PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT HOUSING (PERCENTAGE OF APPROVED EXPENSE FOR REPAIR GRANTS) (LEAD PLUMBING AND RADON GAS WORKS) (SCOTLAND) ORDER 1992

Wednesday 17 June 1992

LONDON: HMSO

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1

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: MR. NORMAN HOGG

ASHBY, MR. DAVID (Leicestershire, North-West)

Clelland, Mr. David (Tyne Bridge)

Cohen, Mr. Harry (Leyton)

Congdon, Mr. David (Croydon, North-East)

Dicks, Mr. Terry (Hayes and Harlington)

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland)

Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas (Perth and Kinross)

Fishburn, Mr. Dudley (Kensington)

Gallie, Mr. Phil (Ayr)

Heald, Mr. Oliver (Hertfordshire, North)

Jackson, Mrs. Helen (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Jones, Mr. Robert B. (Hertfordshire, West)

Kirkhope, Mr. Timothy (Leeds, North-East)

Martin, Mr. David (Portsmouth, South)

Maxton, Mr. John (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Pendry, Mr. Tom (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Rooney, Mr. Terry (Bradford, North)

Steel, Sir David (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Mr. R. J. Rogers, Committee Clerk

2
3 First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 17 June 1992

[MR NORMAN HOGG in the Chair]

Draft Housing (Percentage of Approved Expense for Repair Grants) (Lead Plumbing and Radon Gas Works) (Scotland) Order 1992

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Percentage of Approved Expense for Repair Grants) (Lead Plumbing and Radon Gas Works) (Scotland) Order 1992. The purpose of the order is to increase to 90 per cent. the maximum rate of repairs grant that local authorities may give for works to reduce substantially the level of radon gas in a house where it is found to be above the action level and to replace lead pipes, tanks, cisterns, taps or other equipment supplying water. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, formed in the earth from the decay of minute amounts of natural uranium present in all rocks and soils. Significant concentrations of the gas are confined to areas with more uranium than is usual in the rocks. When it enters confined spaces such as houses, concentrations can build up. As it is radioactive, radon decays and, when those decay products are inhaled, some lodge on the lining of the lungs and expose the tissues to radiation. The consequence is to increase the risk of lung cancer. To limit that risk, the Government have adopted an action level for radon in houses. It is expressed as an annual average of 200 bq/cum. If a house is found to be above that action level, the occupier is advised to reduce the radon level. Surveys by the National Radiological Protection Board show that in the most densely populated part of Scotland— the central belt—radon levels are low. However, in parts of the districts of Caithness, Sutherland and Kincardine and Deeside there is evidence that some houses will contain radon above the action level. The NRPB estimated that a total of 2,000 houses in Scotland may be affected compared with an estimate of about 100,000 homes in England. I have asked the NRPB to undertake further surveys in Caithness and Sutherland and Kincardine and Deeside to identify precisely the areas concerned and to report by the end of this year. Some small parts of the districts concerned may be designated as "affected". The purpose of the designation is to alert residents in those areas that they should consider having radon tests made and, if necessary, should take steps to reduce exposure to the gas. It also enables local authorities to target assistance on the householders concerned and alerts builders to the need to incorporate radon-proofing in new houses. In 1990, the Scottish Office asked authorities, the new towns and Scottish Homes for estimates of the number of houses in their districts with whole or partial lead plumbing 4 and the cost of replacing it. They estimated that some 219,000 houses in the public sector and some 369,000 in the private sector still had some lead plumbing. Programmes of water treatment by water authorities have been very effective in reducing lead concentrations in water— monitoring of supplies in 1990 showed that more than 95 per cent. of samples taken by the authorities met the United Kingdom regulatory standard—but the most effective means of achieving further improvement is the removal of lead plumbing from houses. A basic feature of home ownership is that the owner must decide whether to take any necessary steps to ensure that the house remains in good condition and protects the well-being of its occupants. We accept that some people will be unable to meet the cost of the necessary works without grant assistance. The purpose of increasing the maximum rate is to ensure that funds are available to those people. We shall expect local authorities to award grants in proportion to need. At present, the maximum rate of repairs grant to replace lead plumbing is 75 per cent. and for other works the maximum rate is 50 per cent. The cost of replacing lead plumbing varies so much according to house type that no useful examples can be drawn. However, the cost of reducing exposure to radon varies less between house types and may be, on average, between £500 and £1,000. Therefore, any person in receipt of a maximum grant would have to pay about £50 to £100, which, I am sure hon. Members will agree is a modest personal contribution. I believe that the Order represents a fair and balanced amendment to grant provision in Scotland and will be generally welcomed.

10.35 am

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): We welcome the order as it increases to 90 per cent. the grant for two specific problems in housing. As the Minister said, radon gas is not a problem in the central belt and thus in my constituency. However, my constituency still has a fair number of houses where lead piping and the effects of lead are apparent. Therefore, I welcome the increase in the grant. I have two questions for the Minister. First, can we assume that local authorities will receive from the Government an increase in capital allocations to ensure that their other repair grants are not reduced to take account of these increases. Secondly, the Minister said that when a grant will be made according to meed. Presumably that is the need of the person living in the house rather than the need of the house to have lead removed. I have always considered that grants should be on the basis of what is required to be done in the house—perhaps not entirely but certainly almost irrespective of income—because it is the house that requires the work to be done to it rather than the individual living in that house. If a limit is placed on people, some who are just above it will decide not to have the work done; They will say that they cannot afford it and that as they will not be given a grant the work will not be done. They then suffer from the effects either of radon gas or lead piping, as may future generations because the work has not been carried out. Will the minister comment on that aspect?

5

10.37 am

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West): Perhaps I may ask my hon. Friend the Minister a couple of questions that he could answer when replying to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). My hon. Friend gave an estimate of the number of houses in Scotland that are affected by radon gas, but he did not break down the figure into those owned by public authorities and those in the private sector. Will he give that estimate, if necessary by letter? More important, are local authorities in Scotland, as owners of houses, being asked to carry out a survey of houses that might be affected by radon and to take action?

10.38 am

Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside): As the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside—an area identified as one of the worst in Scotland for the radon problem—I welcome the Minister's proposal to increase the grant from 50 per cent. to 90 per cent. Equally, I welcome the move to ensure that those who are most in need have the opportunity of obtaining such grants. However, I wish to ensure that people put the risk of radon into perspective. Perhaps I may quote from a report which states: "For the estimated exposure to radon in dwellings throughout Scotland, the implied annual mortality is almost 200 persons, which is about 5 per cent. of the 4000 plus deaths from lung cancer that occur annually, mostly from smoking cigarettes, and over 1 per cent. of the 15,000 deaths annually from all malignancies. In public health terms, therefore, the effect of domestic exposure to radon is not a major cause of cancer." It is important that people outwith the isolated pockets where radon gas exposure occurs know that it is not a major risk and that it is isolated to specific areas. Therefore, I very much welcome the further survey that is being carried out, especially in Kincardine and Deeside, to identify where the risk lies. At present, it is fairly generalised. Figures for Ballater and Braemar show that average count of those houses surveyed is 198 bq/cum, which is just below the action level. I hope that the further survey will be expedited and that people will be told where the risk lies so that those outwith those areas do not worry unduly.

10.40 am

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) for welcoming the proposal. His constituency is affected and he has put the matter into perspective. The scale of the problem is 50 times greater south of the border. We must see it in perspective; none the less, we must take it seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) asked about the survey, which will be forthcoming from the NRPB. The tests will not be available throughout the country, but in the affected parts of Kincardine and Deeside and in Caithness and Sutherland individual private householders can apply for free radon measurements. Those tests will be paid for by the Government. However, in the same areas, public and private sector landlords are expected to meet the costs of any measurements. In all other parts of the country where it is understood that there is little or no problem, householders can apply to the NRPB for tests, but they will have to meet the cost themselves. The cost sofa test is about 6 £30. We encourage local authorities to undertake local house condition surveys. I am glad to say that a great many now do so. We are also conducting a national house condition survey, the results of which will be published in due course. We issued advice to householders, "The Householders Guide to Radon", which gives a full summary of what radon is, the circumstances in which it could be a hazard to health, various means by which exposure to it could be reduced and the availability of discretionary grants for such works. We intend to commission the NRPB to carry out further surveys to ascertain whether any other parts of Scotland have elevated indoor levels of radon. The matter is in hand.

Mr Robert B. Jones: I wish to probe my hon. Friend a little further on the matter. Plainly, if a householder chooses not to have such a test, on his head be it—it is a matter of personal choice and personal risk assessment— but when the landlord is a local authority or another public body, the balance of risk-taking, to express it that way, is entirely different. That is why I asked my hon. Friend about the local authorities carrying out surveys of their own housing. My hon. Friend mentioned the house condition survey, but that is a much broader exercise. Those carrying out that exercise might not be as well qualified in the problems of radon as they are in dampness, identifying faulty wiring and other such problems. Will my hon. Friend comment further on that point?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: When the survey is undertaken by the NRPB—the specialist body well qualified to do it—affected areas may be designated if there are specific problems. We estimate the total number of houses involved to be approximately 2,000 in Scotland, which is relatively low given the total housing stock. The areas that are affected could easily be designated. The further survey will bear that aspect particularly in mind, to assist householders and local authorities, who would then be expected to take the necessary action. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr Maxton) asked about resources. The sum of £556 million has been made available to local authorities for housing capital investment in 1992–93. Councils should include proposals for dealing with the non-housing revenue account in their housing plans. When they are submitted we shall examine them with the greatest care and, as in the past, allocations will be made according to need. If there is a possibility of supplementary allocations, we shall bear in mind the needs of each authority. The final resources for the housing revenue account amounted to £435 million and the non-housing revenue account for this year was £121 million. We shall especially take that matter into account in future. The hon. Gentleman also asked about eligibility tests. We believe that eligibility tests make best use of limited resources. There is no reason why people who can afford a contribution towards works should not make it. But there is every reason why those on very low incomes should receive substantial public support. The amendment to the grant system is intended to achieve that and should enable local authorities to make flexible and efficient use of their funds. The grant system already makes provision for account to be taken of applicants' resources. When authorities are considering giving repairs grants, they must first consider 7 the circumstances of the applicant. There is nothing new in that principle. I am most grateful for the support of hon. Members, especially that of my hon. Friend the Members for Kincardine and Deeside, whose constituency is affected. I believe that the order will be generally welcomed and will assist those who are directly affected.

Question put and agreed to.

8

Resoled, That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Percentage of Approved Expense for Repair Grants) (Lead Plumbing and Radon Gas Works) (Scotland) Order 1992.

Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Hogg, Mr. Norman (Chairman)

Congdon, Mr.

Dicks, Mr.

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Fishburn, Mr.

Gallie, Mr.

Heald, Mr.

Jackson, Mrs.

Jones, Mr. Robert B.

Kirkhope, Mr.

Martin, Mr. David

Maxton, Mr.

Pendry, Mr.

Rooney, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2): Kynoch, Mr. George (Kincardine and Deeside)