Orders of the Day — Housing Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:11 pm on 30th November 1987.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 11:11 pm, 30th November 1987

I congratulate the hon. Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) and for Gloucester (Mr. French) on their interesting, well-constructed maiden speeches. I disagreed with them, although of course I could not intervene, but I hope that we shall hear equally interesting and well-constructed speeches from them in the future.

I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will say on what the £25 million extra for the homeless can be spent. May the local authorities use it to provide hostels or permanent accommodation, or is it just extra money to pay the ever-increasing bed-and-breakfast bills that are being run up by local authorities as a consequence of increasing homelessness?

We, and some Conservative Members, want to know whether the Government intend to abolish the housing cost floor. The Conservative Association of District Councils opposes that, as does all local government. If it was abolished, more council houses might be sold, but for less than it costs the local authorities to build them. A council could build a new council house and the day after it had been let, the tenant—who had lived in another council house and therefore qualified—could buy it for about half or even one third of the cost of building it. That would be completely wrong.

The Secretary of State said that the Bill which will follow this one will be aimed at subsidising people, not bricks and mortar. I and my hon. Friends oppose that principle completely. If we subsidise people, as we do in the owner-occupied sector, the amount of money coming from the Exchequer could increase dramatically, without an extra house being built or modernised. The best housing subsidies are those which initiate the building of new houses and the improvement of older houses, as the subsidy system before the Housing Act 1980 used to do. In that case, a local authority received about 60 per cent. of the moneys needed to build new houses and modernise older ones.

Some hon. Members mentioned mobility in the owner-occupied sector and not in the public sector. People can choose to buy a house, then sell it and move somewhere else. That is one-way mobility. Someone can sell a house in the south or in London and move north, where there are no jobs. But one cannot sell a house on Merseyside, or in the north of England, and move down south to look for a job, because one cannot afford to buy another one. So the one-way mobility that existed to some extent before has been destroyed by the Government allowing massive inequalities to develop. House prices have escalated beyond the reach of ordinary people in London, the south and other areas, while they have fallen in places such as Merseyside.

Listening to some of the speeches by Conservative hon. Members tonight, one would think that the Bill was being introduced by a Government who had just come to power for the first time, after having been out of office for eight years. It is as though it is all happening in a vacuum. The Bill must be set in the context of the Government's record over the last eight years—a record of which they should be ashamed. Public and private house building has slumped—from more than 322,000 new homes built in 1975 to 200,000 in 1986. Only 30,000 public sector homes were started in 1986, compared with 150,000 in 1975. Yet Conservative Members claim that they want to increase the supply of rented accommodation.

One third of our homes were built before 1919, and more than a million of them are unfit after nine years of Conservative Government. One in four homes is unfit, lacks basic amenities or is in substantial disrepair. The Government's own survey shows that £19 billion is urgently needed for repairs to council homes, but the Government have denied local councils the resources to take the necessary action.

The worst scandal — and Conservative Members know it—is that, having advocated the sale of council assets so that the money was available to build more homes, the Government now prevent councils from using those assets and capital receipts. By their housing policy, the Government have contributed to a divided Britain. Home ownership has been encouraged, and we welcome that — but even for those who can barely afford it, which has led to terrible difficulties. There has been no help for people in such difficulties.

Under this Government, interest rates have been, on average, 50 per cent. higher than under previous Labour Governments, and the number of people with mortgage arrears jumped from 8,500 in 1979 to more than 70,000 in 1986. The Government have the audacity to talk about rent arrears when they have inflicted those sorts of circumstances on owner-occupiers and caused arrears in mortgage repayments on the scale that I have described. Low-income council tenants have faced steeply increasing rents and reductions in housing benefits under the Government.

Of course, the legislation says nothing about homelessness and how to deal with it, except that the housing action trusts that take over properties from local authorities will have no responsibility, having taken them over; nor will the private landlords or organisations to which they hand them on have responsibility for accepting homeless families, or nominations for people in housing need from the local authority. That is the only reference to homelessness in the legislation—to make it more difficult for local authorities that are left with responsibilities for the homeless under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977—to deal with them.

Homelessness reached record heights last year, with 103,000 households—the equivalent of 250,000 men, women and children—accepted as homeless by local authorities in England alone. That compared with 53,000 in 1978. In June 1987, there were 23,000 households in temporary accommodation—double the figure in June 1984. The number living in bed-and-breakfast hostels in June was 11,000—4,000 more than 12 months before, under a Conservative Government. Homeless families, particularly from ethnic minorities, tend to end up in bed and breakfast; and the massive increase in council waiting lists that has taken place under the Government is the measure of the hidden homelessness in this country.

There has been a massive increase in council waiting lists; in England, in April 1986, 1·35 million were on the lists—an increase of 200,000 compared to 18 months before.

That is the background. That is the housing crisis that the nation faces, which the Bill does not address in any way. We have the Housing Act 1980. I served on the Committee, which started in 1979, immediately after the Conservatives won the general election. We heard all the arguments and the scenario. They said on Second Reading and in Committee that what we had to do to solve the housing shortage was to revitalise the private rented sector. They said that but for those wicked Rent Acts that Labour Governments had put on the statute book, limiting the rents that could be charged to tenants by landlords, and but for the security of tenure that meant that landlords could not get rid of tenants easily, there would be no shortage of housing. All the empty houses in private ownership would come on the market. People would invest their capital because they could get a fair return, and the private sector would provide the houses that were needed. So the Government said that they had solved the problem in 1980. They decontrolled 200,000 tenancies and introduced the concept of assured tenancies. They allowed fair rents to be increased every two years, and to be increased higher than previously.

The Government's piece de résistance was the shorthold tenancy agreement, which meant that when people became private tenants they could have security of tenure only for the length of time that the shorthold tenancy agreement lasted—one, two, three or four years. At the end of that period, the landlord could give 14 days' notice and evict the tenant. Thus, the security of tenure problem was overcome.

If the tenant wanted to renew the shorthold tenancy, he had better be a good tenant. That meant not trying to get one's rent fixed or trying to get a fair rent assessed. He did not go to the rent officer, or else at the end of the shorthold period, out he went and in came someone who could pay a higher rent. A coach and horses was driven through security of tenure by the 1980 Act. There has been no security of tenure for the past six or seven years, but what has happened? Where are all the properties? Why have they not come flooding on to the market? Why is homelessness increasing? Why is there still a crisis? I shall tell the House why. The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) gave the game away. In fact, the Tory Association of District Councils puts its finger on it. It doubts whether the market rents now proposed by the Government are a better way of seeking to revise the private rented sector, as in many cases it must mean rents at the level of mortgage payments without the benefits of tax relief.

One cannot subsidise the public rented sector and housing associations or the owner-occupied sector and then allow landlords in the private rented sector to charge what they want, and not have the private rented sector doing anything but offer a dearer alternative. If access can be gained to a subsidised sector, whether owner-occupied or public rented, no one in his right mind will take the dearer alternative.

One can revitalise the private rented sector only if one does one of two things—stop subsidising all the other sectors, including the owner-occupied sector, or start subsidising the private landlord. Even this Secretary of State for the Environment is not Right-wing enough to do that. It would be an outrage if the Tories went mad giving money to private landlords to make a profit out of housing. If he wants to suggest that, let him do so, and we shall fight him.

I shall say this for the Government. In an attempt to revitalise the private rented sector, they have attacked the subsidy systems to the public rented sector. They are doing it again in the legislation. There are no longer any Government subsidies to talk of to local authority housing revenue accounts, because rents have already been forced up to levels where most local authorities make profits on those accounts. In this legislation, the Government will outlaw rate fund contributions to those accounts to put the final seal making the rents for those in the public sector, whether council or housing association property, as high as the private landlord will be allowed to charge.

People must be denied access to the public rented sector or the public rented sector must be made as expensive as the private rented sector if the Government are to stand any hope in their aims to revitalise the private rented sector. It is all part of the strategy to prevent people from getting access to the public rented sector — housing associations and council housing— for people to be dependent upon the private sector. That is why no more council houses are being built. Since 1979, the axe has been wielded; there is no more money for the housing associations or for general purposes.

The so-called respectable arm of the public housing sector—many associations run by people who would be happy on a Conservative constituency association—were amazed when the Conservative Government cut their funding and stopped them building houses for general use as well. If the Government are to stop funding housing association and council housing, they will have to stop the lot, because that will make people dependent upon the private landlords, and it is all part of a total strategy. That did not work, so the Government are going further and producing an extreme Bill.

We opposed the sale of council houses 10 years ago. Let me say what I mean by that: our policies at the 1983 and 1979 elections were exactly the same policies as those of the alliance. The Labour party did not oppose the sale of council houses; we opposed the compulsion on local authorities to sell houses when they did not want to. The right-to-buy policy consisted of central Government telling local authorities which had been opposed to the sale of council houses that they had to sell them. We never opposed the selling of council houses in principle; we have opposed compulsory selling. The Bootle Labour council pioneered the sale of council houses, as did many other Labour local authorities