This is the only housing legislation that we shall consider in the current Session. That should be seen in the context of the designation of 1987 by the United Nations as the international year of shelter for the homeless. An important question is posed: are the Government doing all that they could, or should, to tackle the fundamental problem presented by the astronomical rise in homelessness? The urgency of that problem has been placed in context by the designation of this week as national housing week. A series of activities is taking place, starting from today, to highlight the extent of housing needs and housing deprivation in London and in other parts of the country.
It is a sad comment on the Government's record that the international year of shelter for the homeless will almost certainly see the highest level of homelessness in Britain since records began shortly after the end of the last war. It will almost certainly also see more homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation than ever before. Such people are subjected to appalling and often slum-like conditions. They are exposed to severe risks of fire and other accidents, and overcrowding makes it difficult for them to lead any kind of real family life. But—here is the final insult—for all the horror and blight that such conditions cast on the lives of those families, it costs the state far more to keep them in such accommodation than it would to build new houses. The surge in the number of homeless people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and in the cost of that accommodation, is an extraordinary comment on the impact of the Government's housing policies after eight years in office.
The country is spending more and more money on lining the pockets of greedy landlords running bed-and-breakfast establishments of a very poor standard, exploiting the misery of the homeless and ripping off the state into the bargain.
The fact that Government policy has led to such circumstances can only be described as deplorable. It is the politics of the loony Right to go on subsidising the landlords of bed-and-breakfast hovels, rather than building the houses that we know are needed. We have the worst level of housebuilding in the public sector recorded in any peace-time year since the end of the first world war, and yet more families are living in those appalling conditions. If ever there was a comment on the lunacy—the loony Right ideology—of the Government's policies it is reflected in those figures.
Measures should have been taken this year to tackle the housing crisis and to control standards in bed-and-breakfast and other multi-occupied establishments. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) introduced a private Member's Bill to try to tackle these problems. Had the Government been prepared to give it time, something would have been done about those problems. However, the Government have neglected the real problems of our time and have allowed the crisis to become even worse.
The reason for acute homelessness is the shortage of rented accommodation. Since this Government have been in office, the number of homes that are available to rent in Britain has declined by about 1 million. It has been the steepest ever decline in our history. That is a shameful record and it has now come home to roost. This Bill tries to tackle some of the abuses and problems that arise in certain parts of the housing market. However, we also need measures that will lead to an increase in the supply of rented housing to meet the needs of so many people who, without the provision of homes to rent, will become homeless.
Why is there such a shortage of homes to rent? The Government are in an unfortunate position. Ideologically, they believe that if it were given the opportunity, the free market would provide housing. However, Conservative Members know only too well that it does not work like that. Their 1957 measure led to the greatest ever loss of housing in the rented market, plus the arrival of Mr. Rachman and his infamous exploitation of tenants. When they were elected, this Government promised that they would stimulate the private rented market by a series of measures, including the shorthold tenancies that had been advocated for many years by the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams).
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's wish to try to stimulate the private rented market by the introduction of shorthold tenancies, but the reason for the failure of shorthold tenancies does not lie in the explanation that he offered—that the measure has been politically controversial. The reason for the failure of shorthold tenancies is that no landlord who is able to let accommodation and obtain a far higher rent without the tenant enjoying security of tenure would dream of letting under the shorthold conditions that the hon. Gentleman advocated and that the Housing Act 1980 brought on to the statute book. In London at the moment, many landlords are letting accommodation on terms that evade the provisions of the Rent Acts and that enable them to charge extortionate rents and deny any rights to tenants. While freedom to exploit tenants exists, very few landlords will let their property on conditions that are subject to regulation.
If there is a free market, as Conservative Members in their ideological conviction wish, the outcome leads inexorably and inevitably to the greatest exploitation of shortage: the bed-and-breakfast hotel. The bed-and-breakfast hotel is very much the symbol of the free market. it is where the largest amount of profit can be made by landlords who exploit the misery of the homeless. I am afraid that that is the answer to a Government who believe that all we have to do is to free the private market and housing will be provided. Instead, there is squalor, exploitation and human misery.
The Government, with their strange ideological views, say that action is needed to stimulate private landlords to produce lettings. However, in the glossy promotional leaflets that they produce for other reasons, the Government try to pretend that there is no crisis. The other day I came across an extraordinary Government document that deals with the proposal to establish a
Community trade marks office in the docklands area. In this glossy promotional leaflet that extols the virtues of locating the trade marks office in Britain—a principle that I fully support—I could not but notice an extraordinary comment on housing and the justification given for coming to docklands, which was because of the housing to be found there. It says:
Inexpensive housing is available in plenty both in and out of London.
If the Government believe that that is so, how do they reconcile it with the number of homeless families who are living in bed-and-breakfast hotels? Have they ever thought that there is a conflict between the reality of life in London at the moment and the image that is presented in their glossy brochures?
Conservative Members put forward another argument about the supply of rented housing: that if landlords were able to obtain a reasonable return on their investment they would provide more homes. The properties that are the subject of this Bill disprove their case overwhelmingly The evidence of the past 20 years shows exactly what happens when landlords are enabled to maximise their return. They do not continue to let their property. Wherever possible, they try to break up mansion blocks and to sell as many of them as possible to maximise their capital gain.
The history that has been documented by the Nugee committee is the history of exploitation by landlords, often the very unscrupulous ones who were named by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg). They began that process in the 1960s. Probably there were others before them, but for the first time they achieved public notoriety in the 1960s.
In recent years, their successors have seized on the opportunity to buy properties on a rising property market when capital values were increasing. Flats have been left empty—the vacancy rate is appalling—and when capital values have been at their highest landlords have seized the opportunity to sell them and make a capital gain, despite the fact that rent levels in many of these properties was very high. Many of my constituents who live in mansion blocks are paying through the teeth for the pleasure of living in them. Despite that, the owners of mansion blocks have had no incentive to continue to let their property. They have tried to break them up and make capital gains. By doing so, they have reduced the amount of accommodation that is available to rent.
We need to consider the extent to which the measures in this Bill will address the problems. They go some way towards tackling some of the problems that face tenants who are renting accommodation in blocks of flats. However, they do not tackle some of the other fundamental problems to which I have referred—homelessness or empty housing. I am sorry that the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction is not in the Chamber at the moment. He has the interesting habit of leaving the Chamber when I speak on housing matters. I hope that there is no connection between those two facts. He spoke on the radio this morning about empty property. His justification for the Government's policy of not doing more for the homeless was that if only empty council properties were brought back into use the problem would be solved.
The answer is very different. There are too many empty council properties and something must be done about it, but local authorities are by no means the worst offenders. The owners of mansion blocks keep far more properties empty than does any local authority in London. The worst offenders of all are Government Departments. The figures show that 6·5 per cent. Of Government Department property is empty, compared with 3·5 per cent. Of empty local authority property.
The Metropolitan police figures are a disgrace. The answers that the Home Secretary has given to my parliamentary questions during the past month reveal that, of 3,203 residential properties owned by the Metropolitan police, 573 are vacant. That is a vacancy rate of 18 per cent. The Home Secretary ought to be ashamed of that. So should the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister for Housing. They should stop criticising local authorities and others for keeping property empty until they have put their own house in order. If they do not, everybody will know that they are being hypocritical and that, although they are accusing others of keeping property empty, they have by far the worst record.