I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) on initiating this important debate. It is right and proper that parliamentary time should be devoted to housing.
It would be appropriate, as I remarked in my earlier intervention, for the Minister for Housing and Construction to be in his place. The House has received no apology from the Minister. If he considered his responsibilities in the same way as other Ministers have for many years considered theirs, one would expect him to be in his place for the debate, or to apologise for his absence.
There is a housing crisis which, on the basis of present policies, can only get worse. A large and increasing number of people are unable to be satisfactorily housed. The amount of new public sector rented accommodation continues at an all-time low. Substantial cuts in public housing expenditure mean that large numbers of pre-war council dwellings will remain unmodernised for many years to come, and far too many building workers remain on the dole. For the first time—and this fact should not be overlooked — apart from the war years, the rented sector has been substantially reduced as a result of deliberate Government policy.
Local authorities are forced to sell off their housing. As the Labour party has said, and as was observed by the Select Committee on the Environment, on which I served in the last Parliament, the housing stock which has been sold off, and which will doubtless continue to be sold off, is the best. There is no long queue of tenants waiting to buy flats on the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth or fifteenth floors of multi-storey blocks. However, no new accommodation on anything like the same scale is being built to replace the stock that is being sold off. In the borough of Walsall, no contracts for new council housing have been entered into since 1979, despite a formidable housing waiting list.
Private tenants, however, are denied the right to buy in law. That is an interesting point. We are told constantly by Ministers—and no doubt will be told again—that there is a fundamental right for tenants to buy their homes. Why does that not apply to private tenants? In many cases, they are living in far worse conditions than council tenants. The reason they are not given the right to buy is simple. Whereas the Government could not care less about public assets, and are prepared to sell them at a large discount, they will do nothing to offend the property companies. They will not allow private tenants the same rights as council tenants.
The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) commented on the actions of some unscrupulous landlords. He knows that I have received a letter from a group of residents in his constituency complaining about the way in which the Berger property group operates. I have raised the matter on the Floor of the House and I have complained to the Minister both orally and in writing. The conditions suffered by Berger tenants constitute a scandal, yet the Government say that they cannot act because they do not have the power. If the same accusation was made, however, against a local authority—especially a Labour-controlled authority—the Government would act quickly enough. That is the ambivalence of the Government's attitude towards public and private rented accommodation—and, indeed, towards the public and private sectors in other areas.
Council tenants are being punished. During the past four years there have been exorbitant rent increases, which cannot possibly be justified. The Government often make the excuse that many council tenants receive rebates, but many of them nevertheless pay an increased rent. Council rents have increased at double the rate of increase in the retail price index. That is the way in which the Government penalise those tenants who do not wish to buy their homes.
Another way in which tenants are being penalised is through the great difficulty they face in being rehoused. For example, a man, his wife and one or two children living in a multi-storey block of flats may find it increasingly difficult to be rehoused in a council house with a garden. Surely that is not too much to ask. They tell me how long they have been waiting to be rehoused, but when I contact the local authority it makes the point that there is a limit on what it can do, because of available accommodation.
If no new council accommodation is being built, as is happening in my borough, and if the best of the housing stock is being sold, obviously the chances of such families being rehoused in the type of accommodation in which so many of us want to live become increasingly remote. Does the Minister really understand and appreciate the difficulties of such families?
The hon. Member for Harlow, when referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood, said, "Promises, promises". So let us consider the amount of accommodation built during the last four years of the Labour Government. Like many of my hon. Friends, I wish that we had done more. I am not suggesting that all was perfect. I accept that there were cuts, that not enough council house building took place. But let us compare like with like. From June 1975 to May 1979, 549,300 council dwellings were started. Between June 1979 and May 1983, the figure was 218,900 — a fall of 60 per cent. Therefore, the Opposition can stand on their record on council house building. We also protected private tenants against exploitation.