr. Clerides would move fast enough to enable the problem of the refugees—whether Greek or Turkish—to be solved. It became clear that that was not to be, and I had to intervene when I saw the conditions under which the refugees were living. Of course, we have no right to determine where they should go once we have taken the decision that they should be free to leave the area. I do not think that it would be helpful for me to express an opinion at this stage about constitutional arrangements. Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash should get down to this problem as soon as they can and decide on what basis they propose to live together, having excluded—as both have done—the idea of partition.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the commander and the troops of the United Nations forces have a clear mandate as to their rôle? Does he agree that, whereas previously they had a quasi-police function between two indigenous communities, they are now faced with a major invading army and their rôle in that situation must be different? Are they clear about this?

There have been discussions about the nature of their mandate, but I cannot answer that question offhand. If my hon. Friend will put down a Question I will try to give him a detailed answer.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his statement. I was in Cyprus three weeks ago and had talks with Mr. Clerides, Mr. Denktash and Archbishop Makarios. It was generally agreed, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that the best hope of progress was talks between Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash, and that was agreed by the archbishop. Can the right hon. Gentleman throw any light on why there is a deadlock in the talks? Progress was made rapidly at one stage but there now seems to be deadlock. Will the right hon. Gentleman bring pressure to bear on the Turks to release Famagusta so that 60,000 Greek Cypriots can return to the town? Will he express an opinion on whether action by the American Government in withdrawing arms aid to Turkey will help or hinder a possible solution?

In reply to the last part of the question, that is a matter between the United States and Turkey, and I do not think it would be helpful, or indeed proper, for me to express a view on something that is not my responsibility.

As to why the talks have been held up, there has been a dispute about Nicosia airport, which was referred to earlier in this exchange, and that has not been settled. There has been no serious discussion yet on the future constitution. The question of the refugees has reached the stage where there have been discussions about Famagusta, without agreement to open up the port, and there has been the proposal that 5,000 Greek refugees should return behind the Turkish lines, which on the face of it is not very promising given the degree of suspicion between the two communities.

Our powers in this matter are limited unless the House wishes me to embark upon a course of action that would bring down on my head severe criticism. We are confined to making representations and making our position clear. If I am cautious in what I say publicly in the House, that should not necessarily be taken as the degree of caution I exercise in private conversation. Those concerned are aware of our anxiety and our feelings that what it is right to do should be done, and I will continue in that way.

Northern Ireland

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

I have today published a third discussion paper in the series leading up to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention which is to consider
"what provision for the Government of Northern Ireland is likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there".
This third discussion paper covers the sharing of responsibility in government, describes the present structure of government in Northern Ireland including local government and public bodies, identifies some of the main features of possible future patterns of government, and draws attention to how some of these matters have been arranged in other countries which have community problems.

I would remind the House that the Constitutional Convention is entirely a forum for the people of Northern Ireland. It lays on them the task of recommending what form of government is likely to command the most widespread acceptance there. It offers the opportunity for the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to consider what system of government by consent will prove workable in a society divided as it is in Northern Ireland. It will be for those representatives to come together for Northern Ireland and put their views to the Government and to this House for decision.

I would add this. All experience goes to show that no system of government will work unless there is widespread and genuine participation in it. I re-emphasise what I have said before; namely, that
"the direction of public affairs can and must be shared by those from all parts of the community who are concerned for the good of all the people in Northern Ireland. What form this sharing and partnership could best take to gain widespread acceptance will be a matter for the Convention to discuss".
I shall be announcing the name of the chairman in due course.

I think the House will also wish to know of developments since my statement on 14th January. The policy I then outlined contained the elements which could bring an end to violence and set in motion a process of discussion. I sought to get away from the daily catalogue of violence and open the door to a new situation in which discussions and political activity could take place in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere. I also sought to bring about progressively a change in the rôle and commitments of the Army and said that if there were a genuine and sustained cessation of violence I would gradually release all detainees.

These remain the Government's aims.

I also said that I would continue to welcome constructive discussion with members of the prorogued Assembly and that my officials have been, and are, available to hear the views of those in Northern Ireland who have something to contribute to the solution of its problems, including those organisations which were deproscribed by me in May last year and which are free to take part in genuine political activity within the law.

Ministers have had meetings with elected representatives both at Westminster and in Northern Ireland to discuss not only matters arising from my statement but also the economic and employment situation in Northern Ireland, which is a matter of major concern to me and should be to all.

My officials have had a number of meetings with various organisations to follow up the statement I made to this House and the publication of the Gardiner Report. There have been a number of meetings with the Provisional Sinn Fein. I wanted to ensure that the Government's policy was clearly understood. Indeed, it would have been quite wrong if I had not arranged for the Government's views to be fully explained and clarified. The future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland. There is no question of bartering their future away. I should make it clear that I have received indications that the Government's policy was not being understood and also that there was a continued interest in trying to bring under control what has now become worrying but sporadic violence.

My officials have been under very clear instructions to explain the Government's policy and to outline and clarify the arrangements that might be made to ensure that any cease-fire did not break down. Explanation has been the key to the meetings. The difficulties in communicating and explaining carefully and fully the Government's policy, not only to the Provisional Sinn Fein but also to other organisations, are very considerable. These difficulties have not been made any the less by rumour and speculation, much of which has been both untrue and unhelpful.

The Government's policy in relation to violence itself is clear. It is that the actions of the security forces will be related to the level of activity that might occur.

The security forces will do their utmost to bring criminals to justice before the courts, and they are having very considerable success. In the past few days, 34 people have been charged with serious offences, five with murder and two with attempted murder. Nearly a quarter of a ton of explosives have been seized and about half the explosive devices placed have been neutralised by Army technical officers. I cannot accept a situation where lives are at risk through failure to deal with a resumption of violence and sectarian murders. I have, therefore, in relation to acts of recent violence, signed seven interim custody orders during the past few days.

The situation in Northern Ireland is both more fluid and much less clear-cut than has been the case for a long time. There is a different attitude in all sections of the community.

People want to see an end to violence, but they want this to be a genuine, and not a temporary, change in the situation. My duty is clear. I must find out whether there can be a genuine and sustained cessation of violence, but equally I must deal with continuing violence from wherever it comes. I shall do both.

The House is grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and hon. Members will want to read the third discussion paper with great care. It is a useful document, and I do not think it is a harsh criticism to say that it contains nothing very startling.

The House is well aware that the right hon. Gentleman has had a difficult situation to handle in the last six weeks, and, if I may say so, he has handled it very well. Nobody wants to make his position any more difficult. Nevertheless, I am sure he will agree that there is an obvious danger if the meetings with the Sinn Fein go on and on.

In view of what the Secretary of State said about rumour and speculation, I wonder whether there is perhaps too much secrecy about these meetings. Would it perhaps clear the air if further meetings—if there are to be any more meetings—were rather more open?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say in what respects the Sinn Fein still misunderstands the Government's policy and in what respects further explanation is still necessary? We are all glad to learn of the successes of the security forces in the last few days. Will he say to what extent he believes that the IRA has been able to use this period to regroup and to move arms around? Will he assure us that the security forces have not been inhibited in any way in dealing with any regrouping and movement of arms? Finally, does he know whether any of the recent violence has been centrally organised, and, if so, does he agree that this merely increases the resolve and determination of our people not to be intimidated by violence?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's initial remarks. The document which has been published today is in accord with the first two documents. When the Convention meets there will be problems in regard to arrangements and information. Those attending the Convention will find the facts usefully set out in the documents, including factual information about local government, area boards, and the problem of getting the community as a whole involved. The documents deal with important factual matters.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned secrecy. I think it right. I have thought a lot about the matter. It would not be right to say whom my officials have met. There have been meetings with the Provisional Sinn Fein and others on the other side of the community, but they have taken place in Northern Ireland and there has been no question about safe conduct. I think that indicates the nature of the meetings.

Perhaps I should say a word in clarification of what is meant by our policy. It would be easy to talk about a "genuine and sustained cessation of violence". The question is: what does the phrase mean practically? On these matters I am very much led by my security advisers. It is no good my pretending that four months' cease-fire in which arms and detonators are moved about, and in which there is regrouping constitutes any genuine and sustained cessation of violence. The fact that there is no noise looks as though there is not violence, but violence might be being prepared. We all know the kneecapping has been going on in various areas. I want to cover the whole situation because I must not allow myself to be taken in by the phrase "genuine and sustained cessation of violence". There are practical reasons why these matters should be looked at, even though they may be passed on second hand, because just to use the phrase "genuine and sustained cessation of violence" is not enough. I hope that I have clarified that point. I am aware of the dangers. I am gratified by the support that I feel from all parts of the communities. In this situation, as in perhaps more difficult ones from a security point of view, I am also gratified by the firm support that I get from the security authorities.

As the way would appear to be clear for the setting up of the Convention, may I ask the Secretary of State to do his best to arrange for the elections to be held before Easter in view of the obvious difficulties which would arise if they were to be held just prior to the EEC referendum?

Now that the right hon. Gentleman and his officials have taken great care to ensure that the Government's policy is understood by the Provisional Sinn Fein, may we take it that there will be no need for further meetings with the political arm of the IRA, bearing in mind the damaging effects of the rumours and untruths which inevitably surround such talks?

I am very much aware of the situation regarding the date. I shall have to announce the name of the chairman, and I hope to do that soon. I am aware, and will certainly take account, of the EEC referendum. It is most important to get the preparatory work done. It is not a question of merely explaining the policy side. It has been borne in on me by my security advisers that we must be clear about what is meant by "genuine, sustained cessation of violence". I am keen that the meaning of that phrase is explained and passed through, because it is an important anchor for all that I want to do. It must be clear for the benefit of the security forces particularly and people in general what I understand by that. Overall, I should tell the hon. Gentleman, who represents a large part of the community in Northern Ireland, that I understand the views and the fears of the community. Perhaps I understand them more now than ever I did. There are people in all parts of Ireland—I am not referring to the Church men—who like to give an indication that they are in the game, but the large number of people who are satisfying their amour propre in that way are not. Matters reached a pitch in Belfast where it seemed that everybody was negotiating except me. I know who is helping me. Therefore, I know how to evaluate some of the stuff that is given to the Press.

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is the overwhelming wish of the House that the initiative for the Constitutional Convention will be a success? Is he aware that the best service that could be rendered to him, having made a clear statement, would be for the communities in Northern Ireland not to read into it what was not said and to infer from that what was not also said? That has been one of the diseases in Northern Ireland with ministerial statements during the last 15 years. If it is any consolation, as an expatriate and half Irishman. I understood clearly what the right hon. Gentleman said and found myself in full support.

Does the right hon. Gentleman take the view that all sections of the community with which he has come into contact are prepared to support this initiative for elections to lead to a Constitutional Convention? There are those who are opposed to it or would boycott it. Will he at the appropriate time make clear who they are?

What are the conditions which have to be satisfied before the right hon. Gentleman is able to announce the date for the holding of those elections?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in wishing to represent and see represented all shades of opinion, he is merely giving effect, quite properly, to the views taken by Lord Kilbrandon in another context, on which we hope the Government will not have double standards?

On the last matter about Kilbrandon, the whole question of devolved government has emerged over many years going back to the days when the Liberal Party was in power. One factor regarding Northern Ireland which is not present in the two other parts of the United Kingdom is the split society there, culturally at least, which exists in a way that I had never imagined. It is a factor that we must take into account in the method that we are trying to follow for getting the views of the people of Northern Ireland. That was the reason for the Convention which the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) often proposed to one of my predecessors. I remember listening to him saying that it was up to the Government at Westminster at the end of the day to decide.

If Kilbrandon is talking of devolved government, it is not talking of the particular problems of Northern Ireland with its history and culture. Many sections in the community will play a part, and I am sure that the main political parties will play their part. The difficulty is that those who have been used to getting what they want by violence will find it extremely difficult to trust the ballot box. But I am sure that the major political parties will play their part. They can speak for themselves.

Regarding the holding of the elections and the conditions, I do not want to be put in the position that we were in, before, when a date was announced and, for a variety of reasons, it had to be postponed. I will give a month's notice. I want to feel that the people of Northern Ireland can make up their minds calmly about the kind of government that they want in that part of the United Kingdom.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the more he talks, either directly or through officials, to as many interested bodies as possible in Northern Ireland and maintains that a diminution of violence is to be accepted, we should not be in too much of a hurry to bring such talks to an end? Will he tell us whether he and the security forces are able to distinguish between acts of violence which are obviously provisional IRA official acts, if one may call them that, and the acts of those who are loosely termed cowboys? Will he also tell us whether, because he has resorted again to ICOs, he will make an interim statement on that part of the Gardiner Committee's Report which refers to the problems of dealing with people interned in that manner?

The Gardiner Committee's Report is long, detailed and valuable. I am looking at it with the aid of my legal advisers. I will make a report on that aspect as soon as possible. My hon. Friend will recall that the report was clear that there was a place for detention, given the problems of Northern Ireland, and that the ending of it was a political matter. That is what I tried to indicate on 14th January when I made my initial statement.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's words about the diminution of violence. Of course that is right. But it must not be the ending of violence at any price. I must look at that matter very carefully. It is right that without violence people would not be driven back to their tribal homes—I say that in no derogatory sense—to which many of them belong.

Regarding distinguishing between acts of violence, I choose my words carefully and give the security advice that I have had. There is no doubt that during the cessation of violence—the cease-fire, not a truce—it was clear that it could be turned on and off. There are breakaway groups. It is sometimes not possible for me to be advised clearly on who is responsible for what. Even if we were to obtain a genuine cessation of violence, there might be more splinter groups, because people who have been used to using the gun for four or five years find it difficult to break away from that kind of activity.

Further on the Gardiner Report, does the Secretary of State recognise the urgency of an early announcement on the recommendations of the Gardiner Committee which are highly relevant to the current position? In that context will he consider the possibility of dealing, if necessary separately, with those recommendations which are uncontroversial and could be implemented quickly?

I promise to do that. My legal advisers are looking closely at the legal aspects of those parts which need an amendment of legislation. They need to look at that in detail. I should like to mention one other point underlying the Gardiner recommendations about prison administration and prison accommodation. I am faced, as was the previous administration, with poor prison accommodation for dealing with prisoners in the way in which we understand it should done over here. At the moment, my officials are, in a different context, going through planning appeals and so on with regard to the needs of the new prisons. People feel strongly when a prison is built in their area. As much as I need new prisons so that I can have a proper policy, I cannot move in advance of the prison accommodation.

I welcome this document in so far as it restates Government policy that the evolution of any future political structure in Northern Ireland must enjoy the support of both sections and communities in Northern Ireland.

On the question of negotiations which the Secretary of State has had with the elected representatives in Northern Ireland and with the political parties, can he give us any indication as to what is the attitude of those parties towards power sharing, participation and partnership in any future Government? Has any one of those parties or any number of those parties stated clearly that they will not take part in partnership in government with the minority in Northern Ireland?

From the discussions that the Secretary of State has had with the Sinn Fein, is the Secretary of State now in a position to say whether he has clarified once and for all what is its attitude to this Government? Will there be any further discussions? Does he recognise that the attitude of some of the major political parties in Northern Ireland towards non-acceptance of partnership in government is leading to a continuation of violence and is some sort of justification to the men of violence for carrying on with their campaign?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about Government policy.

With regard to the views of the elected representatives, my hon. Friend puts me in some difficulty, because I think it is for parties to speak for themselves rather than through me. As I read the feelings in the communities in recent weeks, my strong feeling is that those who will work for the good of a united Ireland, from whatever community they come, will do more for Northern Ireland in the long run than all the feuding and fighting that has gone on over 50 years. It is in that context of Northern Ireland that I say to my hon. Friend that I see the value of power sharing.

I have given my views with regard to the Siam Fein and the practical aspects of what might be at the end of the day a genuine cessation of violence. Those practicalities concern the men of violence, and at second hand I presume that what my officials say gets through. Those are not subjects I talk about with the elected representatives.

While welcoming the Secretary of State's assurance that his decision when to start a general release of detainees must be governed by security advice, may I ask whether he thinks that there might be something to be said for fixing a definite period of time free of terrorism which must elapse before such a happy outcome can begin? After all, when we speak of playing cat and mouse it is very often the terrorist who plays cat and mouse—not the Secretary of State.

With regard to the question of cat-and-mouse bargaining, that is a game which I do not wish to play. That is why I said that everybody must be clear what is meant by "genuine sustained cessation of violence". I would not want to set a date, because we could have a period free of violence for a time when it looked on the surface as if all was well but if we went beneath it we should know that a great deal was going on.

On the question of the detainees and the cat-and-mouse game, in terms of the executive releases the republican candidates are not appearing before the commissioners at the moment. I do not want to be involved in a cat-and-mouse game. I have put forward Government policy as to how we can end it. That does not mean that people will not be released in between for other reasons, on both sides of the community fence, but not in the cat-and-mouse aspect. I have to take humanitarian aspects into account from time to time. However, overall the way to end detention is clear and simple. Let us stop violence in Northern Ireland. Let us stop the killing. There was the instance last week of the killing of the ATC boy of 16, whose father spoke so bravely after the death of his son and said he did not feel angry against anybody in the community. I could not have said that. Then there was the murder of the young boy down in Forkhill, who was blown up. In the face of that, for God's sake let us stop it, and then we can end detention. The killing of the RUC sergeant last week is an equally bad example.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that success in Northern Ireland is not measurable in any way in terms of the number of people gaoled or interned? Does he agree further that those people who see the military defeat of the IRA as being the final solution to the problem of Northern Ireland might just as well attempt to plough the ocean? Will he agree finally that the unbending of the majority community towards the minority in a democratic manner is the ultimate solution, and the only solution? To the extent that the Ulster Unionist Members help us towards that, they will thereby solve not only the problems of the minority in Northern Ireland but precisely their own problems as well.

I do not see the job that I do in any numerical way, not only with regard to detainees. It is not measurable. That is why I now say that I have a feeling that things are different, but I could not quantify it. I am looking not for victory but for peace. But I am not looking for a phoney peace. I am looking for a genuine, sustained cessation of violence. That is what I have to measure, not numerically. I have to measure what can be done to see that it is achieved. The best way for the communities in Northern Ireland to work together is to share power for the good of Northern Ireland. I believe that can be done after five years of what, in effect, is war.

Is the Minister aware that the Provisional Irish Republican Army has publicly announced that it was responsible for the dastardly shooting of the police sergeant and also for the serious wounding of another police constable? Will he confirm today that those policemen were coming from protection duty at the home of a prominent member of the SDLP? Will he also confirm that the SDLP is the one political party in Northern Ireland with elected representatives which does not support the police, and which at its conference refused a call to support the police? Will he tell us whether he was the member of the Government who authorised the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) to say at that conference that the Government had made up their mind and would announce the release of 100 detainees?

With regard to the killing of the policeman, whoever was responsible —whether directly, or authorised, or otherwise—it was a dastardly deed. The security forces do not need my permission—they know they have it—to seek out whoever did it and bring them to justice. That is true of any other killing in Northern Ireland, all of which—to use the words we have used so many times before—sows the seeds of hatred in the future.

With regard to support for the police, my responsibility is to the Government. I know of the changes that have taken place. I know that the only way to reduce the rôle of the Army is for the police to play a larger rôle. The police in Northern Ireland have my firm support. I speak for the Government. I cannot speak for anybody else.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether those men were on official duty. They had called recently at the home of a member of the SDLP. I know, in his individual case, how sad he feels about it, and I know of the support which he gives to the police, which is different from the political aspects about which I think the hon. Gentleman is talking.

Bill Presented

Air Travel Reserve Fund

Mr. Secretary Shore, supported by Mr. Secretary Callaghan, Mrs. Secretary Williams, Mr. Secretary Ross, Mr. Secretary John Morris, Dr. John Gilbert, Mr. Eric Deakins, and Mr. S. Clinton Davis presented a Bill to make provision for establishing a fund from which payments may be made in certain cases in respect of losses or liabilities incurred by customers of air travel organisers in consequence of the inability of the air travel organisers to meet their financial commitments in respect of certain descriptions of travel contracts, and for establishing an agency to hold, manage and apply the fund; to provide for requiring contributions from air travel organisers for the purposes of the fund; to provide for loans to the agency by the Secretary of State; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 77.]

Abolition Of Peerage

4.30 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide (except in respect of members of the Royal Family) for the extinction of all titles attaching peerages, for the cessation on death or statutory renunciation of all hereditary rights to attend as a Member of the House of Lords, and for the appointment of Senators as Members of the House, including the conversion of present life Peers.
This is a very modest measure, and it may be that some of my hon. Friends will say that it is too modest. When I sought on 11th June last year to introduce an almost identical measure, it was attacked by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) on the spurious and irrelevant ground that it was a piece of creeping republicanism. Since any question of republicanism is an entirely separate question of great importance in itself, for the avoidance of doubt the wording of this Bill specifically excludes it from the scope of its operations. The Bill is not concerned with republicanism.

I should say straight away what else the Bill is not concerned with, because it is not concerned with the merits or demerits of the existence of a second Chamber. In past years, every time that anyone has attempted to investigate the peerage, his inquiries have been bedevilled by the overlapping but distinct question of whether there should be a second Chamber.

The object of this Bill is simply to expunge the archaic and ridiculous feudal titles which most Government supporters regard with derision if not complete indifference. In one minor respect it can be said to impinge on the question of a second Chamber, though not on the question of its existence, because it also seeks to remove the hereditary right to sit in the second Chamber so long as that second Chamber continues to exist.

No other modern society confers titles with the pretentious nomenclature of duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. In almost every case the creation of such titles lapsed no later than the end of the First World War. Some countries abandoned them many years before. To take a pertinent example, the French did so a long time before the 1914–18 war. What is more, in the last few days President Giscard d'Estaing has said that he intends to abolish the titles which survive from French monarchical days when they were created in large numbers, some 1,500 of which are believed to survive.

It is clear that for a number of years there has been a tacit, unexpressed understanding between our two leading political parties that no further hereditary titles should be created, at any rate outside the scope of the Royal Family. None has been created since the Resignation Honours List of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, now Lord Home of Hirsel, and none was recommended during the time that the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was Prime Minister.

That contrasts with the situation with regard to baronetcies after 1951. The House will recollect that between 1945 and 1951 the Attlee Government, most daringly, abandoned the creation of baronetcies. When the Conservatives returned to office in 1951, they resumed the creation of these titles as well as continuing to create hereditary titles on an ever-increasing scale which reached its climax during the Macmillan years. But, that apart, the system has been falling into gradual disuse.

No non-Royal dukes have been created since 1900, and even that one was for a person marrying into the Royal Family. No marquess has been created since 1936. Even in the case of Prime Ministers and Lord Chancellors, who by tradition have been entitled on retirement to earldoms, since the Second World War there have been only two cases of each—Attlee and Eden, and Jowitt and Kilmuir. It is clear that this is a system which slowly has been dying.

The ridiculous situation is that, although the system of creating new peerages has, to all intents and purposes ceased, apart from these absurd life peerages, there are a sufficient number of them in existence to survive for many centuries. We are left with a situation where the peerage, far from becoming more democratic, year by year becomes less, and where its members are few enough in number to constitute an élite and not sufficient in number to be totally insignificant socially.

If this measure passed into law, one consequence would be that the political imbalance in the other place would be redressed quickly. As title holders died off having no rights of inheritance to pass on, the balance that we have always known in this century of one party governing the House of Lords might reasonably be expected to alter.

I hope that my choice of the word "senator", which is in many ways of even greater antiquity than that of "peer", will not deter hon. Members from supporting my Bill. Although it is of greater antiquity, it has democratic connotations by virtue of its association with a number of elected chambers. As I have said already, my Bill has nothing to do with whether we want the continuance of another Chamber. For what it is worth, I feel that there is a marginal case for a wholly consultative Chamber with no powers save that of textual revision. But that is a matter of secondary importance.

As I have also said already, the Bill is not concerned with whether the monarchy shall continue to exist, and, for the avoidance of doubt, I have incorporated words to put that on one side. If any question concerning the monarchy arises, I cannot believe that so radical a constitutional departure could be made without the full-hearted consent of Parliament and the people, just as this Government will not make any change in the British constitution with regard to the Common Market without the full-hearted consent of Parliament and the people.

Does the hon. Gentleman rise to oppose the motion?

I do, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not believe that such a root and branch reform as this Bill proposes should be introduced in this way by a Private Member.

More fundamentally, the Bill is objectionable in itself in that it seeks to make a violent, almost revolutionary, change in the constitution of this ancient Kingdom. The constitution has been refined and handed down to us over the centuries. It is in part monarchic, in part aristocratic and in part democratic. I know that in the end this House usually gets its own way and that the democratic principle is finally supreme. But the checks and balances in our constitution are also important and play their part in our national life.

Like the monarchy, the House of Lords provides for continuity in British politics. With its roots in the distant past, it gives a much needed stability to our constitution. In an age where we have far too many changes, the Lords themselves, by their very presence, represent something abiding and unchanging.

There is a further problem in the Bill. Our present system of two-Chamber government works—and works so well as to be the envy of the world, and that is so, however much a few hon. Members opposite may laugh. Thousands of people come every year to see it at work. The Bill proposes the appointment of senators. The difficulties entailed in such a proposal were fully explored in 1968, when the matter was last debated at large in the House.

I believe that the strength of the Lords is due in part to the very illogicality of their selection—due perhaps to the workings of an inscrutable Providence, which produces a level of competence among hereditary peers which is quite as high as, and is often higher than, in this place, where we all arrive by a somewhat different route.

The Bill would have the effect of further isolating the monarchy, and in this connection I deplore the fact that since 1964 no further hereditary peerages have been created. Whatever the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr Lee) may have said, this realm is not a republic and the hereditary peers support the hereditary monarchy. We must not make the mistake in this House of thinking that we are the only popular people. The English people love a lord and have a great love for the other place.

The great virtue of the other place—or at least of those who entered it because their fathers were there before them—is that they were trained for the position for an early age. They were born to it, and they bear its responsibilities gladly,

Division No. 83.]


[4.45 p.m.

Allaun, FrankAtkinson, NormanBray, Dr Jeremy
Anderson, DonaldBain, Mrs MargaretBrown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Archer, PeterBates, AlfBuchan, Norman
Ashton, JoeBidwell, SydneyBuchanan, Richard
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Booth, AlbertButler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)

both in peace and in war, where their record is second to none. They never have to play to the gallery but can speak their minds fully—and that is important in what is otherwise an almost wholly democratic society, dominated by the media and obsessed with the trivial, the trendy and the so-callecl progressive.

I believe that the ordinary people whom we in this House claim to represent still look up to the aristocracy of this nation and consider them a vital part of our constitution. I believe that the age of chivalry is not dead. The Lords are considered honest, brave and true, and many ordinary people would prefer to be ruled by a 14th earl than by a 14th Mr. So-and-so. There is no feeling whatever of Watergate about the Lords. They provide colour and pageantry, and remind us of our glorious past in this somewhat drab epoch. Their close association is with the land, and people like to see estates passing from father to son.

It is said that we live in the age of the common man, and those who hear this debate may feel like echoing that. The Bill would make us commoner still. The strength of this country lies in our traditions and in our high standards, and even hon. Members opposite, who may laugh now, if they by some extraordinary turn of fortune's wheel are moved to the other place, quickly develop a mellowness and independence which go hand in hand with their new status and privileges.

Finally, I believe that this Bill would upset the balance of the constitution, would deprive the nation of the unstinted services of a valuable section of our society, and would make a sudden change which is neither necessary nor desired. I hope, therefore, that the House will deny leave for the Bill to be brought in.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 ( Motions for leave to bring in bills and nominations of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 150, Noes 168.

Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Hughes, Roy (Newport)Roderick, Caerwyn
Campbell, IanJackson, Miss M. (Lincoln)Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Canavan, DennisJenkins, Hugh (Putney)Rooker, J. W.
Carmichael, NeilJohn, BrynmorRoper, John
Clemitson, IvorJohnson, Walter (Derby S)Rose, Paul B.
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)Johnston, Russell (Inverness)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)Jones, Alec (Rhondda)Rowlands, Ted
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Jones, Barry (East Flint)Sedgemore, Brian
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)Jones, Dan (Burnley)Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)
Crawford, DouglasJudd, FrankSillars, James
Cronin, JohnKelley, RichardSilverman, Julius
Deakins, EricKerr, RussellSkinner, Dennis
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Kilroy-Silk, RobertSmall, William
Doig, PeterLamond, JamesSmith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Eadie, AlexLee, JohnStallard, A. W.
Edge, GeoffLewis, Arthur (Newham N)Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)Litterick, TomStewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)Mabon, Dr J. DicksonStewart, Rt Hn M. (Fulham)
English, MichaelMcNamara, KevinStott, Roger
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Madden, MaxStrang, Gavin
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Marks, KennethTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Evans, John (Newton)Marquand, DavidThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Ewing, Harry (Stirling)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray)Meacher, MichaelThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Fitt, Gerard (Belfast W)Mikardo, IanThompson, George
Flannery, MartinMiller, Dr M. S. (E. Kilbride)Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N)Tomlinson, John
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen)Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
Forrester, JohnMorris, Charles R. (Openshaw)Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Newsns, StanleyWard, Michael
George, BruceOrme, Rt Hon StanleyWatkins, David
Golding, JohnOvenden, JohnWatkinson, John
Gould, BryanPadley, WalterWatt, Hamish
Graham, TedPalmer, ArthurWelsh, Andrew
Grant, John (Islington C)Pardoe, JohnWhite, Frank R. (Bury)
Grocott, BrucePark, GeorgeWigley, Dafydd
Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Pavitt, LaurieWilliams, Alan (Swansea W)
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Penhaligon, DavidWilliams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Hardy, PeterPerry, ErnestWilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Hatton, FrankPhipps, Dr ColinWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Heffer, Eric S.Prescott, JohnWilson, William (Coventry SE)
Henderson, DouglasPrice, C. (Lewisham W)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Hooson, EmlynPrice, William (Rugby)Young, David (Bolton E)
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)Radice, GilesTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hoyle, Douglas (Nelson)Reid, GeorgeMr. Gwilym Roberts and
Hughes, Mark (Durham)Richardson, Miss JoMr. Eddie Loyden.


Adley, RobertDavies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)Hayhoe, Barney
Aitken, JonathanDean, Paul (N Somerset)Higgins, Terence L.
Amery, Rt Hon JulianDodsworth, GeoffreyHolland, Philip
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesHordern, Peter
Baker, KennethDrayson, BurnabyHowe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Banks, RobertDurant, TonyHowell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Bell, RonaldDykes, HughHutchison, Michael Clark
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torboy)Eden, Rt Hon Sir JohnIrvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)
Benyon, W.Elliott, Sir WilliamJames, David
Berry, Hon AnthonyEyre, ReginaldJenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)
Biggs-Davison, JohnFairbairn, NicholasJessel, Toby
Boscawen, Hon RobertFairgrieve, RussellJones, Arthur (Daventry)
Brittan, LeonFarr, JohnJopling, Michael
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Fell, AnthonyKellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Bryan, Sir PaulFinsberg, GeoffreyKing, Evelyn (South Dorset)
Buchanan-Smith, AlickFisher, Sir NigelKing, Tom (Bridgwater)
Buck, AntonyFletcher-Cooke, CharlesKitson, Sir Timothy
Budgen, NickFookes, Miss JanetLangford-Holt, Sir John
Bulmer, EsmondGardiner, George (Reigate)Latham, Michael (Melton)
Butler, Adam (Bosworth)Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham)Le Marchant, Spencer
Carr, Rt Hon RobertGlyn, Dr AlanLester, Jim (Beeston)
Chalker, Mrs LyndaGoodhart, PhilipLewis, Kenneth (Rutland)
Channon, PaulGoodhew, VictorLloyd, Ian
Churchill, W. S.Gorst, JohnLuce, Richard
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)McAdden, Sir Stephen
Clegg, WalterGower, Sir Raymond (Barry)McCrindle, Robert
Cockcroft, JohnGrist, IanMacmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)Grylls, MichaelMcNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)
Cope, JohnHall-Davis, A. G. F.Madel, David
Cormack, PatrickHamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Corrie, JohnHampson, Dr KeithMarten, Neil
Costain, A. P.Hannam, JohnMather, Carol
Critchley, JulianHastings, StephenMaude, Angus
Crouch, DavidHawkins, PaulMaudling, Rt Hon Reginald

Mawby, RayRees, Peter (Dover & Deal)Stainton, Keith
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinRees-Davies, W. R.Stokes, John
Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)Stradling Thomas, J.
Moate, RogerRhys Williams, Sir BrandonTaylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Molyneaux, JamesRidley, Hon NicholasTebbit, Norman
Moore, John (Croydon C)Ridsdale, JulianTownsend, Cyril D.
More, Jasper (Ludlow)Rifkind, MalcolmTrotter, Neville
Morgan, GeraintRoberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)Tugendhat, Christopher
Morrison, Charles (Devizes)Roberts, Wyn (Conway)Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Morrison, Peter (Chester)Ross, William (Londonderry)Wakeham, John
Mudd, DavidRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Neave, AireyRoyle, Sir AnthonyWalker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Nelson, AnthonySainsbury, TimWalters, Dennis
Neubert, MichaelSt. John-Stevas, NormanWarren, Kenneth
Normanton, TomScott, NicholasWeatherill, Bernard
Onslow, CranleyShelton, William (Streatham)Wells, John
Page, John (Harrow West)Shepherd, ColinWiggin, Jerry
Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)Shersby, MichaelWinterton, Nicholas
Paisley, Rev IanSinclair, Sir GeorgeYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Percival, IanSkeet, T. H. H.Younger, Hon George
Powell, Rt Hon J. EnochSpeed, KeithTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Rathbone, TimSpicer, Jim (W Dorset)Mr. Ivor Stanbrook and
Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir PeterSproat, IainMr. Michael Brotherton.

Question accordingly negatived.

I observe that no one declared an interest in that discussion.

Oredrs Of The Day

Housing Rents And Subsidies (Scotland) Bill

As amended ( in the Standing Committee), considered.

New Clause 1

Limitation Of Rent Increases Under Rent Agreement Where No Rent Is Registered For Dwelling-House Under Regulated Tenancy

' .—(1) Where no rent is registered for a dwelling-house under a regulated tenancy (whether granted before or after the commencement of this Act), the rent payable in any contractual period beginning after such commencement may not be increased, by virtue of any rent agreement (whether made before or after such commencement), above the appropriate maximum amount specified in this section.

(2) In the case of any rent agreement which took effect before the commencement of this Act, the maximum amount to which the rent may be increased in terms of subsection (1) above is, for a rental period which begins—

  • (a) during the year beginning with the commencement of this Act, or
  • (b) during a subsequent year beginning with an anniversary of such commencement,
  • the amount which, for the last rental period beginning before the relevant year referred to in head ( a) or ( b) above, was payable by way of rent, having regard to the provisions of any enactment, plus £1·50 per week.

    (3) In the case of any rent agreement which takes effect on or after the commencement of this Act, the maximum amount to which the rent may be increased in terms of subsection (1) above is, for a rental period which begins—

  • (a) during the first year of the period beginning with the date when the rent agreement takes effect, or
  • (b) during a subsequent year beginning with an anniversary of that date,
  • the amount which, for the last rental period beginning before the relevant year referred to in head ( a) or ( b) above, was payable by way of rent, having regard to the provisions of any enactment, plus £1·50 per week.

    (4) There shall be disregarded for the purposes of this section such part of any increase of rent (in a case where any rates in respect of the dwelling-house are borne by the landlord) as corresponds to any increase in the rates so borne, ascertained in accordance with Schedule 4 to the 1971 Act.

    (5) Any rent agreement made before or after the commencement of this Act which purports to increase the rent payable thereunder at any time above that permitted at that time under this section shall have effect to increase the rent to the extent so permitted but no further.

    (6) Paragraph 6A of Schedule 2 to this Act shall apply for the purposes of this section as it applies for the purposes of that Schedule.

    (7) The Secretary of State may by order substitute, for the sum of £1·50 mentioned in subsections (2) and (3) above, a sum other than that sum.

    (8) An order under subsection (7) above shall be made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament, and may be varied or revoked by a subsequent order made under that subsection.

    (9) In this section, "rent agreement" means a rent agreement with a tenant having security of tenure within the meaning of section 42(1) of the 1972 Act, and, unless the context otherwise requires, any expression used in this section which is also used in Part III or IV of the 1971 Act shall have the same meaning as in those Parts.'.—[ Mr. Hugh D. Brown.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    4.51 p.m.

    I beg to move, That the clause be now read a Second time.

    It will be convenient, I think, to discuss at the same time Government Amendments Nos. 14, 15, 16, 17, 25 and 27.

    Now that we have ensured that the aristocracy can sleep easy tonight, perhaps we can get on with this important business.

    The new clause is lengthy, but it sets out a simple proposition. It and the amendments grouped with it are connected by the principle that rents in the private sector should not be permitted to rise by more than £1·50 per week in any year. The new clause applies this limit to rent agreements and the new sub-paragraph (4) which Amendment No. 17 would add to paragraph 3 of Schedule 2 applies it to registered rents which are being phased. There is one small difference between the two categories—where a registered rent is being paid, the service element is not to count as part of the increase, in the same way that it is discounted when the amount of each phased increase is calculated. This cannot be applied to rent agreements because no such separate amount is identified in their case.

    The amendments also give the Secretary of State power to vary the amount of the maximum increase. It is clearly possible that inflation over the next few years might make it necessary to alter the present figure of £1·50 to keep it in line with changing money values.

    There are two issues involved in this group of amendments—the need for a maximum limit on rent increases; and the level at which that maximum should be set. We need a maximum limit because, as a result of the automatic decontrol programme begun by the 1972 Act, several thousand controlled tenancies have had fair rents registered. It is inevitable that fair rents will in some cases be very much higher than rents which may not have changed very much since as long ago as 1914. It is only a fairly small percentage of rents—about 10 per cent. of registrations—which are increased by more than 75p per week with phasing applied but it is a problem which we cannot ignore.

    Housing is a basic living cost and counter-inflationary measures must bite particularly hard on such unavoidable expenditure. The whole purpose of the phasing provisions of this Bill is to make sure that necessary rent increases take place as gradually as possible so that inflation is restrained as far as it can be. In most cases division of rent increases into three phased stages reduces them to a size which is compatible with this principle but we must have a second line of defence against inflation for the small percentage of cases which do face very substantial increases. The maximum increase proposed in these amendments is the most effective way of doing this.

    5.0 p.m.

    Rents will still be able to be reregistered after three years even if the previous registered rent had not been reached because of the maximum increase and a new round of phasing would allow the rent to move gradually to a fair rent without, in all probability, involving the maximum increase. Such cases would be likely only where overall increases of the order of £300 are due to be made.

    Obviously, the level at which the maximum should be fixed is something on which everyone will have their own ideas and there can be no monopoly of right in such a situation. A figure of £1·50 is indeed a high figure, but there are good reasons for its being so. It is designed to confer very real benefits on those tenants who—with or without stautory phasing operating—are faced with very large increases in rent; these increases are undoubtedly a counter-inflation concern. At the same time, it is pitched high enough not to make inroads into the progression of any significant numbers of rents towards fair rent levels; they therefore are consistent with our aim to move away from historic low rents and all their attendant problems.

    As these amendments stand at present we are laying the ground for the gradual rise to a fair rents level for all regulated tenancies at the same time as conferring a very real benefit on those tenants who would otherwise face completely unacceptable rent increases. I hope therefore that the House will support me in proposing this new clause and associated amendments.

    Although the Minister has said that this is a simple point, he will accept that the amendments are rather complex. It is unfortunate that we did not have the opportunity of discussing them in Committee. We could have gone into them more thoroughly with more notice. However, I have a few questions about them.

    First, the Minister mentioned that this is a clause which should bring some benefits to tenants. He mentioned that it covered both agreements and new registrations of rent. Will he indicate how many tenants might be affected by the new clause? I think that the number will probably be small, because obviously only where there is an increase over three years of £225 will this have any effect.

    Second, why has the Minister introduced this provision in this Bill, when I understand that there has been no similar move in the Bill that relates to England and Wales? My understanding is that registrations in England and Wales tend to be higher than they have been in Scotland, although it is difficult to make any general comparison. There has been no indication that English rents have been registered at any lower level. Why was the move made here?

    My third general question is whether the Minister does not feel that this new clause might undermine the principle of the rent assessment committees' work and of fair rents, because the rent assessment committees, when meeting to determine rents, bear in mind what would be a fair return for landlords after a period of three years. It would appear that this would interfere with that.

    As I have said, we have had little time to consider this proposal. Will the Minister give an undertaking—without commitment, of course—that between now and the next stage of the Bill, which will be its consideration by the House of Lords, he will give consideration to anomalies which might arise from the new clause? I say this because although it may sound fair and reasonable to impose a £1·50 per week limit on rent increases, much depends on where one starts from. If one starts from a rent of, say, £5 or £6 a week, that is obviously different from the case of starting from, say, 50p a week. Between now and the next stage of the Bill, will the Government consider whether there might not be a case for saying that the new clause should apply only to cases in which the fair rent or a reasonable percentage thereof has been established, or cases in which the rent paid was, say, £1 a week or £2 a week?

    I think that there is a danger that the clause may produce a number of anomalies in our Scottish scene, where we have some rents at a relatively high level and some at a low level. Is the Minister willing to consider the anomalies which may arise as a result of the clause?

    I quite accept that this is a small group with which we are dealing. I should not like to put precise figures on it, but it is certainly about 100. Therefore, it is not a major problem but is confined to one group, of which we know, and possibly some of the higher rented houses in fairly good areas. So I am not over-stressing the value of it. Nevertheless, we do know that it will be helpful to a small group, and we think that it is an element of justice to put a maximum limit when we have set one in the council sector, albeit it is a different sum.

    It is true, as the hon. Gentleman says, that there is no comparable provision in the Bill that relates to England and Wales. It is to our credit that we have produced something that meets a prob- lem in Scotland. I do not think that it is any less significant because of that.

    I have had personal discussions, informally, with various people involved in operating rent assessment committees. I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that it will not upset the fair rents principle. We are not changing that in any way. The hon. Gentleman can take that as a firm assurance.

    The hon. Gentleman specifically asked me about an undertaking. I do not think that any Government or draftsman are ever completely confident that what they are trying to do does not produce anomalies or some effects that were not foreseen. I am reasonably confident that we have got this about right, but it would be totally wrong of me to suggest that we are always perfect. I do not say that. The hon. Gentleman may have a point. I am not saying that he has, because I have not examined his suggestion in any detail. If the hon. Gentleman would care to submit any details to me, I should certainly be willing to study them with interest. But I should not like to commit myself, because I am reasonably confident that we have got it about right. I do not undertake to give the hon. Gentleman any specific assurance that we intend to alter it at the House of Lords stage.

    I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to resist giving any assurance, as has been suggested, that the maximum limit should be greater where the current rent is smaller. It may, indeed, be a valid point that there is a long way for a 50p rent to go before it reaches the fair rent level, but it is in precisely these cases that a tenant is faced with much greater percentage increases in the weekly rent.

    We also have to remember that any tenant paying this kind of rent—by implication, still under rent control—is a tenant who has not changed his tenancy for the last 20 years or so, say, since 1957. The vast majority, therefore, are pensioners. Irrespective of any consideration of income, they are the very people who find it most difficult to adjust quickly to a sudden change in their rent payment, particularly when it reflects percentage increases of 300 per cent., 400 per cent., or 500 per cent. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will not—I am sure that he will not—give any ground here towards setting a higher maximum figure where the rent is lower.

    My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned that the figure was rather high. He indicated that there can be no consensus on the figure because every hon. Member will have his own idea of what the appropriate figure should be. He will, however, I am sure, concede that the figure he has chosen of £78 per annum is precisely double the figure of £39 per annum that is suggested in the Bill for the council or public sector.

    How was it that the Government fixed on a figure so markedly different from that for the public sector? What equity is it that the private tenant should be faced with a maximum figure which is double that applicable to the council tenant, especially when there is a body of evidence before us which shows consistently that private tenants have significantly lower incomes than council tenants, as hon. Members opposite are fond of stressing?

    I was also distressed to hear my hon. Friend say that the Government wanted to get away from the historic rent basis in the private sector. That is a little unfortunate, as we appear elsewhere in the Bill to be placing the council sector firmly on the historic rent basis. It will be difficult for those like myself who represent very few council tenants but a very large number of private tenants to explain to our constituents why the legal maximum figure in their case is double that for the council sector and why the figure for the council sector has been fixed on an historic rents basis whereas in their case it is thought fair and proper that we should as quickly as possible get away from that very basis.

    This is the other side of the argument. I did not say that I would give ground on the point that was raised. If I were to say now that I am flexible, that would be a mistake. As I am never too dogmatic, I said that if somebody suggests to me that we have done something which can stand being looked at again because it may give rise to anomalies, and if I were given evidence for that, I would look at it. I gave no assurance that I would take any action in another place.

    The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) has made is quite a good one. A maximum increase of £1·50 is a lot if we are talking in terms of a rent of £1 a week. However, the level could have been anything. Some might argue that it might have been £50 per year, some might say £100, some even less. It is just what we think, on balance, is reasonable.

    I know that it is tempting to make a comparison between the private sector and the council sector, but there are so many factors that tend to make comparisons difficult. I referred to historic low rents and all their attendant problems. That is different from the phrase which tends to be used in terms of council tenants. I do not think that my hon. Friend should make too much of that phrase. In arriving at this figure we have borne in mind that rent allowances are available.

    This is usually what happens when one tries to arrive at a fair figure. I am criticised by both sides. That encourages me in my belief that we have the figure about right. I hope that the House will accept the new clause and the related amendments.

    We should be grateful for small mercies. The Under-Secretary has made it clear that he is not giving a specific assurance but that, if there are any anomalies, he is willing to look at them before the Bill goes to the House of Lords. On that basis, I am happy to recommend my hon. Friends to support the clause.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

    Clause 1

    New System Of Rents For Public Sector Housing

    I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 3 and 4.

    This is a drafting amendment. It is fairly insignificant and needs no further explanation.

    The Minister proposes to leave out the words:

    "have regard to the terms of their rebate scheme under section 15 of the 1972 Act".
    Section 15(1) of the 1972 Act states:
    "It shall be the duty of every local authority to bring into operation not later than 1st October 1972 a scheme for granting to persons who occupy as their homes houses to which the local authority's housing revenue account relates and which are let to them by the local authority rebates from rent, calculated in accordance with the provisions of the scheme by reference to their needs and their resources."
    The important words are:
    "by reference to their needs and their resources".
    Surely local authorities should have regard to the needs and resources of those paying rent—for example, those who are disabled or persons on very low incomes who may not be able to afford the rent in question. Surely local authorities should not allow the cases of those in special need to go by default. Why does the Minister wish to omit these words?

    5.15 p.m.

    It is never wise to argue with a lawyer. However, this is still a drafting amendment. No particular category of people is involved. The amendment is designed to tidy up a possible misinterpretation of the 1972 Act, where the fact that there were rent rebates available could be used in determining rent levels.

    This technical drafting amendment in no way affects the eligibility of any person or groups of persons—disabled or otherwise—as to how they will be treated under the rebate scheme.

    I hope that with that technical explanation the amendment will be accepted.

    Amendment agreed to.

    I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 7, at end insert:

    '(c) having regard to the general level of rents charged by comparable housing authorities and by the Scottish Special Housing Association and by new town development corporations'.
    This is an important amendment which I hope the Minister will be able to accept. Because of the amendment the Minister has introduced, the Bill now provides
    "In determining standard rents for houses … a local authority shall … (b) subject to section 33 of the 1972 Act … take no account of the personal circumstances of tenants."
    In other words, a local authority just has a general obligation to charge reasonable rents.

    There is no indication of what the Government have in mind by "reasonable". We know from experience that there is no indication of how often rents should be reviewed. What does "from time to time" mean? We suggest that, to avoid a recurrence of a situation which developed last time, local authorities should be under an obligation in fixing rents to
    "have regard to the general level of rents charged by comparable housing authorities and by the Scottish Special Housing Association and by new town development corporations".
    We want to avoid what was a most unjust situation which existed before we introduced our 1972 Act whereby the rent paid for a council house depended not on ability to pay, not on the category of house, but simply on the area one happened to live in. In an area such as Saltcoats the rents would be very low, in some cases absurdly low. In another area the rents would be very high. This was unreasonable and unfair.

    It is only fair and reasonable that the rent should be determined first by the tenant's ability to pay—by his personal circumstances—and by the rate demands on other members of the community and not simply in accordance with the place where one lives.

    There is no doubt that in the past the Government used the SSHA, which they largely control, and the new towns as pacesetters for rent increases. This brought great injustice on people who lived in new towns and on tenants of the SSHA. Although there have been considerable moves to try to equalise the situation, the last information we got about rents in local authority houses and in new towns and the SSHA was that on 28th November 1974 the average rent for a Scottish local authority house was £138 per annum; for the SSHA house it is £144 and for the new town house it is £193. This is the result of development in which new towns and the SSHA were used by Labour Governments as pacesetters for rents.

    Surely the hon. Member would accept that there is a marked similarity between the rent figures for the SSHA and the local authority. The disparity is with the new town figure, and surely the hon. Member accepts that new town rents are that much higher because most of the houses have been built in the last decade and, therefore, to meet historic costs the rents must be high.

    If the hon. Member thinks that historic costs are the basis of fixing rents he will support our 1972 Act because in it we tried to introduce the principle that pooled historic costs should be the basis for fixing rents and that there should be a gradation towards that. That is the principle of the Act which is being destroyed by the Bill. I am astonished to have an indication from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) that he supports the principle of the 1972 Act.

    We know exactly what will happen if we pass the Bill without making the amendment. It will mean that certain local authorities, for blatant political purposes—for vote catching—will keep rents artificially low. In other areas they will go up reasonable amounts and elsewhere they will probably be a bit higher.

    Our 1972 Act was an attempt to take housing out of the political scene and to ensure that tenants moved to a situation of a pooled historic cost rent by gradual easy stages of 50p a week over a period of years. In some cases the rent for council houses has reached almost an economic level. All the scare stories about £6, £7 and £8 rents which would result from the Tory Act have been shown to be nonsense. Therefore, if we do not make the amendment the crazy situation will exist throughout Scotland of rents varying from one region and from one district council to another. This will be unfair and unjust, and it will simply permit the Labour Party to distort the housing market by using cheap rents as a simple means of buying votes.

    I was astonished when I first read the amendment, but then it dawned on me that its object is not to bring rents on to an equal basis but to raise them. If the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) had introduced the amendment in order to remedy some inequitable process I should be inclined to agree with him and appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to accept the amendment.

    It is not good enough to say that rents in new towns are £50 a year higher than the rents of local authority housing. The cost of building these houses is so much higher because of increasing interest rates and the general increase in costs in recent years. This does not happen in areas other than new towns where houses are being built now at increased cost. There is an equalisation process now going on. I would rather see an equalisation of house rents throughout Scotland, and merely because some people were unlucky enough to go into the house at a later date should not mean that they have to pay a higher rent.

    I ask my hon. Friend to pay no regard to the amendment which seeks a substantial increase in local authority rents, but to take a sympathetic attitude to the view of hon. Members who, like me, represent new towns where tenants have to pay a much higher rent than tenants of comparable housing—and I stress the word "comparable"—in other parts of Scotland. I accept that my lion. Friend will not regard the amendment with any great favour, but will he consider creating an equalisation process so that rents in new towns are not markedly higher than local authority rents in other parts of Scotland?

    I am interested in what the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) said. He has asked his hon. Friend the Minister to bring in an equalisation scheme for cases where there appears to be a different charge for the same house in a different area. He is not willing to concede, however, the effect of this principle, which is the basis of the amendment. I must point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) that the rent is determined not according to where one lives but according to which party is in control in that area. If the hon. Member for East Kilbride wants an equalisation grant he should support the amendment, the basis of which is that there should be an equality of rent for an equality of house whatever its age and position and whoever is in power in the area.

    This is the first time that I have had the opportunity of replying to the hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), and he is wrong. Even by looking at the housing statistics of local authorities it is sometimes difficult to determine their political flavour. I do not think that anyone could draw a specific conclusion on that score.

    I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) that I am not accepting, or asking the House to accept, the amendment. In general terms I agree that it is desirable that a comparable house should command round about a comparable rent. But there are qualifications. New towns do not have a rate subsidy and a rate contribution. Amenity and all the other environmental factors come into play. Provided we compare like with like, who can deny the logic and justice of my hon. Friend's argument? I therefore have sympathy with it.

    The amendment is a new idea. It suggests that the system which operated before the 1972 Act did not work. There have been no representations from any local authority objecting to what we are proposing, which is to make that system the basis of the review of rents from time to time. There is, therefore, no support for the amendment from anywhere on the Scottish housing scene.

    The amendment is an elegant testimony to the belief, which underlay the Opposition's approach to the Bill in Standing Committee, that local authorities cannot be trusted. We differ completely from the Opposition on that score, and we are proud to do so, especially when dealing with new authorities. They have not yet had an opportunity to perform but already the Conservatives have so little faith in them that they want to tie things up for those authorities tighter than we would wish.

    5.30 p.m.

    I cannot dispute that in the past a number of authorities failed to review rents as often as they might have done, or as the courts decided, should have done. It is a matter of debate whether they did any service to their tenants, because an undue preoccupation with low rents sometimes detracted from the need to improve standards and manage- ment, matters of which we are all now aware and perhaps the new authorities will pay more attention to them. For these reasons, we should reject the amendment.

    The amendment raises a specific question, which I do not want to dodge, about the SSHA and new town development corporations. The rents differential has been narrowed, and, hopefully, will continue to narrow.

    It is all right for my hon. Friend to say "Good", but if that requires local authorities to raise their rents—