I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in a debate on a subject so close to my heart and to the heart of my constituency. As chairman of a charitable housing association, I am conscious of the problems of housing for those who have little choice. As the Member of Parliament for Dulwich I am conscious of representing a constituency where those who choose to make their homes there, and are able to do so, often find it a happy place to live. Indeed many hon. Members have chosen to live there.
But the immediate and outward attractions of Dulwich may disguise some of its deeper housing problems. It would appear at first sight a pleasant place to bring up a family. It is enhanced by large open spaces which owe as much to good commercial estate management of the past as to the municipal planning practice of the present.
Dulwich is rightly renowned for its fine schools, which testify to the ideal of excellence and independence in education. I mention in passing one old boy of Dulwich, P. G. Wodehouse, who, in one of his most youthful novels, when the effect of the neighbourhood and the school were strong upon him, wrote an account of an election meeting in Dulwich. That was in 1910. I re-read that account the other day, and it is as fresh today in describing, perhaps, one of my election meetings in 1983 as on the day that it was written. P. G. Wodehouse's reputation as a writer has always remained fresh and lively. There was a time when his reputation in the House was slightly eclipsed by his honour being impugned, but I am delighted to mention his name today as his honour has regained its full lustre.
Dulwich gallery is a monument to enlightened private patronage and benefaction of the arts. It houses a unique collection of old masters, including a famous Rembrandt—the roving Rembrandt, sometimes on public view and sometimes away on enforced loan. Alas, it is at the moment away on its travels.
The presence of education and the arts has made some areas of Dulwich attractive places in which to live and its growth as a residential suburb has been greatly dependent on the leasehold tenure which has been the basis of its development. Such tenure gives rise to problems of ownership and anomalies—the very subject of the Bill before us today. It is interesting to note, but no coincidence, that my predecessor, Sam Silkin, was much concerned with leasehold reform when he entered the House in 1964.
I should like to take this opportunity to express the gratitude of the constituency to Sam for all his work and his tireless concern for constituency affairs over those 19 years of service. He was assiduous in his attention to constituency duties and for four of those years we worked in double harness, as I was the GLC member for Dulwich. We had a fruitful, co-operative and, I think, productive relationship. I greatly admired his personal approach and will seek to emulate it, although I do net share his political attitudes and do not necessarily seek to emulate them. Sam Silkin is greatly revered and respected in Dulwich.
People like to live in Dulwich. They like to buy their homes in Dulwich and it is a place where many council tenants would like to buy their homes. The incidence of leasehold tenure, and the fact that the council has only a leasehold interest, has in a sense disabled tenants from purchasing by right under the Housing Act 1980. The Act denied them the independence, freedom and stability that home ownership can bring. It failed to meet the needs of those tenants whose superior landlords were unwilling to sell. There are 1,500 such tenants in my constituency and this Bill is their salvation.
I understand that it is a convention that maiden speeches should not be controversial, but to talk about housing matters without crossing the threshold of controversy is extremely difficult. However, I shall try today not to be too controversial. Many tenants who sought to buy their homes from the council found themselves in the centre of controversy. They faced implacable opposition from their council landlords—opposition which has been direct in the past but is now becoming more oblique. The mislaying of papers, the inordinate delays and the raising of legal difficulties are all recognised ploys in the procedure attendant upon an application to purchase a council house. Now a further scare has been raised by some councils.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has already alluded to the problem of service charges which are being used to dissuade tenants from buying for fear that they cannot meet the cost. The crippling service charges for heating, caretaking and maintenance promulgated by Southwark council put off many prospective purchasers. Therefore, I welcome the provision that a council must publish its service charges and that such charges should be reasonable.
Where a council raises matters which need to be legally tested, the Bill requires that the tenants should be assisted in pursuing an action without having to bear the brunt of its cost. From my layman's reading of the 1980 Act and the Bill, one point is unclear to me. Will this legal aid be available to a tenant faced with unreasonable service charges? Those charges may be correct, but they may nevertheless be wanton and extravagant and it is unreasonable that they should be apportioned and passed on to the purchaser.
A Bill which provides for legal aid and insists that service charges should be published and should be reasonable is a realistic one. It adds a note of practical implementation to a sense of idealism. Those councils that lose the papers, drag their feet or raise legal niceties should be flushed out of their coverts. The provisions for legal aid and for dealing with unreasonable service charges show that the Bill means business.
I conclude by thanking the electors of Dulwich for sending me to the House of Commons to represent them. I should like on behalf of my constituents to thank the House for this Bill. I give it my wholehearted support.