As the House knows, our policy was set out in Circular 70/74. I am keeping the matter under consideration in parallel with the housing finance review.
Rather than go back over all the ground covered earlier, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will accept that there is now widespread evidence of a substantial desire by tenants all ever the country to buy the homes in which they live? If the right hon. Gentleman accepts that, would he not agree that, if we mean business about being a democracy, it is time that all parties in the House responded to that desire?
There is indeed evidence not only of a substantial desire on the part of people all over the country to become owner-occupiers but, I am glad to say, evidence that more people are able to satisfy that desire. The fact that we have now reached the point where 53 per cent. of our fellow countrymen are owner-occupiers is a matter of great satisfaction. I hope that the number will increase.
We have to bear in mind that there is a great shortage of rented houses, particularly in the major urban centres. It is right for us to say that local authorities should take due account of that and make their own judgments in the light of advice given in circulars.
Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that, when it is decided that the public's assets should be sold, it is right that they should be sold at full market price and not at a cut price?
My hon. Friend knows that the conditions obtaining for the sale of council houses are a subject on which we have given advice. This is an area where there will inevitably be continuing debate.
If the right hon. Gentleman accepts that there is a need for rented accommodation, why does he not take steps to increase the flow of private rented accommodation?
I might reply to that by asking why the advocates of owner-occupation and the sale of existing local authority rented houses do not advocate the sale of existing private rented accommodation. It is slightly ridiculous. The one thing on which the House as a whole might agree is that the major providers of homes in this country in the 1970s as in the 1960s will be either owner-occupiers or local authorities.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that we are relieved to hear that he is still committed to the terms of Circular 70/74? Is he further aware that many Conservative-controlled local authorities are determined to ignore the advice of that circular and to sell council houses, showing a total disregard of their obligations to provide a proper pool of rented housing? Does he intend to sit back and let them get away with this blatant asset-stripping? What does my right hon. Friend intend to do to stop this?
There is always the danger in any system of local democracy that there will be an irresponsible use of democratic power. My hon. Friend would be well advised—I should be well advised—not to come out with any emphatic statement at present. We shall have to watch the situation and see how it develops.
Reverting to the point raised by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller), may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take account of the fact that, when private rented accommodation is sold, the sitting tenant usually buys at a lower price than a person buying a house with vacant possession? Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that a person who has occupied a council house for a considerable time should have a similar benefit?
That is a factor that has been argued in the past to justify some discount on the sale of local authority houses. I said "some" discount because it is important that there should not be the give-away which some people have been advocating.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman had heard what I said. I said that the terms of the discount were important in this context and that there was a case, as has been acknowledged, for some discount, but not a case for massive discount such as some people have been offered.