Orders of the Day — Housing (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:18 pm on 11th January 1988.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian 9:18 pm, 11th January 1988

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) and to all my hon. Friends who have spoken in the debate for bringing to it an air of reality, because there is a housing crisis in Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East has said. We appreciate that the Scottish Office does not want to be aware of that state of affairs, but that is the case and the crisis has been severely aggravated in recent years by the financial and legislative interference of the Government. They do not want to know about that.

Less than a month before they published the Bill, the Government issued a parody of a White Paper which is more a catalogue of ministerial prejudice than an analysis of the Scottish housing scene. The essence of Tory thinking in Scotland seems to be that there is something fundamentally reprehensible about being a tenant. The Tories believe that public sector tenancies are an evil which must be stamped out of the Scottish body politic. That shows that the Government are out of touch with the people of Scotland, not least because more than 58 per cent. of Scottish households are tenants, mostly in the public sector. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that the Government have precious little support in Scotland.

The Government have gone to great lengths to force district and islands councils to dispose of houses and encourage tenants to buy, whether or not they can afford the costs of owner-occupation. Labour Members are happy for people who have acquired their houses, but I wish that the Government would understand that for a significant number of people it is best to remain tenants. Surely they have rights, too. When will the Government grasp that fact? These policies have contributed to a brand new crisis of owner-occupation in Scotland, with record numbers of mortgage defaults adding to an already disastrous crisis of homelessness.

The Labour party supports home ownership, and always has done, through means such as tax incentives, for example. However, it is wrong to promote owner-occupation at the expense of homeless people in Scotland. There has been a net loss of 46,000 council houses available to let since the Government came to power in 1979. The position will be further aggravated when the Minister removes the cost floor on council house sales, as he has threatened today.

Homelessness is a national scandal in Scotland. It is a personal tragedy for far too many of our fellow citizens. Twice as many cases of homelessness occur now as did four years ago. Last year, about 31,000 families and individuals found themselves seeking accommodation under the homeless persons legislation. What did the Government say about that? As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said, there is not a word about homelessness in the Bill, although there was a brief paragraph in the White Paper, which I shall quote: The problem of homelessness also needs to be set in the context of the Government's plans. Homelessness is a symptom of failures in the housing system. How about that for an understatement?

The Government's proposals will make the housing system work better. It is important to address the problem in this way rather than through stopgap measures, specific to the homeless, which do not solve the underlying problem. The homeless will benefit from wider choice and a share in the general improvement of the supply and quality of housing as much as other sectors of the population. The Government are not interested in taking any specific action to deal with this immediate and urgent crisis which afflicts so many of our citizens. It is an indication of the Government's appalling complacency.

In addition to homelessness, there are also the serious problems of overcrowding, bad housing conditions and dampness. A quarter of people in Scotland live in overcrowded homes. COSLA has estimated that no fewer than 250,000 houses need remedial treatment for dampness or condensation. It is difficult to get a clear picture of the need for repairs, because the Government steadfastly refuse to conduct a house condition survey in Scotland, as there is in England and Wales.

The Under-Secretary of State was a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs which investigated the problem of dampness in housing some time ago. It will be interesting to see whether we shall have another Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Perhaps we shall learn more about that on Wednesday. If the Under-Secretary of State were honest, he would have to acknowledge that the Bill and the rest of the Government's policies are aggravating Scotland's housing crisis.

One of the problems in Scotland today is that we are governed by a tiny clique who know and care little about their subjects. In political terms, the Government have precious little to lose in Scotland. The fact that the Scottish Conservative party has so few elected Members at local or national level—only 10 Members of Parliament—means that it is probably not aware of what the people of Scotland are talking about. Scottish Conservative Members are not speaking to them. They are speaking not to tenants, but to merchant bankers and estate agents. Legislation such as this shows that those are the people to whom they are talking.

If Scottish Conservative Members met and corresponded with some of the 202,000 people who are stuck on waiting lists for rented houses, they might understand the bitter anger and frustration of those who are being denied the basic human right to live in a home of their own in the area in which they want to live. How on earth a party that forces thousands of young families to live in overcrowded and insecure accommodation can still try to pose as the party of the family really beggars belief. The Bill will make things worse.

We know that the Secretary of State for Scotland is beyond redemption. He is not about to start compromising with public opinion in Scotland at this stage of his career. Indeed, he frequently brings to mind Burns' famous words about politicians being bought and sold for English gold.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) has a reputation as a basically fair-minded and compassionate man. I hope that we shall see some manifestations of such qualities in the Committee Corridor.

When the idea of a Scottish Development Agency that would include the Scottish part of the Housing Corporation was first suggested, we stated support for such an initiative to help elected local councils to deal with the growing housing crisis in Scotland. But what has since emerged is quite different. It has emerged that the Government intend to set up a monstrous new national housing quango that will effectively supersede local councils and will have a duty 10 revive the ugliest aspects of private landlordism in Scotland.

The worst fears that we have heard expressed have been confirmed in today's issue of The Scotsman, no less. There is speculation about the appointment of no less a person than the Earl of Ancram as chairman of the Scottish Homes organisation. We know that the Secretary of State himself is personally to nominate nine members. There is no undertaking that there will be a representative of tenants. We see some interesting jockeying for the chairman's position.

Of course, there are precedents for such people being appointed. When Hamish Gray was dismissed by the people of Ross, Cromarty and Skye, he found himself promoted to Minister of State. Alex Fletcher, who was dismissed by the people of Edinburgh, Central, found himself appointed to the Scottish Development Agency. There must be some concern that the Earl of Ancram, who was dismissed by the people of Edinburgh, South, could end up as chairman of this outfit. I hope that the Minister can assure us that that will not happen. The people of Scotland presently face the severest provocation from an alien minority Administration. Frankly, some of us have already had enough of it.

Part II of the Bill will establish a whole new framework of landlord and tenant legislation. Frankly, that has more to do with encouraging private landlords than with protecting tenants. Indeed, that is the whole thrust of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) rightly cited many examples of the erosion of tenants' rights. No doubt he will have opportunities to go into greater detail in Committee.

The term "assured tenancy" has a nice cosy ring about it. It is clear enough that we are talking about a variation on the theme of "Catch-22". Tenants will have two choices. They will have limited security but precious little rent control, or they will have limited rent control and precious little security. As we know, even the phasing limits on rent increases will be withdrawn by the Government. It appears that the Government are seeking to build on the spectacular failure of the private rented sector in recent years.

It is worth mentioning that most of the 130,000 empty houses in Scotland today are privately owned. That is a standing indictment of those owners who are prepared neither to let nor to sell such properties, but prefer to let them stand empty and rot. There is nothing to stop people letting houses at fair rents at present. Perhaps I should have declared an interest as a private landlord. There is nothing to stop people letting houses. It seems to be unnecessary for the Government to give such generous incentives to private landlords. They seem to be building on failure. There seems to be no ground for the hope that they will be able to provide the additional rented homes that we all know are required in Scotland.

Private landlords' share of housing in Scotland has collapsed to only 6·3 per cent. of the total amount. That includes some of the worst housing in Scotland.