There are two points in the remarks of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) with which I agree. I share his scepticism about any statistics advanced by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and I agree with him that both the public and private sectors have a part to play in solving our housing problems.
Having heard the speech of the hon. Member for Henley and the echo of its sentiments in the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, West (Mr. Fairgrieve), we wonder whether we were listening to Conservative Party policy. So often the Opposition appear to feel that there is a conflict between the public and the private sector. They appear to take the view that it is impossible for Labour Members to support owner-occupation or to give help to owner-occupiers, but the facts speak for themselves and the record is there for all to see.
Labour Governments have given more help and support to owner-occupiers than Conservatives have ever afforded to such people. It was a Labour Government who introduced the option mortgage scheme, and it was a Labour Government who introduced the Home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Bill. In 1974 the Labour Government stepped in to stop interest rates rising from 11 per cent. to 11½ per cent., and thus avoid the crippling effect which such a move would have had on young married couples who wished to buy their first homes. In contrast, it was a Conservative Government who sat idly by while house prices rocketed and millions of young couples were forced out of the housing market altogether. The record is there for all to see and we do not need to apologise for our stand on this issue.
The Government's prime responsibility rests in the public sector. It is the area in which the Government have the most direct responsibility and control. Those who find themselves in greatest need will continue to look to the public sector for lie solution of their problems. They look to that sector because they are unable to solve their problems in any other way. Therefore, the Opposition's attitude on public sector housing is disturbing. We have yet to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Homsey (Mr. Rossi), but when he spoke a year and a day ago in a similar debate on 20th June 1977 he said—I take it he was speaking on behalf of the official Opposition:
We believe that local authorities should concentrate new building on the sectors of the community that are not able to help themselves—the elderly, the disabled and those in need."—[Official Report, 20th June 1977 Vol. 933, c. 1010.]
I do not know to what "need" the hon. Gentleman was referring; he did not say. Presumably, he was not referring to people in need of housing. I suppose he was referring to the deserving poor—the needy. This appears to be the Conservatives' attitude to public sector housing. They believe that it should play only a residual role. They see no place for the public sector in making a major
contribution to this country's housing problems.
It is evident from the hon. Gentleman's statement, and from similar statements made by the Opposition, that the re-election of a Conservative Government would mean a drastic reduction in the level of public sector house building. In a previous housing debate the hon. Member for Henley went almost so far as to admit that that was the case. The only figure on which he would not be drawn was the target figure at which a Conservative Government would aim.
It has long been the policy of Conservative Governments to support the rundown of local authority building. That was effectively demonstrated in the period between 1970 and 1974. It was the only area in which that Conservative Government demonstrated any great success. Their policy was extremely effective. They managed to reduce public sector house building to what was almost a postwar record low. That was the situation in which the Labour Government took over our affairs.
I congratulate the Government on their achievements in the first two years of office, when there was an enormous increase in the level of public sector building, but lately the trend has been somewhat disturbing. Last year public sector starts were the lowest since 1973, and the first four months of this year do not give many of us much cause for optimism. The reasons are debatable. I believe that the heavy hand of the Treasury, having descended a year ago on the building programme, had a more drastic effect than some of my hon. Friends are prepared to accept. I also believe that the advent of Conservative councils in many stress areas had an undeniable effect, in terms of cutting back the level of house building.
These issues are debatable, but the facts are inescapable. The fact is that we are allowing our building programme to slump. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will not sit idly by and allow their policies to be undermined either by indefference or by sabotage on the part of Conservative authorities, but that they will try to get the nation back to a level of public sector building which we man- aged to achieve in the first two years of the present Labour Government.
This debate has been somewhat disappointing. It was called on the initiative of the Official Opposition and we thought that they would put forward some positive ideas. However, apart from a valuable contribution by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), to whom I must pay tribute, we have heard little in the way of positive suggestions.
The hardy annual involving the sale of council houses has been trotted out. Whatever else the sale of council houses does or does not achieve, it must be said that it does not add one house to our stock. All it does is to transfer houses from the public to the private sector. In doing so, it undermines and gravely damages the prospects of those in greatest housing need. It is ludicrous for Conservative Members to argue that one can reduce the stock of public sector housing without its having an effect on the housing chances of those on the waiting lists.
I heard the hon. Member for Henley, in an unusually frank intervention, admit that the Conservatives are no longer claiming that they will use the money gained from sales to replace the properties that are sold. Few of us ever thought that they would, but that was their line until recently. The Conservative Party is committed to a reduction in the overall stock of public sector housing. That is an irresponsible and cynical attitude, which shows a total disregard for the interests of people in housing need. It is obvious that the only intention of their policy is to pick up a few cheap votes. That is what has seemed to motivate every suggestion from the Conservatives in the last few months.
I hope that tenants who may be tempted by that policy will ask themselves what would have happened if the Conservative municipal asset strippers had been in business 10 or 20 years ago, when those tenants were waiting on the housing lists in the hope of getting a council house. I can assure those tenants that if the asset strippers had been unloading council houses as quickly as they could, there would be no council houses for people to move into. Those who may be tempted to buy their council houses can rest assured that if they had been born 10 or 20 years later they would not have had the chance of even renting a council house, let alone buying one. I hope that tenants will respond and realise that the Conservatives' policy is a cheap, vote-catching gimmick, which undermines the hope of a decent housing policy and a decent chance for those in housing need.
The Conservatives' policy not only reduces the stock of council houses; it affects the balance of the housing stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Sever) referred to the problems caused to those in high-rise blocks by the indiscriminate sale of council houses. Of course the Conservatives are no longer talking just about sales to sitting tenants. The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve) did not seem to understand this point when I intervened in his speech. Tory councils are putting into practice policies that involve the transfer of tenants from one property to another which they can purchase.
This policy will mean that all the best and most attractive council property will be sold and the older houses and high-rise blocks will be left. The Medway Borough Council, which includes part of my constituency, has said that it will put on the open market all council houses that become vacant and will leave them on the market empty for weeks before offering them to tenants on the waiting list. That is a gross insult to people in great housing need and to those who wish to transfer to other accommodation.