Council tenants are now paying a fair share without further substantial rent increases. There is a link between the substantial rent increases and the right to buy. In effect, tenants are being told that it is better to buy. There are provisions in the Housing Act for discounts and so on. Many council tenants do not particularly want to buy their houses, but as a result of these rent increases, they may decide to do so. The Government hope that they will do that. That is another and important reason why we oppose those rent increases.
Before and during the general election campaign the Conservative Party said that matters should be left to local authorities to decide. Conservatives said that Whitehall should not impose a diktat, and so on. What has happened? The Government have imposed rent increases. They have told local authorities that regardless of their wishes and of local circumstances they must sell council dwellings.
The Secretary of State put up the best argument that he could to back up his very shoddy record. He pointed out that many tenants receive rent rebates. In earlier exchanges at Question Time I pointed out that councils would have to give rebates on the new, higher rents. Some tenants may not have to pay £3.25, but they will have to pay a substantial increase all the same.
I am a member of the Select Committee on the Environment. It is understandable that it should believe that a reduced number of dwellings will be built in the public sector. It believes that 30,000 council dwellings, or fewer, will be built in the next two or three years. In England there were about 44,000 public sector housing starts last year. That is a disgraceful record, and will only increase the tremendous amount of hardship that already exists.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann), who is Chairman of the Select Committee, the Committee estimates that there will be a shortage of about 500,000 dwellings within a few years. We are heading towards the severest housing crisis that we have seen for a long time. The Secretary of State can be accused of not having put up a fight in the Cabinet. The hon. Member for Buckingham said that as a result of cuts in public expenditure, housing had suffered disproportionately. We agree. The Secretary of State put up no defence in the Cabinet. The Cabinet is very leaky, and if the right hon. Gentleman had put up a fight we would have known about it.
The Secretary of State was a willing and enthusiastic partner to the housing cuts. He is the Secretary of State against housing. No comparison can be drawn between when the Labour Party was in office and now. Under the Labour Government there were cuts that I did not agree with. I made my position clear at the time. I considered that those cuts in public expenditure were unfortunate. Those of us who disagreed made our position clear. Those cuts were not, however, carried out as part of a deliberate housing policy.
The Government are trying to reduce the rented public sector to a minimum. They are encouraging council tenants to buy their own houses. As a result, they are reducing the number of council dwellings. They are not carrying out anything like an adequate building programme. The Government believe that the rented public sector should consist of "welfare housing". Many Tories believe that. They believe that the poorest and some of the elderly should receive council accommodation but that the rest should not.
I take a completely different view. Many people require council accommodation. I am certainly not against owneroccupation. The Labour Government introduced the option mortgage scheme. When the Labour Party was in office it took other measures to encourage owneroccupation. We believe that it is desirable. Nevertheless, we recognise that many—not just the poorest in our society—including semi-professional people such as teachers, are not in a position to get a mortgage. They rely on the local authority to house them. I do not see anything wrong in that, but the Government do.
The Government seem to be running a vendetta against council houses. They imply that it is shameful to be a council tenant unless one is elderly or poor. It is said that rented dwellings could be found in the private sector. Like my right hon. and hon. Friends, I believe that the pledge that we made about shortholds was right and proper.
I look upon the shorthold provision in the Housing Act as a charter for property spivs. I want people to be rehoused. I want them to have adequate and secure accommodation. How can such accommodation exist if, after 12 months, the tenant does not know whether the tenancy will be renewed? We have almost returned to the provisions of the Tory Rent Act 1957. That is why we are against the provisions. We do not oppose them because of dogma or because of an obsession about private landlords. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may not agree. However, owner-occupiers have security. If, as a result of certain leasehold provisions, they did not have security of tenure, the Labour Government put that right. We gave added security to owner-occupiers.
Similarly, when tenants are rehoused they should be given security and protection. When tenants bring up families they should not have to worry, month after month, about what will happen to them, or about where they can find other accommodation. They should not have to worry about whether they will be put out on to the streets. Government supporters may disagree passionately with us, but that is our view, and that is why we are against shorthold tenancies. We do not believe that they provide an answer to the housing crisis.
In the West Midlands, the waiting list totals about 100,000. In my borough, the list is more than 7,000, whereas in 1979 it was less than 4,000. In Walsall, 115 houses are under construction as a result of contracts made prior to April 1979. No new housing contracts have been placed since then. That is the position in a part of the country that has been designated a housing stress area, and where there is tremendous hardship. I have a constant number of people coming to my surgeries and writing to me imploring me to help them get houses. They are quite genuine cases. I repeat that, despite this, there are only 115 houses under construction, and no new housing contracts have been made since April 1979.
The Secretary of State spoke about improvements. He emphasised the need to carry out improvements and modernisations. The Minister of Housing and Construction is listening to this debate. I can tell him that there are many pre-war council dwellings in my borough that need modernising. We have a programme of 1,400. As a result of the reduction in the housing investment programme it is estimated that in the next financial year it is likely that the total number of dwellings modernised will be 100. What about those tenants who have been waiting year after year for their homes to be modernised and who now face substantial rent increases? They will still be required to pay those higher rents. As a result of the housing programme reduction, and the rest, they have to suffer. That is our accusation against the Government.
We understand that there are profound differences between the two sides of the House. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. However, I remind Government supporters that, apart from the most private details of a person's life, two factors matter to him most. They are employment and housing. Millions of ordinary people without substantial wealth, and who are not likely to inherit money, want two things, apart from personal happness. They want employment and to be able to remain in employment during their working lives, and they want decent, adequate accommodation, where they can live and bring up their families. Those are the two most essential things for millions of ordinary people, because achieving them will mean that they can live with dignity.
This Government have undermined both. Unemployment is at a level that has not been seen since the 1930s, and fewer council dwellings are being built today than at any time since the 1920s.
If the Government were to modify their policy—if they took building and construction workers out of the dole queues and allowed them to do their job of building and modernising homes—they would provide employment for those people so that they did not have to rot away their lives in dole queues, and in so doing they would provide the accommodation that our constituents need so desperately.
We ask the Government, perhaps without any chance of success, to change their housing policy and, by doing so, provide the essential homes that our people need.