Orders of the Day — Housing (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:35 pm on 11th January 1988.

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Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East 8:35 pm, 11th January 1988

We seem to have run out of Conservative Members, but other Opposition Members wish to speak so I shall be as succinct as possible to allow in as many other hon. Members as possible.

The Government's stated White Paper objectives on which the Bill is based were reasonable and deserved support. It is a worthwhile objective to give people a wider choice in housing, to improve the supply and quality of that housing, to encourage greater individual responsibility for, and control over, the conditions in which people live and to provide the means of dealing with the problems of homelessness. I am sure that all those objectives will gain support and be encouraged by all hon. Members. [Interruption.] As has been rightly pointed out, I am afraid that I must advise the Minister that he is alone. There is certainly not a Scot on his side of the House but he appears to have the support of an English colleague and reserves from Penrith are arriving.

Although the Bill's aims are desirable, the reality is that it does not deliver those worthy objectives. Worse than that, in comparison with the enormity of the actual housing problems in Scotland, the Bill is an enormous missed opportunity. Indeed, it is more important for what it misses out and what it does not do than for the quango that it creates.

We do not get much chance to legislate on Scottish matters and I regret that the Government have wasted this valuable opportunity to do something worth while about Scottish housing. There is nothing in the Bill which seriously tackles the major problems in Scottish housing. There is nothing in the Bill to tackle the growing problem of homelessness in Scotland, which has risen by almost 100 per cent. during the past four years. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) said, the Shelter survey states that 31,000 Scottish families and individuals are now homeless.

However, in the White Paper the Government used the word "residual" to describe the homelessness situation. One man's residue is clearly another man's desperation. How does the Minister justify that statement when all our local authorities are facing the reality of demographic, social and other changes which are creating growing numbers of young, single and other homeless persons?

Nothing in the Bill addresses the 35 per cent. growth in housing waiting lists during the past few years. An estimated 200,000 people are now waiting for housing in Scotland. So far, the Government's response has been simply to restrict the market by selling council houses and simultaneously starving councils of the funds required to build alternative replacements.

There is nothing in the Bill about the national problem of overcrowding. About one in four Scottish people—1·25 million of our fellow citizens — still live in conditions of overcrowding. In Shelter's words: Overcrowding in Scotland is at levels which existed elsewhere in Britain twenty or thirty years ago. However, the Government tell us that all is well and that those problems have been solved.

There is nothing in the Bill about a national house condition survey. If there is any ideal activity for a unified housing agency, perhaps that is it —it should produce such a survey. Evidence from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities suggests that about 250,000 council houses need full modernisation and a further 250,000 require remedial treatment for dampness and condensation. In other words, 500,000 council houses in Scotland require positive action now. One would never have believed that that situation existed from anything that was said by the Secretary of State for Scotland. However, that situation exists and if any unified housing agency is worth its salt, that is the sort of thing that it should look at and deal with. Again, the Bill does nothing to solve those problems. Indeed, the opposite is true.

The Government's policy is merely to sell or remove the best council houses cheaply and to give no housing support grant funding to improve the remainder. In reality, the Government do not have a policy for council houses. We are entitled to ask the Minister to explain how these provisions will assist in meeting Scotland's major housing problems. Will his proposals for Scottish Homes, for the transfer of tenants out of the public sector and for altering the law of tenancy build more houses, reduce the housing waiting lists, house the growing numbers of homeless people or cure the problems caused by overcrowding and dampness which afflict such a large number of Scottish houses? Will the Bill achieve that?

I was a co-sponsor of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and I believe that it should now be updated, strengthened and improved after a decade in operation. Local authorities have a statutory obligation to house the homeless, yet they are being starved of the resources to carry out that task. What exactly will Scottish Homes contribute to housing the homeless, and how will it do it? I should like the Minister to state clearly how these measures will assist in increasing the supply of special needs housing. If there is no statutory obligation to do so, how will the measures ease the problem of homelessness?

If the Government's objective is to produce high-quality, rented houses at a low cost, that is possible, but only with suitable central Government financial assistance. If the objective is to produce high quality, rented houses at high rents, how exactly is that possible in Scotland, given the long history of high unemployment and low wages among the very sections of the population who most need that same, better-quality rented housing?

Under the Bill, rents will inevitably increase. They cannot do anything else if profits are to be made by private investors. Yet the Government's economic policies, by destroying large sectors of the Scottish economy, prevent people from affording those rents in the first place. It appears that the Government have forgotten exactly why public sector housing was introduced.

If Scotland was generally a high salaried, high economic growth and prosperous economy, I could see some hope for the Government scheme working, but is not London or the south-east of England, and the Government are making sure that that position continues. In reality, the rented sector is contracting in Scotland and council houses are being sold without replacement. No wonder waiting lists are growing, when the Government's housing support grant policy and give-away discounts are ensuring that local authorities cannot cope with these problems. Only when there is a policy of adequate new building and replacement for sold council houses will local authorities be able to fulfil their obligations properly.

We are seeing the inevitable consequence of the Government's vendetta against local authorities and we are seeing an all-time low in public sector house building. Indeed, now it is more or less completely wiped out. The Government's housing policy in Scotland uses ideas suitable to yuppies in south-east England, but they are being applied to Scotland without thought of the consequences for our country and its people.

While I welcome as a small mercy the clauses which give tenants further protection against harassment and illegal eviction, I cannot go along with the other parts of this rents package. I should like the Minister to state whether it is true that under the Bill tenants with short assured tenancies will have no right to a rent book, to know the name and address of the landlord, to be informed of a change of landlord, and not to have rent charged in advance of the rental period, and that they will have no protection from false entries in their rent book, following the determination of a rent by a rent assessment committee. Is that true? If so, it simply will not do. I am left wondering whether the Government have hired Mr. Rachman as their adviser on the Bill. The Government have deliberately chosen to favour landlord confidence at the expense of tenant confidence.

The Bill, following as it does the promising objectives stated in the White Paper, is a real disappointment. It fails to match up to the reality of Scottish housing needs, and it must be judged on that failure.