Orders of the Day — Housing Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 30th November 1987.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 4:22 pm, 30th November 1987

I begin by apologising on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) who has suffered a minor but painful accident. We expect him to be back with us in full fighting form in the near future.

As we begin the debate on what I regard as an irrelevant and, at times, damaging Bill we must remember that there are many people in this country who live in warm, comfortable, well-built, well-constructed and well-repaired homes. That is due to the contribution of Labour Governments and Labour authorities in the past and it has been supported by Conservative Governments and Conservative local authorities as well. There was a time when the political debate on housing in this country hinged on the issue of how many houses and flats had been built or renovated and what the quality of the stock was like. That is no longer true. The Government have destroyed any consensus on housing. If they believe that they have simply destroyed the consensus with the Labour party, let me tell them how wrong they are. The Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils said: The record of housing authorities is generally good—they should not be blamed for any general social problems that may be manifest in urban centres. These are conditions which are found in many countries". Therefore, the role of local authorities is supported by the Association of District Councils. The role of local authorities is also supported by Rural Voice, which also obtained support from the National Farmers Union and other organisations. I will be referring to those organisations throughout the debate because we know that we have their support as well as support across the board from Labour and Liberal local authorities. We know that over the past eight or nine years we have watched the Government rip into the morale of local authority employees and local authority councillors. In doing that they are undermining local democracy in this country.

Housing was recognised by successive Governments as being vital to the welfare of the nation. We all knew, and still know, that a person who lives in poor or inadequate housing is likely to suffer greater health problems. We know that people who live in poor or inadequate housing are less likely to do well in education. We know that if one does not have a good housing policy, particularly if homelessness is pushed up to record levels as it is under this Government, there will be a dramatic increase in crime. When the Government introduced the board and lodging allowance, they pushed more and more young people into homelessness and, consequently, into drug abuse, alcohol abuse and crime. The figures were produced by the Government, by their own Home Secretary, and they know that. That is one of the most damaging things the Government have done.

There was supposed to be consultation about the Bill. The consultation papers often required a response within four weeks. Were tenants to be consulted in that time? Oh no, tenants do not really matter, whether private or public. That is why we shall give the House an opportunity to vote to put the Bill before a Special Standing Committee of the House. That would provide an opportunity for the various bodies, including Conservative-controlled organisations such as the ADC, to give evidence to the Committee. Let them do that. If the Government really believe that they have the support of even their own party in rural areas, let the organisations give evidence to the Standing Committee and let us see some of the Conservative Members in the Lobby with us; that is unless the Government believe that the Bill should go to a Special Standing Committee.

The Minister for Housing and Planning, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), did not even know when the Housing Bill was to be published. He told me that it would be published at the end of November. In fact, it came out on Friday 20 November after various queries from the media which had heard a rumour that it was to be published. The Bill was published with the word "Restricted" stamped on it. That was because, as everybody knows, it was a draft document. In other words, consultation was not taken into account.

There are deep divisions within the Government on the issue of housing. I can provide one little example straight from Conservative Central Office. The Secretary of State and the Minister both made speeches on housing and the wording is the same except for two words and they totally turn round the meaning of the statement. On 19 May 1987 the Secretary of State said: The quantity of housing available for renting overall is probably sufficient to cater for the numbers of households needing rented accommodation. One month later on 19 June 1987 the Minister said: The quantity of housing available for renting is insufficient to cater for the number of households needing rented accommodation. That is an example—we have other evidence—of the fact that the Minister is in disagreement with his Secretary of State on what they are trying to do.

The consequence of the Government's policy since 1979 is the creation of a desperately serious and growing housing crisis throughout the United Kingdom. When one of the Conservative Back-Benchers interrupted to say that the Bill deals with city areas but does nothing for rural areas, he was right. The Bill will do nothing for rural areas. The report of the ADC and the report of Rural Voice make it clear that there is a serious and damaging decline in the rented sector and a serious and damaging decline in the standard of maintenance in rural and semi-rural areas as well as in urban areas. We know that.

The Bill is largely irrelevant and, in many cases, positively damaging. What is the nature of the crisis? First, there is a crisis in house price inflation. Secondly, there is a disgraceful crisis in homelessness and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Thirdly, there is a dramatic loss of rented housing, which is forcing up waiting lists. Fourthly, and underlying the other problems, there is a collapse of public sector building and a housing finance system that has been pushed into chaos by the Government and distorted the rented and purchasing markets. There is nothing in the Bill to deal with house price inflation. Prices are likely to remain distorted throughout the United Kingdom.

If unemployed people in the north want to come to the south for a job they will either have to stay where they are and commute—driving up and down the motorway if they can get a group together to do that, as some people do—or leave home. When I went to Exeter a short while ago one of the first people I met was a man looking for a job. He had left his family in Newcastle and was paying £70 a week in a hostel set up for the homeless. He hoped to find a job for the coming tourist season. That is becoming all too common a picture in our country. It applies wherever one goes, not just to urban areas. It means that a couple who save to buy a home or to trade up on their existing home if they have children can be forced into serious debt by mortgage rate increases or unemployment. Repossessions in the private sector have increased fourfold. That is the measure of the crisis for those people. A dream for many people has turned into a nightmare. If one looks at the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, one finds that a significant minority are there because their homes have been repossessed.

What about the promise of more help to repair and improve? The Secretary of State said—I listened to him carefully—that they were thinking of doing that a little later. It is a pity that they could not have done it sooner. The Green Paper was published two and a half years ago. This Bill is a missed opportunity. The ADC, Rural Voice and other organisations have criticised the Bill for that.

The Bill does nothing about homelessness or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The White Paper did not even mention homelessness. The word did not appear in it at all. Yet homelessness is at record levels in this country. At Christmas we shall be asked to remember those who are homeless or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and those who are sleeping under the bridges not very far from here. Indeed, when hon. Members go home tonight they may well see the same body that has been sleeping in that box beside the entrance of Westminster tube station for some months now.

We all acknowledge that some people will always be homeless—the burnt-out, vagrant, schizophrenic or the alcoholic who refuses to accept any help. But we are not in that league any more; it is entirely different. We are talking about thousands and thousands of people forced to sleep rough and desperate for a roof over their heads.

Last year, 200,000 people applied as homeless to local authorities. Only 100,000 could be accepted. The January 1987 report of the Department of the Environment, referring to houses in multiple occupation, said that there were 1·9 million single people living in hostels, bed-sits and bed-and-breakfast accommodation who wanted a self-contained home. The report found that four fifths of those houses in multiple occupation had no adequate fire escape and 60 per cent. lacked adequate amenities. One third of the tenants had to share a bathroom with at least six others. The estimated national cost of doing up those properties was £3·6 billion. The average income of the people living there was £90 a week whereas the average rent paid was £27 a week—almost a third of their pay. But the Secretary of State has been telling us that rents are not high enough. The Government argue that, when the rents go up — perhaps by 50 per cent.—suddenly a miracle will occur and properties will appear on the market. That is wicked nonsense.

A recent survey in Hackney found that 64 per cent. of homeless single people were under 26, and I refer to my previous comments on the way in which crime and drug and alcohol abuse are linked to homelessness and poor accommodation. There are 11,000 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation at a cost of £12,000 per family per annum. If we provided them with a newly built council house, the cost would be £7,000 per family per annum. The Secretary of State has told us that he will make another £25 million available, but we shall look at the small print. I have learnt with this Government, and especially this Secretary of State and this Department of the Environment, to look at the small print. Conservative Members found recently with the rate support grant that, although they might have thought that they would get more, they in fact got less. Conservative Back Benchers criticised that rate support grant—not for the first time—because it did not deliver the goods that they had constantly promised their local authorities.