We are considering two shabby and vindictive little orders introduced by a shabby and discredited Government who no longer have any pretence of a housing policy. They preside over the worst escalation in a housing crisis that I, and I believe most hon. Members, have seen. It is perhaps ironic that we should hold this debate tonight when, during Question Time, the Minister gave figures showing that, in the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, under the Government's housing policy, the number of homeless households has passed 100,000 for the first time. What a disgraceful comment on the appalling failure of the Government to have a responsible housing policy.
The reason for the escalation of the housing problem is a critical shortage of rented housing, which is the result of two specific trends. One is the deliberate running down of the public sector rented housing programme, which was the deliberate policy of the Government through drastically cutting their support for councils and housing associations. The figures show only too clearly the extent to which those cuts have reduced rental options in the public sector. In England the number of new homes becoming available through council building programmes reduced from 67,000 in 1979 to just 18,000 in the past 12 months. The number of housing association homes also reduced, despite the Government's pledges to support the housing association movement. The number of new build and rehabilitated dwellings provided by housing associations reduced by approximately 50 per cent. during the lifetime of the Government. That record is their responsibility.
The other reason for the homelessness crisis is the shortage of rented housing in the private sector. There has been a continuing decline during the lifetime of the Government. The Government's policies have failed to stem that decline.
We are now presented with two orders that, we are told, will help to stimulate private renting. The evidence is against the Government. In 1957, the Conservative Government attempted, by reducing rent controls, to stimulate the private market. The evidence shows exactly how wrong that philosophy can be. The Rent Act 1957 did not usher in an increase in the number of lettings but heralded the period during which there was the sharpest
decline in the number of private lettings during the whole of the century as landlords used the opportunity to get rid of their tenants and to sell their properties. On being returned to office in 1979, the present Government introduced in the Housing Act 1980 a measure that they hoped would stimulate private lettings. The then Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), said:
I believe that we shall improve the opportunity for rented accommodation."-[Official Report, 15 January 1980; Vol. 976, col. 1457.]
We heard various other pledges about how the 1980 Act would improve options for rented housing. In practice, that did not happen. Between 1979 and 1986, 500,000 rented houses went off the market. The number of private rented homes declined from about 2 million to 1·5 million. The Government cannot pretend that that is our fault. They were in power during those years. The Government's 1980 Act was supposed to stem that decline and stimulate the market. They should take the responsibility for their failure.
The 1980 measures failed to stimulate private lettings, as will the two minor measures that we are debating tonight. They will cause further hardship to private tenants who have already suffered very considerably from this Government's actions on a number of fronts: from cuts in housing benefit, from the threat to remove Rent Act protection from new lettings and from the threat to change the rent registration procedures and repossession procedures, as announced in a recent consultation paper issued by the Lord Chancellor's Department. This attack on private tenants throughout the country, but particularly in the London area, will be remembered by them at the next general election.
The Minister pretended that the rents registered for private tenants have failed to keep pace with inflation. He did so by an extraordinary sleight of hand. He quoted figures that were based on 1970. Why should he have used 1970 as the base? Does he not believe that there was a Labour Government between 1974 and 1979? Is he not prepared to be honest and straightforward with the House and take the logical and sensible base? The 1979 figures are quite simple. They are figures for which this Government are responsible.
Since 1979 there has been an 87 per cent. increase in the level of mean registered rents for unfurnished tenancies in England and Wales. In the last two years—to put the Minister's comments into context, since he referred to the reduction in inflation—the increase in the registered rent levels has been 18 per cent., far ahead of the level of inflation. What is the possible justification, therefore, for claiming that rent levels have not kept pace with inflation and should be increased? It is a completely dishonest and specious argument that is justified by bogus statistics from a Government who are desperate to try to cover up their own failings.