asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the total sum owed in non-paid rents and rates to the Housing Executive.
At 30 June 1980 the amount due to the Housing Executive in respect of unpaid rent and rates was £10¼ million.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the highest figure of arrears in rents and rates ever stated by the Housing Executive in its short history? What steps are being taken by his Department to ensure that the 28,000-odd people who apparently are making no attempt voluntarily to pay their arrears are compelled to do just that?
Although I agree that the figure is far too large, it is also true that, as a proportion of the weekly collectable rents, the figure has fallen in the last two years. We have set up a central body to chase those who are in arrears, and there will be further administrative improvements in the debt-collection process by the end of the year.
Has the hon. Gentleman read the recent report of the low pay unit about living standards in Northern Ireland, wherein it is stated clearly that in Northern Ireland, especially in certain parts of Belfast where the majority of housing is under the control of the Housing Executive, it is because of high rents, high energy costs—including gas and electricity—and high levels of unemployment, that these people, not involved in any political protest, find themselves unable to pay the high rents demanded of them? That is why there is such a deficit.
Although power costs, including the cost of electricity, are high in Northern Ireland—and they are in the rest of the United Kingdom—rents are lower, and there is a very effective rent rebate system. It must be remembered that those who do not pay their rents increase the burden on the vast majority of tenants of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive who do.
Earlier the Minister referred to the house building programme in Londonderry. How many eviction orders have been sought in the courts by the Housing Executive for the non-payment of rent on the West Bank in Londonderry? Of those eviction orders granted, how many have been executed?
I cannot give that information without notice, but I shall give it in a letter to the hon. Member.
Since average earnings in Northern Ireland are about £9 a week less than in the rest of the United Kingdom, will the Government, in view of their statement of cuts yesterday—assure the House that rents in public sector housing will not be increased, and abandon the policy of the previous Government of bringing rents in Northern Ireland into line with those in England and Scotland?
Yesterday the Government announced an increase in the amount of money available for public spending in Northern Ireland. But plainly, there has to be a relationship between rents in Great Britain and those in Northern Ireland.
Is the hon. Gentleman really surprised at the level of rent and rate arrears that he has announced when last year there was a downward trend? Does he accept that the Government's policies and the cash squeeze imposed on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will lead almost certainly to arrears rising again? Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that every effort will be made to enable debtors to pay off their arrears without undue pressure or threats from the authorities concerned?
We shall seek to reach voluntary agreement with those who are in arrears. I am not surprised by the figures because in real terms they reflect the improvement that took place in the last month of the previous Administration.
Order. I shall call the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), the Liberal Party's Northern Ireland spokesman. However, I cannot do the round of all the parties on every question and I shall not try to do so.
Is the Minster able to give us the percentage of annual or weekly income that is expended on rates in Northern Ireland? The average for the rest of the United Kingdom is about 7½ per cent.
The Northern Ireland differential for rents is a slightly larger figure.