We shall never make a profit on council houses. There is already a heavy deficit and there is every indication that it will continue.
How should we proceed to sell more council houses? I address myself more particularly to my right hon. and hon. Friends. Considering today's valuations, the 30 per cent. discount which I introduced would be quite inadequate to produce large-scale buying of council houses by council tenants. It is out of their reach in most cases, except at the lower end of the council housing scale.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has produced his plan. His proposal is that anyone who has lived in a council house for 30 years should get it free and that other tenants should have their rents converted into mortgages. He claims that that would produce a national saving on taxes and rates of about £450 million, reducing to £406 million over 10 years. That would be an important relief in taxation and rates. It is about the figure for which the Chancellor is looking as a result of amendments that the Opposition have made to the Finance Bill. It would also make an important contribution to the increased expenditure to which the Opposition are committed on defence.
Would it be a burden on councils? It does not look like it. As I pointed out in reply to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann), there is an existing annual deficit of about £80 million on council house rents.
The main objection to the proposal put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester is one of equity. Some people say that it is unfair on those who have been saving with building societies to buy their own homes that council house tenants should be allowed overnight, by a stroke of the pen, either to possess their houses free because they have lived in them for 30 years or to possess them as if they were their own, their rents being regarded as mortgage payments. That would be something of a dog-in-the-manger attitude, because if, as my right hon. Friend argues, there would be a saving of £450 million in terms of rates and taxation, clearly the public as a whole would benefit from it, and that would include mortgage holders. I recognise, however, that the contrary view is strongly held and that politics is the art of the possible.
We should, therefore, go as far as is practicable along the road that my right hon. Friend has indicated. Whether we do that by giving a much bigger discount—60 or 70 per cent.—on the sale of a house or whether we do it by some increase in rents for those who choose to adopt them as mortgages instead of rents, I do not know. That is something that my right hon. and hon. Friends can work out between now and the General Election. It is a matter for them. I am not dogmatic about how we do it. What I care about is that we should aim to make house purchase not merely attractive, but irresistibly attractive to the council house tenant.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester on having launched his idea. Whether his policy in total is acceptable is another question. The important thing is that we as a party should make it clear that a policy for the sale of council houses which is undoubtedly in itself popular in the country should not only be right in principle but should be practical. The policy today is not practical. The cost is too great. I therefore want my hon. Friend the Member for Homsey (Mr. Rossi), who is to reply to the debate for the Opposition, to indicate that we are committed to finding a way of making a policy which is not only right in principle but practical in application.