Interpretation

Part of Housing and Building Control Bill (Allocation of Time) – in the House of Commons at 7:43 pm on 16th February 1983.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 7:43 pm, 16th February 1983

I oppose the motion. I do not believe for one second that the time proposed for the debates in the motion will be adequate fully to discuss the Bill.

The Bill does three things. First, it extends the right to buy to the tenants of charitable housing associations and rides roughshod through the concept of charitable law and the status of charitable housing associations, and of all other charities such as private and public schools. Secondly, the Bill gives council tenants and housing association tenants the right to purchase part of their house or flat if they cannot afford to purchase it all. That is one of the most ludicrous housing proposals that the Government have made. Thirdly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) has said, roe Bill proposes the privatisation of building regulations and building controls. That is a significant and important issue, because in the final analysis it amounts to life or death. If buildings are dangerous, or if they fall down, loss of life or limb can result.

The Bill is part and parcel of the Government "s devastating and doctrinaire attack on the public rented sector. It is a continuation of the Government's housing policies, which are part of their economic and industrial strategy as well as their housing strategy. The Government's aim through their administrative and legislative actions is to prevent either central Government or local government from interfering in the workings of Britain's economy for the benefit of the community, for the majority. It is their aim to hand over the running of the country to the private sector and free enterprise. They want to do that in housing and they are proceeding to do so through this Bill in the same way as they wish to proceed in areas of economic and social activity.

The Government are attempting by means of the Bill, as they did in the Housing Act 1980 and in other actions taken by the Minister for Housing and Construction, to hand over the future of Britain's housing to the private rented sector. They started the process with the 1980 Act and they are continuing it with the Bill.

The Government's aim in the 1980 legislation was to revitalise the private rented sector. They decontrolled 200,000 tenancies and invented a new form of tenancy called assured tenancy, which means that if anyone builds a new house or flat he can let it in the private rented sector without being subject to Rent Act controls. The Government have enabled private landlords' rents to be reviewed every two years instead of every three. In other words, they have increased rents—because "review" is a euphemism for increasing rents. They also introduced a concept called shorthold, an entirely new concept which means that tenants of private landlords have security of tenure for only the period of a shorthold tenancy. At the end of the agreement, whether it be one, two, three, four or five years, the landlord can evict the tenant with only 14 days' notice. The tenant then has to find somewhere else to live.

That legislation was an attempt to revitalise the private rented sector and to push people back on to being dependent upon that sector. It was argued by the Conservative party and Ministers that there was a shortage of houses because of wicked Rent Acts passed by successive Labour Governments controlling rents in the private sector and giving security of tenure to the tenants of private landlords. They claimed that the Rent Acts prevented the private sector from investing capital in the private sector because it knew that it would not secure a return on the capital invested.

The argument ran that it was necessary only to lift rent restrictions and allow people to invest capital in private housing and enjoy a greater return on the capital invested. It was said that against that background, and with the opportunity to obtain vacant possession of properties more easily by being able to evict tenants, the problem would be solved. The Government told us that there would then be a boom in the private sector, investment in it and the ending of the housing crisis. Alas, it did not work—and for one reason. The other sectors are a more attractive proposition to anyone who is in housing need. We subsidise the other sectors and do not subsidise the private landlord.

We subsidise the public rented sector. Anyone who can gain access to it will be better housed and pay a lower rent than someone who is housed in the private rented sector. People therefore turn to the private sector when they cannot get into the public sector. That is why the Government have decided to destroy the public rented sector through administrative actions. They have ensured that it does not increase. There is hardly any money for building in the public rented sector, whether they be council houses or housing association houses. Having started their attack on the public sector, the Government have turned with the same vengeance on the housing association movement, charitable or otherwise. They are attempting to destroy that as well.

The Government forced people to be dependent on the private landlord by stopping extra provision for public sector housing. The second stage was to set about destroying the existing public rented sector. They have done that by forcing local authorities not so much to sell their houses to sitting tenants as virtually to give them away at half-price discounts. The Government's legislation of 1980 made it virtually impossible for any local authority, even if it was elected on a policy of not selling council houses, not to sell those houses. They also introduced regulations and discounts that made it almost impossible for any tenant in his right mind not to see that he was being given a golden handshake paid for by the local authority's rate and rent payers. They reduced the public rented stock so that relets would not be available and people in housing need would be forced back on to the private sector which the Government are trying to revitalise.

Having failed, through the 1980 legislation and the right-to-buy provisions contained in it, to destroy the public rented sector to the extent that they wished, the Government are now making it far easier for tenants to purchase their properties. At the same time, they are making life more difficult for local authorities. When a tenant cannot afford to buy all his house or flat, the Government are introducing measures that will enable him to buy part of that property. The tenant will be able to start with the toilet and move on to the bathroom. Such tenants hope eventually to be able to afford all their property. However, there is a catch. If a tenant buys half his property and rents half of it, repairs will not be carried out. If he buys the front door, the back door will not be repaired. That is a stupid feature of this legislation that must be debated much more fully than the timetable motion allows.

As well as forcing the right-to-buy provisions on local authorities to destroy the public rented sector and as well as extending those provisions in the present legislation by introducing the idea of part-purchase, the Government are turning their attention to the charitable housing associations. In 1980, even this Government had the sense to exempt them from the right-to-buy provisions. It is not simply members of the Labour party, Socialists and people on the Left who oppose this legislation; it is the charitable housing associations. Many of the people who staff and run them would be at home in any Conservative constituency association. They did not believe that the axe would be wielded against them by a reasonable, middle-of-the-road Conservative Government. This is not a reasonable middle-of-the-road Government. In their blind attack on the public rented sector, the Government have turned on charities and charitable housing associations. That must be fully discussed as it affects the concept of charitable law.

One way to destroy the public rented sector and to push people back on to the private landlord is to increase the cost of the public rented sector to tenants. To make their right-to-buy provisions and discounts and the purchase of council houses and housing association properties attractive, the Government must make continuing to rent unattractive in the public sector. They are doing that in several ways. One is to force up the costs to the tenant. That can be done by increasing rents, by cutting subsidies to local authorities so that local authorities must increase rents. Moreover, by prescribing high rent increases and taking away subsidy, the Government are ensuring that adequate maintenance of the existing housing stock cannot be carried out. Therefore, tenants are tempted even further to exercise their right to buy. That is all part of the strategy to destroy the public rented sector.

The figures are devastating. In 1979, when the previous Labour Government left office, the average council house rent was £6·40. It is now £13·54. Moreover, another 85p is to go on top of that. One must also add the cost of rates. The figures that I have given are an average and include areas where rents are traditionally low. In areas such as London, Liverpool and Birmingham, where there are housing problems, rents are much higher.

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) said in Committee that an argument in favour of extending the right to buy to housing association tenants and strengthening that right for local authority council house tenants was that it was advantageous for tenants to be owner-occupiers. When he tried to justify the discounts and bonuses, he said that owner-occupiers paid a larger percentage of their income in costs that are directly associated with housing. The matter was not adequately debated because the Government Whip kept moving the closure. That is why we now need an opportunity to debate the issue more fully. The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth also attempted to use the argument that council house tenants were subsidised more than owner-occupiers to justify a saving to the local authorities' exchequers, by selling council houses.

I have some fascinating figures. If one examines the amount of income tax relief on interest that owner-occupiers receive on their mortgages, one finds that in 1982–83, the Exchequer will forgo £2,150 million. That works out at an average of £371 per owner-occupier. About 5,800,000 owner-occupiers have mortgages and receive that subsidy. Even if one divides the total number of owner-occupiers in 1981–11,935,000—into the £2,150 million that owner-occupiers will receive in income tax relief, one sees that each owner-occupier will receive £210 a year. That calculation includes owner-occupiers who have received subsidies but no longer have a mortgage. That figure should be contrasted with the subsidy that council house tenants receive. There are 6,574,000 council house tenants. That is not an insignificant number of people. The total Government subsidy for those 6·5 million families through the housing revenue account in 1982–83 is only £592 million. We should compare that with the £2,150 million that will be given in income tax relief to owner-occupiers.

Local authorities have to pay rate fund contributions into housing revenue accounts. They are claimed to be a subsidy as well although many are income maintenance because of contributions to rebates and so on. The total rate fund contribution, on top of the £592 million, is £325 million. If one adds the two together, the subsidy, if it is a subsidy—many things are paid for in the housing revenue account that are not a direct subsidy to the rents of council tenants—averages out at £187 per council tenant in 1982–83, compared with £371 to the average owner-occupier.

I am concerned that the Bill should not be guillotined because of the consequences that the legislation, as part of the Government's policies, will have on the people in my constituency who live in council and housing association accommodation. Many people on the waiting lists of the local authority want council or housing association accommodation. In Sefton, the number of council tenants is 22,430. Government subsidy to the Sefton housing revenue account for the current financial year is £3,274,000, a very low figure. The Government do not do much to justify it because they will not encourage the building of council houses. The lowest possible rate fund contribution from any local authority is £248,000, so there is a total of only £3,522,000 in the local authority's housing revenue account. The average subsidy per council tenant in Sefton is £157 a year—if it was a subsidy, which it is not. It is not there to hold the rents down. It is used to run services—not to build council houses, but to do other things that benefit the whole community and not just the council tenants.

Those figures show what the Government have been doing. They have been trying to destroy the public rented sector to force people into either being dependent on the private rented sector or buying their council accommodation because of high rents, cuts in subsidy and lack of repairs.

I shall consider the likely consequences of the right-to-buy provisions, if they are not more fully debated, in the metropolitan borough of Sefton in my constituency of Bootle. We should oppose those provisions. One can get a picture of what will happen to the housing association rented accommodation in Sefton from what has happened to the council accommodation that has or has not been sold. There are 22,430 council dwellings in the metropolitan borough of Sefton. Most are in Bootle. Before local government reorganisation, Bootle had a Labour council that built houses, which Crosby, Formby and Southport did not do. Of the 22,430 dwellings, 3,370 have been sold already—that is 15 per cent. It is interesting that, of the 15 per cent. that have been sold, only 1·8 per cent. were flats. All the rest were dwellings. Only 60 out of the 3,370 units of acommodation sold were flats. It is also interesting that 28 per cent. of the flats that were sold were in Bootle. No one wants to buy a flat in Bootle because flats are not worth buying there. Some 1,560 of the 3,370 dwellings that have been sold‡46 per cent. of all sales—are in Bootle. When one realises that 75 per cent. of all the dwellings are in Bootle, that seems a small percentage.

It is the better houses in the lush areas and the gin-and-tonic belts of Crosby and Southport that are being sold. Families on the waiting list in Bootle, people in housing need and those with children seeking transfers out of the flats of Bootle cannot move into accommodation in Crosby, Southport and Formby because it is being sold. On the other hand, Sefton council can make sure that those living in the council accommodation in Southport and Crosby, whom they call problem families, are transferred to the accommodation in Bootle that is not being sold, to exacerbate the problems of Bootle.

Exactly the same thing will happen with the housing association accommodation too, so it is important that there should be a continued debate on the Bill. Those in housing need in Bootle and the rest of Sefton are entirely dependent upon the housing associations at the moment, because the local authority does so little. Only the housing associations are building, acquiring and improving—within the limits of the allocations that they receive through the Housing Corporation, which have been cut.

If that accommodation is sold off in the same way, what hope will there be for the young couple living with their in-laws? What hope will there be for those in the private rented sector in my constituency, which the Government have been trying to revitalise? Those living in properties that lack basic amenities and that the private landlord will not improve cannot take effective action because the council will not help them, and they do not even know who their landlords are. What about those with children, living in flats, who want transfers to the houses that are being sold? Their only hope at present is an offer of rented accommodation from a housing association, and that possibility will be attacked by this legislation. The Bill needs full and adequate debate and should not be guillotined.

The reason why the Government have introduced this legislation, and why they want to guillotine it, is that they want to finish what they started when they took power. They want to implement free market, private sector policies in housing as elsewhere. They even want to privatise checking in the private sector—the process of making sure that what has been done is safe and adequate. That is what is proposed in the last part of the Bill, which would privatise the building regulations.

That is the height of folly. If there is no full debate and the Bill is not changed, the Government will live to regret its consequences. When people have died in a future catastrophe which happened because the local authorities were no longer involved in making sure, through the building regulations, that everything was done properly, people will ask which Minister and which Government were responsible. I would not like to carry that responsibility.

That piece of privatisation is very misguided. Even the most extreme Conservatives must agree that in some areas the public sector must exist to safeguard and assist the private sector. If they do not believe that, we are on a short road to disaster. To avoid that disaster, and to avoid increasing the misery of those in housing need and those living in council and housing association accommodation, I oppose this guillotine.