That is right. The Government encourage homelessness by leaving properties empty and compound the problem by making homeless the people who live in such accommodation.
We have had enough of listening to the pious platitudes of the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, who has presided over an appalling crisis of homelessness and has done little or nothing to tackle it. He is guilty of the grossest hyprocrisy in accusing local authorities of keeping too many properties empty—and I agree that there is a problem—when he has a far greater problem in his own back yard.
The Bill is designed to facilitate the acquisition by tenants of the ownership of their flats under certain circumstances. They will have the right of first refusal if the landlord decides to sell, and compulsory acquisition powers will apply in certain circumstances. Those compulsory acquisition powers will be somewhat tortuous and difficult to put into effect, because a number of conditions will have to be met to the satisfaction of a court. The landlord must be in breach of one or more of the obligations owed to the leaseholder, the circumstances must be such that the breach is likely to continue, and the problems must be unlikely to be adequately remedied by the appointment of a manager under part II of the Bill.
Those three conditions will provide a golden opportunity for a landlord who wishes to evade the provisions of the Bill to do so. They will provide endless opportunities for prevarication, and some landlords will pretend that action is being taken to remedy problems when it is not. They will involve lengthy legal procedures that will be very costly to the tenants, who will have no guarantee of success at the end.
Although I regard the Bill as a step in the right direction, I am far from satisified that it will give tenants and leaseholders who have been subjected to injustice, and who have suffered unhappiness at the hands of their landlord in the past, the swift remedy that they deserve. Labour Members prefer the concept of a much more straightforward procedure that allows leaseholders, either individually or collectively, to acquire the full interest in the property. We are pledged to extend tenants' rights in that way, and it is important that people should know that we have been in the forefront in this regard.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate talked about his contribution in introducing the Housing Act 1980. He is only too well aware that most of the provisions relating to tenants' rights in the 1980 Act had already been prepared by the Labour party in 1979. The Government inherited measures put forward by the Labour party that would have been introduced had Labour remained in office.
We seek simpler and more straightforward measures to enable the occupiers of blocks of flats to acquire possession of their properties. They should not have to go through the complex procedure of satisfying a court that a landlord has fallen down on his obligations and that the problem is not likely to be remedied by any other measure. Equally, there should be provision for the finance to be made available to help tenants to acquire their blocks. A great deal could be done to encourage tenants to take cooperative control of a block that has been badly managed when, given the opportunity, they could do a far better job themselves.
Today I had the pleasure of taking part in a visit to various sites in central London organised by the Campaign for Homes in Central London. The aim was to illustrate the current problems confronting people looking for housing. We saw a successful housing co-operative in operation—interestingly, in what were originally police houses. The co-operative is organising its own affairs very successfully and wants to acquire an adjoining site to provide more housing, but it is being thwarted by the reluctance of the London residuary body to make the land available at an affordable price. There is a strong case for enabling co-operatives to take over control.
I question the ability of the county courts to carry out satisfactorily the functions that the Bill gives them. They would have to deal not only with compulsory acquisition powers but with the appointment of managers and with various variations in the terms of other leases. There are many grounds for believing that county courts are already overburdened with the obligation to deal efficiently with housing cases and that, in many cases, people do not benefit from the standard of justice that they deserve. In the past, a case has been made for new specialist housing courts that could examine housing matters in rather more detail, and with greater expertise than the county courts.
The Nugee committee recommended that housing assessors should be available within the framework of the county courts. We have no evidence as to whether the Government are considering housing assessors, but we have evidence that the Lord Chancellor's Department is not keen on the establishment of housing courts. Indeed, it has rejected that proposal and is considering less satisfactory options.
Does the Minister believe that the considerable additional responsibilities that the Bill will give to the county courts will he discharged as well as they would be by a specialist housing court? Will he consider the establishment of a housing court to provide a more effective channel for the settlement of landlord-tenant disputes and other housing matters?
I do not wish to incur the wrath of the hon. Member for Hampstead by speaking for too long. In conclusion, therefore, I stress that Labour Members welcome the introduction of the Bill but believe that it has two fundamental weaknesses. First, it does not go far enough to extend the rights of tenants in blocks of flats and, secondly, it does not tackle any of the fundamental housing problems that face us at the moment. The Government try to give the impression of taking action on housing, but they are deafeningly silent on the critical problems of homelessness, overcrowding, lack of investment, decay in the housing stock and the worsening housing crisis over which they are presiding.