Local Government and Housing Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:41 pm on 21st June 1989.

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Photo of Mr Dave Nellist Mr Dave Nellist , Coventry South East 9:41 pm, 21st June 1989

In the past 10 years, a decade of this Government, we have had 50 Bills on local government. Like the others, this Bill does nothing to widen genuine local democracy and local choice for working people. The twin areas of greatest concern in the Bill are the proposals leading to further substantial rent increases for tenants and the draconian restrictions, about which my hon. Friends have spoken, on the freedom of council workers to participate in political activity. We understand that about 70,000 council workers will be affected, but we do not yet know. The regulations to enact that aspect of the Bill will, undoubtedly, come some months hence in the dead of night. We shall have an hour and a hairs debate, as we had a couple of weeks ago when we discussed 96 pages of poll tax regulations.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) intervened when my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was speaking, again along the theme of so-called jobs for the boys. He made unsubstantiated allegations about councils in London and the council in Liverpool. He was on very thin ice. He supports a Government half of whose supporters are not just Members of Parliament, but have one, two or 10 other jobs, who often pick up thousands of pounds a year for each of those jobs and for whom Members' wages become pocket money. In the last Parliament, the former right hon. and learned Member for Hexham, Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, was a Member of Parliament, a Queen's counsel and a director or chairman of 45 companies. I will never know how he ever had time to come into this Chamber. The voting record of many of those Tory Members is 10 per cent., 12 per cent. or 15 per cent. In the words of the good book, the hon. Member for Nottingham, South should take the beam out of his own eye before worrying about the mote in somebody else's eye. When it comes to twin tracking, Tory Members in this Tory Government have got it down to a fine art.

We do not know whether exactly 70,000 council workers will be affected, but we understand that it is those who are at present working for local authorities who will be prevented from holding office in political parties, from canvassing at elections—and we can understand that after Sunday's Euro results—or even from commenting publicly on matters of party political controversy, including through letters to newspapers. We can imagine the scenario when a council worker, just as the member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Sutton Coldfield some years ago, has a knock at the door from two Special Branch officers because of a letter written to a local newspaper. That is what the Bill will introduce.

As drafted, the Bill gives the Secretary of State—a single individual—the power to prevent 70,000 people in this country from exercising their democratic rights. The Bill is fundamentally anti-democratic. It will not only apply to those people who earn more than £13,500 per year —incidentally, we understand that that figure will be frozen for the future so that more and more people will be caught year after year—it will also apply to many lower-paid council workers who give advice to the council or to its committees or who talk to the media.

The Government are taking the road of Stalin. While ostensibly criticising the lack of democracy in China, Cuba and eastern Europe, they are taking precisely the same powers politically to determine the opinions that this country's working people can hold or, if they do not hold opinions favoured by the Government, the jobs that they are allowed to hold.

I turn now to the clauses relating to housing. The Bill is called a housing Bill, but it does nothing for the housing crisis that has developed in the past 10 years. There has been a 17 per cent. fall in the completion of new houses over that period from 244,000 down to 202,000. Local authorities have a 75 per cent. fall in their completions. Furthermore, at today's prices, local authorities have seen their investment budgets cut from £5,000 million in 1978–79 to £1,000 million in 1988–89. One million council houses have been sold, but over the period 1983 to 1987 the waiting list for those council houses grew by 70 per cent. from 0·75 million to 1·25 million people. Yet this Bill does nothing to redress the problems either of the people who want a house or of those who want their home repaired, improved or modified in some way.

Shelter estimates that 150,000 single young people are homeless in this country. In central London, where this Parliament is situated, over 40,000 young people sleep rough. That is a topic to which I intend to return on an Adjournment debate when I shall refer also to the Vagrancy Act 1824.

Like the Housing Act 1988, this Bill does not mention homelessness, but it will cause it—[Interruption.] I am doing my best to ensure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, can hear what I am saying even if Tory Members are patently not interested in the homelessness of young people or of any other age group, especially the Minister who seems to have much better things to do than to listen to a speech about homelessness. Perhaps I could have his attention for a moment or two.

Part VI will cause homelessness. The housing finance sections of last year's Housing Act did nothing to help. That legislation was an enabling Act. In my six years in this madhouse, I have become less and less worried about enabling Acts and I can see more and more merit in giving a future Labour Secretary of State for Industry an "Industry Bill" to give him the power to nationalise companies and then, at 10 o'clock at night, night after night, I can see no problem in bringing forward the names of the companies that will be taken into public ownership. I have learnt from Bills such as this that enabling legislation gives Ministers powers which are then enacted in future orders.

As my hon. Friends have said, part VI deals with the ring-fencing of housing revenue accounts and receipts from council housing rents to stop cross-subsidisation with the general rate account. In 1987–88, £122 million nationally went from rents into the general rates account and £382 million went in the other direction, from councils' general rate fund accounts towards keeping down rents. I am quite happy for the Government to bring in a law to stop Tory councils from making profits out of council tenants and to stop them from transferring profits from rents into the general rate accounts.

The Government have not, of course, given the major reason why rent and housing revenue accounts have been affected and why rents have doubled in the past few years. The reason is the Government's cut in rent subsidies.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), whose attention I am seeking to gain, attacked cross-subsidisation and said that it represented bad running of the housing account and that it was the equivalent of milking the ratepayers.

You have been here longer than I have, Madam Deputy Speaker. You can remember that prior to this Government every Government accepted the general premise that support of the poorer sections of the community was a charge on national Governments, not on individual local authorities. It was central Government that had to bear the burden. That premise was established by the battles of councils such as Poplar, and tested in later years by Clay Cross and Liverpool.

The Bill will force councils to fund rent rebates from housing revenue accounts. In Coventry that means that two thirds of council tenants who get housing benefit will have that funded by the one third who do not get housing benefit. That will mean massive rent rises in Coventry and for 5 million council tenants nationally. Rents will rocket to such an extent that the Government's true aim in the Bill will come about and council tenants will be forced to try to buy their homes so that they may get public subsidy —that is, mortgage interest tax relief, which amounts to £5·5 billion nationally, or they will have to accept that their homes be sold to another landlord.

This is where all the legislation starts to be tied together. The Housing Act 1988, which brought in so-called tenants' choice, was extended by the Rent Office (Additional Functions) Order 1989, laid in February and debated on 21 March. It will take effect when part VI of the Bill gets Royal Assent. Part VI will force tenants to consider selling their houses to another landlord, probably a private landlord. When they do so, they will lose the protection of council rents. Their rents will become market rents. If the market rents are different from what the council's rent officer says that the council is allowed to pay, they will lose housing benefit.

I want to give a few examples. Recently we have had 300 cases in Coventry, some of them in my constituency. For a first-floor flat in Hugh road the asking rent is £35 and the market rent assessed by the council rent officer is £23. For a first-floor rear room in North street, just outside my constituency, the asking rent is £51·96 and the assessed market rent is £31. For board and lodging accommodation in Warwick road, in the constituency of the junior Education Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher), the asking rent is £100·42 and the assessed market rent is £60.

What the 1988 Act, the rent offices order and this Bill, taken together, mean is that my council, in the last example, where the asking rent is £100·42, can claim 97 per cent. of the housing benefit from the Government on the £60 of assessed rent for which it pays housing benefit. It can claim nothing on the £40·42 of the asking rent which is above the assessed rent. The council has two choices. If it does not pay the person claiming for private accommodation the extra money, the result will be that the person will be made homeless. Let us not forget clause 138, as it was when the Bill went into Committee; it discharges all local authorities from having any duty to provide housing. People will be made homeless by the provision. The council's alternative is to pay the extra housing benefit and get nothing from the Government. What will the Minister do? What will his gaffer, who is sitting next to him, do? He will rate-cap Coventry. Coventry would be going outside the regulations. It would be paying housing benefit that the legislation says it should not pay.

I have gone into some detail on the examples because the matter has not been referred to so far in the debate. Hundreds of people in Coventry and tens of thousands nationally could be made homeless because of part VI of the Bill. Councils will not want to risk being rate-capped by the Secretary of State. The Bill does not provide for the building of more houses or for the release of houses for people to rent. It does nothing about the appalling and tragic waste of life on building sites. It is not about housing. It is about further privatisation, shoving up rents and removing the democratic rights of council workers. It is a thieves' charter. The Secretary of State is stealing the democratic rights of 70,000 council workers, and he is stealing too the housing benefit and the very accommodation of tens of thousands of tenants in council and private sector housing. The House should treat the Bill with the contempt that it deserves by kicking it out on Third Reading.