I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) on raising this matter. He has done us a service by spotlighting what would certainly occur if, by some mischance, this Government were reelected. I remind him that, when the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, he tried to persuade the Cabinet, of which he was not a member, to bring forward legislation along the lines advocated by the hon. Gentleman today. The hon. Member for Eastbourne was reported in the press as having been quite upset when the Cabinet told him that no action would be taken in that Parliament.
The Cabinet is no less keen and enthusiastic in wishing to see the decontrol of the privately rented sector than the hon. Members for Eastbourne and for Brigg and Cleethorpes. The Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues simply consider it unwise to take any action before the next election. That is why, unlike last Friday, the ministerial payroll will abstain today. Eighteen months ago, when I opposed a private ten-minute Bill, it was lost by one vote. I am sure that the ministerial payroll will abstain today and that I shall be proved right.
The present Housing Minister, as the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes said, has made the Government's position perfectly clear. In February last year, he said that there was little point in putting forward major legislation halfway through a Parliamentary term because of what he described as the destructive attitude which the Labour party was sure to take. If by "destructive attitude" he means that the Labour party would defend the right of private tenants to have protection on rents and security, we plead guilty. We are not ashamed of that.
Moreover, in his speech at the party conference on 7 October last year, the Minister made it clear that the Government, if re-elected, would remove controls and security of tenure from new lettings.
The Minister referred during that speech and on other occasions to "Socialist controls" in the privately rented sector. If they are "Socialist controls" why have they not been removed in nearly eight years of a Right-wing Conservative Administration? Why were these "Socialist controls" agreed to by the Conservatives when the Labour party was in office? The Conservatives made it clear that they would not oppose the Rent Acts being restored?
The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes was right in one respect—there is an acute housing crisis, but deregulating the privately rented sector would make it far worse. The Conservatives use the same argument that was used when the Rent Act 1957 was going through. In 1956 the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), when he was a junior housing Minister said that deregulation would provide more tenancies and more flexibility. The same argument is used today by the housing Minister, other Ministers and the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes today.
In June 1956, before the 1957 Act came on the Statute Book, there were 6·5 million private dwellings. In 1961, after four years of the Act, there were 5 million. Where were the further dwellings?
The truth is that, once the places became vacant, many of the owners simply sold them off. Therefore, the Act which provided for decontrol led not to more but to substantially less rented accommodation. The Rent Act 1957 led to something else. It led to great homelessness, misery and injustice for many many private tenants and to Rachmanism. It led to the terror that existed in parts of London and other places, where Rachman and his agents were even willing to use Alsation dogs to force tenants out.
When the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes says that existing tenants will be protected, I say that, if deregulation came along, there would be great harassment and intimidation of sitting tenants, in order to get them out so that the places would become decontrolled and the landlord could let those places without any limits on rent and without any security. Hundreds of thousands of existing private tenants would be greatly at risk if this Government were re-elected and they introduced another Act like the 1957 Act. I say to the Labour Front Bench and to the Labour party nationally that we have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that, during the election campaign, we warn private tenants what is likely to happen if the Tories win.
Many, many people are desperately in need of accommodation, but they will not find that accommodation at a reasonable rent in any deregulated private sector. That is why it is so necessary for local authorities to start building once again. This year, there will probably be even fewer than 30,000 new dwellings built by local authorities and housing associations. So many of our people are desperately in need of housing. They want rented housing, but they will get adequate rented housing at a reasonable rent and with protection only from the public sector.