Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Just under 7 per cent. of houses in rural areas are unfit for human habitation. That appalling figure is higher than in most urban areas in Britain. There is a shortage of housing for the poor working classes in rural areas—agricultural workers, retired agricultural workers, the semi-skilled and the unskilled. Many people have been forgotten in the surge to improve rural housing. People indigenous to the rural community have been forgotton in the headlong rush of people moving out from urban areas, who have taken much of the refurbished housing stock at the expense of local people. Add to that reductions in rate support grant to rural district councils and county councils, and we find that a continuing financial and social problem afflicts many rural communities. There have been changes in housing benefit, and the safety net of inadequate public sector housing provision cannot deal with the mounting problems of homelessness.
Despite their inactivity of the past few years, the Government were moved this summer to consider the problem of the rural economy and rural housing. This month, in Rural Housing, David Clark wrote in an article entitled "Countryside homes":
There is a real housing need in villages. Local people simply cannot compete on equal terms with the increasing numbers of more affluent incomers, whether they be commuters, retired or second homers. That comes through strongly in the recent reports from the Association of District Councils, and from the village appraisals and housing surveys produced by parish councils and rural community councils throughout the country, summarised in ACRE's new publication, Affordable homes in the countryside.
That independent assessment tells the Government clearly that the crisis in rural housing is continuing apace.
In response, the Government published on 5 July the White Paper dealing with housing in rural areas, which
relies heavily on the role of the private sector. The Minister will have to explain the consequences of his policies on security of tenure for private sector tenants in rural areas. Paragraph 13 of the Government's response says of the private sector:
The Government is keen to establish a greater choice in the provision of rented housing in rural areas as elsewhere. Housing associations should not become the monopolists of the future. Private sector landlords and developers also have an important role to play. In the past the problem has been that the private sector did not envisage being able to make a sufficient return through the provision of lower cost housing at prices that local people could afford. In the rented sector the Government has launched several important measures to encourage investment. First, the Housing Bill will remove statutory rent control from all new lettings. Landlords will be able to charge market rents while tenants will have long term security under assured tenancies and a minimum of six months security on a short hold tenancy. Second, the Business Expansion Scheme is to be extended for the period up to the end of 1993 to cover companies providing housing let on the new assured tenancies.
That is how the Government envisage the private sector intervening in rural areas.
There is continuing pressure on the market in rural areas, but the ability of agricultural workers, retired agricultural workers and private tenants to affect that market is almost non-existent. It is nearly impossible for them to get a house to rent at a proper rent. It is virtually impossible for the rural poor to enter even the lower end of the house buyers' market. The average price of a house in East Anglia now exceeds £35,000.
Those who operate in the private sector will make substantial profits as they increase rent levels and see their property investments increase in value during a housing crisis. The amendment is an attempt to ensure that those living in private rented accommodation retain their existing rights and will not be subject to eviction by their employers without a court order.
The Government made it clear in the document that they produced in July on the housing crisis in rural areas that they would provide substantial opportunities for farmers and owners of accommodation in farming areas to take advantage of the business expansion scheme and other schemes and to utilise their accommodation by increasing their income from rents and by making sales on the open market. It is important that the Minister gives the House assurances that bear on the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, including the rights within that measure of agricultural workers.
In another place, an amendment was introduced by the Government to extend the range of excluded tenancies and licences to include those whose tenancy or licence was granted otherwise than for money or money's worth. The Earl of Arran said that the aim of the amendment was to allow eviction without a court order of the non-paying guest who lives completely rent-free. The relevant passage can be found in the House of Lords Hansard, at column 406 on 3 November 1988.
The amendment was tabled as a consequence of a commitment that was given to Lord Meston on Report. It catches the non-paying guest who lives in accommodation rent free, but it may exclude from protection from eviction employees who live in tied accommodation rent-free. For example, an employee may have a contract that states that his accommodation will be provided rent-free. He will not be able to point to an agreement that shows that he is getting accommodation in return for money or services. The courts may find that such a person is excluded from protection, which may result in him being evicted without a court order being made. That is unacceptable, and I do not believe that that was the intention behind the amendment moved in another place. I hope that the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State will give us that assurance.
A non-paying guest is not in the same position as an agricultural worker or retired agricultural worker. Unscrupulous property owners, absentee farmers or working farmers should not be able to use the amendment that was moved in another place to remove tenants and obtain capital gains at their expense. I hope that we shall receive a clear sign that it is the Government's intention to protect tenants who come within the terms of the 1976 Act.