I suspect that there is agreement on both sides of the House on at least one point, which is that this is potentially one of the most radical Scottish housing measures ever to see the light of day, certainly ever to be debated in this Chamber. But that is as far as such agreement will go. The Opposition never could and never will agree to the many themes in the Bill which, far from extending tenants' choice as the Secretary of State for Scotland claimed, threaten the present rights of Scottish tenants. Far from beginning to tackle the acute housing crisis affecting Scotland today, they can serve only to make that crisis much worse.
As always, when we are dealing with specifically Scottish legislation, we know that whatever else the Government might have drawn inspiration from in introducing the Bill, they certainly did not draw it from the people of Scotland. The people have already made known what they think about the Government and their policies — they made it clear on 11 June, when three out of every four Scottish voters gave an emphatic no to the vision of Scotland that Conservative Members are attempting to fashion with legislation such as this.
We do not have to rely only on the evidence of last June to know that Scotland does not want this Bill. We have much more recent and specific evidence, which relates directly to the Bill. I am referring to the consultation process over the Scottish Homes proposals, during which the SSHA tenants overwhelmingly rejected the Government's ideas and formed themselves into a national federation of tenants specifically to fight the Scottish Homes plan. Many of my hon. Friends spoke at public meetings during that consultation process, as I did in Dundee. They will know the strength of feeling among tenants who oppose the Scottish Homes plan. The Government must answer the question: where is the moral justification for imposing the Scottish Homes proposals on tenants who do not want them? Where is the democratic justification for that?
The Government should know that the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has argued that the future of the SSHA should be determined separately from the Scottish Homes proposals, and in full consultation with the 80,000 tenants of the SSHA. So why are the Government not prepared to give those tenants a ballot so that they can show whether they oppose or approve of the measures in the Bill?
We heard an awful lot about ballots from Conservative Members during the miners' strike. They were all in favour of ballots then. They always are in favour of ballots when they think that it suits their purpose. But in this instance, when they believe that a ballot will not suit their purpose, we do not hear about ballots at all. The SSHA tenants are to be denied the ballot that they deserve.
The tenants have already asked for such a ballot. It was refused by the SSHA itself. The chairman of the SSHA is Mr. Derek Mason, who is in the short leet for the position of chairman of Scottish Homes. I hope that he is more successful than some of the other candidates on that short leet. In this month's edition of "Labour Research", he is quoted as saying about the SSHA's tenants' demand for a ballot:
I do not see the point of a ballot when we know the result We know virtually every tenant is against the proposals.
That is what the chairman of the SSHA says. He asks why there should be a ballot when we know that the answer is no to Scottish Homes.
But the Government, by bringing forward the Bill, are saying that they do not care what the tenants think or might say. Neither do they care what Scotland thinks or might say. They will give Scotland the Bill anyway and ram Scottish Homes down its people's throats. That is a dangerous road for any Government, especially one with so few Scottish Members, to embark upon. I urge them to think again.
I turn to the detail of the Bill and the issue of tenants' rights. For a long time, the Government have masqueraded as promoters of tenants' rights. What will the Bill do for the rights of tenants, particularly under the new arrangements for assured tenancies and short-term assured tenancies? It is important to take into consideration the Government's whole housing policy in this respect, and not only the legislation before us. We know, for example, that since 1979 the Government have been squeezing the money available to district councils to finance their housing revenue accounts. We know that housing support grant has been slashed. Dundee district council, for instance, used to receive more than £8 million a year in housing support grant from central Government; today, it receives nothing.
At the same time, the rate fund contributions to the housing revenue account have been dramatically pegged back. Dundee district council, which at one time could contribute more than £4 million from the rates to the housing revenue account, is now restricted to contributing less than £500,000 to it. The measures to be imposed by the Government must have an effect on housing revenue accounts of district councils and on their ability to manage and maintain their stock.
Inevitably, rents have been forced up to much higher levels than they would have been had the Government maintained their financial support for council housing. Equally inevitably, the councils have found it increasingly difficult — indeed, well nigh impossible—to meet their responsibilities as landlords in the way in which they would have wanted, and would have done, if the Government had continued to support council housing financially.
The process of Government cuts was important in softening up the public sector housing and making it vulnerable to the sort of privatisation threat that the Bill now makes possible. Any hon. Member who has public sector rented housing in his constituency will know what damage has been done by Government cuts, and will know the frustration experienced by council tenants who can have emergency repairs done only towards the tail end of the year because their local office's maintenance budget runs out at the end of December, instead of the end of March as it should do. Hon. Members will know of the anger among council tenants whose aged metal-framed windows cannot be replaced in the current year, or in any of the years of the council's five-year plan, because there is such a backlog of houses requiring window replacement that it will take the council decades to work through it with the level of finance that is now available.
That is the context in which the measures contained in the Bill must be assessed. Pick-your-landlord might sound a fine idea, but what will happen? First, it will mean choice in one direction only, as several hon. Members have said —from the public into the private or independent rented sector. I know of thousands of tenants in Dundee who might want to pick their local district council as a landlord in preference to the present owners of the houses, but that choice has been denied them by the Government.
Even tenants who can pick their landlords and have the right to choose are in a much less straightforward position than would at first appear from the Bill. We know that private landlords across Scotland are, at this very moment, eyeing council housing stock; they have designs on it and it is not hard to see that they find only certain types of housing stock desirable—the sort that is basically sound and desirable and located in a good neighbourhood but which requires improvements of one kind or another which the council cannot afford to finance.
Those are the houses that interest the private sector landlords and they will make the tenants of such houses the kind of offer which many of them will find it difficult to refuse. A new kitchen or a bathroom or a complete new set of double glazed windows or whatever else the council cannot afford to put in will be offered by the private sector landlord. The tenants will be tempted and will opt to change ownership to a private landlord on the basis of the offer made to them by that landlord.
The improvements are what the tenant will get from the deal struck with the private landlord. However, every deal has two sides to it and the tenant will lose in other directions. First, there will be higher rents because under the new tenancies rents are to be at market level or are to be freely negotiated between the landlord and the tenant. We all know that market level or freely negotiated rents are shorthand for putting up the rents to a level far in excess of current council house rents in Scotland.
There will also be a loss of the rights that tenants in the public sector now enjoy. For example, as soon as a tenant picks his landlord that is it. He does not get to pick another landlord and even if the landlord turns out to be a Peter Rachman the tenant is stuck with him for the rest of his life. It is like a bee sting because under this legislation it is a right that can be used only once and then the tenant has had it. The tenant will also lose the right to buy his own house because that right extends only to public sector tenants.
These tenants' rights about which the Tories boast are either of fundamental importance or they are not. There is no basis for saying that tenants in the public sector must have these rights while tenants in the private sector will be denied them. The rights should be available to all citizens and to all tenants, but that fundamental principle has been breached by the Bill.
There is also the loss of security of tenure that flows from choosing a private sector landlord. The grounds for landlords repossessing assured tenancies are set out in the schedules to the Bill. They include the tenant persistently delaying the payment of rent which has become lawfully due. Hon. Members should notice that it is not a case of refusing to pay or of failure to pay, but merely a persistent delay in paying rent. Whoever drafted this Bill obviously never knew what it was to be poor and has never experienced the regular scramble to try to scrape together the money to pay, the rent man. If a tenant does not have the money to pay, he will persistently find himself late in making payments.
Under this Bill it is the poor who will be thrown out of their houses by the private sector landlord. That provision about delay in paying rent is nothing less than a charter for dispossessing the poor, and it should have no place in a civilised society. However, Scotland has become a much less civilised society in the last eight years since it has been placed under a Government whom the Scottish people did not elect. It is not just the poor who will have to worry because if a landlord needs the house to pay off his debts it will not matter if the tenant has been a model tenant. Out he will go and it is just tough luck.
The Bill will mean higher rents, fewer rights and less security of tenure; that appears to be the basis of the Government's approach in trying to tackle the Scottish housing crisis. It is a terrible indictment of the Government that after eight years this is the only kind of legislation that they can bring forward to try to solve Scotland's housing problems. The Bill will not solve the problems. It will make them worse for the people who are guilty of doing that.